For so long it seemed like the only plane we would be catching during our time in Canada would be the one we got on to take us home. We only booked Toronto a few short weeks ago, and because it was such an unexpected trip everything we did managed to feel like a bonus. It was my birthday weekend and our original plans had been to go to Seattle, however with the land border still remaining closed that option was basically off the table. I have a friend who lives in Toronto, so we were pretty lucky to have not just somewhere to stay, but also our own personal tour guide to show us the ropes of Toronto in just three days. My friend Anna, whom I studied with in Milan, has been living in Toronto for a few years and this would be the first time we have been reunited on this continent!
We caught a flight across to Toronto on a Thursday and it takes about 4.5 hours. It was surreal to be back in an airport, although it didn’t take long for the familiar practices of check in and security to feel normal again. I was feeling pretty anxious as we boarded the flight: it was the first time since the start of the pandemic that I would be in a confined space with so many people for an extended period of time. Anxiety levels peaked as I realised there was already someone seated in our row, however the flight attendant assured me that as soon as everyone was seated they would reshuffle people to ensure spacing was maximised. Andy and I eventually ended up with a row to ourselves, but I still felt pretty daring each time I took off my double mask set up for a quick sip of water!
Due to the three hour time difference, we landed in Toronto just after midnight. Given the time, we caught a taxi to Anna’s house and to our absolute disbelief, we got pulled over for speeding on the way. It was such an odd thing to happen while in a taxi, especially because it felt like we were on a highway and not even going that fast (in fact, we were going almost 30km over the speed limit!). Eventually, we arrived at the apartment and basically put our tired selves straight to bed.
We had to set an alarm for the next morning (my birthday!) because we were worried that due to the time difference we would sleep in and lose half the day. Anna was working on Friday, so Andy and I were left to entertain ourselves or in other words, see as much of the city as possible. We walked along the waterfront (along Lake Ontario) past the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower before cutting in and up to St. Lawrence market. A huge two storied market, there was a magnificent range of produce, meat, cheese, seafood and other yummy goods and souvenirs. We bought some coffee and wandered around, before finding ourselves a seat in the sun on the upstairs patio which gave us a neat view of the surrounding streets.
From here, we walked through Old Toronto and the Financial District, down Bay Street until we made it to the City Hall with the nearby plaza featuring the famous Toronto sign. The weather was so warm and sunny, we were very content to meander our way down the streets. The downtown is extremely walkable (We didn’t step onto public transport once) but it still managed to feel like such a huge city due to the seemingly perpetual skyscrapers and sheer traffic in all the streets.
We found ourselves on Queen Street West, a particularly funky area which reminded us both of Melbourne, before grabbing some dumplings and dim sum from Juicy Dumplings and taking it to a park to relax in the sun. From there, we then explored Kensington Market (so many thrift stores!) before making our way back to Anna’s to recharge ourselves for the evening.
We met Anna and Justin for dinner at the most charming, ambient restaurant in the Trinity Bellwoods area called Jules. It serves French cuisine and Andy and I decided to share the lamb rack board, meaning it also came with frites (chips) and salad. There certainly was a lot of food and all of it was of a really high quality. Post meal, we met up with some of Anna and Justin’s friends and bar hopped our way down the street, stopping in at Sweaty Betty’s (the only name I can remember) and a few others for various birthday cocktails – mostly margaritas of course.
Feeling a lot worse for wear, Andy and I dragged ourselves out of bed and off to brunch at Oretta just down the street. We met Anna and Justin for what was meant to be a bottomless brunch, but I couldn’t stand the sight nor smell of alcohol just yet, so I stuck with strictly coffee. The interior of Oretta was beautiful: high ceilings, elegant and old fashioned, but with so much natural light it evolved itself into something super modern. The menu was Italian influenced and although I had to order relatively blandly, it was all delicious and I would love to have another go at ordering as well as eating more of Andy’s carbonara, which was top notch. As part of the bottomless brunch deal, we were treated to ‘bombolones’ – Italian donuts, which are essentially donuts filled with a creamy flavouring. Andy ordered tiramisu, and while we were unable to enjoy it at the time, we literally demolished it once our stomaches had settled!
