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Exploring Toronto: The Best of Canada’s Nicest City

Imagine a city with 2.6 million people and they’re all nice. No, really – every last one of them. And they’re not just nice, they’re REALLY nice. That’s Toronto – Canada’s largest city. And it is a place that won our hearts! Exploring Toronto turned out to be more fun than we ever imagined.

We were in Toronto for a conference and Tourism Toronto had organized a number of tours of the city. We ended up spending several days exploring Toronto, which only scratches the surface on what there is to do here. Here are some highlights and some of our favorite Toronto sites:

Top Places to See in Toronto

People in St. Lawrence market, one of the top Toronto sights
St. Lawrence market

St. Lawrence Market

St. Lawrence Market is a foodie paradise. A major magazine named this the world’s best food market in 2012. I can think of a number of markets that could be challengers for that title, however, St. Lawrence Market did not disappoint. We wandered through the market and stall after stall tempted us with free, delicious samples. The highlight is the peameal bacon! (We call that Canadian bacon back in the States.)

Stack of bones at a butcher in St. Lawrence market
Butcher’s stall in St. Lawrence market

Here in the foodie mecca of Canada, well, peameal just tastes better and as a recovering vegetarian, I know a thing or two about my pork products. Did I mention that everyone is so nice?

Interior of St. James Cathedral
St. James Cathedral

Cathedral of St. James

St. James was founded in 1797 and remains the oldest congregation in Toronto. The current Gothic church was completed in 1853 and reminded us of some of the beautiful churches of Europe. It’s not often we get something so wonderful on this side of the Atlantic.

Hamburger graffiti in Rush Lane
Graffiti in Rush Lane

Queen Street West

This neighborhood is the city’s competitor to New York’s East Village. It is both edgy and sophisticated. You find mohawks and Moreschi shoes living together in peace.  This neighborhood has many boutique shops and moderately-priced restaurants. Behind the surface, the edginess is never far away. (If you turn the corner, you find yourself in Rush Lane. You can read about our visit to Toronto’s Graffiti Alley).

Chinatown in Toronto

Toronto is a series of neighborhoods that were annexed over time, including a large expansion of the city in the 1990s that created the mega-city of today. No neighborhood anywhere gets more attention than Chinatown. Nearly 400,000 people are packed into this area along Spadina Avenue. It is one of the largest fully ethnic neighborhoods anywhere in the world.

As I walked through, it looked a lot like Canal Street in New York with bamboo plants, inexpensive dishes and clothing – but there was one difference: everyone was so nice!

Bottles in the Mill Street Brewery in the Distillery District
Mill Street Brewery in the Distillery District

The Distillery District

Toronto’s distillery district, which dates back to the late 1800s, was once the home of the Gooderham and Worts whisky distillery, but today it’s a bustling destination filled with shops, art and no shortage of restaurants. We stopped by A Taste of Quebec to sample some of their artisan cheeses before heading over to Soma Chocolatemaker to indulge in their drinking chocolate and some exquisite truffles.

After our snacks, we clearly needed some beer, so a stop at Mill Street Brewery to taste some of their varieties fit the bill. Even though we’re not really “beer people,” this place was a winner. If beer’s not your style, Izumi across the square offers a glimpse into the sake making process along with a tasting.

Oil barrells at Crescendo
Oil and vinegar deliciousness at Crescendo

The final stop of our food tour of the distillery district was Crescendo, a shop offering unique oils and vinegars infused with all kinds of flavors like raspberry and pomegranate (some of which came home with us, even in a carry on!).

Apparently we’ve never paid enough attention to the different combinations you can achieve with flavored vinegars of different ages, but the knowledgeable staff let us try everything in the place and had numerous suggestions on how to cook with them later. In short, you’re pretty much guaranteed not to leave the distillery district hungry.

Heading out on a tour with Segway of Toronto
Heading out on a tour with Segway of Toronto

Delicious food and drink and stunning art aren’t the only features of the distillery district. With Segway of Ontario, located in the middle of the action, you can take in the scenery as you scoot along at a whopping (but totally awesome) six miles per hour. If you’re really lucky, you can have the princess helmet – complete with veil – or the Flash Gordon helmet.

Segway of Ontario offers several different tours of varying lengths and costs, and it’s a really fun way to see this unique part of Toronto from an unusual vantage point. And I can pretty much guarantee that tourists will stop to take your picture as you zoom past.

Kensington Market

In the late afternoon of our Toronto exploration, a local Toronto travel writer gave us a guided tour through the Kensington Market. Kensington “Market” is less a market than an urban environment – part outdoor market, part funky/boutique stores and all iconic Toronto.

Unfortunately, we arrived as most of the businesses were closing, but it gave us a feel for Kensington’s funkiness, but it also meant we were here for dinner and were able to get into one of the noodle shops that border Chinatown.

The Great Outdoors

Despite being a large metropolitan city, Toronto has a surprising amount of natural beauty. Just before sunset, we headed about 20 minutes from downtown to Scarborough Bluffs, one of the best hiking spots in Toronto. Here, white sandstone cliffs plunge into the Lake Ontario. This is a great spot to enjoy at sunset and the view from the bluffs is magical.

We felt we only scratched the surface on our day exploring Toronto!

The tours mentioned in this article were provided by Tourism Toronto. All opinions about exploring Toronto (especially about bacon and chocolate) are our own.

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