Toronto – A ‘foodie’ paradise & Street art nirvana!

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September 2nd 2014
Published: September 2nd 2014
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We're up at 6 am to drive to the airport for our West Jet (Canada’s Easy Jet) flight to Toronto. We hand the car back at the airport & it’s back to travel by bus & staying in hostels for the rest of our time in Canada & the US. Check in is easy so as we have time, we try the White Spot eatery for breakfast (they are all over Canada) and find it pretty good. The Airport is quite modern and has a few eateries and shops in the domestic area though most are pre security.

Our flight leaves at 9-45am and goes ok. There's no in-flight entertainment or food unless you pay for it but we have enough to read, snacks to eat & stuff to keep us entertained. The flight is about 4 hours and the time difference 3 hours, so we get to Toronto at 5 pm, just in time to catch the Toronto Transit 192 Rocket bus from the airport to Kipling station.Then it's the subway to Spadina and the 510 street car (a bus really) from there to College St where we are staying. The total journey costs C$3 each as long as you get a transfer ticket which covers all trips on any one journey even if you change mode of transport; compares to C$21 each for a commercial express bus to downtown. Great value!

We are staying at Planet Traveler hostel in the downtown area near the University, which is pretty good. There's a decent kitchen (though it gets a bit packed at peak times due to the layout), breakfast is included but a bit samey, there are Macs (flat screen desktops) to use and free wifi – though not great in our room which is 3 floors up, and it also has a good rooftop bar area where they do a free BBQ on Saturday nights. Only down side is no lift. We need the exercise though.

The hostel is situated right next to the Kensington Market area which is pretty trendy/alternative with loads of different nationality eateries, loads of cafe's, a few food and fruit and veg shops, butchers and fish shops and lots of colourful murals and street art. Reminds us of Shepherds Bush & Portobello Rd, in London rolled into one. We spend quite a bit of time over the next few days taking photo's here as it's so colourful.

One piece we particularly like is a Rob Ford (the city's controversial Mayor)cartoon painted on a wall. Amazingly, the elections for a new mayor take place soon but we hardly see any electioneering stuff other than this mural and one young lad who offers us a flyer for his sister who is standing.

There seems to be less rough sleepers & beggars here than in Vancouver and unlike Vancouver there doesn’t seem to be any one area that is a focal point for down and outs. Begging is much more passive here - we only get approached directly once. There also seems to be quite a lot of folk with mental health problems walking the streets, though we also see plenty of community support units which is positive. In addition, some offering free English lessons – a great idea we feel.

Just next to Kensington is Chinatown which is pretty awesome; definitely what we’ve been missing in other parts of Canada – a bit of grit and character for a change. There are loads of Chinese shops and food stalls and it also has lots of Vietnamese and Korean eateries. Walking round Chinatown (we feel we might be in Hong Kong) we track down some of the places Shelley has recommended (she used to live here and has done us great tour guide notes again – as she did for Japan). They’re packed so definitely the places to come to for dumplings and Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup).

This area has a real sense of China. Apart from all the street signs in Chinese, and restaurants, there are lots of women selling veg and goods from under umbrellas on the pavement. Reminds us of various parts of SE Asia. It seems much more authentic than any other Chinatown we’ve seen, including London.

We also head Uptown for a walk to Bloor Street – filled with bars and eateries and popular with younger folk.We have a couple of beers (Big Wheel – not bad) then go to a Greek place that looks good but the food is a disappointing; pork gyro very dry and chips cold. But we’re hungry….

It's a city that is quite easily walkable but there are streetcars (trams) buses and a subway system for getting around. It's also a very flat city so great for cycling - there are lots of Bixi bike points (a bit like Boris bikes) around and well-marked cycle lanes. Unfortunately the cyclists seem to be as one with the car drivers and don't obey any rules - usually fast, the wrong way up/down one way streets, and shooting past the open doors of the streetcars as passengers trying to get on or off - usually resulting in a long and loud horn from the streetcar driver!!

We head to Downtown via Chinatown and to Dundas Square looking for the Visitor Centre; its closed down and relocated to Union Station we find out later but there's no info about this on their website! Idiots. The upside is we get to enjoy some time at the Busker Fest – most of Yonge Street – the main drag, is closed to traffic and there are loads of street performers, food stalls and a party feel - And all raising funds for Epilepsy Toronto. Well done Toronto!Volunteering appears to be more the norm here - we see many adverts seeking volunteers & quite a few civic events are organised, managed and run by them.

Next, as it’s a Saturday, its the Old town area – where Toronto was first settled, and more specifically the St Lawrence Street Market – said to be the best in the world by National Geographic. Not sure about that but it’s certainly one of the best – loads of fab food stalls and fresh meat, fish, cheese and produce stalls. A bit like Borough Market in London. On a later visit we discover some more ethnic stalls on a lower level.

