With a little more than 2.5 million residents, the pulsating city of Toronto is Canada’s largest metropolis. It’s also the country’s financial hub, an epicenter for culinary trends and a haven for culture and diversity – not to mention ground zero for a flurry of luxury hotel openings in just the last few years. As summer approaches, and as many travelers begin to fold Toronto into their travel plans, this is our must-do list.
Skip YYZ, Fly YTZ Toronto Pearson is one of the great international airports in North America. But many U.S. travelers from the East Coast have an even more convenient option: Billy Bishop. Also known as Toronto Island Airport, it’s serviced by a low-cost regional airlines like Porter, which flies into Toronto from Boston Logan, Chicago Midway, Dulles, Newark and, seasonally, Myrtle Beach. The airport “is literally downtown, making it extremely accessible and convenient,” says my Toronto-based colleague Michel Duchesne, who publishes Travelzoo Canada’s weekly Top 20 newsletter. “A cab ride to the financial or entertainment district is only about $12-$15, or you can catch a free shuttle to the Fairmont Royal York, just across from Union Station.”
Skip the Walking Tour, Fly High Toronto by foot is an awesome way to appreciate this beautiful city. But Cameron Air Service, operating out of Billy Bishop Airport, provides a totally different perspective. They’ll fly you in a Cessna 206 over city highlights like the CN Tower, Rogers Center and Humber Bay. Up to four people can buckle up, and you can do a 20-minute sky tour over downtown Toronto or an hour-long flight to Niagara Falls.
Skip the Zoo, Visit Little Ray’s The Toronto Zoo is one of the city’s top draws; more than 5,000 animals reside here. But Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo is a unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with more than 150 amphibians and reptiles. Snakes? Yes. Turtles. Check. And the alligators and lizards are a big draw. The Hamilton location is located about 45 miles southwest of downtown and treats guests to interactive hands-on presentations and feeding demonstrations.
Skip the Museum, Visit the Barns Museums are a significant element in Toronto’s culture scene, and they’re popular attractions for good reason. The Artscape Wytchwood Barns in Bracondale Hills, though, present art in a very organic way. The community center is housed in former streetcar maintenance facility – more than 60,000 square feet of space across more than four acres. There are four main components, or barns, here. Barn 1, for example, houses more than 40 artist studios, most of which double as artist housing. This is a chance to view the artwork of some wonderful up-and-coming talent; fine art paintings, handmade jewelry, photography and more are represented here. In Barn 4, nature and sustainability reign supreme, with a year-round greenhouse and a compost demonstration site. The barns also host art-inspired festivals and exhibits throughout the year, and the onsite volleyball court is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit the Farmers Market on Saturday morning.
Skip the Mall, Shop Cultural Districts When it’s time to shop, Natalie DiScala would rather “explore the cultural pockets” of Toronto – neighborhoods like Little Italy, Greektown and Little India. It’s “authentic food and shopping,” says the 25-year resident of Toronto, who’s the editor of the popular travel-inspired style website, Oh Travelissima. (She’s also married to intrepid world traveler and renowned travel blogger John DiScala, aka Johnny Jet.) “Opt for this instead of shopping at megamall Eaton Centre.” Little Italy, in fact, gets points for its eclectic offerings, including street festivals in summer and a dashing batch of nightlife and dining options; the street-side patio dining at Vero Trattoria on Bayview Avenue is a real treat and the rooftop patio at Vivoli on College Street is one of the city’s best.
Skip the Bakery, Learn Dessert Toronto is home to a bevy of talented bakers; Mrs. DiScala’s favorite is Bobbette & Belle, on Queen St. East, which draws crowds with its French macarons and specialty cakes. But a few hours is all you need to hone your own dessert skills. Chocolate Tales, with multiple outposts in and around the city, offers chocolate-making workshops, complete with a chocolate history lesson, all the necessary specialty equipment and ample tasting before you begin; classes on treats like Belgian bonbons, truffles and fondant are seasonally themed and include a ribbon-tied box filled with you own creations to take home. Family-owned Bakersville is located in the Streetville neighborhood, about 15 minutes west of downtown, and teaches the basics of cupcake decoration; you leave their two-hour class with a dozen of your very own, personally decorated cupcakes.
Skip Downtown, Hit the Distillery For an alternative to the downtown buzz, head east to the Distillery District, a historic precinct developed inside buildings that once housed the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Several dozen buildings, close to a dozen streets, and a bevy of cafes and artisan shops. “It’s a great spot to stroll on cobblestone pedestrian streets and shop,” Lara Barlow tells me. The 28-year resident of Toronto, who’s head of business development for Travelzoo Canada, has her favorite stops. “I personally like to pop in to Soma Chocolatier for handmade chocolate, and Balzacs for coffee -- sit in the loft balcony if you can,” she says. “There is also great shopping there for unique gifts, furniture and jewelry.”
Skip the Arcade, Visit Flightmaster This is high-flying fun for the whole family. Toronto’s Flightmaster Inc. offers a totally realistic flight simulation experience: you’re inside an authentic airplane cockpit, complete with fully functioning interior control panels. You can fly a fighter jet, like an F-18, or a C-17 cargo aircraft, or even a Dreamliner. And you can navigate your aircraft in different weather conditions, and over any major airport in the world. This is a neat treat for any budding aviator in your family.
Skip the Hotel Gym, Go Paddling Your next Toronto visit may be the best time to jump on the standup paddleboarding craze. SUPsurf operates out of Kew/Balmy Beach and features hour-long lessons with experienced instructors; after class, rent a board to hone your newly-found skills. This is a great excuse to hit the shores of Toronto, especially in spring and summer.
Skip the Spa, Go Brining Salt is purported to cure a slew of ailments, from sinus congestion to allergies to asthma. Solana Saltcave, in Oakville, feature a 450-square-foot cave where the floors, wall and ceiling are slathered in food-grade Himalayan pink crystal salt. Book a 50-minute session, or enhance your visit by adding a Thai massage, a reflexology treatment and/or an infrared sauna session.
Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of local deals in Toronto through Travelzoo Canada at Travelzoo.com.