Toronto surprises people. Warm, welcoming, laid back and quirky, Canada’s largest city isn’t what most visitors expect. Sure, it has the big, brash iconic sights that you know about, such as the CN Tower, but it’s in Toronto’s patchwork of neighbourhoods that the soul of this incredible city lies. Two hundred ethnic communities and more than 130 languages and dialects give Toronto a character distinctly its own. Add to this one of North America’s most mouth-watering restaurant scenes plus cutting-edge arts, wild nightlife and a crammed calendar of festivals and you’ll begin to see why this city wins over visitors in an overnight stay. Peter Ustinov described Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss”, but the Swiss never threw this good a party.
For the festivals
From spring right through till the first shivers of winter, it seems you can’t walk three blocks without stumbling upon a festival. Ranging from vast international film, music, literary and arts events to quaint neighbourhood celebrations, the combination of this hectic festive calendar and the days warming up gives the city an incredibly celebratory air from April onwards.
For the neighbourhoods
As I said up top, Toronto is crammed with colourful neighbourhoods — from ethnic ‘hoods such as Little Portugal and Little Tibet to enticing areas like boisterous West Queen West, swanky Liberty Village and the student-boho stomping grounds of the Annex.
For the art and architecture
The city has built a fine collection of modernist masterpieces to house its galleries and museums over the past few years. Top piles worth admiring from outside or from within include the icy glass spikes of the Royal Ontario Museum and Frank Gehry’s gleaming new addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
For the beaches
It’s funny how many people are surprised by the fact that this Great Lake city has beaches. In fact, Toronto not only has a constellation of sandy beaches, but it even has its own chain of tiny wee islands — you’ll find a couple of Lake Ontario’s best beaches on their southern shores. See more on the islands and beaches under my suggestions for Toronto Things To Do.
For the food
Toronto boasts 7,000 restaurants and it seems like an awful lot of them are really good ‘uns. To an extent, the diversity in the food scene here can be traced to the huge numbers of Torontonians born elsewhere (myself and half of Toronto’s population were born outside Canada) and who clamour for the authentic tastes of home (yes, we even have a great Scottish restaurant now!). Add to that a growing demand for and pride in Canadian food and you’ve got one seriously tasty city. See my recommendations for places to eat under Toronto cafés and restaurants.
For the coffee
Toronto is the most coffee-obsessed city I’ve ever been to. It seems like a new indie coffeehouse opens every week, with fairtrade organic beans and a serious crew of award-winning baristas foaming up a storm behind the counter. In the past couple of years, the crème de la crema have expanded and there are now branches of half a dozen mini-coffeehouse empires such as Dark Horse, Te Aro and Lit around the city. See my recommendations under Toronto cafés and restaurants for the best java jolts — and then order a double shot.
For the nightlife
Toronto is a really sociable city and it’s impossible to get bored when bars and clubs constantly open, change, add new events and attract new people. On hot summer nights, when social strips, patios and beer gardens are crammed, Toronto really is irresistible. But just because the mercury plummets for five months a year doesn’t mean we stay home. Even at 3am on a Monday night in January when the wind chill dips to -25C, you’ll still see Torontonians in t-shirts spilling out of bars, laughing and lighting up cigarettes outside by the snow banks.
For its quirkiness
Toronto has a cool array of alternative gallery strips, unlikely street art, pop-up shops, funky markets and Zombie walks. For a taste of the city’s quirkier side, don’t miss Kensington Market — the former Jewish quarter turned New Age hangout/Caribbean quarter. See more on the Market in my recommended Toronto Things To Do.
Because Toronto is so easy to explore
Despite its vast dimensions (the Greater Toronto Area covers a staggering 560 square miles), the main bits you’ll want to see on a first (or second or third) visit are pretty close together. Retro-looking red streetcars are a fun but slow way to take in the city, while buses, subways and trains are speedier, less atmospheric options. The best way to get around is by bike or on foot. See more advice on How to get around Toronto and Toronto insider tips.
For the day trips
When you look at it on a North American scale, Niagara Falls is practically a suburb of Toronto. It’s actually just 80 miles from the city. The Falls — even more dramatic during a winter visit, by the way — are just one of a slew of watery wonders nearby. If you’ve a wee bit longer to linger in Ontario, consider checking out Elora Gorge, quaint beach towns such as Cobourg on Lake Ontario, the stunning Prince Edward County peninsula, sandy spots along the hem of Lake Erie or craggy nooks on the Lake Huron shore — all within two hours of Toronto.