By Daniel Jaffe
Tired of the classic vacationing spots in the United States? Don’t want to deal with lengthy flights or overly expensive destinations? There’s a simple solution: Toronto, Canada. Located about 350 miles away from New York, Toronto has much to offer as an accessible and exciting trip location.
Regarding the travel options, there are two main choices, each with their own benefits. For a shorter commute, there are endless flights from the various tri-state area airports into Toronto’s Pearson or Billy Bishop airports. The flight itself is around an hour, and often feels even quicker.
Pearson is the largest and most commonly used airport, and is generally closer to the hotels and Jewish neighborhoods. If the option is available, Billy Bishop is located on a small island in Lake Ontario, and offers a fun and unique landing experience that is definitely worth the extra travel.
For those who don’t mind long drives, or want to save the expenses that come with flights, the drive up north is more manageable than it may seem. The ride is about eight to nine hours from New York, often depending on traffic. Moreover, the drive can easily be enhanced with plenty of enjoyable stops. Besides the many classic roadside rest stops found right off the highway, the back end of the drive offers two great cities.
The first, about a half hour before the border and five hours into the drive, is Buffalo, New York. Most typical long car rides are paired with limited snacks and subpar meal situations, but Buffalo’s Tops supermarket can help avoid that issue. Besides offering many classic kosher snacks, the market has a bakery with delicious kosher pastries. The store’s best feature is Nissan’s Deli in the back. With plenty of meat options, you can enjoy a fresh meal about midway through your drive.
The second city, located both right before and after the border, is Niagara Falls. An inevitable outcome of the long drive to Canada is the late nights on the road, and Niagara Falls serves as a great overnight stop, with plenty of hotel options and great views. For those in no rush to reach Toronto, Niagara Falls also offers endless opportunities for family fun and exploration, with both activities connected to the falls themselves, as well as plenty of other attractions on Clifton Hill.
There are a few things to make note of when traveling anywhere in Canada, Toronto included. The first is that to enter the country, either by plane or by driving, there will be border patrol, and valid travel identification is required. Passports are the easiest option, but there are other alternative methods should passports be an issue.
Additionally, it is worthwhile to remember the various numerical differences used by Canada. Like most other countries, Canada uses celsius and meters instead of fahrenheit and feet. This is important for those opting for the driving route, as signs indicate the speed limit in “kilometers per hour” and not “miles per hour.”
Canada also has its own dollar, which is worth slightly less than its American counterpart. In the Niagara Falls area, American money is generally accepted, but once you get to Toronto, cards or Canadian cash are preferred.
Toronto is a large city, and determining what you are looking for on your vacation can help decide the best area to stay in. No matter where you choose to stay, other areas of Toronto are all reachable within at most a 40-minute drive.
Since Toronto is a large city, finding an ideal hotel is not necessarily difficult. However, many hotels are situated in the busier, urban areas, and often require a 10-20 minute drive to the major Jewish neighborhoods. Two of these neighborhoods are Thornhill and North York, both great options when looking for either shuls or kosher restaurants.
In Thornhill, there are many options for davening, most notably Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto. Better known as The BAYT, the shul is one of the largest in North America and contains multiple minyanim options. The shul’s beautiful interior and grand design help establish it as the premier davening location.
Another staple of Thornhill is the Promenade Mall, which can be found just down the road from The BAYT. Besides having plenty of stores, the Promenade includes numerous kosher food options. For more casual dairy food, you can find Centro Cafe located in the food court on the bottom floor. If you want a formal, sit-down dairy restaurant, Cafe Sheli can be found right outside the mall. The Promenade also includes a movie theater and even a small shul with minyanim throughout the day.
Kosher food in Thornhill can also be found outside the Promenade. For a taste of Israel, Bali Laffa offers the classic falafel and shawarma options. If you’re looking for burgers and fried chicken, Sheli’s (not to be confused with Cafe Sheli), is the place to go.
