Toronto and I have had a somewhat rocky past. While I’ve always liked the city and have written many times that it’s incredibly livable, I have been on the fence when it comes to calling Toronto a tourist destination. I even wrote about it in this post that still generates a lot of debate and discussion. My argument was that while Toronto may be one of the world’s most livable cities, which it is, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great place to spend a few days on vacation. On previous trips, all work-related I might add, I just wasn’t able to discover those sights and experiences we all look for when we travel to a new city. So it was with extreme enthusiasm that I accepted the opportunity to once again return to Toronto, but to see it through the eyes of a local and a new and incredibly innovative program that will soon be launched by Destination Canada.
The concept is simple. Locals know the best places to eat and visit in their city, so why not let them guide would-be visitors? The process was straightforward; I shared a few of my general interests and a local resident put together a loose itinerary for me to follow. Since I always considered Toronto to be a city where visitors needed a little guidance from locals, this was a perfect fit. This was also my opportunity to once and for all see whether or not I liked Toronto as a city to visit and whether or not I could finally recommend Toronto to people as yet another fun and interesting Canadian travel destination. I was compensated for my participation in the project but, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
The local and the concept
My major issue with visiting Toronto in the past was that even during the trips I knew I wasn’t seeing Toronto in the “right” way. Every city is different, each one unique with its own particular vibe and I intuited that Toronto needed a local’s eye. And I was right, to really get to know the best aspects of the city and understand why its citizens love living there so very much, you really do need some local advice. The interests I submitted included adventure travel, food, culture and more and I was excited to see what the schedule would look like. Maybe schedule is too strict a term, what the local provided really was an outline of how I could spend my three days in the city. That’s what people will get when they participate in the program; nothing set in stone or too many things in a day. Just some nice suggestions to enable visitors to better understand the destination. Rather than go day by day, I thought I’d pull out some of the highlights and how they helped me better appreciate Toronto.
The CN Tower is hardly a hidden secret in Toronto, but an extreme adventure at the Tower was recommended to me by my local because of my love of adventure travel. However, there’s a reason why I had skipped the Tower on previous visits. I have what I call a conditional fear of heights. I can look out from the observation tower of a massive skyscraper, but a 5-foot ladder at home sends me into a downward spiral of fear. It’s when the barriers are removed that I get really scared, but it’s a fear I’ve been trying for years to eradicate. The world’s highest bungee swing, tower walks, zip lines, you name it and I’ve tried it, which is how I found myself donning a bright red jumpsuit to prepare for one of the most hair-raising experiences I’d ever attempted – the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower.
Completed in 1976, the CN Tower is a 1,815-foot high communications and observation tower in downtown Toronto and was the tallest freestanding structure in the world until 2010 when it was finally surpassed by the Burj Khalifa. In 2011, the CN Tower opened the EdgeWalk, allowing thrill-seekers the opportunity to walk around the outside of the Tower at a height of 1,168 feet. It’s the world’s highest full-circle, hands-free walk and I was slightly terrified. I understood that it was safe and that I would be tethered and safeguarded, that’s not the issue. As with so many other people, typically my brain decides to ignore the logic of the situation and when I’m at a height like that I tend to freeze. It was with all of this in mind that I was excited for my adventure, but also nervous.
I’ve done quite of few of these extreme height experiences, and honestly speaking the EdgeWalk is the most professional operation I’ve seen so far. From start to finish, the staff take amazing care of guests and the safeguards are unlike anything I’ve experienced as well. (Actually, that should have me worried about all of those other experiences.) I felt safe and protected as my small group of 5 joined our guide outside of the Tower itself. My first emotion was awe. The views from that height are stunning and it helped me appreciate the beauty of the city even more than I had before. Then the tricks began. Our instructor had us lean back dangling over the city below, place our toes over the edge and any number of other slightly terrifying feats of daring, but you know what? I did them all. I didn’t want to and I almost chickened out on a couple of them, but at the end of the day I did everything asked of me and had an amazing time in the process. I don’t think my conditional fear of heights has been conquered yet, but this experience certainly helps.
