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Get a taste of Toronto

By Cindy Hatcher
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(Cooking Lightexternal link) -- One of the first things a visitor to Toronto notices is its diversity; the melange of architecture, cultures and food forges a town-like feel in what is undoubtedly a bustling metropolis. In fact, Toronto has attracted so many cultures to its shores that the United Nations deemed it the world's most multicultural city. So it's only fitting that the Huron tribe gave it the name "meeting place" almost five centuries ago.

As the largest Canadian city -- and fifth largest in North America -- Toronto is nestled along Lake Ontario and boasts a varied culinary scene that includes the rich flavors of more than 90 ethnic groups. There's also plenty of green space to explore by foot, bike or boat.

Our laid-back three-day itinerary offers ample time to tour and taste this "world within a city."

Day one: Downtown to downstream

A rectangular grid system makes Toronto a supremely walkable city. Take advantage of this and begin your visit by wandering around the vivid streets of downtown, which brushes the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.

Start your stroll along the food-filled aisles of St. Lawrence Market (416-392-7219, http://www.stlawrencemarket.com/external link). The market opened in 1803 and is still a prime spot for locally produced meats, breads and produce. As you meander through the numerous vendors' booths, stop for a taste that's truly Canadian: The Carousel Bakery's (416-363-4247) peameal back bacon sandwich. Canadians consider peameal -- lean pork loin, brine-cured and rolled in yellow cornmeal -- to be a more flavorful, sophisticated cousin of what's known stateside as Canadian bacon. Pack a picnic for your next stop, a tour of the city's islands.

Hop a ferry at the foot of Bay Street to one of Toronto's three outlying islands on Lake Ontario. Originally a peninsula and part of the city's sprawling coastline, an 1858 storm separated the land, creating islands that have since become a popular weekend retreat.

Centreville is the largest of these interconnected, pedestrian-only zones, but those in the know head for the more sheltered Ward's Island. Here, the beaches, gardens and scenic trails are free of crowds. Rent a set of wheels from Toronto Island Bicycle Rentals (416-203-0009) to tour the island.

When you're finished exploring, take the ferry back to the mainland dock at the Harbourfront Centre (416-973-4000, http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/external link), where, during summer weekends, you'll find cultural events with themes that vary from hot and spicy food to Canadian history.

For an evening out on the town, head to the Distillery Historic District (416-364-1177, http://www.thedistillerydistrict.com/external link). This conglomeration of buildings was once the largest distillery in the British Empire, and today this revitalized district is home to a number of trendy galleries, theaters and restaurants. Keen viewers may spot the settings of movies such as "Cinderella Man" and "Chicago" throughout the district, as it's a popular spot for filming big budget blockbusters. You can soak up the scene (and a pint of brew) at The Boiler House (416-203-2121, http://www.boilerhouse.ca/external link), home to soaring ceilings, generously portioned comfort food and live jazz on weekends.

Day two: Shoes to views

After breakfast (and before crowds arrive), take a 10-minute cab ride uptown to a top Toronto attraction, the Casa Loma (416-923-1171, http://www.casaloma.org/external link). Toronto financier Sir Henry Pellatt crafted this castlelike residence in the early 20th century, using imported materials from around the world to build his monument to medieval grandeur. Nature lovers will enjoy exploring the 98-room castle's luxurious gardens (open daily; gardens open May through October).

Continue your cultural journey several blocks south at the Royal Ontario Museum (416-586-8000, http://www.rom.on.ca/external link), or ROM, as the locals call it. With six million objects in its collections, it's host to a special exhibit of French glass master Rene Lalique's work through January 2007. Throughout the fall, the Daniel Libeskind-designed Michael Lee Chin Crystal structure, the museum's own glass masterpiece and the visual centerpoint of its recent renovation, will be nearing completion. It aims to be the focal point of Toronto's architectural scene.

Just a few blocks down the street, spend a playful hour at the Bata Shoe Museum (416-979-7799, http://www.batashoemuseum.com/external link), which explores the history and importance of footwear throughout the past 4,500 years. As you wander through the building, which is shaped like a giant shoebox, case the shoes of everyone from ancient Egyptian royalty to cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe and Elton John.

Dinner is an indulgence at the elegant and contemporary Senses restaurant (open Tuesday through Saturday; 416-935-0400, http://www.senses.ca/external link), where Chef Claudio Aprile produces a splurge-worthy menu with an innovative take on a bounty of seasonally fresh ingredients. Everything from the velvety seating to sound-absorbent wall coverings appeals to guests' sensual side.

After dinner, stroll to the CN Tower (416-868-6937, http://www.cntower.ca/external link), the tallest freestanding structure in the world. Though one of the city's top daytime attractions (a clear afternoon affords a view all the way to the mists of Niagara Falls), a nighttime visit showcases Toronto's evening shimmer with fewer crowds. The glass-fronted elevator will zoom you to the Look Out Level, but be sure to take the stairs down one level to the Glass Floor, where you can see 1,122 feet down to the street. Don't worry if adventurous visitors jump excitedly on the glass; it's built to withstand the weight of 14 adult hippos.

Day three: Around the world, around the table

While you'll find a diverse mix of cuisines throughout the city, there are several neighborhoods where immigrant groups have settled. A culinary walking tour through three of them can easily fill an entire day.

Begin in Little Italy, a blossoming area that runs along College Street. More than 400,000 Italian immigrants now call Toronto home, and this thriving area has a vibrant atmosphere. Try the grilled vegetable omelette with rosemary home-fried potatoes at Bar Italia (416-535-3621, http://www.bar-italia.ca/external link), which, when accompanied by a cappuccino, will provide fuel for a busy day of exploring the city.

The eastern edge of downtown is home to a large Greek population. Known as the Danforth, certain streets are rich with the wafting aroma of garlic. A mid-August visit would coincide with the three-day Taste of the Danforth street festival (416-469-5634, http://www.tasteofthedanforth.com/external link), where bites of spanakopita and souvlaki are just some of the treats that street vendors offer.

Not far away, Chinatown is an ideal spot for early evening dim sum (small plates of Cantonese fare brought to your table via carts full of various selections). Lai Wah Heen (416-977-9899, http://www.metropolitan.com/lwh/external link) offers an extensive menu that suits all budgets and appetites. The steamed purse of fresh crabmeat, shrimp and bamboo shoots makes for a good appetizer. Afterward, roam the streets, where you'll find the largest ethnic Chinese population of any North American city. Though Toronto has six Chinese communities, this main hub is fun to explore on foot.

Sip-and-see side trip

A 90-minute detour to the nearby Niagara Peninsula is well worth your time. The grapes here yield a bounty of icewine, a sweet nectar produced from frozen grapes plucked fresh from the vine. The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival in late September offers special tastings and seminars. To plot your path through this food-friendly region via car or bicycle, visit the Wine Council of Ontario at http://www.winesofontario.org/external link, or call 800-263-2988 for suggested routes through the more than 50 wineries with roots in the area.


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story.toronto.cntower.jpg

A trip up in Toronto's CN Tower on a clear afternoon affords a view all the way to the mists of Niagara Falls.

WHERE TO STAY

The sleek, contemporary design of the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel (from $385 Canadian; 416-599-8800, http://www.metropolitan.com/soho) offers both luxury and location. Sink into the lavish linens in this boutique hotel convenient to shopping and theater districts.

Those who enjoy historical settings will want to check in to the Royal York Hotel (from $179 Canadian; 800-441-1414, http://www.fairmont.com/royalyork). When it opened in 1929, the hotel was the tallest building in the British Empire. Its recently renovated rooms offer comfort and Old World style.

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