Toronto’s condominium boom is no secret — just try snapping a photo of the city’s skyline without including a crane or two — but these rising glass towers are ushering in more than sky-high residences. They’ve also helped create an influx of luxury hotels and restaurants that make the already dynamic destination a newly alluring place to visit. Though you could spend weeks exploring the changing landscape of Canada’s largest city, Toronto is also an excellent choice for a walkable two-day getaway. Hit the highlights, both classic and new, with this itinerary.
Choosing a Toronto hotel is no small task when the city’s bumper crop of properties includes some of Canada’s most luxurious. The Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto; Four-Stars The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, Park Hyatt Toronto, Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto and The Hazelton Hotel; and Recommendeds SoHo Metropolitan Hotel, Toronto, Thompson Toronto and Templar Hotel all delight with their service and amenities. But on our most recent trip, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto fit the bill. Opened in late 2012 as the Toronto-based brand’s new flagship, this Five-Star, 55-story Yorkville stunner is home to 259 sleek guest rooms and suites outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, iPads and custom Etro bath products. Its restaurant and spa are among the best in town — but you’ll get to those later.
After checking in and freshening up in your impossibly large bathroom, it’s time for a pre-lunch walking tour of the Yorkville neighborhood. This tony corner of Toronto, a 10-minute drive north of downtown, is also a cornerstone of the city’s fashion scene, and the best way to see all the boutiques its quaint alleys have to offer is with The Refinery’s Wendy Woods, a local style expert. As Woods explains, shopping in Toronto is pricey but unique; because the city has relatively few big-box stores outside of Holt Renfrew and Hudson’s Bay, there’s an opening for local designers to thrive, and a plethora of their combination boutique-studios dot the city. Woods’ tour, which can be customized for men or women, will lead you through her favorite hidden gems and the signature items in each. If you opt to explore Yorkville on your own, don’t miss Pink Tartan to shop tailored women’s clothing in a historic building; Teatro Verde for two floors of one-of-a-kind gifts and a fittingly orange-yellow room dedicated to Veuve Clicquot products; Ça Va de Soi for luxe basics like sweaters woven with rare Karnak Menoufi cotton; Karir Eyewear for high-end, artistic frames; and LeatherFoot for bespoke or prêt-à-porter men’s shoes from European designers such as John Lobb and Gaziano & Girling.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, wind your way to Sassafraz for lunch. A Yorkville institution, Sassafraz consists of a restaurant and a more casual café, both set inside a yellow house where it’s not unusual for famous clientele, from Matt Damon to Bono, to outshine the farm-fresh, French-inspired cuisine. Request a spot on the restaurant’s rearmost banquette for the best vantage point; you can survey the entire dining room from this perch under a glass atrium. After appetizers, such as a baby spinach salad piled high with blackberries and Ontario sheep feta, and a hearty main — the smoked-chicken torchietti with cubed andouille sausage and kale pesto is a warm comfort on a cold Canadian day — finish with the trio of crème brûlée. This dessert flight — with ramekins of white-chocolate-Oreo crumble, Baileys with peppermint crunch, and maple with ginger snap — is just the thing to fuel your trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario or Royal Ontario Museum.
Both have world-class permanent collections — at the Art Gallery of Ontario, work from the last two millennia, and at the Royal Ontario Museum, natural history and cultural articles — and are impressive from the outside in. Daniel Libeskind created the ROM’s incongruous crystalline entrance in 2007; Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry added the AGO’s curved-glass façade in 2008. The one at which you spend your afternoon wandering is your choice. Exhibitions include “Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty,” featuring more than 130 pieces from the British art titans at the AGO through July 20, and “The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors” at the ROM through July 1, along with various retrospectives throughout the year to celebrate the museum’s 100th anniversary.
Recover from your travels to and around the city back at your hotel, where The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto beckons. At 30,000 square feet, this Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star retreat is the largest luxury spa in Toronto, and it’s filled with serene spaces in which to unwind before you even hit the treatment room. Be sure to spend ample time in the relaxation area where you’ll wait for your therapist; curl up with a fuzzy gray or brown blanket as you browse the music menu and select one of six channels — perhaps “spa chill vibes” or “spa spiritual” — to enhance your massage. For the ultimate pampering with a sense of place, choose one of the spa’s Toronto-inspired treatments: The Cultural Mosaic of Canada blends spa traditions from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Europe; We Are Yorkville pays homage to the neighborhood’s 1960s hippie past with a foot bath, hemp-seed scrub, honey-arnica wrap and patchouli hemp oil massage.
You don’t have to go far for a special dinner at Four-Star Café Boulud Toronto, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto’s Daniel Boulud-helmed restaurant. Head to the eclectic second-floor space, filled with celebrity portraits by Banksy protégé Mr. Brainwash, to taste the passion that chef de cuisine Tyler Shedden and wine director Drew Walker have for Ontario-sourced menus. Dishes such as roasted Grandview Farms chicken with ricotta gnudi, white onion, porcini mushrooms and sage jus, and wines such as Norman Hardie pinot noir from Prince Edward County, show off both the area’s bounty and Boulud’s French traditions, and the personable staff discusses local ingredients with Portlandia-style precision. For dessert, the grapefruit givré is a must — so dramatic as to require two hands to eat it with any grace, this blend of grapefruit sorbet, grapefruit compote, rose loukoum and halva crumble, with a towering crown of sesame-seed-dotted halva floss, is as delicious as it is striking.
