Who best to show you the real Toronto? The locals, that’s who.
I’m on my way to Toronto for a couple of days of exploring the city. I’ve done my research and mapped out an itinerary based on local tips and advice from those in the know. I wonder how it will go …
My flight with Air Canada was pleasant enough. Started off a bit rough. My own fault. I thought I could get more food in my mouth than I ought and ended up with a goodly portion of it in my lap.
A direct flight from Melbourne to Vancouver takes just under 15 hours. Vancouver to Toronto around four and a half. Total flying time, including connection time at Vancouver – 22 hours. Total sleep onboard – five hours.
And yet, I’m raring to go when I get there.
Hit the ground at 5.30pm. Collect bags, jump in a cab to the Holiday Inn Toronto. In town around 6.30pm. Check in, dump bags and run for a cab to a ballgame at Rogers Centre.
Torontonians love their sport
Okay, so I’m a baseball fan. It’s unusual for an Aussie. But Toronto is a sports-loving town and one of the absolute must-dos for any visitor, according to Toronto Tourism, is checking out one of the bound-to-be-on big games in town at any given time of the year.
Tickets to the big game tonight cost less than a couple of pints at an Aussie pub and my seats are right on the fence at ground level. I can almost touch the players.
The game is a ripper, the atmosphere is electric. Toronto Blue Jays versus Boston Red Sox. There’s not a bad seat in the stadium. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ll love the vibe, and the people are so much fun to be around. They’re also receptive to questions about their town and are all too willing to dole out travel advice to those who ask politely. Oh, and the stadium food is pretty good, too.
Ice hockey, baseball and basketball are the three big draws in Toronto, but look around and you’ll find plenty of other games in lacrosse, soccer, football (US), auto racing, tennis and even Aussie staples such as Australian rules football, cricket, rugby league and rugby union.
Forget the hop-on hop-off bus, get on your bike instead
My first morning in town and I’m already on my bike. Well, on a bike from Fitz & Follwell, being led around town by Victoria, who quite possibly knows a little too much about Toronto. Lucky for me, she’s happy to share some of her knowledge while I’m on my Fitz & Follwell Essentials Bike Tour. Peddling my way around Toronto’s coolest neighbourhoods, side streets and alleyways, I’m seeing the true face of Toronto and being regaled about its roots and the history of its people and communities. Forget your hop-on, hop-off buses and free walking guides, this is the best way to get acquainted with this city.
Now, with a little bit of local savoir faire in my noggin, I take my newfound knowledge and do some self-led discovering. First stop: the Bloor Annex – or The Annex, as the locals call it. It’s the neighbourhood just alongside the beautiful University of Toronto.
Try non-Canadian, Canadian food
I need a feed and I’m told the best food in Toronto comes from any culture outside of Canada. That is, not poutine. On the corner of Bloor W and Ossington, you’ll find LalibelaRestaurant, where the locals go for Ethiopian food (try the injara flatbread). In Little Korea, well, you’ll find killer Korean food – same goes for Little India, Little Pakistan and Little Tibet. Fun fact: Toronto has the biggest Tibetan community outside Tibet.
Lunch is quick stop for some amazing woodfired bruschetta and a pint of Flying Monkeys IPA at the Victory Café – the neighbourhood’s first craft beer establishment and home to a fine menu in a great outdoor setting with an old-style pub-feel bar.
Hang out in the 'hoods
Bloor St W in the Bloor Annex is home to an abundance of bookstores, ethnic restaurants, cafés, teashops and clothing stores and has a vibrant atmosphere. It’s well worth the walk down towards Kensington Market.
This is the neighbourhood originally made famous by Jewish vendors who set up shop in front of their homes, because no one would trade with them back in darker days.
The hippies loved being able to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, tobacco and handmade clothes directly from the grower, maker or importer and the area became the Canadian equivalent of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighbourhood. This also made it a popular destination for US draft dodgers and conscientious objectors.
Skip to today, and it’s home to great food and bars, retro clothing stores, record shops, cafés, galleries, bric-a-brac outlets and interesting artistic landmarks, such as a mobile garden planted in an old dodge car and a web of alleys emblazoned in public artwork.
Stop in at Trinity Common for buck-a-shuck oysters ($1 oysters on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and top travel tips from bar staff. Ronnie’s Local 069 is a favourite hangout for the locals and the Poetry Jazz Café, Thirsty and Miserable and El Rey Mezcal Bar are also worth a quick pitstop in between exploring this step-back-in-time town.
Toronto is so easy to navigate, and the public transport system can get you pretty much anywhere. It’s cheap too. So hit the ground and explore all the neighbourhoods you can fit into your time there. Some of the goodies to look out for are: the Distillery District, Queen West, Chinatown and the Entertainment District. But if you’re looking for less touristy spots, try Danforth Street and Greek Town, Trinity-Bellwoods and Bloor Annex or head to the Evergreen Brick Works in Don Valley.
Check out a comedy show or some live music
As for night-time activities, if you haven’t walked the soles off your feet during the day I can highly recommend taking in a concert at The Danforth Music Hall, seeing a comedy show at Toronto’s premier comedy venue Second City (where John Candy, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and many others cut their teeth) or Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club (where the locals go to see local and touring comedians), or just wander around Yonge St and the entertainment district and stop in wherever takes your fancy. Toronto feels very safe at night, so don’t fear getting out and about.
More tips from local lips
- Time your Toronto trip to coincide with the Toronto International Film Festival to add a healthy dose of night-time activity to your daytime agenda.
- Hit Yuk Yuks for true local comedy – Second City can be expensive and a bit more touristy.
- Visit the Toronto Music Garden at the Harbourfront Centre and catch a walking tour around the amazing landscape that is a visual representation of Bach’s Cello Suite 1 and 2, designed by world-famous cellist Yo Yo Mas.
- Soma Chocolatier has the best chocolate in town and pretty good coffee too.
- The Dundas west open-air museum is an afternoon well spent.
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