A visitor’s guide to Toronto

I was lucky enough to get the chance to come and work and live in Toronto for 4 months. Since I’m about to get shipped off home, I thought it might be useful to put together some info and tips about (aboot) living here.

Bear in mind that I’ve been living downtown, so this is very much from a non-suburbs point of view. Prices mentioned were valid as of May 2012.

Getting Around

The TTC

The TTC is the operator of Toronto’s transit system which is made up of buses, streetcars (trams) and subway. It’s $3 for a single journey and you can transfer between modes of transport as part of a journey. At the weekends, a family ticket is available for $10.50 that will get 2 adults and 4 kids around all day.

The main problem with the public transport is its lack of coverage. Most people here drive or cycle so it can be difficult to get to certain places from downtown. A trip to the zoo on public transport will take around 90 minutes.

Taxis

There are plenty of taxis available. Prices are generally high but longer distances (like airport → city) have set prices. It cost us $55 + tip for a taxi from the airport to downtown.

Walking

Downtown is very pedestrian-friendly. Crossings are split into two types – those with a walk/don’t walk indicator and those which are “give way”. The indicator ones are simple enough. Cross when the walking person is shown. The crossing display will start counting down to when it’s going to change to don’t walk. You’re not supposed to start crossing while this is counting down but people don’t tend to adhere to that. If you think you can make it, go for it.

The give-way crossings have a marked crossing on the road. Drivers pretty much always stop to let you cross. If you hesitate, you’ll likely get a scowl. Drivers will also sometimes stop in the middle of the street to let you cross. I’ve had a police car do this when I was carrying coffee. Pretty strange but just the way it is.

Day to Day

Money

Most displayed prices in shops and restuarants don’t include tax, so you’ll need to keep in mind the extra 13% that this adds to any total.

While most stores are fine with card payments, some smaller grocery stores only accept debit cards.

ATMs can sometimes be thin on the ground outside of the city centre. Shops will have standalone ATMs but expect to pay $2-3 per transaction to use them. I’ve also had problems using my pre-paid credit card in them.

Groceries

The main shops downtown are:

  • Sobeys – most like supermarkets back home
  • Longos – more like a Marks & Spencer type food store but with freshly cooked meals available to take home
  • Loblaws – huge supermarket for buying all sorts of stuff; massive cake section; live bands – worth seeing
  • No Frills – bargain basement “no brand” store that’s a subsidiary of Lobwlaws. They tend not to be in the nicest of areas but the quality of the produce is pretty good. Think Farmfoods.

If you want to buy alcohol, you’ll need to go to an LCBO or Beer Store. Supermarkets don’t sell it.

Clothes

While you’ll find just about every type of chain store downtown, some of the surrounding malls are also worth a look. You can jump on the subway directly up to the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. In addition to the mall out there, there’s a great selection of cheaper outlet stores along Orfus Road, a short walk from the mall.

If you’re looking for the more expensive stuff, head up to Bloor Street. This is the Toronto equivalent of London’s Mayfair so is full of designer boutiques and expensive hotels. There’s also a huge Pottery Barn which is good for the comedy value of the prices.

Other Shopping

If you’re looking for homewares of any kind, try Canadian Tire. You’ll find anything from cutlery to hockey helmets here. Another good bet is Sears. You’ll find pretty much anything in this huge multi-storey department store.

Costco is an experience – this is like a giant Ikea storeroom but filled from everything from clothes to drums of cooking oil. You need a ($50) membership card to get in but it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

Stuff to Do and Places to Visit

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in Toronto. In the four months we’ve been here, we’ve still not managed to get round to everything we wanted to.

In the city

The CN Tower

View from the CN Tower
You can’t spend any time in Toronto without noticing the looming CN Tower peering at you from the skyline (at 1815ft high, it’s pretty hard to miss). And you can’t really come to Toronto and not take the opportunity to venture up. If you can visit on a clear day, the views from the observation deck really are amazing.

The Tower also has a 360° revolving restaurant. It’s very overpriced for merely average food ($65 for a steak) but it’s a lovely way to spend an hour watching Toronto slowly revolve around you.

Chinatown

Chinatown
If you head west from downtown, you’ll come to Spadina – Chinatown. It’s pretty hard to miss. A good route in is via Baldwin Street. That’s a short street full of restaurants and cafes of all types of cuisine and will lead you onto the main part of Spadina.

