Toronto is Canada’s largest city, it’s cosmopolitan and prosperous with a large popualtion to rival New York or Mexico City and it’s growing fast. It’s considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world made up of many diverse neighbourhoods. In addition to the two main languages of English and French you can also hear 140 languages spoken.
We spent the previous two weeks in the USA and our wallets were pleased to discover prices in Toronto are much more reasonable than that of New York City or Washington D.C. This was Phil’s first trip to Canada, but Garth has been a few times back in the 1990s, so was excited to see what had changed. The most dramatic observation Garth noticed is how Toronto’s skyline has grown – lots more skyscrapers and construction work still happening, business is booming.
History & 150th Birthday Celebration
The French were the first to establish a colony with the area beginning life as a trading port but they were kicked out by the British in 1763. Thirty years later the British named the town York, you can still visit Fort York from this period. In 1834 the city was renamed Toronto to distiguish itself from New York and on July 1st 1867 Canada was formed. The British kept Canada as a colony until it achievied full sovereignty by 1983. We visited in June 2017 and celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Canada had already started on the streets and in the bars.
Downtown Cycling Tour
We always like taking a tour when we visit a new city to orientate ourselves. This time we decided to be a little more adventurous and see Toronto by bicycle. We chose Toronto Bicycle Tours and booked their 3.5 hour Heart of Downtown Tour, which turned out be a real adventure and a great way to see the city.
At their meeting point we received a warm welcome by our guide Rafael who took us to their car park office where we were kitted out with safety helmets and fitted to their new bikes to suit our size and height. Before heading out into the city Rafael taught us hand signals, just as well as they’re completely different to the ones we use in the UK. Rafael then tested our skills and got us to practice the bike’s gears around the car park, which was perfect for inexperienced cyclists like us, which gave us the confidence boost we needed before heading out. (we really need to get our bikes out of the garage more often!)
We thought it would be a bit scary riding amongst the skyscrapers and busy roads but Rafael soon put us at ease by starting out on the quiet back streets. During the tour it was fine, some streets have dedicated cycle lanes, and it became clear the motorists slow down and look out for cyclists, unlike in some parts of Britain! we soon got into our stride. The only thing we had to really had to remember was to ride on the right hand side of the road! Phil was very confused which way to look at junctions!
The first main stop on our tour was Chinatown. Rafael explained just how diverse the population of Toronto is – 50% of the population are born outside Canada and how the neighbourhoods are constantly evolving with new ones popping up. We were stood in one of the 5 Chinatowns in Toronto, it reminded us of ones in Asia, like Bangkok with food markets spreading onto the streets and exotic looking fruits like durian on sale. Other foodie neighbourhoods to explore include Greektown, Korea Town or Little Italy. If you like Vietnamese food, just like Ho Chi Minh City there’s Banh Mi sandwich shops all over downtown Toronto, the sheer number of them was a pleasant surprise.
We loved riding through the back alleys which made us feel like locals, on the way to our next stop not far from Chinatown the hipster area of Kensington Market. Caribbean food, quirky boutique shops, organic foods and vintage clothes makes for an eclectic mix. It’s also an arty neighbourhood where you’ll find tons of cool street art, graffiti and colourful buildings – perfect for your Instagram shots whilst you listen to the sound of some Jamaican beats.
Next it was to cycle through some of Toronto’s residential streets and past some of the most expensive properties in the city. What surprised us was the number of Victorian properties here, and just how similar they look to British terraced streets. In fact Toronto has some of the largest collection of Victorian houses in the whole of North America. Next Rafael took us through Baldwin Street which is another great place for independent restaurants, it reminded us of home, similar to Chiswick in London or Chorlton in Manchester.
