Once upon a time, green with envy, Toronto spied Montreal and Quebec City, cradles of North American civilization when Toronto was still a backwater named “Muddy York.”
For a while they called Toronto “Hogtown”. Put that on your tourism brochure. Then it was “Toronto the Good.” Sign me up for a month there one weekend.
But those days are long gone. Nowadays it’s “Toronto the Great” a prime venue for two great days.
7 pm FRIDAY
THE WORLD AT YOUR TABLE
Here’s a cool conundrum. You have an hour for dinner and you could do whatever cuisine you wanted – a round-the-world dietary diversion without ever leaving Toronto. There’s the conundrum.
Indian? There’s a whole Indian “village” east of downtown. Butter chicken and naan. Maybe Moussaka? Head to nearby Greektown.
Or were you thinking pasta and pizza? Buon giorno Little Italy – Café Diplomatico for starters, particularly when there’s a soccer (sorry, football) match on, but you’ll find a ton of options scattered along College Street.
And I haven’t mentioned Chinatown or any of my favourites – like Golden Thai on Church Street.
My son just came home from school two days ago and told me that students there have more than forty-five different mother tongues.
That translates to an equal number of options when it comes to ethnic or cultural cuisine.
Maybe you should plan on a few more days – and dinners.
Queen Street West was once the haven for the lunatic fringe. Now it’s gentrified. But one holdover from its artsy past remains, and it’s a must-do for jazz lovers.
Sure the Rex doesn’t look like much. The red-brick three-story hotel is decorated with patterns of blue and black mosaic tiles that cry out “sixties”. Chairs are rudimentary, the floor is pebbled concrete and the tables themselves are rough and scarred.
But no one comes for the tables. Pretty well every jazz artist who ever plays T.O. (or TRON – o) ends up bopping on the curved stage beside a door that stays open all summer.
Sax riffs are accompanied by the clackety-clack of a streetcar, the occasional wail of a siren.
Nobody seems to mind.
10 am SATURDAY
A PLACE FOR OLD STUFF
The original building of the Royal Ontario Museum is just as staid as the city used to be. All limestone block and classical symmetry.
The modern add-on – the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal gallery – is stark and geometric and cantilevered. But it still works.
Maybe it’s the exhibits. Think dinosaurs, one with a twenty-foot-long neck and a thirty-foot tail. Next case over displays the skulls of a T. Rex and a triceratops. Look up and see the whole skeleton of the T. Rex.
Worth the trip to T.O. in its own right. Who cares about the architecture? You could be an extra in “Jurassic Park” for twenty-two dollars.
Depending on your travel companion, after the museum you’re ideally placed for exploring Toronto’s answer to Fifth Avenue. We call our shopping shrine Mink Mile – testament to both winter and wealth.
Bloor Street offers all the big guys. Gucci is here, Cartier, Holt Renfrew, Banana Republic.
Turn the corner on Bay and cut across to Cumberland. This area boasts galleries and boutique shopping.
And if you don’t want to shop you can do lunch in the yellow brick environs of Sassafraz. Go for a sea salt margarita while you try to recognize your fellow sippers. Place has the rep as hangout for the stars.
And it sure beats shopping.
Think a giant shoebox – size one thousand. Hire one of the country’s foremost architects to design it. Voila: shoe museum.
Brainchild of Sonya Bata, widow of the shoe company’s founder, the Bata Shoe Museum offers up a surprisingly intriguing history of footwear.
After the shopping you’d be forgiven for giving it a miss (the ROM has a history of armor exhibit and real live mummies if you and you significant other divide and conquer) but it’s actually a fun place.
Check out the shoes Mike Myers wore during “Austin Powers”, John Lennon’s boots or a pair of high heels that once adorned the feet of Marilyn Monroe.
A TABLE WITH A VIEW
Think Italian delicacies with a bird’s-eye view of Toronto harbour, glittering waters as the sun goes down, great views of the islands, an unlikely swathe of greenery.
Turn your eyes upon the city proper – gaze at the tower (erstwhile tallest free-standing structure in the world until Burj Dubai one-upped us).
Ambiance inside Toula Restaurant and Bar, perched like a peregrine falcon 38 floors above the street (and atop the Harbour Castle Westin, a great spot for overnighting if you’re doing the harbour and islands thing), is spectacular too: lush Italian fabrics, gold leaf ceiling.
But you’ve come to this spot for a table with a view not the interior decorations.
And a wine list that could hold its own in Tuscany.
OFF OFF BROADWAY
King Street West is the heart of the entertainment district. The limestone façade of the Royal Alex, with its intricately carved frieze and a thousand twinkling marquee lights bouncing off the pavement, marks the location of Toronto’s theatrical flagship.
Toronto claims to be the third most important theatre centre in the English-speaking world. It started at the Royal Alex in 1906 and spread to the Princess of Wales and Pantages (now Ed Mirvish) Theatres.
Now playing: “The Book of Mormon.” Coming soon: “Jersey Boys”.
10 a.m. SUNDAY
THE WINDS OF WAR
You’re gazing at the Toronto skyline: glass towers, steel, sky-reaching, cranes like a flock of storks with clouds for backdrops.
You’re listening to the sounds: engine noises, the occasional siren, a dull thrum as traffic scurries past on the Gardiner Expressway overhead, the rattle of muskets.
One of downtown Toronto’s biggest anomalies – and one of my favourite attractions – hunkers down here, earthworks and palisades, a cannon in the parade ground, a white-washed blockhouse where red-coated guards stand sentinel.
Mayhap one day Fort York, a bastion (sorry) of history, will become the basement of a condo.
Until then it’s a fascinating lesson in hands-on history.
TORONTO’S ISLAND PARADISE
Once upon at time these weren’t even islands. Just a big peninsula that a hurricane punched a hole through in the nineteenth century. Once upon a time only the rich got to play here – the whole shoreline facing the Toronto harbor was an enclave of mansions.
Today the islands host an array of attractions: stroll the east and admire rustic cottages, discover a secluded beach at Ward’s Island. Rent a bike and explore the whole place. Take the kids to the amusement park at Centre Island.
Or go for the adult lifestyle – a little beach hides just past the haunted Gibraltar Point lighthouse and a stand of oaks a hundred years old. Clothing optional.
So much for Toronto the Good.
For all things Toronto, from attractions to special events, also check out www.seeTorontonow.com