I recently spent a few delightful days in the bustling city of Toronto, Canada. I’m going to share all the details of this trip but first a few basics about Toronto.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and is located within the province of Ontario on the shores of Lake Ontario. It is about 80 miles or an hour-and-a-half to two hour drive from the U.S. boarder at Niagara Falls, New York.
Many describe Toronto as Canada’s New York City because it is a busy big city with skyscrapers while also being very multicultural with many international residents and tourists. I would agree with this assessment, Toronto felt to me like a slightly smaller New York City. As an American who has visited many large U.S. cities Toronto felt very comfortable and familiar. While still having small differences that where clearly Canadian. The vibe of the city is perfect for travelers looking to have a fun filled city vacation and explore the many areas and attractions Toronto has to offer.
How To Get To Toronto
Toronto has a large international airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport. There is also train access.
We drove from our home in Maryland to Niagara Falls, New York where we stayed for two nights before heading onto Toronto. Crossing the boarder into Canada was simple and we had very little wait on a Monday around 1:00pm. We crossed at the Lewistown-Queenston Bridge. Passports are required to enter Canada. Make sure to know how to change you speedometer to kilometers and make that change as you cross the boarder. Other than the kilometer vs. miles everything else we experienced driving in Canada was the same as driving in the U.S.
The drive from Niagara Falls to Toronto was easy and all on large highways. Avoid traveling during rush hour, the city and surrounding areas have bad traffic during rush hour.
Driving in the city of Toronto itself is like any other city a bit challenging but nothing too intense. Once we arrived at our hotel we didn’t touch the car again until we where leaving.
Where We Stayed
The hotel we stayed at was the Marriott Downtown at CF Toronto Eaton Center. I have a full tour and review video on my YouTube channel linked below. I suggest watching that to get the best look at the hotel.
Big take aways from the hotel:
- The location was very central we where able to walk pretty much everywhere we went though we walked several miles a day. The hotel had easy access to cabs & ride share, rental bikes, subway, bus and a 15 minute walk to a major rail station. You are in the heart of downtown Toronto.
- In the surrounding blocks you’ll find the Eaton Center which is a huge mall, tons of dining, and several theaters.
- The hotel itself has lovely amenities onsite including a pool, gym, bar, and restaurant. There is also convention space.
- The hotel is certainly geared toward adult and business travelers but families with pre-teens and teens would fit right in.
- The rooms are spacious for a city hotel, comfortable, clean and well appointed.
- The staff was friendly and very helpful.
I would stay here again without hesitation.
After our drive from Niagara Falls we arrived in Toronto around 3:00pm on a Monday afternoon. We drove directly to Casa Loma, a historical castle style home located in the middle of a Toronto residential neighborhood. Billed as North America’s only full sized castle Casa Loma was built in 1911 as a private home by a wealthy Canadian financier and solider. Casa Loma has had a busy history since then from being used as a military asset during World War II to being a filming location for popular movies, most notably as X-Mansion / Xavier Institute in the X-Men films.
When we arrived parking onsite was easy as they have their own paid lot. Your visit to Casa Loma includes an audio tour. There are three floors, a garden and a detached stables and garage area to explore.You’ll find that many of the rooms are not furnished. You could easily spend half a day here if you listened to every option on the audio tour and read all the displays in each room. We spent around two hours at Casa Loma and where able to see everything and listen to the highlights of the audio tour.
There are three onsite dining options. The Liberty Cafe is a standard museum cafe and the Gardens at Casa Loma is a dinner only table service outdoor restaurant where reservations are required. The Blueblood Steakhouse serves dinner and requires reservations, here you dine surrounded by vibrant modern art collection inside the castle.
I enjoyed our time visiting Casa Loma, really anytime I can be in a cool castle building I enjoy it. As a movie buff I enjoyed seeing what movies were filmed here and seeing rooms I recognized from the X-Men films. I also enjoyed the photography opportunities here with the grand architecture and intricate decor.
