As Canada's largest city, Toronto is a famous destination for tourists from Canada and across the globe. Its rich history (from its origins as the British settlement of York, which certainly feeds into the comparison as Canada's version of New York City), its burgeoning arts, culture and food scene, its iconic landmarks (we're looking at you, CN Tower and Royal Ontario Museum!) and its many vibrant immigrant communities mean there's no shortage of amazing things to see and do on a trip to Toronto. The hardest part of planning a two-day trip? Deciding which of the many restaurants, hotels and attractions to see!
Start off your trip with a visit to another era. The 1910s, to be exact. That's when Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, a Canadian solider-turned-financier was having a 98-room castle called Casa Loma built as his private residence. Unfortunately, his fortune was short-lived, as by 1920, the Canadian electricity market (where he made most of his money) was turned public, and he quickly found himself deep in debt; not a huge surprise, given that he spent $3.5 million of his fortune of $17 million just to build it. Pellatt wound up selling the house and most of its furnishings for an average of 17% of the original costs. Ouch. The city of Toronto wound up with possession of Casa Loma and turned it into a museum. Tour it today to check out its many lavish features, like the 10,000-book library, the marble-floored conservatory, the mahogany stables, the three indoor bowling alleys, the rifle range, the two multi-floored secret passageways (a staple of every eccentric rich guy's mansion), and the swimming pool, now ironically filled with gravestones.
Oh, and did we mention that the interior was used for many scenes in recent X-Men movies? Yep, this is the real-life Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters!
When it comes to food, Toronto can do fancy and exotic, but it can also do down-home and rustic, too. The Stockyards Smokehouse is a famed local joint that serves up BBQ like ribs and brisket, alongside burgers and fried chicken (including a chicken and waffles dish that will rival anything from the American South.) Get here for lunch because they frequently sell of out the BBQ and the chicken and waffles before dinner rolls around (and you need that chili maple molasses citrus glazed Belgian waffle topped with crispy, juicy buttermilk fried chicken). Or you could go with the green chile pimento cheeseburger... basically, it's all incredible.
Before heading to the famous Royal Ontario Museum, take a detour into one of the quirkier museums in town: the Bata Shoe Museum. Yep, a museum dedicated to shoes. Their collection boasts 13,000 artifacts, so you could easily spend more than an hour checking out the displays. You'll learn about footwear from across history and the globe, ranging from Chinese bound foot shoes to chestnut-crushing clogs. And, of course, you'll get to see plenty of designer footwear from famous names as well. All in all, it's a stop that will likely surprise you!
The Royal Ontario Museum is one of the single largest museums in all of North America, so while it's a must-visit, it might turn into an overwhelming one. They have galleries dedicated to basically every topic, from dinosaurs and Chinese architecture to biodiversity and First Peoples art and culture... and basically everything in between. And that isn't even getting into any of the many rotating exhibits that you might find on display as well. Whether you're into fine art, world culture, natural history, fossils, meteorites, historic costumes, or even if you're looking for a solid children's museum, you'll find it at the Royal Ontario Museum. If you're short on time, pick a few galleries that interest you the most and stick to those!
There are so many amazing restaurants in Toronto (it's a dream of mine to eat my way across the city. Sigh... Someday...) but you're missing out on one of the greatest parts of Toronto if you don't delve into the neighborhoods of immigrant communities such as Little India, Little Jamaica, Little Italy, Little Portugal, and, of course, Chinatown. A highlight of the latter is Mother's Dumplings. They make all of your favourite authentic Chinese dishes (noodles, congee, soups and stews, buns, etc.) but of course, their specialty is the dumplings. Whether pan-fried or steamed or served in soup, they're stuffed with mouthwatering homemade fillings and cooked to perfection. Mmm.
There are plenty of neighbourhoods for a great night out in Toronto... the city is huge, after all. There's King West, a former warehouse district-turned-trendy collection of restaurants and bars, there's Little Italy, which is perfect if you're looking for a cozy evening of drinking, there's artsy punk Queen West... and that's just the start. Dundas Street West is another hip spot with lots of quirky drinkeries. We love The Lockhart (yes, as in Gilderoy), a subtly Harry Potter-themed bar. There's also vintage game machines at Get Well and an outstanding jukebox (and funky vibe) at Communists Daughter.
