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After years of playing sleepy second fiddle to sexier Montreal, Toronto’s become hot on its own. Food, culture, sights and history now rival those of any world metropolis, and an overlay of Canadian friendliness makes this city exceptionally welcoming to visitors. Here are 10 insider tips to help you make the most of North America’s fourth-largest city.
1. A Train Gets You Downtown From the Airport in About 25 Minutes
Traveling to the city’s vibrant downtown from Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), 18 miles west, used to mean a miserable bus experience or exorbitant taxi ride. Cue the heavenly choir: The new Union Pearson Express gets you to central Union Station in 25 minutes on tastefully decorated, Wi-Fi-equipped trains. The staff’s friendly, and the ride’s usually seamless. If you’re transiting through TO, UP Express also means you can zoom into the city for a few hours of action before catching your connecting flight. Bonus: Toronto’s terrific Balzac Coffee Roasters operates a trackside bar at Union Station.
2. …Or You Can Just Land Downtown
A pedestrian tunnel links downtown Toronto to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ), which means you can fly here, get your bags, take a six-minute stroll and surface near Bathurst Street. Porter, the nifty all-premium airline, was Billy Bishop’s sole commercial tenant for years — its US routes now include Washington D.C., Orlando, and Chicago — but Air Canada now flies here from Montreal and service keeps expanding. Because the airport’s relatively tiny, it’s infinitely more civilized than other hubs. Rumor has it Billy Bishop’s also in line to get a US Customs pre-clearance setup in 2017, which will make it even more desirable as a routing point. Bonus tip: A ferry still runs from Billy Bishop to the mainland and the 20-second ride offers jaw-dropping skyline views that make it worth the detour.
3. There’s a Beach Downtown
That bouquet of giant pink beach umbrellas at the foot of Jarvis Street isn’t a mirage. It’s part of Sugar Beach, a genius two-acre park that transforms a derelict part of downtown into a white-sand beach during the summer and a surreal, snowy landscape in winter. And since it’s on Toronto’s waterfront, you can also watch boats drift across Lake Ontario. Look for maple-leaf motifs everywhere in the beautifully landscaped promenades.
4. Toronto’s a Great Place to Get High
It makes sense that this aggressively vertical city conceals some of Canada’s best rooftop terraces. The coolest might be Sky Yard, an indoor/outdoor patio at the forever hip Drake Hotel; it’s aglow with art installations and throbbing with scenesters. On nearby King Street West, Lavelle plops a lively French eatery atop one of Toronto’s ubiquitous condos; the 16,000-square-foot space also boasts a lounge, outdoor pool and 360-degree views. Across the street, the Thompson Toronto’s roof deck competes with equally eye-popping views and sleek furnishings; mind the obnoxious door staff.
5. You Can Taste the Entire World Here
Name an ethnic food, no matter how obscure. Chances are you’ll track it down in Toronto, one of the world’s most exuberantly diverse cities. Downtown, there are hotspots like Lamesa for Filipino cuisine, Owl of Minerva for round-the-clock Korean food and Caplansky’s for a serious Jewish deli. But true taste adventures await in the suburbs just outside downtown — think Tamil dishes at Ceylon Flavor in Markham, Hakka Indian/Chinese food at Lotus Garden in Scarborough, Georgian specialties at Aragvi in Vaughan and Ghanaian specialties at Panafest in North York, just for starters.
6. Toronto’s a City of Neighborhoods
Some visitors stick to the touristy downtown core, which means they’re missing out on the tang and texture of Toronto’s neighborhoods. The city’s ubiquitous streetcars make it easy to explore. College Street takes you through the University of Toronto west to Kensington Market and Little Italy. Ride the Queen Street line westbound all the way from Cabbagetown through up-and-coming Moss Park to hipster haven Parkdale to Roncesvalles, a longtime Polish enclave now Brooklyn-precious with boutiques and cafes. Spadina Ave. runs north from the harborfront through Chinatown into the boho Annex.
7. Speaking of Streetcars, Toronto’s Got the Largest Network in North America
Streetcars in Toronto aren’t mere tourist attractions a la San Francisco — they’re an integral part of the transit system. You’ll find them along main east-west streets, along with north-south avenues like Spadina and Bathurst. You can now board streetcars from any open door, as long as you have proof of payment. One-time cash fare is $3.25 Canadian (~$2.41), or for $12.50 Canadian (~$9.28), you can buy a Toronto Transit Commission day pass and hop on and off streetcars, buses and the subway as much as you like.
8. The Amazing Museums Here Are Free… If You Know When to Visit
Toronto’s museums rival arts institutions anywhere else in the world — and so do some of their admission charges. But if you can time your visit just right, you’ll sail in without lightening your wallet. The must-see Art Gallery of Ontario, pictured below, with its unmissable Frank Gehry profile, offers free admission Wednesdays from 6:00pm to 9:00pm; the smart Bata Shoe Museum goes pay-what-you-want on Thursday nights from 5:00pm to 8:00pm; in nearby North York, the superb Aga Khan Museum, dedicated to Muslim civilization, is free Wednesday nights from 4:00pm to 8:00pm. And the Power Plant, one of Canada’s leading public-art institutions, never charges admission, even when it’s exhibiting supernova work like Christian Marclay’s prize-winning piece, The Clock.
9. It’s Home to the Largest Underground Pedestrian System in North America
Beneath the downtown core, Toronto’s PATH system connects 1,200 stores and restaurants, 50 office towers, 20 parking garages, six subway stations and a railway terminal over its 19-mile length. Though much of it’s schlock, you’ll find some celebrated dining like Tundra in the Toronto Hilton, valuable resources like tailors and nail salons and even a shop dispensing fresh kefir. And when it’s bone-chillingly cold or brutally humid above ground, the PATH makes for a soothing retreat.
10. There’s a Secret Skyline View From a Tiny Coffee Shop
Superb espresso drinks made with locally roasted Pilot coffee beans are just part of the reason to schlep to Rooster Coffee east of downtown. Locals know this mellow hangout offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto, and — since it faces west — incredible sunsets. It’s just an easy cab ride or leisurely trip by subway and bus from the downtown core and totally worth the effort. The coffee’s pretty good, too.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Toronto? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images.
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