10 Days in Toronto: Bikes, Beaches & Men in Heels

Though I originally planned to stay in Toronto only for a few days, I enjoyed it so much, I wound up staying 10 days. I was surprised to learn that Toronto is much busier in the wintertime, as locals like to escape to the surrounding national parks, lakes, and campgrounds in the summer time. I can’t blame them, as I escaped for two days to Niagara Falls, where I took a boat to the foot of the majestic falls, and to rural Kitchener, to buy organic veggies from Mennonite farmers in horse-drawn buggies. Tourist pamphlets recommend visiting the CN Tower (the world’s largest tower until 2010, now it’s ranked 3rd) and one of the city’s four Chinatowns (I only found two). Other popular attractions are the Royal Museum of Ontario, which currently has an impressive exhibit on the history of tattoos and body art, and the Bata Shoe Museum, which boasts a gigantic collection of footwear ranging from thigh-high animal skin boots from Arctic regions to celebrity footwear and dainty shoes worn by Chinese women with bound feet. My favorite exhibit was one entitled “The Curious History of Men In Heels”.

Despite somewhat empty summer streets, there was no shortage of activities, including an impressive Thursday night salsa and bachata social at El Rancho and weekly live funk and jazz concerts in St. James Park. My Saturdays were spent sampling locally-made pickles, coconut jerky, and strawberries at the bustling St. Lawrence farmers market; perusing galleries and boutique shops in the Distillery District, and hopping between countless street fairs and block parties. Kensington Market, a popular neighborhood full of vegan restaurants, street musicians, and art instillations such as the famous “car garden”, is particularly lively on the weekend but is full of life any day (or night!) of the week.

I rode over 100 miles in four days, enjoying the protected Lower Don River Valley trail that led me through lush green fields sprinkled with wildflowers; through well-paved streets teaming with street cars, pedestrians, and street performers; and along the spectacular Toronto waterfront. I was surprised to find several man-made beaches along the waterfront, complete with sand, umbrellas, lounge chairs, and tiki boats ready to ferry passengers to the Toronto Islands. For $7.50 roundtrip, I caught a non-tiki, ferry to Central Island, where I rented a bike ($8/hour) and rode along the semi-secluded waterfront bike path and to the various clothing optional and clothing-mandatory beaches. My personal highlight on the islands was the residential Ward’s Island, where quaint and colorful cottages are surrounded by meticulously attended gardens.

The city’s bike share program, Bixi, offers unlimited 30 minute bike rides for C$7 per day, or C$15 for three days and was my primary transportation during my trip. On Wednesday night, I joined the newly formed Toronto Cruisers for their weekly evening bike ride. As I was the first tourist to join the ride, the group turned the ride into a tour of the city which took us to Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto’s version of Times Square, the famous illuminated “Toronto” sign in front of City Hall, and various graffiti-covered alleyways and hidden gardens.

Everywhere I went, locals wanted to know what I thought of their city in general and specifically, what differences I noted between their country and mine. Though many additional and more significant differences exist (such as language, politics, and health care), here are three fun differences that I immediately noticed:

-       Canadians rarely disobey the “don’t walk” sign. Same goes for cyclists at red lights, even when there is no traffic around. Such patience challenged – and proved nearly impossible – for this fast-paced New Yorker.

-       Canadian bathrooms are referred to as “washrooms” whereas Americans refer to them as “restrooms”.

-       Though it pains me to say it, Canadians seemed friendlier, more patient, and more willing to help than Americans. Toronto is the largest city in Canada, roughly the size of Chicago, but residents exhibit the eager willingness to help strangers that is usually reserved for small and rural cities in the United States.

Downtown Toronto

Downtown Toronto

Toronto as viewed from a ferry

Toronto as viewed from a ferry

My Persian host and me at Niagara Falls!

My Persian host and me at Niagara Falls!