A City Break in Toronto
January 1, 1970
by Ashley Dawn
Departure and Arrival
Whenever I fly on my own, be it to explore somewhere new completely solo, or to meet friends, or even to join an escorted tour group, I am guaranteed to feel two things once through security: pure excitement for what awaits me at the other side of the flight, and fear, which usually embodies itself in the thought of “what on earth are you doing, Ash?”! In contrast to going away with friends or family, these feelings are completely different – the excitement is more acute, and the fear – well that’s something I only feel when travelling alone. You might think that questioning my decision to go away, while at the airport, might be a bad sign, but really it is only a reflection of the sheer excitement, mixed with knowing that I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone of London!
So off I went, ‘fear’ and all, to Toronto, for a 5 night stay to explore the city and to visit Niagara Falls (of which I’ll write about separately). I flew with Air Canada which was perfectly acceptable, though if you like to have a wide range of films to choose from in the air, you might prefer a different airline (limited in comparison to carriers such as Emirates and Virgin). I flew in to Pearson International (the main Toronto airport), and from there it is remarkably easy to get to the city, via the UP Express which goes down to Union Station – the main train station in Toronto which has links to the subway. When I was there (May, 2016), Union station was undergoing significant renovations and it’s not entirely clear how to get to the subway station. It’s actually easier to leave the UP terminal heading out on to Front Street, turn right and enter the Subway from the street! And when you’re there, as I was, working out how the tickets work, don’t get confused when the token machine appears to have ripped you off – the tokens for the subway are simply tiny and easy to overlook in a handful of change that you’re not used to! The subway has two main lines and so it’s easy to navigate, as is the city at large!
Walking the City
I’m a firm believer that the best way to understand a city is to walk its streets – and walk I did! The weather forecast suggested that the best of the weather was early in the week, so instead of spreading out my exploration over a few days, I did it all in one – walking about 25km. My route took me to some of the most recommended places (as per my DK Top Ten guide!) from the CN Tower, down to the harbour which is beautiful on a hot day, across to the distillery district which has regular outdoor events, St Lawrence Market, through the red light district, up to the main shopping area and The Eaton Centre, through china town, and through the picturesque university campus up to Yorkville, a slightly more upmarket area with a range of bars and restaurants, that I happened to be calling home. Being on a grid system, it’s one of the easiest cities to navigate that I’ve been to, and is exceptionally safe to walk around – I highly recommend grabbing a map and heading on out.
City Pass and Toronto Attractions
For its value, I recommend considering the Toronto City Pass which grants you access to 5 of the main attractions in Toronto, and if you check online before travelling, you’ll find that they often have discounts on the standard pass price. Available attractions are: CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, Aquarium, Casa Loma, Toronto Zoo or Science Centre. I made use of all 5 tickets, choosing the zoo over the science centre, and would recommend some over others if you have less time that I did:
CN Tower: Absolutely recommended! The views across the city and Toronto islands are incredible. The views quickly drop off in to countryside or across the lake, helping to cement the vast feeling of the country as a whole (in comparison to sprawling cities such as London, Barcelona etc). Toronto Islands have their own airport, and there’s something pleasing about watching tiny planes land and take off there!
Royal Ontario Museum: Canada’s largest museum showcasing human civilisation and the natural world, this museum is on a par with the National History Museum in London with plenty to offer, and is certainly welcome as somewhere to take shelter from the elements (be them snow, cold, heat, rain!).
Toronto Zoo: A little way out of the city, but accessible via public transport, Toronto zoo is vast and separated in to areas to reflect the world’s regions. For me, the opportunity to see animals from North America was a big draw, and I spent a good 30 mins sheltering from the rain, absolutely captivated by the Grizzly Bears!
Aquarium: Although not particularly different to many other aquariums around the world, the tunnel under the shark/ray/turtle tank is long enough to enjoy various views and to ensure that you see everything there is to offer.
Casa Loma: I visited here as it is close to where I was staying in Yorkville, but isn’t particularly interesting (unless you like looking at endless period rooms in a castle!), apart from the tunnel between the two sites which currently has exhibitions on the darker sides of Toronto, and the views back down to the main part of the city.
Toronto Islands and Cycling Tour
Toronto Islands are a beautiful getaway from the city and are busy in the summer and at weekends with locals. It is possible to head over to a few different places on the islands from the ferry terminal east of the main harbour area. The islands are small enough to walk around in a day, or you can hire a bike. Hiring a bike was my original plan, but the week before I headed out to Toronto I discovered Toronto Bicycle Tours who offer morning and evening cycling tours of the islands. The photos on their website of twilight views toward the city were breath-taking, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pay more of a premium for this tour (as opposed to doing it myself), but I decided to take a chance. I wasn’t disappointed. The tour guides were friendly, all the equipment was excellent, I felt incredibly safe cycling down to the harbour through the city (I’d probably never cycle through London!), and the tour itself was fantastic – lots of information, time for photos, and the breath-taking views on the website were no lie! The company also offers city cycle tours – I didn’t go on one, but if they are anywhere near as good as the Islands tour, I’d recommend going!
Food and Drink
Like any large city, the choices of where to eat and drink and plenty. The area of Yorkville and Yonge Street north of Dundas Street have plenty to offer in terms of both restaurants, fast food, and bars. If during the day you are looking for a quick bite to eat, the food court in The Eaton Centre has outlets covering most areas of the world, and around the university, there are a plethora of stalls offering burgers, hotdogs, Chinese food, and more.
All in all, I highly recommend Toronto for a long city break, and Niagara Falls is absolutely worth a visit – watch this space for details on Niagara soon! Feel free to drop me a message if you’ve any questions on this fabulous city!