What to See and What to Skip in Toronto

Canada, it turns out, appears to have benefited from the 2016 U.S. election.

November 19, 2016, 5:11 AM
PHOTO: The Toronto skyline seen from Lake Ontario, August 8, 2016.
The Toronto skyline seen from Lake Ontario, August 8, 2016.
Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

— -- Canada, it turns out, appears to have benefited from the 2016 U.S. election.

One-third of respondents to Travelzoo’s Fall Travel Trends Survey said Canada’s reputation was boosted by the contentious presidential election. Throw in a currency that remains substantially weaker against the U.S. dollar and a trip across the northern border suddenly becomes extra appealing.

To celebrate Travelzoo Canada’s 10th anniversary, I recently returned to Toronto, Canada’s largest city, only to be reminded of just how distinct and vibrant this town is.

If you’re a Toronto first-timer, here are a few things to include on your to-do list.

Skip the Cab, Ride the Express

“The recently-launched Union Pearson Express train is a game-changer for the way people travel to and from Toronto,” says Travelzoo Canada publisher Michael Duchesne. “The ride from Union Station to Pearson Airport’s Terminal 1 takes about 25 minutes. Previously, you were at the mercy of Toronto traffic.” After I landed, I paid just $12 CAD for the one-way ride into Union Station, which is in the heart of downtown. The cab ride can cost you $60. After you get your passport stamped and grab your bags, follow the signs that read “Train to City.”

Skip YYZ, Fly YTZ

Toronto Pearson welcomes the lion’s share of international visitors, but many U.S. travelers from the East Coast have an even more convenient option: Billy Bishop Airport. Also known as Toronto Island Airport, it’s serviced by 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 Duchesne. A new pedestrian tunnel running under Lake Ontario replaces the awkward 90-second ferry ride to the mainland. One of the longest escalator systems in the country shuttles passengers quickly and at their own pace, to the check-in desk. The free shuttle on the other side drops you steps from Union Station.

Don’t Walk, Fly

Toronto by foot is an awesome way to appreciate this beautiful city, but for a different perspective consider Cameron Air Service’s 20-minute sky tour over downtown. Operating out of Billy Bishop Airport, they’ll fly you and up to three friends in a Cessna 206 over city highlights like the CN Tower, Rogers Center and Humber Bay. Also, look to Billy Bishop for day visits to Niagara, a trip once considered dicey because of heavy traffic. A new ervice from Greater Toronto Airways takes you from downtown Toronto to the Niagara District Airport in less than 20 minutes. Securing a spot in their eight-seater propeller planes costs as low as $85 ($96 including taxes and fees) one-way.

Skip the Streets, Visit the Tower

As you stroll downtown, you can’t miss the CN Tower, the 1800-foot landmark that was the world’s tallest structure when it opened in 1976. Today, it’s a hotspot for views and thrills. Six glass-fronted elevators whisk you to the LookOut Level, offering 360-degree views. Head down one level to test your nerve by walking on the Glass Floor or pay a bit more to climb another 300 feet to the SkyPod, where, on clear days, you can see as far as the Falls 100 miles away. For an extra adrenaline rush, check out the EdgeWalk: strapped to an overhead trolley-and-harness system, you’re walking a five-foot outdoor ledge and leaning over a bustling city 116 stories below.

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, with eclectic offerings like street festivals in summer and a dashing batch of nightlife and dining options. “It’s authentic food and shopping,” says the 27-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,” says DiScala, who also recommends a visit to Greektown. Sarah Pittard, the Toronto-based mother of two behind the popular Solo Mom Takes Flight blog, touts Toronto’s ethnic pockets for their family-friendliness. She suggests a trip to Chinatown for “loads of Pokémon and Hello Kitty toys, plus some great food,” as well as a visit to the Gerrard India Bazaar in nearby Little India. “Kids love walking through the shops looking at the fabrics and jewels and will work up an appetite,” she says. “Even if they don’t like Indian food, you can fill their tummies with delicious Naan.”

