• By: Dan Donovan

The true spirit of We The North is alive in Toronto!

Toronto is the business and investment centre of Canada and the capital of Ontario. It has world-class universities and colleges and is the headquarters for numerous global companies. Toronto is home Leafs, the Jays, the Toronto FC, and of course, the Raptors, who captured the imagination of the world and redefined Canadian grit with the We the North slogan on their way to beating the Golden State Warriors in June 2019, capturing their first NBA title in franchise history.

The win was akin to the heroics and emotion of the 1972 Canada Cup, which united a city and a country. Torontonians celebrated that spirit in true north fashion with a massive downtown parade for the ages attended by millions of proud citizens. In hindsight, that moment was the official coming-out party for the ‘new Toronto,’ a 21st-century city that has changed so much in the past three decades that much of it would be unrecognisable to those of that time. And the transformation has been magnificent.

Toronto is a harbour city that straddles 46 kilometres along the blustery shores of Lake Ontario from the Rouge River and Scarborough bluffs in the east down to the mouth of Etobicoke Creek in the west. Today, there are lakefront homes and condominiums that run the span of the lakeshore with beautiful parks, interlocking bike paths that connect to local transit, and ferries to Toronto Island and the Island airport.

South of the Union Station towards the lakeshore, a complete and modern new part of Toronto has emerged over the past three decades that is full of the energetic lifestyle, arts, recreation, and leisure that can only be found in a big city. And it is glorious in both design, comfort, ease of access, and lifestyle. 

Forty-five per cent of Torontonians speak a mother tongue besides English or French. This multicultural smorgasbord contributes to the immense diversity of Toronto’s food scene, making it one of the world’s great cuisine cities. Within ten blocks of downtown Toronto, you can choose from a plethora of restaurants offering everything from fabulous Cuban, Indian, Korean, Italian, Portuguese, Thai, Spanish, Malaysian, and other multi-national dishes. Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood features a treasure trove of exceptional Greek restaurants. The Chinese diaspora is at the top of their food game on Spadina. Then there are oodles of hip restaurants on Bloor West.

Getting to Toronto from Ottawa is easy by plane, train, or automobile. Once there, we checked in to the historic (and glorious) Omni King Edward Toronto at 37 King Street. Built in 1903 by George Gooderham, owner of Gooderham and Worts Limited, once the largest distillers in Canada, the King Edward was the most glamourous hotel of its day and was advertised as being completely fireproof. 

ABOVE: (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP) A detail of the incredible original plaster mouldings that adorn the ceiling of the main floor ballroom. The King Street entrance to the Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto. The grand lobby of the Omni King Edward Hotel. The light streaming in the windows of the beautiful fourth-floor Crystal Ballroom. (PHOTOS: OLM STAFF)

The Omni King Edward remains one of the city’s premier luxury hotels. Over the years, it has hosted many famous guests: Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth here, while John Lenon and Yoko Ono stayed before heading to Montreal for their famous bed-in for peace. 

Today, the ‘King Edward’ has been reimagined for the 21st century. The superb and friendly staff combined with an elegant and modern atmosphere that respects the history and old-world charm help make this hotel unique. It caters to a business crowd during the week and families on the weekend. With four ballrooms, it is a popular wedding venue. Its fourth-floor Crystal Ballroom is one of the most spectacular spaces in Toronto. 

The King Edward is close to the city’s top attractions, including St. Laurence Market, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Eaton Centre, Distillery District (made up of the former buildings of Gooderham and Worts Limited) and some of Toronto’s best restaurants and shopping.

Start your day at the King Edward with one of their popular breakfasts in the dining room or linger over tea and finger sandwiches during afternoon tea—a long-standing Toronto social tradition. Cap off your night with drinks at the wonderfully elegant and comfortable Consort Bar. 

If you missed the Immersive Van Gogh Experience, which took Ottawa by storm last summer, catch it until the end of May at 1 Yonge Street. The stunning projection animates Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, detail, and colours of his works, from his sunny landscapes and night scenes to his portraits and still life. 

ABOVE:  (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) The Ontario Science Centre remains a hugely popular destination for all ages. The Ontario Satellite Reef at the Ontario Science Centre is a community-based art installation. Planet Ice exhibition at the Ontario Science Centre. A walk through the different pods of the Bug Lab brings the marvels of the incredible world of entomology to life. (PHOTOS: OLM STAFF)

Take the time in Toronto to visit one of the many museums. I revisited an old favourite, the Ontario Science Centre, which has welcomed more than 49 million visitors since it opened in 1969. It remains one of the great destination sites in Toronto. Kids and families love this place with its exciting and educational exhibitions that inform us in simple ways about complex things in science and nature. The best part is the staff who offer hands-on experiences, whether it’s looking at bugs up close (yikes) or learning about the importance of science in our lives and communities. 