While in Chinatown, a must visit is the Kensington Market. From Spadina, head down St Andrew’s Street and you’ll find yourself in the middle of hundreds of small shops, cafes and market stalls. You can easily spend all day there.

Greektown

Flag on Danforth
Head out to Pape Station on the subway and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Greektown, a bustling, busy and delightful area that comprises of Danforth Avenue and the surrounding streets.

This is the only place where I’ve seen a “proper” Scottish pub. Even though the pics on the wall were of distinctly non-Scots folk like Morrisey.

The Distillery District

The distillery district is a conversion of a group of Victorian factory buildings into a pedestrianised shopping/eating/drinking plaza. They made the very good decision to keep the original building façades and ban any large chain shops (you’ll not find a McDonald’s here).

It’s a lovely place to walk around in. And, you need to try the beer from the Mill St. Brewery. Their Coffee Porter is in a league of its own.

The Beaches


The Beaches, as you may have guessed, have the air of a British seaside town. Stretching along the east side of Queen St., you have a main strip of shops and cafes. Head down the hill from there and you’ll pass some gorgeous (and very expensive) houses and parks before coming to the beaches. From here, you’ve got plenty of room to either camp out or just stroll along the boardwalk and enjoy the sea lake air.

The easiest way to get there from downtown is to jump on the 501 streetcar going east from Queen St. Although, every time we’ve been on it, part of the service has been unavailable. But, replacement buses are always on. Just jump off anywhere after Woodbine Avenue and you’ll be able to find your way around. Down the hill to the beach.

Queen Street

Running pretty much the full length of the city, Queen Street has a lot to see and do. Downtown and heading west to Spadina will take you to shops and restaurants. As far as I’m aware, this was the “trendy” part of town up until a few years ago.

Heading east will take you through some of the less pleasant parts of the city before heading out to The Beaches.

If you like clothes shopping and student-friendly bars and restaurants, this is a good place to go.

King Street West

A few streets down towards the lake from Queen Street is King Street. If you’re looking to go pubbing or clubbing, this is where you want to go. Friday and Saturday nights see the locals come out in force with the main areas being between University and Spadina.

The Eaton Centre

The Eaton Centre is the quintessential North American mall. It’s a sprawling complex that will take you from Dundas down to Queen.

The main entrance from Dundas is at the huge Sears. That shop alone is easy to lose a day in.

The general rule is that shops gets cheaper as you descend. On the bottom floor is the food court which offers a great selection of food although was the scene of the unfortunate shooting incident in June 2012.

Further Afield

Toronto Island

Centre Island North Beach
More accurately islands since it’s made up of three main ones – Centre Island, Ward Island and Hanlan’s Point. The “main” island is Centre Island. You can get the ferry over from the bottom of Bay St. and, at 2012 prices, it is $7 return for an adult.

The islands are a sprawling area of parkland, barbecue areas, gardens, a marina and beaches. It’s also mostly pedestrianised now.

Centre Island has its own amusement park but it’s really aimed at small kids. It’s free to walk around it so I wouldn’t recommend buying tickets before you get there if you’re not sure anyone’s going to benefit from the rides.

Our favourite parts were the beaches at the far end of Centre Island. We didn’t venture onto the “clothing optional” beach at Hanlan’s Point.

Bike rental is available on the island – just go to Centre Island and follow the main walkway up the the rental place on the far side.

Ontario Science Centre

I was told by one of the locals that the Science Centre is visited by every school child at some point during their education. The exhibits are interesting but, at least when we went, a good number of them were broken or damaged in some way. There were a lot of kids running around, battering into anything they could. Great to see them getting an interest in science but worth being aware of before you head out.

The Omnimax theatre is pretty impressive. It’s like IMAX except from inside a giant bowl. The screen extends all around your peripheral vision so is very immersive.

Niagara Falls

Canada’s mini-Vegas with a view. A couple of hours on the Greyhound and you can be in Niagara Falls. It’s very much worth going to – the falls really are spectacular.


The Maid of the Mist boat tour is on its last year this year but I’m sure something else will take its place. You get really soaked on the boat (like standing in a shower at times) but you get a flimsy poncho to keep the worst off of you.

Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls
Clifton Hill is in the centre of the touristy bit. This is the famously tacky area where you have amusement arcades, funhouses, bars, (very expensive) restaurants etc. We stayed at the Confort Inn in the area which was really good and pretty decent value. If we were going back, I’d probably book something down closer to Fallsview Blvd and Dixon Street as it looked like there were better options for restaurants and such there.

The casinos are also a must visit. Going in and watching people gamble away fortunes while you play the 1c machines is fun. The free soft drinks are a bonus if you’re not drinking.

It’s a very tacky place and very expensive but, if you’re prepared, then it’s a great trip. A couple of days is about enough.

Food & Drink

Tim Horton’s

You can’t come to Toronto and not love Tim Horton’s. Cheap and very tasty. If you like your coffee white and sweet, ask for a “double double”. That’s two sugars and two creams. By far the most popular thing asked for in one of the many, many venues around the city.

I much prefer it to Starbucks since it’s real coffee (not the milky, fake tasting stuff from the green place) and is great value. A large double double is a little over $2, where a similar sized Starbucks is around $6.

Tim Horton’s is also famous for its doughnuts. These are freshly made and very addictive. Smores and Canadian Maple probably being the pick. It’s probably a good thing for me that they aren’t more readily available in Scotland.

Salad King

Salad King is a Thai noodle place on near the corner of Dundas and Elm. Always very busy but the fast turnover and excellent food makes it worth a visit. If you just want take-out, head to your right when you get into the main restaurant.

The Big Slice

An excellent pizza place at the corner of Yonge and Gerrard, The Big Slice offers either pizza by the slice or the whole deal. The Pizza Pizza nearby can be better value but the Big Slice just beats it for quality.

The Rex

The Rex is a fun pub/restaurant that has possibly the grumpiest server in Toronto. But, if you’re expecting that, it can be quite fun. In a city where most servers go out of their way to be polite and helpful, it can be an interesting change to have your bill thrown at your table in passing.

The do some good beers though and their Texas Club sandwich is pretty excellent.

Egg Smart

Looking for a typical huge Canadian breakfast of bacon, eggs, ham, sausage, home fries, pancakes and coffee? Then, you’ll be hard pressed to beat Egg Smart on Bay. The food is just as good as the much more expensive Eggspectation and the service is much better.

Korean Grill

I’d never heard of bibimbap before coming to Toronto. But, after being taken to the Korean Grill by workmates, I was recommended to try this lovely dish served in a burning hot bowl.

One of the main features of the restaurant is that you can cook your own food there if you fancy it. Not something I tried but plenty of people seemed to be into it.

The 3 Brasseurs

This pub is located just off of Dundas Square. For some reason they maintain that they’re a French pub/restaurant while specialising in mostly German food and similarly styled beer.

The beers are a real treat. If you want a hefty drink, make sure to try a varlet.

Others

Other places that are worth a look: Houston Steak & Ribs have pretty decent ribs and serve the biggest dessert I’ve seen in their tower cake.

Hard Rock Cafe is on par with most of their other venues I’ve tried so is always worth a shout.

There are several Firkin Pubs dotted around the city. These are the closest I’ve seen to a UK-styled pub over here. Food is generally good and beers decent as well (although I’m not a fan of their own brew).

Miscellaneous

One thing I was surprised about when I came here was the number of homeless people laying around in the middle of the sidewalk, mainly because that’s not something I’ve seen back home. The few times I’ve been approached by someone for money, they’ve not pressed when I’ve refused but that might be the Scottish accent.

I’ve been stopped a few times by people handing out flyers and trying to collect money for Black History Month. While this actually is an event in February, the fact that I’ve been approached by dodgy looking characters right up until now (early June) suggests that at least some of them are scamming. So, watch out for that.

Overall

My time in Toronto has been the best period of my life. It’s a wonderful, vibrant city with a multicultural population of friendly, welcoming people. You almost always feel comfortable walking around at night, and the ned/feral kids problems of back home just don’t seem to exist here.

If you get the chance to visit, then please do. You’ll have an amazing time.

Kevin Wilson

.NET developer, JavaScript enthusiast, Android user, Pebble wearer, sometime musician and occasional cook.

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