AOL PICK from our Editors
Despite its size, Toronto sometimes feels like Canada’s best-kept secret. Visitors are amazed by the slew of sandy beaches, charming islands, appealing neighborhoods, smorgasbord of restaurants, exceptional galleries and museums, and social bustle of this intriguing metropolis. Other than at rush hours, there’s an enjoyable laid-back pace to the city—and it’s easy to get about on foot or by public transit. You’ll find the best Toronto things to do Downtown, in the West End and along the Lakeshore, but there are gems in the East, too, and quirky jewels waiting to be discovered in all directions.
Thane Lucas, The Distillery
Distillers Gooderham and Worts produced their first whiskey in 1837, opening their new distillery on Mill Street in 1859. By 1871 it was the largest distillery in the world, but war and prohibition shouted last call on operations, finally limping to a close in 1990. Those old distillers recognize their Victorian complex today—with its cobbled streets, imposing limestone storehouses and 100-foot chimney. The 45 Victorian Industrial buildings were restored by timber and stone artisans using original materials, blended with modern materials and eco-technology. The District was opened to the public in 2003 as a pedestrians-only village with an incredible array of artisans, designers, design stores, galleries, cafés, restaurants, and with a nod to the district’s heritage, a brew pub—one of the best Toronto bars. Go for lunch or grab a coffee at the ornate Balzac’s and then investigate works by Douglas Coupland, Roya Arden, and other Canadian artists at the Clark and Faria Gallery, sample a flight of hot chocolates at Soma Chocolatier, and stock up on artisan Quebecois cheese at A Taste of Quebec before catching a show at Soul Pepper Theatre.
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Neighborhood: Toronto Islands and the Waterfront
A straggle of a peninsula until an 1858 storm swept away the sandy link to the city, Toronto’s beloved islands have been popular with the locals since the early 1800s. Ferries beetle across the few hundred feet from Queen’s Quay to three island destinations—each with their own distinct appeal. Centre Island ferries are the busiest and most frequent as families flock to the sandy beach, the lovely, old kids’ amusement park, petting zoo, quadbike rentals, and ice cream and pizza parlors. To the east, Ward’s Island, home to a year-round residential population, is quieter and is ideal for a stroll, coffee or meal on the patio at the island’s one restaurant, the Rectory Café. Ward’s Island was once a bustling resort with a three-story hotel and baths. Hanlan’s Point, to the west of Centre, once had cottages, three hotels, an amusement park and the 10,000-seater baseball stadium where Babe Ruth hit his first pro home run. Today, Hanlan’s offers easy walking trails, softball diamonds, tennis courts, volleyball courts, a historic lighthouse, and the city’s only clothing-optional beach.
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Neighborhood: The Beach
At the eastern end of the Queen streetcar route, Toronto’s favorite beaches await. If more visitors knew about the area it would be a top Toronto attraction, but for now, it’s mostly locals than stroll this stretch of lakeshore. The whole area has an enjoyable retro beach town feel. Although there are three beaches (four, if you go as far as Scarborough), the area is known as The Beach. Singular. And locals can get quite singular about this. A boardwalk laces between Balmy, Kew and Woodbine beaches and you can’t really tell where one begins and ends, but Woodbine is the first one you’ll meet if coming by streetcar, then Kew, then Balmy. On summer days, it’s more of a sunbathing than a swimming scene—Lake Ontario isn’t always an ideal spot for a dip; check pollution and currents warning. It’s gorgeous in spring and fall, too, dramatic, in winter. Typical beach fare of burgers, fish, and fries is available at Woodbine Beach and in the restaurants of the adjacent block on Queen Street.
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The ROM is one of those must-do’s that’s actually worth doing. It is impressive, whether you go in and wander the more than 40 galleries or whether you simply sit outside and admire the jagged, mirrored new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal that juts out over Bloor Street. There really is a reason that this is considered one of the best Toronto things to do. The fifth-largest museum in North America has an incredible six million-item collection spanning dinosaurs to Ming Dynasty ceramics to a kid-popular (but rather hokey) Bat Cave. The main hall in the original building is a good place to sit and take a break—and feel like you’re waiting for events a la ‘Night at the Museum’ to unfold. Kids will love the newly expanded, interactive Bat Cave exhibits and dinosaur sculptures. We love the Far Eastern collection, with its Ming Tomb and thought-provoking everyday ceramic objects.
