What to See in Toronto When You Don't Have Much Time

A view of the Toronto skyline from park benches on the Toronto Islands Sandro Schuh on Unsplash
In Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, a Toronto native reflects on the changing nature of her formerly staid hometown: “Once it was fashionable to say how dull it was. First prize a week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto.” Nowadays, a long weekend in North America’s fourth-largest city is barely enough time to sample the cultural and culinary offerings of this booming lakeside destination. Eclectic eats reflect the fact that half the population was born outside Canada, and hip, laid-back neighborhoods crisscrossed by streetcars invite pedestrians. Few Torontonians call it “the Six” (a nickname derived from its area code) without irony (sorry, Drake fans)—though with this compact itinerary, you can call it home for one, two, or three days.
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Marble and wood interior of the 1929 Royal York Hotel in Toronto taxiarchos228 (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Even if you’re not staying at this 1929 grande dame, once the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth, this is a fine place to get your bearings. The Royal York’s opulent lobby, with its hand-painted ceiling and Great Clock—a gift from repeat guest Queen Elizabeth II—hearkens back to Canada’s proud tradition of railway hotels. Cruise the mezzanine level for a crash course in Canadian Pacific Railway history and old posters promoting famous artists (Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald performed here). Across the street, Union Station displays the flags of each province from the Pacific to the Atlantic. From there, you can reach the CN Tower via covered walkway.
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The needlelike CN Tower, the Western Hemisphere's tallest freestanding structure mini_magick/Tourism Toronto

At 1,815 feet, the CN Tower was the world’s tallest freestanding structure for over 30 years. Zip up to the main deck in 58 seconds via a glass-fronted elevator (some have glass floor panels for maximum acrophobia), then head one level down to jump, crawl, or meditate on the mindblowing 2.5-inch-thick glass floor. For an extra fee, the higher SkyPod boasts visibility of up to 100 miles. At EdgeWalk, harnessed thrill-seekers in jumpsuits venture around an outdoor ledge 116 stories up (book online). If you want to flip this itinerary around and admire the city at sunset, note that ordering a prix fixe at the revolving 360 Restaurant includes admission to two levels and is a good way to skip the lengthy queues.

Across the street in Roundhouse Park, the Toronto Railway Museum presents vintage trains, including a locomotive turntable, and a miniature choo-choo ride for kids. The adjacent Steam Whistle Brewery makes its own pilsner and offers tours and tastes.

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The Great Hall, or trophy room, of the Hockey Hall of Fame, home to the Stanley Cup Doug Kerr/Flickr
Even if you’re not a huge sports fan, a visit to this secular temple in a former bank will help you understand the importance of “Canada’s game.” Here, the original 1893 Stanley Cup gets its chance to shine, as does a replica of the tiered presentation cup (when the official one is on the road). It’s not all gawking at vintage jerseys and historical timelines, though. You can get behind the microphone to call famous plays, watch the first 3-D hockey film, or try your luck as a goalie against NHL superstars in a live-action simulation, with real sponge pucks shooting at you from openings in a video screen at up to 70 miles an hour.
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Market aisle lined with food stalls Dika Lam
Located in the oldest part of town (the building incorporates the façade of the original 1844 city hall), this gastro-scrum of 120 merchants, including butchers and fishmongers, is where hangriness comes to die. The ready-to-eat fare is a showcase of edible Canadiana, from Quebec maple syrup to butter tarts to Montreal bagels to Niagara ice wine. Your mission, though, is the peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery, a quintessential local delicacy that was a must long before Anthony Bourdain gave his stamp of approval. If you’ve only had “Canadian bacon” outside Ontario, forget those desiccated meat pucks and sink your teeth into the real deal: slabs of cured back bacon rolled in cornmeal, griddled, and nestled in a soft bun. Mustard? Yes, please. (The food hall is closed on Sunday and Monday.)
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A ferry takes passengers between Toronto's Harbourfront area and the Toronto Islands Robert101/Flickr

In the summer, Lake Ontario's Harbourfront area bursts with concerts, festivals, and cruises (try an evening sail on a tall ship). In the winter, you can take to the ice at Saturday night DJ skate parties, and the Power Plant contemporary art gallery is free all year. The delightful Music Garden, codesigned by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, was inspired by a Bach suite, each landscape representing a dance movement. Complimentary garden tours take place on free concert days.

