Facing off against New York State, far across the slate-grey waters of Lake Ontario, Toronto walks the line between American cultural osmosis and staunch Canadian independence. Masters of this balancing act, Torontonians shift between both worlds with verve, tolerance and open-mindedness. Spend a day here and you’ll soon discover that, like these paired cultures, the essential highlights of ‘T.O.’ are both self-evident and subtle.

But before you decide which is which, kick-start your heart in one of the city’s stellar coffees houses – try Jet Fuel or Kalendar.

Next stop is the funky spindle of the CN Tower. As iconic as the Sydney Opera House or Eiffel Tower, ‘La Tour CN’ is the world’s second-tallest free-standing structure (553.3m). On a clear day the views from the top are absolutely astonishing.

Not far away, skate into the Hockey Hall of Fame for a taste of Canada’s governing passion. Even if you don’t know a puck from a pizza, the interactive multimedia exhibits and memorabilia here won’t disappoint (too much Wayne Gretzky is barely enough…).

The sublime exterior of Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. Image by Ian Muttoo / CC BY-SA 2.0

Also on your hit-list should be the Royal Ontario Museum, with its sparkly new 'crystal’ extensions and natural history galleries. You could call it ‘museum sexy’ – as much a tourist attraction for its jaunty design as its contents.

But enough architectural slap-shots: Toronto’s more subtle spirit resides in its multiculturalism. One in two Torontonians was born somewhere else – a hyperactive human stew that defines the city’s neighbourhoods and fuels its progress with a smorgasbord of world cuisines. Part of the fun of being here is pretending you're eating noodles in Macau, wandering a leafy Dublin backstreet or sipping ouzo in Athens.

Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is the centerpiece of the Royal Ontario Museum. Image by The City of Toronto / CC by 2.0

Hit the ‘hoods and see what’s for lunch. In Chinatown, swim into a garish sea of blaring Canto-pop, $4 haircuts and cheap dumpling diners - try Swatow (309 Spadina Ave, Chinatown). Nearby is Baldwin Village, which feels like a Manhattan movie set, complete with Italian sidewalk cafes and shady maple trees. John’s Italian Caffe (johnsitaliancaffe.com) has earned the tag ‘local institution’.

After lunch explore the elegantly wasted Kensington Market district, where urban bohemians, punks and anarchists shuffle between grungy bars, European fromageries and Caribbean jerk joints. Shopping here is a blast, local specialties including fresh produce, baked goods, vintage duds and discount clothing.

Part of the Community Vehicular Reclamation Project in Kensington Market. Image by Brie79 / CC BY-ND 2.0
Part of the Community Vehicular Reclamation Project in Kensington Market. Image by Brie79 / CC BY-ND 2.0

Thirsty yet? Too many Toronto pubs fall into the out-of-the-box Brit-pub category, but the bar scene embraces everything from sticky-carpet beer holes to slick martini bars, downtown money-waster wine rooms and effervescent G&L bars. Swing by C’est What? (cestwhat.com) for a brew, or Czehoski (678 Queen St W, Queen West) for cocktails.

Down a pre-dinner drink then head to Little India for a face-melting vindaloo at Siddhartha, or Greektown’s Pan On The Danforth for some pan-fried saganaki and slowly ascending bouzouki music. You’ll need to keep your energy up for the night ahead!

Centered on a few decadent blocks known as ‘Clubland’, Toronto’s incendiary club scene gyrates inexhaustibly towards the dawn. If you’re feeling more downbeat, snap to it with a jazzy quartet, or front up for an indie film festival or downtown comedy night. Catch some off-beat Canuck theatre, or a blues band in a sweaty rock room in the Queen West district.

With all of this overlayed by typically laconic Canadian attitude, Toronto is as unpretentious as it is diverse. A day here will leave you stimulated, surprised and invariably well fed.

This article was originally published in October 2010.

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The Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square is lit up in red and white and blue, and reflected in a pool, as the sun goes down in Toronto; Weekend in Toronto


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