I’d recommend a visit to Casa Loma to anyone who enjoys historical homes and sites, and architecture fans. I wouldn’t recommend visiting with younger kids but if your teen likes history or would be excited by a castle they’d enjoy it.
During your visit don’t miss:
- Hollywood Film Gallery on the Lower Level
- The Conservatory
- The Gardens – Partial Toronto skyline view from the terrace.
- The Norman Tower – If you are ok with narrow spiral staircases climb to the top for a great view of the city.
After our time at Casa Loma we hoped back in the car and drove a quick 10 minutes to our hotel. We took a little time to unpack and settle before we headed out for the night on foot.
We walked about ten minutes to Planta Burger to grab dinner. This vegan burger counter service restaurant had a handful of burgers, salads, and sides to choose from. We ordered a taco salad and a classic burger with onion rings. The burger was the better of the two and the onion ring sauce was very good. We both enjoyed our meals. It’s a solid option for those that enjoy or want to try plant based dining. The service was quick and polite.
After dinner we walked another 25 minutes to the Rodgers Center baseball stadium to take in a Blue Jay’s game. This was a same day decision when my husband noticed it would fit into our plans and that our hometown team the Orioles were the opponents. We checked and there were plenty of tickets still for sale so we thought stopping by the box office and purchasing tickets would be easy. That was a mistake it was a huge hassle. Once we got there around the second inning the box office was closed to new sales and we had to use our phones to buy tickets and the interface was not working well. We would have been better off purchasing online at the hotel. So that’s my tip to you, go there with tickets in hand.
We lucked out with a really awesome view of the CN tower from our seats. To get this view you want to sit on the left hand side of the stadium if home plate is at the bottom of the stadium. The side with gates 9 -15. The stadium was nice and clean and had lots of standard ballpark food options, plus poutine.
We ducked out around the 7th inning. It was easy to grab a cab on Bremner Blvd. in front of the stadium for the 15 minute drive back to the hotel. It would have been about a half hour walk back and I wouldn’t have been concerned about walking on these specific streets at night but we where not up to it.
We almost always pack breakfast options to eat in our room while traveling as a money saving effort. Instant oatmeal packs made with hot water from the coffee pot, freeze dried fruit, and almonds are our go to.
After an in-room packed breakfast of oatmeal we started the next day with a photo stop at Nathan Phillips Square and the popular Toronto sign. You can also see both the new and old City Halls surrounding the square. This was just a block away from our hotel.
From there we continued on walking about fifteen minus to the Hockey Hall Of Fame. You enter the Hockey Hall of Fame from within a small shopping mall between high-rises. There is a hockey covered Tim Hortons and a food court in the mall as well. There is also a gift shop accessible without entering the museum or mall .
I would put the exhibits at the Hockey Hall of Fame into three categories.
- Memorabilia & Artifacts – Walls lined with glass cases full of hockey items ranging from pucks and sticks used in iconic game moments to a VHS copy of The Mighty Ducks movie and everything in-between. The displays where very engaging, up to date and immersive, using audio visual elements as well. There was even a whole locker room replica.
- Trophies – Located in a beautiful historic section of the building that used to be a bank you’ll find the Stanley Cup and every other hockey trophy you can imagine. This is also where you will find the literal Hall of Fame listings. Inside the old bank vault you’ll see the first Stanley Cup, and an impressive collection of Stanley Cup championship rings. The way it was explained to us there are two Stanley Cups, a permanently traveling one which the players actually hold and spend time with. The second a perfect duplicate that lives here at the Hall of Fame. You can have a paid professional photo taken of you with the cup or you can take your own. You are allowed to touch it which is cool.
- Interactive Exhibits – There are a ton of these including a 4D movie, a Sports Center anchor experience, video games, and virtual hockey experiences including one where you are shooting on the net and one where you are the goalie. These are all included in your admission.
