Three Perfect Days: New York City
Story by Nicholas DeRenzo and Justin Goldman | Photography by Mark Hartman | Hemispheres September 2016
Everyone knows New York City. You've heard the names: the Big Apple, the City that Never Sleeps. You've heard Sinatra sing, “Start spreading the news," Biggie Smalls rap, “It was all a dream." You've seen King Kong climb the Empire State Building, Robert De Niro steer a taxi down Broadway, Meg Ryan moan in Katz's Deli.
And yet New York, perhaps more than any other city, is impossible to know, because it changes so fast. The last 15 years alone have seen downtown Manhattan rebuild and flourish, Brooklyn become so hip that it's now a cliché to use the borough as a cultural reference point, and the immigrant hub of Queens become lauded as a tourist destination.
Impossible to know? Maybe—but that's just what your humble correspondents have set out to do. We're both children of the outer boroughs (the Bronx for Justin, Staten Island for Nicholas) who spent our adolescent years in sunnier climes (California and Florida, respectively) but were drawn back here as adults. Each of us has spent the last few years rediscovering a city that both is our home and isn't, with the sort of hunger that only an outsider trying to establish himself as an insider can display. Can we call ourselves real New Yorkers? Who knows. But we can share what we've found—what's putting the new in New York—with you.
Manhattan: In which Nicholas and Justin take in the galleries at the new Whitney Museum, stroll the High Line, and drink cocktails in an old opium den
It's early morning, and we're standing under the Washington Square Arch, Manhattan's own Arc de Triomphe. The world's greatest city is at our feet—where to go? We look up Fifth Avenue, at the Empire State Building, then south across Washington Square Park, at the new World Trade Center. Maybe let's start with breakfast.
We cross the park, passing a TV shoot where Paul Giamatti poses for photos with elderly fans. We stop for a bit at the West 4th Street basketball courts to watch an early game, then head up to Christopher Street, past the Stonewall Inn, recently named the country's first national monument to LGBT history. Finally, a couple of blocks up 7th Avenue, we reach Dominique Ansel Kitchen.
The balconies at the Whitney Museum of American Art, above the West Side of Manhattan and the Hudson River
Inside the sunny patisserie, we meet Ansel, the French-born creator of the most talked-about baked good since, well, sliced bread: the Cronut. Three years after its invention, the doughnut-croissant hybrid still commands blocks-long morning lines at Ansel's Soho bakery, but at this year-and-a-half-old West Village outpost the only Cronuts in sight are the ones on the chef's iPhone case.
“I eat one of these every morning," Ansel says, handing us hot-from-the-oven brown sugar DKAs, or Dominique's Kouign Amanns—a caramelized croissant-dough Breton specialty. He follows this up with a warm Applejack-glazed cinnamon spun roll, meant to taste—from end to end—like the center (read: best) part of a regular cinnamon roll.
“I've been in New York for a little over 10 years, so I'm officially a New Yorker!" Ansel says with a broad smile. “New Yorkers are so well traveled, so open-minded, really curious, and not afraid of trying new things. It doesn't matter where they're from or what they grew up eating, they're here to explore, and that's the beauty of New York."
Apothéke, a sultry cocktail lounge in a former opium den
Along with having great taste in food, New Yorkers are famously attuned to the arts; Manhattan alone is home to at least a half dozen world-class museums. The one garnering the headlines lately is the Whitney Museum of American Art, which moved last spring from its stodgy Upper East Side digs to a $422 million, Renzo Piano–designed structure in the trendy Meatpacking District. The current main exhibit,
Human Interest, is a multimedia survey of portraiture from the museum's permanent collection, such as Rosalyn Drexler's Marilyn Pursued by Death and Urs Fischer's eight-foot-tall melting-candle sculpture of Julian Schnabel.
In front of Andy Warhol's Double Elvis, we meet the museum's chief curator, Scott Rothkopf, who tells us about the Whitney's recent move. “We feel like we have not just expanded our museum but have become part of a hugely changing psychogeography of New York," he says. “The way people think about the city has really changed, and the way they move around it and the places they visit."
