If Toronto’s barely tolerated slogan “thank God it’s Monday” is anything to go by, you’d think that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city wasn’t up for much of a good time.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. This compact city, on the north western shore of Lake Ontario and the capital of the province of the same name, is great fun. The residents – who speak more than 160 languages between them – are welcoming and are keen to show off their booming city (becoming more and more recognisable thanks to its multiple appearances on the big screen – did you really think Suits was filmed in New York?)
Its compactness means that, firstly, Toronto is incredibly easy to get around, with a small metro and tram system. And that, secondly, it has plenty of distinct neighbourhoods sitting side by side. There’s the Distillery District (former grain stores converted into restaurants, cafes and posh boutiques); hippy Dundas West with poncy cafes and bars; and slick downtown, Toronto’s financial district and home to its vertiginous skyscrapers.
Recently, the city has been given a shot in the arm with a slew of new hotels (Kimpton Saint George and the Anndore, formerly a Comfort Inn, are two recent openings), new flight routes (low-cost Primera Air launched flights to Toronto from Stansted in summer 2018) and landmark new developments (the first integrated Nobu complex, featuring a hotel, residences and restaurants is due to open in 2020).
Plus, autumn is the best time to go: the humidity drops and gorgeous autumn leaves appear thanks to brisker temperatures. Add to that a line-up of festivals including the Nuit Blanche arts festival, which takes place at the end of September, and you’ve got yourself the perfect long weekend.
What to do
Go up the CN Tower
Toronto’s CN Tower was easily eclipsed as the world’s tallest building in 2007 by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but the radio tower remains the city’s best-loved icon. The best way to experience it (if you don’t fancy the daredevil Edge Walk) is the excellent viewing platform: take a glass-bottomed lift 346 metres up for a panoramic view of Toronto and its lush green islands.
If you’re an aviation geek, the south-facing windows of the viewing gallery overlook planes taking off and landing into Toronto City Airport. And if you’re brave, there’s also a glass-bottomed floor that you can walk/lie/pose on.
Cruise to the Toronto Islands
A couple of miles from the city’s waterfront is a chain of green islands. The crescent-shaped Centre Island is the largest and most easily accessible – and ideal for a quiet afternoon of walking, cycling and picnicking overlooking Canada’s most impressive skyline.
See some graffiti
Tour Guys runs a free 90-minute walking tour (although polite to tip CA$10) around the back alleys of offbeat Queen Street West, explaining Toronto’s enduring fascination with graffiti – so much so that there’s even a street named in the art form’s honour (Graffiti Alley). Enjoy an eclectic collection of local artists’ tags, colourful murals or various Toronto icons rendered by spray can.
Wander along the waterfront
Toronto’s waterfront district is a lesson in best practice for public space. Beneath the glossy high-rises of downtown are elegant wooden boardwalks, small stretches of artificial beach (some with deck chairs that are free to use – but bag them early) and a string of alfresco restaurants and bars ideal for autumnal chilling.
Where to stay
The new Kimpton Saint George, just opened on Bloor Street up the road from the landmark part-glass, part-Italianate brick Royal Museum of Art, is a trendy (but low-key) addition to the Torontonian hotel scene. Chic rooms, in a colour scheme of grey and teal, are comfortable and spacious, with views over the university district. In-res gastropub the Fortunate Fox is a lively locals’ spot that doesn’t immediately feel like a hotel restaurant. Doubles from CA$329, room only.
Toronto is the home of the Four Seasons hotel brand, and the city’s own incarnation is in historic Yorkville. It’s everything you would expect from the home city of this turbo-luxe property: superior service, local flavour (Canadian artwork is studded throughout) and award-winning French cuisine at Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud. Doubles from £416, room only.
Where to eat
If you’re in Toronto, you’re probably going to want to eat poutine. The soupy combination of cheese curds and gravy slathered on chips might look like drunk food, but it’s a Canadian staple and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Poutini’s House of Poutine, with two branches in Toronto, takes the dish so seriously that poutine appears twice in the name.
Toronto’s premier celeb hangout is One in the chic Hazelion Hotel in villagey Yorkville (the food’s alright too). Local chef Mark McEwan has brought home the bacon (and a lot more) to this casual neighbourhood spot, known for its celebrity visitors; on my visit, basketball ace Tristan Thompson was casually hanging out and Le Bron was there a few days previously. Fun dishes on the classic menu, including lobster spoons, Korean chicken tacos and proper hotel comfort food like burgers and cobb salads, make the menu – and its sophisticated wraparound terrace for warm days – a solid-gold bet.
Moments away from Toronto’s business district is historic Saint Lawrence Market, a two-level covered food market that dates back to 1803. Insider are 64 merchants, selling everything from artisan sausages and Montreal bagels to Alaskan crab and crocodile burgers. The quintessential Toronto foodie experience here is found at Carousel Bakery: a fat “peameal” bacon bun, washed down with a cappuccino from Everyday Gourmet Coffee Roasters downstairs. When the weather’s good, eat it outside on the large terrace.
Where to drink
Toronto’s most famous export (and its biggest champion) is rapper Drake. Unfortunately he has absolutely nothing to do with the Drake hospitality group, which has a handful of swaggering restaurants, bars and even a hotel in central Toronto. Part of its stable is Drake One Fifty in the Financial District, a super sexy red and green brasserie with live DJs and a killer cocktail list.
Meanwhile, The Comrade in the East End is a dim-lit speakeasy stuffed with taxidermy and Toronto’s pretty young things.
Where to shop
Queen Street is one of Toronto’s major spines – but it’s the western end that gets interesting and hip, if awards for “trendiest neighbourhood” are anything to go by. Queen Street West is where you’ll find boutiques selling things like vapes, tattoos and vintage clothing, plus there’s a plethora of street art if you venture off down the alleyways.
The long stretch of Bloor Street around the Yorkville neighbourhood is home to some of the world’s best big-boy luxury brands, including Cartier, Prada and Gucci, as well as high street brands J Crew and H&M. And for bargain hunters, there’s a mega branch of Nordstrom Rack, which sells discounted luxury clobber and homewares.
Fan of concrete? Don’t miss the Robarts Library, right by Toronto University. This brutalist heifer is better known by its nickname: Fort Book. Whether you consider it a monstrosity or a prime example of modernist architecture, it’s an impressive structure regardless.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Yes, 15 to 20 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
Toronto is five hours behind the UK
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Around eight hours; a handful of carriers fly direct from the UK to Toronto, including British Airways, Air Canada and Primera Air.
The TTC, Toronto’s subway, streetcar and bus system, costs C$2.90 a ride with a Presto card.
Toronto’s growing network of cycle routes – the nicest being along the waterfront – and its compact size means cycling is the ideal way to get around.