A few months back, Michelle and I ventured into unchartered territory as Americans.
Although, with the current state of American politics, Canada is pretty much on a lot of our radars.
While Memorial Day Weekend is an important day of remembrance and celebration for those who have served our great American country, it is also a day off from work for most of us, the official start of summer, and an excuse to eat, barbecue and drink excessively. Over the years, we’ve spent most of our Memorial Days trying to cool off despite the sweltering heat in the city that this particular day seems to bring with it. This year, we opted for something different and away from American turf. Michelle and I have always wanted to go up north to Canada since we had, sadly and embarrassingly, never been. Montréal was our first option when we decided 2016 was the year we’d go. The flights, however, were not in our favor. And neither was the Amtrak. We decided to change our course and eventually settled on Toronto. We started hearing a ton about ‘the 6ix’ thanks to one of our favourite Canadian rappers, Drake. What was different about this trip when we started planning our itinerary though, was that we invited a guest to join us on our adventure up north — our mum!
Toronto exceeded our expectations, even though we try to travel without them in the first place. The Canadian culture in Toronto is rich and extremely diverse. Our AirBnB host mentioned to us that over 50% of the city’s population is made up of people who weren’t native born Canadians at all. The many culturally distinct regions of the city, like Little Italy, Little Portugal, Little Jamaica and Chinatown — which beats New York’s Chinatown by a landslide — pay respect to that diversity. Interestingly about Toronto is that the history of war between France and England is still apparent. Most signs, directions and menus are translated in both languages. Funnily enough, the second most spoken language throughout the city isn’t even French, but Chinese! Over 30% of the population speaks a second language, too.
Canadians are also known to be some of the friendliest and politest of people. Though we didn’t meet as many as we hoped, everyone we came in contact with, whether it was the subway or streetcar personnel, servers, even our Uber driver, who offered us a discounted ride as far out as Niagara Falls, were gracious, welcoming and eager to tell us all about their home city. I read somewhere that Americans like to show off their patriotism to the whole world, while Canadians are a bit more humble, showing their admiration solely to other Canadians.
It was cool that our mum was able to join us on our trip to Canada, too, seeing that it was the first stamp in her passport, but it also gave her an idea of the way we like to travel and go about seeing a city. Michelle and I are big foodies (i.e. Kensington Market) and huge gallery + museum nerds (AGO + ROM). We’re also big walkers which took a bit of a toll on her, but it’s our way of staying fit during trips where “calories don’t count.”
The cleanliness (TTC), plenty of green space (High Park), clear air (atop the CN Tower), and the way everything was laid out, with hardly any overwhelming crowds or congestion, really sat well with us during our trip — aspects that New York definitely needs work on.
We see ourselves going back to Canada in the very near future, with so many distinct places to see and not a difficult trek up north. It’s only an hour by flight from us! We’re hoping Montréal will be next…but maybe the islands toward the East or to the Western forests in Alberta and British Columbia, which we heard a lot about. We hope to see the country’s native animal, the moose, run amok some time, too. And how could we forget Niagara Falls? But, as all our Canadians reminded us, “from the Canadian side, of course.”
Wherever we land, I’m sure the Canadians will be happy to welcome us back, now more than ever thanks to the recent election. (I’m so sorry, America). Now, a little travel guide:
Where To Visit:
Casa Loma Castle – A must see in Toronto (if you like history) and a pretty, random castle in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It’s known for its Gothic Revival style and as the residence of one of Canada’s richest men, Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. Because of the castle’s unique architecture and location on a hill (‘casa loma’ translates to ‘hill house’), it’s also a famous shooting location for films.
The Distillery District – One of the coolest areas in Toronto, the Distillery District derives its name from the obvious. It was an area with a local distillery. Now, it’s home to tons of restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. There’s something so charming about the area because the city decided to keep the architecture and style from back when it was a distillery. The cobble-stone streets and brick walls are good for wandering and make for a great photos.
Kensington Market – This market is a must. It’s a mix of a foodie’s and bohemians paradise. I don’t know how many shops we stopped into craving something only to find ourselves spending more money walking down the street to the next cart or shop. Everything just looked so good. There’s also a huge art community that is based in this area. There were tons of street performers, life-size board games, and street art + walls to choose from. Make sure to visit on a Sunday!
CN Tower/Downtown Toronto – The Downtown area of Toronto is exactly what you’d think it’d be: a bunch of government buildings, skyscrapers and tourist attractions. We were only interested in seeing the CN Tower. The wait to get up to the top isn’t too long and the views are pretty decent. If there’s one super touristy thing you should do, it’s this. Talk about #Views!
Graffiti Alley/Queen Street West – One of the coolest parts of the city. Tons of tattoo shops, vintage boutiques and thrift stores can be found here. It’s an extensive street with a lot of charm and character. I definitely recommend Graffiti Alley for photos and as a way to continue exploring the extensive arts scene that thrives in T.O.
Art Gallery of Ontario + Royal Ontario Museum – Two of the best museums in Toronto, easy.
Toronto Islands – We flew into Billy Bishop Airport from New York. What’s cool about that airport is that it’s located on the islands right outside the city centre, so we had to take a ferry to get anywhere central. The islands offer a great view when getting dropped of in the downtown area.
Canadian Money – When we went to take money out of an ATM at our home bank, TD Bank (which another fun fact, stands for Toronto Dominion Bank, who knew?), we were surprised to find that the texture of the money wasn’t paper, but plastic! The idea behind this (which a few other countries have also adopted), is so that it’s harder to counterfeit.
Poutine – Not sure if it’s considered Canada’s national dish, but it’s something that the country is known for. It’s basically a plate of fries, covered in gravy and tons of cheese curds….definitely an acquired taste. And even if you don’t like it, because of how diverse Toronto is, you can always count on finding something delicious to eat.
Maple Leafs – They are everywhere The most notable one is obviously on the country flag, but try looking closely at a Tim Horton’s cup or McDonald’s logo, and you’ll find them hidden. Secret Canadian pride. 😉
Like mentioned, this won’t be our last visit to Canada. Sometimes we forget how big and close the country is to our own. With all the political madness going on at home, who’s to say those visits up north won’t become a frequent thing? Oh, one more thing: Canadians pronounce Toronto like there’s not an “o” between the first “o” and “r,” kind of like “Tronto.” Tidbit, if you want to sound more like a local. Until then…