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Irresistible Toronto

National Geographic photographer Dina Litovsky captures Toronto’s allure, from its staples to its surprises.

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People posing in front of the illuminated 3D Toronto Sign in Nathan Phillips Square.

Is Canada great for the great outdoors? Absolutely. But in Toronto it’s all about rubbing elbows with urbanity. The city’s unique vibe extends everywhere – from reviving neighborhoods to beloved cultural landmarks. Here’s a sample of just what makes Ontario’s capital so captivating.

CLASSIC TORONTO

TORONTO SIGN IN NATHAN PHILLIPS SQUARE

When documenting any trip to Toronto, start with the essentials: The Toronto Sign, all aglow just outside of City Hall, where at any given time you’ll find people posing among its 10-foot-tall letters. Installed in 2015 to welcome the Pan American Games to the city, the sign was meant to be temporary, but it turned out to be so popular in Nathan Phillips Square that the city—with strong urging from residents and tourists—decided to let it shine on into the night for years to come.

RIPLEY'S AQUARIUM

Not your average fish tank, the 1.5-million gallon Ripley’s Aquarium opened in 2013 with an ingenious shark touch pool made of bamboo and a tsunami simulator. But it’s the hypnotic jellyfish wall and ceiling, changing colors as five species of jellies waft rhythmically through the water, that’ll leave you transfixed. Save the selfies for the Dangerous Lagoon, a living underwater gallery swimming with sea turtles, green sawfish, sharks and more, all seemingly suspended above and around you in a watery tunnel.

CN TOWER

Toronto’s most recognizable landmark, the CN Tower rises 116 stories above the city, offering vistas that cross borders, with clear days giving way to views of Niagara Falls and beyond. While you can step out onto the Outdoor SkyTerrace or take a peek more than a thousand feet down through the Glass Floor, the real thrill of the city lies in the tower’s EdgeWalk. Strapped into a special harness and connected to a rail above a five-foot-wide ledge, visitors walk the line between atmosphere and earth—and then lean back over the edge, where the city rests nearly 1,200 feet below.

ST. LAWRENCE MARKET

Where Toronto’s historic artisanal traditions meets modern culture, St. Lawrence Market teems with vibrancy—as it’s done for more than 200 years. The modern public market lives in historic Old Town in a stunning brick complex composed of three buildings, each giving its own reason to visit. Retail shops stack up in St. Lawrence Hall (which also houses City Hall), while North Market is a weekend affair, with a Saturday farmers market that dates back to 1803 and a Sunday antique flea. A little farther down the line, South Market buzzes five days a week with more than 120 vendors lining row after high-ceilinged row of stalls with farm-fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and baked goodies alongside locally produced crafts and wares.

TORONTO EATON CENTRE

Sure, it may sound like just a mall, and while Eaton Centre is good for brand-name shopping, the real appeal is in the interior architecture. Its glass-house aesthetic and high-ceilings stacks four stories high, with a curved rooftop of windows that makes the entire space look more like an atrium than a shopping mecca.

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Guests can enjoy panoramic views of the city from the Rooftop Lounge and seasonal pool at the Thompson Hotel.

THOMPSON HOTEL

A pool and lounge area with panoramic views of the city sits on the rooftop of the Thompson Hotel, a swanky yet minimalist spot that articulates Toronto’s chic aesthetic seamlessly. Rising among King West Village’s historic factory buildings, the Thompson is part residence, part hotel, with everyone from business clientele and locals to tourists and celebs hitting up its built-in nightlife, both at the basement Wildflower club and 16 stories up in the Rooftop Lounge.

THE TORONTONIAN PALATE

DISTILLERY DISTRICT

Lined with Victorian-era buildings and cobblestone walks, the historic Distillery District leads with a bit of a misnomer. While it’s the site of Toronto’s first distillery (which produced nearly half of all spirits in Ontario some 145 years ago), today the charmed area is home to a number of boutiques, art galleries, and notable restaurants—though patrons can still be found overflowing happily into the streets.

BAR RAVAL

A taste of a wonderfully wild world lies behind the doors of Bar Raval. Inspired by famed architect Antoni Gaudí’s drippy building designs that lend Barcelona its otherworldly feel, the morning-noon-and-late-night restaurant and bar pours lighter (and hard to find) Spanish specialities like sherry and vermouth alongside creative cocktails, while Basque-influenced pinxtos and tapas promise to curtail hunger pangs.