Now time to head into the heart of the city and to the concrete plaza of Nathan Phillips Square to see some of the city’s landmarks. First up is the old City Hall dating back to 1900 it’s one of Toronto’s oldest buildings, our house at home was built in 1900, we began to realise Canada’s version of “old” isn’t really that old. However it’s an impressive building with a clocktower, gargoyles and still has a functioning courtroom. Right next to it is the newer and curvy City Hall built in the 1960s, in front is where everyone including us grabs a selfie with the big Toronto sign. In winter the water feature is turned into an ice skating rink.
Toronto’s answer to Times Square is the gigantic billboard lined Yonge-Dundas Square on the corner of Dundas and Yonge Street which incidentally up until 1999 Yonge Street was the world’s longest street. This square holds lots of free events, something had just finished whilst we were there, it’s also home to buskers, street artists and beggars.
Opposite the square is The Eaton Centre – a shoppers paradise, 4 floors of high street shops under one roof. It’s modelled on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. Check out the art entitled “Flight Stop” 60 fibreglass Canada geese suspended from the barrel glass roof. If you want more high end boutiques apparently Bloor Street and Yorkville are the places to go.
Back on the road we headed to the Financial District and to the crossroads of Bay and King Street, considered to be the heart of Canada’s economy because 4 of the 5 big banks are located here. Rafael showed us a great hidden gem in the nearby courtyard of the TD Centre, where seven lovely bronze sculptures of lazy cows lie on the grass. This public art is called “The Pasture” but forgotten what they symbolise!
Toronto has a massive movie making industry and all these skyscrapers regularly double up for US cities like New York or Chicago. As featured in films like American Psycho, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Incredible Hulk and Total Recall.
At the base of the skyscrapers there are some luxury restaurants but we noticed there’s no shops, no Starbucks, that’s because they are all underground in what’s called The PATH.
A city within a city this underground network stretches across 17 miles, it’s also the world’s largest underground shopping mall. The PATH is most popular in winter months when workers and tourists descend underground to shop or get around the city as temperatures outside turn into minus figures. The PATH is also colour coded so you don’t get lost, each letter represents a direction. Red-South, orange-West, blue-North and yellow-East.
A short ride from the financial district we checked out Toronto’s oldest hotel – The Fairmont Royal York which used to be the tallest building in the British Empire when it was completed. Opposite the hotel is another impressive building – Union Station, we stopped inside for some snacks and a break. This station is where hundreds of commuters arrive everyday to go to work, they come from the suburbs using the cool looking double-decker GO trains.
Old Town Toronto
Time to see some of the historic buildings in Old Town Toronto, and first up Toronto’s very own Flatiron building – the Gooderham building. Built by a wealthy British family as offices for their whisky distillery business. It also has a cool mural painted on the back of the building.
A short ride from the Gooderham building is another gem, the St. Lawrence Market.
We stopped outside on our bikes, but later revisited the market and tried Toronto’s signature dish – Peameal bacon. We bought a bacon bap from the Carousel Bakery, it’s salty and quite nice. St. Lawrence Market has been voted one of the best food markets in the world and it’s easy to see why, lots of fresh produce, tons of fruit and veg and nice eatery stalls. We headed downstairs to a bakery and bought a couple of Nanaimo bars – Toronto’s sweet snack. Be warned they are super sweet! not a problem for Garth who loves sweet treats. A nanaimo bar consists of 3 layers of chocolate, custard with coconut and a biscuity base, delicious.
Next, the heritage part of Toronto a world away from the soaring skyscrapers of Downtown. Old Victorian warehouses and faded signs of the past show this is where the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was located, again it looks very much like England – the old warehouses of Liverpool. It’s got a nice vibe to the place, wander the cobbled streets, where there’s a small collection of restaurants, shops and art galleries. We arrived as another party for the 150th anniversary of Canada was going on, there was also some filming taking place.
On the way back to Downtown Toronto Rafael took us to Sugar Beach, one of the newest urban beaches for locals. Pretty pink umbrellas dot this man made beach raised on the banks of the lake and a quayside, so don’t expect to be able to paddle in the water here. An interesting juxtaposition of charming views across to Toronto’s islands contrast with urban views on the other side.
