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In May, my husband accompanied Mayor Karl Dean and a delegation of bigwigs from the Nashville Chamber to Toronto to take a look at the best practices of the city. My birthday was May 8th, and instead of getting a dumb t-shirt from Toronto, I got to go.

The Mayor’s crowd had lots of interesting people to meet and places to go, but I had a somewhat different agenda. In fact, when asked if I wanted my picture taken with the Stanley Cup, I thought, “Why?”

My only agenda was to discover the best Toronto has to offer in hotels, neighborhoods, shopping and food, and here’s what I found.

City Overview

Toronto is one of the most diverse and eclectic cities on the earth. Over half the population are transplants from other places and the city is home to thriving ethnic communities like Chinatown, Little Italy, and some off-the-beaten-tracks, quirky places similar to San Francisco’s Castro District  and Haight Ashbury. The city’s rich cultural diversity plays out in many ways, with a formidable theater district, scads of hip boutiques and delightful cafes and restaurants.

Notice the window box. You see pussy willows everywhere in Toronto.

What impressed me most about Toronto was its cerebral approach to city planning, offering a quality of life that all of us in the ole’ USA would drool to experience.

Here’s what I mean:

Toronto is incredible clean, with nifty recycling bins on every corner.

How ingenious, each trash can offers more recycling than trash.

 

For a city of almost 6 million people, there is no visible trash. Everyone rides bikes–old and young, students and businessmen. With the bike culture, there are bike paths on every major road and places to lock your bike every 500 feet. It felt to me like a vision of a future Nashville.

Toronto has a new program called the BIXI System, a bicycle rental program designed to assist residents in riding from one locale to another. This program is not necessarily designed for tourists, but we were so smitten with BIXI bikes, we took the bait, hook, line and sinker. We rode everywhere, and when our bill came –an astounding $460– we realized, in no way, did we understand the program. Before you go, research BIXI bikes thoroughly. And yes, our charges were refunded. In Toronto, ignorance is a sound defense.

Beware of the BIXI bikes. If you don’t read the fine print, you’ll pay the piper!

Public transportation (subways, streetcars and buses) is so easy to use. University of Toronto is smack dab in the middle of town with its old world feel and gorgeous campus. I said to my daughter, Lucy, “What do you think about going to University of Toronto?”  She said, ” You just want a reason to go back.”  Yep!

Stay

The Hazelton Hotel

The Hazelton Hotel is Canada’s 5-star crown jewel.

In a quest to find the hippest hotel in Toronto, I did a Google search and the Hazleton Hotel came up time and time again. It’s easy to see why. The hotel has a distinctively European feel to it and is located right in the heart of the Yorkville district, with the best boutiques, wine bars and restaurants the city has to offer. The Hazelton is pricey, but worth every penny.

As I arrived, the concierge and staff greeted us as if we were old friends. Once in the room (exquisite), there was a special birthday cake waiting for me.

My birthday greeting from the staff at the Hazelton Hotel, what a great late night snack.

The rooms have every amenity possible, from curtains that close automatically to a luxurious, deep soaking tub.

The bar at the Hazelton Hotel is where Toronto’s beautiful people hang out…and, my, my, they are gorgeous.

As she arrived at the Hazelton, Lady Gaga and I traded shoe shopping tips.

Drake Hotel

The Drake Hotel comes up again and again in all the literature about Toronto. It is a hike, but you’ll pass the most interesting shopping district around, West Queen West. We walked and walked and finally arrived at the Drake. It opened in 1890 as D.A. Small’s hotel.

You’ll adore the retro feel of the Drake Hotel. It is truly worth a visit.

Having gone through a number of renovations, it now defines Toronto’s hip boutique hotels. The word I would use to describe the Drake is “kitchy,” so much so, that when you go to the bathroom, they have ads in the stalls promoting a quick “one nighter” at the Drake.  There ya’ go.

The Drake Cafe rocks with simple and delicious food.

 

 

Eat

Our buddy Daniel Casse, who was born and raised in Toronto is a true foodie. I knew his Toronto restaurant suggestions were must-go’s. Both of his suggestions were winners and both quite different.

Ici Bistro

The ici bistro is remarkable, as are its owners, Jennifer DeCourte and Chef Jean-Pierre.

Ici Bistro’s small plates offer you a great way to sample many items.

Ici Bistro is probably the best meal I’ve had since Le Bernadin in New York. This is a quaint restaurant with only 24 seats in the Annex neighborhood. Ici Bistro offers a small plate choice to their guests, which I highly recommend. It is a great way to sample many offerings of J.P Challet, Ici’s respected chef. We just made it in with our late reservation and snagged the last two seats at the bar. This ended up being a wonderful choice because we were able to get to know the owner, Jennifer DeCorte. Ici Bistro is a five star find. Don’t miss it when you go to  Toronto.

Woodlot

Woodlot is too hip for words. The subtle lighting and great tunes make this restaurant so special.

Most items on the menu are cooked in wood-burning ovens over high heat to retain the juices.

 

Happy Birthday to me! A special dinner at Woodlot.

 

 

There’s a buzz going on about Woodlot and I can see why. When I think of Woodlot, I think of the word ” hip.” You walk in and there is a massive wood burning stove where many of the delicacies are prepared. There is also an awesome selection of music playing – loudly. For some this may be a instant turnoff, but for me (remember I went to Bonnaroo and loved it), this set the tone. Woodlot has an incredible selection of cocktails and a menu with offerings like torched Hokkaido scallops and lentil salad, duck confit and maple glazed pork belly and cider-glazed turnips. When you arrive — and we were on our bikes, no less– Woodlot looks as if it is an afterthought. Once you step in the door, however, you’ll get the vibe of this charming restaurant.

Ride in Fashion

I want to show you how you can still be stylish and ride your bike. If you’ll note, the Italian wool coat I am wearing is from the StyleBlueprint consignment sale, the scarf from Toronto’s oh-so-chic department store, Holt Renfrew. It was a gift from my husband for my birthday.

Yours truly in my fabulous new scarf, coat and boots, ready to ride my bike to dinner.

See

Toronto is home to several excellent museums, certainly the Art Gallery of Toronto being one of them. You can’t help but notice the recent renovation by Frank Gehry, who grew up just blocks away from the 109-year-old museum. The building  adds a dramatic element as it towers above you.

The theater in Toronto is serious business. A quick perusal of the offerings gives you an idea of how important it is to this multi-cultural city.  You can book the following: Billy Elliot the Musical, Camelot, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Grapes of Wrath and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Believe me, that is only a smattering of what’s available.

Strolling the neighborhoods gives you such pleasure and such a sense of the city. My personal favorite was Kensington Market, a multicultural neighborhood whose street are packed with cheese shops, bakeries, fresh fruit and vegetables and everything in between.

Also, Queens Street West is filled with trendy boutiques, eclectic cafes and tons of coffee shopping.

OK, I lost the name of this guy’s shop, but it is on Queens Street West. He’s a collector of cool and fanciful things.

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Do yourself a favor–discover the art of wandering or biking in this lovely, international city.

 

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