For some time now, Canada – and, more specifically, its vibrant city destinations – has been creeping steadily up my radar as a laid-back and hip alternative for an urban escape to North America. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance when an opportunity presented itself to go on a pre-Christmas trip to Toronto, the country’s largest city, and finally pop my maple leaf (so to speak)!
Hopping on one of Air Canada’s six-a-week direct flights out of London Heathrow, seven hours later we descended into Pearson International Airport from where Francesco’s Limousine service delivered me smoothly to the centre of the city within a quick 30-minute car journey. With an action and food-packed itinerary expertly put together by Tourism Toronto, looking out on the imposing skyscrapers dotted around the financial district from my room on the 20th floor at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was a heady experience – and I swear it wasn’t the complimentary champagne on tap in the Club Lounge, honest!
Making the most of the GBP to Canadian Dollar exchange rate, my first outing into Toronto city life was a mad dash around the shops to stock up on winter warmers in the Eaton Centre – with up to minus 15 degrees Celsius awaiting you in late November, you better be prepared, and I managed to snare some Alexander Wang for Uniqlo thermals. Thankfully, The Ritz-Carlton is also equipped with a spacious wellness area that is home to the only My Blend by Clarins spa outside of Paris and features a hot tub with views on the neighbouring CN Tower, as well as several saunas and steam rooms to warm up after a day bracing the cold. Ready to immersive myself into Toronto’s pre-Christmas magic, here are my top recommendations for when you visit the capital of Ontario in winter…
1. Explore Toronto By Foot
During my week-long stay, I loved roaming the city and learning more about its history, culture and culinary scene by taking part in a variety of walking tours. Not only are they great for finding your bearings, they also lead you off the beaten track and you’ll get insider information straight from the locals. Eccentric and loveable Toronto tour guide Bruce Bell, a renowned historian and kind of an all-round big deal, brought our group up to speed on the city’s history with plenty of laughs before leading us into the smorgasbord of authentic local delicatessen that is St Lawrence Market, where we tried our first peameal bacon sandwich.
Having worked up an appetite, the world-famous CN Tower is a great place to refuel while enjoying spectacular views across the city, high up in the clouds (or hopefully a blue sky) at 360 The Restaurant. Slowly spinning across Toronto at a jaw-dropping height of over 351 metres, on a clear day you can look all the way across to the Niagara Falls. The ‘prix fixe’ menu offers some tasty choices featuring Canadian cuisine and fine local wines from an award-winning selection of 550 grapes. Try a Chenin Blanc from the Niagara region before savouring treats like the Sleger’s Organic Greens Salad with pickled squash & pears, dried blueberries and maple sunflower vinaigrette, and a hearty Braised Beef Short Rib with Rutabaga purée, sautéed baby turnips and mushrooms before finishing with a Chocolate Hazelnut Dacquoise – that’s an insane concoction of hazelnut meringue, dark chocolate mousse, torched banana, whipped crème fraiche and croquant crusted brandy snap to me and you!
Heading out of Downtown Toronto into the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Leslieville, I absolutely loved the Culinary Adventure Co’s walking tour of this hip district and neighbouring Riverside, which took us from artisanal cider tasting at Brickworks Cider to an educational workshop on fresh coffee where we roasted our own green beans, before settling into divine Lebanese restaurant Tabule with the most delicious roast aubergine and tasty falafel, and, as a sweet finish, a pit-stop at award-winning ice cream parlour Ed’s Real Scoop offering unique flavours such as Blood Orange Sorbet, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Hogtown Fog ice cream (which is actually an elegant Earl Grey tea flavour, and simply delicious). Tour founder and cheese lover Kevin Durkee regaled us with plenty of local stories and introduced us to some real foodie characters, his obvious passion for Toronto’s culinary scene making the afternoon all the more fun and informative!
Cocktail fiends will enjoy the ‘sip, walk repeat’ philosophy of Drink Toronto, which led us to a variety of hot foodie destinations on Toronoto’s cocktail trail to sample a variety of bites across the sweet and savoury range while getting merry on mixology concoctions shaken and stirred by Ontario’s finest bartenders. The Downtown Holiday Cocktail Stroll is perfect for a little festive cheer, but be prepared, the portions are generous and the drinks are potent! A personal favourite was the Assembly Chef’s Hall food market, where you can browse pop-ups from 17 talented local chef’s including hearty slices of pizzas, squishy bao buns and giant cookie sandwiches washed down with pitchers of Margaritas. Vegan Mexican Rosalinda, a stunning new restaurant by whiz-kid chef Grant van Gameren, won us over instantly with strong Margaritas and tasty plant-based treats such as jackfruit tacos. The airy, plant-covered interiors and moody wall murals also make this a favourite for the old Instagram…
2. Be A Culture Vulture
For those inevitably rainy days, why not hit the museums? The Royal Ontario Museum – short ROM – is not only a stunningly beautiful building in its own right, it also houses fascinating displays of art, world culture and natural history in its halls. From ancient Chinese warrior statues and African art to special exhibitions such as Spiders: Fear and Fascination, which is open until 6 January 2019. Brought to life with great attention to detail and interactive elements, this is the place to lose yourself for a few hours. For something fun and frivolous, challenge your senses at the Museum of Illusions with a variety of optical trickery. From shrinking yourself to creating an army of clones, anything is possible! And trying to navigate the spinning ‘vortex’ tunnel without coming out the other side crawling on all fours was so much fun, our little gang had to try it twice!
