Toronto: an International City

Toronto: an International City

The weekend I spent in Toronto over from New York in the early 1990s doesn’t really count so this is really my first proper visit.

On landing at our Airbnb and stepping out onto Bloor St West, I realised that this, the last stop of our Canadian adventure, is by far is the most diverse of the cities we’ve visited. I saw more colour among the people within 2 blocks that I had in Quebec, Montreal and Halifax. And it was dark by now.

That just makes it more interesting and I think, representative of Canada.

Whilst Canada is a dual language country, we have left the French side behind and entered a truly ambitious, international city. One where the council seeks the opinion of those who serve by online survey rather than only the antiquated meetings I see local to me. I even noted the Nova Scotia bank listing all the 9 languages their staff speak in their window, welcoming all.

The only bits of the city recall are the CN Tower (the tallest building in the world when I last saw it) and the Eaton Centre as the hotel I stayed in then overlooked it. Then, I popped out and tumbled into it and found a Marks and Spencer – back when they used to have them here. I bought Sultana Cookies – because I was so thrilled to find my favourites biscuits (still) - and cloudy lemonade.

I just couldn’t see which hotel this may have been. Maybe the building has gone.

Toronto is amazing and we quickly realise that we had saved the best city to last. The transport works and so the city works. I love that they have laws to ensure properties rented out are habitable and during the (long) winter, has to be heated to 21c.

The more we got into our 10 day adventure here, the less we wanted to leave the gleaming metropolis to go on day trips to Niagara and the like and the more we wanted to explore every neighbourhood we could and inhale this city.

Tim Hortons 212 branches

Second Cup c49 branches

Get Around

The trip started well with an effortless journey on the UP Express (Union–Pearson) train from the airport to within a 10 minute walk of our Airbnb in about 20 minutes. It dropped us at Bloor for around $5.

The weekly pass only runs only from Monday to Sunday and is great value at $42.25 if your trip falls into a regular week.

Do

Yorkville turned out to be my favourite of all the wonderful Toronto neighbourhoods. For a start, I walked past what I thought was the dining room of the Four Seasons but was actually an elderly home and the folk were settling down for lunch. It’s so dignified! The area is neighbours to the Toronto Library, which itself is a must see and yet has its own library too. You practically pick up the Wi-Fi from one to the other.

The Beach - we nearly stayed here after coming across the most beautiful Airbnb which seemed like a luxury basement annex let out by a retired couple (I’m guessing) but it is a little far out from the action. However, as well as the views from the beach, it’s a wonderfully, well-kept (isn’t all of Toronto?) residential neighbourhood where I took delight in the game of choosing-which-house-we’d-have-if-we-moved-here. The Beach also produced one of the meals of the trip at Manchu Wok who offer a fantastic value lunch.

Pop over to The Islands, although not in winter! My suggestion is by all means wait in the cold for a boat, see the stunning view of the skyline as you pull away and then jump straight back for the return leg! There is no timetable and you only pay to go over, the return trip is included. There were no cafes open in November despite the information to say one definitely was. I think I really only wanted to go because of the programme Sensitive Skin but I see now that in the fantasy TV world, Toronto has year-round Summer.

Read Toronto Life magazine. I didn’t read any of the material I had taken with me after becoming besotted with a couple of these courtesy of VIA Rail. Toronto Life delivers the best insight to Torontonians and being a former media person, the publication’s history fascinated me. They write about property (a hot city topic) in an interesting way, such as digging up the stories of who has lived there over the decades and why they sold up.

Indie Craft Beer where they offer a flight of taster beers which we may have tried if we’d seen that option first. ‘And if you hate beer, our menu is spectacular’.

As a rare beer drinker, I pick partly for the name – Spadina Monkey – but also because I fancied a fruit beer, having got into them while in Belgium in 2012. The sour Spadina was especially sherbet-like, which the guy sitting next to us testified to, but I still chose it.

Indeed I went this whole month in Canada minus a bottle of Molson. My first taste of that came on the plane ride home.

We were lucky to catch the Santa Parade – and just to add to the magic, it snowed – on the penultimate day of month in Canada! Despite it being in the high teens two days before (we were on the Beach spotting those houses that had already started on the external seasonal decorations) the predicted snow did fall on this Sunday. We witnessed the amazing site of thousands of people, many of them young children in their thermal snow suits with their parents carting around industrial-sized flasks of hot drinks lining the route hours before Santa was due. The parade, which has been running since 1905, had a fabulous carnival atmosphere and Santa arrives at the end. We managed to find much warmer Hilton, who’s staff reluctantly let a few of us stand inside away from the snowy 1c. in which to drink our Hortons coffee and wait for the big man. It was worth it.

The evening before, we got to see Christmas Market & tree launch in the Distillery District too which, the day before we saw had lots of little local shops. It’s close by to St Lawrence Market which is mainly worth going to eat at Paddington’s Pump on its edge.

I found Little India quite fascinating but then I’m Indian and knowing there are quite a few of us in this city, there had to be such a place.

We had an inspiring private tour around the Mars building thanks to a contact in Montreal and managed to take a couple of photos before we were told we weren’t mean to. This place houses little offices for Microsoft, Airbnb, Etsy and the like and lots of innovate things to change the world are happening in this, the Discovery District. What started out as former hospital with research around medicine now has a large modern tower attached and it’s much more of tech hub.

