When it comes to new cities it’s difficult to travel without our presumptions and weighted expectations. Every city has such a distinctive character formed by its unique amalgamation of climate, history and people. We had such preconceptions of Toronto, the epicentre of Canadian business and culture, a city built by immigrants and famed for its diversity, passion for sport and burgeoning cosmopolitan inhabitants.
After a week spent in the city we thought it would be high time to share our first impressions of life in T.O.
We arrived in Toronto on a direct flight from London on Wednesday afternoon. Despite the beautiful spring sunshine we’ve recently been basking in back the UK, our departure day brought with it those bleak, grey skies that our fair country is so infamous for. We were fully aware that Spring is a little later in coming across the Atlantic and were preparing ourselves for a seasonal time hop back to the fringes of winter.
Imagine our surprise when we touched down on the runway of Pearson International Airport to hazy evening sunshine and brilliant blue skies. As our Uber took us west and into the city, the famous skyline glistened in the sinking sun and city dwellers could be seen lazing on the breezy shores of Lake Ontario.
We arrived at our apartment, threw our bulging rucksacks on the bed and ventured out onto our porch to catch the dying moments of the sunset. We ended up running for cover however, as a huge raccoon brashly ventured onto our balcony to check out his new neighbours. There was no doubting we had arrived in Canada.
Our glimmer of Canadian spring was dashed the next morning as we awoke to a barrage of driving winds and relentless rain. An internal struggle ensued between our desire to get out and explore our new city and the instinct to stay indoors, warm and dry.
And here comes the interesting part for us. We are usually so weather dependant that it can be detrimental. We spent the last year in Australia chasing summer and generally despise living at home during the winter months. But despite the dreary conditions in Toronto, the city instantly stole our hearts. Toronto is geared up for extreme seasons, offering plenty to do both outdoors and inside, meaning the foul weather can become little more than an afterthought.
It’s not been all doom and gloom though. The latter part of our first week delivered more of that fair weather we’d gotten a taste of on our first evening. The winds subdued and the dense clouds gave way to the sun and allowed us ample opportunity to explore and get under the skin of our new city home.
If you do some rudimentary research on Toronto, one of the taglines you will read most consistently will be something along the lines of “Toronto – the most multicultural city in the world”. Like any city in North America it was built by immigrants from the world over. In fact, roughly half of the city’s residents today are born overseas and a population growth of nearly 6 million in the space of a hundred years is not merely down to proactive baby boomers. There’s no denying that this is exactly how the city feels. If there is one takeaway from our first week in Toronto, it is just how seamlessly diverse and inclusive it seems.
We are currently staying in an area known as Little Portugal, to the north lies Palmerston (Little Italy) and to east Chinatown and Koreatown. But it goes deeper than the cultural derivative of these inner-city suburbs. Riding the streetcar, you will hear snippets of conversations in French, English, Polish or Chinese. You will grab an espresso coffee for breakfast, an Italian/Caribbean fusion snack pack for lunch and Vietnamese Pho for dinner.
This is true I guess of most cities but in Toronto it feels effortless and there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between being a native Torontonian or an immigrant, it’s all the same thing. The city even hosts an annual festival called “Newcomers Day’ on May 15th. A day in which the people of the city come together to celebrate with new arrivals and welcome them to their new lives in Canada.
If there was one fault we had to find with the city though, it would be its public transport. We have mainly been tackling sight-seeing on foot, despite living a good 40-minute walk west of the city. We hadn’t anticipated the city to be so sprawling and have only recently learnt that it is in fact the 3rd biggest city in North America, a detail which blew our minds.
The sprawling city is supposedly connected by the TTC public transport system, although in our brief experience of it there is a lot left to be desired. It’s a simple enough system of buses, streetcars and a subway but the payment system is clunky and confusing. There are tokens, paper transfers and passes to configure and the constant need for exact change to be had. It makes navigating a much trickier business than it should be.
If you can find your way around the city though there is an infinite choice of things to see and do. Although the season for winter sports is obviously drawing to a close we’ve managed to squeeze in a little of the nation’s most revered pastime, hockey.
The beloved Maple Leafs were unfortunately knocked out of the playoffs last week by the Washington Capitals but we managed to get down to see the Toronto Marlies (the Maple Leafs feeder team) in their AHL playoff game and the atmosphere was predictably electric.
As well as the hockey, I thought I’d leave a few other minor observations here for those important questions that are no doubt searing in the front of your mind. Yes, they really do eat Poutine and yes, its unbelievably tasty. Yes, there really is a whole city underground in Downtown Toronto for the brutal winters and yes, whilst its coffee is distinctly average, Tim Horton’s really does do a tasty doughnut.
All of these are of course only first impressions, undoubtedly influenced by the preconceptions of Canada we see in films and print. When we imagine Canada we always picture mountains, winter sports and abundant wildlife. We imagine its citizens to be excessively polite and welcoming and due to the image that is projected by its millennial-friendly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we also presume it to be a place where liberal politics prevail.
As is the nature with first impressions it comes with the footnote that it is all liable to change. Maybe the longer we spend here the realities will reveal themselves a little more and some rifts will start to show. With any luck the reasons behind the city’s choice of its previous, crack-smoking Mayor Rob Ford will begin to reveal themselves.
But right now, a week into our lives in Toronto it is nearly impossible to think of a bad thing to say. Regardless of the weather.
Have you been to Toronto before? What were your first impressions? Let us know in the comments below or via our social media pages!