3. Get Into The Festive Spirit At The Distillery District Christmas Market
With its labyrinth of cobbled walkways and charismatic red brickwork buildings, the Distillery District is worth a visit at any time of the year. Boasting a selection of trendy boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, we can see ourselves sipping cold beers here with our friends in the summer time. However, during the festive season the area is transformed into a Christmas Market of epic proportions. The buildings are dripping in glittering fairy lights, a huge Christmas Tree takes pride of place in the square and charming wooden huts selling a variety of winter food favourites line the streets. Unlike its European equivalents, alcoholic beverages like mulled wine are restricted to a particular area of the market, in which you can sip on treats such as hot cider laced with whiskey or hot chocolate and rum underneath the glow of a neon-lit ‘naughty or nice’ sign. A must-see that will get even a veritable Christmas Grinch into the festive swing!
4. The Winter Lights Exhibition at Ontario Place
For an evening away from the hustle and bustle of the city head out to Ontario Place, a man-made peninsula reaching out into the waters of Lake Ontario. A beautiful public park that hosts live music events, yoga classes, festivals – you name it – it even has its own IMAX 3D Cinesphere where you can catch classics like Die Hard, Wizard of Oz or The Fifth Element. Until March 17th 2019, the West Island of Ontario Place will be home to the annual Winter Lights Exhibition, a magical outdoor display of illuminated art installations, this year curated under the theme of ‘Disruptive Engagement’. Warm up on hot cider and whiskey (a favourite, yes) before strolling through the forest-covered grounds and rock formations where unique pieces such as A Warm Hug by Kanika Gupta & Amit Kehar – a heart sculpture that lights up in neon when you embrace and squeeze it – invite you to playfully discover the exhibition. It’s a great evening activity to get you and your friends into the festive spirit, or a cute idea for a Christmassy date!
5. Be A Baller
If the Toronto winter cold gets all too bitter, get involved in the nail-biting action of a bonafide NBA basketball game! This was one of the activities I was most excited about, and it seems that the whole city has basketball fever, too. Literally every local I mentioned the game to told me proudly that the Toronto Raptors have been killing it lately. The atmosphere in the huge Scotiabank Arena is electric, and even if you aren’t a sports enthusiast it’s easy to get caught up in it. With Canadian rapper Drake chair-dancing for the ‘kiss cam’, a huge inflatable dinosaur coming out to swallow up audience members, cheerleaders and plenty of freebie merch being chucked into the crowd, there isn’t a dull moment. Let’s go Raptors, let’s go!
6. Get Your Foodie On (Some More)
As a multi-cultural melting pot of nationalities – over 140 languages are spoken in the city – Toronto’s food scene is as exciting and varied as it gets – and I took great pleasure in trying to squeeze in as many culinary experiences as possible. From trendy rainbow lattes to slick sushi joints or exotic cuisines such as Filipino, Sri Lankan, Lebanese and Persian, the city is a veritable feasting ground for every taste. I quickly realised that I had nowhere near enough time to try everything that caught my eye, however, some pretty spectacular meals were had.
If you’re staying at The Ritz-Carlton, your first stop should be in-house restaurant TOCA (which actually stands for Toronto and Canada, not the Spanish word for ‘touch’ as I kept mispronouncing it!). A stylish but cosy Italian affair, the eatery has the coolest hand-painted plates bearing everything from quirky goldfish to noteworthy Canadian citizens – you can eat pasta off Drake’s face! And, drum-roll please, there is an actual. cheese. cave. Yep, you read that right. A whole room dedicated to your favourite dairy!
Low-lit, with a huge art deco inspired circular bar taking pride of place at the heart of the room, Leña Restaurante serves up achingly cool yet inviting South American vibes. An all-day dining destination by chef Anthony Walsh, the menu was inspired by his Argentinian mother-in-law Elena’s cooking and offers everything from tapas-style sharing dishes to hearty burgers, light seafood dishes, juicy meat cuts and colourful salads. I was instantly won over after trying one of the strong and spicy apple and cinnamon margaritas, and I will go as far as saying that the zesty and delicate tuna ceviche was probably the best I have ever tried. From a warming chicken soup to a luscious burrata, the rest of the meal was just as delicious, so Leña definitely warrants more than one visit!
If you have been shopping up a storm in the upmarket Yorkville area, Kasa Moto makes for a perfect lunch stop or end-of-day treat. With its oh-so-pretty watercolour murals, a sleek grey and blue colour palette and modern take on Asian design, it’s an effortlessly hip hotspot that works equally well for lunch with the girls or a rendez-vous. Do not leave without trying the spicy tuna tartare served on crispy rice cubes!
Luckee by Susur Lee
Who can ever resist a Chinese? Exactly. We dove headfirst into the colourful sharing baskets of steamed dumplings for starters, before going it alone on the main courses because they are simply too delicious to share! A hot recommendation is Luckee’s take on the classic duck pancakes, which combined thick slices of perfectly cooked meat topped with the crackliest of crispy skins, crunchy apple slices and a silky foie gras sauce for a luxurious version of the iconic dish. Having only just dipped my toe into the culinary scene of Toronto, the overall conclusion was, ‘I just have to come back…’
For any and all information on Toronto and your Canadian city adventure visit www.seetorontonow.com.