Fun Peter-fact: I went on a class trip to Toronto when I was in 8th grade. Aside from being in an elevator that dropped 3 stories (before it caught itself) because the fat kid in my class wouldn’t stop jumping up and down, I don’t remember much about Toronto other than the bone-chilling cold. But now I’m going to return for Toronto Round 2.
Toronto, Canada. This city really caught me off-guard. Why?
Toronto is HUGE! It’s easily twice the size of Chicago, and quickly gaining on New York City. The biggest city in Canada, Toronto itself is home to more than 6 million people, and has grown to the point that it is beginning to engulf the surrounding communities in its rapidly expanding metropolitan area.
Toronto is clearly more international and diverse than almost anywhere I have ever been in the U.S. It even gave New York City a run for its money. By my observation, foreign transplants in the U.S. have a weird expectation to integrate with American culture as promptly as possible (I'm not gonna go down that rabbit hole right now though). In Toronto, foreign transplants seemed to wear their culture on their sleeves much more unabashedly. At least, that was my observation. I thought it was cool!
I don’t know what I was expecting from Toronto, but it wasn’t what I got. The Toronto in my mind was modest in size and culturally homogenous. But the Toronto I discovered on my trip was massive, diverse, and edgy. So before I start, I want to thank my Toronto locals, Mika & Zuhal, for imparting their knowledge of Toronto to me. You give Canada a good name <3
Transportation From The Airport
The Toronto Airport is quite a ways from the city. Taking a taxi from the airport to downtown will likely cost you around 80 CAD (60.65 USD). That’s pretty steep, but luckily, there’s an alternative. The train only costs 12 CAD (9.10 USD) and takes about 30 minutes. It’s a smooth, pleasant ride, and it ends at Union Station in the heart of Toronto. I would definitely recommend it.
Toronto’s Financial District
Downtown Toronto is nothing to scoff at. I would tell you that it’s a concrete jungle, but most every building is covered in sparkling glass, giving the whole environment a clean, chrome, futuristic aesthetic. "Concrete" jungle doesn't seem like quite the right imagery to describe it. It's a huge city though. And it's getting bigger. Looking up at the buildings from the sidewalks is a daunting sight. High above my head I saw window cleaners hanging from ropes, blowing in the wind like rag dolls. My palms got sweaty just seeing them up there! No thank you!
There’s a lot of money driving around this area of Toronto as well. Sports cars can be found idling at every red light, waiting to zoom away flamboyantly. But downtown isn’t just an economic powerhouse; many Canadian cultural institutions also call this area home. Beneath Toronto's glistening skyscrapers are Canada’s finest professional sports arenas, museums, etc. There’s no shortage of things to do. I'd love to write about all of it, but I didn't have enough time during this trip. Next time I’ll try to get tickets to a Maple Leafs game though. (That's hockey.)
Church & Wellesley
Church & Wellesley, sometimes called simply “the Village,” plays home to Toronto’s vibrant gay culture. Church (Street) and Wellesley (Street) are the names of the streets that form this neighborhood’s central intersection. Outside of this, the area covers a few large city blocks. You’ll know when you’re there because there are rainbows everywhere. And it smells like pizza and weed.
It’s a scenic area. And there's a lot going on at street level. Between all the shops, restaurants, and murals, I was pretty entertained as I walked along. And on top of all that stuff, Church & Wellesley actually includes a number of historic Victorian-style homes as well. Nestled into the Toronto cityscape, they are reminiscent of the brownstones that can be found in Boston or New York. They made me nostalgic for my time living on the East Coast in Boston. I had a good time taking pictures of those brownstones, but not nearly as much fun as I had sniping a picture of this weird couple...
The Center of Toronto’s Asian Culture
Toronto’s Chinatown is pretty much all on one street: Spadina Avenue. While the area attracts immigrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam as well, most of the inhabitants of Chinatown are from Mainland China. And most of what you’ll find down Spadina Avenue is just food. There are a few open-air markets, but mostly there’s just restaurants. And since I wasn't hungry while I was there, I have zero recommendations for you. Sorry! But I did take some pictures for your viewing pleasure.
Tourism isn't a huge industry in Toronto (although there is some), so Chinatown didn't feel like a tourist attraction at all. Walking down this stretch of Spadina Ave., I was one of the only white faces. It was cool.
Visiting Toronto’s Chinatown came with the added bonus of it being right next to the next destination of the day: Kensington Market.
For Toronto's Kool Kids
When Kensington Market was first described to me, I was told about how many great vintage clothing shops there were. Here's a little tid-bit about me: I hate shopping for clothes. I abhor it in fact. However, I can get on the vintage train every once in a while if the right shop presents itself. Over the years though, I've had so many crappy vintage shops recommended to me that I've become jaded. So when I heard about all the vintage shops in Kensington Market, I was not enthused.