Our final stop was The Round House Park which is at the base of the iconic CN Tower. The park is home to the John Street Roundhouse which houses The Toronto Railway Museum and The Steam Whistle Brewery, which we later revisited. They serve a nice pilsner beer and delicious doughy pretzels. Outside is a small collection of trains.
As you can see we saw lots and covered a huge area in just 3.5 hours, it was the perfect introduction to Toronto and a useful way to decide where to go back the following days. Cycling was easy because Toronto is flat, we felt safe and never got exhausted. If you want another reason to do this tour – we burnt 1,821 calories over 10 miles according to Phil’s app, so forget taking that sightseeing bus! We’ll definitely consider taking another bicycle tour in a new city.
The CN Tower
Toronto’s top landmark is undoubtedly the iconic CN Tower. It’s a communications tower built in the 1970s and used to be the world’s tallest free standing structure (today it’s The Burj Khalifa in Dubai) it’s still impressive at 553 metres. The hair raising glass floor lift speedily takes you to the top in 58 seconds! Our ears popped on the way down. First up is the observation deck where you can look through the glass windows, after this tease you head down one floor and can go outside to the Sky Terrace. There’s a mesh all the way around, so you won’t get good photos, but you do get amazing views, especially looking straight down on the baseball pitch of the Rogers Centre. Back inside try out the glass floor very scary! reminded us of the first glass floor we walked on at The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
We preferred the views from the glass windows, but it’s a little disappointing as you can’t walk the whole way round to get the full 360 degree view, this is because the fancy restaurant takes up a fair bit of space. However you can get it when you head outside to the Sky Terrace or by upgrading to go up even higher to the SkyPod deck, we didn’t bother paying the extra price.
Finally those of you who like extreme sports will love the other main attraction – The EdgeWalk. With an advance booking you can walk hands free outside, tied to some kind of harness and basically hang off the edge! NO THANK YOU! Garth found his stomach churning even just looking at photos of people doing it. We just couldn’t get past the thought of the fear and enduring terrifying vertigo. No, sorry not even if someone payed us to do it! respect to those who have.
After the bike tour our other highlight was taking a harbour cruise around some of Toronto’s islands. It feels like you are in the ocean but it’s not, Toronto lies on Lake Ontario – the smallest of North America’s 5 Great Lakes. We would have loved to spend a whole day on the main Centre Island, but it was closed due to flooding after record breaking levels of rain. However we enjoyed the tranquil boat trip around them and taking in the sensational skyline views which really do rival Manhattan.
Other things to do:
- Hockey Hall of Fame – Ice Hockey is just called “hockey” is a big hit with tourists
- Rogers Centre – Formerly called The SkyDome, this is where you can watch the Blue Jays play baseball.
- Casa Loma – A landmark mansion castle that’s been used in lots of movies.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Toronto Tips
- Tip #1: Take the UP Express train from Pearson International Airport $9 – 25 minutes. A taxi will take about an hour during rush hour.
- Tip #2: Go to the CN Tower after 6pm, we had a small queue at 6.20pm and got to the observation deck in about 5 minutes.
- Tip #3: Stay an extra night and take a day trip to Niagara Falls, about 2 hours by road.
- Tip #4: Getting around is easy – Walk or take the subway or a tram (streetcars as Torontonians call them)
- Tip #5: If you plan to do lots of sightseeing and museums, consider the CityPass to save money.
How we did it:
- We paid for 3 nights at The Chelsea Hotel, located downtown it was handy for sightseeing and reasonably priced.
- The Heart of Downtown bicycle tour with Toronto Bicycle Tours costs C$70 per person
- The Harbour Island Cruise with with City Sightseeing, departs from the Harbour Front and costs C$13.27 per person
- CN Tower costs C$36 per person
Disclaimer: We received the bicycle tour compliments of Toronto Bicycle Tours, a big thank you to Terence and Rafael. All opinions, as always are our own.