Before leaving on my five-day trip to Toronto, I decided to ask a couple friends the first thing that came to mind about the city affectionately known as “the 416.” Most made mention of local export Drake, his OVO Sound music imprint, cold weather. One mentioned the popular TV show Degrassi. I wanted to know what the average Black American’s perception of Canada’s largest city (2.8 million-plus people) that’s way more that Aubrey Graham’s hometown.
I’d visited Toronto before in the summer of 2014, joining several friends from New York as they brought the popular Hennypalooza party series across the border. So when I was approached by the Toronto Board of Tourism to participate in their Eat, Drink, & Dance press tour, I was looking forward to visiting the city in the winter and finding out if the “Great Up North” is really as cold as they say. To be frank, it was pretty cold. But I experienced way more than I bargained for, and left with a newfound appreciation for the city.
Flying out of New York City and landing at Pearson International Airport about 25-30 minutes from downtown Toronto, I drove past the suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton—both of which are made up of large Indian, Afro-Canadian and Middle Eastern communities. A theme I noticed even on my first trip to Toronto was the cultural diversity that the city and its suburbs shared.
Growing up, I assumed that Toronto (well, Canada on a whole) was made up of mostly Whites. But “The Six” has a huge West Indian population (of which you can witness first-hand during the world famous “Carnival” celebration), as well as a heavy African population, made up of inhabitants from countries all over east, west and southern Africa. And as cultures combine through the mutual appreciation of music, sports, art and fashion, the youth of Toronto have created a newfound scene where everyone no matter the background is accepted. It’s all embodied in the creative direction of Drake’s career; he’s a perfect picture of how the youth of Toronto live.
I was shuttled to the brand new Delta Toronto Hotel, located a few blocks from the Air Canada Centre, home of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. The hotel had just opened only a week before, and certain aspects of the hotel (such as its high-level lounge) weren’t finished yet. But I visited the area on a tour, seeing its 360-degree view of the entire city firsthand. The menu of the in-hotel SOCO Kitchen & Bar consisted of items pulled from different cultures that make up the city, including certain Canadian specialties like duck poutine, a comfort food consisting of French fries, cheese curd, gravy and roasted duck. Over the course of my trip, I visited a mix of Toronto staples and several four- and five-star restaurants, all seemingly topping the one before. From French restaurant La Société in Yorkville and the America Restaurant located at the top of the Trump International Tower, to local favorite Gangster Burger Queen Street West and its world-famous “Blue Magic” sauce, the culinary scene of Toronto is just as diverse as the people who live there.
As our trip fell around the preparation of the holiday season, I was also introduced to the Canadian outlook of Christmas, which capitalizes on the country’s cold weather and abundance of wooded areas and ice-skating rinks. I visited handled local handmade products at Lowe’s Christmas Market, a modern-day interpretation of a European Christmas Market, complete with mulled wine, spiced cider and turkey legs. I also had the chance to visit Casa Loma, the only full-sized castle left in North America, located in the northern part of the city. Once owned by late 19th century Toronto businessman Sir Henry Pellatt, the castle turned museum showcases both the brilliant history of Toronto, as well as the “Dark Side”: early 20th century historical occurrences like the Great Depression, Prohibition and more.
As much as I was able to appreciate the history Toronto had to offer, I was also able to experience the Toronto you see and hear on your radio and iTunes. The Cleveland Cavaliers rolled into town to play the hometown Raptors, and through a friend, I was able to attend the game. The fans of the Air Canada Centre are known as some of the loudest throughout the league, and witnessing the game personally, I can attest to that claim.Toronto is known for is its nightlife scene, and that night was no different as Ohio DJs Steph Floss and Meel brought some American talent to club Maison Mercer. Lebron James and his Cavalier teammates partied side-by-side with Kyle Lowry and the Raptors. Watching how the crowd reacted to songs I listen to in the States drove the point home to me that the 416 is a city everyone needs to experience for themselves.
I’d visited Toronto for the second time, but felt as though I saw it from a new perspective. As an American considering our northern cousins, I realized we’re not really that different. The city embraces itself as a cultural melting pot on the cusp as being an international tourist destination, especially for the young millennial set. Sometimes NYC can be a little too congested, L.A. a little too superficial, Miami a little too fast-paced. The next time you’re looking to take a vacation, take a look at The Six. It’s quickly and steadily becoming my favorite place to visit.
Cory Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. A devout Philly sports fan, Townes is the Social Media Manager for EBONY.com. When he’s not cheering for his Philadelphia Eagles or remembering the wonders of an authentic Cheesesteak, you can reach him on Twitter @CoryTownes.