Toronto: The Highs & the Low-Down


 Note: this is mostly taken from an article I wrote for Viator after travelling to Toronto in 2009. The original article is here.

 So you’re planning a city break. The flights and hotel are booked, you’ve bought a guidebook and you’ve even read a few pages.

 So what else? Maximising your time can be tricky, so careful planning makes all the difference. After all, why waste time queuing for tickets, staring at maps or wondering which day would be best to walk in the park?

It’s a fine line though. You do want to make the most of your trip, but you do also want to leave time for relaxation and those all-important travel discoveries.

Here’s how we tried to do it in Toronto.


Before you go: Research, Research, Research

The internet makes this part so much easier. Plus you can benefit from online discounts.

First, I booked the Toronto Express Airport bus online (saving 10% on the ticket price). Then I bought 2 City Passes on the Viator website. These are great value for money: the Toronto Pass covers 5 attractions and works out well even if you don’t visit them all.

We also tuned into Toronto’s weather forecast, and earmarked ‘outdoor’ activities for the sunny days. So, passports, guidebooks, vouchers and maps all in hand, we headed for the airport.

Now would all this pre-planning pay off?


Culture: The Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum is a treasure trove. Artefacts range from First Peoples canoes to Chinese Buddhas, lunar meteorites, bat caves and dinosaur skeletons.

We went via the immense Totem poles to the First Peoples gallery. I was intrigued by the clothes, especially the children’s fur outfits. Forget Baby Gap: these little ones wore fur outfits and travelled on mini-sledges! Sitting Bull’s headdress and possessions are another highlight.

The Gallery of Canada is somewhat beaver-oriented: beaver hats, weather vanes, tankards and even altar carvings. Beaver fur was fashionable in 17th Century Europe and heavily traded by the Hudson’s Bay Company. If fur doesn’t tickle your fancy, other parts of Canadian history such as General Wolfe also feature.

Also in the museum’s neighbourhood is the University of Toronto: founded in 1827, the campus is home to over 50,000 students and boasts some impressive Gothic architecture.


Architecture: Casa Loma, The House on the Hill

Sir Henry Mill Pellatt was a true eccentric. Born in 1859, this ardent royalist served as General in the Queen’s Own Rifles. His immense personal fortune came largely from his Toronto Electric Light Company, which brought electricity to the city.

By 1911, Sir Henry seemed convinced that his Midas touch would never end and drew up plans for Casa Loma. 3 years and $3.5million later, Sir Henry and his wife Mary moved in. 10 years on, taxes and a bank collapse forced them to sell.

The outside view of Casa Loma is more Disney than Loire Valley. You enter via the main hall, which is tailor-made for films: Douglas Fairbanks Jr could swing from the balcony with ease.

The house is self-guided, with a free audio guide (slightly twee). Sir Henry was a visionary: he installed electric lights and telephones everywhere, plus a “new-fangled” electric shower resembling an instrument of torture. The top floor of Casa Loma is given over almost entirely to his lifelong involvement with the Queen’s Own Rifles.

Lady Mary – in case you wondered – was not an idle housewife: she was the first Chief Commissioner of the Girl Guides of Canada and her memorabilia is on display here.

Do climb through the attics to the tower and peek through the narrow windows. Or, if you have long hair, let it down à la Rapunzel. Whatever you do, bring tissues: they haven’t dusted those attics in a while!


Food #1: St Lawrence Market

To St Lawrence Market (Front Street East) for lunch. This Toronto institution has been feeding the locals since 1803 and is a foodie’s dream. Here lurk the largest steaks I’ve ever seen, vegetable displays that are virtually works of art and cheese counters unrivalled outside of France.

There’s plenty to take away too: sandwiches of roast beef, peameal bacon or chicken parmigiana. We indulged in a bowl of creamy clam chowder at Buster’s Sea Cove. Guaranteed to warm you up on a chilly autumn day. Equally guaranteed to burn the roof of your mouth.


Food #2: Wayne Gretzky’s

 To Wayne Gretzky’s (99 Blue Jays Way) for a late dinner. “The Great One” of Ice Hockey retired in 1999 and his business interests include this restaurant and No. 99 Estate Wines.

We ate in a booth in the restaurant, but the sports bar has the same menu and TVs galore. As first-timers, we went for the classic menu: the “Great One” Burger (with “99-branded bun” and a puck-shaped chocolate dessert. Verdict? Pretty good, we thought. Afterwards, we browsed the hockey memorabilia and balked at the $999.99 hockey shirts on sale.

So we’d eaten the burger, it was now time to learn about the legend at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Now I admit (grudgingly) that this was more interesting than I expected. The history of the game (including old sticks, masks and gear) is pretty cool and the Montreal Canadiens dressing room is way too tidy.

If you’re feeling bullish, try your luck and skills against the virtual games. Or just lower your voice in the inner sanctum and have your photograph taken with the Stanley Cup.


Overall View: CN Tower

One thing about the CN Tower: it’s very tall. One other thing: it’s much taller than any other building in Toronto. This fact became remarkably apparent to me as we walked into the external glass elevator. 58 seconds later we were 346m up at the look-out level. Vertigo? Maybe. Slightly light-headed? Definitely.

Toronto seems remarkably small from up here. It fades away into Ontario (to the North) and drops straight into Lake Ontario (to the South). Across the lake, you may see New York State and Niagara.

It was a perfectly clear day, so the view was awesome. It was also empty: get here before 11am to avoid crowds. The outdoor viewing gallery was windblown and (thankfully) enclosed.

Then for the real bravery test: standing on the glass floor, 2 ½ inches thick and 342m above ground level. According to the CN Tower Department of Facts, Figures and Wildlife, this can withstand the weight of 14 large hippos, which reassured me but didn’t encourage me to look down.

After all that excitement, it was time for coffee and a muffin. We sat overlooking Toronto’s Inner Harbour and reflected on our trip.


The Low-Down: So how did we do?

The pre-planning definitely paid off: we knew what we wanted to see and do didn’t waste (too much) time checking out the guidebook. We did make time for relaxing (coffee, afternoon tea, the hotel pool & spa) but didn’t feel like we were killing time.

So what did we miss? It would have been fun to see a Maple Leafs game (they were out of town) or to head to Mill Street for a brewery/distillery tour.

So there’s at least 2 reasons to return to Toronto…

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