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Insider Guide: Best of Toronto
By C. James Dale, for CNN
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Toronto: a perfect mix of the conservative and creative? Something like that.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Many in Canada complain that Torontonians have a center-of-the-universe attitude.
True or not, the city can cast a shadow over the rest of the country.
Home to 2.5 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area) of more than 200 distinct ethnic origins, Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in North America.
It's an economic and social powerhouse with a vibrant bar, restaurant and arts scene, not to mention major league sports teams.
It's a city of neighborhoods -- Chinatown, Little Italy, Queen West.
It's a city of festivals -- the Toronto International Film Festival, Caribana, Gay Pride.
But above all, the best of Toronto is a great place to visit, a city full of promise and potential.
Four Seasons Toronto
Superior Room at the Four Seasons Toronto.
This hotel towers over the city's upscale Yorkville neighborhood, with its high-end shops and reputable restaurants.
The entrance and lobby walls are lined with wood. Decorative metal dividers stretch from floor to soaring ceiling.
Art designed to look like over-sized dandelion seed heads hovers above the check-in desk.
The hotel has 259 guest rooms, including 42 suites, all done up in cool contemporary grays and whites.
The spa is one of the best in Toronto, and the pool area is gorgeous.
Guests can congregate in the casual dbar or eat at Café Boulud, with a menu designed by Michelin-starred Chef Daniel Boulud.
There's plenty to savor, like the inventive grapefruit givré, a mixture of sorbet, grapefruit segments and Turkish delight, topped with torched sesame cracker and wisps of halvah.
The Royal York is the Grand Dame of Toronto's hotel scene, an imposing stone and copper-roofed structure that's firmly anchored in a sea of steel and glass.
It's been a star since it officially opened in 1929, a favorite for royalty, celebrities, movie directors and regular folk who want to soak up its Old World charm.
A C$100 million renovation that finished in 1993 helped keep the property in good shape.
Rooms have an elegant, Victorian style, with antique furniture, quilted bed covers and thick curtains and valance.
The Royal York is located across the street from the grand Union Station (and connected to it via underground walkway), Toronto's main train station, which is also built in a neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style.
This contemporary hotel in a slick condominium complex is a short walk from the shops and restaurants on King West and Queen West, plus the bars and clubs in the Entertainment District.
SoHo's 92 guest rooms (55 square meters on average) feature ultra-soft Frette linens and towels, natural down duvets and bathrooms with deep tubs and heated floors.
Lights, blinds and the "do not disturb" sign can be manipulated by remote control.
Thick windows block out sound, but guests have the option of opening them.
Big spenders can book the 370-square-meter penthouse suite, which has an in-suite glass elevator, two bedrooms, two fireplaces, a state-of-the-art kitchen, plus a rooftop terrace with a barbecue and an eight-seater hot tub.
The bakery/bar/restaurant Sen5es (get it?) is attached to the hotel, serving up baked goods and a solid menu, including a dinner deal for C$50 that provides one appetizer, one entrée and one dessert.
Travelers who have spent a night in a Thompson Hotel in cities such as New York and Chicago will feel at home in this modern property, located in the burgeoning King West Village neighborhood.
The 102 guest rooms (some with balconies) have floor-to-ceiling windows, heated bathroom floors and unique lighting features, along with plasma TVs and iHome docking stations.
Orange and red accents stand out against the dark, hardwood floors.
The hotel's offer attributes include a 24-hour American-style diner, a rooftop bar and infinity pool, a 40-seat theater ideal for private film screenings, and the 1812 Lounge, named in cheeky commemoration of the war between the United States and Britain.
Here's a home-away-from-home in Toronto's trendy West Queen West neighborhood.
From the tiny Solo room to the extra-large Suite (and not forgetting the Crash Pads, Dens and Salons in between), the Drake Hotel is the perfect place for travelers looking for a more eclectic place to lay their heads.
But getting to bed early will be a challenge once you get a look at everything the Drake has to offer: a cool club for indie bands, DJs and film screenings; a raucous restaurant with a menu heavy on the meat, fruits de mer and comfort food options such as mac 'n cheese; and a chill lounge, with a rotating art collection, culinary cook-offs, trivia and weekend oyster bar.
The best of Toronto rooftop Sky Yard is dubbed an "all-season space" by management (um, in Canada?), where patrons sip cocktails and roast marshmallows.
The "Masters of the Universe" from Bay Street (Toronto's Wall Street) love to congregate here for power lunches, surrounded by custom wood and stone, from the carved walnut chandeliers to the soapstone bar.
Canuck celebrities also dine at Canoe (Neil Young, William Shatner).
But it really doesn't matter who you are -- if you can afford the C$16-28 starters and the C$32-49 mains, you're in.
The menu is oh-so-Canada, coast-to-coast: Great Lakes pickerel, pan-seared Quebec foie gras, Alberta lamb, a selection of domestic wines.