My husband is a huge hockey fan so a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame was a must do for us. He absolutely loved the experience and got to see so many items he was excited about. I am not a sports person but even I was impressed with the facilities and displays here. Everything was very up to date and well kept. I enjoyed my visit very much.
I’d recommend the Hockey Hall of Fame for any sports fans and even elementary aged sports fans will have fun here with all the interactive elements.
We spent about two hours here and then we were off to lunch. For lunch we took a ten minute walk to the St. Lawrence Market, a large building that houses dozens of food stalls and some other small shops. Top tip here is to bring Canadian cash. We had opted not to exchange any currency feeling we would be able to use our credit cards everywhere and this was the one exception we ran across. Many of the stalls only took cash. The iconic item here is the peameal bacon sandwich sold at many of the stalls but unfortunately we where not able to try one since they were all cash only. It turned out ok though we found some great options.
I had a bagel turkey sandwich at the St. Urbain Bagel Bar which was delicious. The bagels here where nice and soft and they where thinner than most so you where not stuffed with bread after eating one. They also had allergens marked on their menu which was very helpful as I don’t eat dairy. My husband grabbed a chicken taco salad from Carnicero’s which he very much enjoyed. On the lower level we also grabbed some chocolate bars to bring home from Chocosol and they where absolutely fantastic. The market is a really fun experience.
After the market we took a cab to the ROM, Royal Ontario Museum. This museum is deceptively huge, and has so much packed into it. If you really wanted to take time with every piece you would be here all day. The museum was a combination of art and natural history leaning more heavily on the art portion, not many paintings but a lot of statues, pottery and textiles. The vast majority of exhibits here felt dated to me, and the museum itself was a labyrinth with what felt like room after room of glass cases of statuary. There was a dinosaur exhibit but it was lack luster. They did have an impressive Egyptian mummy, and Roman busts displays.
Overall this museum was a miss for us. Now we have been to much worse museums and while dated it is a high quality museum. The contents where just not for us and the exhibits needed to be updated. I wouldn’t recommend this museum to anyone other then real statuary fans, who I know are out there. My Dad would have loved it here!
We took a 30 minute walk back to the hotel for a few hours rest. On the recommendation of the concierge we went to Konjiki Ramen for dinner just a few blocks from the hotel. My husband who loves ramen was giddy with the spicy red ramen he ordered. He said it was some of the best ramen he has ever had. I don’t care for ramen, or anything soup like, so I ordered a vegetable tempurpa set and really disliked it. I’d say this one is on me for going to a ramen place and not ordering ramen though. So if you like ramen this is a great option, but stick to the ramen.
On the way back we passed through the Eaton Center Mall. It’s huge and had a wide variety of stores included high-end options. It’s perfect for a shopping afternoon.
We started the morning with oatmeal in our room and then we where off to arrive at the Aquarium. The Aquarium is located next to the baseball stadium so we had another 30 minute walk there.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada (no relation to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attractions) is a moderately sized aquarium with all indoor exhibits. The aquarium felt modern and well kept with engaging exhibits. It opened at 9:00am and when we arrived at 9:40am the crowds where very low and it was lovely and peaceful. By the time 10:30 rolled around we noticed a huge increase in attendance specifically field trips so keep that in mind.
The star of the show here is the underwater tunnel where fish, turtles, stingrays, and sharks swim above you. This tunnel was long which was awesome and had a moving walkway you could stand on or you could walk at your own pace. They had a Canadian waters exhibit and I like when there are local touches to aquariums and zoos.
As two adults we throughly enjoyed our time at the aquarium, we spent just over an hour here. We could have stretched it to two but that would have been the max. I highly recommend this for kids, there was a whole play place in the middle as well as exhibits where you could touch animals like stingrays.
Next up we scooted right next door to the CN Tower. Built in 1976 the CN Tower is the tallest free standing structure in the Western Hemisphere and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. For 32 years it was the tallest building in the world and today lands at number nine on the list. It is the icon of Toronto.