A few steps from the museum exit, we ascend the steel stairs of the High Line, a park built atop a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of abandoned railroad track, which has revitalized Manhattan's West Side and inspired urban planning throughout the world. We stop into Friends of the High Line co-founder and executive director Robert Hammond's office, a glass box suspended over the edge of the old railway. After waving to a group of schoolkids below, he tells us about the unexpected success of the park that he started working on in 1999 and which opened a decade later.
Robert Hammond, co-founder and executive director, Friends of the High Line
“We hoped it would have 300,000 visitors a year, and we get 7.5 million," Hammond says. “We were ambitious, but we weren't thinking it was going to be one of the top tourist destinations in New York." He glances out at the Standard Hotel, which straddles the park. “The reason the High Line works is it's not an escape from the city. You feel the city, but you're slightly removed. It's a different way of thinking about New York."
We're starting to feel peckish, so Hammond directs us beneath the tracks to Santina, another glassy Piano-designed space, which is owned by the park but run by the restaurateurs behind über-popular Italian red-sauce joints Parm and Carbone. Murano-chandeliered Santina proffers lighter fare: cecina, or chickpea pancakes, with Calabrian tuna tartare; a show-stopping crudité served in a terra-cotta cauldron; and a crispy sea-bass sandwich with capery tartar sauce.
Feeling contento, we reenter the High Line and stroll uptown, thick prairie grass and flowers on either side. We pass tourists wiggling their toes in a fountain, photographers shooting models for magazines, and Sleepwalker, a sculpture of a somnambulant man in tighty whities that's so lifelike a teenager exclaims, “Is that guy real?" At 17th Street, we perch for a few minutes on the amphitheater-style seating before a large window, looking down on the yellow cabs streaming up 10th Avenue—“like Space Invaders," as Hammond says.
“The High Line is a microcosm of what's happening in New York. It was built as a freight line, then it was wild, now it's back to the public. Why the park really works is it kept some of that industrial history. It gives an authenticity and a connection to the industrial heritage of New York City. The city's always changing, but keeping some of those connections is important." —Robert Hammond
Red-brick apartment buildings and warehouses soon give way to the blue-glassed towers of Hudson Yards, an ongoing $20 billion redevelopment of old railyards. Here, we take the long escalator down into the Hudson Yards subway station—the city's newest, but not its most opulent. That distinction belongs to the Oculus, where we exit after a brief ride downtown. The centerpiece of glossy new transit centers and a high-end Westfield mall, the Oculus is a $4 billion, Santiago Calatrava–designed terminal that looks like a hockey rink wearing the Statue of Liberty's crown. Visible through a long skylight is One World Trade Center, or the Freedom Tower, a 1,776-foot monument to the city's resilience.
Resilience requires energy, which requires sustenance, so we're off to thrumming Houston Street—the pronunciation of which is perhaps the truest test of local vs. tourist—for dinner at Estela, which fed President Obama in 2014 and is one of only three NYC spots on this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Unlike most of the jacket-required establishments on that list, Estela, set above a dive bar, is decidedly unstuffy. But who needs outsized ambience when you've got Uruguayan chef Ignacio Mattos working his magic?
We ask our waitress for a recommendation, and she launches into a monologue: “You must have the cured fluke with sea urchin. You must have the mussels escabeche. You must have the beef tartare. You must have the fried arroz negro. You must have the ricotta dumplings." She grimaces at her last two suggestions: “They're both starches, but I can't imagine coming here and not getting either of them." The preparations are simple, but every dish comes with a surprise. The tartare is leavened with crunchy fried bits of sunchoke; the mussels sit atop a verdant cilantro jus that's bright and refreshing enough to slurp by the spoonful.
Nightfall has locals swarming into theaters. While Broadway gets all the press (and tourist bucks), downtown is full of cool shoebox spaces and experimental companies. We skip Hamilton and head to the hit musical's birthplace: the off-Broadway Public Theater, a city institution since 1954 that runs programs like free Shakespeare in the Park. We enter the theater's cabaret space, Joe's Pub, for performance artist Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a work-in-progress that will eventually dedicate an hour to each decade from 1776 to today. Mac, who was named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, represents the best of new New York: steeped in history but squarely focused on the future.
