Last week I visited Toronto for virtually the first time. I have been before, but on both occasions I spent little time in the city proper, but rather I was in the suburbs or shuttled off to Guelph, ON. I decided that before I leave this country for the next two years, I should explore Canada’s largest city – and I was going there anyways for a conference. Here are some thoughts about Hog Town.
Definitely not Montréal
I am a bit surprised that this left such an impression on me: Toronto is not Montréal. Obviously, right? But I was surprised by just how different the two cities are. If anything, it reminded me of New York. Large scale, skyscrapers, business suits combined with cute residential neighbourhoods, hipsters, large subway stations and lots of parks. Yes, Montreal also has all of these things, but Toronto feels more like a sibling of NYC.
Lots of Fikas
When I travel alone I often end up in cafés. Café-going offers the perfect combination of people-watching, meeting strangers, getting a jolt of caffeine and philosophizing as I stare out the window onto the street. On my first day in T.O., I was exploring Kensington Market in the rain. Ready to take shelter, I popped into the first cute coffee-serving establishment I saw: FIKA. I was attracted to Fika because I found out several weeks ago from Danish visitors that Fika is a Swedish institution. It means “coffee break with conversation”. I had my coffee and was sitting in Fika, but there was something missing: conversation. I quickly met and chatted with Colombian PhD students sitting nearby. Afterwards one of them gave me a tour of the University of Toronto campus en route back to his lab. First Toronto Fika accomplished.
Traveling does something to me. I think it makes me walk a little slower, sit a little longer and welcome conversations with strangers. I supposed in my day to day life I stay busy with work, friends, and activities. I walk a little faster, with more purpose perhaps, than when I wander in an unknown city.
Travelling as if it was two thousand and five
I must be one of the few left who does not have a smartphone. Sure, I think it is useful, especially for travel. I often find myself wishing I had a little map in my phone, or an app that could tell me where the closest café was. However, armed with a “dumb phone”, a paper map and a friendly demeanour, I explored the streets of T.O.
How did I find things? I had locals to meet up with who told me where I could meet them and helped me get to where I was going next. I also met some nice folks sitting in cafés, one of them even drew me a little paper map of where I should go next and what streetcar to take.
Toronto: a city of skyscrapers, men in suits and… beautiful green spaces
While my first brush with Toronto was in the Central Business District, surrounded by men in suits, skyscrapers and construction (it is construction season all over the country, it appears), I spent a lot of time exploring parks. Toronto has beautiful green spaces right in the city: the Toronto Islands, High Park, Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pitts and, a bit further out (but my favourite!), Evergreen Brick Works.
One last thought: Not quite pedestrian and cyclist friendly… yet!
The streets of Toronto still need some work before they are completely pedestrian and cyclist-friendly. The streets are wide, the traffic is fast and the streetcar tracks seem to make cycling a risky activity. Some streets signs even give priority to traffic over pedestrians.