The atmosphere can feel hip, relaxed or stuffy depending on the day and, perhaps, the company.
The view of Lake Ontario is inspiring, the food even better.
Canoe Restaurant & Bar, 54th Floor TD Bank Tower 66 Wellington St. W, Toronto, Ontario M5K 1H6 Canada; +1 416 364 0054
This restaurant, with its distinctive yellow exterior, has been a staple of the city's Yorkville neighborhood for decades.
Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Robert De Niro and a host of other celebs have hung out here.
A fire gutted Sassafraz in 2006 and the owners spent millions of dollars rebuilding.
These days, they offer French-inspired Canadian cuisine: Ontario beets, Alberta bison, Nova Scotia Digby scallops, PEI beef.
The wine list shines the spotlight on domestic offerings, but is also heavy on French and Italian varieties. Guests of the nearby Four Seasons are treated to a complimentary glass of bubbly.
The French-bistro feel hits you the minute you walk in the door.
It's the décor. It's the lively atmosphere. It's the escargot, steak tartare, duck confit on the menu.
Biff's gets even livelier in the warmer months, when managers open up the sizable street-side terrace.
The menus are designed to reflect the seasons and are filled with options both common (steak frites, filet mignon) and curious (crispy pig's ears, lamb belly confit).
The after-work crowd usually flocks here to enjoy $1 oysters, which are featured nightly from 5 p.m.
Biff's has a dense wine list, but it's also one of a number of restaurants in Toronto offering a bring-your-own-bottle option (corkage fee is $25 per bottle).
Biff's Bistro, 4 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario Canada; +416 860 0086
Edulis (Latin for edible) opened last year and quickly became one of the darlings of the restaurant scene, a place over which both diners and reviewers have been fawning.
"Pleasure bordering on delirium" gushed the Globe and Mail.
"A perfect little place" hailed Toronto Life magazine.
The owners "feed you wonderful food" noted former Gourmet Magazine editor in chief, Ruth Reichl.
The seafood- and vegetable-focused menu changes daily (you'll also find duck, rabbit and other meats), and the kitchen staff work to tailor their five- and seven-course meals to the tastes of each diner, creating iterations of Nunavut wild Arctic char or sunflower hearts or king salmon.
Edulis is booked up weeks in advance, so you need to get your reservation in early.
A haven for carnivores and foodies who love snout-to-tail eateries, the staff at The Black Hoof have been winning praise for their self-proclaimed "off-cut meat-centric menu" since 2008 (fish and veggie options also available).
The space is tight and reservations are verboten, so when it's busy, you'll have to wait in line.
Dishes range from beef tongue brioche to spicy horse tartar to roasted bone marrow.
It all gets rave reviews, including, believe it or not, a carrot cake that's topped with seared foie gras.
The owners also run the Hoof Cocktail Bar (923 Dundas St. W.; +1 416 792 7511), which serves custom cocktails (C$9-16), along with wine and cheese plates.
And they've opened Rhum Corner, which offers Haitian cuisine (accra, griot, bananes frites) and plenty of rum-based beverages.
Black Hoof, 938 Dundas St. W., Toronto, Ontario Canada; +1 416 551 8854
Aunties and Uncles
No big city is complete without a great place to grab breakfast or brunch, and Aunties and Uncles is one a best of Toronto fave.
The former barbershop, anchored in Toronto's Kensington Market/Chinatown neighborhood, is old-school-American-diner meets hip-thrift-store, with Formica tables, vintage posters and action figure dolls.
The cool kids love to come here, and they even line up on weekends for a spot -- it's quieter during the week.
The menu is designed to suit sweet or salty tastes, with banana oatmeal pancakes and Belgian waffles sharing top billing with omelets and breakfast tacos.
Best of all, everything is under C$10, with lattes and cappuccinos running C$3.
Fresh started out in the 1990s as a mobile juice bar and has evolved into Toronto's premier vegetarian and vegan restaurant, with four locations to its name.
Fresh's employees still blend up juices -- fruit smoothies, power shakes, immune elixirs, you name it -- but they also create Asian-inspired salads (Tangled Thai) and rice bowls (Buddha), not to mention a variety of meat-free burgers.
The sweet potato fries are a must.
Ditto the desserts, which are vegan and change daily (you should hope for a carrot cake day -- no foie gras here).
Fresh on Bloor, 326 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario Canada; +1 416 599 4442
Cherished by university students and working stiffs, Salad King is a Thai food-lovers paradise.
The layout is cafeteria style, with friends and strangers rubbing elbows at long tables.
The food is fast and fresh.
The menu is simple enough to memorize.
Everyone has their favorite dishes -- ours include the green chicken curry and the golden tofu curry.
Word of warning: the spice quotient ranges from mild (a bit spicy) to 20 chilies (could set some stomachs aflame).
This club in the heart of the entertainment district is located inside an old factory building and offers what the designer calls an "art collector's residence-meets-nightlife."
