A Guide to 72 Hours in Toronto
To fully experience Toronto, you need to walk it.
As someone who had previously only spent time in (and consequently fallen in love with) Western Canada, Toronto was never at the top of my travel bucket list. Having been surrounded by the Rockies in Calgary, and absolutely astounded by the sheer natural beauty of Vancouver, the idea of Toronto, this grey concrete jungle out East, simply never appealed to me (Onterrible, anyone?). However, on a spontaneous trip from the UK to Calgary, an opportunity arose: a friend had just relocated to Toronto, and for only a hundred bucks or so more, I could make a pit stop in the T-dot for a few days en route back to the UK.
Now, just because Toronto wasn’t near the top of my travel bucket list, does not mean it wasn’t on my list at all (because, let’s face it, everywhere in the world except Pyongyang is on my list). I’m a sucker for exploring new places, regardless of how much/little I know about them. In fact, visiting cities I’ve never considered before (and occasionally never even heard of) has often turned out to provide some of my most exciting travelling experiences: with no hype, no expectations, and no presumptions, you’re left to explore with a completely clear state of mind, absorbing your surroundings with little-to-no outside influence impairing your judgments.
It seemed like a no-brainer, and so I promptly booked my flight and before long was boarding the plane to YYZ, giddy at the thought of exploring somewhere, which, to me, was the complete unknown.
Put on your walking boots
I say this with all cities, but for Toronto in particular this definitely rings true: to fully experience Toronto, you need, need, need to walk it. No ifs. No buts. Toronto is HUGE (that’s no exaggeration), and, if you’re going to be able to explore effectively and fit everything in to those 72 hours, you need to know how to get from A to B to Z, and back again. However, aside from the practical reason of knowing your bearings, there is another key argument for taking the time (roughly 12 hours) to fully walk the city: the atmosphere in Toronto is absolutely incredible, and something you can only fully appreciate and experience by taking the time to walk through the city as much as possible. Simply put, this city is alive. Taking a leisurely walk down Yonge Street (Toronto’s downtown core) on a hot September day, people-watching the masses flow through the veins of Toronto from every direction, it was in this moment it dawned on me that, ‘hey, this city is pretty damn special!’.
One of my favorite features of Toronto from an architectural standpoint is the districts, which make you feel as though you’ve visited five different cities in one day. Walking through the Financial District, you’ll encounter NY-esque high-rise skyscrapers, upmarket restaurants and streams of hustling, bustling suits, yet take a few blocks East and suddenly you’re in Old Town, surrounded by quaint churches, flower-adorned parks and public markets, where the attitude is more laid-back, the pace is calmer, and the suits have been replaced by street artists. Each district (eight in total) has its own vibe, from the excitement of the Entertainment District, which is always buzzing with life, to the tranquility of the Waterfront, ideal for a quiet stroll along Lake Ontario: the diversity in this one downtown area is truly something to behold. They even make movies here.
Take a day, take a walk, and fully appreciate all that Toronto has to offer.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for directions: All the Torontonians I met were super approachable and more than willing to offer help. Not only will you get to meet some friendly faces, you’ll also understand the layout of the city much quicker.
• Take a trip to campus: Slightly North of the downtown core (but definitely still in walking distance), the University of Toronto is definitely worth checking out for its stunning architecture alone, whilst the historic Ontario Legislative Building, situated in scenic Queens Park, is conveniently located right beside it.
Reach dizzying new heights atop the CN Tower
The first major tourist attraction I would highly recommend in Toronto is a visit to the CN Tower. Built in 1976, at almost 2000 feet tall, and with 147 floors, the Canadian National Tower remained the world’s tallest freestanding structure for 34 years, before Dubai’s Burj Khalifa surpassed it (the CN Tower is currently the 6th). Arguably the most iconic part of Toronto’s skyline, the CN Tower has become a national symbol, causing it to top many travelers Toronto ‘must-do’ lists (unless you have a phobia of heights that is… then you’re probably best giving this one a miss).
As you would expect, the views from the CN Tower are phenomenal, giving you a complete 360 degrees perspective of the city and surrounding areas, including the ridiculously vast Lake Ontario (nope, that’s not the Atlantic Ocean you’re looking at, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so!). The Tower also features an outdoor viewing platform that, while caged for safety, really enhances the experience, emphasizing what an extraordinary height you’ve reached.
