To the casual weekend visitor, the center of Canada’s allure lies in abundant window-shopping and modern comforts along its pedestrian-friendly streets. But Toronto is much more than a clean family destination across the border. As one of the fastest-growing cities in North America, with an exploding immigrant population, it has a renewed feel: a city on a pristine lake with a food scene and nightlife to compete.
Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities, a result of the country’s once notably lax immigration policies, and residents are the benefactors of an impressively diverse sampling of cuisine. To start, head to Spadina Avenue, the largest of the multiple Chinatowns located in the downtown area. There you can pick up a bubble tea to go before perusing the lines of shops selling authentic wares. Don’t visit without sampling the Cantonese seafood at no-frills Swatow or the dim sum dishes at Rosewood Chinese Cuisine. There is also a proliferation of new Japanese and Thai establishments and relocated chefs preparing their native foods from Greece, Italy, France, Mexico, Africa… not to mention an incredibly strong Spanish scene with highly ranked Bar Isabel and the newly opened Bar Raval.
One of the city’s most infamous institutions is a seafood restaurant opened in 1977 by Croatian immigrants Joso and Angiolina Spralja. Don’t walk into Joso’s expecting your typical whitewashed interior as the eatery is almost as legendary for its risqué decorations — the walls peppered with Picasso and Dali dirties — as it is for its whole-fish specials. Brendan Fallis, a local who now travels the world as a DJ and entrepreneur, calls the dining experience “a must,” and fellow Toronto-born artist Drake took the cover photo for Take Care at a corner table in the second-floor dining room.
“I like to recommend guests to take advantage of the nature within and outside the city,” says Sheldon Kennedy, a sportsmen and AirBnB host in the city. Plenty of cross-country adventures await just a quick train ride away and with a number of mountaineer companies like MEC offering weekend rentals of both ski and snowshoe gear.
With outfitter or alone, Rogue Park is a must-see experience in any season. Just outside of the city limits, the expansive wild is poised to become Canada’s first national urban park. Eighteen times larger than Central Park, stretching from Oak Ridge Moraine to the shores of Lake Ontario, it encompasses the country’s largest wetland along with a number of other eco-diverse areas. Cruise along the cedar trail, through the snow-laden evergreen boroughs and enjoy the scenic wildlife.
But you don’t even have to leave the city to visit one of the many local outdoor destinations, with the remote woods just one quick ferry ride from the seaport. The Toronto Islands were once connected to the city as a peninsula, until a storm in 1858 widened the channel. While the ferries run daily, the best way to get out there in the warmer months is to rent a sea kayak from Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Center (from May to October). Centre is the group’s biggest island and should be your first stop. During the winter there are a number of trails ideal for cross-country skiing, where you can glide along the flat terrain while keeping an eye out for eagles, mink, and other wildlife. There are plenty of attractions amongst the islands to fill up a day, including the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, Far Enough Farm, and if you start feeling peckish again, make your way for a fireplace-side meal at The Rectory Café, a waterside eatery on Ward’s Island.
The city’s abundance of well-cultured residents has led to a plethora of amazing AirBnB rooms available, frequently from experienced hosts happy to lend themselves as your own personal tour guide. But for a completely unique lodging experience, look no further than The Drake Hotel (no relation to the Canadian rapper) in the heart of the city’s gallery district on Queen Street West. Originally called “Small’s Hotel” when it opened in 1890, the building was completely renovated in 2001 by Jeff Stober, who has become infamous for his passion for décor and art, employing two curators on staff. He effectively turned it from a flophouse into a beautiful boutique oasis with 19 uniquely designed rooms and one of the best bars in the city on the premises.
The Thompson Hotel is a more typical and attended-to stay that’s closer to downtown, offers beautifully designed quarters by Studio Gaia, and the equally elegant Lobby Bar downstairs. Membership does have benefits there, as only guests can take advantage of their rooftop’s 40-foot infinity pool and swanky accompanying lounge.
For an experience outside of the norm, a visit should be paid to the newly opened Candyland, an unmarked venue situated amongst the number of much more practical establishments that string along King West. Imbibe on cocktails while a variety of entertainers ply their trades ranging everywhere from aerial ribbon dancing to body contortion. Though a blues band plays occasionally between acts, the music is never deafening, allowing you and your table to have a conversation.
If you fancy a more serene close to the night, opt for a nightcap on the 51st floor of the Manulife Centre at The One Eighty, a popular destination throughout the year that boasts a dazzling view of the skyline and Lake Ontario. On a clear night you can catch a glimpse of the stars while keeping warm under a canopy and sipping an Ol’ Smoky, made with Glenlivet, maple syrup, and smoked pear bitters.
There’s no better way to get the feel for a city than visiting its native markets, and there are few more beautiful than Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. On any given afternoon the whole area is abuzz with energy, with locals mixing in with lucky passers-by as they converse with venders about seasonal recommendations. You can always find an impressive selection of freshly baked breads, artisanal meats, and fine cheeses to bring back to your room for evening snacking. The array of produce available mimics the incredible diversity of the population, so the best selection is always one you’re trying for the first time, and in this way, the market is just like Toronto, something for everyone.