Arriving right around the 11:00am opening the crowd levels where light and the longest line we waited in was about 10 minutes. Once you are in the building you get in line to wait for an elevator that will take you to the observation level. While in line there are displays about the history and construction of the tower. The elevator ride itself is fast but very smooth. The front of the elevator is glass and the floor has two small glass windows in it so you can see how high up you are traveling. The ride itself is only about a minute long, and includes narration.
The observation decks are about three quarters of the way up the tower. Once at the top you can take as much time as you’d like in the observation levels. During our visit the exterior observation level was undergoing a massive refurbishment so we where not able to utilize that area. The indoor observation level was great it was spacious and there where huge windows all around the exterior of this level. We had amazing views of the city, the lake, and into the suburbs. Keep in mind that weather will factor into your views. There where some glass panels on one section of the floor as well that allowed you to see to the ground under the tower. None of the observation levels rotate.
There are two add ons you can do at the CN Tower. The Edge Walk where you go outside on top of the observation deck and are tethered to the edge while you lean off the tower. Visiting the Skypod takes you in another elevator an additional 33 stories up to the Skypod’s interior observation deck. You can feel the wind sway the tower at that height. We didn’t do either of these experiences. Both come at an additional cost. There is also a fine dining restaurant on the observation level, named 360, the restaurant does rotate. Reservations are required.
When you’re done you wait for an elevator back down. You’ll exit through the gift shop and they also have a cafe, and childrens play area on this level.
I think a visit to the CN Tower is a must see for everyone visiting Toronto unless the heights are a no go for you. I’d suggest arriving early to beat the crowds so you won’t have to wait in lines, especially if visiting with little ones as there is not much for them to be entertained by in the line areas.
After the tower we walked about 20 minutes to the Queen West neighborhood. We first visited Graffiti Alley. Which was really more a whole series of allies than just one. This is an area where graffiti is encouraged and some beautiful work covers the brick and concrete walls. Depending on your level of interest in graffiti art work this may or may not be for you. You can take some really cool photos here but keep in mind you are in allies behind shops and restaurants. So they are dirty, smell like trash, and we saw an alive mouse and a dead rat… so just keep that in mind. If I did it again I wouldn’t go out of my way to see Graffiti Alley. Luckily it fit geographically into our plans.
We had lunch in Queen West at Parka Food Co. where they serve vegan comfort food. The restaurant was cute and comfy and the menu had tons of options. We both loved our lunch here. This is the one place we ate that I wish was located where we live. I had the lemon tahini cauliflower wrap with poutine fries. You have to try the poutine when in Canada right? My husband got the chipotle cauliflower bowl. We both loved our meals.
We kept walking about 25 minutes and passed through Chinatown and into Kensington Market a district popular for its dining and small shops. This was billed to us by both the hotel concierge and the internet as a must see area full of popular spots. I have to say when we got there the area felt very run down, and in some sections there were folks around that made us feel uncomfortable. It didn’t feel at all like a fun cute city market atmosphere you’ll find in so many cities big and small. There were very few shops we found interesting. There were many intriguing restaurants around but the city is full of restaurants so I don’t think coming here for one is necessary. I recommend you do not visit Kensington Market.
That being said we did graze and a bit here, and got a killer smoothie from The Organic Press. As well as some pastry from Bunners which is vegan and gluten free bakery. It was good but I wouldn’t go out of your way for it. I know if you are vegan and gluten free it can be really challenging to find dessert options so I’d recommend utilizing their delivery options if that is you.
