Travel: Chill out in cool TorontoBy Sarah Hamilton
April 17, 2012
It's Saturday afternoon, a few days since I’ve returned from the Canadian city of Toronto, and it seems appropriate I’m scoffing a water biscuit loaded with Kozlik’s maple mustard, a famous brand that I just can’t stop putting on everything.
Food was certainly a highlight of my visit to the country’s largest city, thanks to the diverse culture of its population –130 languages spoken.
I could indeed rabbit on about the city’s history, demographics and population like most other reviews but frankly, you can get that from a guidebook (can’t do better than Lonely Planet’s Canada one for £16.99 by the way) – so I’m going to tell you where to eat, shop and visit if you only have four to five nights.
Toronto is really easy to navigate with all the good stuff within walking distance – or just hop on the ‘red rocket’ tram for a couple of dollars. Our bolthole was the Le Germain Maple Leaf Square – right next to the Air Canada Centre which stages concerts and sporting tournaments – and a few steps from the iconic CN Tower and harbourfront.
Opened in August 2010, the 167-room Le Germain offers luxury in a practical, comfortable, business-like way. Rooms are spacious with calming decor and staff were excellent.
Back at food again, a visit to St Lawrence Market (95 Front St E) is a must. The covered market is huge, immaculate and breathtaking in the quality of food on offer – more than 50 speciality food stalls.
I stocked up on Kozlik’s mustard and Canada’s traditional ice wine, an after-dinner tipple but refreshing than sickly sweet. Their local tarts are also luscious – like pecan pies but also made with walnuts or just a dreamy caramel gloop.
Not too far away in this historic area called Old York, is the Distillery District (55 Mill St). Victorian industrial warehouses have been converted into coffee shops, boutiques and galleries. I stopped for a takeaway maple coffee from Balzac’s coffee shop, a stunning building. You can also view the five-hectare Distillery site on a Segway tour.
Toronto was more industrial and concrete-y than I’d imagined, but one high rise which no-one can begrudge is the 147-storey CN Tower with its glass elevator and observation deck (entrance fee is from $23.99, about £15). We were lucky enough to have a delicious lunch in its award-winning revolving restaurant 360˚. Three course menu is $52 (about £33).
Due to restart in May is the EdgeWalk ($175, about £110) where you are tethered to the outside and can do a ‘look no hands’ as you teeter along a walkway rimming the tower. See www.edgewalkcntower.ca.
Fashion and cool shops abound in the city. Got cash to splash? Take a stretch Hummer to the Bloor-Yorkville area where you will find designer shops, galleries and fashionable restaurants. High street shops are in the Eaton Centre and The Bay shopping malls.
If you’re more into beatnik cool then Kensington Market is worth a visit – like our Portobello Road. The neverending road of Queen West and West Queen West has store upon store of vintage fashion (not all cheap), independent boutiques and kooky coffee shops.
We happened to visit during the city’s nascent Fashion Week. It’s got big ambitions and hopes to be as well known on the national stage as its film festival in September.
Combining art and fashion are two stunning boutique hotels called The Gladstone and The Drake which are in the hippy West Queen West and Ossington area, Toronto’s official art and design district.
Tour guide Betty Ann, who reminded me of a dark-haired Debbie Harry, took us round both venues.
The Drake also has a basement bar area where bands perform, among the most recent Emelie Sande, and art classes are also run.
All this shopping and touring was hungry work and there were several food highlights of my trip.
First, the sensational Mengrai Thai on unassuming Ontario Street. Mengrai dishes are a cut above and if money was no object I’d have a takeaway flown in right now.
The effervescent owner Allan Lim gave us a chance to cook our own lemongrass chicken soup starter in his kitchen before we dined on things like beef chilli, aubergine curry, a wonderful mango salad and steaming noodles.
Next to our hotel on York Street was e11even restaurant, named after the 11 corners on a maple leaf.
We chose our drinks off an iPad-provided list and dined on huge portions of baby back ribs, truffle parmesan fries, maple burgers and organic salmon.
In need of a comforting snack? Then find some poutine – Canada’s version of cheesy chips with gravy – chicken gravy to be precise. We dived in to our first taste at Bannock casual dining eatery in Bay Street.
Best for breakfast was Brassaii in King Street West with its to-die-for pastries and eggs Benedict in a loft-house apartment type venue, while best pudding was at the unusual Fifth Grill and Terrace on Richmond St West accessed by an eccentrically decorated service lift where I can recommend chocolate mocha almond marjolaine (a foodgasmic combination of almond meringue, chocolate buttercream and vanilla sauce).
Toronto is a cool place to visit – just eight hours from the UK; we flew Air Canada which was perfectly pleasant – but I think I would combine it with a visit to other nearby cities likes Boston, Chicago or New York as they are so close.
Top 5 places to visit around Toronto
1. CN Tower, www.cntower.ca.
2. Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park. www.rom.on.ca. Includes natural history exhibits and world culture displays. Current special exhibition is the Mayans. The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art is also over the road, www.gardinermuseum.on.ca.
3. Take an hour’s Harbour tour. It sails you close to the 15 islands complex – the 240 hectares home to many artistic Torontonians and a fun place to picnic in the summer - while talking you through the area's history and fun facts.
5. Bata Shoe Museum. A quirky theme for a museum – shoes from around the world over the centuries including celebrity footwear. www.batashoemuseum.ca.
For all your Toronto visitor needs visit the Tourism Toronto website www.seetorontonow.com.
Lonely Planet's guide to Canada costs £16.99 and is available for all good bookshops.