There's more to this city than the CN Tower and the theater. If you're lucky enough to find yourself with a few days of leisure and want to leave the States without leaving the continent, head to Toronto for an insider's look. Here are nine destinations even your travel agent might not know about.
1. Distillery Historic District
55 Mill St., (416) 866-8687
Go here and gain bragging rights for being among the first out-of-towners to wander through the maze of ultra-chic and retro restaurants, pubs, art galleries and studios. A restored distillery, the area is now populated by trendy shops, all with exposed brick and cracked plaster. All of the site's 13 acres of brick-paved streets are pedestrian only.
We took a cab ($6.25 CAD) from downtown since the district isn't easily accessible by subway and is about a half-hour's brisk walk. When we arrived, a few musicians were out on the streets, but we went into The Boiler House, (416-203-2121) a large pub where a four-piece jazz ensemble was wailing in the balcony while diners ate seafood and sandwiches below.
Take some time to explore the old buildings, where ghosts must lurk in the upper stories of glassless windows. The courtyards, though, are alive with folks sipping fancy coffees from Balzac's Coffee Shop (416-207-1709) and eating pastries from Brick Street Bakery (416-214-4949).
2. Kensington Market District
On any given street corner, we heard a minimum of three languages that weren't English, French or Spanish. Adding ever more flavor to this gritty, bustling neighborhood is the secondhand shop Courage My Love (14 Kensington Ave., 416-979-1992), with its bright blue exterior and unclothed life-size mannequins precariously balanced on the roof. It's filled with exotic clothes, handbags, jewelry and accessories. Fashion-magazine clippings mentioning this store hang near the door, and celebrities are rumored to shop here.
Also in Kensington, Casa Acoreana, which is also know as Louie's (235 Augusta, 416-593-9717), offers coffee, candy and nuts. At its weathered outside rail, a handful of locals perched atop rickety stools with aromatic cups of java, completely unruffled by the bustling chaos behind them. Inside, tourists shopped for candies and flavored coffee beans by the pound. By the way, carry Canadian cash in Kensington. Many stores, including this one, have signs that say cash only.
3. Hey Lucy
295 King St. West, (416) 408-3633
We stopped here for dinner on our first night out and sat at a sidewalk table so we could people-watch. Located in the heart of the entertainment district, Hey Lucy offers righteously priced food and a good selection of draft beers. We ate a fantastic calzone called "the good, bad and guacamole" for $9.95 CAD and the My Thai linguine with chicken, black tiger shrimp and vegetables for $13.95 CAD. Considering that people were dropped off in limousines across the street at the entrance to "The Lion King," we thought the food prices were great.
4. St. Lawrence Market
92 Front St. East, at Jarvis Street, (416) 392-7120
No visit to Toronto would be complete without a walk through the St. Lawrence Market in the heart of downtown. The south building is open every day and houses the Carousel Bakery (93 Front St. East, 416-363-7120), which was where we were told to buy the best authentic Canadian bacon back sandwich ($4.25 CAD). We received a foil-wrapped, soft white bun containing abundant slices of thick, salty, coarse ham. The locals swear by them, and while we waited for ours, at least 10 others were sold.
The north building is only open on Saturdays and is a lot more ramshackle than its southern counterpart. Local vendors bring their vegetables and meats, many of the products organically raised, and display them on makeshift tables of sawhorses and plywood boards. Check out Rowe Farm Meats (92 Front St., 519-822-8794), a meat store in the north building, where whole gutted pigs dangle in vertical meat display cases and sausage links decorate the air like oversized Christmas lights.
5. The Rex Jazz and Blues Bar
194 Queen St. West, (416) 598-2475
Locals tout The Rex as one of the area's best nightclubs. We agree. The cover charge is $9 CAD, but the music rocked. The first night we walked by, a tenor sax was bellowing a tricky solo to a packed house. We visited on our second night, when the musical fare was bluesy. If you just want to stop in for a quick draft without paying the cover, take your drink to the patio, where eavesdropping is free.
6. The Martin Goodman Trail
Attention runners, cyclists and inline skaters: Pack your gear and hit this paved lakefront trail. It's well-marked and well-used by weekend warriors as well as serious athletes. From downtown, take any street south to Lake Ontario, then head east. The first mile takes you through shipyard rubble before giving way to a beautiful wooded park, gentle hills and tranquil views of the lake.
7. Nicholas Hoare
45 Front St. East, (416) 777-2665
This is downtown's literary, artsy bookstore, and is just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, The Royal York, on Front Street. My husband drooled over the beefy coffee-table books with Harley-Davidson pictures. The selection of big art books is imposing. Hardwood floors and shelves trimmed in hunter green lend the place an antiquarian mood.
8. McMichael Canadian Art Collection
10365 Islington Ave., Kleinburg,1-888-213-1121
Technically, this campus of entirely Canadian art and culture is not quite in Toronto, but it's worth the half-hour drive. We headed northwest to Kleinburg, where we were steeped in Canada through the eyes of the artists of Group of Seven, active from about 1913 to 1931. Their goal was to capture the wild, rugged beauty of their country, primarily in striking, colorful oil paintings. The $15 CAD admission includes tours and entrance into all 14 galleries.
9. Danforth Avenue
The entire Danforth, a seemingly endless street with a heavy Greek flavor, is cool, but Suckers Candy Co. (450 Danforth Ave., 416-405-8946) drew us in with its huge treasure chest full of sacks of Gold Mine Gum near the front door, Canadian fudge and lollipops bigger than Frisbees.
Another place to try is Athens Pastries (509 Danforth Ave., 416-463-5144), where we sampled Greek confections such as galaktoboureko, a custard pie in phyllo pastry dipped in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
The Astoria Shish Kebob House, (390 Danforth Ave., 416-463-2838)was the busiest restaurant. It boasts a clientele of local politicians and celebrities, including the Backstreet Boys and Steven Segal.