Is there a foreign city near enough to Washington to jet off to for a pleasant weekend? Yes, it’s Toronto, Canada, and the getaway could not be easier. It took three and a half hours to travel from my home in Upper Northwest DC to a hotel in downtown Toronto.
If there is one word that defines Toronto, it’s diversity. Author and Toronto resident Jane Jacobs, an expert on cities, has written that cities “flourish most prolifically” when people live and work together in buildings of differing ages, types, and sizes. Short blocks help, too, she believes. That describes Toronto very well.
Tolerance of all kinds has made Toronto a magnet for Inuits, Jews, Irish, English, Chinese, Indians, Ukrainians, and dozens of other ethnicities and nationalities. Most Torontonians consider themselves Canadians first, and English is their common language, but few have forgotten the culture or place they came from. Torontonians create their own blends, too. No one bats an eyelid if a Wong is married to a Houlihan or if a Chinese-Canadian suggests a nosh of dim sum.
DINING AND LODGING
The city is a foodie’s paradise: Good eats of all kinds can found. Hundreds of stalls laden with raw ingredients, cheeses, breads, and more can be found in the covered Lexington Market. The Kensington Market, a collection of storefront shops, is the place to find produce, meat, nuts, baked goods, and condiments, turning the four-block area into a pedestrian’s moveable feast. Around the corner is Chinatown, where shoppers can find the exotic fruits and vegetables used in Chinese cuisine.
There are so many well-attended ethnic restaurants, one gets the impression that Torontonians—who aren’t obese—eat out at least twice a day. They like their coffee, too. For a jolt of java, they head for Tim Hortons, the Canada-based chain of coffee shops almost as ubiquitous in Toronto as Starbucks is in Washington.
Restaurants with roof decks are good places to go. Most popular is Ultra Supper Club, which features an eclectic menu and several creative cocktails. The best restaurant in Toronto also happens to be the best restaurant in Canada. Winner of the Five Diamond Award for 11 years, Truffles, in the Four Seasons Hotel, offers signature dishes like spaghettini with truffle foam for starters and ends every meal with, yes, chocolate truffles. The rest of the menu pairs fresh local produce and fish with some of its 500 wines, with emphasis on Ontario vintages.
When the weather is good, Torontonians like to walk or bike along the expansive Lake Ontario waterfront—so huge it looks oceanic—stopping to watch dragon-boat races or visit the Toronto Music Garden, a beautifully landscaped park that has self-guided audio tours featuring Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach.
For subdued elegance in lodging, there’s the Four Seasons. For something hip, nothing beats the Drake Hotel. Located in the artsy “Queen West West” neighborhood, once a shooting gallery for drug addicts, the Drake and the art galleries and boutiques around it are now popular with tourists.
Its restaurants, bars, and music club attract crowds nightly, and its guest rooms, each with a “pleasure menu” of sex toys, are often fully booked. A wall-size window in the rooftop Sky Yard looks into the adjoining yoga den, which hosts performance art some nights. Video presentations and movies are often projected onto another wall of the bar.
GALLERY-HOPPING AND SHOPPING
There’s plenty of good art in Toronto’s galleries and museums. At the AGO, as the Art Gallery of Ontario is called, “Catherine the Great: Arts for the Empire—Masterpieces From the State Hermitage Museum, Russia” opens October 1. A new wing, designed by Frank Gehry, is on the books for 2008. The ROM, the Royal Ontario Museum, opens its large annex designed by Daniel Liebeskind in 2006. In the mean time, parts of the museum’s permanent collection of archeological finds and European decorative arts are open to the public. Opening in February at the Princess of Wales Theatre is the world premiere of the musical Lord of the Rings.
Few cities, including those much larger than Toronto (4.9 million), have so many boutiques selling clothing by local designers. The best—such as Jeanne Lottie for handbags, Elena’s for jewelry (“Everything in this store is Russian,” says Elena, “including me”)—are clustered in the Bloor-Yorkville neighborhood. Quality usually is high, and the prices, especially while the exchange rate favors the US dollar, are less than what one would pay for comparable merchandise here. In some cases foreigners are eligible for a partial refund of tax they’ve paid on accommodations and goods over $50 that they take home.
Toronto also has one of the finest department stores in the world. Holt Renfrew is a throwback to when merchandising was an art. In “rooms” varied clothing is elegantly displayed, including items by Canadian designers such as Lida Baday and Arthur Mendonça. Service is superb, and there is no Muzak!
For people who like to explore cities on foot, visit museums and galleries, shop, and just generally live well, Toronto is hard to beat. A friend describes it as “New York without the hassle”; another calls it “Chicago without the brass.”
A friendly, cosmopolitan city small enough for a visitor to conquer in a weekend, Toronto is a great place to kick back.
- Four Seasons Hotel, 21 Avenue Rd.; 416-964-0411; www.fourseasons.com/toronto.
- The Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St. W.; 416-531-5042; www.thedrakehotel.ca.
- Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park; 416-586-5549; www.rom.on.ca.
- Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W.; 416-979-6648; www.ago.net.
- Jeanne Lottie, 106 Yorkville Ave.; 416-975-5115; www.jeannelottie.com.
- Elena’s, 55 Avenue Rd.; 647-436-2061; www.elenas.ca.
- Holt Renfrew, 50 Bloor St. W.; 416-922-2333; www.holtrenfrew.com.
Beginning in February, the world premiere of the musical Lord of the Rings, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 800-461-3333, www.lotr.com.
Air Canada (aircanada.com) has several flights daily from Reagan National Airport.
For more information on Toronto, visit torontotourism.com or call 416-203-2600.