Highlight: The highlight of the CN Tower is undeniably the glass segment of the Tower’s floor… because who hasn’t wanted to feel as though they’re floating 2000ft in the air? In addition, an exciting, surreal experience is the high-speed glass elevator you’ll travel back down to Earth in: slightly terrifying, yes, but insanely awesome nonetheless.
Top tip: To get most bang for your buck, make sure to go up on a clear day when viewing is at its best.
Prices: A regular ticket costs $32. While you can add on extra features, which bump up the cost, I found the standard experience to be more than enough at a reasonable price.
Hockey, hockey & even more hockey! The Hall of Fame, Stanley Cup & dinner at Gretzky’s
One of Toronto’s most enjoyable and impressive attractions, in my opinion, is the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF). An extensive museum, the Hall of Fame contains an extraordinary collection of Hockey memorabilia, from players’ jerseys and iconic game pucks, to the sports’ most-coveted trophies, Canada’s ‘Lucky Loonie’ and even Crosby’s Olympic golden-goal scoring stick.
The museum’s design is so that both hockey fanatics and newbies alike can appreciate the sport in all its glory. Rather than simply show old paraphernalia, as they could easily have done, the Hall of Fame really goes the extra mile to explore all aspects of the sport. Explanatory, yet never dull, the museum illustrates the complete history of hockey, from the late 1800s origins to the present day Stanley Cup champions. The changing face of the sport through the ages, the evolution of the NHL teams, iconic players, events and moments, international hockey (even Great Britain’s, albeit limited, hockey history is explored!), Olympic hockey, and of course, the Stanley Cup, are all featured.
Those who know little about the sport will leave with an understanding of just how integral to Canadian culture hockey truly is, while even the biggest hockey enthusiasts will enrich their knowledge of the game whilst witnessing first-hand some of the most iconic pieces of hockey history.
Highlight: The highlight of this particular day-trip is undoubtedly the chance to see, touch (and even kiss) the iconic Stanley Cup, which is located in the stunning Cathedral for the Icons of Hockey (situated in Toronto’s historic bank building, attached to the museum). With high ceilings, ornate stained-glass windows and a hushed ambiance, the appropriately named Cathedral possesses a deeply respectful atmosphere. Indeed, upon entering this room, you truly feel as though you should begin praying to the hockey Gods! Created as a tribute to honor players who have ‘majorly contributed to the development and advancement of hockey’, the Cathedral acts as a ‘who’s who’ of hockey whilst displaying the sport’s most prestigious trophies, including the original Stanley Cup. First presented by Lord Stanley in 1893, this particular piece is extremely remarkable to witness in person.
Props to the friendly Hall of Fame staff, who will happily take a snap for you on your own device if you don’t fancy shelling out the 20 bucks for a professional photo.
Top tip: Try visiting immediately prior-to or mid-season, when you’ll be most likely to catch the Stanley Cup, as the Cup travels the globe every summer before returning to the HHOF each September.
Prices: At $18 for a general ticket, which includes ‘meeting’ the Cup, the HHOF is very well priced, especially as the attraction is so extensive and will definitely consume a few hours of your time.
Hungry for more hockey? Head to Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant, located at 99 Blue Jays Way. Doubling as its own miniature Gretzky Hall of Fame, many of Gretzky’s personal hockey items adorn the restaurant walls. Learn more about hockey while you eat, drink and even pee (seriously, it’s in the washrooms).
Discover the beauty of Ontario at Niagara Falls and Niagara On-the-Lake
Okay, so technically not Toronto, but being so accessible from the T-Dots’ downtown core (an hour and a half coach ride- with most tour operators providing door-to-door drop offs), you simply cannot miss the opportunity to soak up (quite literally) the natural wonder and beauty of Niagara Falls whilst visiting Toronto. Pick the right tour provider, and you’ll also visit the idyllic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and partake in an ice-wine vineyard tour thrown in for the same price.
