My best mother-daughter moment in Toronto–and there were many– came unexpectedly at twilight inside the CN Tower.
“The world is a beautiful place,” my nearly nine-year-old daughter murmured happily to herself as she pressed closer to the window on the outdoor terrace observation deck to gaze out over the lights of six million people below.
“Yes,” I replied, savouring those six simple words, an unexpected gift of awe, a delicious larger-than-life possibility moment, inside the iconic spire that anchors Toronto’s skyline.
It had been a magical evening ever since we stepped into the CN Tower’s glass, high-speed elevator several hours before and zoomed 58 seconds up 115 stories to dine like divas inside swanky Lot 360, the tower’s revolving restaurant.
Afterwards, we quickly found the CN Tower’s infamous glass floor and giddily sprawled upon the clear pane of glass separating us from Canada’s largest city, 342 metres below.
Below us stretched the bustling city on the north shore of Lake Ontario that we’d traipsed around for the past four days, where we’d shared giggles as we ran down a steep sidewalk to catch—and spectacularly missed—a hop-on hop-off bus tour, screamed to the high heavens (okay, maybe just me) on a mini roller coaster ride, did a dastardly peg leg walk onto a pirate ship, tested our slapshots at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and walked under sharks at the incredible Ripley’s Aquarium as we scoped out this surprisingly friendly and diverse playground for kids and their parents.
Here are some favorites.
With any trip to a new city, it’s good to get you bearings. In Toronto, this translates to a visit to the CN Tower. Originally intended as a communications tower and built by CN as a demonstration of the city’s industrial strength, its vantage, as I learned, literally broadens horizons. And it’s popular. Visitors come for attractions from the first floor gift shops to the highly charged “EdgeWalk,” where thrill seekers strap into a harness and walk the tower’s edge hands-free at a dizzying height. Do book a table at swish Lot 360, providing gorgeous panoramic views of the city as it makes a complete rotation every hour. Making dinner plans is just a plain good idea – not only is it a memorable experience, you also bypass lines, going directly up the high speed elevator (or earn those calories walking up 1,700 stairs) to your reservation time. Dinner guests have access to the look-out and sky terrace levels, including the glass floor, where one tour guide says only one in three people have the derring-do to step on.
Next door to the CN Tower is Ripley’s Aquarium, still enjoying remarkable buzz since its 2013 opening. The first of its kind in Canada, it’s home to over 13,500 aquatic inhabitants. Visitors ooh and aah exploring nine areas including Canadian waters, the world’s largest jellyfish tank and the longest moving sidewalk on the continent in Dangerous Lagoon where guests pass through a long tunnel fantastically surrounded by sharks and sting rays and exotic fish. From greeting adorable puffer fish at the building’s entrance to watching jelly fish change colour, to passing through a clear underwater cylinder surrounded by marine life at Shark Reef Kids Crawl, kids and adults have much to explore. The Aquarium gets busy, and thus crowded. Heed local advice and go before noon, or after 7 p.m., when admission is $5 cheaper.
“Best. Hotel. Ever,” raved my child, upon entering the carnival-like atmosphere of the Chelsea Hotel, where she was high-fived by Spiderman, and chatted up by C.T., the charming, Hawaiian shirt clad robot working the crowd – all before we even had a chance to check in. As Canada’s largest hotel with 1,590 guest rooms, Friday and Saturday check-ins can be a bit of a “gong show,’ say hotel officials. That’s why they’ve made weekend check-ins fun. As we enter, a table to our left offers free popcorn and drinks. Kids queue for their own special check-in, complete with gift. Face painting and movies are often on tap. Centrally located, it’s just a five minute stroll to high-energy Yonge and Dundas Square, and the shops of the Toronto Eaton Centre, a shopping mall so big it spans two subway stops. With Market Garden Patio, its sit-and-savour, tree-filled outdoor patio, complete with its own food truck, the hotel’s not a bad place to dine either after a long day exploring. Best feature though? That may be the “Corkscrew,” downtown Toronto’s only indoor waterslide which shoots riders down a twisty tube in the dark, splashing into one end of the pool. My kid’s reaction? “Can’t slow down. Gotta go again.”
HOP-ON HOP-OFF TOUR
Toronto’s sleeper hit? That may well be City Sightseeing’s Hop-On Hop-Off double decker bus tour, an excellent value with a ticket good for three days and a one-time, no-expiry boat tour of Toronto harbour and islands included. Snag a seat up top, and listen to the on-board conductors talk up Toronto, its neighborhoods, and history. Each tour guide has a different style, different tidbits, but excel in enthusiasm, doling out humour and cool facts about the city from the best chocolate shop in the Distillery District (Soma) to movies shot on Bay Street, Toronto’s financial district. A full tour takes just over two hours. Many do the complete tour the first time, then use the service to get around the city.
HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
Step in and test your announcing skills at the TSN broadcast booth, measure the force of your slapshot, and snap a picture with the holy grail, Lord Stanley’s Cup, at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto’s tribute to a national obsession. How big of an obsession, you ask? Just ask Dryden, a female tour guide we met on another city tour, who is named after legendary goaltender Ken Dryden, as she was born on the anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series, in which he’d starred. The hall, filled with memorabilia, trophies, and a slate of interactive games, is worth an afternoon wander for both hockey and non-hockey fans alike.
What has 98 rooms, 22 fireplaces, secret passageways, towers, and the ability to capture the imagination of teens and tweens? North America’s only full-sized castle. While I debated whether to see Casa Loma, the Edwardian castle built by noted architect E.J. Lennox on a hilltop overlooking the city, for financier Sir Henry Pellet and his wife Mary, the kid was totally on board. The tour is fascinating, glimpsing the nearly 200,000 square foot castle built from 1911-14 on five acres for $3.5 million, once the largest private residence in Canada. The owners, the Pellets, themselves are an intriguing story. They enjoyed less than 10 years in the palatial residence before financial ruin forced them to abandon it.
EXPLORE TORONTO’S QUIET SIDE
Watch stress fade away as you lean back on the ferry—there are several crossing options available off Toronto’s waterfront—and enjoy gorgeous views of the Toronto skyline en route to a city oasis only a 15-minute ferry ride from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Toronto Islands—there are 17 all told–draws visitors to its peaceful parks, its beaches, and amusement parks. Don’t expect to see it all in a day though. There’s much to do. Gardens and greenery share space with beachfront, the 14-acre retro Centreville Amusement Park, complete with a log flume ride and a mini roller coaster, and the A Pirate’s Life attraction, where participants are tattooed, dressed in pirate finery and given scandalous names (I’m looking at you “Killer Carey”) before doing a proud pirate, crab walk, or peg leg hop down the gangplank to board the Island Rogue in a one-hour search for buried treasure, mateys.