Museum patrons on a balcony at the Renzo Piano–designed Whitney
For a post-performance drink, we cab it to Chinatown's Doyers Street, a crooked alley once known as “the Bloody Elbow" for the unwholesome activities that took place here. We step through an unmarked doorway and into Apothéke, a sultry cocktail lounge in a former opium den. We order cocktails from the prescription-themed menu: From the “Stress Relievers" section, we get a Siren's Call (Ford's gin, roasted seaweed, cucumber, squid ink, ginger, black smoked sea salt); from “Pain Killers," it's a Catcher in the Rye (rye, amaro Nonino, honey cordial, chamomile bitters, peated scotch mist). They taste so good that we don't notice how strong they are until it's too late.
In need of something to sop up those drinks, we pop next door to Apothéke's Mexican-themed sister bar, Pulqueria, for roasted jackfruit tacos and tuna crudo tostadas. It would have been a great preemptive hangover remedy—except that the restaurant also serves a mean mezcal Negroni. Oops.
From here, it's a 15-minute stumble to our hotel, The Beekman, which debuted this summer in a 19th-century office building on the site of the theater that staged the North American premiere of Hamlet, back in 1761. A few drinks deep, we gaze at the night sky through the pyramidal skylight that tops the hotel's nine-story Gilded Age atrium, which is fretted with ornate ironwork. Shakespeare would have loved this place.
Queens: In which the guys see the city in miniature, munch their way through America's most diverse neighborhood, and meet the new Mets
We start today the way millions of New Yorkers do every day: on a train. Specifically, we ride the 4 up to Grand Central Terminal, where, after a quick glance up at the famed constellation-decorated ceiling, we hop on the 7 and cross under the East River into the booming Queens neighborhood of Long Island City.
We're both flagging, so we grab brews and croissants at Birch Coffee, and then drop our bags at the Boro Hotel. The family-owned property, which opened last summer, plays up the industrial-chic feel of the neighborhood with steel beams wrapping around the building like stylized scaffolding. We pause on the balcony of our 12th-floor corner room to take in the view of the city, from the skyscrapers of Midtown to the low-slung buildings of Queens and the elevated train tracks that cut through them. Time to get back on one of those.
Storefronts in Jackson Heights's Little India
After 40 minutes of watching the world whip by through the 7's windows, we arrive at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. A short walk takes us to the site of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs. It's already hot, but the mist from the fountains below the Unisphere, a 120-foot-tall steel model of the Earth, offers a cooling respite. Three fellow parkgoers climb right in, but we restrain ourselves.
Just past the Unisphere, we find the Queens Museum, in a building that was constructed for the 1939 World's Fair and underwent a
$69 million renovation a few years ago. The centerpiece of the collection here is the Panorama of the City of New York. Championed by controversial city planner Robert Moses, the Panorama is a detailed rendering of the five boroughs built to a 1:1,200 scale (so the Empire State Building is only 15 inches tall). We circle the glass walkway above the model, pointing out personal landmarks—the Bronx and Staten Island neighborhoods where we were born, our current Brooklyn homes—punctuating most sentences with, “This is awesome."
For lunch, we take a short train ride to Jackson Heights. This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country—167 languages are said to be spoken here—and with that diversity, of course, come great eats. To help us sift through those offerings, we've enlisted Jeff Orlick, a CBS news production crewman and restaurant beverage director who organizes an annual Tibetan dumpling tasting contest here.
Jeff Orlick, beverage director, Little Tibet; organizer, Momo Crawl
“I moved here because of the food," Orlick says as we stroll along Roosevelt Avenue, his home of nine years. He pauses as a train rattles overhead. “Food is the best way to put yourself into another culture." The first culture we encounter is Filipino, in the one-block Little Manila. We stop at Fiesta Grill, a
turo turo (Tagalog for “point point") counter, named for how you order. First we point at the turon, a sweet banana and jackfruit eggroll, then we point at the bopis. “That's for the adventurous," the guy behind the counter says as he spoons a hash of pig heart and lung into a bowl. It turns out fortune does favor the bold, because the chopped offal is actually delicious.