Time permitting, take a ferry to the car-free Toronto islands to fall in love with the skyline and explore the connected isles on foot or rented bike. Try stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking in the lagoons, enjoy the rides and petting zoo at Centreville theme park, or amble the boardwalk and beaches, pausing for a drink at one of the cafes. At Hanlan’s Point, one stretch of sand is designated clothing-optional.

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Toronto's futuristic city hall provides a backdrop to the fountain and skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square. lodoelaura/Tourism Toronto
Nathan Phillips Square is home to the retro-futuristic City Hall, providing a backdrop for a popular fountain (and skating rink in winter). Here’s where celebrants ring in the New Year, and where Instagrammers capture the 10-foot-tall letters of the illuminated Toronto sign. Beside the plaza, for a side-to-side architectural comparison, is the Romanesque Old City Hall, and next to that, the Eaton Centre. Yes, it’s a shopping mall, but thanks to its vaulted glass ceilings inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, it’s a singularly airy and light-filled one, even on the gloomiest day. On the lower level of the atrium, eager shoppers crowd around the fountain, which regularly morphs into a multi-story geyser. One more reason to look up: Michael Snow's sculpture Flight Stop, consisting of 60 fiberglass Canada geese.
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The modernist shiplike exterior of the Art Gallery of Ontario Tourism Toronto
Though the AGO has its fair share of European masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens, plus an elegant collection of Henry Moore sculptures, you’re here for the second-floor Thomson Collection of Canadian Art. As a young country developing in the shadow of Great Britain and the USA, Canada long sought to define itself culturally: The paintings of the Group of Seven, a movement founded in 1920, not only established a national vernacular but are also the next best thing to personally exploring the rugged north depicted in these haunting landscapes. Don’t miss the Galleria Italia Espresso Bar, if only to appreciate the inside view of hometown boy Frank Gehry’s shiplike redesign. The AGO is free on Wednesday nights.
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Chinatown and Kensington Market: Lunch Break The City of Toronto/Flickr

The Greater Toronto Area encompasses five major Chinese neighborhoods, but downtown Chinatown’s main vein is Spadina Avenue. Begin at the intersection of Spadina and Dundas and follow your stomach: Asian Legend specializes in soup-filled dumplings and other northern Chinese cuisine, while King’s Noodle serves up Cantonese BBQ along with its namesake bowls.

If you’re indecisive, Kensington Avenue north of Dundas will take you into the Kensington Market quarter. A sign outside a convenience store reads, “Can’t we all just get oolong?” Turns out we can—and even better, we can get whatever we want here. In this international boho crossroads, you can find soufflé pancakes, Japanese street food, tattoo parlors, vintage clothing, shave ice, tortas, jerk chicken, gourmet cheese and, at barware specialist Cocktail Emporium, absinthe fountains. If that’s not enough, the cute restaurants dotting the stretch of Baldwin between McCaul and Beverley serve everything from bistro fare to ramen.

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Toronto's Graffiti Alley opens onto a street lined with restaurants Crustina!/Flickr
Fans of street art shouldn’t miss “Graffiti Alley” (pictured above), which runs parallel to and south of Queen Street, off Spadina. Afterward, hop the 501 Queen streetcar and venture west. Despite years of gentrification, Queen West still maintains a critical mass of quirkiness: Think of Nugateau, the new-fashioned all-éclair patisserie, or Reiner’s animal-shaped leather ottomans. Beyond Bathurst, West Queen West transitions into a design nexus anchored by the artsy Drake Hotel. Take a breather in Trinity-Bellwoods Park or get off the streetcar at Ossington and stroll north. Boralia, on the Ossington strip, pays homage to the historical cuisine of aboriginal Canadians and later settlers with dishes such as mussels steamed in pine needles, pigeon pie with foie gras shavings, and deviled Chinese tea eggs. A bit farther up, Bellwoods Brewery pleases microbrew fans with its own wild ales, imperial stouts, and more.
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The cobblestones and 19th-century red brick buildings of the Distillery District Pixabay
This 19th-century national historic site, the former Gooderham & Worts whisky distillery, is a lively campus (reminiscent of London’s Covent Garden) lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theater companies. (Call it hipster Dickens.) Though this is the perfect warm-weather venue to window-shop, enjoy oyster happy hour on the patio, or walk the cobblestone lanes with a gelato, the district manages to stay inviting in the winter by hosting the popular (some say too popular) Toronto Christmas Market. Don’t miss the whimsical housewares at Bergo Designs, the unique truffles at Soma Chocolatemaker, or the gorgeously transporting Cluny Bistro, with its globe lights, blue-tiled floors, and hybrid fare such as coq au vin poutine and salt cod donuts.
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The limestone and glass exterior of the Royal Ontario Museum Tourism Toronto
Take the subway (Yonge-University Line 1) up to the Museum stop. For kids, the ROM (rhymes with bomb) is synonymous with dinosaurs, but there’s plenty for grown-ups as well at this vast and venerable institution, including coverage of ancient Greece and Egypt, a section dedicated to Canada’s indigenous peoples, and the most extensive collection of Chinese architectural artifacts (dating back to 300 BC) outside the mother country. The temporary exhibitions are always interesting—past shows have spotlighted Dale Chihuly’s sculptures and Christian Dior’s dresses. Daily tours led by docents are free. Architecture fans can debate the merits of “the Crystal,” starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s love-it-or-loathe-it addition to the original 1914 building.
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A laneway lined with restaurants and shops in Toronto's tony Yorkville area Tourism Toronto

