Through the leafy gorge of the river Don the city rises like a mirage on the horizon, a gleaming cluster of buildings dwarfed by the slender silhouette of the CN Tower.
At just over 553 metres, Toronto’s communication tower is the tallest free-standing structure in the Western hemisphere and the city’s most iconic landmark. Lifts take you to the observation platform with its glass floor said to withstand the weight of 14 hippos and provide access to the SkyPod 100 metres above.
The view takes your breath away, from the wooded ravines and sprawling city to the meandering shore of Lake Ontario and the lush ribbon of islands where town folks can escape and connect with nature. In clear weather the spray from Niagara Falls, over 70 km away, is visible.
But before making your way to the Falls, as most visitors do, it is worth spending time in this ‘most lovable’ North American city with record temperatures of highs and lows but on the same latitude as the French Riviera. Trams glide through the streets at a leisurely pace, tulips nod in the parks and hundreds of rooftop gardens, now compulsory in all major developments, freshen up the air.
The original settlers, known as First Nation, had long lived in the area when Europeans arrived in the early 17th century. The French set up a fur trade but were later replaced by the British, who bought the land from the First Nation for the princely sum of £1,700 plus merchandise. Yet it was only with the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century that the city truly blossomed. According to BBC Radio, Toronto is ‘one of the world’s most diverse cities’, home to 230 nationalities, speaking 160 languages and accounting for an inner city population of 2.8 million.
So Ontario’s provincial capital is larger than Ottawa or any other Canadian city. But laid out as it is on a grid pattern, it is surprisingly easy to explore on foot, from the business centre to Little Italy, China Town, Portugal Village or the bustling Dundas Square on Yonge Street, the place for casual eating, nightlife and cheap theatre tickets. Old and new mingle effortlessly: here the historic Parliament and University buildings, there the old City Hall with a clock tower reminiscent of Big Ben, the stylish harmonious complex of the New City Hall, just steps away, the multi-purpose Rogers Centre, home to the Blue Jays baseball team and concert venue – think Madonna or the Rolling Stones – or the Union Station opened by the Prince of Wales in 1927. Markets beckon with local colour, St Lawrence for fresh produce, Kensington for all things hippy, arty and cool, while the ultimate shopping therapy is found in the vast Eaton Centre. For top designer wear or celebrity spotting, however, it’s the Mink Mile in the Bloor-Yorkville district.
Then you can wander the cobbled lanes of the Distillery Historic District, lined with bakeries and micro-breweries, visit the Royal Ontario Museum or the Ripley’s Aquarium where you can pet a stingray, or chill out under pink parasols on the imported sands of Sugar Beach.
Then there are restaurants and ice cream parlours, coffee and cake shops, but sooner or later the lake calls you back with ferries to the islands and boats cruising nonchalantly along the harbour front, past the mighty CN Tower which dominates the skyline wherever you are in Toronto.
Image: Toronto, CN Tower and Rogers Centre on Harbourfront, seen from the lake.