New Year in Toronto

John Fitzgerald was born in Montreal and has lived in Toronto for 30 years. He is the editor-in-chief of Grand Luxury Travel

New Year and just after is a good time to visit Toronto. The big shindigs such as the Toronto International Film Festival, Caribana, Hot Docs and the International Festival of Authors are months away. The crowds are fewer and the pace is slower, although there are still plenty of appealing things to do. I know. I live here.

Right outside the Toronto City Hall is Nathan Phillips Square, which is filled with ice skaters in the winter months. The rink rents skates and attracts Torontonians and visitors, with neophytes and experienced skaters skimming across the ice. I’m often there because I volunteer to help at a soup kitchen nearby, and I always cross the square, which was home for a while to dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles.

The square is five minutes walk from the Eaton Centre shopping complex on Yonge Street, and The Bay flagship department store on Queen Street West. If you are visiting with children, the newest tourist attraction is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, at the base of the CN Tower, which draws huge crowds and is genuinely enthralling. It has 16,000 living creatures in displays that marvellously present marine habitats from around the world.

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and The Annex, north of the University of Toronto’s St George campus is one of my favourites. I often cycle along its leafy streets, past the home of novelist Margaret Atwood, and the row house where Jane Jacobs, the urban commentator who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, lived until her death in 2006. The Annex is the neighbourhood of fraternity houses, university professors’ homes, and those of lawyers and doctors who live in graceful bay and gable houses, or massive brick Victorian and Edwardian dwellings. On Bloor Street, between Spadina and Bathurst, you’re right in the middle of young shops and cafes that appeal to students. My own neighbourhood is closer to midtown Yorkville, an enclave of original shops like 119 Corbo that sells serious ready-to-wear, restaurants such as Pangaea with mains including bison, pheasant breast and grilled calamari, and the celebrity clientele Hazelton Hotel. Toronto does British style too – try fish and chips, and the many brews on tap, at The Oxley Public House, a comfortable place on Yorkville Avenue.

Some people claim that Yorkeville, which used back in the 1960s to be home to hip coffeehouses where Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot played, has lost its cool soul to gentrification. I don’t share their dismay, even if its streets are now sometimes clogged with supercars. Yorkville’s Hazelton Avenue is one of the city’s handsomest residential streets, thanks to its expensively restored and refurbished Victorian homes.

The nearby Royal Ontario Museum is Canada’s largest and most eclectic museum, with spectacular Chinese galleries. There was huge local controversy around the Michael E-Chin Crystal gallery building, designed by Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2007, its jagged bulk jutting from the museum façade which had been constructed in 1933. It appeals to or appalls Torontonians, but as a visitor used to the world’s wonders, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

Photo by Dreamstime

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