As far as bucket lists go, Niagara Falls is typically a popular featured destination, for good reason. I can’t believe I’d never been until now! It’s one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, and it’s right in our own backyard. *Whispers: the Canadian side is better. Sore-y, not sore-y.
Of all of the places I’ve been in our great neighbor to the north, Canada, I had never made it to the eastern side of the country. But, with all of my immediate family out of the country for Thanksgiving, no time was better to seize the moment and head across the border to Toronto. I traded turkey for Tim Hortons, and I regret nothing.
American Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in Canada, which was perfect because I was able to hit the ground running after landing mid-morning at Pearson Airport. This is who greets you in the airport, Tim Horton! A sight for travel weary eyes.
Now, let me just preface this with I was foolish to think that driving in Canada’s largest city would be easy. I rented a car because I was planning on driving to Niagara, but if your plans revolve around staying in Toronto, just take ubers. It’ll save you a lot of headache.
First stop was for grub (as always). Kensington Market is an eclectic neighborhood filled with graffiti adorned alleys, hip boutiques and shops, and an amalgamation of every type of cuisine you could imagine. There’s tacos, German wursts, curry, Australian meat pies, Vietnamese, pizzerias, Hungarian Thai (!!!), Caribbean bakeries. Literally, a smorgasbord of the world’s finest.
I stopped at Jumbo Empanadas to order an empanada that was literally the size of my head. Eating as I walked around admiring the artistic character of the area (reminded me of Berkeley/Oakland), I happened upon a chicken and waffle joint, the Dirty Bird, which hooked me with their tagline of #NorthernFriedChicken. They also had a menu item called the ODB, so baby they got my money.
Adjacent to the market is Chinatown, which is fair in size, and also has business upon business stacked on the streets, spas, chiropractors, random Asian storefronts like you would see in real Asia. I did a lot of sightseeing by car because it was near impossible to find parking anywhere on the street. This led to immense stress because pedestrians are everywhere in this town. And they will teem into the streets even when there’s ONLY 1 SECOND LEFT ON THE WALK SIGN. At certain points, I thought I was going to cause an international incident and let’s just say PM Justin Trudeau wouldn’t be saving me.
People also double park and stop their cars anywhere and it’s very hard to find street parking and it was intense and this was my least favorite thing. Actually, paying exorbitant prices everywhere for parking was my least favorite thing.
But I digress, Yorkville is the tony part of town with the high-end luxury shops and restaurants. The streetlamp lined small streets on the periphery are adorable and have boutiques and spas and it looks like a small neighborhood in London. This is probably where Drake hangs out.
Speaking of Drake, I must confess that I know him more from his turn as wheelchair bound Jimmy on the teen soap Degrassi than from his music. He apparently owns several restaurants in Toronto, and so I guess he started from the bottom and now he’s here. I’ll show myself out.
Adjacent to this area is the University of Toronto. I would have been in trouble had I gone to school so close to the high shops. At the edge sits Bloor Street, which features two of Toronto’s most interesting buildings.
The Royal Ontario Museum is Canada’s most visited museum, dedicated to culture, history and art. The “crystal” expansion was donated by Jamaican-Canadian billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, and has a very controversial (as all art architecture) exterior. I think it’s beautiful, but I guess its detractors might say that makes me a basic consumer of architectural elements used to lure visitors.
Just a block down is the Bata Shoe Museum, a very specialized collection devoted to one of my favorite things, shoes. This museum is free on Thursday from 5-8 PM, and it’s worth a visit. I wish there were more examples of modern shoes, but the timeline of shoes through the ages and the Arctic exhibits were interesting.
On the way to my Airbnb downtown, I had to stop at the new City Hall, with its famous TORONTO sign. I visited this sign several times during the trip, to get different colors and backgrounds. On the first night, I got this beautiful view of the sign reflected on the ice rink, which was weirdly unpopulated for it being close to Xmas.
There is an underground parking structure off of Queen Street just adjacent to the Nathan Phillips Square, where the sign is located, this is the best place to park, as it is walking distance to main shopping areas as well. There’s also a stage for concerts.
The best thing about this area is that it’s very close to the Yonge-Dundas area of shopping and entertainment. This is the Times Square of Toronto.
Yonge Street is similar to Broadway, with its theaters and eateries. Massey Hall is Canada’s famed music venue, originally built in 1894. They’ve been rocking ever since.
My accommodations were located very close to the harbor front, right between the Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre. The ICE condo buildings afford an amazing view of the CN Tower, Toronto/Canada’s tallest structure. Security guards aren’t so nice though.
The next morning, I headed out early to visit the Toronto sign again (I know, I have a problem).
Walking to Yonge Street, Dineen Coffee is a charmingly cute coffee shop with beautiful interiors. Located in a former bank, there’s intricate iron elements and tile work in this small space. The coffee was decent, comforting in the Canadian chill.
I also grabbed a Tim Horton’s donut before parking myself on a bench to people watch in Yonge-Dundas. Even though it was early, there were still commuters hustling aboot.
Then I perused the sales at Eaton Centre. It was Black Friday after all, and while I wasn’t in America, doesn’t mean I couldn’t act like an American and participate in gross consumerism. And I love when malls get all gussied up for the holidays, so festive!
The easy drive to Niagara Falls lasts about 1.5 hours. The Canadian side has a lot of tourist attractions and chain restaurants, while the American side is more subdued, surprisingly. The best place to park is in front of the Police station, where there’s street pay. You have a direct view of the falls in front of you. From here, you can amble along, feeling the light sprinkling of rushing waterfall on your face.
Along the Niagara river is a pedestrian path, affording you vantages from the Rainbow Bridge, American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and then to Horseshoe Falls–the three falls that make up this natural wonder.