There's a towering chandelier, a fireplace, outlandish paintings and murals, with the odd mannequin kicking around for good measure (Clockwork Orange tribute).
Product has all the requirements of your standard nightclub: DJs (some famous, some not-so-famous), great sound, frenetic lights, plenty of room to dance, bottle service, and a dress code to keep out those who prefer to wear t-shirts, baseball hats and sneakers. Go late, stay late.
Product Night Club, 364 Richmond Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5V 2L7 Canada; +1 416 351 1100
Just steps away from Church Street, the backbone of Toronto's gay village, Fly is an institution known for a range of weekly, monthly and special event nights.
Expect a mix of fit urban professionals grinding to Donna Summer numbers alongside an otherwise rather more varied crowd.
Fly Toronto, 8 Gloucester St.; +1 416 410 5426
The Roof Lounge
Showcasing best of Toronto views, the Park Hyatt's iconic Roof Lounge has been luring patrons to its perch above the city for decades.
It's a favorite all year round, but is especially crowded during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Leather chairs, dark suede walls and a fireplace help reinforce the 1940s/1950s feel. Drinks are pricey. Space is limited.
Toronto's sports scene is solid, with a number of pro teams.
The Toronto Argonauts have been around the longest, one of eight clubs in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Their home is the Rogers Centre, which has a retractable roof (the building was formerly called the SkyDome). The CFL season runs from June until November.
The Toronto Blue Jays share the Rogers Centre with the Argos. The former back-to-back World Series champs play their regular Major League Baseball season from April until October.
This being Canada, you'll find most sports fans are more interested in hockey.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been chasing pucks around since 1917, although they haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
They play at the Air Canada Centre (regular season October-April), sharing the space with the NBA's Toronto Raptors (regular season October-April) and the Toronto Rock lacrosse team (regular season January-May).
The latest addition to the city's sports scene is the Toronto FC, which plays Major League Soccer at the BMO Field (season runs March to October).
Casa Loma, 1 Austin Terrace at Spadina Ave, Toronto, Ontario M5R 1X8 Canada; +1 416 923 1171
Distillery District Cafe is a best of Toronto stop.
The Distillery District started out as the Gooderham & Worts distillery in the 1830s.
It produced millions of gallons of whiskey and spirits in its more than 150-year history, surviving a fire and a brief period of prohibition before shutting down in 1990.
After a stint in the 1990s as the top film location in Canada, developers renovated the complex and reopened it in 2003, giving new life to the largest and best-preserved collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.
Its car-free, brick-lined streets and restored buildings are home to galleries, boutiques, cafés, restaurants, dance studios, a craft beer brewery and a sake brewery.
The people who run Steamwhistle Brewery started fermenting their award-winning craft pilsner in 2000 in the historic John Street Roundhouse.
The building, just south of the CN Tower, opened in 1929 as a steam locomotive repair facility.
The environmentally friendly brewery runs tours and hosts events.
The Evergreen Brick Works is Canada's first large-scale community and environmental center.
The development is built on the site of the former Don Valley Brick Works.
National Geographic named the Brick Works one of the top 10 geotourism destinations in the world in 2010.
Visitors flock here to take part in interactive workshops (Bike Repair 101, urban gardening, cooking), tour the farmers' market and watch environmental documentaries.
You can see the ROM (pictured) as part of a Toronto Society of Architects tour.
Toronto's landscape has been transformed over the past decade, with new buildings popping up and older ones getting facelifts.
One of the first buildings to open, in 2004, was the stunning Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, a table-top structure with "black-and-white pixelated skin."
Another addition to the cityscape is the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, with its sweeping glass-and-brick facade. Inside, more glass and plenty of wood enhance acoustics.
The FSC was built specifically for opera and ballet and is home to the Canadian Opera Company and The National Ballet of Canada.
Two of the world's best architects gave two of Toronto's best-loved museums makeovers in recent years.
Daniel Libeskind re-imagined the exterior of the Royal Ontario Museum, home to dinosaur skeletons, armor, statues and a host of other exhibits.
Libeskind merged the old ROM building with what's called the Michael-Lee Chin Crystal (named after the guy who donated C$30 million to the museum's renaissance project).
The interlocking structure, made of 25% glass and 75% extruded-brushed, aluminum-cladding strips, has transformed the museum and the street corner it occupies.
Not to be outdone, management at the Art Gallery of Ontario hired Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, the mastermind behind the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, to redesign their building.
The AGO's new facade is made of gently curving glass and Douglas fir.
Other touches include an impressive sculptural spiral staircase in the new south wing.
The Toronto International Film Festival has been around since 1976, but it only got a home befitting its global stature in 2010.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is part cinematic culture center and part condo tower, home to five state-of-the-art cinemas, two galleries, three learning studios, retail space and restaurants.
The Toronto Society of Architects runs tours showcasing the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the ROM, the AGO and a number of other buildings in Toronto.