If you want to incite a bar fight some crisp evening on Yonge Street, simply rise from your barstool, lift a pint of Boddingtons to the rafters and proclaim, “To Toronto, the all-American city!”
Mind you, I’m not suggesting you actually do this, even in the interest of anthropology or any other ology. Well, except maybe mixology. But I digress.
The point being, the provincial capital of Ontario, at 2.8 million weatherproof souls the fourth most populous city in North America behind Mexico City, New York and Las Angeles, feels strangely familiar the minute you deplane at YYZ, Toronto Pearson International.
At first blush, Toronto has New York’s waterfront, L.A.’s traffic and suburban sprawl and Chicago’s friendly Midwestern urban pace and vibe. Heck, it’s farther south than half of New England; just a Tom Brady pass away from Niagara Falls. When you factor in the hundreds of films in which Toronto has served as stand-in for Brooklyn, the Bronx and other U.S. locales, it’s easy to picture Old Glory flying from the CN Tower.
But the deeper you dig into its intriguing mix of cultures and characters, the clearer it becomes that Toronto has cherry-picked the best of its influences and fused them into a style all its own.
CN Tower: Visible from virtually everywhere in the TO (Toronto-Ontario), there’s more to this mid-seventies landmark than meets the eye. In addition to casual dining at Horizons Restaurant at 1,135 feet and fine dining upstairs at the revolving 360 Restaurant, there’s an outdoor sky terrace with a glass floor and a hands-free edge walk that’s too crazy to describe, except to say it involves a harness. Did I mention you can see Niagara Falls from the 1,467-foot Sky Pod?
Eaton Centre: Scottish immigrant Timothy Eaton, who launched Eaton’s department store chain here in 1869, wouldn’t recognize the dazzling, blocks-long ultramodern shopping mall it has become. Among the upgrades: its own subway station, a spectacular greenhouse rooftop adorned with artist Michael Snow’s fiberglass birds in flight, and a portal to the Path, Toronto’s 16-mile, all-season underground pedestrian shopping plaza.
Second City: This offshoot of Chicago’s famed comedy factory has produced its own collection of comedic legends, including Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Bill Murray and Mike Myers. Second City connects via an enclosed walkway to…
Wayne Gretzky’s: The Great One’s sports bar, restaurant and Oasis rooftop patio serves up round-the-clock sports on 40 enormous HDTVs. Check out #99’s Tuck Shop for coffee mugs, jerseys, tees and assorted tchotchkes that celebrate hockey’s brightest star.
Kensington Market & Chinatown: Stroll north from Gretzky’s up Spaldina Avenue to Toronto’s two busiest market districts, each a movable feast of multicultural fresh meats and produce, eclectic restaurants and exotic shops. Dim sum anyone?
The Distillery District: A similar short stroll east of downtown, his charming, pedestrians-only waterfront village of 70 art galleries, fashion boutiques and tres chic cafes ranks as the best-preserved collection of Victorian architecture in North America. Small wonder filmmakers flock here.
Yonge Street: Among the hundreds of neighborhoods in the TO, only this one has its own soundtrack. This entertainment district launched a galaxy of rock stars, including Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and the Band. If nighttime’s not your thing, Heritage Tours offers a free daytime walking tour of the Yonge Street strip.
City Hall: Designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, Toronto’s dramatic modern centerpiece features two arc-shaped high-rises, 20 and 27 stories high, parenthetically wrapped around a central building and cupola. The manmade reflecting pond out front converts to a holiday-festive ice skating rink in winter.
Art Gallery of Ontario: Prepare for mind-melting moments of visual variety at AGO, which features major works by Canadian, European, Oceanic and First Nation artists, as well as the world’s largest public collection of Henry Moore sculpture (his Archer can be seen in front of City Hall).
CTV Building: While the neo-gothic terracotta façade of this 1913 radio and TV headquarters at 299 Queen Street West is lovely, the main attraction is around back on the east side, where an actual old-school news truck is seemingly bursting from the building.