At the recommendation of a local guy eating there, we try a smoked bacon roll – bacon slices cut off large succulent slabs, some with great crackling crust on, others slightly sweet with a maple glaze. Awesome! To add mustard would be a tragedy!

We buy some lovely pork steaks for dinner and then go across the road to the farmers market and get some great locally grown veg very cheap (a huge bunch of chard is only C$2!). Now we have a great dilemma – this is a great place to buy local stuff to cook in but it’s also a city with loads of eating out options. Life's tough eh?

On the way back we do a bit of shopping to get M some sandals. There's a big mall, the Eaton Centre near Dundas Square, which has all the usual high street shops, Hudson Bay – a bit like Selfridges, (M gets some stuff from here later when the sales are on) and a Canadian Tire – a sort of Canadian Walmart - but they have just about everything you can think of from car stuff to sports and camping and clothes. We could do with something like this in the UK.

As we wander around the city we notice quite a lot of folkin electric wheelchairs and others with mobility walkers, more so than we've been aware of elsewhere even though many places in the city are not very DDA compliant (though most subways do have lifts).

Back at the hostel (after a quick trip to buy beer and nightcap juice!) we head to the roof for the BBQ (just burgers but with all the trimmings and who's complaining when it's a freebie) – its packed and they seem to have lots of folk who aren’t even staying here, though the owner doesn’t seem to mind. There's pretty good views of the CN tower and skyline all lit up.

We get up late to a nice sunny day. We hit Kensington which looks incredibly colourful but is also very busy; trying to take pics is a nightmare so we decide to try again tomorrow as it will still be sunny, and take the Bathhurst street car to Exhibition, a couple of miles away near the waterfront, as we’ve read about a food truck fest there.

We arrive there to find its part of a big fair and you have to pay C$18 each to get in. Damn! Not according to the security guys who tell us to say we just want to go to the TTC (local transit) point, then we’ll get in for free and it’s unlikely anyone will notice when we meander elsewhere!!! It works! Happiness – especially as the fair is not much to talk about and most of the stalls inside make the thing seem like a huge flea market! Can’t understand why folks are here in droves at that price.

Anyhow, we eventually find the food truck section though it’s not that great; 19 trucks but mainly Taco’s, Burgers and Poutine. We try Osso Bucco Gnocchi just to have something different & it's ok.

We stroll to the waterfront. The route seems a bit random; blocks of flats, lots of glass and concrete, a small airport on the island opposite, boats and cruisers on Lake Ontario (which is quite blue with clear water), a few areas for shows and music, a bit of beach and sand – but somehow it doesn't quite have a sense of place. This is all within striking distance of the CN tower.

Part of the problem is the huge amount of construction work going on - not just here, across the whole city. Toronto is hosting the Pan American Games next year so lots of Construction projects have been brought forward and in some places it's pretty much a building site.

We walk back along Yonge Street and enjoy more of the Buskerfest – which seems even more busy today, and better for pics as the sun is out, then head up to Bloor Street.We come across the designer shopping area (Tiffany, Prada, Louis Vitton et al) and the Royal Ontario Museum – very modern & impressive building– lots of angles and very cubist. It's supposed to be the best in Canada so a possibility for the rainy day we’re due to have. Then it's back to the ranch for a home cooked dinner & catching up on blog editing – we’ve got 3 to get out this week.

Next morning we go to Kensington Market and Chinatown mainly taking photo’s. It’s still pretty busy even on a Monday. We explore more of the area and soon find side streets with some really nice houses in the neighbourhood with lots of Indian/Tibetan/Nepali stuff for sale, but not from shops – more like lots of stalls in folks front rooms and gardens.

There are also eateries covering just about every part of the world; Jamaican, South and Central American, Portuguese, Indian, and of course SE Asian. We like it here! We also find a great coffee place – Moonbean, and a place for Jamaican patties to take with us tomorrow for lunch at Niagara Falls. Another feature of the neighbourhood is dog water bowls outside most shops and eateries. We've seen this quite a lot here and in the US - more so than in UK cities.

One item of note are the Toronto traffic and neighbourhood signs are very creative and funny; Neighbourhood Watch signs have superheroes, Star Trek and cartoon hero pictures on them and the go slow warning signs have a picture of a tortoise. Folk are also quite creative with the names of their business strap lines – “poultry in motion” on a chicken lorry, “Cirque de Poulet” on a chicken shop….. And they even have a Chinese decorated moose on a shop in Chinatown.

As it is pretty hot we decide to go back to the hostel and get another blog loaded. When it’s cooler in the afternoon we go to Queen St West which is known for having a nice mix of shops and some funky one’s too. It’s quite colourful and some of the frontages are pretty creative. We walk along for a long time looking for the West Queen St West area which is supposed to be even funkier but after about 2 miles of nothing we decide enough is enough; maybe we didn’t go far enough but life’s too short!