At the lip of Horseshoe Falls, you can really grasp how much raw power and energy is generated. It’s really a sight to behold and something you have to experience in person to understand its majesty.
Everything is so peaceful and I was lucky that not many people visit in the winter, even though the weather was perfect. 10 degrees Celsius, ’twas a beautiful day.
If you’re interested, you can also take a boat ride from the Hornblower (CA) or the Maid of the Mist (USA) that will take you super close to the falls. It was fairly cold for this Californian, and I’m not a huge boat person, so I opted for the panorama from above. It always reminds me of Jim & Pam’s wedding on the Office when I see one of these boats, they’re adorable.
Crossing the border into the USA is pretty easy, unless you’re a single female traveler and then they will ask you a lot of questions/be suspicious. That’s okay, I know it’s their job, but can’t a girl just travel 3000 miles for some Buffalo wings? Alright, I see their point.
I headed down another 30 minutes to downtown Buffalo to Anchor Bar, the originator of the Buffalo wing. This tourist attraction/institution is Americana at its finest. The wings were good, but I’ve literally never had a bad one, so nuances are lost upon me.
Buffalo is a quaint city, a lot of churches/religious buildings and brick houses on sprawling roads. Before I left to head back to Toronto, I made a slight detour to Orchard Park, NY to see the New Era Stadium where the Buffalo Bills play. Had to check it off my stadium list.
On your way back into Canada, you will be asked why you went all the way to Buffalo from Toronto to get wings. I feel like this answer is obvious, but don’t make trouble.
To hit up another important sporting destination, I walked from my Airbnb to the Hockey Hall of Fame, located on Front Street near the Union Station. This is a small homage to the great game of hockey, and very manageable on a short timetable. It’s located in a former Bank of Montreal building and the stained glass is GORGEOUS.
There are the requisite displays about the history and notable figures of the game, interactive games, the goal that Wayne Gretzky shot his 802nd goal through, and even a replica of the Montreal Canadiens locker room.
And of course, the piece de resistance, the Stanley Cup. I touched it, so I am guaranteed never to win it, but I’ll take the hit. It’s just such a remarkable, historic trophy.
The hall of legends has all the trophies, the Conn Smythe, Lady Byng, etc. Most of them have Connor McDavid or Sydney Crosby’s names on them currently, but that didn’t dull the shine. 😉
If I hadn’t already packed enough in this day, I had the fortune to visit during the Toronto Christmas Market. This holiday event is smaller in comparison to its European counterparts, but is still incredibly festive. There were stalls hawking poutine, toddys, roasted nuts, handcrafted ornaments, chocolate and gifts.
This market is held in the historic Distillery District, where you guessed it, they used to distill whiskey. There’s a lot of large sculptures and art installations scattered throughout this popular pedestrian mall.
Balzac’s coffeehouse is one of Toronto’s most popular spots and is located in the middle of this district. I love the decor in this shop. I mean, you had me at the Hamlet skull with steaming coffee poster.
By this time of night I’d worked up quite an appetite, since I’d only subsisted on doughnut and hot wings at this point. I was just a picture of health on this trip. Only to be made better by heading to trendy spot, Banh Mi Boys, where I ordered a Club Bao, with fried chicken and pork belly (!!!). I also devoured kimchi fries with pulled pork. Because fried potatoes in a spicy aioli with kimchi is not enough, add the pork. Always add the pork.
On my last day, I took an early morning walk along the Harbourfront Center where I watched people skate on the outdoor rink in front of Lake Ontario.
Boxcar Social is a hipster coffeeshop/restaurant, they serve a mean matcha latte in an instagram dream setting (see: fig trees and reclaimed wood). It made me think of Boxcar Racer while I was there, too.
Saturday mornings are all about St. Lawrence Market, Toronto’s indoor food hall and farmer’s market. There’s been some sort of public market on this site since 1804.
International treats are found here, and I tried the truly Canadian peameal sandwich. This is Canadian bacon on a bun. It was just okay. What was better were the pastries from the bakery on the basement level, maple pecan danishes. Mmm…maple.
Before you leave this area, make sure you check out Toronto’s flatiron building, the Gooderham. Not quite as large as NY’s, but still pretty cute.
And you know I had to see it one last time, the Toronto sign. Sign, I love you.
On my way to the airport, I chose a scenic route, driving on Dupont street. While driving down this up and coming neighborhood, up on the hill, you can catch a glimpse of Casa Loma, a Gothic style castle built for a financier in the early 20th century.
High Park is the central park of Toronto, with many notably historic stops and gardens. There’s even a garden that depicts a large maple leaf, but I didn’t have time to hike down the paths to get to it. This is a great place to get your exercise on, as I saw many groups participating in runs and cycling around this area.
I packed a lot into my short stay but I feel like I got a true sense of Toronto as a city. It’s metropolitan, but it still keeps its smaller homey feel, with a lot of tight knit neighborhoods. There’s a sense of community and pride, while representing a great mix of ethnicities. The skyscrapers and CN Tower dot the sky along the majestic harbor, and there’s people crowding the streets, enjoying life. It seems like that would be easy to do here; seems like it would be easy to live here. Except for the whole dollars as coins thing, with that I would have trouble. Loonie tunes indeed.
Souvenirs: MAPLE SYRUP (extra points for maple leaf shaped jar), Roots gear
Sports: Maple Leafs (NHL), Raptors (NBA), Blue Jays (MLB), Argonauts (CFL)
Food to try: Tim Horton’s, Peameal sandwich
Listen to: Drake, Bryan Adams (Canadian radio plays deep Adams cuts), Neil Young, Rush