Toronto can sometimes feel like it's second or third fiddle to Canada's other major cities. It isn't as pretty as its West Coast cousin Vancouver, and it doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi as Montréal. But with the attention brought by the Pan American Games in 2015, more people are thinking of T-Dot as one of Canada's best destinations. There are plenty of reasons to visit this eclectic, weird city, and here are seven attractions that capture why we love Toronto.
Ever-evolving and constantly innovating, Toronto’s bravest new attractions tend to operate just under the radar. Because Canada’s biggest metropolis refrains from bragging about its riches – it is a polite, well-brought-up Canadian city after all – Toronto is understated and undiscovered by many… for now. Hurry to explore this urbane getaway before the rest of the world catches on.
1. Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre
Dazzlingly white and playfully angular, the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre complex (77 Wynford Dr; www.agakhanmuseum.org) showcases the intellectual, artistic and scientific accomplishments of the Islamic world. Pulling double duty, this $300-million project underscores Toronto’s multicultural reputation and the namesake benefactor’s pluralist agenda. Among the more than one thousand pieces, highlights include 16th-century paintings from the Persian Book of Kings and the earliest surviving manuscript of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. For masterpieces of a culinary nature, check out the on-site Diwan Restaurant, with its slick and subdued décor and ambitious menu paying homage to Turkey, Iran, North Africa, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
2. Historic Distillery District
A movie set – both literally and metaphorically – the cobblestoned and car-less Historic Distillery District comprises a collection of stunning, perfectly preserved Victorian industrial warehouses. Behind the picturesque facades are winding warrens leading to galleries, ateliers and artisanal foodie shops. The district was once home to a 19th-century distillery, and now very appropriately counts Ontario Spring Water Sake Company (51 Gristmill Ln; ontariosake.com) among its newest inhabitants. Peruse the bottles for purchase or sidle up to the bar for a sake cocktail or straight-up nama sake (unpasteurized sake). You can also watch the distilling process, where California rice mixes with Muskoka water – chosen for its resemblance to the water in Fushimi, Tokyo’s renowned sake-production district.
3. Axe throwing
Since 1909, when Thomas F. Ryan invented five-pin bowling, Toronto hasn’t contributed much to the world of recreation – until now. Whether you call it a new sport or a passing hipster fad, the weird and wonderful art of axe throwing is taking Toronto by storm. Team building? Bachelorette party? Blowing off steam? All are welcome to collectively engage in throwing hatchets at wooden targets in shooting-range–style 'lanes.' This odd pastime is growing so rapidly that Battle Axe Throwing League (BATL Grounds; 33 Villiers St; www.batl.ca), which started in 2006 in someone’s backyard, has just opened a third location: a 7,000-square-foot warehouse just east of Union Station (the second location, still open, is a loft space in the West End). Come any night and you’ll find a totally casual, mostly twenty-something crowd training, competing or spectating. Oh, in case you’re not already totally hooked, get this: You can bring your own beer (cans only).
4. Kensington Market
Toronto has a buzzing foodie scene that highlights the most sought-after crazes in world cuisine, from Hakka to Venezuelan to Ethiopian, with a few funky hybrids thrown in for good measure: Jamaican-Italian, anyone? Try lunch in the new Rasta Pasta (61 Kensington Ave), a tiny take-out joint with tantalizing combo dishes like jerk chicken Panini. After lunch, spend an afternoon wandering the surrounding neighborhood, the ethnically diverse and wonderfully bohemian Kensington Market, with its fragrant spice shops, overflowing produce stalls and ethnic hole-in-the-walls. Catch a ride on the latest ‘new-Nordic’ craze at Fika (28 Kensington Ave; fika.ca), where you can refuel on anise-scented baked goods washed down with a Fika latte – espresso and milk spiked with cardamom bitters and cinnamon.
5. The Toronto Zoo’s newest arrivals
A perennial favorite for kids, the mostly open-air Toronto Zoo (Meadowvale Rd; www.torontozoo.com) is set against the gorgeous backdrop of the leafy Rouge River valley. In a brand-new interpretive center, meet the zoo’s latest arrivals, the Great Chinese Pandas Er Shun and Da Mao, joining the more than 5000 other animals that call the zoo home. Afterwards, you can check out the latest in extreme adventure sports, TundraAir, a zipline ride that allows you to whiz over arctic wolves, polar bears and caribou at 48 kmph. If you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to leave, join Serengeti Bush campers in the African Savanna to overnight in authentic African tents.
6. Toronto for kids
It may not be the world’s first, but the newest Legoland, north of the city, is the only place you’ll see southern Ontario rendered entirely in Lego-brick form, from a Maple Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre to a miniature Maid of the Mist boat underneath Niagara Falls. And, just in case you were wondering, this expansive, 3D man-made model landscape took more than 5,000 hours and uses 1.5 million bricks. Legoland is best for smaller kids, who can let loose in the Lego Construction Zone, see how much they weigh in Lego bricks or learn how Lego is made on a factory tour. Bigger kids can head just up the road to Canada’s Wonderland (9580 Jane St; www.canadaswonderland.com) for roller coasters, animatronic dinosaurs and a new water slide with oscillating funnels and hairpin turns.
7. Edgewalk the CN Tower
What’s more Toronto than the CN Tower, the city’s legendary spire that anchors the imposing skyline? Aside from sensational 360-degree views that draw huge crowds, its newest attraction, Edgewalk (www.edgewalkcntower.ca), has been generating lots of attention. In all-weather orange jumpsuits, participants can circumnavigate, hands free (but tethered by harnesses), an outdoor platform that juts out from the top of the tower, 116 floors high (356m). When you’re grounded and your heartbeat slows, get ready to get it going again in the Ripley’s Aquarium next door. Become the gawkee, rather than the gawker, in Dangerous Lagoon, where a moving sidewalk whisks you through a long tunnel, surrounded on all sides by sharks and stings rays.
For the Toronto Zoo and Legoland, a car is handy. Rental agencies can be found at both Pearson Airport and City Airport. The latter, located on an island near downtown, requires a short (free) hop-on ferry ride.
For the Historic Distillery District, Kensington Market and the CN Tower, you can travel by subway or streetcar. The Aga Khan complex and BATL are accessible by bus. Trains, buses and streetcars (CA$3 one-way) usually come every 5–10 minutes, except on Sundays when service is a bit slower.