We moved on and walked back to our hotel another 25 minutes arriving around 2:15 and we took a brief rest. After the disappointing Kensington Market we had a little more time in our afternoon than we had planned. We wanted to salvage our cute shopping district plans so we grabbed a cab and where off to the Distillery District just a 10 minute ride away. Now this was my kind of shopping district! The Distillery District is an enclosed pedestrian only area made up of several blocks that was originally the home of the Toronto distillery industry. Now it’s full of small shops, art galleries, restaurants, and of course bars all housed in brick Victorian industrial buildings. It’s a very pretty vibe and the whole area was clean and felt very safe. We loved it here. Explored some art galleries, did some shopping, and grabbed some absolutely amazing handcrafted ice cream, including non-dairy options at Scooped by Demetres.
After ice cream we hopped a cab back to the hotel. Pretty full from an afternoon of grazing we had protein bars and hotel room snacks for dinner and changed for our night at the theatre. Just around the corner from the hotel at the Ed Mirvish Theatre we saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The theatre itself was beautiful and they had all sorts of Harry Potter touches. Having read the script book when it came out a few years ago I went in knowing that the story of the Cursed Child is just ok, messing with Harry Potter cannon in a way I don’t love, and overall does not rise to the level of the Harry Potter books. But seeing the show was a different experience than reading it. The technological aspects were absolutely amazing, the actors were great, and the story was still the story but it’s less bothersome while watching it. It was really cool to see adult Harry and company portrayed. The show is playing in several cities around the world and I urge any Harry Potter fan to take the time effort to see it. It is unlikely to tour traditionally due to the technical aspects of the show. I’d suggest seeing the show and then reading the script book afterwords if possible.
We checked out of our hotel around 10:45am and made the 30 minute drive to the Toronto Zoo. Parking was a breeze and crowds where very manageable the whole time.
The zoo overall was not very impressive. While a handful of exhibits like the polar bears and lions seemed newer much of the zoo was dated and in need of upgrades. Many of the exhibits where very large and spread out, which is great for the animals but as a visitor meant a ton of walking. Sections of the zoo where very far apart from one another as well. They did have a paid zoo train tram system and I think utilizing that is a must don’t try and walk it all like we did.
If you are traveling with just adults this is a very skiable zoo. But I can’t deny that the zoo in general is a great option for kids. The Toronto Zoo had both a splash pad area and a carousel. If you are going to visit plan on paying to utilize the zoo train. Even with kids I would prioritize the aquarium above the zoo.
There were plenty of counter style food options around the park. This is where we finally got to try a Beaver Tail, which is a Canadian chain that serves flat doughnut-like pastries with a variety of toppings. They had vegan options which was awesome. I had a coco vanil one on the way out of the zoo and it was perfection.
We left the zoo around 2:30 on a weekday and where headed to Niagara Falls, Ontario. This was terrible timing on our part. By the time we got close to Toronto it was about 3:00 and we got into some early rush hour traffic. Once we were past Toronto we got slammed in traffic around the city of Hamilton. What was supposed to be about an hour and forty five minute drive took over three hours. In hindsight I should have timed this out better.
Then we where off to explore Niagara Falls, Ontario!
Toronto City Pass
To save money on many of the locations we visited we purchased the Toronto City Pass in advance of our visit. It worked out perfectly and I’ve used a City Pass in several other locations as well and I enjoy the ease of use and saving. Often we get to throw in an extra activity we otherwise wouldn’t have spent the money on because it is included in the pass. It all depends on what you want to see in a city if it is worth it or not.
The CityPass also prompts you to make reservations at activities as needed. City Pass or not always check if you need a reservation for any activities, museums, etc.
Check out the City Pass here:
Overall we really enjoyed our time in Toronto there is so much to see and do in the city. It’s a great option for adults and families looking for a big city vacation.
It’s also a great option for U.S. citizens looking to step their toe into international travel. The language, customs, and procedures will all be very familiar to you. While at the same time it is a new country to explore. It’s a great stepping stone.
Toronto is also a perfect stop to pair with Niagara Falls to extend your vacation in the area.
If you are looking to travel to Toronto, Canada or anywhere else I would love to be your travel agent. Get expert advice on planning your vacation and get personalized advise at no additional cost to you.
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