//Toronto: Under the surface

Toronto: Under the surface

Diverse breaks in Canada’s largest city are booming. James Litston discovers what makes Toronto tick.

Admiring skyline views is an essential part of many a city break, but few vantage points are quite so immersive as from Toronto’s CN Tower. That’s because I’m not just gazing out from an ordinary viewing deck: I’m standing atop the western hemisphere’s tallest freestanding structure. More specifically, I’m on the roof of its revolving restaurant, hanging over the edge and looking down onto skyscrapers and Lake Ontario. Dressed in an orange survival suit and harnessed to super-strong cables, there’s absolutely no danger of plummeting to the streets below, but nevertheless it’s an adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding experience.

Encouraged by the guide, my six-strong group of fellow daredevils lean backwards over the precipice, then turn around to adopt Superman poses while looking down at the ground almost a third of a mile below. It’s nerve-shredding but exhilarating being out here in the elements, and I’m thankful that I packed my head for heights.

This is EdgeWalk, one of Toronto’s most superlative experiences and a highlight of any stay here in Canada’s largest (and North America’s fourth-largest) city. What makes this more surprising is that Toronto was not long ago written off as rather provincial and dull, but in recent years its fortunes have rapidly changed. A resurgent waterfront, energetic foodie scene and calendar of festivals have added to its vibrancy, while exposure on the TV series Suits (much of which was shot here) has greatly helped to boost the city’s profile.

Heading up the CN Tower is one of the must-do experiences recommended by Abercrombie & Kent, along with waterfront biking and taking a Chef’s Tour through diverse neighbourhoods. “Our clients really enjoy Toronto’s foodie scene and creative counterculture that has parallels with the likes of Williamsburg and Copenhagen,” says the company’s managing director, Kerry Golds. “As well as being great for city breaks, it pairs well with New York, Chicago, Montreal and Boston for a colourful multi-centre. The launch of British Airways’ new Club Suite on the Toronto route in October is certain to go down well with our discerning customer base.”

Feeling surprisingly hungry after descending from such lofty heights, I seek out some of Toronto’s favourite foods at lively St Lawrence Market. Located in the historic Old Town district, the market showcases regional foodstuffs from produce to artisanal goods, alongside a range of brunch spots and restaurants. Urged by a vendor, I opt for a sandwich stuffed with peameal bacon, a hearty snack that he promises is a must-try Toronto tradition. 

Clients will find more foodie treats in central Kensington Market, as well as authentic ethnic fare nearby in Chinatown, Greek Town and Little Italy. Also worth seeking out are the busy street scenes in Yonge-Dundas Square (which has parallels with New York’s Times Square) and the Distillery District, where former warehouses have been transformed into eateries, cafes and one-of-a-kind shops. Youthful clients will also appreciate Queen Street West and West Queen Street for their mix of independent shops, quirky galleries and innovative restaurants.

Historic and cultural attractions also add to the mix of Toronto’s appeal. Tucked among the city skyscrapers are attractions such as Royal Ontario Museum and Casa Loma, a splendid, Gothic Revival mansion and museum. (Both of these are included, along with general admission to the CN Tower, in the Toronto CityPass, which makes a convenient, commissionable upsell.) Another cultural big-hitter is the Art Gallery of Toronto, whose contemporary collections and Centre for Indigenous & Canadian Art are particularly special.

No less historic is the landmark Fairmont Royal York, which I pop into to check out the update it’s undergone  for its 90th birthday. Much of the hotel’s original elegance has been restored to its former glory and further enhanced by the launch of Reign (an all-new, Canadian-style brasserie) and Clockwork Champagne & Cocktails, a lounge-style bar. Better yet, the hotel is connected to PATH, the underground network of pedestrian tunnels, so clients can access Union Station and other downtown destinations without going outside if it’s icy or wet.

That said, the great outdoors is one of Toronto’s biggest assets. From canoeing or kayaking on Lake Ontario to cycling along its shore, clients have ample opportunity to seek out some leafier urban adventures. Those keen to explore on two wheels can join a tour or explore on their own by using the city’s bike-share scheme, which costs from $7 (£4) to access for 24 hours. On sunny days, waterfront neighbourhoods such as The Beaches come into their own, while those keen to go further afield can experience the region’s thundering icon, Niagara Falls, within two hours by public transport.

For my own brush with nature, I take a trip to the Toronto Islands, which sit just offshore from central Queen’s Quay and are easily reached by ferry. Once attached to the mainland before being cut off by violent storms, Centre Island, Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point are a favourite playground of Torontonians seeking a change from the city. Being leafy, laid-back and totally car-free, the islands are a world away from all the big-city bustle, and their beaches throng with day-trippers in summer.

Thanks to being low-lying and flat, the Toronto Islands are perfect for cycling. There are landmarks such as lighthouses and yacht clubs to discover, plus plenty of cafes in which to refuel. It’s worth recommending that clients hire a bike once here to explore, or even join a half-day bike tour (these are pre-bookable through Viator). Also pre-bookable are hour-long sightseeing cruises that stop at Centre Island – ideal for clients who aren’t so keen on active explorations.

As for me, I’m happy to find a spot to sit on the waterfront and admire the view across Inner Harbour back towards the city. Standing proud above the skyscrapers, the CN Tower crowns the skyline, providing a very different perspective to my view from earlier on. It all adds up to a memorable combination of experiences in this underrated city that feels like it’s really come into its own.