Travel: A short break in Toronto

Imagine New York with an even greater racial mix, less violence and cleaner streets. Mary Novakovich reports

Peter Ustinov called Toronto "New York run by the Swiss", and he wasn't far off. Canada's largest city is bustling, full of skyscrapers and considerably cleaner, safer and friendlier than New York. Its more than 80 ethnic groups nudged the United Nations into calling it the most ethnically diverse city in the world. The theatre district is the third largest after London and New York, and the restaurants (all 5,000 of them) and the shopping are breathtakingly inexpensive for such a large North American city.

When to go

With the pound so strong against the Canadian dollar (pounds 1=C$2.40), now is a very good time. Toronto veers from very cold in the winter to absurdly hot in the summer (with added humidity), but spring is pleasantly temperate and the pavement cafes begin their annual rush to invade every available outdoor space.

Getting there

Canadian Airlines, Air Canada and British Airways all offer daily scheduled flights from Heathrow and/or Gatwick. Until 31 May, British Airways has a special offer of pounds 399 return to Toronto (plus pounds 27.30 tax) but it must be booked by 28 April. Otherwise a scheduled return is pounds 605. Charter flights are available on Canada 3000, which can be booked through Bluebird Holidays (tel: 0990 320000). On arrival at Lester B Pearson Airport, in the north- west corner of suburban Toronto, it is best to take one of the official airport limousines that queue up outside the terminal. The flat rate for a journey into the downtown area is C$40 (about pounds 17).

Where to stay

As it is the financial capital of Canada, Toronto has its fair share of Hiltons, and the like, with double rooms generally starting at C$150 (pounds 63). The Holiday Inn, 370 King Street West (tel: 001 416 599-4000), is in the heart of the theatre district and offers double rooms from C$109 (pounds 46). B&bs are becoming more prevalent, and Across Toronto Bed & Breakfast Inc, Box 269, 253 College Street, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1R5 (tel: 001 416 588-8800), can provide lists of b&bs from C$56-C$85 per double room.

What to see and do

Toronto's cultural life is extensive. The theatre district, along King Street West, has the blockbuster shows, and there are numerous fringe theatres. Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe Street) and Massey Hall (178 Victoria Street) are the usual venues for opera, classical, pop and comedy performances, and the SkyDome (1 Blue Jays Way, where the baseball team plays) and the newly opened Air Canada Centre (40 Bay Street, home to the Toronto Raptors basketball and the Toronto Maple Leafs ice-hockey teams) are where they put the really big events. All events are listed in the two free weekly what's-on guides, Now and Eye, which come out on Thursdays and can be found in most bars and restaurants.

Although pricey, the world's tallest free-standing structure, the CN Tower, can be fun if you zoom up to the Sky Pod at 1,450ft (in 58 seconds). There's a revolving restaurant at the top, and at the foot are restaurants, shops and an Imax cinema.

Downtown Toronto is a series of clearly demarcated neighbourhoods, and the street signs will helpfully tell you that you are in Little Italy, Chinatown, Greektown, Portuguese Village and many others. In the evenings, it is a good idea to find one neighbourhood and then stick to it, as you are sure to find several great restaurants, bars and nightclubs within a five-minute walk.

Young Torontonians, like New Yorkers, like to discover new areas and then move on once the suburbanites have invaded. Ten years ago it was Queen Street West. Now College Street, from Bathurst Street eastwards, is the trendy spot. Bar Italia (584 College Street) was the first of the consciously cool bars to open; in spite of that, it is a relaxing place in which to drink, watch the good-looking people and contemplate one of their enormous sandwiches. If it's a sunny day, then it's definitely Cafe Diplomatico, another lazy spot that benefits from a large corner patio. On the same street you will find one of the city's best Italian restaurants, Trattoria Giancarlo, on the corner of College and Clinton Streets. The food is sumptuous, the decor warm and two courses and wine will set you back about pounds 15 each.

Most of the trendy hangouts will have at least one pool table, which became de rigueur in most bars in the early 1990s. If you can't play, you might want to learn, as everyone does it.

Queen Street West might have lost its official cool tag, but it is packed full of shops, bars, restaurants and live music venues, and is well worth a visit. It is very colourful, and most of the bars and restaurants have patios. A 10-minute walk northwards will take you to Kensington Market, tucked away behind Chinatown. Among a maze of streets, running north from Dundas to College, east of Spadina, are second-hand clothing shops, fish stalls, organic food shops, tiny restaurants and lots of people, especially on Saturdays. Unlike London's Portobello Market, these shops sell vintage clothing at affordable prices.

One of the more refined areas is Yorkville, just north of Bloor Street between Church Street and Avenue Road. A former 1960s hippie hangout, it has become home to upmarket shops and restaurants. This is Chanel and Prada territory, but the good exchange rate will count in shoppers' favour.

Harbourfront (Queen's Quay West) comes into its own in the spring and summer. Once a series of disused warehouses lining the harbour, it is now a collection of shops, restaurants, theatres and outdoor events, with the harbour as a shimmering backdrop. It is also the point from which you can catch a ferry across to Toronto Islands, a series of 17 islands, most of which are connected by walkways. Filled with old clapboard houses, parks and beaches (but no cars!), it is a favourite picnic spot for city dwellers seeking a bit of greenery, and is also taken over by the Caribbean community every summer for the annual Caribana Festival.

