Spring 2015: 36 Hours Toronto

Explore Canada’s largest city next door

By Norah Machia

Graffiti art covers the walls of a city alley. Photo by AFM  Photography.

Graffiti art covers the walls of a city alley. Photo by AFM Photography.

Toronto offers unparalleled cross-border fun

Toronto is the largest city in Canada, with a population of more than five million people in the greater metropolitan area. This bustling, multi-cultural city is situated on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and is considered one of Canada’s top tourist destinations. It’s also the location of the largest financial center in the country.

It’s estimated approximately half of its population was actually born outside of Canada. This makes Toronto a great city to visit, because it offers a tremendous variety of dining, entertainment, shopping, culture, and architecture. While it can also be an expensive city to visit, there is an abundance of hotels that offer good rates if you reserve early. And many have concierge desks where you can get directions, information about the city, and purchase discount tickets to attractions. Another way to experience the city without breaking the bank is to combine paid activities with free sight-seeing on foot. While the specialty restaurants are great, you can combine those with good meals at lower cost venues and/or food courts.

No matter where you decide to stay in the city, there are usually plenty of restaurants, theaters, and stores within walking distance. In the warm months, you can also travel by a public ferry to visit one of the Toronto Islands, a small chain of islands that fall within the city limits and offer beaches, biking paths, canoeing and even a children’s amusement park.

Don’t forget your passport, and you should notify your credit card companies you’re traveling outside the United States so they don’t put a hold on your card when you make a charge. You should try to exchange your money in advance in the United States if possible, because the rate may be better. If not, there is a currency exchange station at the Duty Free Shop just before you cross into Canada.

Here are some great sites for even more help with planning your visit: toronto.com, seetorontonow.com, citysightseeingtoronto.com.

Friday, 1 p.m., Check In

There are many options for hotel stays in Toronto, depending on your price range and which part of the city you wish to explore. The Hilton Toronto, 145 Richmond St. West, is located next to the city’s financial and entertainment districts, and is an excellent central location for many venues.

When you drive to Toronto, it’s a good idea to park your vehicle in the hotel garage or designated parking area as soon as you arrive, and leave it there for the rest of your visit (most hotels, however, will charge extra for parking). Traffic can be very congested in parts of the city, and public parking is expensive and may be difficult to find.

The Toronto Transit Commission operates several forms of public transportation, including a subway system with east-west and north-south lines, and a large fleet of streetcars and buses. You can also hail a taxi, but if you need to be at a certain place at a certain time, it’s better to arrange for one in advance.

One of the best, and most relaxing ways to explore Toronto, is on foot. You can request a street map at any hotel desk. Most offer the same colorful and easy-to-read map of the city, which highlights the major attractions. It’s just one page, about the size of a placemat, and you can easily fold and put it in your pocket.

Friday, 2 p.m., A tour of the financial district

Visiting a financial district might not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning an extended weekend trip to a major city, but it’s worth experiencing in Toronto. Head down to Bay Street, an area that is filled with a variety of modern skyscrapers and historic buildings, which somehow manage to complement each other. Many of the older buildings have unique ornamental details, including a few that were designed with some rather distinctive gargoyles projecting from the upper levels.

It’s a great place to walk and take in a variety of architecture, from historic to modern day. One example of a historic piece of architecture can be found along Bay Street. It’s the Old Toronto Stock Exchange building at 234 Bay St., opened in 1937. The front of the building features carved stone designs representing the different industries which had their stocks once sold in the historic building.

Friday, 3:30 p.m., Explore a commercial landmark

Head to Brookfield Place at 161-181 Bay St. This landmark features the Allen Lambert Galleria, a very large and impressive pedestrian walkway with a distinctive vaulted glass roof lined by tall steel arches. Brookfield Place connects two modern office complexes (Bay Wellington Tower and the TD Canada Trust Tower), which house numerous financial and legal firms, and the headquarters of many Canadian corporations.

Grab a mid-day snack at one of the many fast food eateries, such as The Bagel Shop, Soup It Up, or Marche Natural Bakery. Then window shop, or go inside if you dare, some of the specialty shops and chic boutiques.

Check out facades of historic buildings which have been incorporated in this modern-day structure. In the middle of the large walkway, you will stumble upon a façade of the original 1845 Commerce Bank Toronto Branch Bank.

End your visit to Brookfield Place at the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame, where the original 1893 Stanley Cup can be viewed. The museum highlights Canada’s national sport with numerous displays, including several glass cases displaying hockey pucks from teams throughout the world. Although the entrance is inside Brookfield Place, the Hockey Hall of Fame also has a historic exterior façade of the former Bank of Montreal Branch, designed in 1885.

brookfieldplacenewsandevents.com

Friday, 6 p.m., dinner on ‘Restaurant Row’

Enjoy dinner at The Kit Kat Italian Bar & Grill at 297 King St. West, which is nestled between several smaller, unique restaurants that comprise “restaurant row” in the heart of the Entertainment District. The family-owned restaurant offers casual dining, and features a variety of Italian, Mediterranean, seafood and pasta dishes. There is an extensive wine list and a nice selection of specialty desserts. Reservations are recommended.

kitkattoronto.com

Friday, 8 p.m., Curtains up!

There is an abundance of theaters throughout Toronto, offering live performances from Broadway shows to small, local productions. You can choose from musicals, family shows, concerts, stand-up comedy, classical or opera.

A great website to help you sort out everything, including dates, prices, venues and advance tickets, is
toronto-theatre.com.

Brookfield Place, a Toronto commercial landmark. Photo by AFM Photography.

Brookfield Place, a Toronto commercial landmark. Photo by AFM Photography.

