I’m on the sidewalk on Queen Street, outside a subway station, across from The Bay. There are three hot dog stands doing a roaring business, and a Japanese busker playing what can only be described as an Asian didgeridoo at the same time as a bongo drum and a tambourine. There are people streaming by every time the crosswalk light flashes, and cyclists and cars criss-cross back and forth on the street. I don’t have to be anywhere, and I’m hungry, so I buy a veggie dog (I’m wary of street meat, even in Canada), and sit down on a corner to listen and watch. The evening light is perfect for street photos, so I decide to stay a while. A guy in a hoodie comes up and tells me he likes my hair and asks if I want to smoke a joint with him. I decline with a smile and he puts out his hand for a fist bump.
Toronto is a real city. It’s all skyscrapers and subway stations and people in power suits hurriedly walking down the street to their next meeting. It’s full of seagulls and pigeons and a smattering of homeless people and buskers throughout downtown. It’s truly multicultural. This morning I was one of only two white people on the bus. It’s also a hardened city. If Vancouver is the laid back coastal Canadian beauty, Toronto is the weathered, but more sophisticated older sibling. My friend Yasser says Toronto is where people “get shit done.” I believe it. It’s just so big and full of skyscrapers that it must be full of people getting shit done. But as the stereotype goes, Canadians are nice, and therefore friendly if you stop and ask for directions (which I did several times to try to figure out the subway stations.)
The streets are all laid out in a grid, and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost once you get to any intersection. Yonge Street runs north-south, up from Lake Ontario, and Bloor Street runs east-west, about 20 blocks north of the waterfront. There are different areas, like the entertainment district, the financial district, etc. that offer an array of different things to see and do.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) started today, which means celebrities and film buffs from around the world will be lining up on red carpets at theatres around town through next week. And, of course, there’s the usual areas and things to check out: St. Lawrence Market, Kensington Market, the Distillery District, Toronto Islands, the Ontario Art Gallery, Casa Loma (an old castle with secret passages and lovely gardens), the Bata Shoe Museum, Queen Street West, King Street West, Second City comedy club, many great restaurants, parks, and, if you’re a sports fan, the Hockey Hall of Fame, or maybe even a Blue Jays baseball game or Maple Leafs hockey game if you can get tickets while you’re in town.
Travel tip: The Royal Ontario Museum is supposed to be pretty great, and on Friday’s from 4:30 till closing (8:30 p.m.) admission is down from $16 to $10 for adults.
I only had today to see the city, but I caught a bus and then the subway (TTC) this morning directly to Union Station, which is the closest stop to the CN Tower (CN stands for Canadian National, by the way) and paid the $36 to get to the observation deck, a sweet 111 storeys up, in an elevator that goes 22 km/hour and takes just 58 seconds to get you to the top – which, however, isn’t really the top, beacause you can pay another $12 to go up another 33 storeys to the Sky Pod. But I decided I didn’t need a better view than what I already had, and saved my money for lunch. The CN tower was, for 34 years, the tallest building in the world, but that title has been usurped by a skyscraper in Dubai.
After getting a bird’s eye view of this massive, sprawling city, I went for a long walk up University Avenue to the legislative building (currently getting a facelift) and the University of Toronto (beautiful campus) and then met Yasser for lunch. We went to Kensington Market and had Niagara peach pie at Sky High Pie bakery (so yummy) and then strolled around the area for a while before he headed home and I went for another long walk down Yonge Street all the way to the waterfront. I was going to take the ferry to Toronto Islands, but I’d had enough walking for one day by that point, and it was already getting late, so I made my way back to the subway station to get back to the suburbs.
I didn’t have time to see nearly enough today, but I did get a very long walk in the sunshine and see a good chunk of downtown. The thing about being a tourist, even if it’s in your own country, is that it’s easy to talk to people you’ve never met before (I chatted the ear off a local woman sitting next to me on the bus home tonight and found out she’s from Barbados and has been living in Toronto for 24 years. She’s never been to Vancouver but would like to visit. I encouraged her heartily.)
I may have to come back to Toronto again sometime to see and do more. For now, though, just a taste was great. Tomorrow, Niagara Falls!
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