From there, we pass a clutch of Thai spots and cross Diversity Plaza, the storefronts now bursting with colorful Bangladeshi signs. We grab a jhal muri (puffed rice, chickpeas, spicy mustard oil) from an 87-year-old street cart vendor and eat as we walk, the signage around us changing to Tibetan and Nepali. We eat Tibetan beef dumplings, or momos, while leaning against the Amdo Kitchen food truck, the winner of last year's Momo Crawl, then cross the street to Bhancha Ghar, where we eat sel roti, a sort of cross between naan and a doughnut. “This is like the food you get in Kathmandu," Orlick says. “Meeting the people here inspired me to go there. It was incredible."
Across 75th Street, Spanish signs prevail. Roughly half the people on the street are wearing Colombian soccer jerseys. “During the last World Cup, Colombia was doing well, and the street was going crazy," Orlick recalls. “People were throwing bags of flour and stuff." We stop into the Arepa Lady restaurant, which grew out of an immensely popular street cart, and we have arepas de queso and chocolo, two preparations of the fried corn and cheese staple, which we wash down with the juice of the South American lulo fruit.
“Everyone in the world wants to come to the United States. Where do you go in the States? New York. There's nothing like Queens's Roosevelt Avenue in the world. It's so intimidating. Everyone's speaking a different language, and it's just so much. But the people are really open." —Jeff Orlick
We're done, right? Nope. Orlick steers us into a bodega, and we squeeze down a narrow aisle to a seafood counter, La Esquina del Camarón Mexicano, for shrimp and octopus cocktail in a sweet tomato sauce. Then we all agree to never eat again.
Understandably, we need to sit for a while, and we've got just the place: Citi Field, the Flushing home of the New York Mets. The Yankees may be the iconic local baseball team, but the Mets have recently surpassed the Bronx Bombers in popularity, thanks to their superior stadium—which was inspired by Ebbets Field, the long-ago home of the Brooklyn Dodgers—and their exciting squad, which made it to the World Series last year. Today, the Mets have a Fall Classic rematch with the champion Kansas City Royals, and they win 4-3 behind Noah Syndergaard, a 24-year-old pitcher nicknamed Thor for his long blond locks, 6-foot-6 frame, and 98-mph fastball.
Evening is coming on as we file out of the ballpark, surrounded by happy throngs in blue and orange. We head back to the waterfront and Socrates Sculpture Park, home to a collection of inspired installations, highlighted by Jessica Segall's Fugue in Bb, which transforms an upturned piano into an active beehive.
A barista at The Lot Radio
We watch the sun dip behind Manhattan's snaggled skyline, then head off to break our halfhearted fast. Dinner is at Long Island City's Mu Ramen, a 22-seat space that reflects the area's avant-globalism. South Korean–born, Orthodox Jewish–raised, Per Se–trained chef-owner Joshua Smookler tweaks the noodle-bar formula on his menu, which includes foie-gras-and-brioche-stuffed chicken wings and cornmeal and scallion “okonomiyaki" with smoked trout, tobiko, and foie maple syrup. Under wooden slats that call to mind the ribs of a ship, we tuck into bowls of oxtail-and-bone-marrow broth served with corned beef and addictive “crack kimchi," washed down with a few green-tea-and-wasabi-infused Baird Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ales.
In search of a nightcap, we walk across Long Island City to Dutch Kills, a speakeasy from the team behind Milk & Honey, the now defunct lounge that spurred the city's cocktail revolution. Outside, there's simply a sign that says “BAR." Inside, it's all atmospheric candlelight and dark wood booths shrouded by heavy red curtains. As we're ordering Tiger Chilled Coffees (rum, cinnamon syrup, allspice liqueur, cold-brew coffee, whipped cream, absinthe) we notice that the menu offers meat pies from M. Wells, the acclaimed Québécois steakhouse nearby. We've already consumed 10,000 calories today, so what are a few more? Bring us the pies.
Brooklyn: In which the guys see the city's bridges from above and below, yuk it up with an SNL cast member, and find a bar at the end of the world
We shouldn't have had the pies. Lumpenly, we make our way across the Pulaski Bridge and down into the world's trendiest neighborhood: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Our first stop is the William Vale Hotel, a 22-story angled white tower that opened this summer. Situated across the street from Brooklyn Bowl and the Brooklyn Brewery, two early harbingers that “cool" could cross the river, the hotel is a symbolic final step in the Manhattanization of the neighborhood. But it's hard to find fault with this when you're standing on the hotel rooftop, with no other building to obstruct your view, the whole of the city at your feet.
