5 Days in Toronto – Raptors, Islands, Movie Sets, and Pandas Galore

Toronto skyline
Toronto is an awesome city. It took me a while to come to this realization – coming from Canada, I have sometimes taken Toronto for granted. But spending a significant amount of time away from TO (or “the six”, “the6”, or “the6ix” depending on who you’re talking to) has made the heart grow fonder, and I’ve come to appreciate how much this city has to offer.

First, it has pretty much everything. Whatever you’re into, you can find it here. I love it for the music scene, the myriad food options, the seemingly endless stream of festivals, and Toronto’s bustling craft beer community. I can also find a photo shoot, open mic night, or travel industry meetup almost any day of the week. Add to that professional sports, a clean and friendly city, and world class attractions, and you have a pretty awesome place to be. And no, this isn’t a sponsored post – the good folks of the 6ix are not paying me to say any of this. 😉 If you need negatives I’ll point to the weather, the traffic, and the Maple Leafs, and we’ll leave it there.

So I decided to stop giving Toronto the short end of the stick and show them some love here at Voyages & Vistas. In doing so I chose to spend five days exploring Toronto as a tourist / traveller in my own town.

Day 1 – The Toronto Zoo

The zoo in Toronto is world class; it’s Canada’s largest, is known for its more than 5,000 animals and its commitment to conservation. These days, though, more than anything, it’s all about the pandas. They have two baby pandas this year, causing nothing short of panda-mania. Panda-monium? Panda-steria? Choose the panda-riffic word of your choice, and you’ll get the idea. Bieber has nothing on these pandas.

We went early, before the crowds, and got a front row seat to the two little cubs (Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue) doing their Laurel and Hardy routine on the climbing apparatus. They fall over a lot, much to the delight of the kids in the crowd, all while the panda mom (Er Shun) totally ignores them and eats bamboo in the corner. Er Shun was no helicopter mom, letting Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue fall on their heads time and again. Some of the moms in the crowd could have learned a thing or two from her.

Babies are everywhere this year, as evidenced by the baby lions, the baby polar bear, and the baby rhino. Because the gods of cuteness will strike me down if I don’t include these ridiculously cute baby lion cubs, I will. But only because those are gods you DO NOT want to anger.

We did the big loop, checking out the hyenas, cheetahs, zebras, hippos, giraffes, and tigers. It’s a great zoo – by the end we had covered about 6kms on our feet and had a great day. If you decide to go you should know it’s north east of the city and can get really busy on the weekends – give yourself time.

Day 2 – Toronto Islands

On Day 2 I zipped across to Hanlan’s Point on Toronto’s Centre Island on the ferry from Queen’s Quay. You pay $7.50 on the Toronto side but it’s free to return from the island, so if you want to think about it as $3.75 each way, it’s not bad. The ride is scenic, providing gorgeous views of the city behind and the island in front. While you trek across the sliver of Lake Ontario that separates the islands from the city you’ll likely see planes overhead, getting ready to land at Toronto’s Billy Bishop International Airport on the island. It’s a nice ride.

If you get off at Hanlan’s Point you can wander around some nice picknicking areas, sit by the water, have a little BBQ and just relax. There are also some cool little lighthouses and other areas to explore.

On this day it was about 32 degrees and humid – stupid hot for May in Toronto. I decided to get my workout here and walked hard for a few kilometres before cooling off at the beach. There are two good beaches here – a regular beach and a well known nude beach. I didn’t strip off at the nude beach (didn’t want to intimidate others with my rippling six pack*), but did enjoy relaxing for a bit on the other side.

 If you’re a photography nerd the island is also a great spot to get good waterfront images of Toronto, so make sure to pack your camera.

* typo, that should say “one pack”.

Day 3 – Movies, Raptors, and Sports Pubs

Last year when I was staying downtown around this time they were filming Suicide Squad  in the middle of the city. Angela and I were walking down Bay Street at King when we came across a helicopter that had landed on top of a bus in what must have been a bumpy landing.

On Day 3 of my “tourist in my own town” experiment (and almost a year to the day coming across the Suicide Squad set), I walked out of my hotel, the Fairmont Royal York, and almost bumped into Matthew Perry (Friends, Odd Couple) who was filming a movie (Ages of Camelot) in the hotel’s foyer. Toronto has a bustling movie scene, and it’s not unusual to catch them filming something or other when downtown.

The Fairmont is an attraction unto itself. It opened in 1929 and maintains many of its original features. Known for its high ceilings, iconic clock, winding staircase, and “old tyme” look, it’s regularly used for filming movies and television shows.

 Ages of Camelot did some filming on this staircase with Katie Holmes later in the evening, but I missed it as I was down at Jurassic Park, where I saw very little basketball, but did encounter hordes of people, police, and what most people would refer to as general mayhem.

