Toronto overview

A big heart beats beyond the concrete and glass

Toronto overview City Hall - © iStockphotos.com/Arpad Benedek
By Paul French

For a big city, Toronto is an easy place to get to know. Travellers say they feel at home here, and that's because it's a homely place.

A warm welcome

Not that the people are overbearingly friendly; they're not (they are accommodating and famously polite, but seem to have inherited a hint of English reserve). It's more the scale of the place that you can warm to – big enough to be interesting, but not so big that you feel lost or intimidated. Even on a cold winter's day, it can feel welcoming; the blue skies take the edge off the seasonal blahs, and coming in from a snowstorm, the restaurants, bars and shops feel cosy. That said, the city is arguably at its best in the other three seasons: in spring the midtown streets suddenly become forests; in summer the patio bars and waterfront come alive; in autumn the leaves change colour and the air is clean and crisp.

Toronto is its own main attraction

Whatever season you come, don't expect non-stop tourist attractions. Instead, slow down and stroll through the neighbourhoods, soaking up the different cultures that make their mark on Toronto. Kensington Market is a good place to start: this bustling, bohemian neighbourhood is where successive waves of new Canadians have forged their way and given colour to the cityscape. The Annex, Chinatown, Greektown, Cabbagetown, the Beach and Yorkville are other characterful districts that are worth a ramble. For inconspicuous consumption, veer away from the mainstream towards Toronto's quirkier streets – West Queen West, the Danforth, College Street – where individuality comes across in unique shops and places to eat.

To get away from it all, explore the city's wilder side in the many green oases and beaches. Or take in a festival – it seems the city can't let a month go by without throwing one, many of them among the world's best.

Niagara Falls and star architects

Sure, there are a few key tourist sights – some visitors aren't happy until they get to the top of the CN Tower; Niagara Falls is a must – but traditional sightseeing is not a forte. The city realises it's got to beef up its attractions, and many of the cultural venues are in the process of getting ambitious makeovers. A slew of star architects – Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Will Alsop and Norman Foster among them – are adding some dazzle to what has traditionally been a visually underwhelming destination.

Canadians are famously modest, self-deprecating even, but in Toronto lately there's a sense of strut and swagger in its residents. Instead of looking enviously south of the border or across the pond, they are starting to realise that Toronto is an excellent city in its own right. Now the rest of the world is finally catching on.

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