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Look north to Toronto for big-city fun with Canadian charm | Travel

The dramatic Skyline of Toronto is dominated by the famous CN Tower. Courtesy Destination Toronto


If you’re looking for the ideal getaway – one that is easy to get to, and has a fun mix of cultural attractions, big-city excitement, and culinary adventures – look north.

Toronto, North America’s fourth largest city, has plenty to see and do year-round, attracting some 27.5 million visitors of all ages annually. Our recent four-day trip to this multicultural city was jam-packed with great activities, terrific meals and lasting memories. Plus, we are happy to report, Toronto is a reasonably priced city, with the American dollar going far.

Eager to visit somewhere outside of the U.S. that would not require a transatlantic fight, we decided on Canada’s biggest city for our late spring getaway. After arriving at Toronto’s airport after an easy one-hour, 20-minute direct flight, we zipped downtown to our hotel, the Cambridge Suites, via the modern and inexpensive UP Express, which delivered us to Union Station in less than a half-hour. We checked in to our centrally located accommodations, and immediately set off by foot for the world-famous CN Tower. We had purchased a cost-saving, five-attraction CityPASS, and this was our most anticipated attraction.

Opened in 1976, the 1,815-foot-tall CN Tower held the record for the world’s tallest freestanding structure for more than 30 years, until 2007, when it was surpassed by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The CN Tower remains the tallest freestanding structure on land in the Western Hemisphere, and in 1995, was declared one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World.

The signature icon of Toronto’s skyline, it attracts more than two million visitors each year and houses several observation decks, a revolving restaurant, and an entertainment complex. While we made a reservation in advance of our mid-week visit, we were pleasantly surprised that the crowds were not too intense, and we savored the amazing view of the city from above. From the sweeping views offered at the CN Tower, you get a sense of how big Toronto truly is.

And while it does remind one of New York City, Toronto is actually much smaller (2.8 million people vs. NYC’s 8.5 million). British actor Peter Ustinov once quipped that Toronto is “a kind of New York operated by the Swiss.” Meaning, it’s cleaner, feels safer and is much more efficiently run (public transportation here is a breeze). Plus, the people are unfailingly helpful and pleasant. There is no downside to a getaway here!

There are many things worth doing and seeing in this fabulous city. Here are a few we can recommend:

  • Catch a show:Toronto has a thriving theater district with several beautiful, historic venues, including the 1907 Royal Alexandra Theatre, where we caught a fantastic, funny one-man show called “Boy Falls from the Sky” starring Jake Epstein, who played Spiderman on Broadway, as well as originating the role of Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The big onstage buzz this summer is for Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, which just opened at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Featuring an all-Canadian cast, it is being billed as the biggest theatre production in the city’s history. There are many other upcoming shows in Toronto worth checking out (Hamilton hits town in early 2023).
  • Eat to your heart’s delight:We had many great meals during our stay, with a few true standouts. Number 1 on our list ended up being Sap, billed as “Canadian Comfort Food.” We enjoyed it so much that we ate here twice, with their traditional chicken pot pie, and fish & chips earning rave reviews. They also have a luscious house made dessert; check out the Canadian butter tart. Sap also offers a popular weekend brunch. Another culinary highlight of our visit was an elegant lunch at Eataly’s Trattoria Milano at the popular Manulife Centre, a shopping and dining hub. The Casoncelli alla Bergamasca – handmade ravioli filled with braised veal and ameretti in a light butter sauce – was a winner, as was the incredibly attentive service by our waiter Mario. Eataly, which was established in 2002 by Italian Oscar Farinetti, has a unique concept: to gather high quality, reasonably priced food at an informal place to eat, shop, and learn. The first Eataly opened in Torino, Italy, in 2007; there are now more than 35 locations around the world. It is a unique and memorable experience to enjoy a meal here. If you’re looking for a special dinner, check out Sassafraz, a buzz-worthy restaurant specializing in French-inspired Canadian cuisine. For breakfast, we made it easy, enjoying a quick, tasty meal most mornings at the Sunset Grill. The go-to place for coffee and donuts, however, is Tim Hortons. This is the Dunkin’ of Canada (but actually better); there are more than 150 locations in downtown Toronto alone. There are, I should also mention, some “Tim’s” in the U.S., including one in South Jersey (Stratford).
  • Get Cultured:We enjoyed many of the city’s cultural attractions during our getaway. The Immersive Frida Kahlo was a true highlight – a dazzling look into the art and soul of this talented and tortured artist. There’s also an Immersive Klimt exhibit in the same building, exploring the colorful, unique work of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. We loved the Royal Ontario Museum, which features art, world culture and national history, and which is the most visited museum in all of Canada. Included as part of our CityPASS ticket, we were quite taken by the number of compelling exhibits. Don’t miss the four massive totem poles, one of which, at 80 feet, is the tallest known such pole from the 19th century. (Acquired in the 1920s, the poles could not be put on display until a museum expansion in 1933, when the building was constructed around them). After leaving the Royal Ontario Museum, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through nearby Queen’s Park, one of several lovely green spaces in the heart of the city. Hockey fans will want to check out the Hockey Hall of Fame, housed in an 1885 bank building that was lovingly restored in the early 1990s. It houses artifacts, statistics, and hockey’s Holy Grail – the Stanley Cup. The beautiful Casa Loma is another popular attraction. A Gothic Revival castle-styled mansion and garden in midtown Toronto, it was built between 1911-1914 as a (very rich industrialist’s) private home.

The Dog Fountain near the St. Lawrence Market – complete with a golden bone at the top – is a whimsical piece of art. Photo by Nicole Pensiero

  • Have fun with the kids: Fun for grownups and kids alike, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, located right by the CN Tower, is worth a visit. Opened in late 2013, this is an enjoyable, modern aquarium, where visitors can get a good look at more than 15,000 sea and freshwater creatures. There’s even a jazz night, the second Friday of each month, included with admission. Another great attraction for families is the Centreville Amusement Park, located on Toronto Island Park. One of the city’s small offshore islands, it is reachable by ferry and is also home to beaches, gardens, boating activities and hiking trails.
  • Shop ‘til you drop: There is some great shopping in Toronto, especially at two key locations, Hudson Bayand the blocks-long, four-story tall Eaton Centre. “The Bay,” as locals call it, is massive, and the premier luxury department store in the city, while The Eaton Centre, attracts the most visitors of any of Toronto’s tourist attractions and is North America’s busiest shopping mall, with more than 230 shops and restaurants. For a more “down home” experience, don’t miss the historic St. Lawrence Market. From flowers to produce to a delicious, inexpensive lunch, this massive market has something for everyone – and all at great prices, too. On the walk there, don’t miss the whimsical Berczy Park Dog Statute that pays homage to Man’s Best Friend. Keep an eye out for one kitty cat that’s part of the sculpture!

The Dog Fountain near the St. Lawrence Market – complete with a golden bone at the top – is a whimsical piece of art. Photo by Nicole Pensiero

  • Explore the Neighborhoods:Toronto, like most major cities, has some great neighborhoods worth exploring. If you’re interested in funky-chic shops and food markets, check out Kensington. There’s also Chinatown and Greektown (also known as the Danforth), along with the Distillery District, which has been transformed from a former collection of Victorian Industrial buildings to a hub of charming shops and restaurants.

Toronto is a less-than 90-minute drive to Niagara Falls, which is a great add-on to any visit here. (On a clear day, you can sometimes spot the falls from the CN Tower). The bottom line: there’s something for everyone in this exciting, tourist-friendly town. We’ll be back.

Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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