Stretching from Bloor Street north to Davenport and Yonge Street west to Avenue Road, this ’hood is a haven for one-percenters and the businesses that love them. Still, with its converted townhouses, interlocked paving stones, and charming laneways, the area manages to avoid the sterility that usually characterizes such enclaves. There’s a branch of Café Boulud in the Four Seasons Hotel, but outdoor drinking and dining at longtime stalwarts like Hemingway’s or Sassafraz is de rigueur on a beautiful day. (Toronto is a patio-mad town, complete with ample heat lamps for chilly evenings.) If you’re not feeling fancypants, duck into the Oxley for gastropub fare or walk west for Indian cuisine at the Host.

Shop-wise, the big stores are on Bloor: Fashionistas can drop bags of loonies (Canadian dollar coins) at Holt Renfrew, while flaneurs will appreciate the boutiques and intimate eateries along Cumberland or Yorkville Avenues.

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The exterior of Casa Loma, Toronto's castle Tourism Toronto

Up for a museum marathon? The Bata Shoe Museum is as one-of-a-kind as Cinderella’s slipper. Though you might assume the exhibits are as substantial as a pair of strappy heels, 4,500 years of shoe history are the guiding principle here. On display are actual Chinese slippers for bound feet, Roman gladiator sandals, and chestnut-crushing French clogs.

If you’re more into outsize architectural trappings, Casa Loma will satisfy your stained glass and mahogany needs. Completed in 1914, the 64,700-square-foot, 98-room mansion was the passion project of financier Sir Henry Pellatt, who imported Scottish stonemasons and Spanish tile, spending megamillions on the house before dying more or less penniless in the ’burbs, sharing a home with his chauffeur. Five acres of gardens frame this baronial extravagance, and an 800-foot-long tunnel connects the house to its elegant stables.

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An exterior night shot of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, with taxis and streetcars outside Tourism Toronto

What's on TOnight gives a good overview of citywide entertainment. Roy Thomson Hall hosts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, while the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is home to the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company (the latter offers discount tickets for ages 16 to 29).

As for theater, Mirvish Productions delivers Tony-award-winning plays and crowd-pleasing musicals, while cutting-edge fare can be found at the Toronto Fringe Festival, which hosts over 150 productions each July. The renowned Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place every September, but TIFF Bell Lightbox screens indie flicks year-round.

If you're set on watching a hockey game, tickets can be notoriously difficult to score, but keep an eye on the Toronto Maple Leafs website and Twitter feed. Within 48 hours of puck drop for each game, up to 200 tickets are released.

 

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Striding across Front Street in Toronto with Union Station in the background and the gold Royal Bank skyscraper on the right Arturo Castaneyra on Unsplash

As you might have guessed, Toronto is a city of distinct neighborhoods. Other areas worth a wander: Little Italy (College Street West between Euclid and Shaw); the Danforth (aka Greektown)—take the #2 Bloor-Danforth subway line to Chester and walk east); and the Beaches (aka the Beach), with its shops, restaurants, and boardwalk (ride the 501 Queen East streetcar and step off around Woodbine).

Something old, something new: Fort York was founded in 1793, its original buildings dating back to the War of 1812. In the northern part of town, the Aga Khan Museum, opened in 2014, showcases Islamic art in a resplendent modernist building. The juxtaposition of the two characterizes the major changes Toronto has seen over the years. It may not exactly be "New York run by the Swiss," as actor Peter Ustinov once claimed, but the city is evolving into a major draw in its own right.

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