Toronto city guide
Despite its notable location north of the border, Toronto still occupies a significant place in the American sports landscape as the only non-American city to have MLB and NBA franchises. With the Buffalo Bills having played one regular-season game in Toronto each season from 2008 to ’13, all four major North American sports leagues have had a presence there. Add in MLS and the CFL, and there’s something for the sports fan to do year-round.
Beyond that, though, Toronto is a fascinating city to visit — cosmopolitan and sprawling, with a beautiful and vibrant downtown, it has a character all its own. And for the visiting fan, it’s easy to get around. Here’s a humble guide to navigating Canada’s largest city.
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Downtown is also the center of sports activity in Toronto, with the two primary facilities, Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre, sitting in the shadow of the famed CN Tower. BMO Field, home of the MLS franchise Toronto FC and newly expanded to accommodate the CFL’s Argonauts, sits a couple miles west at Exhibition Place — for baseball fans with long memories, that was the previous site of Exhibition Stadium, the oddly shaped former home of the Blue Jays before they moved to the then-SkyDome in 1989. (BMO Field also hosted the outdoor Centennial Classic between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings on Jan. 1, 2017.)
For a little bit of the city’s sports history, head about a mile and a half north of Air Canada Centre to the corner of Carlton and Church streets, site of the old Maple Leaf Gardens. The building still stands but inside you’ll find, strangely enough, a grocery store, as well as the rink for Ryerson University’s hockey team. Still, there are plenty of artifacts to find for the curious hockey history buff.
• Air Canada Centre: Home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors. Located at 40 Bay Street in downtown Toronto.
• BMO Field: Home of Toronto FC and the Argonauts. Located at 170 Princes’ Boulevard in Exhibition Place.
• Rogers Centre: Home of the Blue Jays. Located at 1 Blue Jays Way in downtown Toronto.
Pearson International Airport (which has the delightfully wacky airport code YYZ) is the main airport serving Toronto, located about half an hour’s drive west of downtown. Not surprisingly, it is an Air Canada hub and fares to Toronto are not often cheap. Another option is to fly to Buffalo, rent a car and drive across the border — once across, the trip shouldn’t take you more than 90 minutes even with pesky Lake Ontario in the way, and you can stop and see Niagara Falls if you so desire.
For drivers, cross the border in Buffalo or Niagara Falls and find your way to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), which leads west to Hamilton, Ontario, then does a virtual U-turn around Lake Ontario and heads east to Toronto. From the midwest U.S., the well-trafficked border crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, leads to Route 401, and from there it’s about a four-hour drive to Toronto proper.
Where to stay
There are plenty of lodging options in downtown Toronto near the sports venues, including the Renaissance hotel that’s inside Rogers Centre and offers rooms with views of the field. Slightly cheaper options typically exist a couple kilometers north on Yonge (pronounced “Young”) Street near the Eaton Centre mall. If you have a car and/or don’t mind using public transit to get into the downtown area, the outskirts of the city — near the airport or Scarborough — or the suburbs of Mississauga, Brampton and Markham have plenty of less expensive lodging as well.
Toronto’s transit system is impressively huge and consists of subways, surface-level trains, commuter trains and buses. The hub of the transportation system is Union Station, right next to Air Canada Centre and a short walk from Rogers Centre. For short trips, your best bet is the subway, nicknamed “The Rocket” by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which will get you to most points of interest in the city (but not BMO Field/Exhibition Place — for that, the venue suggests taking a streetcar, a bus or a Go Transit train.
In most cases, your own two feet are all you need to get around downtown Toronto, which is quite walkable (depending on the weather, of course) and quite beautiful as well — a sort of poor man’s New York with skyscrapers, nightlife districts and a growing number of high-rise residences. Meanwhile, drivers coming into the heart of the city can do so via the Gardiner Expressway (you’ll know you’re downtown when you’re surrounded by tall buildings practically on top of the roadway), though traffic at rush hour can be just as brutal as any other huge metropolis.
As is the case for most downtown venues, Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre utilize a network of nearby parking structures, and many local office buildings and residences offer up their parking areas for fans at a cost. At BMO Field, the grounds surrounding it are less dense and thus there are more lots to choose from.
Culture of hockey
The Hockey Hall of Fame is a must-visit in Toronto thanks to its downtown location — in the basement of a high-rise at 30 Yonge Street — but also because whether you’re a hockey fan or not, the sport is an integral part of the Canadian experience. Within the Hall’s walls are exhibits dedicated to the game’s history both at the NHL and international levels; an exhibit with the game’s historic trophies and, on most days, the Stanley Cup (usually a stand-in, not the one the NHL champion parades around with every June); and interactive games.
Toronto, perhaps more than any American city, is known as a true melting pot with dozens of cultures taking root there. As such, there are many ethnic neighborhoods to visit, many within a reasonable commute from downtown, that offer a taste of its cuisine. Among the more prominent districts: Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy and Little India. (Find a deeper exploration of Toronto’s ethnic neighborhoods here.)
For a less exotic taste of Toronto, head to the St. Lawrence Market east of downtown — within the farmer’s market is the Carousel Bakery and several other purveyors selling the peameal bacon sandwich, a signature dish of the city. (You can find the sandwich at many other spots, including inside Air Canada Centre, as well).
Take to the skies
The CN Tower is Toronto’s most iconic structure and the tallest freestanding structure in North America, and it stands right next to Rogers Centre, so why not head up to the observation deck? At the top, more than 1,100 feet high, is a revolving restaurant and a glass floor that looks straight down onto Rogers Centre (see the photo above). If you’ve found yourself in Toronto and have a camera, there’s no better place in the city to use it.
If you’re in town between July and November, see if the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are in action at BMO Field. Sure, there are differences in the rules, but watch a game long enough and they won’t bother you. Plus, if you’re a fan of American college football, you’re bound to see a few names you recognize.
Minor-league and junior hockey abound in the city and its surrounding regions. The closest team to downtown is the Toronto Marlies, the top affiliate of the Maple Leafs, who play their home games at Ricoh Coliseum at Exhibition Place. For top-level junior hockey, the Mississauga Steelheads and Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League play in towns on the outskirts of Toronto, with many other teams within a few hours’ drive.