Welcome to the new Toronto

By combining London’s diverse population, San Francisco’s neighbourhood feel and Auckland’s adrenaline-induced playfulness, the Canadian city is finding its own identity.

Within minutes of my arrival to the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto's burgeoning Entertainment District, a bellhop whisked me upstairs to the 18th-floor club level check in, where a staff member offered me a complimentary glass of chardonnay. Not just any chardonnay, but one made from grapes grown, picked, pressed and bottled in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario’s very own Napa Valley. 

From my spacious room, floor-to-ceiling windows revealed a portrait-like view of the city's soaring CN Tower, a needle-like structure that narrows as it ascends toward a multilevel observation deck. One of the world's tallest buildings, it is now also home to one of the city’s most extreme adventures: the death-defying Edge Walk, where adventurists spend up to half an hour in a harness, meandering around the deck's outer circumference, 356m in the air.

Though it was my first time to the city, I felt as though I had been here before. Along with a population that is as ethnically and culturally diverse as London, Toronto has the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, the neighbourhood feel of San Francisco and even a bit of the adrenaline-induced playfulness of Auckland – not to mention LA's high-priced martinis, which you can find at the Thompson Hotel's rooftop bar. And while Toronto's skyline remains dotted with remnants of its days as a British stronghold – the regal Fairmont Royal York, the bustling St Lawrence Market and the luxury King Edward, a hotel that once served as a love nest for an unmarried Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – it is easy to tell by the towering cranes and endless scaffolding that downtown Toronto is in the middle of a reinvention, forming a new and modern identity that is entirely its own.

No longer limited to old or outdated properties, Toronto visitors now have a handful of snazzy new lodgings to choose from. Along with the spacious Ritz Carlton (especially notable for its mirror-embedded bathroom TVs), 2010 saw the opening of downtown's boutique Thompson Hotel, where rooms have mahogany floors and built-in furnishings, and the elevators are consistently filled with glammed-up locals in black outfits and four-inch heels en route to the rooftop bar; in true club fashion, there is often a line at the entrance below. Since then, downtown's Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto and the Shangri-La Hotel Toronto, as well as the flagship Four Seasons Hotel in the city's posh Yorkville neighbourhood have opened, helping transform Toronto from a weekend stopover into a five-star haven.

Dining out
Along with building high-end properties, Toronto has been busy securing its spot on the culinary map with a restaurant boom to rival cities worldwide. Located in the Entertainment District just outside the city's Air Canada Centre sporting arena, E11even is a classic North American eatery serving one of the tastiest- burgers on the planet (seriously). Despite its top-tier price tag, the 25 Canadian dollar Maple Burger – served on an egg bun with double smoked bacon, Guinness cheddar cheese and a dollop of roasted garlic aioli ­– is not only one heavenly bite after the next, it is also worth every cent.

Gracing the 54th floor of downtown's flashy TD Tower, Canoe attracts the Hollywood elite who come to town for September’s annual Toronto International Film Festival. The restaurant offers outstanding views and a regionally focused menu of seasonal dishes, such as Alberta lamb with baby turnips and butterball potatoes, along with a wine list that is as diverse as Toronto's residents. But it is New York chef David Chang's trio of recently opened Momofuku concept eateries that are Toronto's hottest tickets, namely Shoto, serving Asian cuisine as an ever-evolving, 10-coursetasting menu that require both ample time and a hearty appetite.

Living large
As Toronto's food scene rapidly evolves, it naturally follows that other attractions are upping their ante. Along with the Toronto International Film Festival, this city of festivals is becoming ever more known for its annual Nuit Blanche – or all night – arts fete in October, another autumn happening that transforms Toronto's downtown into a giant multimedia art venue, complete with retro dance parties and immersive light installations. And as host of the 2015 Pan American Games, a major athletic competition that will be completely carbon neutral as well as Canada's largest ever multi-sport event (with 8,000 athletes from 41 nations in 36 sports – twice the size of Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics), refurbishments are in the works citywide. Union Station, Toronto's metro hub, is in the middle of a complete overhaul, and a new slew of subway trains – put into service in 2011 – have replaced those that have been rocking the tracks since the 1950s and ‘60s.

Looking for a bit of culture? The National Ballet of Canada recently premiered a new rendition of Romeo and Juliet by acclaimed Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, and upcoming works include Swan Lake and Cinderella. For a secondary treat that is just as indulgent, swing by SOMA, a chocolate shop in Toronto's Distillery District and enjoy fiery Mayan liquid chocolate spiced with Madagascar vanilla and chilli. It is a bona fide game-changer, much like the city itself.

Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. This has been fixed.