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In this most diverse of North American cities, the worlds cultures mix. But residents stick to their own side of town, as if a wall separated them.
People walk and bike along on the Humber River Pedestrian Bridge in Toronto (Photo by Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Toronto is a divided city. Geographically, it’s cut almost in half by a deep, winding ravine called the Don River Valley. This physical barrier, over time, helped develop a mental one: Those on the west side of the Don River can’t imagine living on the east; those on the east get nose bleeds at the thought of settling in the west. It’s an enduring, passionate rivalry that has spawned vibrant neighborhoods on both sides.
I’m an uncompromising member of the west-end tribe. In the company of rivals, little good will pass my lips about life where the sun rises. The truth, however, is that Toronto is a city of neighborhoods – quaint, bustling, or trendy, and always multicultural.
Literally half of its 2.5 million residents were born outside of Canada. What other major city anywhere can claim that? In a relatively short time, these newcomers have transformed Toronto from a staid, small-minded city where, as late as the early 1980s, alcohol could not be served at bars and restaurants past 10:30 p.m. on Sundays, to one that moves to the rhythms of the world. Their presence, their cultures, and of course their food define this city like nothing else. Physical and mental barriers are petty by comparison.
One of the better ways to get the flavor of Toronto is to ride the 501 Queen streetcar. It covers 15.4 miles, east to west along Queen Street, a couple of streets above the north shore of Lake Ontario. It’s often called the longest streetcar ride in North America.
On its western end, the streetcar passes by the Humber River, a stunning salmon river that can keep you walking for hours through one of the best bird watching valleys in the city. Travelling east, it passes High Park, an oasis of ponds and trails.
You then hit the once Polish and now trendy neighborhood of Roncesvalles, followed by Little Portugal and the art galleries, hip bars and restaurants along a stretch known as West Queen West. If you get off there, you can walk a couple of blocks north to the outdoor cafes of Little Italy on College Street or the bohemian accent of Kensington Market.
Continuing east on the streetcar takes you past crowded Chinatown, the nightclubs of the Entertainment District, and the towers of the financial center.
On the other side of the Don River, the 501 goes through Leslieville, an edgy, eclectic mix of bars, restaurants and antique shops. From there it’s a short walk north to Little India, or south to the Leslie Street Spit, a peninsula formed by the dumping of construction materials, now a birdwatchers’ paradise. Near the end of the 501 line is the Beaches, a leafy neighborhood with a boardwalk along the sandy shore of Lake Ontario. By then, you’ll have seen a good chunk of the most diverse city in North America.
A walk along the Humber River has its charms in any season, but it’s best in early October, when huge salmon from the Great Lakes thrashing their way up the rushing water to spawn. Throughout the summer, the valley is a haven for waterfowl and migratory birds. You can access the southern part of the river from the 501 streetcar. But your best bet is to start further north by riding the Bloor subway line (the green coloured one) to the Old Mill Subway station. Exit the station, cross the stone bridge, and walk north along the river. A round trip north through Etienne Brule park and Lampton Wood is about 3 hours. The pedestrian path, when not asphalted, is well kept. Here is a map of the southern part of the river.
The Don Valley Ravine
One of the amazing geographic features of Toronto is the network of ravines that cut through the heart of the city. You literally walk in a forest below street level. It's a great escape on a hot summer day, walking in the shade of the forest canopy, and crossing underneath the bridges that connect the east and west sides of the city. The dirt paths go on for miles and are well used by joggers and dog walkers. It's a haven for birds, their songs mingling with the roar of the city above.
At the south end, you can access it where the 501 streetcar meets King St. E., by walking down stairs from an overpass to the Don River. The forested areas are further north, where there are three main access points – the Eglinton West subway station, the St. Clair subway station, and the affluent Rosedale neighbourhood. You walk on well-kept trails and can climb back up to civilization whenever you like. Learn more here.
Chiado is one of Toronto’s best restaurants, serving fine Portuguese cuisine since 1991. Chiado specializes in seafood, which it flies in from the Azores islands daily. It's most typically Portuguese dish is the savory — and filling — assorda, a dry soup of monkfish, lobster, shrimp and clams. It’s expensive: an appetizer and main dish, for two, cost about $120, not including dessert or its vintage selection of wines. It’s a quiet, relaxed place where waiters wear white aprons and customers are well-dressed customers.
From the 501 street car, get off at Ossington and walk north for 15 minutes to College St. Or, you can get there with the College streetcar.
Terroni Restaurant, near the well-used Trinity Bellwoods Park, serves traditional Italian food, including arguably the best pizza in the city. It’s a popular, lively and noisy place, like a good Italian trattoria ought to be. It takes no reservations, and there is a perpetual line up at its door. But waiters are efficient and the turnover at the tables is quick. Expect to wait no more than 20 minutes unless you’re a group of more than four. It also has a lovely backyard patio that seats 100. Dress is casual. An appetizer and pasta dish, for two, costs $60. One thing to keep in mind: Terroni’s chef flatly refuses to make any changes to the dishes offered on the menu.
Black Hoof Restaurant
Carnivores shouldn’t miss a meal at the Black Hoof in Little Portugal. The charcuterie platter — with meats cured in house — includes delicious assortments of pancetta, elk salami and rabbit rillettes. You can also savor dishes like pickle lambs tongue and sweetbreads poached in milk. A charcuterie platter is $16 for eight items, $25 for 10. Main dishes range from $10 to $22. Dress is casual.