St. Lawrence Market in Old Town Toronto has been home to a thriving city smorgasbord since 1803, so what better place to do some fun foraging for breakfast? The food market is open Tuesday through Saturday, with Saturday heralding in an Ontario farmers market in the North Market building. Start there and wind your way through dozens of stalls heaving with everything from kale to currants before arriving at Cathy Roncetti’s Oodles of Strudels and buying one of her fruit strudels or seasonal loaves — her tropical colada is moist and flavorful. Or pop into the South Market, where two floors house more than 120 permanent vendors specializing in prepared food. Stop by the famed Carousel Bakery, known for its peameal bacon sandwiches, and Anton Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard, where any number of mustards — clobbered cranberry, triple crunch, amazing maple — and pastries may seduce your senses.
Once you’re sated, it’s time (10 a.m., to be exact) to meet historian Bruce Bell for a tour of the market and its environs. (Reserve a spot on this popular tour ahead of time.) Bell has a noted knack for making history come to life during his 90-minute excursions, and there isn’t a question about his beloved Toronto that he can’t answer. As Bell guides you from St. Lawrence Hall, a meeting place since 1851, to Toronto’s first jail, you’ll begin to notice plaques marking these as historic buildings, with the label “a Bruce Bell history project.” Throughout the city, Bell’s historical prowess is rather set in stone.
After your tour, enjoy a 15-minute walk down the tree-flanked Esplanade to the Distillery District and sit down to lunch at El Catrin. The design firm Munge Leung, the visionary behind Vancouver’s Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Rosewood Hotel Georgia and the new Whiskey Down at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, conspired with Mexican street artist Oscar Flores to create a kaleidoscopic smiling-skulls motif for the space. The team delivers high drama with a two-story Flores mural, a two-story bar and a giant brick patio that glows under black-metal chandeliers. In contrast, chef Olivier Le Calvez’s menu is simple, perfectly spicy comfort food: tacos, burritos, tortas and ceviches, with a weekend brunch menu (10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday) full of savory and sweet stick-to-your-ribs treats, such as chilaquiles verdes with pulled chicken, or 24-hour-soaked vanilla challah with mango, ancho chili mascarpone and mezcal-maple syrup. Wash it all down with any of the flavorful aguas frescas — the hibiscus-spiked flavored water is particularly refreshing.
You no doubt passed some of the galleries and boutiques that line the Distillery District’s red-brick, pedestrian-only lanes on your way to lunch. Now learn about the history of these 47 Victorian industrial buildings that once constituted the Gooderham & Worts Distillery. Segway Ontario, a short walk from El Catrin on Gristmill Lane, runs entertaining 30- and 60-minute tours of the neighborhood that stop at several historically notable corners and, if you’re up for it, tastings at Soma Chocolatemaker and Mill Street Brewery. A five-minute training session on your Segway gives you a ticket to ride in a single-file line between two guides while they regale the group with tales of living, working and drinking in Toronto during the 19th century.
If it’s your first time in Toronto, the CN Tower is worth a quick stop for panoramic views of the city and Lake Ontario. If you’ve already ascended to the 113th-floor, glass-floored observation deck before, consider upping the ante with the 116th-floor, hands-free EdgeWalk (the season starts April 14) that has been thrilling daredevils since 2011. Even just watching the jumpsuited, harnessed participants lean over the edge of tower — which was the world’s tallest freestanding structure until 2010 — is enough to make your palms sweat or your spirit soar, depending on your point of view. Less adventurous visitors may prefer the tower’s new next-door neighbor, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, but be sure to reserve tickets ahead of time, as we spotted lines around the building on a recent Saturday afternoon.
You’ll also want to book a table for dinner at one of Toronto’s newest (and most talked about) culinary imports. Ramen ace David Chang brought his New York City-based Momofuku empire to University Avenue in 2012, opening five concepts in a single three-floor glass cube. The ground floor houses Momofuku Noodle Bar; the second level is home to Nikai, a lounge that serves noodle dishes and bigger plates. Dessert mecca Momofuku Milk Bar is also on the second floor, inside its own glass box in which wire baskets overflow with cookies and truffles. And the third level is dedicated to Daishō, where the menu mixes shareable plates with large-format meals such as bo ssäm (a pork shoulder dish and the namesake of a Chang restaurant in New York), and Shōtō. Reserve your spot at the intimate Shōtō counter between Tuesday and Saturday to enjoy a tasting menu of about 10 courses, or stick with Momofuku Noodle Bar and experience a ramen revelation over a bowl of pork, chicken or vegetable noodles.
Toronto is one of only three cities to lay claim to the famed Second City comedy troupe, so don’t miss an after-dinner show at its intimate downtown theater, where the tables are close together and the jokes even closer. The Second City’s alumni list is a who’s who of Canadian comedians, from Gilda Radner to Martin Short to Mike Myers. Shows last just less than two hours, and you’ll want to catch the last performance, as it’s followed by free improv — the actors’ wheelhouse — every night but Friday. The ensemble’s latest sketch show, Sixteen Scandals, kicked off in March and is the perfect ending to your whirlwind tour north of the border.
Photos Courtesy of iStock, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and Ripley Entertainment Inc.