May 9, 2011 by Jools Stone
‘Oh I’m sorry to hear that.’ My Torontonian ski instructor gave me his condolences when I told him that the city was the next stop on my mini Canadian oddysey. ‘Oh you know, it’s one of those cities,’ he explained ‘Like New York or London. It’s all about ‘how much of my time are you going to use up today?’ While I could see what he meant as dozens of commuters bustled past me like I was invisible while the ticket office clerk patiently explained the subway token system to me, the only thing I was sorry for was the brevity of my time in the city. It certainly had that big, buzzy, anonymous city feel but also a curiously leisurely atmosphere, even in the downtown streets. There were yawning construction sites everywhere, but also numerous murals giving a definite sense of community.
Firstly, I’m a sucker for a city (like Manchester here in the UK) with trams or streetcars as they’re called here. I’m not sure why. Maybe it just suggests a city that is proud to be connected with its industrial past, while still happy to shuttle its people about in an orderly fashion. I think they may well be my second favourite form of transportation. Which is not to say that I wasn’t capable of having myself a little misadventure on one, but more of that to come… Having foregone scaling the CN Tower on the advice of a few trustworthy locals and rainchecked the Hockey Hall of Fame (was tempted, but the budget won out) my 36 hours in Toronto had 2 distinct highlights: St Lawrence Market & the Distillery District.
Having already sampled the delights of Montreal’s Jean Talon market I was surprised to find that St Lawrence trumped it handsomely. Toronto’s well known for having some of the world’s largest and most vibrant immigrant communities and this market is the perfect place to see that in microcosm. It’s a cavernous place split over 3 floors with all manner of take out stands from Italian focaccias so mighty you could use them as a juicy pillow, ultra sizzly Korean chow, herby Greek souvlaki with mounds of fresh salad and the place which eventually snared us after much deliberation: Buster’s Sea Cove. Buster’s does a great range of lightly crumbed, fresh fish and seafood, we plumped for the Boston Bluefish with (decent!) curly fries and slaw with no regrets.
The Distillery District is a masterclass in urban regeneration, just a ten minute walk from Downtown. Opened in 2003 on the site of the Gooderham and Worts Whiskey Distillery built in the 1860s, it frequently plays host to film location scouts and it’s not hard to see why. The striking red brick and green painted buildings have been converted into a collection of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, bars and galleries. While good use has been made of the original ‘street furniture’ these are complemented by a series of impressive pieces of public art, my personal favourite being the fearsome, iron meshed gargoyle which doubled up as a birdhouse for the local sparrow population.
A Streetcar named Disaster
I always like to test out the public transportation in a new city so when the heaven’s opened it gave the perfect excuse to take the streetcar to explore the vintage shops of multi cultural Kensington Market area on Spadina Avenue. Instead of grabbing a route map and planning our short journey, we opted to just jump on one that looked like it was heading in the right general direction. Big mistake. The car refused to yield to our psychic pleas to turn right up Spadina Avenue and just carried on straight along Queen St West… for miles past residential (but still interesting) suburbs until eventually we turned around the Humber Loop and ended up at Dundas St West subway station.
The horizontal rain persisting and the afternoon waning, we cut our losses with a stroll down a section of the world’s longest street. Yonge Street is one of the city’s designated shopping streets but it has clearly seen better days. Alongside the fashion chains, theatres, record shops and seemingly identical noodle bars there was a fair smattering of girlie bars and gaggles of shifty characters hanging out, giving the street a sleazy undertone on the whole, reminding me a little of London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
We stayed at the Fairmont Royal York. It’s a great location for rail travellers, being directly across the street from Union Station in the financial district of downtown Toronto. It’s a typical skyscraper hotel with a palatial lobby, a breezy sports bar and a cosier library bar, plus an entire level of boutiques including its own pipe smith. It has a few surprises up its crisply ironed sleeves. They have a roof garden with their own bee hives producing honey.
Those on a tighter budget might want to search HostelBookers for a hostel in Toronto.
Also when walking around downtown, do look out for the city hall, which looks like a grotesque, squashed replica of Big Ben and the large, floodlit outdoor skating rink.
We travelled by train with the excellent Via Rail business class. Via operates several direct express services daily from Montreal taking 5.5 hours. On our mid morning trip, we noticed that this was the only business class journey we took where the carriage was full, for the most part with actual business travellers chatting on their cell phones and working away on their laptops, so early booking may be best.
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Fancy staying a little longer than 36 hours in Toronto? Check out these Canada vacation condo rentals.