Love is said to bind us together, at least this was true in the case of my cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago in Toronto. I flew the 1,506.9 miles from Bush Intercontinental to Pearson International, immediately meeting up with my extended Canadian and Guatemalan family.
It had been eight years since I’d visited Toronto, and I wanted to catch up with my dozens of cousins, who I met up with at the airport. Instead of resting up after our flights, we went straight to the famous Canadian National Exhibition, also known by the locals as The Ex.
The Ex is Canada’s largest annual community event. Founded in 1879, it’s still one of the biggest fairs in North America, showcasing the diverse cultures of Toronto. There are 17 different exhibitions including butter sculpting, a Canadian armed forces interactive area and the famous sand sculptures. You’ll likely want to check out the many rides, games and food—a s'mores fried chicken sandwich! Gold ice cream!—the fair has to offer.
That evening, my cousin (and the groom), Pancho, held a bachelor party on Richmond Street—one of Toronto's most famous streets, packed with places to eat, drink and shop—where 14 of us, both family and friends, met for dinner at Assembly Chef’s Hall. This food hall features 17 different chefs with cuisine ranging from traditional Canadian to Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American. We downed some amazing margherita pizza, and walked it off, for about 18 minutes, on the way to our next destination.
Toronto is a great walking city, but you can also easily take public transportation. I would recommend getting a day pass that costs $12.50 or the weekly pass which costs $43.73, ($34.75 for students and seniors). With those passes you may ride the buses, streetcars, subways and trains. You don't really need a car to get around in Toronto.
We landed on King Street West, in the trendy Fashion District, at a bar called SPiN, which is devoted to all things ping-pong. Despite being smacked by a fastball in the face—it did not leave a welt—I had a blast.
While there’s plenty of lodging in downtown Toronto, I stayed with my cousin in Stouffville, located about 30 miles northeast of Toronto. It´s a place that’s known for its history—it was home to several indigenous villages until Europeans, beginning with Abraham Stouffer, settled here in 1805, and for its corn, wheat and soy farming.
The town would likely be off the grid for a tourist, which is a shame, since Witchurch-Stouffville is filled with cafés, restaurants and small shops, and it’s located close to numerous hiking areas and natural parks. It even has its own dog park and skate park.
After a morning run, I stopped for a caramel latte at Red Bulb Espresso Bar, located on Stouffville’s main drag in a 19th century building, only to discover tons more runners and cyclists enjoying their cup of joe, too. This is an outdoor lover’s town.
Pancho’s wedding was held at the historic Palais Royale, a ballroom that’s played host to musicians including the great Duke Ellington and Count Baise. Undergoing a renovation in 2005, the 96-year-old building added a 4,000-square-foot tiered deck that overlooks beautiful Lake Ontario—a beautiful place for a wedding.
Pancho and his Italian bride, Nela, said their vows in front of nearly 200 guests. The Italian and Guatemalan families danced the night away, feasting on tacos from a cool little stand set up for us out front, and taking in the various speeches given in Italian, Spanish and English. A Guatemalan-Italian wedding in Canada? It’s just a trace of the diverse world we live in.
Before my short trip came to an end, I decided to venture out on my own into the city, taking a train to Union Station, which deposits you right in front of the famous Fairmont Royal York hotel. The one-way ticket from Stouffville to Toronto costs $10.45 and takes about an hour and 30 minutes.
So how much can you do in Toronto in one day?
On Yonge Street, I watched boats docking on Lake Ontario, most of them heading out toward the Toronto Islands, packed with tourists.
I made my way up York Street, known as the Financial District, akin to Wall Street. People here rush into Tim Horton’s for coffee, and executives grab power lunches or stop in for drinks at the Drake Mini Bar (not related to the singer, but to The Drake Hotel).
I ventured onward to Queen Street, where there are tons of shops, bars and record stores. The bookstore, BMV, caught my eye, as can find reasonably priced books here (books are more expensive in Canada, just FYI). I asked the guy at the register if there was a book that would give me a feel for Toronto. He recommended Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis.
In the afternoon, I met up with a cousin at the famed graffiti alley in Spadina. The alley is about half-mile long, with lots of art everywhere. I saw graffiti of a Blue Jays fan, and I just had to take a picture with my Astros gear.
A couple of blocks away from the graffiti alley is Poutini’s House of Poutine, which offers a variety of takes on the famed French fry dish, including a vegan option.
We ordered ours traditional, with the fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy, and then made our way to the Harbourfront to take in the skyline over Lake Ontario. We reminisced about our childhoods back in Guatemala, and the changes we had faced moving to America and Canada, respectively. Soon, it was getting late and I had to make it back to Soufville to pack for my return home to Houston.
But what do we call home, anyways? Is it the land we were born in? Is it where our family lives? I still don’t know, but my Canadian family helped me to see that I’ll have to keep exploring if I want to find out.