Alright, so here goes—my first official travel blog post, ta-daaa! Please bear with me, as I tend to ramble and am still sorting through all the rough edges of this whole “let-me-try-to-make-myself-sound-way-more-interesting-than-I-really-am” kinda thing.
One awesome perk of my job right now is that we get 15 predetermined Fridays off a year in addition to our normal vacation days, which makes for some really nice long weekends! Thanks to this benefit, I’ve already been able to visit Cancún and Vegas this year. So once April rolled around and I had a freebie Friday to blow this past weekend, I really wanted to squeeze in a budget-friendly weekend getaway to a city I had never been before. After researching flight and hotel prices, I finally settled on the perfect destination—Toronto, my overly polite Canadian neighbor to the north! And even better, I had the perfect travel partner-in-crime—my dear friend, the effervescent and insanely hot Miss Buky (follow her on Instagram at @explorer2.0!).
After a long, yet cheap 7.5-hour Greyhound bus ride, I finally arrived in Toronto—affectionately called the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) or, as Drake likes to put it, the “6ix”—on a rainy evening. Toronto has an amazing and efficient TTC subway for $3 per ride (plus daily and weekly passes) and yes, they even have those red San Francisco-style street cable cars too! Uber and uberPOOL are also widely available in Toronto. The currency in Toronto and all the prices you’ll see here are in Canadian dollars. ($1 USD = $1.38 CAD as of this posting.) So coming from the U.S., it was nice since everything ended up being “cheaper” than what I thought I had paid. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere and the conversion rate is great at most places.
Since Buky wasn’t flying in until the next morning, I had booked an Airbnb right by the waterfront harbor for myself that night. I was surprised by how cheap Airbnb rentals are in downtown Toronto—the place I stayed at was a luxury high-rise condo on Bay Street and only cost a modest $60 per night. You can even rent out a top-floor penthouse for just $250 a night. I later found out this is partly because Toronto’s housing market has boomed exponentially; new high-rise condos make up 90% of Toronto’s more than doubled skyline over the past decade. The growth is so insane that the city even pays tenants to leave the lights on in empty condos to appear as if someone lives there!
My beautiful and welcoming Airbnb host, Hongjing, was already waiting for me in the lobby and made me feel right at home. As soon as I walked into her living room high up on the 40th floor, I nearly tripped over my luggage at how unbelievable the view was! I couldn’t stop squealing like an unrefined tourist at the panoramic floor-to-ceiling glass windows showcasing downtown Toronto (including a marvelous side view of the lit-up CN Tower!) in all of its glistening bright lights. As you can probably guess, I unashamedly took a million photos of this million-dollar view from the wraparound balcony.
Since it was still somewhat early, the sky had cleared and I certainly didn’t want to spend my first night holed up inside (no matter how pretty the view), I decided to go for a stroll up Bay Street. Walking outside on a spring or summer evening after it rains is undoubtedly one of the most pleasurable and refreshing feelings in life. Starry-eyed, I simply breathed in the crisp air and quietly took in all of my surroundings—talented street musicians playing Frank Sinatra, taxi cabs whisking by and groups of extremely well-dressed businessmen leaving upscale bars. After a little over a mile, I inadvertently stumbled upon Nathan Phillips Square, the central plaza adjacent to Toronto’s historic Old City Hall. Here they hold many citywide events, festivals and even an ice skating rink during the winter. And of course, it’s home to the renowned Toronto sign that lights up with different, ever-changing colors at night. An amazing photo opportunity!
The next morning, I met Buky at the hotel we were staying at for the weekend, the One King West Hotel & Residence. If you’re visiting Toronto and don’t want to stay in an Airbnb, I highly recommend this hotel! It’s a modern four-star property that still retains its historic, 19th-century feel and the rooms are clean, spacious and beautifully appointed. Ours even had a lovely corner view of the city and lake! There’s also a huge Starbucks conveniently located right across the street. Most importantly, it’s a great value with one of the cheapest rates you can find in the Entertainment District—our room cost around $150 a night, plus taxes.
