Toronto: An Essential Guide
Tips for getting around Toronto like a pro.
Toronto is city of neighbourhoods, and exploring the offerings of each on foot is one of the great pleasures of spending time in the city. In a few short blocks one can pass through Chinatown, the bohemian Kensington Market, the Queen West shopping district and the Entertainment District. With a little more heel-toeing (or a quick hop on the TTC), it’s simple to get to the ultra hip West Queen West, the tony Yorkville area, or the bucolic east end hood of Leslieville. Along the way are countless options for great food and drink.
Following a simple grid pattern, Toronto is easy to navigate if you know which way you’re headed (hint: the CN Tower is your beacon for due south) since there is no numbered street system to guide you. When all else fails, a cab is a quick hail away.
Whether in town for work or pleasure, this essential guide to Toronto will help you figure out how to get around, what to see, and where to go when you’re yearning for a bit of wilderness in the city.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Definitions vary somewhat, but downtown Toronto is roughly bounded by Bloor Street to the north, Bathurst Street to the west, Lake Ontario to the south and Church Street to the east. The glass-and-concrete jungle in the heart of this rectangle is Toronto’s financial district, where you’re in proximity to one or two tourist attractions (the Hockey Hall of Fame and St. Lawrence Market, for example).
Toronto’s true appeal lies elsewhere, however. If seeking a more tranquil but still stimulating environment, do as the locals and take a ferry across the harbour to “the islands,” or seek out the beaches or High Park at the east and west ends of the city, respectively. Or simply seek refuge in the neighbourhoods that ring the downtown core, with their parks and trees, quirky shopping and varied dining. If you’re surrounded by a lot of angular Victorian Gothic architecture (and greenery, in the warm months), congratulations, you’re likely discovering the “real” Toronto.
The Toronto Transit Commission (www.ttc.ca) runs an integrated network of public buses, streetcars and subways within Toronto.
Fare is $3 cash. Or to save a small amount of money, buy several tokens at once at a subway station or at certain convenience stores. Day passes are $11.50. Weekly pass $40.75.
If using cash or a token, take a paper transfer for each passenger when you board (ask the driver on a bus or streetcar, or push the button on one of the big red transfer machines at subway stations). Flash the driver your transfer when you change lines — from a bus to a streetcar, for example, or from streetcar to subway. You won’t have to pay another fare, as long as you’re making one continuous journey. You can’t hop on and off the TTC without a pass.
With three lines (which are essentially just two), Toronto’s subway system is perfunctory at best, especially when compared to the underground transit webs of other major cities. Still, when travelling between certain areas — such as from the financial district to Yorkville, for example — there really is no better way. Google Maps does a pretty decent job of choosing TTC routes for you. Follow its instructions, and if you’re unsure, ask a TTC staffer or a local — most Torontonians are quite friendly about giving directions.
Base fare: The initial charge is $4.25, plus $.25 for each .143km; waiting time is $.25 per 29 seconds.
Cabs in the city are plentiful and easily hailed in the downtown core. One downside is they’re quite expensive relative to taxis in most major U.S. cities. Getting a cab is very easy at any hour, especially on major streets. Most of the major taxi companies have their own apps, and if you use Uber, you can use it to hail a standard taxi at the city’s fixed rates, or you can hire a slightly more expensive black car.
When arriving in Toronto at Billy Bishop airport there is also a free shuttle, operated by Porter Airlines, that drops passengers off at Union Station. There are connections there to the subway, to Via Rail (Canada’s national passenger train service, equivalent to Amtrak) and to GO Transit, which serves destinations in Toronto’s suburban hinterlands.
Toronto’s pokey but charming old ferries chug out of the city’s main Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, located at the foot of Bay Street at Queens Quay, just west of the Westin Harbour Castle hotel. Adult fares are $7.25 (bring cash), and ticket lineups can be long around lunchtime on a nice weekend day but are fine otherwise.
Ferries run every 30, 45 or 60 minutes depending on day, season and which island you’re heading to. Check the schedule here.
Your three ferry choices are:
Hanlan’s Point, which takes you to a relatively quiet and bucolic area dotted with beaches, including the clothing-optional (and well-signposted) Hanlan’s Point.
Centre Island is where most people head, a bustling park where you can rent bicycles, picnic, feel your way through a hedge maze, or take young kids on the gentle rides at the Centreville Amusement Park (www.centreisland.ca). There’s also fast food, a café and a pub.
The Ward’s Island ferry is mainly of use to the people who inhabit the island’s quaint little Hobbit-like cottage homes, but the area also includes the lovely Rectory Café and the islands’ quietest beach.
• Radio: Tune in to CBC Radio 1 (FM 99.1) for current affairs; CBC Radio 2 (94.1) for a mix of mostly jazz, classical or indie depending on time of day; Virgin 99.9 for hits; Q107 (107.1) for rock; 88.1 for new and classic indie; or Classical 96.3 for all-day classical.
• On the hotel TV: CBC News Network is Canada’s principal cable news outlet, and is less hysterical (and thus noticeably drier in tone) than the U.S. equivalents. CP24 delivers local Toronto news around the clock.