Back at the hostel we try some micro popcorn (they provide it for free) with our beers and then enjoy a home cooked veggie meal for a change. They have a movie night on the roof but we decide to skip it as we have an early start tomorrow.

We’re due to be picked up for our trip to Niagara at 8-20 so go to Moonbean for a coffee and breakfast snack. Kensington Market looks great at this time of day; the shops aren’t open so you get to see all the graffiti (street art Caroline!!) on buildings without obstruction. Very colourful!

Our trip to Niagara is with Niagara Day Tours who we chose because they were the top rated on Trip Advisor and we can see why. No big bus, just a mini bus with 8 in the group. We stop at all the sights that other companies just drive past apparently, and we get some interesting commentary. At C$79 including the boat ride its pretty good value.

Burkus, a Kiwi,part owns the company and is also the driver/tour-guide. The route takes us westalong Lake Ontario (traffic heading into town as we leave is pretty jammed – it's a bit like Chiswick flyover). We travel from the north side to the south side of the Lake, and then along the Niagara Parkway, which runs alongside the Niagara river which is the boundary with New York State on the other side & the USA. It's a rather affluent area with huge houses - and mostly attractive.

We go past Fort York (Toronto was called York when under British rule, only reverting to Toronto, its original namein1834) the site of one of the main battles of the 1812 territorial war between Canada (and therefore the British at the time) and the US. The US army invaded and sacked the Fort and as a consequence the British army retaliated and took the Whitehouse; the only time in its history it has been occupied by a foreign force. (Funnily enough there had been something on the news recently about a cake sent to the US by the UK to mark the bi-centenary which had a couple of sparklers on it. An apology had to be issued on Twitter! That’s e-diplomacy for you.)

The tour includes a few stops along the way. First is Niagara on the Lake - where the mouth of the river meets Lake Ontario. A really attractive town with fabulous flower displays and many houses that remind us of the southern US in style. There are lots of nice cafés etc but as we have our picnic supplies we resist. Then it's on to the smallest chapel in the world (6 pews, seats 10), still operation & good for a pic.

Next we stop at Reif Estate winery where we join in the free wine tastings. That was a nice surprise!We taste a white we've never heard of before, Vidal, which is very nice, a Cab/Merlot – a bit dry, and and Vidal ice wine – very sweet but quite nice. This stuff costs a fortune back in the UK but it's pretty reasonable (relatively) here. It's called Ice wine because the Grapes are harvested in the middle of the night & before day break, in January when they're both extremely ripe and frozen, hence the name.

Next/stop is the (Sir Isaac)Brock monument, a 1812 war memorial, (point of interest here - a plaque commemorates the "Black Corps" of the Canadian army that operated from 1812 till WW2. Blacks that had been slaves feared the US taking over Canada and making them slaves again so joined the army to fight the US. They were put into a separate Corps led by white officers, and credited with playing a vital role in the war. It doesn't say what happened after WW2).

Then it's a Hydroelectric plant on the Niagara river (there are 3 – 2 Canadian, one US) - not hugely riveting but included as it's a significant aspect of the local economy, and finally the floral clock! The clock mechanism was made in Scotland and the floral design is changed seasonally. It doesn't do much for us but is made more interesting as there are severalMennonite families that turn up and it’s interesting to see them in real life.

Burkus gives us some interesting factoids as we drive: Toronto's population is 2.6m but including the Greater Toronto Area is closer to 6m. (Canada pop: 35m). Toronto is the biggest urban settlement in the country. About 50% of the population is immigrants, which is quite amazing given that immigration only really started in earnest post WW2 years. The Niagara district top 4 industries are, in order, tourism, hydroelectric power, wine, then fruit. Canada was granted independence from Britain in 1867 but didn't get its own flag until 1965.

Niagara Falls, when we get there is much better than we expected (low expectations!). Not tacky at all on the Canadian side, or over developed and the main city area is away from the Falls. The Falls are in 2 sections; the US section of the falls (oppositethe boat pier) is quite small, compared to the Canadian horseshoe section some 15 minutes’ walk away which is more photogenic and much bigger – 90% of the water flow is over the Canadian bit. It's not as impressive as Iguassu Falls in Brazil/Argentina/Uruguay as it's not so big but a nice day out all the same. The temp is 31 and it’s hot & sunny.

We do a Hornblowers (previously Maid of the Mist) boat ride into the Falls, donning our provided red poncho.It’snowhere as wet as Iguassu but the mist off the Falls is tremendous so getting clear photo's is almost impossible. You can also do a heli tour and go up a Skylon tower for aerial views but we decide the boat trip is enough.