But enough about the hotel—it was time to get out and finally do some daytime exploring! We had already booked the Heart of Downtown tour with Toronto Bicycle Tours for Friday afternoon, which is ranked the #1 tour in Toronto on TripAdvisor. In typical, apologetic Christine fashion, we were running about 15 minutes late but they were super kind enough to wait for us. There was only one other family doing the tour with us too, so we were a small group of five total.
After getting our bikes and helmets ready and a brief orientation on city bike riding, we were off! We biked for a total of 16.5 kilometers throughout downtown Toronto, stopping at and learning more about the following points of interest (in order):
- Art Gallery of Ontario
- Kensington Market
- University of Toronto
- Nathan Phillips Square / Old City Hall
- CF Toronto Eaton Centre
- Yonge-Dundas Square
- Financial District / “The Pasture”
- Toronto Theatre District
- Union Station
- Hockey Hall of Fame
- St. Lawrence Market
- Distillery Historic District
- Sugar Beach
- CN Tower
Hats off to our amazing tour guides, Jane and Rafael! They were super friendly, knowledgeable and fun, and always made sure we felt safe on the road. Thankfully, Toronto is a bike-friendly city with a flat terrain so even those terribly out of shape like myself can still enjoy the ride. We were also provided with water, snacks and bathroom breaks to keep our energy up throughout the entire 3.5-hour tour. The best part was how well our guides explained Toronto’s unique history, culture and significant landmarks, and they also gave great recommendations too. Hands down, this bike tour is the absolute best way to see and learn more about the city for an affordable price (about $58 per person total) without tiring yourself out, especially if you don’t have the time and money to visit each individual attraction. Plus you get in some good cardio exercise while you’re at it, so you’ll feel much less guilty about pigging out on that poutine afterwards!
Here are some photos from our tour, most of which Jane and Rafael took and later shared with us (thanks a million!):
Naturally, we were super hungry afterwards so we walked over to Chinatown in search for some cheap eats. Toronto’s Chinatown is massive, rivaling that of NYC and filled with bustling shops, street vendors, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving up some of the best authentic Cantonese food on the continent. In fact, 12% of Toronto’s entire population is of Chinese descent. We settled on Banh Mi Boys, a small fast-casual sandwich shop known for their Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches, Asian fusion tacos and Kimchi fries (yaaasss). My tofu and grilled chicken tacos left a little to be desired in terms of flavor (you can find much better in Chicago), but it was cheap and satisfying so I’m definitely not complaining!
As the sun began to set, the next quest for us party-lovin’ gals was to decide where to experience the best of Toronto nightlife. We started our evening at the hotel lobby bar and the bartender recommended we go to the Drake Hotel. We headed over there around 11 p.m. and alas, were rather disappointed! There was a $10 cover charge, we were definitely way overdressed and of course, nobody was dancing to the repetitive house music. The “rooftop” itself wasn’t really a rooftop, but more of a casual open-air space on the third floor with communal tables for sitting, eating and drinking. Maybe we just happened to be there on an off night, but I guess we had higher expectations.
After about 30 minutes, we decided to leave and instead check out the ultra-chic Thompson Toronto Rooftop Lounge. Thankfully, we didn’t have to pay cover but this venue is quite selective at the door so make sure you look your absolute best—ladies, that means donning your sexy dresses and high heels! (By default, I’m a lucky girl whenever I go out with Buky since her striking looks get us in everywhere.) The lobby bar also has bachata night on Fridays, which would be fun for couples. Now this is how a rooftop is done—hands down the best view of Toronto! Be prepared to fall even deeper in love with the city and have the time of your life partying the night away!