Skip Downtown, Hit the Distillery District

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. You’ll find several dozen buildings here, 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 30-year resident of Toronto who’s also country manager for Travelzoo Canada has her favorite stops. “I personally like to pop into Soma Chocolatier for handmade chocolate and into Balzacs for coffee -- sit in the loft balcony if you can,” she says. Aeryn Lynne, the Toronto-based purveyor of the Geek with Style travel blog, describes the Distillery District as “a little bit of history, wrapped in love with artisanal shops and restaurants.” She recommends the various festivals staged year-round, restaurants that “will pique the interest of even the most discerning foodie” and antique shops that “are filled with trinkets for unique tourist gifts.” Check out the Segway tours here. For another unique neighborhood experience teeming with clubs and restaurants, check out the hip, youthful vibe at The Annex, adjacent to the University of Toronto.

Escape, If You Can

Ever heard of escape rooms? Devised in Japan, they’re hot in Toronto these days, affording adults a unique way to have fun: solve intricate puzzles to escape a locked room. Perfect for those who love a good mystery, according to Lynne, and have about an hour to kill. “Throw yourself and one to three friends into an epic thriller,” she says, “where you suddenly find yourself trapped in a room and the only chance to escape is using your wits, finding all the clues and, ultimately, the key that stands in your way to freedom!” With an average success rate of just 20 percent, “escape is not as easy as you might think,” she adds. There are more than 30 escape room locations throughout Toronto, in a slew of themes and styles. Search for names like Escape Games, Mr. Escape and Secret City Adventures.

Skip the Hotel Pool, Hit the Beach

“You wouldn't expect it but Toronto has incredible beaches along Lake Ontario,” insists Solo Mom Takes Flight’s Pittard. One of her favorites is Woodbine Beach, located east of the downtown core and accessible via streetcar. “Here a boardwalk stretches over three kilometers and leads to numerous walking trails on Ashbridge's Bay. The beach is a few minutes’ walk from Queen Street East and is full of locally owned restaurants and shops.”

Skip the Hotel Gym, Hit the Slopes

It might be a tad bit chilly for a dip in winter, so consider the slopes! There are a handful of ski options just an hour away from downtown Toronto, like Mansfield Ski Club, where four terrain parks, seven lifts (including a new triple chair) and 17 slopes cater to novices and seasoned ski bunnies. You’ll also find a multilevel chalet at the base of the hill here, featuring multiple dining options. Skyloft Resort in Uxbridge is a 15-acre, family-friendly playground for skiers and snowboarders alike; after you take on the 22 runs (including six black diamond slopes), visit the lodge for a hot toddy by the stone fireplace.

Skip the Gallery, Visit Graffiti Alley

Want art? Greg Kunstler, associate publisher at Travelzoo Canada, likes to take visitors to Graffiti Alley. “It's a discreet thoroughfare on the edge of Chinatown where street artists have painted elaborate murals,” he tells me. “Every time I go there, it seems like something new has been added or painted over. Don't forget to take a selfie, so Instagram followers can praise your knowledge of trendy hidden places.” Give yourself up to an hour to appreciate the myriad works of art here. Graffiti Alley is right along Rush Lane, a block south of Queen Street W.

After the Museum, Take them to Class

Museums abound here. Geek with Style’s Lynne touts the Toronto Railway Museum, complete with rides aboard a miniature train and just across the street from the CN Tower. The legendary Hockey Hall of Fame, where you can get up close and personal with the Stanley Cup, is a must. After some cultural immersion, your kids may want to hone their own creative skills at Colour With Me Art Studio. With locations in downtown Toronto and Markham, children create and paint in a group environment and classes, which last about 90 minutes, include all the paints and brushes they need. Parents who could use the time to do some window shopping nearby are welcome to drop the little ones off and pick them up after class.

Come for Tea, Stay for the Bees

Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Royal York is offered Saturdays and Sundays and has been a landmark experience here ever since the luxe downtown hotel opened in 1929. More than a dozen gourmet loose leaf teas and specialty tea blends are served on fine china, and guests choose from a bevy of handmade pastries (like warm scones with clotted cream and caramel banana cake) and sandwiches. After tea, opt for the complimentary historical hotel tour, with peeks at the Imperial Room and Toronto’s smallest bar, York’s Station. Tea guests also get exclusive access to the hotel’s rooftop apiary, where six hives house more than 350,000 bees. These busy bees produce 450 pounds of honey a year, which the hotel kitchen uses in a myriad of recipes. The apiary here was established in 2008, launching a company-wide program currently emulated at more than 20 Fairmont properties around the world.Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on Toronto hotels, activities, restaurants, spas and shows at www.travelzoo.com.

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