“Hi, Shari. Do you have a passport?”
For last week’s announcement of a new daily nonstop flight departing the San Antonio International Airport to Pearson International, Air Canada invited the Rivard Report to experience Toronto. This would be two full days of sightseeing in the capital of Ontario, easily one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America.
When photo editor Scott Ball and I arrived in the TO, as the locals know it, that legendary Canadian courtesy and efficiency ushered us through customs within minutes, despite the long lines. We easily located a train that shuttled us directly from the airport into the heart of downtown.
Though it was unseasonably cool and rainy that evening, the towering skyscrapers, bright lights, and a sliver view of Lake Ontario were reminders that it’s good to get out and about now and then, eh?
It was National Travel and Tourism Week, May 7-13, and with a direct flight to Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, there are even more reasons to visit our neighbors to the north.
We had two full days in Toronto. To make the most of it, we asked Canadians what we should see and do first. Not surprisingly, the Hockey Hall of Fame came up almost unanimously and served as another reminder that we were not in Texas anymore.
But we soon learned that Toronto has far more to offer than hockey.
The city is a case study in how to win at conserving and honoring heritage while embracing the future. Turn-of-the-century structures, some that resemble our red sandstone County Courthouse, integrate seamlessly with the bold and the modern in places like the Royal Ontario Museum and Roy Thomson Hall.
Even amid progress (read, construction), smart design in the city’s infrastructure – from signage to sidewalks – keeps its population of almost 3 million people and 40 million annual visitors flowing as smoothly as the ferries to and from the laid-back harbor.
If you decide to visit Toronto, first keep in mind that a 234-square-mile city this historic, dense, and diverse merits more than two days. Second, remember that Toronto can also be your gateway to destinations all over the world.
Here’s what else you should know about getting there and taking it all in.
Crossing the Border
You need a passport for international travel, of course, and you’ll go through Customs & Immigration just like in any foreign country. The only difference is that upon your return, you’ll again go through customs at Pearson International, show your passport, and then you’re good to go once you land in San Antonio.
Toronto’s new elevated UP trains will take you into downtown in about 20 minutes and back again for the trip home.
Sampling the City
From Chinatown, where we enjoyed memorable ramen and tasty Shanghai soup dumplings to Little Italy’s cozy pizza and pasta spots, Toronto is like a sampler plate of cuisine and culture from around the world. With Portuguese, Greek, and Indian restaurants, and a world-renowned chef’s school – there aren’t enough mealtimes in the day to try them all.
But we can recommend starting your day at the St. Lawrence Market, where among more than 100 bakers, butchers, and artisans, you can find hot coffee, crusty bagels, and Canada’s famous peameal bacon sandwiches. A few blocks over is the Distillery District, a former brewery that now houses trendy restaurants and shops a lot like the Pearl in San Antonio.
From there, your itinerary might take you to any number of attractions – the iconic CN Tower; a castle-style museum known as Casa Loma; the courts, ice, and playing fields of Toronto’s 11 pro sports teams; or the city’s many performing arts centers. Click here for a solid list of things to see and do.
Two words: Union Station. This is the hub for an extensive system of subways and trolleys that reach across the city, providing easy access at every point. Toronto is also bike-friendly, providing bike-share stations and safe places to ride.
We found Uber (and UberEats) available and customarily helpful with tourist tips and advice. One driver, who hailed from Nepal, recommended the summer and fall months as the best time to visit, but assured us that there are plenty of coffee shops in Toronto if you need to warm up.
Another pointed us in the direction of Junction, a neighborhood of small, locally owned shops and hip and comfortable diners not far from High Park, Toronto’s own version of Central Park.
Along with the cherry blossoms and rolling hills of that 400-acre park, Toronto offers the great outdoors in the form of abundant running and biking trails, manicured city gardens, and scenic waterfront parks complete with surf and sand. Check out these top five beaches, including one called Sunnyside, lining the shore of Lake Ontario.
A day trip from Toronto that’s not just for newlyweds anymore, Niagara Falls is impressive enough for the extra time and travel. As any Canadian (and this visitor) will tell you, it’s better to view from the Canada side.
Saving and Splurging
With the U.S. dollar strong in Canada, it’s a great time for Americans to visit. We also found affordable Airbnb rates – often a third of what three- and four-star hotels were charging in this destination city – and many options for private condos and rooms right in the heart of downtown.
And, like in most major cities, you can purchase a City Passport that discounts the admission prices for the most popular attractions.
When to Go
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation. Not unlike plans for San Antonio’s 30oth birthday in 2018, Canada is celebrating with events all year long.
Other top events coming soon include:
- 2017 North American Indigenous Games, July 16-23
- Toronto Summer Music Festival, July 13-August 5
- 42nd Annual Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 7-17
But a city like Toronto always has something going on. Or at least that’s what a woman who cycled up to us in Queen’s Park said as we chatted in the afternoon drizzle next to a statue of King Edward VII.
“I’ve lived here 26 years. And I’ve lived other places. But the older I get, I think I’m just so lucky – did I ever make a good choice. Because there’s so much going on … Now, we’ll look for all the Texans [to come] here, too!