Toronto city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in Canada’s capital of cool

Cathy Adams
The Toronto skyline is often used as a stand-in for NYC in film and television: Tourism Toronto

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 northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, is great fun. The residents – who speak more than 160 languages between them – are welcoming and are keen to show off their booming city, which is 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. Secondly, it has 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 cafes and bars; and slick downtown, Toronto’s Financial District and home to its skyscrapers.

The Nuit Blanche arts festival lights up the city (Tourism Toronto)

The city, the capital of the province of Ontario, 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).

Autumn is the best time to go: the humidity drops and gorgeous 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 may have long been eclipsed as the world's tallest free-standing structure, 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.

For aviation geeks, the south-facing windows of the viewing gallery overlook planes taking off and landing into Toronto City Airport. And, for those brave enough, there’s a glass-bottomed floor to walk 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.

The nearby islands are fun to explore (Getty Images)

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 artists’ tags, colourful murals or 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 al fresco 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. Gastropub The Fortunate Fox is a lively locals’ spot that doesn’t immediately feel like a hotel restaurant. Doubles from CA$329, room only.

The Kimpton Saint George is Toronto's newest swanky pad (Kimpton Saint George)

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 Hazelton Hotel in Yorkville (the food’s alright too). Local chef Mark McEwan has brought home the bacon – and a lot more – to this casual neighbourhood spot. 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 such as burgers and cobb salads, make the menu – and its sophisticated wraparound terrace for warm days make this a solid-gold bet.

St Lawrence Market is a Toronto institution (Tourism Toronto)

Moments away from Toronto’s business district is 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 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.

Toronto has a lively bar scene (Tourism Toronto)

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 boutiques selling things such as vapes, tattoos and vintage clothing can be found, plus there’s street art for those who wish to 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.

Queen Street West is home to the city's hippest shops (Tourism Toronto)

Architectural highlight

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?

Canadian dollars.

What language do they speak?

English.

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?

About eight hours; a handful of carriers fly direct from the UK to Toronto, including British Airways, Air Canada and Primera Air.

Public transport

The TTC, Toronto’s subway, streetcar and bus system costs C$2.90 a ride with a Presto card.

Insider tip

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.