Visiting Toronto with children: The sights and highlights

Canadian flag in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Toronto makes an impression

If there was any question of whether our recent jaunt to Toronto made an impression, the answer came in my daughter’s homework the first week back at school. The assignment: write about “the best moment” of her holiday. She chose not the plethora of sites we saw in my old hometown New York City but an experience from our Toronto visit: walking, jumping and laying on the glass floor at the CN Tower, the world 2nd tallest building. “I wasn’t even scared,” she wrote…twice.

Previously I’d had a New Yorker’s arrogance about Canada’s biggest city, with 2.7 million people. Yeah, yeah, I thought. I’m sure it’s nice but it’s Not New York, is it? The truth is yes, it’s not, thank goodness. It’s a big friendly city, with walkable districts, low-slung buildings and — as homework demonstrates — kid-appeal. While there are run-down areas and derelict buildings, the attitude in the city is one of fresh optimism.

Exploring the Four Seasons flagship hotel

We were there to see the new Four Seasons Toronto. The city is the home for the worldwide luxury chain and in October 2012 this flagship hotel opened, in the Yorkville section of town, a former bohemian hangout in the Sixties. Now the area is a district that has a Seattle feel, with high-end shopping, cafes and restaurants. The hotel itself is next to a heritage firehouse and a short walk from revitalised Bloor Street and the Village of Yorkville Park. It’s light filled and stunning, with restaurants by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud and a pool with cityviews. (Look for my review of the hotel soon.)

Lobby, Four Seasons Toronto

The lobby of the hotel. The sculptures above the front desk are dandelions, a theme throughout the hotel

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Our bathroom in the suite. Every bathroom has a TV (visiblebehind the mirror) and Etro toiletries

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A superior room. This one overlooks the newly planted garden in the shape of a rose. To the right of the bed is a curved lounge seat

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We stayed in room 1612, a suite that could accommodate 2 adults in the bedroom and 2 children on the sofabed

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The spa and pool are on the 9th floor instead of tucked away in a basement. Accompanied children are welcome in the pool and hot tub.

We arrived at the hotel, got a quick tour, which you can see from pictures is gorgeous and modern without being severe, then walked 5 minutes to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Royal Ontario Museum: a don’t miss sight

Everyone kept going on and on about the dinosaur exhibit at the ROM. Oh right, dinosaurs, kids love those, right? Well, the ROM’s version is a don’t-miss. It’s an impressive collection set in airy galleries. The entire museum is full of striking and original exhibits. We also loved the “bat cave”, a fascinating walk-through exhibit with models and the sounds of bats, and a video of scientists in an actual bat cave that I could have watched for ages.

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Open-mouthed smiles from daughter, son and dinos at the ROM

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A beautiful and striking display of birds suspended as if in flight, that captivated my daughter

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This way to the “bat cave”

After that a Four Seasons driver whisked us to the CN Tower. Depending on your vertigo quotient, you can go up to the observation deck and step out onto the glass floor to see the world below your feet. We love to look down on others, so we went up to the Skypod, a further 33 storeys above the observation level (it costs an additional $12 Canadian per person). If that’s not thrilling enough, you can also take a an Edge Walk — walking around the outside of the tower, clipped on only by a harness. Just looking at the pictures makes my stomach flip. We instead had lunch at the 360 Restaurant.

CN Tower: Better than London’s version

If you’ve been to the BT Tower or similar places, you know the drill: a revolving restaurant in front of large windows looking out in every direction. Typically that means steep prices, mediocre food and an experience as exciting as dining on a lazy susan. Yet on the clear day we were there, we ate tasty prix fixe lunches ($55 adults, $30 children) overlooking Lake Ontario, squinting to see if we could pick out Niagara Falls, trying to see our hotel. I enjoyed my caesar salad starter, Atlantic salmon, and warm apple and cherry crumble; the children had penne pasta and either a big chocolate chip cookie and chocolate sundae. That is, when they sat down. My 14-year-old and 9-year-old only left the windows to eat their meals. Entry to the observation and glass floor levels are included with the prix fixe after your meal, plus you skip any queues and go straight up the tower.