To get our wheels turning, we walk along the edge of McCarren Park to the most “Brooklyn" coffee shop imaginable. The Lot Radio is a black shipping container plunked down in a flamingo-studded, triangular gravel lot. One side of the container sells coffee from Brooklyn roaster Luft; the other has a booth where a rotating cast of DJs spin records.
The East River Ferry passes under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges
For breakfast, we head up Bedford Avenue and cross into Greenpoint, a Polish neighborhood that has seen its own cool quotient rise in recent years. (HBO's zeitgeisty Girls films here.) At the corner of Manhattan Avenue, across from a graffiti mural of The Simpsons sax player Bleeding Gums Murphy, we find Frankel's Delicatessen. The restaurant is the work of two Jewish brothers from the Upper West Side—one a chef, the other an indie pop musician—who wanted to recreate the classic New York Jewish deli. They've certainly got the look right: The storefront recalls the restaurant from Seinfeld, and the back-lit signs inside are a tribute to Lower East Side mainstay Russ & Daughters. And the food? Oy gevalt! We split a pastrami, egg, and cheese sandwich; an everything bagel with pastrami-cured salmon and scallion cream cheese; and mini latkes with applesauce and sour cream. As we eat, co-owner Zach Frankel comes out from behind the counter to tell us why Jewish delis matter.
“There's a grittiness to the Jewish deli that resembles New York," Frankel says. “People of every single race and religion have a relationship with this food. It's not just white Jews from New York. I get black dudes who grew up going to Katz's with their dads, Asian dudes who grew up eating this food. Being able to provide that to another generation makes me really happy."
A short stroll takes us to the condo-lined Williamsburg waterfront, where we board the East River Ferry. Alongside sailboats and jet skis, we cruise beneath the steel Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the stately stone Brooklyn Bridge. There's something magical about seeing the city from out here, but it's short-lived. Within minutes, we're stepping off at the Fulton Ferry Landing and into 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened in 2010 with a mission to revitalize a blighted stretch of East River piers. The park is filled with visitors snapping shots of the bridges, but it's the locals that are out in droves today. Kayakers skirt the rocky banks. Pickup ballers shoot hoops on the repurposed piers. Climbers scale artificial rock walls. Kids ride the restored 1922 Jane's Carousel. At the park's southern end, we stop at Martin Creed's 25-foot-tall rotating red neon Understanding sign, then reward ourselves for a walk well done with cones from Ample Hills Creamery, a local mini-chain that takes its name from a poem by long-ago Brooklyn resident Walt Whitman—who might be the only self-conscious-artist type who can honestly claim that he was into the borough before it was cool.
Sasheer Zamata, comedian, Saturday Night Live
In search of something a bit more substantial, we retrace our steps to cobblestoned Old Fulton Street and one of New York's best pizzerias, Juliana's. Patsy Grimaldi's place is the product of one of the city's most bitter feuds, sparked when he sold his longtime restaurant, Grimaldi's, and then, years later, after it moved next door, opened Juliana's in the original space. Nowadays, tourists line up for Grimaldi's, but locals go to Juliana's. Under a white brick wall adorned with Sinatra kitsch, we try a prosciutto-and-arugula-topped pie. It's hot, crunchy, and wafer-thin, and goes great with our Brooklyn-brewed Sixpoint ales. “So," says our waiter at the end, “you'll be back tomorrow, right?" Considering that the
Hemispheres office is right down the street, yeah, probably.
In need of another post-gorge constitutional, we take a cab down Flatbush Avenue to Grand Army Plaza. We hop out and walk under the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch—Brooklyn's answer to the Washington Square Arch—and into Prospect Park. The 585-acre greenspace was designed in 1865 by the fathers of Manhattan's Central Park, one of whom, Frederick Law Olmsted, is rumored to have called the wilder Brooklyn version his masterpiece. The meadows are packed with picnickers, so we head for the quieter Brooklyn Botanic Garden, along the park's eastern edge. Standing on a footbridge watching carp swim in the Japanese garden's pond, it's easy to forget that the horn-honking chaos of Flatbush is barely a stone's throw away.
