What are your first thoughts when you hear “Canada”? Funny accent, cold weather and bears used to be what came to my mind. But as I grew older and wiser, I now associate Canada with friendly people, breathtaking landscapes, diversity and really good wines. I visited Toronto on a solo trip a few years back, long before I started this blog (highly recommended destination if you are looking to do your first “safe” solo female trip), and was struck by the diversity of the city then. This time around, I went back to visit some friends, and once again, I was amazed (and refreshed) by the array of experiences that are at one’s fingertips. Whether you are a “city gal/guy” or more of a “country side/nature lover”, Toronto will not disappoint. Not to mention, if you are a health-conscious foodie (especially with specific dietary needs like myself), Toronto is that destination you can pick without anxiety as the city is very trendy and offers many mouth-watering vegan/ gluten free/ vegetarian options.
Option 1 – Recommended: Fly into Toronto Pearson international Airport directly
Option 2: Fly into Buffalo, NY and take a bus to / back from Toronto
Let’s be honest, flights to Toronto can be pricy, so I followed my friend’s advice and flew into Buffalo, where his friend who lives in Toronto would come pick us up. Given I had been to Toronto once before, the adventurer in me was initially excited to experience a different way to get into Canada this time around. EXCEPT sometimes life (including when traveling), doesn’t go as planned. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, including hours of delay at the US/Canadian border, I ended up spending the night in a hotel room by myself in Buffalo, NY, cranky and tired, knowing that my friend who missed his flight wasn’t going to make it and worried that I am now imposing on his friends we were visiting in Toronto. Not exactly how I was imagining starting that trip.
At this stage in my life though, these setbacks don’t phase me and I embrace the opportunity as a way to learn a lesson…and the lesson was this: Spend the extra $200 and fly into your final destination directly!
Now if you REALLY want to experience the “road trip” version and follow your adventurous heart, here are some tips to at least make the journey less stressful:
1. Make sure to check if there are any special events or holidays the weekend you are traveling. I didn’t know the weekend we picked was a Canadian holiday weekend, topped by the Carribana festival in Toronto with hundreds of people attending from the US. You can always travel during such times, but expect delays and plan accordingly.
2. Two major bus companies have connections between Buffalo and Toronto: Megabus and Grayhound. Make sure to buy your tickets in advance on their website. Grayhound is a first come, first serve bus service so even if you have your ticket you need to make sure to get to the bus stations 30 min to an hour in advance. Tickets run between $16 to $25, depending on days and times.
3. If you are taking a bus back to Buffalo for your flight, make sure you plan enough time to catch your flight. I personally ended up spending the night by Niagara Falls (Thank you credit card points) and took a bus in the morning, with only a 1.5 hour commute, instead of 3h (if no delays) had I left from Toronto.
DAY 1: Catch a breath
After finally making it to Toronto, we spent the rest of the day just chilling, taking a nap, getting ready for a house get-together and then a night-out. The options are endless from bars to nightclubs to live music or drinks on a rooftop, depending what you are in the mood for. You can check out this website for options that rock your boat:
If, unlike me, you make it to the city without delay and want to jump into exploring, I highly recommend starting your first day in a city like Toronto with a walking tour by a local. I had done that a few years back when I first visited, and have done it since then in other cities I’ve visited. You get to really immerse yourself with someone who knows their city and neighborhood, and can give you “insider” tips for the rest of your stay. Below are some links to check out (Note I did not try these specifically so I cannot review):
DAY 2: Visit Westside
Luckily for me, my friends lived downtown and within walking distance of about every major attraction and neighborhoods. After brainstorming a bit, we opted to visit Westside, a section of the city home to a multitude of diverse neighborhoods, combining trendy cafes and shopping areas as well as ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Little Italy or Little Portugal. We chose to spend most of the day visiting Kensington Market. Unlike what may come to mind at first, Kensington Market is not a typical North- American like “market” where you find a bunch of retailers and restaurants in one building, but rather an actual bo-ho like neighborhood with mixed shops, mostly restaurants and cafes but also businesses, groceries stores, vintage clothing stores and so on…In the 1920’s, the district was known as the Jewish Market, and it is now one of the most multi-cultural neighborhoods in the city, where you can truly eat and experience the world.
From Venezuelan arepas (GLUTEN FREE!) to Belgian Waffles (or a gluten free treat from the bakery across the street!), this is the perfect spot to “eat the world” while listening to some live music or just simply people watching.
Getting there is easy if you are staying in downtown. I suggest walking to see some cool Victorian houses and neighborhoods on the way there, but you can also hop on a street car or even Uber your way there. During the summer, the market is closed to cars to allow the free flow of pedestrians. If you’re an ambivert like me as we are labeled these days, finish your day with a walk by the waterfront. This is a much calmer area with benches facing the water, people biking or walking their dogs. Perfect to unwind and chillax after a long day.
DAY 3 – Niagara on the Lake
Did you know that you had a whole town of wineries just 45 min from Toronto? I sure didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I knew of Ice Wine being to Canada what the Baguette is to France or fried chicken to Georgia, but I didn’t imagine a whole town built around wineries and wine-tourism!
Niagara-On-The-Lake is a haven for foodies, wine and outdoor lovers all at once! If you’ve never experienced wine tasting by bicycle, then there is no better place to start than here. I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous at the idea of combining wine tasting (aka getting a buzz) with a physical activity requiring my full mental attention and motor skills. Not to mention I always have this feeling that I will look like an idiot given my average level of “fit-ness”. But we only live, once right? So, let’s make fools of ourselves and let the light summer breeze caress your skin as you are biking your way from one winery to the other.
On this trip, we stopped at 2 wineries: FrogPond and Caroline Cellars.
Frogpond Form is a small organic winery, where the owners live on site, raise their chickens and grow their fabulous garden (we helped ourselves to some home-grown basil…I mean who can pass on that??). Try a taste of the wine they offer and then grab a glass of your favorite and go sit outside for an impromptu little picnic. They sell gluten free crackers (but you can bring your own) and chocolate, of course, because we all know that goes well with wine.
Caroline Cellars was the next stop. It is a bigger family owned winery, and one of the most popular in the region. Here you can experience dozens of different wines, from whites, to roses, reds and finishing with dessert wines (including the infamous “Ice Wine”. My personal favorite was the Plum dessert wine, very light, not too sweet with a bit of tanginess. Needless to say, that one made it back home with me.
The winery has its own restaurant, where we decided to have a late lunch given the light snack we had earlier and all that biking was making us H-U-N-G-R-Y! They had a few gluten free option and I opted for the Trout and Quinoa salad. Unfortunately, no food picture on that one…I had to chose between passing out or memorizing that moment forever… so I chose not passing out!
They had the best sangria I have had on North American soil so far, and this light lemon mousse was the perfect ending to an amazing meal.
Niagara-On-The-Lake is incredibly close to Niagara Falls, and we decided it’d be best for me to spend the night by the Falls and take the bus the next day towards Buffalo, instead of trying to make my way to Buffalo in the morning from Toronto. Luckily, I had some points to use and booked the Sheraton which is located right by the falls. For a supplement (make sure to negotiate that!), you can get a room with a view. Nice feature if you want to catch the fireworks on the falls at night or wake up to a view like this:
The next morning, I took a cab to the bus station (Cost about $10), and after some nervousness, finally made it to Buffalo, NY, in time, to catch my flight.
The part that takes time is the length of your stop at customs. Buses have their own lanes, however if there is a bus ahead of you with 70 people in it (which was the case that day), you might end up stuck for an hour.
Would you consider Toronto for your next trip? Why or why not? Leave your comments 🙂