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The revolving 360 restaurant in the CN Tower — not cheesy

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The position the children took up during most of lunch. Here, they look over the city and Lake Ontario

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Look ma, no hands. Laying flat on the glass floor at the CN Tower. My husband refused to set foot on it

An easy day trip to Niagara Falls

That evening we saw a production of Wizard of Oz with impressive production values, then the next day we did the hour and a half drive to Niagara Falls. I’d visited the falls as a child. The Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side, are an awe-inspiring site as water plummets 188 feet down and sends up a plume of mist. Going in the off season meant it was a chilly day (we had to buy a hat and some leggings for my daughter who wasn’t quite warm enough) but there were no crowds and we were able to get right next to the railing. The mist hit our faces and the roar filled our ears. Standing there was almost like meditating.

We went on the walk behind the falls (a short stint through tunnels actually behind the falls) and then drove down the road to Niagara Helicopters for a 10-minute flight over the Whirlpool, up the Niagara river and over both the American and Canadian falls. It was short but gives you a perspective of the falls overall. The kids were impressed. We were less enthused. We’d gone on a similar flight on our honeymoon, over the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, with a charismatic pilot, lots of great commentary and Ride of the Valkyries playing as we swooped over the edge of the canyon. The Niagara Helicopters website says these flights include commentary but we didn’t have any. For $137 per adult and $85 per child, you’d need to decide whether it was a once in a lifetime splurge or an indulgent frill.

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The Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side

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Ice partially blocks the view out of one of the viewing tunnels in the walk behind the falls

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Enjoying the helicopter ride over Niagara Falls

A side trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake

At that point, we opted to drive 20 minutes to Niagara-on-the-Lake for lunch. We passed winery after winery on the way there (if only the children could really appreciate a good sauvignon) and found ourselves on quaint Queen Street lined with restaurants, hotels and boutiques. We sat on a heated glassed-in patio and had a civilized lunch (fish and chips, macaroni cheese, glass of wine — that was me). Then we walked down the street and bought ice cream for the kids followed by marmalade for my father-in-law at Greaves, a local jam and marmalade business running since 1927 with a mind-boggling assortment of preservative-free jams. (If you want ice cream or sweets, this is the place to get it; I counted 5 in a three-block span.) There were also the most baroque versions of apples on a stick imaginable: candy-dipped, toffee-coated, studded with marshmallows or gummy sweets, gilded with Oreos. Get one if you dare.

Shopping in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Greaves has every kind of marmalade you could imagine and you’re never a stone’s throw from an ice cream parlour in Niagara-on-the-Lake

That evening we were back at the Four Seasons, eating at DB Bistro, Boulud’s restaurant with interior design by Rosalie Wise Sharp, the wife of Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp. The kitchen adapted an on-menu risotto to suit our 9-year-old and wooed the 14-year-old with his first ever steak with green peppercorn sauce. Breakfast in the restaurant the next morning was a rich eggs benedict, the “perfect” scrambled eggs and smoked salmon as defined by my husband, and pancakes which the children ordered three days in a row.

How I’d always like to fly

Then it was back to Billy Bishop City aeroport for the quick hour and a half flight back to New York City with Porter Airlines. The aeroport is right in the middle of the town (we watched planes land from the CN Tower).

You can fly direct to Toronto from Heathrow and Gatwick on British Airways, Air Canada and Air Transat. But it’s almost worth flying to Newark, New Jersey aeroport just to make the connection with Porter. I love these guys. At the aeroport they provide free wifi, tea, coffee, soda, water and biscuits. The prop planes are comfortable and clean. And you fly directly into a city-centre aeroport. If only every trip were like this.

In all, I had expected Toronto to be…perfectly nice. I underestimated it. It’s a cosmopolitan city with world-class attractions to satisfy denizens of London and New York like us. It’s also one of friendliness and warmth, even if you visit, like we did, in winter.

