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"Toronto is a city that has yet to fall in love with itself," quipped Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Toronto's former poet laureate. There's some truth to that, maybe because Torontonians have a hard time defining their city. It's culturally diverse, to be sure, but this, the city's most touted trait, is the polar opposite of a unifying characteristic. So what exactly is Toronto all about? It's a bit confused. Americans call Torontonians friendly and the city clean, while other Canadians say its locals are rude and egocentric. Toronto is often touted as "livable," a commendable if dull virtue. Admittedly, Toronto is not as exciting as New York, as quaint as Montréal, as glitzy as Los Angeles, as outdoorsy as Vancouver, or as historic as London. Instead, it's a patchwork of all of these qualities. Toronto is the complete package. And comparatively (despite what Canadian compatriots believe) Toronto is clean, safe, and just all-around nice. Torontonians say "sorry" when they jostle you. They recycle and compost. They obey traffic laws. Toronto is like the boy next door you eventually marry after fooling around with New York or Los Angeles. Why not cut the charade and start the love affair now?
Toronto is one of the most immigrant-friendly cities on the planet, and the city's official motto, "Diversity Our Strength," reflects this hodgepodge of ethnicities. More than half its population is foreign-born, and half of all Torontonians are native speakers of a foreign language. (The "other" national language of French, however, is not one of the most commonly spoken languages here, trailing Chinese, Portuguese, Punjabi, and Tagalog.) In a few hours in Toronto you can travel the globe, from Little India to Little Italy, Koreatown to Greektown, or at least eat your way around it, from Polish pierogi to Chinese dim sum to Portuguese salt-cod fritters.
A City of Neighborhoods
Every city has neighborhoods, but Toronto's are particularly diverse, distinctive, and walkable. Some were once their own villages, and many, such as the Danforth (Greektown), Little Portugal, and Chinatown, are products of the ethnic groups who first settled them. Others, like Yorkville, the Annex, and Queen West, are once-scruffy neighborhoods transformed by struggling-artist types that have grown more affluent along with their residents. Boundaries aren't fixed and are constantly evolving: on a five-minute walk down Bloor Street West you can pass a Portuguese butcher, an Ethiopian restaurant, a hip espresso bar, and a Maltese travel agency. Neighborhoods continue to crop up, with new grads and young families snapping up apartments and houses in less expensive developing areas, such as the Junction, Parkdale, and Leslieville.
On the Waterfront
Lake Ontario forms Toronto's very obvious southern border, but residents who live out of its view often forget it's there until they attend an event at the Ex or the Harbourfront Centre. It's one of the city's best features, especially in the summer, providing opportunities for boating, ferrying to the Toronto Islands, or strolling, biking, or jogging beside the water. The lakeshore is about to become more of an attraction than ever, thanks to an ongoing initiative to revitalize the waterfront and create more parks, beaches, and walkways.
Canada's Culture Center
The Toronto International Film Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada's center for magazine and book publishing, national ballet and opera companies, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—these are just a handful of the many reasons Toronto attracts millions of arts and culture lovers each year to live, work, and play. On any given day or night, you'll find events to feed the brain and the spirit: art gallery openings, poetry readings, theatrical releases, film revues, dance performances, and festivals showcasing the arts, from the focused JazzFest and the North by Northeast indie rock extravaganza to events marrying visual and performing arts, like Nuit Blanche and Luminato.
Toronto's architecture may be evolving, but its food scene has arrived. There's no shortage of amazing restaurants in this city, and local and fresh produce is all the rage. Celebrity chefs like Susur Lee, Mark McEwan, and Jamie Kennedy give locavores street cred. Toronto's cornucopia of cultures means you can sample almost any cuisine, from Abyssinian to Yemeni. Nowhere is Torontonians' love of food more apparent, perhaps, than at St. Lawrence Market, where you can pick up nonessentials like fiddlehead ferns, elk burgers, truffle oil, and mozzarella di bufala. In warm weather, farmers' markets bring the province's plenty to the city.
What's Hot in Toronto Now?
A new mayor took office in 2011 following a divisive election. Talks of privatizing public services, hints at massive 2012 budget cuts, and Rob Ford's penchant for rapid-fire, closed-door policymaking leave Torontonians somewhat in the dark about the future of their city for 2012 and beyond.
Promising to keep the downtown vibrant, the architectural boom of the new millennium continues, with the unveiling of the refurbished Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in 2010, an Athlete's Village in preparation for the 2015 Pan American Games underway on King Street East, a bevy of luxury hotel construction—Ritz-Carlton and Trump International hotels in 2011 and a new Shangri-La hotel and a Four Seasons refurbishment on the books for 2012—and no end in sight to condo construction downtown.
Transportation around Toronto is getting an overhaul. The city rolled out the Bixi bike-sharing system in 2011, with 1,000 bikes and 80 docking stations around the city.
At this writing, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is testing shiny new subway cars with electronic displays and car-to-car access on the tracks for their mid- to late-2011 debut, replacing trains that have been in operation since the 1970s. And if you want to "ride the Rocket" via streetcar, do it in 2012: they'll be replaced with new light-rail vehicles in 2013.
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