This week Aer Lingus launched their new direct flights to Toronto from Dublin so if you’re thinking of visiting this cool Canadian city here’s my guide to why you should visit Toronto this summer and what you should get up to while you’re there…
Arriving in downtown Toronto for the first time you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a concrete jungle. Everywhere you look is a towering block of condos and, if you don’t get asked if you’d like to snap up a condo during your stay, be insulted. I jest. Toronto is celebrated for its cool cosmopolitan spirit for a reason and away from Condoland you’ll find quirky neighbourhoods, amazing restaurants and enough sight-seeing to turn you into a diehard Toronto fan in no time.
Start scenic and check out the islands… Toronto is on the shore of Lake Ontario but most tourists come to the city without realising it has a smattering of islands just off the harbour. Take a cruise of the harbour and stop off at these islands to see a chilled out side of Toronto, away from skyscrapers and towering apartment blocks. We stopped off on one of the lush green islands and strolled around the relaxing gardens – bliss on a sunny day. You can even rent a bike and get exploring this green oasis or just unwind with a beer in the restaurant. The cracking views of Toronto’s skyline on the way back are an added bonus.
After the islands, stop off at Pure Spirits Oyster House & Grill in the gentrified Distillery District to experience one of the city’s top seafood restaurants. At Pure Spirits, oysters and mussels are presented like works of art and the dishes are infused with to-die-for flavours. A few doors down is a Chocolatier which not only smells like actual heaven but has delicious spicy hot chocolate you have to try.
Kensington Market and Chinatown… Toronto is celebrated as a global city and this colourful diversity is best spotted in Kensington Market and Chinatown. We took a tour of these two exciting areas with a local company called Tour Guys, who offer insider tips on an enthusiastic walking tour of the bustling streets. Style mavens will love Kensington market which has got the kind of vintage treasure troves bursting with one of a kind fashion finds as well as superb fresh fruit and veg markets.
For your mid-shopping caffeine fix, laidback coffee house Jimmy’s Coffee is hard to beat and you can sit outside and admire the portraits of famous Jimmys. And the coffee’s great too. Finally, make it your business to track down butter tarts, an Ontario delicacy anyone with a sweet tooth will adore. Chinatown in particular is awash with some incredible street art. Read more here.
Queen Street West… The crown for Toronto’s hippest area belongs to West Queen Street West, a cool mismatch of boutiques, cafes, galleries and one-of-a-kind gems. Get your art fix at The Drake Hotel, one of the city’s coolest hotels, which has revolving exhibitions in the public areas so even if you’re not cool enough to stay here you can still pop in and up your art game. The area also plays host to another artsy stay, The Gladstone, a boutique hotel with 37 rooms individually designed by different local artists. My favourite was the teen idol room (picture below) which has a collage of 80s dream boats like Matt Dillon on the walls. LOVE it. To get the inside scoop on West Queen West’s exhibitions, places to grab a bite and latest happenings, I recommend a walking tour with Betty Ann from ArtInsite which takes place every Saturday afternoon. Go to artinsite.net for more info.
Eat, eat, eat… Toronto really impressed me with its selection of dining spots (read more here) but my number one recommendation is Mengrai Thai restaurant. Led by top rated chef Sasi, this award-winner is a firm favourite with celebrities for a reason. The perfectly cooked Thai dishes pack a flavour punch, portions are huge and for once my veggie options (hello pad thai – drool) were as appealing as the meaty courses. It’s a firm favourite with Samuel L Jackson and the Rolling Stones dined there the week after we flew home. Next time, Keith, next time.
The Landmark… Dinner at 360, the CN Tower’s famous revolving restaurant, is a must do to tick off any Toronto bucket list. The panoramic views from Toronto’s ubiquitous landmark as the tower slowly moves is definitely an experience and the cuisine more than matches the views. Fancy a shot of adrenaline? Check out Edgewalk where you walk around the outside of the tower. Really. As far as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities go, that ranks pretty high in my book.
Daytripper…. You’re two hours from Niagara Falls so it’s a perfect (and unmissable) day trip from Toronto. A trip on the popular Maid of the Mist boat brings you right up close to the thundering Falls but be warned – the plastic cover they give you is completely useless when you’re being battered by the heavy mist so wear shorts, flip flops or take a change of clothes because you will get soaked. As for taking photos? Forget it. Still, being that close and personal to the thundering Falls is worth the panda eyes and Tina Turner hair. But if you want the best views and a major adrenaline ride, hop on a chopper and take a spin across the Falls. It was my first helicopter ride so I was borderline heart- in-mouth at the slightly ropey take off but the view is beyond thrilling. I’d even go so far as to say it was the highlight of my travel career. Yup. If you get the chance, DO IT.
For one last look at the Falls, Table Rock is at the top of the waterfall so you can sit back and watch the water roll to the cliff edge and start to cascade. Mesmerising. Table Rock Visitor Centre has a Tim Horton’s etc if you get peckish but I recommend a detour to Inniskillen winery where they make super sweet iced wine and you can have lunch al fresco after a tour of the vineyards. On your way back to the city, stop off at Niagara on the Lake, an idyllic North American town that’s so full of Cabot Cove-style charm you’ll want to live here.
$$$$… The only downside to Toronto is that it’s a pretty pricey city. Even though there are fantastic shops everywhere, along Yonge Street in particular, don’t expect to come back loaded with bargains. If you still want to stock up on North American favourites like Old Navy and American Eagle Outfitters, go to the Toronto Eaton Centre, an enormous shopping mall that makes Dundrum shopping centre look like a corner shop.
Drink… For after dark, The Drake is the hippest spot for the young ‘uns but it gets too jammed very quickly, so try Sweaty Betty’s, allegedly Drew Barrymore’s favourite bar when she’s in town for TIFF. The drinks are good, the jukebox spills out rock ‘n roll classics and, even though it’s not as down & dirty as your usual dive bars, you’re guaranteed a fun night. What more could you ask for?
Getting there: I flew with Canadian Affair from Dublin direct to Toronto. Prices start from €969 return for direct economy flights, four nights at the Chelsea Eaton in downtown Toronto plus a day trip to Niagara Falls. Day trip includes a ride on the Maid of The Mist (approx. €106) and a stop at Niagara on the Lake for lunch. To find out more, visit www.canadianaffair.ie
To find out more about the new Aer Lingus route to Toronto, go to www.aerlingus.com
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