Not surprisingly, we had a bit of a late start the next morning but nothing some Advil and a piping hot espresso can’t fix. For lunch we headed over to St. Lawrence Market, an absolute must-see when visiting Toronto! The open-space warehouse is home to over 100 vendors selling produce, meats, wine, baked goods, Canadian antiques and much more, including cooking classes, wine tastings, and outdoor farmers’ markets and food stalls on Saturdays. Be prepared—the place gets super packed! Amidst all the food samples galore, there are also tons of eateries to choose from. We ate at Crepe It Up! Café on the lower level, and my savory chicken, veggie and feta crêpe was nothing short of delicious.
The next adventure on our itinerary was a boat tour with Toronto Harbour Tours, which has an awesome Groupon deal for 50% off. Walking alongside the waterfront to get to the dock, we were definitely not prepared for how windy it was! If you’re visiting Toronto in April or May, make sure to bring a warm jacket and enough sweater layers because it can still get quite chilly, especially at night.
There are tours departing every hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and they are first-come, first-serve; you can also buy your tickets in-person at the booth. The tour was super insightful and entertaining, thanks to our hilarious tour guide! We got to see the Toronto Islands up close, a group of car-free islands that are great for sunbathing and outdoor activities, plus an amusement park. There’s even a nude beach on one of the islands, if that’s your sort of thing. And of course, there were plenty of opportunities to take some pretty photos!
For our last night in Toronto, we decided to splurge a bit and head to The One Eighty for dinner and drinks. The posh restaurant and lounge sits pretty over the city complete with a patio on the 51st floor of the Manulife Centre. (FYI: There’s a $5 cover on Saturday nights after 9 p.m. since they have a live DJ.) Let’s just say that you’re paying a premium for the view, but overall it was a nice experience with wonderful service and I’d definitely recommend coming here if you’re looking to impress your date.
The Toronto nightlife scene is known to be one of the liveliest and most diverse in the world. There’s something for everyone—from high-energy nightclubs boasting big-name DJs to live jazz venues and relaxed sports bars. If you’re an out-of-town tourist and want to go clubbing, I highly recommend getting in touch with a promoter (social media will be your best friend here), who can hook you up on his guestlist and/or with bottle service. Some places also offer free entry for ladies before 11:30 p.m., so make sure to arrive early if you want to avoid a hefty $20 cover! And yes, the legal drinking age in Canada is 19 so you may indavertently find yourself partying with some young’uns. A few clubs that were recommended to us include:
- Uniun Nightclub
- Lost And Found (I love their adventure-themed vibe and tagline, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”)
- Fifth Social Club (21+)
We arrived back at the hotel by 4 a.m. and—thanks to all those shots of vodka—thought it would be an amazing idea to get room service (although my credit card charge the next morning said otherwise…). But, I was able to finally try poutine for the first time! It’s a popular traditional Canadian dish that consists of fries and cheese curds topped with a light gravy—the perfect drunken and artery-clogging late-night snack.
So that pretty much wraps up my impromptu weekend trip to Toronto! After a hurried brunch and parting ways with dearest Buky, the lengthy bus ride home was rainy and uneventful, and I slowly had to face the reality of my 7:30 a.m. meeting the next day (brb, crying). Had I not left so early, I’d have definitely loved to visit the Royal Ontario Museum and geek out there for a few hours. Oh well, there’s always next time!
I’ve truly fallen in love with this beautiful and fascinating city, and already can’t wait to visit again. The most amazing part, in my opinion? It’s the most diverse city in the world, with 60% of the population speaking another language besides English or French! Toronto’s rich diversity and multiculturalism can truly be felt everywhere—from the people you meet along the way to the endless variety of ethnic neighborhoods, markets and restaurants. I’m so incredibly thankful for the kindness and hospitality the Canadian people showed toward us during our entire stay. And yes, Canadians sure love to poke fun at their American neighbors and have a lot to say about our terrible healthcare and president!
At long last, here ends my Tales From Toronto—thank you so much for reading (I’m rather impressed you even made it all the way down here!) and I hope you enjoyed! Please let me know your questions, comments and feedback below ↓ Merci beaucoup!
Much love always,
(¸.•´ (¸.•´ .•´ ¸¸.•¨¯`•.♥ Chris
Next stop? La República Dominicana!