Mary Welch | November 21, 2013

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Looking for a sophisticated city that has world-class shopping, restaurants, beaches, museums, festivals, sights and nightlife and doesn’t take hours to get to? New York? Miami? L.A.? Chicago? Been there. Done that. To fully explore what North America has to offer, cross the border and make Toronto, Ontario your destination. It has it all and more.

Toronto has an international flair and a diversity that beats just about every city on the continent. It’s a simple trip; about two hours from Atlanta on either resourceful Delta or the wonderful Air Canada. Hop a plane and you can be standing on Yonge Street—the longest street in the world (almost 1,800 miles long)—trying to decide which of the more than 7,000 fine dining establishments, bars, cafes, bistros, clubs and dance halls you want to frequent.

Toronto has everything. Sports? Yep. Basketball lovers have the Raptors; baseball fanatics have the Blue Jays; and football has the Argonauts aka the Argos. And since we are talking about hockey-loving Canada, we must mention the Maple Leafs too.

Located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, Toronto is not only beautiful, but easy to maneuver. The city is laid out in a rectangular grid that makes it perfect for walking and flitting around using the enviable transit system. And, if you’re lost, just look up, find the CN Tower and you’ll get your bearings.

Toronto’s PATH system consists of 17 miles of connecting tunnels not only ensures easy access around the city, but is home to the world’s largest underground shopping space, offering over 1,200 outlets. When asking our concierge at the Hilton Hotel on Richmond Street West if it were safe to go clubbing late at night, he answered, “This is Toronto. It’s very safe. My wife works in a hospital and rides the subway at three in the morning.” The Hilton’s Tundra Restaurant, by the way, is another must-do.

During our two recent trips we tried two hotels. The Hilton, which has an incredible executive floor with amazing breakfasts and happy hours (which, if you’re short on change, can double as dinner), is closer to the north of town, near the wonderful Hudson Bay Co. Store. (Hudson Bay is Canada’s version of Macy’s and its holiday window displays rival anything found on Fifth Avenue.)

If you want something a little more splendid, the Royal Oak Fairmont is the answer. Expansive, regal and with a staff trained to please, the Fairmont is close to the waterfront, the CN Tower and the museums.

Our travel philosophy is to do things that one can’t do elsewhere, and then just enjoy the city, its people, its idiosyncrasies and its character. The city has amazing museums—especially those specializing in art and natural history— but we strongly recommend The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Bata Shoe Museum.

One doesn’t have to love baseball to enjoy Cooperstown, New York, and the same is true here. There are lots of interesting exhibits but the most fun involves the interactive games and seeing the Stanley Cup, the ultimate hockey trophy. The names of all the players who have won hockey’s greatest championship series are engraved and watching people walk up in awe to have their picture taken is part of the fun of being in Canada. The museum invites those who have never put on ice skates to get a taste of what hockey is all about by grabbing a stick, make some wrist shots against a mechanical goalie, and then you can put on the mask and see if you can stop pucks flying your way. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun.

Just as engaging is the shoe museum, which is devoted entirely to shoes from all cultures and all parts of the world, ancient times to the present. There are fancy, over-the-top shoes, boots and sandals— more than 10,000 pairs in all—including Queen Victoria’s ballroom slippers and Elvis’s blue patent leather loafers. It’s every woman’s (and quite a few men’s) ultimate fantasy. So we’ve gotten our culture box checked, let’s have fun.

First stop is to Second City Comedy and Improv Club. The casual destination is a great way to spend an afternoon or evening watching a handful of very quick witted comedians try to maneuver their way through a variety of scenarios often suggested by audience members. The club is modest in décor, complete with wooden chairs and tables set up around a small stage, but grandiose in terms of the performances and talent. You will have the chance to perhaps see the next Martin Short, Mike Myers, John Candy, or Dan Aykroyd—all of whom got their start here.

Another must-see is the St. Lawrence Market, which is the ultimate foodie farmer’s market. It is jammed packed with fresh fish, fruits, cheese, baked good and meats. Make sure to go to the Carousel Bakery, which is famous for its peameal bacon sandwich, which is similar to Canadian bacon. It is delicious and genuinely Canadian. As with the Ginger/Mary Ann debate, residents will deliberate which is the best market— St. Lawrence or Kensington. St. Lawrence probably will win in the food category, but others swear by the more bohemian vibe of Kensington. Kensington is also right next to Chinatown so it’s a very fun couple of blocks. Kensington is full of flea markets, little bakeries and craft booths.

There are more than 250 vibrant neighborhoods and certainly there is one to suit everyone’s style. About 40 percent of the residents are foreign born and at least 80 languages are spoken, so you know there are great restaurants — Greek, Italian, Jewish, Indian, Jamaican, Polish, Irish — you name it. Each of these neighborhoods has amazing street festivals, bakeries, clothing stores and cafes. We headed to Little Italy (there is another Italian neighborhood known as Corso Italia as well). New York has nothing on this area. There were bakeries, Italian record shops, Italian clothes and cheese shops. We ate at a wonderful local favorite, Cafe Diplomatico & Restaurant on College Street, which has been in business since 1945. Locally known as The Dip, it is the place to go for homemade calzones and panzerotti. It has a customize-your-own panino, pasta and pizza menu (as well as gluten-free options). The decor is simple— wood chairs and tables but you go for the food, not the atmosphere.

We also thoroughly enjoyed another restaurant a block from Cafe Diplomatico called Marinella. Located on the corner, it has a wonderful outdoor patio and a more upscale vibe than other area restaurants. John, the owner greats you warmly at the bar and tells you about his mother (Mama) cooking in the back. Both come out frequently to ask if you are enjoying yourself. Because everything is handmade and cooked fresh in the restaurant, service can be slow. But it gives you more time to people watch and enjoy an adult beverage and relax. The wait is worth it.

We also suggest going to the Distillery District, home to many of Toronto’s hottest designer boutiques, unique cafes, artisan shops, performance venues and award-winning restaurants, the Distillery District is the place to see and be seen. An internationally acclaimed pedestrian-only village, there are more than 70 ground-floor cultural and retail establishments in the restored red brick, Victorian-era buildings of the renowned Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery.

While there are many places to eat in the district, we suggest Pure Spirits, which is continually recognized as one of the best places for seafood in Toronto, offering menu staples such as the mustard-crusted salmon and swordfish steak with eggplant caviar, to ever-changing market day specials. We swear by the mussels.

Now, it is time to party and Toronto will meet and exceed all expectations. On a Saturday night, the place to be is Muzak Nightclub, which features 41,000 square feet of space that attracts the mature, sophisticate stylish crowd (there is a hair and beauty bar for women). Music is R&B, reggae, mash up, techno and retro. Look closely and you might see a celebrity or three.

Gravity Sound Bar, complete with a massive L.E.D. wall, features multi-level rooms with 40 VIP booths. It’s also the only nightclub in town featuring a heart- pounding digital sound and laser light show.

Want something a little quieter? We would then opt for the Rex, which offers about 20 shows a night with an interesting lineup of international talent and locals.

Even if you’re a bit tired from all the nightlife, the best way to cap off a trip to Toronto is at the CN Center, sitting at a table at 360 The Restaurant, and having a late-night drink as the city slowly revolves below.

As with all the great global cities, you can’t get the feel and flair of Toronto in just one visit, so make time, book a flight and start enjoying the secrets of Toronto.

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