Saturday, 10 a.m., Experience the tower

The CN Tower is an iconic landmark in Toronto, and features one of the highest public observation decks in the world, a glass-floor paneled high-speed elevator and the 360 Restaurant, which offers a magnificent revolving view of the city. There are different levels of observation, including the SkyPod and the even higher LookOut Level, which can provide a view of the city, Lake Ontario, and even Niagara Falls and New York State on a clear day.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can check out the EdgeWalk on the CN Tower. It’s what it implies — those with a strong sense of adventure take a walk on the outside around the circumference of the CN Tower Restaurant roof — more than 1,168 feet above the ground. You’re attached to an overhead safety rail via a trolley and harness system. It’s one of the more expensive attractions, however, at about $200 a ticket.

Note: You may want to just appreciate this historic tower from the outside. If you want a great view of the CN Tower and the surrounding Toronto Skyline, head over to Polson Pier, 11 Polson Pier, off Cherry Street. This spot is popular with photographers of all levels who are looking for a perfect place to shoot the skyline with Lake Ontario in the forefront. During the evening, it makes for a great view because the CN Tower lights up in different colors.

cntower.ca

Saturday, noon, Shop in the heart of the city 

Spend the afternoon exploring the Toronto Eaton Centre, 220 Yonge St. This 3-million-square-foot indoor shopping mall features more than 230 retail shops, restaurants and other services under a glass galleria. It includes a range of stores, offering everything from convenience items to high priced fashions, depending on which level you choose to explore.

Enjoy lunch at one of the two large food courts within the mall. Be sure to check out the fiberglass sculpture depicting a flock of Canadian geese, a reminder that you’re inside a Canadian shopping mall.

torontoeatoncentre.com

Saturday, 3 p.m., An attraction ‘Off the beaten path’

Even if you’re not a fan of graffiti, check out this outdoor display of impressive “street art.” Granted, the graffiti alley was a little rundown, but you won’t notice once you start looking at the artwork on the back of the buildings.

The spray-painted murals are actually done each summer by a group of artists known as “Style in Progress.” The city of Toronto grants a 24-hour period of “legal painting” on the back walls of these buildings once a year.

This site is “off the beaten path” and a little tricky to find. The address is 1 Rush Lane, but the “lane” is really the alleyway that runs between Spadina Avenue and Portland Street, south of Queen Street West. It’s also been nicknamed “Mercer’s Graffiti Alley” after CBC Comedian Rick Mercer, who has been known to film his commentaries while walking through the alleyway, using the graffiti murals as a backdrop.

Saturday, 6 p.m., Who turn the lights out?

Enjoy a dining experience like no other when you dine at O.Noir, a “Dine in the Dark” restaurant at 620 Church St. This concept has been growing in popularity in some other countries, and is slowly making an appearance in North America.

It’s important to make reservations in advance due to the popularity of this 140-seat restaurant. There are two scheduled dinner seatings. You view the menu and order your food and drinks before your waiter escorts you into the darkened dining room.

Here’s the concept: you eat in a totally dark room and are served by visually impaired wait staff with no flashlights, no cellphones, and no candles. By not using your sense of vision to see the food, your other senses, such as taste and smell, will be heightened, making your meal even more enjoyable.

One tip: If you need to visit the restroom, make sure you do it before you are escorted into the darkened dining room.

onoirtoronto.com

The Toronto Eaton Centre. Photo by  AFM Photography.

The Toronto Eaton Centre. Photo by AFM Photography.

Sunday, 11 a.m., Visit a real castle in the city

The Casa Loma has been named one of Toronto’s premier historic attractions, and it’s a good place to visit on your way out of the city because of its location (in the direction of the major highways that lead outside the city). This 64,700-square-foot castle has seven floors, two towers, secret passageways, and was built on a hilltop overlooking the city of Toronto.

Take a self-guided audio tour, and you will be impressed with the majestic designs of each room. Even the stables have mahogany wood stalls and a tiled floor. The castle was built for $3.5 million between the years of 1911 to 1914 by financier Sir Henry Pellatt, and was designed by architect E.J. Lennox.

There is a long underground tunnel that leads to the stalls, an antique car exhibit and a potting shed. It’s called “Toronto’s Dark Side Tunnel” because it features a historic black and white photo display of tragedies that hit the city in the past century, such as a plague outbreak and major fires.

For a more light-hearted display, walk through “Hollywood’s Film Gallery,” a hallway that features a variety of movie posters, including X-Men, Chicago, The Tuxedo, Strange Brew and the Pacifier. All these movies contain scenes that were filmed inside Casa Loma.

Approximately 25 percent of films produced by Hollywood are actually filmed in Toronto, which is also home to the annual Toronto International Film Festival, a major public film festival held every September in the city.

You can grab some lunch at the Liberty Café inside the castle, before hitting the road for your drive home. It offers a variety of grilled sandwiches, pasta, pastries, specialty coffees and juices.

casaloma.org

The CN Tower dominates the Toronto skyline at night. It features one of the highest observation decks in the world. Photo by AFM Photography.

The CN Tower dominates the Toronto skyline at night. It features one of the highest observation decks in the world. Photo by AFM Photography.

Getting there

Take Route 81 North and cross into Canada at the Thousand Islands Bridge, Alexandria Bay. Pick up Highway 401 West, which will take you directly to Toronto. Make sure you get directions in advance to your specific hotel, or bring your GPS, because there are a number of routes from the 401 into the city, depending on where you are staying. If you don’t want to drive in such a large city, you can just drive to Kingston and catch a train on the VIA Rail Canada that will bring you right into Union Station on Front Street, in Toronto’s financial district.

viarail.ca

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com