As I asked around for information on Toronto, Kensington Market was, without fail, the first thing anybody ever mentioned. Based on this, I figured that I should at least poke my head in. When I got to Kensington Market though, it turned out that it had been completely undersold. First of all, it has so much more going on that just vintage shops! You can buy pretty much anything you want here, including some awesome food. At the very least, it's a supremely interesting walk. The weird people, diverse neighborhoods, and flamboyant street art made for great urban exploring.
Back to the vintage shops though - there's a lot of them, and they are actually awesome. You can trust me because I usually hate this kind of stuff. These are the vintage shops to end all vintage shops. "Cool" doesn't quite do them justice. They are lawless museums of fashion spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s. Here's a peek inside a couple of them:
Seriously, if you only have time to visit one place in Toronto, choose Kensington Market. You won't regret it.
The Distillery District
Toronto's Million Dollar Baby
The Distillery District started with just one distillery. It was called Gooderham & Worts Limited Distillery, and there was a time when it functioned in relative anonymity much the same as any other business. However, as real estate prices in Toronto began to climb, the city government saw a marketing opportunity, and built an entire "district" around Gooderham & Worts, mimicking the distillery's all-brick aesthetic.
During my time in the Distillery District, I only went to one brewery: Mill Street Brewery. However, in the Distillery District there are a wealth of other beer makers, and even a small selection of little shops to choose from. One could spend an entire day here, if they were so inclined.But breweries and shopping are not all that the Distillery District has to offer.
Towering above the brick streets and alleyways of the Distillery District are enormous, luxury high-rise apartments. Today, these apartments are some of the most expensive real estate in Toronto, reserved for only the wealthiest and trendiest of yuppies. I'd say it's safe to say that Toronto has exploited this place to its fullest potential. I can't say that it was the most genuine place I've ever been though. It was cool, but it felt manufactured.
Here's a few pictures:
The CN Tower
Toronto's Defining Structure
At 1,815.4 feet (353.33 meters) high, the CN Tower is arguably the defining landmark of the Toronto skyline. It was actually the tallest tower in the world from 1976 until 2007 when Guangzhou's Canton Tower was erected. This was quickly overshadowed by the Tokyo SkyTree, which was completed in 2012. But I digress. The point is that the CN Tower is a landmark, and it's tall AF.
The CN Tower is so tall, that almost no matter where you go in central Toronto, it's never quite out of sight. No matter what your vantage point is, it's always visible somehow/some way, between buildings or above the treetops. I thought that was cool, so I took a few pictures to illustrate this for you:
The tower itself is next to the Rogers Center, where the Toronto Blue Jays play. At the base of the tower, before we went up, we first had to go through security, which was just a small step down from what I had done earlier that day in the airport. Then we had to wait in line to buy tickets to the top. Tickets to the top of the CN Tower cost 35 CAD (26.99 USD). About 100 additional meters above the main deck of the CN Tower, there is another, smaller area called the sky deck, which you can reach via a separate elevator for an extra 12 CAD (9.26 USD).
At the top of the CN tower, there is an outdoor observation deck, a glass floor you can walk on, a restaurant, and a second, much nicer restaurant. We took a seat at the first restaurant with the rest of the riff-raff, and watched night fall over the city of Toronto. From my seat at the restaurant, I got up for frequent picture-taking walks.
Looking west down the coast of Lake Ontario, the clouds parted to create heavenly beams of light that cascaded down over the bustling the city below. They made for some great pictures.
I came to the top of the CN Tower late in the afternoon for a reason. During my visit to the tiny cliff-side town of Manarola on the Italian Riviera, I had taken a series of photos as the light changed that I absolutely loved. I wanted to create a similar photo-lapse here, as night fell over Toronto. It was a challenge to find a consistently unimpeded view, but after I put in some effort, I think it came out pretty well. Check these out:
I'll take that view.
Toronto in Review
I said it before and I'm gonna say it again: Toronto blew me away. The reason I traveled to Toronto in the first place was actually for a family wedding, and I was pretty unenthused about the location initially. I arrived in Toronto with low expectations, but I left Toronto with a whole different perspective on Canada.
I would live in Toronto. I don't say that lightly either. I'm told that Toronto was a lot cooler 10 years ago than it is today, but it still seemed pretty cool to me. It was huge, it was engaging, it was welcoming, it was extremely diverse, and free healthcare would be awesome too. Really, the only downside I can think of is the fact that it's cold. I think I would be able to get past that though. It's supposed to be pretty expensive too, but still, maybe one day I'll follow in the footsteps of Scott Pilgrim and relocate here.
If you hadn't connected the dots, all the GIFs for this article have come from Scott Pilgrim, which is set in Toronto. Is that a nerdy reference? Whatever.
Anyway, up next is an article focusing on Toronto's vibrant street art. It's actually really cool - you won't want to miss it.