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We just love the concept of telling the history of civilization and technology through shoes—and that’s what the 13,000-item Bata does. Avid shoe collector Sonja Bata has always been steps ahead of the crowd—even in heels. She started collecting in the 1940s and put her foot down in 1979 when her collection outgrew her private storage space, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the museum found its permanent home. Fascinating exhibitions range from shows on Inuit footwear to Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels. The museum’s “Star Turns” collection doesn’t have hand or footprints—it has the real thing. Bata has famous footwear from John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Elton John, and Pablo Picasso. Don’t miss these or the permanent collection, All About Shoes—4500 years of the history of footwear.
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Neighborhood: Toronto Islands and the Waterfront
Soaring 1,815 feet, 5 inches above ground, Toronto’s famous spike sprouted in 1975 and, for a long time, held the honor of being the world’s tallest free-standing structure. While it’s one of those obvious tourist sites that you might think twice about lining up for (visit in the early evening to avoid lines at the main entrance, but be prepared to wait 20 minutes to get in the elevator to go back down when you’re finished), it really does give an overview of Toronto that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a good first-day activity to help you get your bearings. From up there, the temperature can be 10 degrees colder and the fifth-largest city in North America looks really large—skyscrapers stretch to the north, Lake Ontario glistens to the south. Other than the views, there are display areas with facts about the tall towers of the world. You can buy an extra ticket to get to the Sky Pod—the smaller ring at 1,465 feet. It’s smaller, but less overrun with hyper kids and harassed parents. We like the comparative calm of the sit-down restaurant on the main floor.
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Housed in the stately 1817 Georgian Grange house—the oldest brick house in Toronto—and subsequent expansions, the AGO is home to a who’s who of European masters; van Dyck, Degas, Gainsborough, Rodin, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Picasso and Magritte are all represented, and a significant 40,000-item photography collection is on show at the nearly 600,000-square-foot gallery. The comprehensive Contemporary collection spans 1960 to today and takes up the top two lofty floors with works by Warhol, Wall, Jungen and even Yoko Ono, so start at Walker Court and take the stairs up to the 5th floor. There’s a lovely coffee space on the south side of the 5th floor, which nobody seems to know about, with gluten and gluten-free treats. But many visitors to Ontario’s prestigious gallery don’t come to see the art. They come to see the architecture. Toronto’s own Frank Gehry designed an incredible new look and feel, revealed in 2008, with a dramatic Baroque staircase, swathes of Douglas fir and glass sheets.
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A Gothic Revival folly, high on a hill overlooking the city, Casa Loma is a 98-room castle with an 800-foot tunnel, towers, stables, an oven large enough to cook an ox in, secret passageways and majestic gardens. Measuring the staggering scope of one man’s ambition, Casa Loma was built between 1911 and 1914. Financier and solider Sir Henry Pellatt was the man responsible for bringing this marvel to the city skyline, although bad luck only allowed him 10 years living in his creation. Start your visit at the grand stables, then go through the tunnel. Don’t miss the stately Oak Room or the beautiful Peacock Alley.
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Going to the McMichael is really a two-in-one deal—not only do you get to see some incredible art, but you get a day trip to a quaint Ontario village. A trip to Kleinburg (45 minutes from downtown Toronto) is one of the best things to do in Toronto when you’re done with crowds, lines and traffic. The McMichael is a breath of fresh air, and it’s also the place to see art you really won’t see anywhere else. Robert and Signe McMichaels’ collection of Canadian artists—including Inuit art, contemporary First Nations works and the sweeping impressionistic landscapes of some of Canada’s most famous painters, Group of Seven—is stunning. Spend a day spent admiring the galleries, lunching in a cute café and strolling the trails along the river Humber. If you’re pressed for time or want to spend some time outdoors, just visit the lower two floors of the gallery, then explore the gardens of the estate.
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Neighborhood: Niagara Falls
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Sure, it’s 80 miles south and not part of the city proper at all, but the sights and sounds of Niagara Falls are too dramatic not to include in a trip to Toronto if you’re here for more than a weekend. It’s a 90-minute drive down—or take to the tracks. GO trains zip along the hem of Lake Ontario and through Niagara wine country on summer weekends. There’s an easy bus service the rest of the year. The Canadian side of the Falls offers the best views—with both the American and Horseshoe Falls and the dramatic gorge spread out before you. If you turn around, though, and look back at the town of Niagara Falls, Canada, views change from natural to gaudily unnatural—you’ll find neon, noise and all sorts of fun, trashy amusement arcades and attractions such as Galaxy Golf, The Fun House, and Tussaud’s Waxworks crammed into a brightly lit entertainment district.
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