Shop

Pusateri’s Find Foods in Yorkville was my food find of Toronto. Every day quality food at reasonable prices and then amazing home-made treat meals or occasion desserts for not much more. My Toronto Marks and Spencer is found.

For everything else, there’s Walmart, which we found on our doorstep near Dufferin station metro. I finally bought some sugar cookies that ordinarily I find on my first trip to Safeways in Vancouver. Next to that is a no-frills supermarket with all the basics a few cents cheaper. Also, look out for buy-by-the-weight stores, perfect for the Airbnb crowd. Just grab enough for a couple of bowls of cereal or enough grains of laundry powder for a wash or two.

Here Shoppers Mart is the most visible pharmacy rather than Jean Cocteau in Montreal. I found Quebec to be obviously French, Montreal much more so and Toronto very much international. (If you’re new to North America, on top of medicine, these places sell everything including food, toiletries, a bit like Boots in the UK and then some. A first point of call on arrival for sure.)

Buy everything except toilet tissue. After all these years of transatlantic visits, nowhere can you buy decent loo roll. The most luxurious version costs twice as much and is nowhere near as good quality as the British version. Unless you’re in a decent hotel, I’d tuck a roll in your luggage.

I never said Toronto is perfect. Just very close to it.

Eaton Centre. After Montreal’s underground city of shopping malls, this is pretty much the only mall in downtown area of the city. It’s all you need mind and we just caught them putting up Canada’s biggest trees in (This year, bigger than the one Rockefeller Centre) to be unveiled a couple of weeks later.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre. We kept the visit here to the one rainy day forecast and it is a fine out-of-town mall, but actually just along the underground line. Everyone else, of course, had the same idea so the excellent food court was maxed out but someone is always getting up to leave as you’re looking for a seat. 

Eat

Remarkably, there has been a distinct lack of the most Canadian of all foods, maple syrup on the old pancakes on this Canadian adventure. Either because we picked places that didn’t have them (or only had fruit versions) or the menu was so irresistible I had something else.

Lakeview Restaurant has been there forever and does a tonne of basics well, if a little slow on the service. I couldn’t see a lake but I would go again.

Kos - we ended up at this old-skool place because our first choice had a queue again and I’m glad. I just don’t see the point of waiting in line for a meal when there is so much choice! I’ve come to the conclusion the places with queues are just tourist traps to avoid. If you’re stuck, go to a Hortons.

Our last night was a Sunday and we opted for a well-regarded Scottish pub, the Caledonia which offered a fine mac and cheese. Although twice what I could actually eat!

Manchu Wok at The Beach, one of the best meals we had in the city.

Fresco’s for Friday Fish n chips in Kensington Market. Inviting service and hot freshly cooked meal in a box, the old fashioned rather than new-fangled way. Staff offered different options but suggested I tried the basic, cheaper version for my first (and sadly only) visit. I was so thrilled to find this place.

Just as in other parts of North America, supermarket food is still relatively pricey and eating out in the food courts of shopping malls provides the best value for freshly cooked food. And I think it’s the law that they always have my Vancouver favourite, Thai Express.

Coffee

Propeller Coffee Co. Fabulous and in our Lansdowne neighbourhood. We decided to pop in for a coffee on our last day just to check it out and wish we’d come sooner and for longer. A perfect place for coffee & pastry as the temperatures plummeted from +9 to -9 and kept us going till brunch.

5 Elements Coffee is rather lovely in Yorkville, although the high price reflects the equally lovely neighbourhood.

Also tried the rather unfriendly Voodoo Child. I felt similarly ‘in the way’ at Jimmys Coffee where we went to top of an excellent fish dinner at Fresco around the corner.

And of course, the city is considered the birthplace of Tim Hortons (actually born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1966) and Second Cup (born down the road in Mississauga, Ontario in 1975)

My love for Horton’s has grown even more since I’ve been writing about this, my latest Canadian adventure. There are so many of them, I couldn’t find how many there were in each city so I contacted them. They sent me a spreadsheet listing all the Canadian branches! I never thought I’d say this: ‘hours of fun with an Excel spreadsheet’!

Now we’re well into November, it felt OK to have the first eggnog late of the season at Second Cup in the Eaton Centre.

Stay

We stayed in Airbnb 1 minute walk from Lansdowne underground station. It worked superbly as it’s also about 10 minutes from where the airport express train comes (Bloor) and there are plenty of shops, restaurants and coffee shops locally. The Walmart is the first I’ve seen in a relatively central location – which is inside a decent sized shopping mall which also houses a low-frills supermarket as well as a welcoming food court. Yes there’s a Hortons; it’s where I went back to on the last day to buy my fabulous branded woolly hat.

In both apartments and in our Halifax hotel we had a Keurig coffee machine. I always look for a filter machine in the Airbnb photos and generally I’ll take my mini French Press anyway. I prefer that to the pricey pods but all the Keurigs I used were pretty good so next time I will very specifically check and buy a box of pods from Walmart at the start of the trip.

If I was going again, I’d happily stay in this area although in a much smaller apartment; this one could sleep about 5 and it took a while to warm up!

Royal Afternoon Tea at the Park Regis, Birmingham

Royal Afternoon Tea at the Park Regis, Birmingham

View from the Room: Homeward Suites by Hilton - Halifax, Canada

View from the Room: Homeward Suites by Hilton - Halifax, Canada