And so it was that I found myself standing in the middle of a generic gift emporium in Chinatown, Toronto, wondering how it was that my holiday habits had gotten so convoluted.
It started with a Christmas tree decoration. One for every place I visited, with or without Stringer, like a living map of the places we had been and the places I had thought of him in. A wooden angel, from a market stall in New York. A New England lobster in a Santa hat. A baby blue map of the state of North Carolina.
Then came the fridge magnets. Presents for my mum, lined up on the fridge in neat rows. A tradition my sister picked up on too, from destinations more exotic than mine. Postcards: two, one to my mum and one to my sister (Canada, may I salute you for your pre-paid postage options?). Sweets or biscuits for the office. An enamel pin. And a tiny t-shirt for my baby nephew: something that’s a souvenir, without being too obviously a souvenir (my childless aunt went abroad, and all I got was a plasticky print from a discount store!).
But one thing I don’t tend to waste time on when I am travelling is queuing for the tourist spots.
It’s not a snobbery thing: there are some things you just have to experience in real life, and I’m still a bit gutted that we couldn’t work out the time for a trip to Niagara Falls during our Toronto stay. I feel the same about not taking the ferry to the islands in Lake Ontario, recommended as an alternative by Greta, a local artist I shared a table with at a Joni Mitchell tribute night/book launch (when in Canada). Rather, it’s a question of weighing up time and cost, and having very little respect for the notion of “supposed to”. So why would I spend $30 for a view of the city from the CN Tower when my hotel room was on the 42nd floor?
Toronto has, as you’ve hopefully already gathered from my walking tour post, lots to see and discover – not all of it obvious. Here are six awesome things I wish I was doing again right now.
1. Drinking a unicorn latte
CutiePie Cupcakes & Co., on the edge of Chinatown, was selling unicorn lattes months before Starbucks jumped on the sugary, colourful food bandwagon. And the best bit? Theirs actually contains coffee.
It’s true – unlike the syrupy-sweet, fruit-flavoured nightmare of viral internet fame, I can tell you exactly what goes into a CutiePie unicorn latte: milk, cotton candy, espresso, flavoured whipped cream, sprinkles and your choice of whoopie pie from the counter – mixed up with ice, if you’re after a frozen one (as I was). And you can too, because CutiePie owner Melanie Abdilla encourages you to watch as she mixes up your drink into a rainbow-infused concoction which, thanks to the coffee shot, isn’t nearly as sickly as it looks.
CutiePie also promises “unicorn twist” ice cream in tie-dyed rainbow cones – something I’m still beating myself up for not going back for – as well as a huge selection of freshly-baked cupcakes in full and adorable miniature sizes. One of the brightest spots of our visit, for sure.
2. Visiting with monsters
At Home With Monsters, a gloriously immersive look into the mind, work and home of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, has been getting rave reviews since it began touring – and we were lucky enough to catch the exhibition at Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), on what I have since learned will be its final stop.
Now, y’all know I’m not much of a film buff – so much so that I’m sure you’ll be completely unsurprised to discover that this was Stringer’s choice – but I really enjoyed the hour or so I spent wandering around the exhibit, so much so that I have now added a bunch of del Toro films to the ever-growing to-watch list. Featuring original sketches, notebooks, art and objects from del Toro’s personal collections, music props and costumes and – my personal favourite – a replica of the “rain room”, where the director works in front of a false window to the sound of thunder and falling rain, this is a fascinating look inside the mind, and at the work, of a contemporary genius.
Catch it by 7th January 2018, before del Toro “takes his shit back”.
3. Exploring the history of shoes
Whenever I asked around for recommendations of things to see and do in Toronto, the Bata Shoe Museum nearly always came up.
The Bata Shoe Museum was founded by Sonja Bata, a Swiss businesswoman who married into the family behind the multinational footwear brand of the same name. Bata began collecting shoes of from all over the world in the 1940s, many for their historical significance or particular beauty. The museum opened in 1995 in an award-winning custom-built building designed by local firm Moriyama and Teshima Architects, which is itself well worth a look.
The museum now boasts around 13,000 pieces, of which over a thousand are on display at any one time. Journey through over 4,500 years of footwear history in the semi-permanent All About Shoes exhibition, and then check out the changing exhibitions in three galleries upstairs. On my visit, these included a look at traditional footwear and dress across the Arctic; Fashion Victims, exploring the “pleasures and perils” of 19th century dress; and a display dedicated to men in heels – including John Lennon’s Cuban-heeled Beatles boots and a pair of dizzying platforms worn by Elton John in the 1970s.
4. Shopping and eating in a disused distillery
The historic Distillery District has already featured on the blog – but why not make a day or night of it and explore one of Toronto’s more interesting shopping, dining and entertainment destinations?
The converted 19th century Gooderham and Worts distillery buildings are now home to over 80 shops and boutiques, ranging from familiar-ish names like deSigual, Deciem and Fluevog, to high-end design, to one-of-a-kind vintage fashion and homeware. Soma Chocolate make their own sweet treats on site, while Wildly Delicious stock a fantastic variety of locally-sourced food and drink brands along with their own line of sauces, jams, spice rubs and oils.
Eating and drinking destinations at the site include Mill St Brewing Company, Pure Spirits oyster house and grill, Elcatrin for contemporary Mexican and Cluny French fusion bistro. As home to a number of galleries, dance studios and theatre companies, The Distillery is also a year-round cultural hub with the Christmas season being no different – why not visit the Toronto Christmas market then stick around for Soulpepper’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol?
5. Cuddling some kittens
I know cat cafes can be controversial, but let’s face it – when you’re miles away from home, and missing your fur-babies, the need to cuddle some kitties can prove overwhelming.
TOT the Cat Cafe was Toronto’s first cat cafe and, like many such cafes, had a focus on adoption – they partnered with local rescue agencies to help rescue cats find homes while having the chance to get socialised, raising money for the agencies at the same time. But what really set TOT apart from other cat cafes I have visited and made it such an enjoyable place to hang out was that it was home to loads of adorable, playful kittens – like Buffy, above right, who took a shine to my tulle /irlmanicpixiedreamgirlproblems.
Sadly, I’ve just learned from their Facebook page that after rehoming hundreds of cats, TOT is taking a break – with plans to open at least one new location in the new year. I really loved the ethos of the place and will be watching what they get up to in the future with interest – you can’t have too many cute cat photos on your Facebook feed, after all.
6. Making the street your gallery
Before I arrived in Toronto, I had no idea that the city was a haven for street art. But it was obvious even before we left the hotel, with Google Maps flagging the “Graffiti Alley” as one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
But you don’t have to make time to see great street art in Toronto – it really is all around you, particularly if you’re planning on visiting the Chinatown and Kensington Market areas. The proliferation is partly down to the city’s pro-active embrace of street art through the StART (Street Art Toronto) initiative, which “aims to develop, support, promote, and increase awareness of street art … while counteracting graffiti vandalism and its harmful effect on communities”.
With funding of up to CA$50,000 available through StART for large-scale projects that sit with the programme’s objectives, Toronto can’t really be described as the guerilla utopia it appears on first glance – but the results are striking, inspiring and all the more exciting because who knows what might be painted over them tomorrow.