Shop like a New Yorker for a few dollars less

Bring an empty case, says Annalisa Barbieri, you won't be able to resist the retail heaven of Toronto

There were only two things I knew about Toronto. It was meant to be very safe and clean (OK, boring) and Ontario was meant to be the swinging capital of the northern hemisphere. But then one day, I met this very stylish woman on a train from Banff to San Francisco who seemed perfectly normal and lived in Toronto and made it sound very exciting.

There were only two things I knew about Toronto. It was meant to be very safe and clean (OK, boring) and Ontario was meant to be the swinging capital of the northern hemisphere. But then one day, I met this very stylish woman on a train from Banff to San Francisco who seemed perfectly normal and lived in Toronto and made it sound very exciting. "We've got a Gucci and a Prada and all the big designer shops," she said. For a slightly longer flight time, you could forgo New York, get friendlier service and a better exchange rate. I half-packed a very large case and went.

Forget what anyone tells you about Canada's customs people being so much nicer than America's. Rubbish. The official who greeted me had obviously decided that Canada was full and wanted no more people there. She asked me a series of terrifying questions that rendered me immediately guilty of everything. I was so traumatised that I arrived at my hotel with no memory of how I got there.

That evening I took a leisurely stroll, staying fairly close to the hotel which was in downtown Toronto, near the banking district. I felt safe. It was clean. It seemed a bit ... sterile. I hit the drugstore, always a great place to buy loads of utterly useless but somehow essential items, such as Barbie plasters. The drugstore was in one of Toronto's many underground malls (called The Underground City), which means you can shop in comfort whatever the weather. I returned to my hotel, once "the largest in the British Empire", and went to the bar. The great thing about big, old hotels is that they may not be the cutting-edge place to stay, but they always have great barmen. This one was the sort that mixed you cocktails according to your mood. Between a margarita, a cosmopolitan and a sidecar, I became ever so clever and made lots of new friends. Toronto was fabulous!

The next day was spent shopping and rehydrating. The big designer shops are to be found mostly along Bloor Street, but the whole Bloor/Yorkville area is the place for slick shopping. The experience of visiting a Prada shop in Toronto cannot be compared to anywhere else in the world. The staff was really friendly. So much so that I almost parted with $938 (£386) for a bag. Yet somehow the posh shops seemed, for me, incongruous with the city. It was almost as if Toronto feels it should have designer shops, but doesn't really know what to do with them. Despite the friendliness of the staff, there just wasn't that buzz you get in London or Milan or New York that makes you feel like (designer) shopping.

Two places in Yorkville that need to be visited however are Retro Fun (130 Cumberland Street), a great place to buy vintage games and toys. And an eaterie called Sassafraz (100 Cumberland Street), which, from the outside is exactly the kind of place I'd avoid – pictures of celebrities and film stars adorn the walls. But it claims to do the best gazpacho in Toronto (or was that Canada?) and it does.

Where Toronto shopping really comes into its own is in the independent shops in the more individualistic districts. Queen Street is one such place: resplendent with wonderful little shops catering to niche markets – the sort we used to do so well before all our high streets became homogenised. The feel of Queen Street is slightly gothic/nerdy. Comic shops (Silver Snail), utterly wonderful childrenswear shops (Misdemeanours) – the like of which I don't recommend you actually take your child into unless you are prepared to have them removed by the Toronto fire service – and lots and lots of "boutiques" which sell clothes totally reflecting the owner's style. Wenches and Rogues, which carry the best Canadian designer clothes, has recently moved out of Yorkville for the more idiosyncratic feel of Queen Street. Basically, just take a whole day to explore the kind of shops you just don't see anymore. (And there are lots of coffee bars to rest in.)

But my favourite districts for shopping were Chinatown and Kensington Market, both a shortish walk from Queen Street. The former is so authentic that for a couple of blocks you really feel like you are in China. This is more a place to get food and kitchenware, not really clothes. But Kensington Market! I'd been told to be sure I didn't leave Toronto without visiting Courage My Love (on Kensington Avenue) and it's probably the only store on earth I'd buy a plane ticket to visit again. It's a vintage shop, again like vintage shops here used to be before they got all trendy and expensive. In other words it's full of exquisite finds (I'm not joking: take a half day to do just this shop) that are insanely cheap. I bought a fabulous 1950s swimsuit for $10 and a lovely little handbag for $15, both of which elicit dozens of "where did you get those?" comments.

The second night I was there I went to two bar/clubs that were so trendy that when I'd mentioned one of them to my therapist at the hotel beauty salon earlier that day, she told everyone else in the salon and they all treated me like a minor celeb, asking "How did you manage to get your name on the list?" Not being, ever, the sort of person who gets into "those sort" of places I enjoyed feeling very au courant for a change.

The first bar was Zoom, on King Street East. Everything about this place was gorgeous. The decor, the service, the drinks and the nibbles. Then we went to Rain on Mercer Street, owned by the same people – the Rubino brothers. Rain is the only sort of club I'd ever want to visit again and it could teach other bars a thing or two. Pedro, the maître d', remembered everyone's name after first hearing it (which, with mine, is no mean feat). We ate some of the most adventurous food I'd ever tasted (Oriental-inspired) and were so well looked after I started to believe they really liked me. There was a dance floor – although no one was dancing (it was quite early) and the numbers allowed in are strictly limited so that no one ever feels crushed. Utter bliss. (My Toronto friend tells me that two new bars have opened up on King Street: Crush and YYZ which join Rain as the very latest places to go.)

Two other shopping tips. The Art Gallery of Ontario does the best scones I've ever tasted and has a fabulous shop and BMV Bookstore on Edward Street sells wonderful old copies of Life magazine that make great presents. I picked up a "Man lands on the Moon" special for five bucks. So, Toronto, no swinging, mercifully, but lots of good shopping.

Getting there

British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) are currently offering a sale on return flights to Toronto, with prices from £318 if you book before 1 October for travel in November and early December. The only condition is that you must stay over a Saturday night.

Being there

A standard room at the Fairmont Royal York (020-7025 1625; www.fairmont. com) starts from $229 (£95) per room per night.

Further information

Canadian Tourist Board (0906 871 5000; www.travelcanada.ca).

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