Monday, June 10, 2013

Visiting Toronto: What is there to do?

Being the largest and most populous city in the entire country, Toronto is a common place to visit on business and vacation. Lots of movies and TV shows are shot there, so you may start recognizing parts of it even if you've never set foot in the city. Since Toronto is already one of the most hated cities in the country by Canadians, I'll aim this towards the American tourist.
Toronto Waterfront
Basic Facts about Toronto
The city is made up of the official "old" city and a few boroughs including, but not limited to, Etobicoke to the west, North York to the north, and Scarborough to the east. Just in case you don't know, on the south side, one can find Lake Ontario and there's a small collection of islands within a short distance of the mainland.

To complicate things a bit more, the Greater Toronto Area consists of the city of Toronto and a few surrounding cities. For example, one can find the cities of Mississauga to the west, Vaughan to the north, and Oshawa to the east. Total population is about 5.5 million (Wikipedia!).

Downtown Area
I'm going to focus on the Old Toronto area, which mostly includes the downtown and midtown-ish areas. There is an official definition of downtown out there, but my own definition is the area bound by Bloor St. to the north, Dufferin St. to the west, and Jarvis St. to the east -- emphasis on "my definition". I choose these streets because that's mostly where the tall buildings are and it seems busier there.

Start Here
Bus: If you're coming by bus, you may end up at the Toronto Coach Terminal: map. Check your ticket?
Air: If you fly, you may find yourself at Toronto Pearson International Airport at the edge of town: map. There's also a possibility that you may land at the Toronto island airport. Check your ticket?

How do you get around?
There are a few taxi cab companies throughout the city, car rental places, and public transit. Taxis aren't exactly cheap, but they work. Public transit is not remotely bad with coverage throughout Toronto and into the surrounding cities. However, it's mostly bus service outside of Toronto and schedules can vary a lot.

If you stick to Toronto, the name of the transit agency is the TTC or Toronto Transit Commission. You can find fare rates and route maps pretty easily. There are three subway lines: Bloor/Danforth, Spadina/University and Yonge, and Sheppard. One can also find streetcars instead of buses closer to the downtown areas.

What's to do?
Before I go into this, let me reiterate that there are many surrounding cities with lots of places to go and things to do. Check them out if you get the chance.

Otherwise, below is a list of some attractions on the beaten path with some, hopefully, useful links and maps. If you're looking for something "funner" or "seedier", Mr. Google is but a click away. In no particular order:

Royal Ontario Museum: Map
This is the really "weird" looking building at the corner of Bloor St. and Avenue Rd. It went through a massive renovation within the past decade or so. The collection is large, I've been there a few times, and have had great experiences each time. Permanent collections are spread throughout a number of floors and new special exhibits are rotated through regularly. Inside, one can find the usual dinosaurs, period collections from Asia and Europe, Native American artifacts, and knights in armor.  Unfortunately, it's not the MET and there is an admission fee. Do look for discounts at certain times and for certain people (e.g. students).

Art Gallery of Ontario: Map
The art gallery also went through a major renovation within the past decade. I seem to recall the grand re-opening being around late 2008 because there was free admission and I still couldn't get in. Having not been there in well over a decade, maybe even two, I can't say what's in there -- paintings? You can find it at the corner of Dundas St. and Beverley St. There's also a heritage building, the Grange mansion, right behind the building, which was the most interesting part of my visit the last time I went as a kid. I forget if admission is included in the price of the ticket into the AGO, so do ask.

Toronto Eaton Centre: Map
There used to be a major department store inside this massive mall called Eaton's, but it's since gone out of business and replaced by a very large Sears. It's a mall, you buy things, and lots of stores one would usually find in a big mall can be found here. Across the street to the south is another big department store called the Bay (Hudson's Bay), which has a lot of nice stuff. The entire interior of the Eaton Centre was recently renovated in the past few years. One of the changes was the cafeteria or food court at the lowest level.

Yorkdale Mall: Map
Another mall, but this one's further out in the suburbs. There's a subway stop right outside, so it's not too hard to get to without a car. This one is similar to the Eaton Centre except with only one main level and a food court. There are some more upscale stores there, I believe.

Yorkville: Map
I used to keep getting this one confused with Yorkdale Mall. No, Yorkville is a neighbourhood that is known as an upscale area with many upscale shops including a Holt Renfrew. This is prime celebrity sighting territory, apparently.

Queen's Park: Map
The provincial government legislature can be found at University Ave. and College St. downtown. This is where all of the elected officials at the provincial level do their thing -- think state congress? As a high security building, access is limited, but I don't think it's totally off limits. Check out the website if you really to see what's inside and maybe take a tour.

University of Toronto: Map
Right beside the legislature, one can find one of the, if not "the", biggest universities in the country. The streets are accessible and students can usually be seen throughout the year going about their business. There are some interesting buildings with unique architecture found around the campus, so take a walk along St. George St. if you get the chance.

Ryerson University: Map
This is one of the other universities found in the downtown area and the campus is located right beside the Eaton Centre, so you may run into many students. In comparison with the University of Toronto, it's a lot smaller and I don't really know too much about it. The campus is still worth a walk around if you get the chance.

Toronto City Hall: Map
Ah, the other kind of weird looking building. The municipal legislature is found at the corner of Bay St. and Queen St. and is fronted by Nathan Phillips Square. During the winter, the fountain area is frozen and turned into a public skating rink.

Roger's Centre: Map
The home of the Toronto Blue Jays MLB team can be found near the lake at Front St. and John St. Formerly known as the Skydome, this is one huge stadium used for baseball and football. Also, special events are held here including concerts, so do look at the event schedule before dropping by. If you're curious, Roger's is a major telecom company in Canada.

CN Tower: Map
Situated right beside the Roger's Centre is one of the tallest structures in the world. Visitors are allowed up and aside from the view, one can find attractions such as a restaurant. This is one of those things that some locals may not have ever been to.
CN Tower
Air Canada Centre: Map
This is the other major sports stadium in the city except this one's used for hockey and basketball mainly. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL and Toronto Raptors NBA  teams play here. Again, special events are held here, so check the schedule before visiting to see what's going on.

Toronto Islands: Map
A short distance from the mainland to the south are the Toronto islands where one can find an airport, water treatment plant, and amusement park among other things. The island is accessible by ferry -- check the schedules. As a sort of natural area so close to the downtown area, it can be a nice place to "get away" even if you're not interested in the primary attractions.

There is large network of underground tunnels that connects many downtown buildings together. I would describe it as one massive mall connected to at least one massive mall (i.e. the Eaton Centre). A few times, I was able to go from Union Station all the way up to the Eaton Centre -- got lost a dozen times along the way. Both smaller establishments and chain stores can be found throughout, but I believe most only open on weekdays. The part that I think is the nicest can be found in and under First Canadian Place.

Get going?
The list above just about scrapes the surface. Look hard enough and you can also find a convention centre beside the CN Tower and Roger's Centre, two more major malls in Scarborough and Etobicoke, Roy Thompson Hall, various stage shows, numerous parks, etc. Maybe even venture north...
Northern Ontario Lake