CAMPECHANO TAQUERÍA

Since opening in winter 2015, Campechano Taquería has been reliable—both in terms of mouth-punching flavor profiles and lines out the door. It takes just one bite to see why people can withstand the wait in order to go mano a boca with the slightly charred, freshly made corn tortillas encasing soft fillings like rajas con crema.

PLANTA

Cocktails made with cold-pressed juices round out the menu at Planta, a cozy and airy restaurant that’s lauded for its stacked burger dripping with ooey, gooey queso—all of which is made from plant-based ingredients. The entire menu is vegan (though they avoid saying so), and loaded with familiar foods—like ceviche, truffle fries, caesar salads, and creamy pastas—turned into next-level offerings for veg-friendly crowds.

KING STREET

Cutting through the city’s Financial, Entertainment, and Fashion districts, historic King Street bustles with shoppers by day who pop in and out of the repurposed warehouses searching for unique goods in myriad fashion boutiques and high-end shops. But by night, the King’s crown tilts, and the long street becomes a gathering spot for the young and urbane, with enough watering holes, clubs, and late-night eateries to serve any taste. Serving early birds and night owls alike is Portland Variety, where three square meals a day—plus an excellent brunch on weekends—come with a Spanish tilt and craft cocktails that are big and bright.

JIMMY’S COFFEE

Since opening its doors in King West nearly a decade ago, Jimmy’s Coffee—and the bright yellow lids adorning its to-go cups—has become a Toronto staple, celebrating Jimmys throughout history with organic, fair-trade beans that are roasted locally and named for Henderix and others. There are now six Jimmy’s across the city, and each cozy cafe is equally dedicated to the coffee craft, making drinks as good to look at as they are to drink.

CHINATOWN

Rolling out along Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West, Toronto's Chinatown is one of the largest and most colorful in North America. The area features many Asian restaurants from dim sum to modern fusion. Sample some of the exotic fruit from the outdoor markets that spill out into the streets and check out the murals on adjacent buildings that add to the neighborhood's ambience.

UNEXPECTED TORONTO

KENSINGTON MARKET

The narrow streets and alleys that comprise Kensington Market first bustled nearly 100 years ago as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where families would set up shop to peddle wares to one another. That market mentality lives on as a street market today, with cultures from around the world represented in its diverse shops and stalls. There’s no need to wander hungry: Stop at any number of eateries, like Seven Lives Tacos y Mariscos, a pop-up turned brick-and-mortar that serves quick bites like Tijuana-style street tacos that are easy to eat on the go.

QUEEN STREET ALLEYS

Toronto is a painted city, proudly repping murals by street artists both up and coming and established—even famed mystery artist Banksy has made his mark here. Browse the alleys off of Queen Street for the densest collections, but keep an open mind (and eye), because the art isn’t confined to walls. Look for one of Toronto’s most famous pieces, a tall stump painted nearly two decades ago that’s known as the Hug Me tree, on Queen Street West between Peter St. and Spadina Ave.

LESLIEVILLE

Across the bridge and holding down Toronto’s east end is Leslieville, where the city’s historic Film District once made its home. The former working-class neighborhood has hit a hip stride in recent years, with remnants of its past life resurfacing in the form of excellent vintage furniture shops and other spots once coveted as a kept secret by set designers, and an epic flea market hosted the third Sunday each month at a 19th-century estate. The area’s become a haven for cool kids and creatives, with a nightlife scene bringing light to the once-dark streets, and modern restaurants with bright eats tempting locals and tourists alike across the river.

ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO

An artistic marvel of grand proportions itself, the Art Gallery of Ontario houses more than 90,000 works of art, representing libraries of Canadian and European pieces alongside African and contemporary art galleries. The AGO debuted a massive expansion nearly 10 years ago designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose remarkable wood-and-glass Galleria Italia spans an entire city block. Check for film screenings, artist and author talks, and yogic gallery experiences, or wander rotating exhibits that promise to push the boundaries of expectation.

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Panoramic view of the Toronto waterfront and Lake Ontario at dusk

HIGH PARK, EDWARDS GARDENS, AND TRINITY BELLWOODS

There’s no escaping the great outdoors in Canada—not even for city dwellers. Toronto alone claims more than 1,500 parks, each with its own distinct vibe. Millennials gather at Trinity Bellwoods for Frisbee-fueled hang seshes, while an athletic, active crowd dominates the swimming pool, tennis courts, and walking and jogging trails at High Park. Meanwhile, romantics and photographers looking to flesh out portfolios head to Edwards Gardens, where bountiful botanical gardens take center stage and are favored for any number of events and weddings.

Hannah Lott-Schwartz is a California based travel writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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