Overview

In between the honking horns, sirens, speedy streetcars and rushing crowds, there's a prevailing orderliness in which Torontonians attentively wait for streetlights, cross at corners and say "sorry" whenever shoulders are rubbed. Downtown streets spill into areas defined by their architecture and ethnic groups. Streetcars pass by skyscrapers that illuminate the skyline, then swoosh past bricked Victorian structures. Retrofitted factory warehouses, resurrected hotels and shopping emporiums abound.

Toronto is often described as the engine that drives the nation's economy. The country's largest city attracts foreigners from around the world who call Toronto home; while across the country, dreamers and schemers arrive to this metropolis along Lake Ontario's north shore, seeking their fortunes.

Toronto vibrates as a cosmopolitan financial, commercial and cultural center, blending urban chic with its multicultural heritage (some 100 ethnic groups speak more than 140 languages). It has a busy stock exchange, plus a large film and TV industry. Toronto sports fans love their Blue Jays and Maple Leafs, and children learn to play hockey at an early age.

Toronto has soaring contemporary architecture alongside Victorian and Edwardian gems, museums, performing-arts companies, fine restaurants and relaxed cafes, trendy shopping complexes and a people-friendly waterfront. Hundreds of parks keep it green (for most of the year).

Geography

Toronto sits on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Bounded by two rivers, the Humber in the city's west end and the more eastern Don, Toronto has a rich tapestry of natural barriers that attract recreational types in every way through these green corridors. See vestiges of the ancient Iroquois Lake, a prehistoric lake from the Ice Age that has left its indelible mark, a ridge protruding from the city's midtown area, best seen from the site of the Casa Loma. This great ridge has a fabulous vantage point to see the lake and the islands.

Distinctive neighborhoods punctuate the various sections of the city, each with unique shops, cafes and markets. Yonge (pronounced young), one of the longest streets in the world, is the main north-south artery. Bloor and Queen streets are busy east-west thoroughfares that intersect with Yonge Street downtown. Other streets follow a fairly neat grid pattern. The airport is in the northwest corner of the city; the zoo in the northeast. The lakeshore runs along the southern edge, and Toronto's two major landmarks, the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre, are nearby.

People in Toronto refer to the city's neighborhoods by quoting streets or intersections. For example, Yonge and Bloor is the city's center, and King and Bay is the heart of the financial district. Yorkville (just north of Bloor Street, west of Yonge Street and near the Royal Ontario Museum) has the city's most upscale shops and an abundance of chic cafes. Greektown on the Danforth (the name Bloor Street adopts east of the Bloor Viaduct—between Castlefrank and Broadview subway stations) is the place to look for casual Mediterranean dining and bouzouki music. Queen Street West offers an assortment of shopping—great boutiques, bookstores and funky antiques—as well as fine bistros. The Beach (Queen Street, east of Woodbine) includes a 2-mi/3-km wooden promenade along the shore of Lake Ontario. Harbourfront is another waterfront development featuring luxurious condominiums, cafes, art galleries and cultural venues. Most of these areas are easily reached on foot or via public transportation.

And don't forget the PATH, 18 mi/29 km of underground shopping. It stretches across the downtown core and connects to major tourist attractions, parking garages and hotels. But it does not follow the grid pattern of the streets above.

History

Inhabited by the Seneca and later by the Mississauga tribe, Toronto became a thriving trading post after the French arrived in the 1600s. The French built forts there, only to be driven out by the British in 1763.

A haven for British loyalists during the American Revolution, Toronto was the site of several battles in the War of 1812, with U.S. forces capturing the city for 11 days. Retaken by the British, the settlement's population grew rapidly after the war, topping 9,000 in 1834—the year Toronto was incorporated as a city.

The city's conservative, religious character earned it the nickname "Toronto the Good" in the 1800s and early 1900s. A new wave of immigrants after World War II transformed the town. Today this bustling metropolis is Canada's largest city.

Additionally, Toronto is the undisputed financial center of Canada as well as a cultural mecca for global tourists.

Sightseeing

The best way to get acquainted with the city is to start walking: Toronto is a pedestrian-oriented city, and there's no better way to absorb the ambience of its diverse neighborhoods than to walk through them. For a panoramic view, head to the top of CN Tower, one of the world's tallest buildings and Toronto's most recognized icon.

Because Toronto is Canada's largest city, it's no surprise that many of the nation's prominent museums and wildlife facilities are found there. We were especially impressed by the collections of rarities at the Gardiner Ceramic Museum, the Bata Shoe Museum's vast shoe holdings (many of them one-of-a-kind artifacts culled by shoe heiress Sonja Bata) and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Be sure you're well-rested before visiting the sprawling Royal Ontario Museum (affectionately called "the ROM"). Canada's largest museum holds more than 6 million objects in its collections.

One of our favorite Toronto attractions is the Casa Loma castle. Other city sights include the Frank Gehry redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ontario Science Centre and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. If you like zoos, don't miss the Toronto Zoo, Riverdale Farm and the petting zoo at High Park.

In warm-weather months (May-September), the Music Garden on Queen's Quay and the lakefront park, Ontario Place, are good choices. An evening dinner cruise on Lake Ontario affords a spectacular view of the city skyline from the water. Day trips include the popular Toronto Islands, a nearby string of islets where cars are prohibited.

Purchase a Toronto City Pass for admission to The Royal Ontario Museum, Casa Loma, Ontario Science Centre, the Toronto Zoo and the CN Tower. Can$49.47 adults. Passes can be purchased at the entrance gate of the five attractions or online. The pass is good for nine days from date of first use. http://www.citypass.com/toronto.

Nightlife

Toronto, with its steadily increasing number of nightspots, is bustling after dark. Look for a concentration of bars, taverns and late-night clubs in the King Street West entertainment district, the Esplanade area, at the Peter-Adelaide intersection (just north of the Rogers Centre) and in Yorkville. Little Italy, on College Street between Euclid Avenue and Crawford Street, is full of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. Toronto's central gay district—with bars, shops and restaurants—is along Church Street between College and Wellesley.

Most bars close at 1 am, although a few remain open until last call at 2 am. For a complete listing, pick up a copy of Now, a free entertainment newspaper available at convenience stores, coffee shops, entertainment venues and most restaurants.

Dining

Originally, Toronto cuisine was built around the favored foods of mostly Scottish and English settlers who were raised on meat and potatoes. These days, the city's diverse and sophisticated cuisine reflects Toronto's multiculturalism. You'll find ethnic mom-and-pop diners, cafes and bistros, as well as temples of innovative haute cuisine. With more than 8,000 restaurants across the city there is something for everyone.

Inexpensive Chinese restaurants are plentiful along Spadina Avenue north of Dundas Street West, as well as at the intersection of Gerrard and Broadview. Greek tavernas are generally found along the Danforth (Bloor Street becomes the Danforth east of Yonge Street), and Little Italy is located on College Street west of Bathurst. Clusters of eateries can be found in most neighborhoods such as Yorkville and on Yonge Street near Eglinton Avenue.

If you're looking for regional Canadian cuisine, a few places specialize in all-Canadian menus, sometimes featuring Ontario rack of lamb or Bay of Fundy salmon. Do try wines from the Niagara region, which are quite good and rarely available elsewhere.

As in many parts of North America, restaurants in Toronto are now entirely smoke-free.

Breakfast is generally served 7-10 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner 6-10:30 pm. Many restaurants require reservations for dinner, and some offer only two nightly seatings—be sure to call in advance.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding taxes, drinks and tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$70; $$$$ = more than Can$70.

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