We get back to hostel by 6 pm and go for a pitcher of beer (much better value) at the local bar then to Caplanskys a local institution for Knishe (awesome)!and smoked meat sandwich (brisket – like salt beef at Selfridges – pretty good). Unfortunately they've run out of Pierogies though – we hope we'll get to try them another day but it's not to be. We meet Zane Caplansky the owner and watch a few mad folk doing the ice bucket challenge outside. Then as M is still peckish we go to Fancy Franks opposite the hostel for a hot dog. Hot dogs are one of the Toronto street food staples - known as Street Meat, and there are stalls everywhere. Franks is a fancier version and pretty good too.

Despite the weather forecast it's another good day. We set off towards the Eaton Centre and see a display for the Cirque de Soleil shows; their new show starts on our last night here but unfortunately all tickets are sold out and they're not in Montreal or Quebec whilst we're there. Blast, we should have done more planning on this.

Next it’s St Lawrence market for lunch but via some different side streets so we get to see St James Cathedral and the nearby Sculpture Garden. The market is pretty quiet and none of the stalls are doing the cooked food we'd been looking forward to – they do this on Thursday to Saturday only we find out. Good job we have tomorrow to come back again. So instead we go for coffee then head to Mothers Dumplings (voted the best Chinese in Toronto) for a late lunch of dumplings. On the way we head past the Old City Hall - a gothic style building and Nathan Phillips Square with fountains and great views back across the city. We also discover a part of Kensington we hadn't seen which has lots of Caribbean shops and a Japanese run hairdressers where C books in for a cut tomorrow.

Mothers Dumplings is an absolutely awesome Chinese place. We try pork, shrimp and melon fried dumplings and steamed wheat flour dumplings with pork and pickled cabbage. Delish! We may have to come back.

Back at the hostel we post the final Vancouver Island blog and catch up on a few things. We cook in - a light supper as we've decided we need to diet so are trying to be a bit healthy! (C says as she knocks back a beer!)

Next morning we visit the Distillery district across town - it takes about 40 mins to walk there and on the way we pass quite a few Housing Co-ops, and some Community Housing - looks like Housing Association stuff in the UK, in contrast to the typical bland municipal housing we've seen elsewhere in the city.

The Distillery district is a converted distillery that is still pretty intact with lots of eateries, a few trendy shops and some galleries, and lots of residential development around it - it reminds us of Pimlico with more shops and cafes. It has some interesting street art in the outside seating area but probably is best seen in the evening when it's lit up and busier.

It’s St Lawrence Market again via Second Cup for a coffee & a skype with Louise and Olive who is now clapping and waving and laughing a lot. Terrific!

Second Cup seems to be on every street corner - certainly more than Starbucks and possibly even more than Tim Horton. We have also just heard about the merger between Time Hortons & Burger King which seems to have gone down well in Canada.

In the market all is well - the food places are operating today though quieter than the weekend. We have the bacon roll again but this time just the sides - fattier and with crackling, and also get some beef ribs which is so big (it comes with spuds and coleslaw) that we save most of it for dinner.

We discovered yesterday that our hostel in Montreal only takes cash which is a pain as we get hit for more charges with cash withdrawals than credit card transactions, so we go and have the usual fight with the ATM (why do different banks have different limits on the amount you can withdraw!).

On our way back to Kensington Market area we get to see the Snowbirds practising for the air show planned for the weekend (Labour Day is 1st September) and get some bits for picnic lunch for tomorrow's Megabus trip to Montreal. Finally, while C packs, M discovers Louise has nominated Cags for the ice bucket challenge - thanks Lou!! Something to look forward to in Montreal (if the hostel has the facilities, otherwise it will have to be an IOU for a later date).

To celebrate our last night we go to the local bar for a pitcher of Creemore ale. We feel our week here has gone really fast. We stayed in a great location and had an enjoyable time exploring though could have seen more - we needed more time. M in particular was sorry not to have gone to the ROM. Then it's an early night for an early start to Montreal in the morning.

See you there …….

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 37


3rd September 2014

If you ever go back to Toronto, drop into Rush Lane & Co at 563 Queen Street West for the best cocktails in Canada...and ask for Simon (our son). You probably walked past it. Its the one with the mural by Beau Stanton of a Titanic type scene on its street facade. Behind it is Rush Lane AKA Graffiti Street. We head there for Christmas...a tad colder than your visit...and thanks for the tips on where to visit.
3rd September 2014

Good one parents, I saw some places I recognised from my trip too. Good Niagara pics xx
3rd September 2014
Niagara with rainbows (spot the second)

Makes me want to go to Toronto!
Great blog--mouthwatering treats and charming quarters in what I'd thought of as a big city, but which seemed very approachable. Must visit!

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