“The way New Yorkers speak is very funny, because it's a lot of honesty and also, like, no time. None of us has time, for whatever reason. We're all very busy and have to go, so everything is succinct and to the point. It's very truthful, and you get right to the heart of whatever you're saying." —Sasheer Zamata
We skirt the northern border of the park, past the Beaux-Arts Brooklyn Museum, and stop to admire the 40-foot gateway of the Brooklyn Public Library. We compete to see who can identify the Art Deco bronze reliefs that decorate the entrance—Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, Poe's Raven—then continue along Vanderbilt Avenue and into the tree-lined neighborhood of Prospect Heights, where we grab happy-hour Champagne cocktails at subway-tiled Weather Up.
Prospect Park's famous designer lends his surname to the borough's buzziest new restaurant, just a few blocks down Vanderbilt. At Olmsted, chef Greg Baxtrom turns the farm-to-table model on its head, bringing the table to the farm. We start in the backyard garden, which features such rustic trappings as a quail coop and a crawfish-filled bathtub. As we snack on tempura-fried fiddlehead ferns, our dreadlocked waitress pours glasses of Azienda Agricola Denavolo Catavela, a white wine from Emilia-Romagna that boasts a barnyard funkiness that fits the surroundings. “'Grandpappy's boot' is a hard descriptor for some," she says, smiling, “but I love those skunky, funky, suitcase-and-rubber-band wines."
Back inside, we grab seats next to the open kitchen, where we chat with literary-minded line cooks about Richard Price and Jonathan Franzen as they prep radish-top gazpacho with smoked trout, dry-rubbed scallop skewers with creamed corn and green garlic, and guinea hen served two ways—roasted and confited—with morels and ramps.
From this eco-friendly spot, we take a short taxi ride to an infamous Superfund site. While the Gowanus Canal has tested positive for unimaginably foul pathogens (seriously, don't Google it), a major cleanup is now underway, and the neighborhood named after the industrial waterway has become a spawning ground for creative endeavors. One of these is the Bell House, a comedy club and music venue set in a 1920s printing warehouse. Inside, we meet Sasheer Zamata, a Saturday Night Live cast member who lives nearby, in Fort Greene.
Crashing the board at the West 4th Street basketball courts
“I'd been doing comedy in Brooklyn for years before I got on
SNL, so it feels like a nice routine," she says as we settle in backstage. “Also, I love days that I don't have to leave the borough." And, because Brooklyn is such a ripe source for comedy, she really doesn't need to. “There's a man who rides a bike with a cat on his head and holds the leash in case it falls or something," Zamata says with a chuckle. “Just the other day, I went to the park and a man brought a fake tree to put in the ground so his two parrots could perch on it."
Zamata takes her leave to complete her pre-show ritual: reciting a sonnet from Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. We join the sellout crowd, and soon she and an all-star cast of local comics—Broad City's Ilana Glazer, Horace and Pete's Liza Treyger, The Daily Show's Roy Wood Jr.—have us howling in our seats.
As our fellow comedy fans wander off to the trendy bars of Gowanus, we hail a cab, because there's really only one place for this night, this story, to end. We ride into the isolated waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook—under the highway, through a housing project, over cobblestones—to Sunny's Bar. The watering hole was once a haunt for the stevedores who plied Red Hook's long-forgotten docks, and it later became an unlicensed social club for artists and weirdos. Sunny Balzano, the bar's beloved owner, died earlier this year, and it's now run by his widow, Tone Johansen, who hosts a raucous bluegrass jam in the back. After we sing along to a klezmer-inspired, minor-key version of “This Land Is Your Land," we step outside to see the Statue of Liberty shining in the harbor. New York may be changing faster than ever, getting newer all the time, but this old bar and that old statue are here to remind us that this city was made for you and me.
Like most New Yorkers, Hemispheres editors Nicholas DeRenzo and Justin Goldman often talk about moving to a calmer town. But they never will.
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Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.