As the cab from the airport inched forward in nose to tail traffic towards the distinctive skyline in the distance, I already knew I was going to be charmed by Toronto. While beaches and mountains are all very well, I’m a city girl at heart and the lure of late night shopping, museums and a decent wine list means I’m always on the hunt for my next city fix.
With a 10 per cent increase in British visitors last year, it seems Toronto is now becoming a real alternative to New York, thanks to new direct flights from Gatwick. The Canadian dollar is relatively weak compared to the US dollar too, making your increasingly worthless post-Brexit pounds stretch that little bit further.
Certainly, the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto is a match for anything Manhattan can offer and a good place to base yourself to make the most of the city. I stayed at the 46 storey Delta hotel, which boasts vertigo-inducing views, an exclusively Canadian whiskey bar and an all-day takeaway counter in its restaurant. Best of all (especially if you lose your bearings during your stay) it’s virtually next door to the city’s iconic CN Tower, once the world’s tallest free-standing structure and this year celebrating its 40th birthday. With a glass-floored area, revolving restaurant and the nail-biting Edge Walk that allows adrenaline junkies to walk around the outside of the building in a harness, it’s a must-visit attraction, with breathtaking views across the city to Lake Ontario and the picturesque Toronto Islands.
Back on solid ground, I left the gleaming buildings of downtown behind to explore the neighbourhoods tucked behind the skyscrapers. Usually overlooked by tourists heading to the swish designer stores in Bloor-Yorkville, West Queen West is my first stop and an art-lover’s paradise, crammed with independent boutiques, tiny galleries and hipsters craned over laptops. At its heart is the super-cool Drake Hotel, a former crack house turned boutique hotel that has a full-time art curator and ever-changing exhibitions. Take the stairs at the back of the bar and follow signs to the washroom to find the hidden heated terrace, where I sampled their famous Brown Butter Maple Old Fashioned under a specially commissioned animated mural by British artist Insa.
The next day, I headed to the endearingly ramshackle Kensington Market, which comes alive at the weekend with street performers and stalls. The place where many immigrant communities first settled in Toronto, its brightly coloured, bohemian shops now attract discerning vinyl devotees and vintage fashion lovers. Have a rummage in Sub Rosa or Urban Catwalk for clothes or try the spacious Bungalow for retro homewares and covetable accessories that will have you sitting on your suitcase to squeeze them all in.
The area is also heaven for foodies. With more than half its residents born outside Canada, Toronto is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities, with districts including Little Portugal and Koreatown, and it has a thriving and unique food scene to match. More than 30 new restaurants opened this year alone but Kensington Market is the place to eat your way round the world in just a few steps. Pop into Fika Café for Swedish pastries and coffee then make your way to Rasta Pasta for Jamaican-Italian fusion and some of the best jerk chicken I’ve ever tasted. Afterwards, copy the locals and head to the secret Cold Tea bar for mysterious cocktails improvised on the spot by the barman, a killer playlist and a booth serving dim sum until last orders. To find it, head to Kensington Mall, then follow a dirty, dimly lit corridor to an unmarked grey door under a red light.
Toronto takes its drinking seriously and the city’s distillery district is worth a visit too. With its cobbled streets, sculptures and independent shops, it’s a surprisingly pretty tribute to Toronto’s boozy history renowned for live music during the summer and an extensive Christmas market. I joined a tasting tour to take in the craft beer at the Mill Street Bewery, a sake brewery with more than 150 sakes and the renowned Soma Chocolate Shop where handmade chocolate is fashioned into every possible flavour of truffle. Be sure to try the spicy Mayan hot chocolate too, made with melted dark chocolate, chilli, ginger and secret spices and served as an incredibly intense shot or in a mug with hot milk.
If wine’s more your thing, book a table at Canoe in the financial district for dinner on your last night. Worth it for the views of the nearby CN Tower alone, this 54th floor restaurant serves mouth-watering contemporary Canadian food with fine dining flare and a buzzy after-work atmosphere. The waiter can recommend local wine from the Niagara Peninsula, then point out the vineyard it comes from in the distance as you sip.
Toronto has the shops, sights and skyscrapers to keep even the most jaded city break fan happy. But it’s the unexpected details and neighbourhoods that set this city apart from the well-trodden blocks of New York. It’s hard not to be impressed. Toronto is so good, they only had to name it once.