• Listings for arts and culture, events, food and drink: nowtoronto.com
• LGBT-focused listings: dailyxtra.com
ENJOYING YOUR STAY
Flickr user Benson Kua
Doing the tourist thing
How can you visit Toronto without ascending the CN Tower? You can’t. And don’t say you’re afraid of heights: That’s actually kind of the point. This spire of concrete owes its enduring popularity to the spectacular views from the top. While seeing the cityscape is cool, it’s the view of Toronto’s islands and the vast Lake Ontario that are worth the price of admission. Which, to be fair, is quite expensive. At $32, a trip up the CN Tower is not a whimsical one. Make sure the weather is clear and if done on the spur of the moment, be prepared to wait.
To avoid lines — and only if you’re in a sightseeing kind of way — it’s best to get a City Pass. At $61.50, plus tax, the City Pass grants admission to five Toronto attractions: The CN Tour, The Ontario Science Centre, The Toronto Zoo, The Royal Ontario Museum, and Casa Loma. The pass saves $45 off full-price admissions and – most importantly – allows you to skip most ticket lines.
When looking to avoid the inevitable long lines at Toronto’s latest attraction, Ripley’s Aquarium, it’s best to purchase timed tickets online first. Not only can you plan your entry to the hour, you can also glide past the throngs of ticket buyers and slip right in.
As the capital of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, Toronto is the home of a number of marquee arts and cultural institutions. The aluminum-clad jewel in the crown, courtesy star architect Daniel Liebskind, is arguably the Royal Ontario Museum (“the ROM” to the locals, rhymes with “mom”). It boasts a comprehensive collection of natural history and cultural exhibits, and not just Canadiana. For the dinosaurs, head to the second floor.
While in the ROM’s neighbourhood, two other museums are also worth visiting: the surprisingly engrossing Bata Shoe Museum, and the Gardiner Museum, which focuses on ceramics.
Walking distance from Chinatown, the University of Toronto or “Hospital Row” on University Avenue, the Art Gallery of Ontario houses an impressive collection of Canadian and international art. Once again the building was the subject of a late-2000s reno from Toronto-raised architect Frank Gehry.
Kensington and Chinatown: The heart of multi-ethnic, bargain-conscious Toronto, a colourful warren of streets frequented by everyone from students and anarchists to food lovers and fashionistas. Quirky souvenirs abound here.
Hockey Hall of Fame: Mostly only of interest to ice hockey fans, though some of the interactive displays are a hoot.
The Distillery Historic District: Cobblestoned relic of the days when Toronto was a major distilling town, now home to many shops and restaurants (often pricey on both counts), a brewery called Mill Street that does a tiny bit of distilling, and the excellent Soulpepper Theatre Company. Find higher-end souvenirs here.
West Queen West: Stretching from roughly Dufferin Street in the west to Bathurst in the east, a two-kilometre (1¼-mile) stretch of Queen Street West offering countless interesting shops, restaurants and galleries. Vogue magazine called this the second-hippest neighbourhood in the world in 2014, for what that’s worth. Some locals call this area “Trinity-Bellwoods” after the park in the middle, where you can rest up with an americano from White Squirrel Coffee Shop and a magazine from Type Books, both across the street. Ambitious flâneurs can continue west on Queen past Dufferin for a scruffier but arguably even hipper environment in the Parkdale neighbourhood, or east past Bathurst for an experience that gradually becomes more mainstream as you approach City Hall and the Eaton Centre.
TIFF Bell Lightbox: Forget Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival is actually the world’s largest and arguably most important movie fest; it can be hard not to trip over a red carpet if you visit Toronto in early September. During the more placid, less star-studded times of year, the festival’s Lightbox functions as the smartest cinema in the downtown core, and the on-site restaurants and bars make a fine place to reflect on the gritty Swedish drama you’ve just taken in.
Where to go if there’s something you need, and quickly
The Eaton Centre is a huge downtown mall stretching from Queen Street in the south to Dundas in the north, and served by both the Dundas and Queen subway stations. Tenants include most of the major international clothing brands, some uniquely Canadian ones, and a very busy Apple Store. The mall houses a florist and a major pharmacy (Shoppers Drug Mart). There’s a large Canadian Tire at the north end; that’s a large store that sells many things beyond tires, and also a Best Buy in case you need something electronic. Across the street at the Atrium on Bay is where you’ll find an LCBO liquor store (see below), and a location of Japan’s Muji, which offers cheap and basic — yet stylish — clothing, travel/grooming necessities (including luggage) and housewares.
Beer, wine and liquor
Generally speaking, alcoholic products for home consumption are purchased at government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (known almost exclusively as the LCBO) stores. Wine Rack, Wine Shop and Beer Store outlets are few and far between, and pretty much serve what it says on the sign. Grocery and convenience stores can’t sell beer in Ontario (yet), let alone spirits. However, breweries, brewpubs, microdistilleries and wineries can sell their own products, and Ontario wineries can sell wine from stalls at farmer’s markets.
Ontario’s drinking age is 19. Alcohol serving hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.