Where to eat, drink and stay in Toronto
“You’ve come at the best time of year,” my taxi driver tells me, as we soar past the skyscrapers on our journey from Union station in Toronto. “It’s the changing of the colours.”
My driver’s observation turns out to be entirely correct. Everywhere I turn there are trees- poking out from behind metallic giants and glass-fronted stores, or scattered around highways and hugging stunning residential streets – and every one of them is on fire. Leaves of vibrant reds, burnt oranges, and flaming yellows. This is autumn in one of Canada’s most exciting cities. Or – apologies – fall.
Though it lacks the fame of other North American urban centres – like its relative neighbour, New York – Toronto is a hidden gem of a city break. Awaiting you is a hipster paradise of exposed brick coffee stores, cool food markets and leafy parks. There are glamorous restaurants and hotels – favoured by the Toronto Film Festival crowd – and sporting havens that will particularly appeal to fans of ice hockey. Toronto is also brimming with art and culture and that ever-present nature; with some of Canada's most breath-taking landscapes creeping into its borders and placing a stunning bucolic chokehold on even the most industrial of highways.
How to get there
Flights from the UK are fairly regular and direct. It takes roughly seven hours of flight time and you land at Pearson International, which is close to the city centre. You can hop in a taxi and be in downtown Toronto in just under 40 minutes, or take the UP Express (tickets just $12 CAD), which will get you to Union station in the same time.
Getting about the city is equally easy. Purchase a Presto Pass, which operates in a similar capacity to an Oyster card and can be used on the city’s subway and buses as well as its streetcars, which are a great, unique way to see the city. Equally, Ubers are affordable and plentiful across Toronto and can get you anywhere in no time. Be warned about only using registered cabs from the airport and train station (their license should be visible on the car).
There are myriad reasons to check out Toronto. For a start, it is still relatively un-touristy which makes exploring it a far more relaxing endeavour than most city breaks. It is also a small, compact urban sprawl, based on a similar grid system to New York, which makes it incredibly accessible. Much like both London and New York, there are also discernible neighbourhoods with distinct vibes, from the hipster dream of Ossington to the chic upmarket feel of Yorkville.
Shopping is – especially for UK visitors – a real treat. There is a great selection here, as well as brands and stores you won’t find back home, from Saks Fifth Avenue’s Yonge Street outpost; to the North American juggernaut Nordstrom; Toronto’s very cool answer to Zara, Aritzia; or the famed Roots, should you want to snap up one of those classic Canadian plaid shirts. (You know the ones).
There is also a heady bar scene in Toronto which is not to be missed. The historic distillery district is the city's answer to Shoreditch and is great for a stroll past amazing eateries, shops and, of course, bars. Check out SpiritHouse and El Catrin, which also serves some great Mexican small bites. The new Park Hyatt also has a secret gem in its Writer’s Room Bar, which will give you some gorgeous views over the city, or head to El Ray for – in my opinion – the best mezcal in Toronto.
Art and culture are another draw here, with plenty of galleries and museums to explore. The AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) is a must, as is The Museum of Contemporary Art and the impressive and fascinating Islamic art museum, the Aga Khan. The Royal Ontario Museum, affectionately known as the ‘ROM’, is a stunning architectural feat in its own right, with a spacey, angular 2007 addition by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. It has a varied and diverting collection, including a soon to be re-opened permanent exhibition on Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Where to stay?
Since you’re in Canada, you may as well stay at the flagship Four Seasons, which is nestled in fashionable Yorkville and is a flawless example of the brand’s seamless luxury. Also in Yorkville is The Hazelton, one of the city’s best (and chicest) boutique hotels. For a slice of some of Toronto's history, stay at The Fairmont Royal York or The Omni King Edward Hotel.
For a cooler, more artistic crowd, check out the city’s iconic hotel The Drake, or its newcomers, like Toronto’s outposts of The W and Ace hotels.
Where to eat?
You are spoilt for choice in Toronto. Ossington Avenue is the place to head for great coffee (try Manita for friendly service and some of Toronto's best delicacies: butter tarts) and some of the city's finest restaurants. In particular, you shouldn't miss excellent French spot Côte de Boeuf, which has some of the finest gallic cuisine you're likely to find outside of Paris. Bar Raval is another must – with a brimming atmosphere and some cracking tapas. And you can't miss the iconic Sassafraz, a famed Canadian institution in Yorkville, or the newly-Michelin-starred Alo.
Two newbies not to be missed are Kost, on the 44th floor of the upmarket and achingly glamorous Bisha Hotel (don't miss their Mister C bar), which serves a fresh and inventive Californian-inspired menu with a great wine list, stirring view and excellent service. You will also need to head to the Alder at Ace Hotel. All of Ace, especially its gorgeous rooftop bar, is a must-visit as one of the best new spots in the city, but the food and cocktails at its restaurant, Alder, are superb. The baked clams and black pepper ravioli were standouts, as were inventive takes on old classic cocktails, like the Black Willow – an apple-tanged Old Fashioned.
What not to miss
You should of course, hit up Toronto's premier tourist spot, the CN Tower, for an unparalleled view over the city that is not for the faint-hearted. But other lesser-known spots are equally as entertaining. Casa Loma is an unusual mock-medieval castle built in the early 1900s, which is full of eccentricity and charm and is well worth a visit – even just for a walk through the stunning leafy neighbourhood it sits in and the beautiful views afforded by its vista.
Walks are another must in Toronto, which is a curious blend of sleek modernity and bucolic suburbs – like Danforth, a great neighbourhood for cute bars and the city's best Greek food. A golden walk is from Hudson Drive to the Evergreen Brick Works. Here you will see some of the most picturesque parkland in Toronto, before finishing up with a coffee at the Brick Works, before hopping in a quick cab to Kensington Market for some of the city's coolest finds. It's a walk which epitomises Toronto – an urbane sense of cool, matched with a cheery, brilliant feel of the outdoors. And yes, do go when the colours are changing.
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