I forgot all about baseball.
Last May, when Tourism Cares announced Toronto as one of its “cares-for” cities, I elbowed out my NTA colleagues to claim a spot. It was scheduled for late October, see, and that’s World Series time. I’m a big fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and I was certain they’d be playing in the Series.
The fact that the Blue Jays finished well shy of the playoffs nearly dampened my enthusiasm for my visit (from, like, 100 percent to about 98). But after spending a few days exploring the city, I didn’t give the World Series a second thought.
I would venture to guess that a visit to Toronto is what every traveler needs. There is so much variety, in so many ways: attractions, activities, cultures, neighborhoods, sports, food, people, hangouts … and on and on. I had visited the city several years before, but it just feels different now.
“The city is constantly changing, which makes our job easier. We can always tell new stories,” Vanessa Somarriba told me during lunch at a downtown pizzeria (where even the pizza seemed new and different—scroll to the bottom for evidence). Somarriba is the media relations manager for Tourism Toronto, and she said that in a city of neighborhoods, even the streets change. “As you walk down Queen Street, for example, it can go from grainy to Saks.”
Bring on the brunch
And I know Queen Street.
I joined a local couple on a brunch tour led by Francisco Tejada of Culinary Adventures. Cisco said a foodie tour is the best way to dive into a city’s soul, as the diversity of cuisines indicates the multicultural makeup of a destination. And Toronto is multiculturally amazing.
Our deconstructed brunch took us along the trendy streets of Queen and King, and the menu included chocolate chip cookies (our starter), Brooklynesque pizza, a Mexican main course of eggs and chorizo, a bombolone (Italian filled doughnut), seaweed chips at a Japanese grocery and a fresh croissant from a French bakery.
The city’s multiculturalism extends well past brunch.
“Our diversity is a real asset,” Somarriba said. “When you come to Toronto you really see it, and you hear the different languages.”
More than 160 languages are spoken within the metropolitan area, and Tourism Toronto provides materials in 100 different languages. English is the most common mother tongue, spoken by 55 percent of Torontonians, followed by the Chinese languages, Italian, Punjabi, Tagalog (Filipino) and Spanish. Canada’s other official language, French, ranks 14th.
A diverse destination
Groups appreciate Toronto’s diversity of tour product, said Maxine Morrell-West, North America leisure trade manager for Tourism Toronto. “We truly have something every visitor can enjoy: theater, museums, galleries, festivals, tours, shopping and group dining.”
I did stop eating long enough to hop on a bus for a city tour, and an attraction I really enjoyed was Casa Loma, a 98-room castle built in 1911–14 by industrialist Sir Henry Mill Pellatt on a hill overlooking Toronto.
Pellatt was innovative and extravagant in the design of his lavish dwelling: It includes 30 bathrooms, a built-in vacuum system, secret passageways, a steam-heated greenhouse and several accessible towers. Toured with an audio guide, the historical home and gardens offer a fascinating look into the ostentatious world of the ultra-rich. Spoiler alert: Sir Henry luxuriated in Casa Loma for less than 10 years before he lost his fortune and his castle.
A short way from Casa Loma is Kensington Market, the neighborhood that both Somarriba and Morrell-West tabbed as their favorite.
“I’ll go there on a Saturday afternoon by myself and just walk around,” Somarriba said. “It’s sort of hippie and colorful, with fusion food and vintage shopping. It’s just a very different vibe from the downtown financial center.”
I hear “hippie” and expect a ’60s sit-in. But I came to understand Kensington Market as Bohemian, on an international tableau. Nearby is the Art Gallery of Toronto and a very authentic Chinatown.
The Chelsea Hotel was my headquarters, close to shopping neighborhoods as well as Eaton Centre, a 1,200-store mall that attracts nearly 50 million visitors a year.
“Our location is a huge asset. All the shopping you’d want is within walking distance,” said Tracy Ford, the hotel’s PR director, who described the Chelsea as a middle-of-the-road hotel with some nice offerings: free Wi-Fi and a family fun zone. “The tour market is extremely important to this hotel. As large as we are, groups can stay under one roof.”
I also toured The Distillery Historic District, a collection of restaurants, shops and galleries housed in 47 restored Victorian-era industrial buildings that once composed the Gooderham & Worts Distillery. On my guided tour I sampled cheese, chocolate and beer—yummy.
Another high point of my visit was dinner atop the CN Tower at 360 Restaurant. The food is fabulous—entrees include Atlantic salmon, Alberta prime rib, roasted Ontario chicken and Perth County pork belly—but experiencing the view is all-consuming.
Towers are great places for contemplation. The day had been rainy, but the clouds cleared as the sun set. And as darkness fell, lines of traffic lit up in angry red streaks below … while I quietly devoured my carrot and quinoa cake.
Morrell-West told me that operators often package Toronto with Niagara Falls as a day trip. In other cases, she said, Toronto is booked as a multi-city tour that can include Ottawa, Montréal and Newfoundland.
And Somarriba was eager to tout Toronto’s professional sports teams. “The fandemonium here is awesome, and you can get your sports fix all year ’round,” she said. The teams she cited are the basketball Raptors, hockey Maple Leafs, football Argonauts, soccer Toronto FC and baseball Blue Jays.
Oh yeah, the Blue Jays. I almost forgot.
Missed the boat
Due to my tight schedule, I was unable to experience something I had enjoyed during a visit to Toronto years earlier: a harbor cruise. Courtney Mayer of Mariposa Cruises was willing to hold the boat for me, and she can help tour operators hold a special event aboard one of the company’s six ships.
“Along with regularly scheduled 45-minute harbor tours, we have lunch, dinner and weekend cruises for groups,” she said. “Tour operators book directly with us.”
Operating from April to Dec. 31, Mariposa Cruises also offers private events for visiting school groups and can assist with event planning for as many as 575 guests.
I had pizza in Toronto I had never before entertained (and I entertain a lot of pizza): a marinara pie with no meat or cheese, pizza with double-smoked bacon and kale, and a sushi pizza. All were memorable.
Top photo by Bob Rouse