Khabar Magazine. January 2024 print issue.
From eclectic museums and international festivals to global cuisines and ethnic conclaves, TORONTO offers everything one expects from a modern metropolis.
When I arrived at the Toronto Pearson Airport, a blue-turbaned man filled the giant digital screens overlooking the baggage claim area. Advertisements for a Marathi Indian restaurant (located at Terminal 1) and Nanak ghee, paneer, and rasmalai made me realize they were targeting a certain demographic—me. I looked around and saw desis arriving on direct flights from India to meet their Canadian family members, Indian expats who had retained their cultural attire and languages, and lots of younger Indian Canadians probably returning from vacations and business trips. I instantly felt at home!
At first glance, Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, and North America’s fourth-largest, appeared to be a lot like New York City: overwhelming, vibrant, and full of people. But, it only has three million residents representing over 250 ethnic groups. The city is more diverse per capita than NYC, and a lot cleaner. The glass-covered skyscrapers in downtown Toronto appear modern and new, neatly organized around walkable streets, green spaces, and running trails. With a backdrop of Lake Ontario and High Park, Toronto feels uncluttered and spacious, allowing a cool breeze to fill the lungs of the residents of this big city.
It also feels like Asia with a North American flair. Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Shangri-La Toronto. When I checked into this opulent hotel, I felt whisked away to Asia without the 14-hour airplane ride. Burgundy and gold tones, fresh flowers, and crafted wood furniture accents dominated the luxury hotel’s eye-catching décor. The appealing theme of art, music, and fashion attracts celebrities from all over the world to stay and entertain while they walk the red carpet at the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) held each September.
At the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater, posters of Salaam Bombay and Past Lives invite movie lovers, researchers, and students from all cultures to go behind the scenes and learn about the interesting skills of creating and screening. Indian productions—Thank You For Coming, Lost Ladies, Punjab ’95, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World is Family), Kill, Sthal/ A Match and Dear Jassi made up the incredible lineup at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
The stunning Aga Khan Museum showcases Islamic art and culture.
There are tons of attractions, museums, and activities to keep you engaged for an entire week, many accessible by walking or by streetcars. I walked to the iconic 1815-foot-high CN Tower, rode up the glass elevator, and took in a stunning, 360° bird’s-eye view of the skyline.
Another popular attraction with first-timers to Toronto is Casa Loma, a castle-like structure from 1914, located in the heart of the city. Its three floors are filled with elegant European décor, historical artifacts, a classic car collection, a stunning conservatory, and the estate gardens.
Historic links of footwear to religions like Hinduism and Buddhism at the fascinating Bata Shoe Museum.
The best way to explore the different neighborhoods around Toronto is also by simply wandering around on foot or by streetcar. Browse the food stalls at the St. Lawrence Market to taste the history of Toronto. Get the famous peameal bacon sandwich from Carousel Bakery, lobster rolls from Buster’s Sea Cove, and everything bagel from St. Urbain Bagel. Head to Chinatown Toronto, which feels like a large open-air Asian market selling everything from herbal medicines to modern fusion food. Next door, Kensington Market has an eclectic mix of cafes, vintage stores, and food markets. If you are there on a Pedestrian Sunday (which is the last Sunday of the month between May and October), you will find lots of music and liveliness. Another hip spot to stroll, shop, and eat is the Godderham and Worts Distillery, which was one of the largest distilleries in the British Empire.
The Bata Shoe Museum made me nostalgic for my childhood in India when it was—and still is—the leading footwear brand. It was interesting to find out at the museum that the Bata family, originally from Czechoslovakia, has lived in Toronto since the 1940s and that the company had established Batanagar, a shoe-manufacturing township near Kolkata. There were interesting displays across three floors explaining how footwear played an important role in religion, customs, and weddings, starting in ancient cultures like India. It then goes on to show-case how shoe fashion has evolved over time to high-tech virtual sneakers and also attempts to answer the age-old question why do women want so many pairs of shoes?
Another fascinating place in the North York neighborhood of Toronto is the Aga Khan Museum, the largest museum outside of any Islamic country dedicated to Islamic arts and culture. A stunning, Brazilian-granite, modern building with an open-roof courtyard, scenic fountains, and sage bushes, leads visitors to explore over 1,000 pieces of Islamic art, manuscripts, and history inside. The onsite Diwan Restaurant, with its bright and art-adorned interiors, is a great place to have a scrumptious lunch of sweet onion bhaji, tandoor chicken poutine, and dumka paneer with cashew, inspired by Canadian, Middle Eastern, and Indian flavors.
Toronto has a diverse dining scene where you can find practically every cuisine at any price point. In 2022, Michelin chose Toronto as the first Canadian city to get its own guide, and many Indian restaurants such as Dil Se, Aanch, and Indian Street Food Company—were included in this year’s list. I tried owner Ambica Jain and chef Vineet Bhatia’s preparations at Adrak Yorkville. Not only were its Kerala backwaters inspired canoe-style interiors aesthetically pleasing but each dish, from rani kachori to patrani machchhi, was appealing with bursts of colors, flavors, and textures, making it one of my most memorable meals to date.
But if you want no-frills, homestyle flavors of any cuisine from Kashmir to Sri Lanka, Goa to Bangladesh, head to the suburbs of Brampton and Mississauga. Home to the largest South Asian community in Canada, it feels like “Little India” with its endless mithai shops, lunch buffets, and shopping malls. The high-end mile-long buffet at Tandoori Flame compares well with upscale hotels in Mumbai. And long lines form outside the kulfi and falooda specialty shops well into the freezing nights. There’s also a Paranthe Wali Gali specializing in vegetarian and non-veg parathas, colorful and catchy Taza Chaiwala tea and snack house, and dozens of dosa and Indian Chinese outlets.
No trip to Toronto is complete without visiting the world-famous Niagara Falls. It is only a 90-minute drive from Toronto to the Niagara Region, easily doable on a day trip. Though I have visited the Falls a few times, I feel they appear magical each time, depending on the season and the viewpoint. The most popular way to get close to the Falls is onboard Niagara City Cruises, where you can feel the mist and even get soaked by the powerful force of the water. A second way to see them is by riding an elevator, that goes down 2200 feet, and walking through a large tunnel to the observation platform at the Niagara Parks Power Station. This is relatively easier for families and those with accessibility needs. It offers another more relaxed perspective of the Falls without the adrenalin. And if you can splurge on it, take the memorable Niagara Helicopters aerial tour over the Niagara Falls, Niagara River, and surrounding vineyards. The views from the top provide an even more awe- inspiring view of the vastness of the Falls.
On the way back, stop at one of the scenic wineries for lunch or tasting. Niagara is Ontario’s largest wine-growing region globally known for sweet ice wines because of the wet, wintery climate. But there are lots of other fruity and floral Gamay, Cabernet France, and Pinot Noir also found here. The Peller Estates Winery is one of the grand estate wineries of the Niagara Wine Region where you can walk around the vines, and visit an underground cellar and even an ice bar. Also, make sure to save some time to visit the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake for dining and shopping.
I do recommend visiting in the summer months for beautiful weather, and festivals that happen practically every weekend. If you go in the winter, be sure to dress in layers so you can enjoy playing in the snow, ice skating, and the winter wonderland at the Toronto Christmas Market, Toronto Light Festival, and Winterlicious.
~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.