Hot (Or Cool) Toronto is Staid No More

Once upon a time long ago, when U.S. travelers were thinking Toronto, they were probably considering Niagara Falls and maybe its closest “foreign” city. Jump ahead to now when not only has the buzz about Canada’s largest metropolis and financial hub been ‘a building, but Toronto has turned its northern lights up to beam in on a vibrant and good-times destination whose urban highs include striking architecture, a thriving arts culture, and an innovative dining scene. And yes, Niagara Falls is still only a full-day excursion away.

around town The theater, music and arts scene is one of the major draws to Toronto, host to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which The New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis says, “stands supreme as the [world’s] leading cinema event after Cannes.” For 11 days in September, the five public theaters of the Bell Lightbox—the luminous white cube that is the festival’s permanent base—is home away from home for local and globe-trotting professionals. This year’s audience for more than 300 movies on 33 screens, with selections from 65 countries, topped a quarter-million.

Toronto’s arts scene also showcases impressive architectural work by giants such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Libeskind. But it was the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that brought home favorite son Frank Gehry to deliver a bold renovation of the 111-year-old museum. Gehry, who grew up a few blocks from the site, wrapped the original Beaux Arts structure in sheets of billowing glass and swaths of Douglas fir, and added a glass roof to the new contemporary-art wing. The gallery’s 79,000-works collection includes outstanding pieces of Canadian art (the iconic Group of Seven landscapes, for starters), along with the largest public collection of Henry Moore works, European art from Tintoretto and Frans Hals to Van Gogh and Picasso; not to miss are the 2,000 works of art donated by the late media mogul Kenneth Thomson.

Another artistic high is the must-visit Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canada’s largest and home to more than six million objects—from the Djedmaatesankh Mummy to a living beehive—showcasing human civilization and the natural world. The highlight of the museum’s recent renovation is the magnificent Michael Lee Chin Crystal, designed by Libeskind. The jagged crystalline structure of interlocking forms and jutting angles now forms the museum’s dramatic entrance, and inside the Crystal—with no right angles—are four levels of galleries and spaces such as the Spirit House and the Stair of Wonders.

Within a 5-minute walk from ROM are two additional and essential museums: The Gardiner Museum with a world-class collection of ceramics, and the Bata Shoe Museum, resembling a stylized shoe box and housing more than 10,000 shoes that cover 4,500 years of footwear history. The museum makes footwear fascinating, from Egyptian funerary shoes and Napoleon’s socks to Elton John’s 1973 silver and red platforms and Marilyn Monroe’s red leather pumps. A bit farther away is the Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art, some 200 pieces fashioned by the indigenous people of Canada’s Arctic region; it’s housed in the TD Bank Tower, designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Every visitor has to go up the CN Tower, Toronto’s most famous architectural landmark, which is 1,815 ft. tall and stands head and shoulders above the city’s skyscrapers. Glass-fronted elevators whisk you to the Observation Deck, where on a clear day you can see Niagara Falls in the distance. Have lunch here at the Horizons Cafe or reserve a table at the revolving 360 restaurant, serving up Canadian specialties and changing views. Tower-goers with nerves of steel can walk the Glass Floor—the view is 1,122 ft. straight down.

And down at street level, one of Toronto’s hottest destinations is the Distillery Historic District, a 13-acre plot that was once the largest distillery in North America. Victorian buildings, bordering cobblestone streets, have been infused with new life, occupied by cafes, restaurants, galleries, art studios, performance venues and specialty shops. Check out Artscape where you can chat with potters and jewelers as they work in open studios. Another restored district, with pretty Queen Anne cottages and Victorian row houses, is Cabbagetown. It was settled in the 1840s by the Irish who grew cabbages in their front gardens.