The Ivy at Verity is a swanky boutique hotel right in the middle of the city (within walking distance of the adorable Distillery District, St. Lawrence Market, and more!) making it an ideal location to rest your head and catch some Z's. There are four rooms in the hotel, each with private balconies, deep soaking tubs, a selection of pillows, and more. The continental breakfast is a great touch, too. And did we mention that the building was once a chocolate factory in the 18th century?
A stroll around St. Lawrence Market is the perfect way to start the next morning. There are three buildings to explore. The South Market houses 120 specialty vendors who sell meat, baked goods, fruits and veggies, and a variety of unique, non-food options as well, along with a gallery space for local artists. The North Market turns into a farmers' market on Saturdays (a tradition dating back to 1803) and an antique fair on Sundays. The actual St. Lawrence Hall (built in 1850) now serves as retail and office space for the city. Some must-visit vendors include Kozlik’s Mustard Emporium, St. Urbain Bagels, and the storied Carousel Bakery.
Pay homage to Canada's unofficially official national pastime at the Hockey Hall of Fame. This is where you'll find the world's largest collection of hockey memorabilia, and it's also where the Stanley Cup lives. Read the names of the inducted HoF members, re-live classic moments in hockey history, experience their interactive exhibits (like the game that pits you against some of the greatest goalies and shooters of our day), and bask in the glory of the sport. Definitely don't leave without posing for a picture with the Stanley Cup; it's the most essential Canadian photo op in history.
The CN Tower is one of the most iconic buildings on Toronto's skyline. The communications tower was completed in 1976, and held the record for the world's tallest free-standing structure for 32 years, from 1975–2007, and was the world's tallest tower until 2009 being overtaken by Burj Khalifa. It remains the ninth tallest tower in the world (very respectable) and has the unique distinction of being the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. Ride the high-speed, glass-walled elevators up to the LookOut Level, at 346 metres up. Enjoy the panoramic views from the floor-to-ceiling glass window walls, and, if you're feeling brave, step out onto the glass floor to look 342 metres straight down. If you want to take your visit to the next level, grab a ticket to ride the SkyPod all the way up to 447 meters. There's also the utterly insane EdgeWalk, which harnesses you to a safety rail so you can lean back over the edge of the building for a major adrenaline rush. It's one of Toronto's most exhilarating (and freakiest) attractions!
If the thrills at the CN Tower didn't ruin your appetite, head to The Burger's Priest. Their menu is pretty simple (burgers, fries, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and shakes) but everything is done super fresh and cooked to absolute perfection. Plus, even though they keep it simple, they still get a little weird; the Vatican Dog is a hot dog between two grilled cheese sandwich "buns" and the Vatican on Ice is an ice cream sandwich made with (you guessed it) grilled cheeses on either side. They also have a "secret menu" which features options like "The Religious Hypocrite" (a veggie burger with bacon), the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (two veggie burgers with two regular burger patties stacked between two grilled cheese buns), and their version of In-n-Out's Animal Style (which they called Jarge Style).
End your Toronto adventure at Hanlan's Point Beach. It's most famous for the stretch that's legally designated as "clothing optional", so if you want to bare it all and experience the freedom of nude sunbathing, this is your spot. There are portions where clothing is not optional as well if you just want to dip your toes in the water. Whichever way you choose to enjoy the beach, it's a marvellous last stop for your trip through Toronto!
The best times to visit Toronto: Spring and fall are the best times to visit Toronto as far as price goes (things will be cheaper, but the temperatures won't be too hot or cold). Summer brings great weather (temperatures usually stick around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so not too hot) but higher prices, and it can get quite cold in the winter (especially in January.) The city doesn't get a ton of rain. There's enough major league sports teams in Toronto that you can catch some kind of game whenever you're in town, which is a plus!
Banner Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Wladyslaw