Toronto rolls out the red carpet for celebs - and U.S. tourists

Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and other entertainment A-listers start arriving here next week for the world's largest public film festival, giving a shot of Botox to the psyche of a town that has had a rough year.

During its worst stretch since a SARS outbreak devastated tourism in 2003, Canada's largest city and most popular visitor draw has grappled with global recession, a comparatively muscular Canadian dollar, tougher U.S. passport requirements that took effect in June, and a municipal garbage strike that prompted a post-strike tourism ad declaring "Toronto Never Smelled So Good." Even the weather conspired against the city, as an unusually cool, rainy summer frustrated locals and visitors who gravitate to Toronto's sidewalk cafés and inviting Lake Ontario waterfront.

The results: nationwide, the lowest number of U.S.-to-Canada visitors in nearly four decades, with Toronto — about a 90-minute drive from the border — expecting around 2 million American overnight visitors this year, down from a peak of 2.5 million in 2000.

But with the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts Thursday and runs till Sept. 19, headlining a robust lineup of cultural events and the struggling global economy translating to lower hotel rates and more package deals, one of North America's most cosmopolitan and (typically Canadian) understated destinations is camera-ready.

"Same-day travel is down, and we don't get a lot of spontaneous 'let's go to Canada for dinner' visitors," largely because of the stronger Canadian dollar and passport changes, says Tourism Toronto's Andrew Weir. At the same time, though, "we're seeing a growth in sophisticated, urban travelers."

Toronto attracts throngs of movie buffs — including more than 130,000 U.S. admissions — during its annual September bash, when mainstream studios and aspiring indies compete for word-of-mouth buzz in what's viewed as an influential forerunner to the Academy Awards. Last year's Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire made its debut here, and this month's lineup of more than 300 films includes offerings from such luminaries as Winfrey, Michael Moore and Canadian-born Jason Reitman, whose Up in the Air stars Clooney as the quintessential frequent flier.

Torontonian Janice Waugh typically hits 25 films during the festival's 10-day run and says the event's egalitarian, audience-centric nature pays off for locals and visitors alike: "You get to hear directors and actors talk about their project at the screenings, and you don't need a press pass to spot stars, whether you're at a red carpet gala, a regular screening or a neighborhood café," notes Waugh, who'll be dispensing festival tips at (Among her star-spotting recommendations: Bistro 990 and the 51st-floor Panorama lounge at the Manulife Centre, home to several festival screenings in the tony Yorkville district.)

Though it vies with Vancouver for the title of Hollywood North, Toronto's active arts and design scene extends far beyond cinema. Reopened in November after a lengthy renovation, the downtown Art Gallery of Ontario's makeover by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry generates almost as much debate as a 2007 addition to the Royal Ontario Museum by fellow superstar Daniel Libeskind. His aggressively angular, aluminum and steel structure has been likened to both a downed jet and a "geometric tumor."

About a 15-minute streetcar ride from the downtown core, the gentrifying but still gritty West Queen West area is a hipster haven where you can buy vinyl records in one shop and vinyl clothes in the shop next door — and mingle with local artists at a pair of renovated boutique hotels, the Drake and the Gladstone. Sleekly corporate they're not: At the Gladstone, resident cowboy Hank Jones shuttles guests between floors in a hand-operated Otis elevator, and amenities in the artist-designed rooms include free earplugs (a godsend, given the noisy street and single-pane windows).

Marking its 175th birthday this year, the town once known as Toronto the Good — a reference to its role as a bastion of Victorian morality — also prides itself on its low-key, multicultural character. Half the city's 2.5 million residents were born outside Canada, and its ethnic neighborhoods (from Little Pakistan to three Chinatowns) reflect what local historian Bruce Bell calls "the principle of life here: not a melting pot, but a place where you keep your culture and share it with others."

One of the best ways to sample that multicultural ethic is to spend a Saturday in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market, home to its first city hall during the second half of the 19th century. Vendors arrive by 5 a.m., and the place is humming by 7. You can forage for curry powder, kangaroo burger and arctic char, then top off the morning with a Torontonian treat of piled-high peameal (similar to what Yanks call "Canadian") bacon stuffed into a warm roll.

Passport-worthy, eh?