“Hey, good that you arrived in summer. This is the best time to see Toronto,” said my Canadian guide Allen extending me a warm welcome to his hometown. “The city is filled with festivals, events, and activities well worth your time,” Allen told me enthusiastically. “And crowds, of course,” he added a bit apologetically. “Many avoid Canada’s largest metropolis in summer due to overcrowding which makes prices of almost everything soar along with temperatures, but trust me, summer is the time to savor the city most, and not before or after.”
With Allen, I started my tour from the top –quite literally. “Ever wonder what it feels like to be 1,151 feet above Toronto?” asked Allen as we entered the glass-fronted elevator of the CN Tower (“CN” refers to Canadian National), a member of the World Federation of Great Towers and Toronto’s most recognizable and celebrated landmark. Even before I could shake my head and answer him, I found myself exiting from the elevator and entering into a fine-dining restaurant. In just 58 seconds, meaning, in less than a minute, I had rocketed to the top of the 553-meter-tall tower to dine in its award-winning 360 The Restaurant that offers a revolving view of the city that is second to none. Fortunately, it was a clear day and from the Tower’s SkyPod level -a public observation deck- I could see a panoramic and an uninterrupted view of Niagara Falls and Rochester, New York.
As we made our descent from the CN Tower, which held the record for the world’s tallest building and freestanding structure for over 30 years, an attraction called “Tour of the Universe” at the base of the tower aroused the child in me. And I decided to take what it offered. Here, you can walk through a simulated space port, see a laser show, and experience what it’s like to fly through space.
CN Tower’s most thrilling attraction and the first of its kind in North America is EdgeWalk. It is the world’s highest full circle hands-free stroll on a 5-feet-wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod. Despite Allen’s insistence that EdgeWalk is a “Canadian Signature Experience” and that it is designed with the highest international safety and security standards, I gave the EdgeWalk a miss.
I was convinced that such an adventurous activity is certainly not my cup of tea. Just seeing participants walk 1,168 feet (116 storeys) above the ground in groups of six and leaning back over Toronto with nothing but air and breathtaking views of Lake Ontario beneath them sent shivers down my spine. After participating in Toronto’s tallest urban adventure every participant is given a printed photograph, a keepsake video, and a certificate of achievement to prove to their family and friends that they actually did it. This is included in the tickets starting at $195 CAD (plus tax).
Next day, I decided to visit the Distillery District which according to most Torontonians is the place “to see and be seen.” Well, “to be seen” meant nothing to me as a tourist but I surely wanted to see something which National Geographic magazine lists as a “top pick” in Canada for travelers. The district, which is an internationally acclaimed pedestrian-only village, draws crowds to its cobblestone streets lined with hip restaurants and haute designer boutiques. Being centrally located there is always something happening here. Art lovers come for the galleries, outdoor sculptures and dance while music and stage performances keep happening at the area’s several theaters. I was lucky to see the Luminato Festival - Toronto’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas that takes place every summer. It had started a day before on Trinity Street and the city’s best chefs were showcasing the diversity of Toronto through culinary art and skills. Trinity Street is the Distillery District’s widest street and serves as a public square for the community. The aromas emanating from the different foods made me hungry. I sat for a while in Trinity Street’s famous café Balzac’s Coffee Roasters to soak in the historic complex’s lively atmosphere while sipping my favorite Iced Horchata Latte and then left in a hurry to see Toronto’s two famous museums.
It is said that museums bring history to life and that certainly was my experience when I visited the Bata Shoe Museum (BSM) and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Both are extremely rich and diverse in their collections. In the Bata Shoe Museum, I was mighty impressed to see how footwear is presented as a key to understanding cultures. Interestingly, the museum’s building is also in the shape of a shoebox. Here you see craftsmanship and creativity put together in a custom-built environment. The museum contains over 12,500 pairs of shoes spanning 4,500 years of history, six continents, and many walks of life. One can find the footwear of people who have reached the apex of their various fields; the footwear of icons like Pierre Trudeau, Madonna, Roger Federer, Napoleon Bonaparte, Princess Diana, and Marilyn Monroe. The comprehensive collection ranges from 16th-century Venetian velvet platforms to Elvis Presley’s famous “blue suede shoes.” Throughout each exhibit, the shoes on display present a story about the region from which they came. Footwear from different regions also signify a society’s shifts in technological development or changes in the attitudes and values of the time.
Not far from the Bata Shoe Museum, near Queen’s Park, is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canada’s largest museum of world cultures and natural history. As one of the largest museums in North America, it attracts over one million visitors every year. I was fascinated, like most visitors, with the architectural style of the building which they say is a “deconstructivist crystalline-form structure.” Never before had I heard the term, let alone seen it. Deconstructivism is a movement of postmodern architecture which gives the impression of the fragmentation of the constructed building. And indeed it looked so. The building is clad in 25 percent glass and 75 percent aluminum, sitting on top of a steel frame. The ROM exhibits more than eleven million items in its 40 galleries. It is nearly impossible to visit all in a day. I found the collections of dinosaurs, minerals, and meteorites, and Near Eastern and African art, in particular, very impressive. The Gallery of Birds and the Reed Gallery of the Age of Mammals are simply spectacular, to say the least. At the end of the museum tour, you exit through a souvenir shop which has an excellent collection of books, maps, masks, and copies of many items exhibited in the museum.
The sun was almost setting when I reached the Harbourfront Centre –Toronto’s scenic waterfront that offers an eclectic experience of sights, sounds, and flavors. People were swaying to sounds of live bands and the atmosphere was electric. Allen said summer is really a fun time at the waterfront, something that you won’t find in winter. More than 4,000 annual events held here offer city dwellers and visitors alike the possibility to experience some of the best cultural, arts, and educational events and activities in Toronto. Warmer weather also brings free film screenings to the waterfront during July and August and several summer weekend festivals. Also, the waterfront has trendy cafés, art galleries, community spaces, gardens, studios, an outdoor skating rink, and much more. Feeling a bit tired, I decided to call it a day but not before hanging out by the north shore of Lake Ontario by taking the boardwalk.
Canada’s largest metropolis, no doubt, offers a diversity and energy found nowhere else -from the cultural to the commercial, the scenic to the urban, the kinky to the family-friendly and everything beyond and between. I silently wish someone asks me what I did last summer and needless to say, my answer in a single word would be: Toronto.