All the food
Toronto has long been known as one of the great culinary centers of Canada, and with good reason. One of the most multi-cultural cities I’ve ever visited, there are scores of nationalities represented amongst the citizenry and this necessarily translates to the food scene. You can find any type of food in the world, from Nepalese to American Southern and everything in between. Food is I think at the heart of the Toronto experience and is frankly what had been missing from my previous visits to the city. I just didn’t know where to go, what to eat and experience and felt lost. That’s where the advice of a local isn’t just nice, it’s essential. The Toronto food scene moves fast, with new and innovative restaurants popping up all the time. That being said, one of the foodie highlights of my day was in a long-beloved Toronto neighborhood, Kensington Market.
Guidebooks call Kensington a “distinctive multicultural neighborhood,” which is a really nice way of saying that it’s a weird but wonderful place to visit. I love Toronto for its tolerance and acceptance of people from all walks of life, and this ethos is found in perfect microcosm in Kensington. People there are a little weird, but that’s what makes it so special. Walking around, colorful, but not destructive, graffiti covered nearly every wall, and a variety of second-hand clothes shops, vintage record stores and small cafes and markets lined the streets. But I was there to eat, and I quickly discovered what is one of the best tacos I’ve ever enjoyed at Seven Lives, a cash-only taqueria serving up the most succulent Baja-style tacos I’ve ever found. It also explained the line out the door, but the wait was well worth it. I just ordered one though, because my afternoon was all about following the advice of the local expert and slowly eating my way around Kensington. The restaurants and small cafes reflect the wonderful eccentricities of the neighborhood, and you can find everything from Rasta Pasta (Jamaican/Italian fusion) to a brightly colored ice cream shop serving homemade popsicles. It was a little hipsterish at times, but the food spoke for the experience and immediately I understood why food lovers flock to Toronto in droves.
My few days in Toronto was all about the food, and the itinerary developed by the local based on my interests was the perfect way for me to truly experience and understand the city. Traditional Persian kabobs, quirky breakfast spots with the best granola I’ve ever tasted along with so many more delightful, singular experiences defined my time in the city. But they all have a common theme; I wouldn’t have found most of them with the aid of a local in the know. Looking back at it, maybe one or two eateries would have popped up in my research, but that’s it. Even then, I wouldn’t have “really” known if they were good, I would have questioned online reviews and in the process, may have missed out on these foundational experiences. That’s the value of local knowledge and that’s why I love the idea of actively involving them in the travel planning process..
Innovative cultural resources
Like all cities, Toronto is always redefining itself and one way to see the cutting edge changes underway is to visit a couple of redeveloped neighborhoods, which my local expert recommended for my visit. Starting at the Distillery District, I immediately fell in love with this steam punk inspired neighborhood. Once home to the largest distillery in the world, the brick Victorian buildings found throughout the large, 130-acre district are a wonderful relic almost lost to time. Sitting in ruin for decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000s when efforts began in earnest to redevelop the neighborhood but the results are stunning. Cafes, restaurants, shops, condos, offices and galleries all call the Distillery District home, and spending some time exploring them was something I’d never do on my own, but which also became a key experience during my brief stay in town.
There are several other spots as distinctive and interesting as the Distillery District all around Toronto, some of which I visited and others I thoughtfully saved for future explorations of this great city.
I have to admit that before my trip I was dubious as to whether I would end my third visit to Toronto any differently than the ones previous. Part of how we experience new destinations is based on our own feelings and attitudes and so I went into this trip as open-minded as possible. But I know for a fact I wouldn’t have been able to discover the Toronto I’d missed before without the help of a local. Toronto in particular is a city of neighborhoods and it takes someone in the know to lead visitors through the experience. I loved the process of sharing my general interests and seeing what came back, some things I would have done on my own but mostly ideas that would never have occurred to me. It was thanks to this insider-detail that I was finally able to walk about from the city happy about my time spent there, my respect for Toronto increasing all the time. What we all want when we travel is to feel connected, to feel like we really are part of the community. I can think of no better way of accomplishing this sometimes-lofty goal than with the assistance of someone who lives in and loves their city, their passion coming through with every recommendation. So yes, I do like Toronto and I’d certainly return, to enjoy more great food and to continue my own education into what makes this city so great.
Be sure to check out the Keep Exploring website for even more Canadian travel ideas!