So I made it! I’m actually now just shy of a week in Canada, but I have yet to make it to Ottawa. Instead I’ve been lucky as hell tourist-ing in Toronto for a couple of days and then getting a lift to my flatmate’s place in Prince Edward County for the night before heading on to the capital. So much has happened I’m already questioning how on earth I’m going to fit it into a blog post – but I’ll do my best!
The flight was pretty smooth sailing; I hadn’t booked an extra leg-room seat (which would have cost a tidy £100 extra) but fortunately an Air Transat air hostess took pity on lil-6-foot-3 me and upgraded me to an emergency exit seat about 5 minutes into the flight. From there not much happened for the next 7 hours apart from a dodgy plane panini and me getting super involved in watching The Martian (probably not a good idea in public.)
Flying in over Toronto I experienced the slightly-petrified stomach lurch feeling of ‘holy crap, here it is, here’s my home country for the next year’. The view was quite something; I am in continual awe of how long and straight the main roads are here. They’re like tramlines – cutting through the countryside into the distance as far as the eye can see.
Landing I hit the first bump in the proceedings. Customs. An hour queue for a passport check with what felt like 3,000 other people was the first wait – then on explaining I needed a student visa as an exchange student, I had pink highlighter drawn all over my landing card and was directed into another queue. And folks, it was awful. There were only 30 of us or so, but each person took around 15 minutes and there were only 3 officers on the desks. I made friends with a UK student from Durham also on exchange and although he was perfectly nice it’s fair to say we were there long enough we ran out of polite conversation topics.
Wonder of wonders, a lady appeared asking for all people needing a student visa to follow her – but we quickly realised we’d just been transposed into another queue. This one was even worse; everyone had a number but they’d been given out by different people at different times in a way that made no sense. When we arrived they were calling for number 13. I was 74.
Needless to say the whole mental and physical exhaustion got to me a bit, especially as my Canadian friend Sarya had at this point arrived at the airport and was waiting for me at Arrivals. I had a bit of a cry. A border control guard gave me a paper cone of water. The French student next to me looked supremely uncomfortable. It was all pretty terrible.
But, in the end, the redundant number system scrapped, I went through to an office cubicle for my 90 second appointment to get my visa, 3 and a half hours after landing. I powered through baggage collection after that (my suitcases just casually left in the middle of the carousel hall – ‘safe and secure’ my arse immigration man) and practically collapsed into Sarya’s arms. I have never been so grateful to have had someone waiting for me at Arrivals.
But rant over!! I made it, I got my visa, and I’m in the biggest city in Canada. I’m gonna breakdown the various aspects of our trip into subheadings just to make it a little more manageable.
I absolutely loved our hostel experience. There’s a reason it’s the top rated ‘alternative accommodation’ on TripAdvisor, and the top rated on Hostelworld for Toronto. I think I’d struggle to find any major flaws with it to be honest, and I’m pretty good at being picky.
Planet Traveller is a middling size hostel in a good location on the outskirts of Kensington Market on College Street. Although this puts it at about a half hour walk from downtown, it is important to remember that Toronto is huge, and there’s so much to do around you; little Italy, the Market, the university campus, half-way to Casa Loma etc.
On first impressions it’s a clean, modern and fairly minimal type hostel – not much to look at from the outside, and with a relatively small reception and lobby space below street level. However, there’s a fantastic, fully-equipped kitchen, and an additional communal space on the top floor on the roof. In fact, the roof garden is easily one of the best features of the hostel – the views over downtown Toronto are incredible, and there’s outdoor and indoor seating.
The rooms themselves are again tidy and modern with lockable lockers – and I was really impressed by the ensuite bathrooms for each room. Huge mirrors so you can really appreciate the sunburn and high pressure showers which was definitely an added luxury. I was in an all-girls dorm and I think I lucked out a bit, but all my roommates were friendly, chatty fellow international travellers, which really added to the experience.
I’d read reviews of Planet Traveller being a bit of a hipster elitist experience, with the staff adding to this – but that wasn’t what I found at all. Every staff member seemed to be from a different country which did mean we didn’t necessarily benefit from local advice and tips, but they were all lovely and I felt very at home very quickly. If (or rather, when) I go back to Toronto I’d be more than happy to stay here again – especially when you take into account that the above experience comes in at less than £20 a night.
Things We Done Did
There is so much to do in Toronto I’m very glad we stayed 4 nights! From a complete touristing viewpoint, here’s what we got up to:
- CN Tower – kinda pricey, but also kinda obligatory. We went around 10am and though I know we’re entering offseason now we were very pleasantly surprised by the short queues. Make sure to go on a clear day; the views over the lake and the city are stunning! And there’s some great selfie opportunities on the glass floor.
