If Canada’s heart beats in Toronto, then Toronto’s heart probably beats at the corner of Yonge (the longest street in the world), and Bloor.

On summer evenings, Canadians of Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, British and East Indian origin mingle with tourists at sidewalk cafes and trendy restaurants. Buskers play guitars, drums and even Andean flutes on the sidewalk, and strollers soak up the energy of this prosperous and sophisticated city.   Toronto, the capital of Canada’s province of Ontario, is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, and despite the great ethnic diversity of its population, the crime rate here is lower than in any other North American city. In fact, with its young and ambitious population, Toronto is one of the best places in the world to live and work in. To visitors, the mega-city offers a rich array of cultural and natural riches: concerts, festivals, museums, parks, water sports and beaches. Hardly touched by the global economic crisis and its skyline now being transformed by dozens of gleaming glass and steel towers, Toronto greets the 21st century with confidence.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city and its commercial and cultural center, now sprawls over 643 sq. kms, but this bustling development is astonishingly new. The city’s history goes back only about two hundred years. For more than 11,000 years, only aboriginal peoples lived on the flat expanse of shallow marsh area – the former lake bed of Lake Iroquois – on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, and they had no contact with the Europeans until the 17th century. In the 18th century, the French set up some small trading posts in the area, but it was the British colonizers of the Province of Upper Canada, in the late 18th century, who bought the land from its aboriginal population and set up a military post and civilian settlement here. Until the 1940’ies, Toronto’s population was largely of British origin. In the 20th century, especially after World War II, the city began to receive waves of immigrants. Soon, Toronto was competing with Montreal as Canada’s cultural centre. Today, more than five and a half million people live in the Greater Toronto Area, and half of them were born outside Canada.

For many years, on postcards and key chains, the CN (Canadian National) tower was the symbol of Toronto. Today, other high-rise structures compete for the visitors’ attention but the CN tower is still the first landmark most tourist visit first.

An engineering marvel, and the world’s second highest structure, the CN tower dominates the Toronto skyline.  It takes less than a minute for an elevator to take visitors up to the top of the tower at 22 km/hour for a breathtaking view of the entire region, or an elegant meal at the revolving restaurant.

While in Toronto, the visitor should also see a cultural and architectural wonder: the Royal Ontario Museum. This is Canada’s largest museum of human heritage, with a new, stunning steel and glass structure designed by architect Daniel Libeskind: the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. (A series of giant crystals that rise five-storeys from street level will soon house the dinosaur exhibition of the museum to dazzle the passers-by on Bloor Avenue).

Many visitors will be surprised to find an Edwardian castle called Casa Loma in such a modern city. In late 19th century, an eccentric millionaire named Sir Henry Pellatt, out to build the largest residence in Canada, constructed an extravagant, 98-room mansion, over-looking the city.  Unfortunately, the lavish Casa Loma drew Sir Henry to bankruptcy, but with its rich wood carvings and stained glass decorations, it’s a magnificent museum.

For those on the look-out for nostalgic architecture, Toronto’s Distillery District is a must. During a visit to Toronto a couple of years ago, I was amused to see a Hollywood film crew in the Distillery District, re-creating the Chicago of the 1920’ies, in the best preserved 19th century factory complex in Canada. The brick buildings of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery – the largest whiskey producer in the British Empire in the 19th century – are now restored to house art galleries, boutiques, a chocolate factory, bistros and even a theatre. Of course the new symbol of Toronto: the city’s new City Hall also has to be seen.  This is a modernist structure completed in 1965 by Finnish architect Viljo Revell who thought of the two semi-circular towers as ‘the eye of the city.”

Another innovative structure long awaited by Torontonians, is the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, designed by Diamond Schmitt, housing the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. While an architectural renaissance gathers momentum in Toronto, the venerable Art Gallery of Ontario has been re-designed by architect Frank Gehry, to offer a feast for art lovers’ eyes.

Not to be outdone by arts organizations, hockey, Canada’s national sports has found an honoured place in Toronto. The city prides itself with the largest hockey museum in North America: the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Hockey fans will surely enjoy seeing relics belonging to all time hockey starts of the continent.

An architectural landmark that dates from the early 20th century, the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, still stands in downtown Toronto.   The aristocratic structure, inaugurated by the Viceroy Lord Willingdon in 1929 was once the tallest building in the British Common Wealth. The city of Toronto grew around the Royal York. Last, but not the least, the shopping opportunities in Toronto certainly deserve a mention. One of North America’s first downtown shopping malls opened at the centre of Toronto, in 1977. With its spacious galleries and glass ceiling, the Eaton Center was considered revolutionary at the time. It is still a shopper’s paradise. Those who want exclusive shopping will find their heart’s desires fulfilled at the upscale Yorkdale Mall.

I asked a friend who lives in Toronto what he most loves about his city. “For me the most wonderful things about Toronto are the neighbourhoods, very often of ethnic character, but always claiming a specialty of some sort,” he said. It’s true that Toronto owes its special texture and cultural flavour to the ethnic and racial diversity of the city. According to the statistics of the City of Toronto, in 2006, the city’s residents had more than 200 different ethnic origins, and  only half of the immigrants in Toronto had lived in Canada for more than 15 years.  More than 140 different languages and dialects are spoken in the city – yet English is the language that connects everyone.

The cuisine and cultural flavour of the city reflect this ethnic and racial diversity.  Walk just a few blocks East of Spadina Avenue, and you’ll find yourself in Chinatown, with restaurants ranging from luxurious to inexpensive, and stores selling all manner of oriental foods. Another short walk up the neighbourhood called Kensington Market will take you to “Little Italy.” Now you’ll be assured of the finest in Italian cooking. I’ll never forget a foray into the East Indian Enclave of Toronto, where corn on the cob was being sold on the street, salted with exotic spices and served with fresh lemon. With more than 7000 dining alternatives, Toronto boasts the finest cuisine in Canada. 

First a word about climate:  it’s no secret that Canadian winters are fierce. But thanks to Lake Ontario, Toronto is blessed with a milder climate.  Torontonians point out to visitors that their city is on the same latitude as the French Riviera, and in winter, the Lake Ontario has wonderful beaches and islands only one km away from the popular Queens Quay neighbourhood.  The Toronto Islands offer many attractions.  The hiking trails, playground and beaches on the islands provide rest and recreation to Torontonians and tourists alike. And, the magnificent Niagara Falls are only two hours away.

Toronto has a dizzyingly sophisticated cultural life. The city’s pride and joy, the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM) was built in 1912. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was established in 1922. Since 1982, the Orchestra is housed in the Roy Thompson Hall, an impressive concert hall with 2, 630 seats, whose striking architecture with a glass dome, has made it a landmark in the King St. Theatre district. Two major opera companies and many more smaller ones perform regularly to near sell out crowds.  Toronto boasts the largest number of theatres after New York and hosts a major international Film Festival each year in September.

The largest Caribbean festival in North America, the Caribana, will be in full swing in late July, and until mid-August, the Toronto Summer Music festival will fill some of the city’s parks with chamber music. In late August, the Toronto Chinatown Festival will enthrall crowds with chinese food, costumes, music dance, Kung-fu shows and street stands. 

Perhaps it’s the sudden architectural renaissance now underway, that symbolizes Toronto’s mood in the early 21st century; a mood characterized by an openness to change and tolerance for differences.  Do you wonder what a confident, sophisticated, multi-cultural city of the future world will look like? Take a look at Toronto.