Tadhg Peavoy falls for a fascinating and multi-cultural city.
Flying over Lake Ontario into Pearson International Airport is quite a sight. Coming in over one of the Great Lakes, one sees the sprawling metropolis of Canada's largest city unfolding below, with the North American grid system lining out a massive city of 2.6 million people.
Highways, skyscrapers, condominiums, steel and concrete dominate the view; and one immediately senses that below is a city with a plethora of activities to offer the visitor.
And that thought certainly proves true once one lands and explores this fascinating and multi-cultural city.
Toronto is a city that straddles the cultures of both Canada and the United States, performing a balancing act between a definite Canadian sensibility, yet not afraid of embracing a distinct US influence.
The mixture and diversity of ethnicities is also startling. Of all the major world cities I have visited, only New York and London rival Toronto for diversity: it's hugely impressive.
The beauty of the city is that there is just so much to do. A hotel location downtown puts you right in the heart of the action, with restaurants, bars, culture and sport to beat the band.
Eating and drinking in Canada is paramount and the selection of where to do both is superb; picking off areas of the city in which to devour different delicacies is one of the highlights of a stay. Two areas that I recommend are the Distillery District and Little Italy.
The Distillery District, a 13-acre arts complex, built on the site of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, is a must-see area. The Victorian industrial red-brick buildings form an area of bars and restaurants that take on an urban cool, industrial vibe that permeates throughout.
The Mill Street Brewery is a good place to start one's culinary exploration, with a selection of bar food, speciality dishes and craft beer to make the mouth water. Come down during the day to check out the exhibitions and galleries that give character to this unique area of the city.
Little Italy offers fare from the Boot of Italy in a North American setting, with a fine selection of Italian wine and dishes. Il Gatto Nero is an easy to find, good-value eatery from which to start an exploration of the area.
Toronto is a city that loves its festivals and the city caters for many different cultural strands throughout the year. The venues in town are simply superb, with a range of concerts, exhibitions and comedy gigs constantly taking place.
My trip to Hogtown - a nickname relating to Toronto's history as a pork processing city - coincided with the Toronto Just for Laughs comedy festival.
The city came alive with gigs across downtown in various venues, including Todd Barry at the iconic Mod Club, and Louis CK at the hugely impressive Sony Centre.
The Mod Club is located in Little Italy and is a perfect place to drink some Canadian bourbon or craft beer after dinner, while catching a gig.
The city is also music mad, with most big European and US acts passing through on their various tours. I caught Ben Howard live at the Sound Academy; a cool venue located in the heart of the Toronto docklands.
If you can catch a gig here, then do. Not only for the venue, but because the view is amazing. The location looks back across Lake Ontario towards downtown, where the lights of the financial district and the CN Tower glimmer across the black waters at night.
Incidentally, the CN Tower – the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world at 533m – offers a restaurant, elevators to the top with a stunning view, and even an edge walk, where those with an adventurous mindset can be harnessed to an external railing and lean out over the side.
As well as being passionate about its comedy and music, Toronto is a serious sport town. For Major League Baseball, the city has the Blue Jays, for the National Hockey League the Maple Leafs, for Canada's American Football League the Argonauts, for the National Basketball Association the Raptors, and for Major League Soccer Toronto FC.
A trip to see one of those sides play gives the visitor an eye into Canadian sporting culture.
I was lucky enough to catch the iconic New York Yankees play the Blue Jays at the impressive Rogers Centre.
Baseball is truly the mellowest sport to attend: the crowd are chilled, the players are even more chilled, and with awesome hot beef rolls and Canadian ales for sale, you too will soon be chilled.
It's handy enough to get a ticket for the Jays, but if you're more of a fan of watching sports on TV, then right around the corner from the Rogers Centre is Real Sports Bar and Grill.
This place has to be seen to be believed. It's a gigantic bar with 199 TV screens located in every nook and cranny. Literally, wherever you sit there is at least one TV directly in front of you.
With 112 different beer taps and a menu of Canadian favourites, including poutine – French fries with gravy and cheese, and much better tasting than it sounds – the place is a great bar to hang out.
The real selling point; however, is that the bar boasts the biggest indoor restaurant TV screen in North America. The huge screen is 17x27 feet and 32 feet diagonally; it's a thing of beauty!
For those that want culture of a non-sporting kind, the Royal Ontario Museum comes highly recommended. This beautiful late 19th-century Neo-Romanesque building houses a wide and eclectic variety of exhibitions ranging from dinosaurs, to natural history, to Roman, Greek and Egyptian artefacts. There is also a superb collection of Far Eastern art. While architect Daniel Libeskind's new main entrance, called The Crystal and completed in 2007, is also impressive.
It's a huge museum, which one could spend several days exploring; it should be near the top of any itinerary for a visitor to the city.
For art lovers, the Art Gallery of Ontario is the place to go, with a constantly changing collection worth dropping in on if one gets the chance.
After all that eating, drinking, sport and culture, I was awash with sensory overload and spent an evening simply walking the streets of downtown Toronto: around Yonge Street, Bloor Street, Queen Street West and Dundas Street.
While during the day Toronto is visually pleasant, at night, it comes into its own, with St Lawrence Market and the financial district bustling with activity and sparkling with lights.
A few hours spent strolling around, soaking up the city and getting a feel for it, will certainly lead on to more cool areas to discover and plenty of people to meet.
In fact, perhaps the best tool for exploring this city is simply walking around and talking, especially with an Irish accent. It opens up many doors and the supremely friendly Canadians will point you in the right direction for whatever you are looking for, and maybe even enlighten you as to a better place to go, or things to see.
Several major airlines fly direct to Toronto. Flights can be bought for as little as €460.
Royal Irish Tours can help arrange flights:
Skyscanner also provide excellent flights options:
The Distillery District:
Mill Street Brewery:
Il Gatto Nero Italian restaurant:
Toronto festivals list:
Toronto's Just for Laughs comedy festival:
The Mod Club:
Real Sports Bar and Grill:
Royal Ontario Museum:
Art Gallery of Ontario:
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