And then it was time for the BASEBALL! After brunch we headed back to Anna’s to get ready for the Blue Jays game. It was a short 10 minute walk to the stadium, so we basically stepped outside and immediately found ourselves as part of the masses all on their way to the game. Again, my Covid anxious self was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of people but fortunately this time we were outside. Once we had shown our vaccine passports and made our way to our seats, I could really appreciate our surroundings. Justin is a huge baseball fan and as a result he had access to special tickets meaning a) we were socially distanced from everyone else and b) we were basically pitch side. It’s been a while, but I definitely have not lost any appreciation for the magic of live sporting events (especially in North America!). The fans were loud, passionate and nervous as this was a must win game for the Blue Jays. It ended up being an extremely exciting offensive game, we won 11-1 against the Baltimore Orioles and it honestly felt like every second hit was a home run!
After the game we went back to Anna’s for some drinks with her friends, before making our way to Duke’s for dinner. Duke’s is a huge bar, with literally every arcade game you can think of on offer. Between drinks and food, we played some basketball, table tennis, punch bag and skeeball to name just a few. At the end of the night Andy and I were positively shattered (funny how a 3 hour time difference seems like nothing, but ends up having almost a worse effect than say, 8 hours) so we walked our way home through the city to bed. It was one of the best sleeps I have had in a long time!
Road trip time! Anna and Justin picked us up and we were on our way to Niagara. Unlike the previous two days where we had nothing but blue skies, it was absolutely raining buckets. We stopped in at St. Catherines for Justin’s tour of his old university campus before continuing on to the falls. The township surrounding Niagara Falls is nothing short of tacky, exciting and bizarre all rolled into one. It felt like we were driving through some kind of weird theme park and we spent our time spotting iconic restaurants and sights – they had it all! There was a Hard Rock Cafe, a Rainforest Cafe, a TGIF, Applebee’s, a million different diners with ‘unlimited breakfasts for $9.99’ and so on. I think Andy and I both loved the touristy feel of it all (it’s been awhile to have felt that, so bear with me) and it was strange to reach the end of the strip and suddenly be at the falls. We parked up ($10/30 minutes parking!), popped our umbrellas, put on our raincoats (not me, I didn’t have one argh) and started our walk to the falls.
I had always known there was a Canadian side and an American side to the falls, but I had entirely misinterpreted what that meant. I thought there was one waterfall, with viewing platforms on each side of the border. Rather, there were actually two waterfalls (one on each side of the border) but both entirely viewable from both sides of the border. The waterfall on the Canadian side is the iconic sight (the horseshoe shape) but there was plenty of viewing time for both. There were regular boats leaving from both sides and we could watch all the people on the top of the boats in their red ponchos, looking like little red ants. The weather was poor: good enough to see the falls from where we were, but I imagine the view from the boat was densely shrouded in cloud. It took about an hour to see the waterfalls (including the walk to and from each) and it was a massive relief to get back to the shelter of the car and peel off our sticky wet layers!
The rest of our day was spent in and around Niagara on the Lake – a ‘Hallmark town’ that was incredibly idyllic, screaming of rich retirees with beautiful houses and not much more to do than maintain their gardens and visit the surrounding wineries. We picked up a winery map and I was mind-blown to see the volume of wineries in the area: it felt as dense as Martinborough, but with double the wineries in an area twice as big. I noted some pretty famous ones, including Jackson Triggs and Iniskillin but as we hadn’t made reservations in advance, we opted for some of the cuter local ones. We ate lunch at Silversmith Brewery which was one of the coolest breweries I had ever been to: it was in the quaintest wooden church with stained glass windows and they served me one of the biggest chicken burgers I had ever had! We also stopped at Small Talk – a winery that definitely specialised in cider: they had about 10 different cider flavours on the menu and only three staple wines. I fell in love with the peach cider and if I wasn’t headed straight to the airport from there I definitely would have got some to go. Small Talk also offers goat yoga and furniture pieces in every bright colour imaginable (not for sale!); certainly an unusual combination.
Anna and Justin dropped us at the airport on our way back to town, where we grabbed some dinner from Subway and boarded our plane back to Vancouver. It was nice flying in the other direction because we gained three hours, so we didn’t arrive back in the city at some ungodly hour. Good thing too, because we had work at 8.30am the next morning!
All up, our time in Toronto was definitely on the shorter end, so we were very thankful to have Anna and Justin there to show us the ropes. I loved it as a big city, it was much more manageable than I expected it to be and I think the sunny clear weather we had for our time in the city really helped with our impressions. I’d like to go back to Toronto; I’m not sure when, but one day!