North York, found a little south of Thornhill, offers a very similar experience. For pizzeria options, you can look to Tov-Li or Slice N’ Bites. At Tov-Li, I highly recommend trying the popular Canadian dish: poutine. I always find that only Canadians truly know how to perfect the combination of fries, cheese and (fake) gravy, so trying it while in Canada is a must. Although the dish can appear quite unappetizing, I promise it tastes better than it looks.
One thing to be aware of is the closing times of the kosher restaurants in Toronto. Many restaurants unfortunately close on the earlier side, and given their distance from the bulk of the activities downtown, it is important to plan accordingly. However, The Chicken Nest, a meat restaurant in the North York area, has a later closing time, and is a great option should dinner get delayed.
Like Thornhill, North York also has a great shopping center located nearby called Yorkdale. Unlike the Promenade, Yorkdale is massive, even measured as one of the largest in the country. With nearly 300 different stores to choose from, Yorkdale is the place for those who love to shop. Yorkdale also has a movie theater and occasional exhibits, with two recent examples centered around the television shows “Friends” and “The Office.”
Also located a small ways outside of North York is the Ontario Science Museum. This is a particularly great trip for kids, as the Museum’s exhibits are interactive and kid-friendly. The exhibits also do a particularly great job of balancing entertainment with education, making the museum a perfect outing for all ages.
One last possible activity in the Toronto area is Canada’s Wonderland, the largest amusement park in the country. On top of the many thrilling roller coasters and children’s rides, there is a water park area for a more refreshing ride experience. The Leviathan is a fan favorite, and ranks as one of the tallest and fastest roller coasters in the world.
While these two areas are focused on the Jewish aspect of traveling to Toronto, if you are looking for other activities, downtown Toronto is where you can find them. The most notable of these attractions is the CN Tower. Located right off the water, the CN Tower is Toronto’s signature building, with its iconic tip visible from just about anywhere in the city.
The main appeal of the tower is the sky deck, with a panoramic view that is quite difficult to replicate. In addition to the classic view, the tower also includes a glass floor, presenting the slightly terrifying feeling of standing on nothing but thin air. For the even more daring, there is also EdgeWalk, which lets you walk on and lean over the outdoor edge of the tower.
Right next to the CN Tower are two more of Toronto’s main attractions, Ripley’s Aquarium and Rogers Centre. With 10 different sections and around 20,000 different animals, the aquarium is filled with exhibits to see. The aquarium contains all sorts of sea life, with sharks, stingrays and jellyfish, to name a few. Along with creative observation angles, such as tunnels and domes, as well as various play areas for children, the aquarium does a great job keeping everyone engaged.
Another activity found in downtown Toronto is attending a game of the city’s four major sports teams. Rogers Centre, home of the MLB’s Blue Jays, is located right next to the CN Tower. If visiting during the winter and spring months, ScotiaBank arena offers two teams, the Raptors of the NBA and the Maple Leafs of the NHL. For a more out-of-the-box sporting event, the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League play their home games in BMO Field, also located in the downtown Toronto area. Canadian Football is similar to its American counterpart, but has some unique changes that give the game an added twist.
If you are a sports fan but the team schedules don’t correspond with your own, downtown Toronto is also home to the National Hockey Hall of Fame. Besides laying out the fascinating league history and player accolades, there are plenty of fun interactive activities to do as well. Whether it be shootout challenges against an electronic goalie or table hockey to play against your family and friends, the Hall of Fame has no shortage of what to do.
On my own trips to Toronto, I’ve been lucky enough to travel as a relative and not a tourist. Therefore, my knowledge of certain details of a typical vacation, like hotels and routes, is limited. I’ve been to Toronto too many times to count, by both plane and car, in the summer and in the winter, alone and with family. No matter the circumstances, I always find my trip enjoyable, and I’m optimistic that yours can be, too!
Daniel Jaffe is a Jewish Link summer intern.