I especially liked an exhibit that showed the advances in sports equipment over the past 100 years. There is so much to do and see here that you’ll need to plan to stay for three or four hours. Until April 2022, catch the Canadian debut of the phenomenal Bug Lab exhibit brought to life by the set designers from Lord of the Rings. Oh, and did I mention it has an OMNIMAX theatre showing the new IMAX film Asteroid Hunters, narrated by Daisy Ridley.

ABOVE: (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) The clean lines and minimalism of the architecture lend the Aga Khan Museum a sense of serenity. Lunch at Diwan was a most delicious affair. A 19th Century Uzbekistan chapan (robe) that would have been worn by either men or women. An intricately carved Oliphant (ivory horn) made between the 11th and 13th centuries. Rhythmic patterns were used in decorating objects and architectural elements like this beautiful inlaid panel. This late 18th century Qur’an is one of an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts at the museum. (PHOTOS: OLM STAFF)

One of the great surprises of this trip to Toronto was visiting the Aga Khan Museum, which presents an overview of the artistic, intellectual, and scientific contributions Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. The Museum’s permanent collection of over 1,000 objects includes masterpieces that reflect a broad range of artistic styles and materials. Persian culture’s breathtaking history, ingenuity, and contributions to the world and civilization are captured marvelously in this hallowed place. The curator’s newest exhibit is Hidden Stories. I could have easily spent more time here and plan to return. www.agakhanmuseum.org. When you visit, I highly recommend you start by having lunch at the world-class Diwan restaurant, which is located inside the entrance to the museum. Restaurateur Mark McEwan and his team have brought a passion for quality and innovation to Diwan. Lunch here was one of the highlights of our trip. Try the Lamb Suya; it is simply superb!

ABOVE: Toronto's Distillery District host a super popular annual Christmas Market. (RIGHT) Gusto 501 offers elevated Italian cuisine with great service in a beautiful space. (PHOTOS: OLM STAFF)

Off of Cherry Street and Mill Street, Toronto’s Distillery District is a year-round pedestrian-only enclave set in quaint 19th-century buildings that once housed a large whiskey distillery. Its 19th-century brick stone buildings and cobblestone streets are lined with cool bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and hip indie restaurants. Art lovers come for the galleries, outdoor sculptures, and dance or to hear music and see stage performances. In December, the annual Toronto Christmas Market takes over the streets of this entire area, and it becomes a magical place called Distillery Winter Village. A 55-foot-tall (and brightly lit) Christmas tree is at the center of it all.

After visiting, take a 10-minute walk to Gusto 501 at 501 King St East in Toronto’s Corktown neighbourhood. I had previously visited their sister restaurant Gusto 101, which is the creation of the renowned Toronto restaurateur Janet Zuccarini. Her takes on Italian fare don’t disappoint. Impressive is the cool and stylish atmosphere and design of this place by award-winning architecture firm PARTISANS. The terracotta walls are unique, and an oversized “garage door” façade opens to reveal a multi-level dining theatre.

ABOVE: Cycling along the Humber Bay Arch Bridge. (PHOTO: TORONTO TOURISM)

Toronto is a cycling city, and you can’t go wrong taking a bike tour at any time of the year. From the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in the heart of the city, you’re just minutes away from the Toronto Islands—a five-kilometre oasis of 15 interconnected islands that locals have been escaping to for fun, relaxation, and tranquillity for over 200 years. Our Toronto Bicycle Tours guide was well versed in the beauty, history, and attractions of the islands (known locally as “the island”), which also has a quaint cottage-style residential neighbourhood—the largest car-free community in North America. You must see the stunning views of the city skyline from the Island. Another trip highlight for sure!

Be sure to visit the Evergreen Brick Works outdoor skating rink, which weaves through snow-covered gardens under exposed beams from the roof of the old brick factory. In 2010, Evergreen transformed a collection of deteriorating heritage buildings into a global showcase for green design and an award-winning public space. 

Another great option is the Bentway outdoor rink directly underneath the Gardiner Expressway in front of Old Fort York Park. As I skated here on a frost-chilled night with the sounds of the city in the background and the happy smiles of the locals in the foreground as they traversed around the ice, I thought  . . . how innovative and wonderful. 

Only in Toronto. We The North.