Toronto's cold winters have led to some ingenious town- planning, notably the Underground City in the financial district. Covering almost a quarter of the downtown area, it connects subway stations with office buildings and the many shopping malls attached to them. Handy if the weather is inclement.

Food and drink

This is where Toronto shines. Eating out is cheaper than in Britain, and diners are spoilt for choice. Toronto is home to so many immigrants that you can choose from the following national cuisines: Armenian, Austrian, Belgian, Chinese, Dutch, Ethiopian, French, French Canadian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, Lebanese, Malaysian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Pakistani, Persian, Peruvian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swiss, Thai, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, West African and West Indian. And that doesn't include the huge number of sports bars, delis, seafood restaurants and the usual Tex- Mex/Californian/Mediterranean mix of bistros that abound.

Chinatown (Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue). The number of Chinese restaurants here can be overwhelming, but it is worth trying some out. Many are of the cheap-and-cheerful variety, where the food is served on bin-liner- type tablecloths that get removed after each sitting.

Bright Pearl, 346 Spadina Avenue, is more upmarket yet has a daily lunchtime special price of about 65p per dish, bringing the average total cost to less than pounds 5 per head. Watch some of the other diners, almost all Chinese locals, for tips in flagging down the waitress to get the next round of food in.

Double Eight, 270 Spadina Avenue, is a good bet for Vietnamese food, where a filling lunch of classic Vietnamese noodles with pork and tiger prawns will be much less than a fiver.

Greektown (The Danforth, east of Yonge Street) has long been home to numerous traditional Greek eateries, including Pappa's Grill (440), Omonia (426) and Ouzeri (500). In recent years it has been invaded by achingly hip restaurants and bars. Lolita's Lust (513) and Byzas (535) are the latest spots to hang out in.

Myth, 417 Danforth Avenue, one of the newer arrivals, has the ubiquitous pool table and some stunning interiors. Greek B-movies play soundlessly on a giant screen while the cool people sit at the large bar area in the front. Food is of a desultory Greek/Californian nature, but it is more a place to see and be seen.

Queen Street West. A huge choice is on offer, ranging from the once-great but still-good Peter Pan (No 375, cod Thai) and Rivoli (No 334, Laotian) to Le Select (No 328, solidly French) and newer arrival Gypsy Co-op (No 817, bits of everything), and literally dozens of others.

It is worth remembering that bar staff in Toronto expect to be tipped after every round. No tip means rude indifference. Either round up the amount to the nearest dollar (more expensive) or leave your credit card behind the bar, run up a tab and tip at the end (cheaper).

Getting around

Toronto's public transport system (called the TTC) operates safe, cheap and clean subways, streetcars and buses. There are two subway lines that run north-south and one that runs east-west. An unlimited day-pass costs C$6.50 (pounds 2.70). Taxis are also a relatively cheap option. The city was built on a grid system which makes it very easy to get your bearings and the CN Tower is a handy landmark. Don't bother hiring a car: it will just get towed away.

Shopping

Like New York, there are things in Toronto that are so much cheaper than in Britain that it's worth stocking up. CDs cost in dollars what they cost in pounds, so a C$12.99 CD converts to about pounds 5.40. A Nike Toronto has recently opened (110 Bloor Street West) and again, trainers are less than half price. The only thing to keep in mind is the sales tax, which is added separately. The province of Ontario charges 7 per cent (called PST) and there's also the federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) which is 8 per cent. But even with the additional 15 per cent, it is still a bargain, and tourists can claim back the GST at the airport.

Toronto is full of huge shopping malls, including the Eaton Centre (Yonge and Dundas), the Hudson's Bay Centre (Yonge and Bloor) and First Canadian Place (in the Underground City). Bloor Street, going west from Yonge Street, has upmarket department store Holt Renfrew, Plaza Escada, Chanel, Prada, Hermes, Giorgio, Mac Cosmetics, Banana Republic and others of that ilk. Queen Street West has shop after shop of hip 'n' trendy gear, and Spadina Avenue, south of Chinatown, used to be the garment district; now it's the place to go if you're of the fur-wearing inclination.

The monstrosity known as Honest Ed's (581 Bloor Street West) is a Toronto landmark. Covering two blocks and emblazoned with more lights than Vegas, it's budget department- store heaven (or hell) and huge signs scream "Don't just stand there, BUY SOMETHING!" at you. Must be seen.

Nightlife

You can choose from basic bars, bars with live music or full-on nightclubs, many of which are filled with those derided suburbanites. El Convento Rico (750 College Street) is a happy medium, a mixed-gay Latin club with great cocktails and a drag show Saturday nights after 1am.

Back to old Queen Street West: the Horseshoe (370), the Rivoli and the Cameron House (408) are all Toronto institutions and worth a quick visit to check out the mostly indie/rock bands. The Bamboo (312) is the place for Caribbean/world music and the Bovine Sex Club (542) is worth a visit if only for its daft name.

An important note: the legal drinking age in Ontario is 19 and it is strictly enforced. Even if you're considerably older than that, bring some form of photo ID. They will ask you. (They asked me and I'm 34.)

Deals and packages

Bridge Travel City Breaks (tel: 01992 456600) offers flight and hotel deals to Toronto. Prices start from pounds 388 per person, based on two sharing, for a two-night break with room-only accommodation at the three-star-plus Sheraton Centre and return scheduled flights. I chose the four-star Harbour Castle Westin where a four-night room-only break costs from pounds 460 per person, based on two sharing, including return scheduled flights on Canadian Airlines.

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