Resources for traveling with family to Toronto and Niagara Falls

Four Seasons Toronto, Toronto

Visit Ontario

Porter Airlines

Niagara Helicopters, Niagara Falls

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

We travelled as a guest of Four Seasons Toronto, Visit Ontario, and Porter Airlines. All opinions are my own. Photos by Jennifer Howze and Ben Wood.

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About Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is the co-founder of BritMums. She blogs about travel, family and London life at Jenography.net. Previously, she wrote the Alpha Mummy blog at The Times and as a journalist has contributed to The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Budget Travel, CNN.com, Allure, SELF and Premiere, among others. She won The Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a health article in Seventeen magazine.

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12 Responses to Visiting Toronto with children: The sights and highlights

  1. Karen 21 April 2013 at 21:56 #

    Ahhh, love reading this! I lived in Toronto in my twenties and we take my daughter back every year to visit her godmother, one our favourite places to visit with her is the ROM although we haven’t taken her up the CN Tower yet, plenty of time for that though as we are planing to emigrate there next year! Glad you had a lovely time. X x x

    • Jennifer Howze 22 April 2013 at 14:16 #

      I bet Toronto is a great place to be in your 20s. You’ll have to let us know what your daughter thinks about CN Tower.

  2. Trish 22 April 2013 at 08:29 #

    This has brought back great memories of our visit to Toronto in 2008. My son loved the CN Tower too, happy to walk on the glass floor.
    I loved Niagara-on-the-Lake. I think I said at the time I would love to retire there as it was so pretty, full of flowers and they have the Shaw festival in their three theatres: ideal for an AmDram nut like me.
    We did visit the wineries, came away with a couple of bottles of the famous Ice Wine.

    • Jennifer Howze 22 April 2013 at 09:13 #

      Sounds like we did practically the same itinerary. Were you there for family visit or pure holiday?

      I have to say, Niagara-on-the-Lake was a last-minute suggestion from one of the staff at the Four Seasons and it really capped off a fabulous day.

      • Trish 22 April 2013 at 10:53 #

        It was a family holiday, a fly-drive around Eastern Canada. We flew into Toronto and a Niagara tour was part of the itinerary. Picked up car after that and continued to Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal. Great holiday. Rory was 12 at the time and loved it.

        • Jennifer Howze 22 April 2013 at 14:16 #

          The Canadian countryside is so beautiful. It must have been a spectacular drive.

  3. Kirstie 23 April 2013 at 17:46 #

    You had me at the bit about the TV in the bathroom. Haven’t seen that anywhere before. And you sealed the deal with apples on sticks with Oreo toppings.

    But on a less shallow note, I love the scenery out there and we have always said if we were to move out of the UK we’d head to Canada. The landscape is as good as some of the National Parks of the USA, yet I find it a much more relaxed place.

    When we were out there our relatives gave us some ‘I love Canada’ T shirts. People thought we were Canadian for the rest of our travels and kept stopping to tell us how much they loved our nation. Then they found out we were Brits and weren’t quite so effusive in their welcome.

  4. Sarah Ebner 23 April 2013 at 17:47 #

    Really enjoyed this piece. Sounds a fantastic trip. I have always wanted to go to Canada – one day…

  5. Stephanie 23 April 2013 at 19:11 #

    Ahh, suddenly feel very homesick after reading that! I grew up in Niagara and lived in Toronto in my early 20’s

  6. that family feeling 24 April 2013 at 13:23 #

    Ahh…I feel the same way! I’m Canadian and grew up just outside of Toronto.

    We went back to North America last summer and took our 5 kids on a road trip from Toronto to Tennessee and blogged about it here: http://thatfamilyfeeling.com/the-abcs-of-a-successful-road-trip/ for anyone contemplating a road trip.

    The kids absolutely loved Toronto and would go back in a minute!

  7. MiddleenglandMum 28 April 2013 at 21:06 #

    Great post. I hadn’t realised you were in TO. I had a fantastic date nearly 20 years ago in that CN Tower restaurant. It still looks the same!

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