- Hop On Hop Off Bus – a ticket costs around $40 and lasts for two calendar days or 48 hours (the company hasn’t quite decided that yet- we pleaded ignorance and got away with the 48 hours rule). We were incredibly lucky to be given three barely-used tickets by my friendly Brit roommates which honestly made the trip – you appreciate things so much more when they’re free! Even though we hadn’t planned to get a ticket, I would recommend considering it. We didn’t spend anything on public transport- just hopped on the bus at the major sites and then rode the tour round to near where we needed to get off. It was lovely being on the open air top deck in the gorgeous weather, and the tour guide facts were pretty fun too.
- Boat tour – The tour was included in our bus ticket, and although we didn’t get a chance to get off onto the islands which I think speaking to other people who did would have been nice, but it was definitely a must. Toronto doesn’t get anymore beautiful than it does from the water, and the islands themselves are gorgeous. Personal cars are banned, so transport is limited to bikes and kayaks, and there are beautiful parks lining the water that look great to take kids.
- Distillery – Another stop on our bus route that’s a little bit out of the way to the East of downtown, but definitely good for a wander. The old beer-making district of Toronto has since been transformed into a hipster haven; designer restaurants, chocolatiers, wine bars and restaurants. Obviously we couldn’t afford to do much, but we enjoyed wandering in and out of shops and eating one scoop of incredible sorbet for 4 dollars.
- Toronto Sign – In the centre of town outside the city hall and just off from Dundas street’s ‘Mini Time Square’ and the massive city mall. Obligatory for cheesy tourist shots, especially at night when the sign is lit up. On our first day the Italian Earthquake disaster was hitting the news, so the sign was lit up in the colours of the Italian flag (as was the CN tower).
- Casa Loma – It’s kind of adorable that a bizarro castle with ‘1911’ over the door-place is such a tourist destination but hey, as a European I guess I’ve been spoilt on the castle-front so I can’t judge. It’s certainly an iconic part of Toronto and an impressive blend of different architectural designs, but I opted not to take the plunge for the ticket on this one on the recommendation of friends. My Exeter buddy Emily enjoyed it though, and we enjoyed wandering around the super expensive streets nearby and an iced capp from a local Tim’s. Nice views of the city on the walk up too.
- Kensington Market – There’s a slight irony that this decidedly hippy and ‘free-living’ (ahem, think weed) area of Toronto shares it’s name with the exclusively elite London neighbourhood. I loved Kensington, I really did. There are heaps of cafes, eateries, houses painted multi-colours, street art, stalls and buskers – and just a really good, young-person, chilled vibe. I’m not quite sure how it’s managed to escape complete gentrification yet, but it somehow has, and there’s a decidedly tatty feel to it (that’s not to say it doesn’t have its hipsters, but I was grateful on that front as there were some great vegetarian places.) Sarya and I went out for a budget dinner at a bar that was opposite a house painted black with stars and covered in fairy lights – and that night was honestly one of my highlights of the trip. On the way back from downtown one night we walked past a bar with a jazz band playing in the middle of the floor. I really loved the neighbourhood.
- Niagara Falls – As an international student, you cannot not go to Toronto and just skip a natural wonder of the world. We got the City sight-seeing bus booked via the hostel for $55 for a day trip, and though it had its flaws (pretty limited free time at the falls, unnecessary detours and a very slow trip back dropping people off) it was probably the best and easiest option for people without a car who hadn’t planned ahead. The falls were stunning, no doubt about it, but the area was slightly terrifyingly crammed with tourists. Niagara itself also felt a bit like a cross between Vegas and Skegness. Niagara on the Lake, a village we stopped at on the way, was in comparison lovely, and perfect for getting lunch things. I’m glad I did it, and the Hornblower boat trip was hilarious and a definite once-in-a-lifetime thing, but I’m pleased I don’t have to go back again.
We didn’t really get a chance to do many museums on this trip, partly because they aren’t really Sarya’s thing and partly because every time we passed one on the bus the tour guide said “so this is the second biggest art/history/fashion museum in Ontario! After the one in Ottawa.” I’m here in the capital for the year so here’s hoping I get to tick of all my museum experiences in Ottawa 🙂
To conclude; making the most of our flight into Toronto and staying to explore the city was definitely a good move and a fantastic start to the year. It’s a thriving, vast, cosmopolitan city and I’d love to go back and explore the areas I didn’t get to see in the future!