Jurassic Park is the term used to describe the outdoor viewing area where fans of the Toronto Raptors (National Basketball Association) can watch play-off games with thousands of their closest friends. Being a weekend, and with the Raptor hysteria at an all-time high, Jurassic Park was maxed out, with people lining the streets for blocks in all directions, everyone just hoping to catch a bit of the Raptor magic. I saw what was happening early on and opted for a local sports pub, but once Angela met up with me downtown she wanted to go back to Jurassic Park, so we did, and the energy was absolutely electric. Not only were the Raptor faithful lining the streets for as far as the eye could see, but the Toronto Blue Jays had just finished playing, so almost 50,000 baseball fans spilled out into the streets and were added to the fray.

I didn’t bring my DSLR with me (thankfully, as you could hardly move), but I did get one sad cell phone pic from a few blocks back of the big screen. Either way, it was fun, and the overall vibe was intoxicating – a fun time to be in Toronto.

Day 4 – Scenes of Toronto

I love to just go out and explore whatever city I am in. I like to wander in cities like Bangkok, Singapore, and Tokyo, so I figured, why not just wander around Toronto, with no real agenda? All I needed was a direction to start walking, so I headed down to lakefront and turned east. I came across this funky park with some great wall art, basketball courts, and playground stuff for the kids.

Continuing east, I found the Distillery District, an historic area that people love to wander around, shop, and photograph. Red brick and Victorian-era buildings dominate this pedestrian-only village, a cool place to shop, eat, and drink. Searching for food, I came across this nifty old truck instead.

 Despite the truck distraction, I did successfully procure a seat at the Mill Street Brewery. I tried a flight of their finest craft beer and a side order of fries (tasty, but salty). Fuelled up and ready to go, I got back on my feet and explored the Distillery District a bit before heading west, back towards downtown.

On my way back I stopped by the flatiron building and wanted to snap a few pics but the traffic was insane and it was beyond hazy, so here’s one from earlier in the year to give you an idea. This is a building I always love walking past.

Angela and I met up, had a nice dinner with a friend at a nearby restaurant, and thus ended Day 4.

Day 5 – The Attraction that Towers Over All

Travel snobs will say things like “real travellers don’t go to tourist attractions”. This is, of course, horse puckey. I haven’t yet met a traveller who went to Paris and skipped the Eiffel Tower, or one who went to Siem Reap and took a pass on Angkor Wat. So please spare me that argument. Travel is what you make of it. For me, I like to explore as much of the local scene as I can, but if there’s a great tourist attraction around, I’m game for that, too.

in Toronto the CN Tower (literally) towers over all other attractions. After years of not going up, I’ve been up a few times in the last couple of years and still get a kick out of it.

On the morning of Day 5 I looked out my window and snapped a pic, knowing I would have to go up.

 View of the CN Tower from our room at the Fairmont

The CN Tower stands more than 1500 feet tall (1815 feet with antenna spire), and was the world’s tallest building when built. That title seems to be shifting pretty regularly these days, as everyone wants to have the biggest building to show their dominance in…building tall buildings, I guess.

Going up was reminiscent of my trip up Taipei 101 earlier this year, a building that stands 1671 feet and was also the tallest in the world when built, only to be usurped by the Burj Khalifa in 2010.

The views from the CN Tower are, of course, awesome.

The observation deck allows you to wander around and see the city from all sides, a 360 degree view. It’s nice inside, but go out on the deck for a bit if you really want to blow your hair back.

There’s also a very nice restaurant that rotates, allowing you to view all sides of the city while you dine, but I skipped it this time. I have eaten there in the past and the food is excellent, if pricey. Of course, few restaurants in the world can boast this kind of view, so I guess they can justify their pricing.

You can see for miles in all directions, and it’s especially stunning at sunset. If you can time it to be there at sunset, do it – it’s worth the effort.

The day ending, I wrapped up my time in the (formerly) world’s tallest building and made my way down. The elevator is cool, with a glass floor so you can see 1500 feet down while quickly descending. They let you off in the gift shop, but it’s easy to quickly navigate your way out if you’re not into the endless sea of key chains, postcards, and assorted knick-knacks. If you ARE into an endless sea of knick knacks, postcards, and key chains, you’re in luck!

It’s a great attraction, a neat experience, and if you’ve never done it, worth the time. In the summer months they also operate the Edge Walk, an experience where you get to walk outside the tower, on the roof of the restaurant, suspended more than 1100 feet above the city. I am dying to do this! I’ll save it for next time…

So there you go. Five days in Toronto. I could easily write so much more about this city’s amazing cultural scene, and I think an article dedicated to Toronto food is coming soon. But for now, this is a start…a start to bringing one of my favourite cities to life!

Have you been to Canada’s largest city? If so, what were your thoughts? Leave your comments below – cheers!

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