As for the Falls themselves, let me clarify one thing straightaway: they’re just as spectacular as you hope they’ll be. Before the tour commenced, I was questioning slightly whether they would be worth the trip, as after all, they’re just waterfalls right? You can gander at them for a few minutes, take some snaps, and leave? Nope. Not even a little bit. Featuring the most powerful waterfall in the world, they truly are mesmerizing. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could have stayed just at the Falls all day! Luckily for me, it was a gloriously sunny day when I visited, but rest assured, even on colder and cloudier days the Falls are said to be just as spellbinding, in winter creating a completely different, yet equally hypnotic atmosphere.
While the views of the Falls from above are a sight to behold, the views from below (and indeed within) provide an exceptionally unique experience. Definitely worth the extra thirty dollars is a ride on the Maid of Mist, which steers you straight into the heart of Horseshoe Falls (the largest, steepest section of the falls, on the Canadian side of Niagara). Yes, you’ll get absolutely soaked, and yes, it will be completely worth it!
The town of Niagara Falls itself has sadly, albeit predictably, become a mess of fast-food stores, casinos and arcades, a manufactured eyesore that is completely at odds with the beauty of the Falls. Just a 24-minute drive away however, and still within the Niagara region, is Niagara-on-the-Lake, situated where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Raised in the English countryside, I know a thing or two about idyllic villages, but Niagara On-the-Lake is something else entirely: strolling around the town centre, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported to Pleasantville. Never have I witnessed such an immaculately kept, downright adorable town.
Originally settled in 1780 as a British military base, Niagara was the first capital of Upper Canada (what is currently Ontario), and is today classified as a National Historic Site of Canada. Steeped in antiquity, the town’s historic architecture only adds to its charm, which it possesses in abundance. An especially significant building worth visiting is the Olde Angel Inn, which, dating back to 1789, is said to be the oldest Canadian inn still running today, whilst also worth mentioning are the towns nearby wineries, with the Niagara region acting as the world’s leading producer of ice wine. For Western Canadians, Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and its surrounding vineyards are particularly worth visiting as, beauty aside, they provide a chance to discover some of Ontario outside of the big city. Indeed, even the drive to Niagara itself displays a different side of Ontario, expanding your vision of the province.
Prices: Whilst on the pricier side, as you’re paying for a full day trip plus travel expenses, this is one experience you don’t want to skimp out on when visiting Toronto. Be prepared to spend around $60-80 bucks.
• Bring a raincoat: This may sound like the world’s most ridiculously simply travel tip. However, if you lack common sense (like a certain Yorkshire lass), you may forget your raincoat and end up drenched, with soggy clothes for the rest of the trip: sure, it won’t ruin your day, but it’s definitely a scenario best avoided.
• I would also highly recommend that you bring your own food: The town of Niagara is a bit of a tourist trap, and consequently is full of overpriced junk food. Save yourself the money and bring your own healthier, tastier picnic to sit and enjoy as you watch the Falls from the gardens of Queen Victoria Park.
• Research the different tours available and pick the right one: Some tours only head to the Falls, some to the Falls and town, and some provide extras, such as ice-wine vineyard tasting. Despite the different agendas, most are a similar price, so do your research and take the tour that really lets you get your money’s worth.
Where to stay & how to get there: additional Toronto travel tips
• Hostel: As for where to stay, I highly recommend the All Days Hostel, located on 5 Selby Street (which can be booked via booking.com). One of the cheaper hostels in the city, yet within walking distance of upper Yonge Street, and with rooms and bathrooms more similar in quality to a hotel, the hostel undoubtedly provides the most value for money in downtown Toronto. An added bonus is the super friendly staff, who go out of their way to accommodate guests and are extremely helpful in booking excursions.
• Transit: One of the best tips I can give to anybody visiting Toronto is take full advantage of the city’s transit system. Whilst a cab ride from the airport to downtown will cost you around $65, by utilizing the airport shuttle bus and the cities’ subway system, the same journey will cost you less than $5, saving you a big chunk of change. Whilst it may look slightly intimidating, the cities’ transit system is easier to navigate than you think, so don’t be scared!
As for my personal opinion of Toronto? 72 hours later, and I left Canada’s largest city with a completely transformed perspective. While I’ll always be adamant that West coast is for sure the best coast, I cannot deny that there is something a little bit magical about Toronto. Here’s 10 more reasons to make your next trip one to Canada.
Oh Toronto, I think i’m a little bit in love with you too!