Three Perfect Days: San Juan - United Hub
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: San Juan

By The Hub team , December 29, 2015

Story by Nicholas Derenzo | Photography by Gabriela Herman | Hemispheres, December 2105

The Puerto Rican capital offers beautiful ocean views, pristine jungle, art and culture galoreâ and all the rum you can drink

San Juan is just five years short of its 500th birthday, but the old city shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the rainbow-hued, salsa-fueled energy that hums through the Puerto Rican capital is spilling over into rough-edged areas like Santurce, which is emerging as an incubator for artistic and culinary talent. Beyond the city limits, meanwhile, in tropical forests teeming with birds and flowers, you'll see that the city's spellbinding energy and color have an even older precedent. It's an essence that infuses every aspect of life here, and visitors are often surprised to find that, within hours of their arrival, it's in them, too.

Day 1 Graphic

In which Nicholas takes a poetic tour of Old San Juan and explores art (both visual and culinary) at the museum

If you've ever wanted to feel like a well-to-do conquistador, you could do worse than booking into the Hotel El Convento. The property is set in a mid-17th-century Carmelite nunnery, its rooms decked out in Colonial style, its courtyard shaded by a 300-year-old Spanish nispero tree, its windows opening onto the waterfront and the multicolored jumble of Old San Juan. Just beyond the bay is the Art Deco Bacardi distillery. I can't help but feel that this trifecta—history, sea, rum—may come to define my trip.

It doesn't seem prudent to start on the rum so early, so I begin my day by exploring history instead. To help me unpack the secrets of Old San Juan—set on a jam-packed, three-square-mile island—I've recruited Lady Lee Andrews, a 43-year-old local poet with cascading braids and curls. “I'm a born and raised sanjuanera," she says, as we hug hello on the steps of the hotel. “I'm like a tree. I'm rooted here."

Before we even begin our stroll, we encounter local legend Saúl Dávila, who famously wanders the streets selling armfuls of azucenas (white lilies). “This man here walks miles every day selling flowers, and he's been walking since I was a little girl," Andrews says as she buys a bunch. “We'll give these away as we go."

We cross the street and head into the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the second-oldest church in the Americas (after the basilica in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic). The original structure was built in the 16th century, though Andrews is quick to point out that, due to centuries of being pummeled by hurricanes, only the front steps are original.

These vicious storms, Andrews continues, have left a mark on the city's people as well. “With hurricanes, there's a sense of kinship," she says, laying a flower at the feet of Our Lady of Divine Providence, Puerto Rico's principal patroness. “When I was a little girl, I longed for September hurricane season, because all the neighbors would come out and help each other. It breaks that pattern of everyone being in their own worlds."

Lady Lee Andrews, poet, artist, and owner of the Poet's PassageLady Lee Andrews, poet, artist, and owner of the Poet's Passage

Outside, the narrow colonial streets of the casco, or Old Quarter, are a riot of color, down to the bluish cobblestones, made with iron furnace slag and once used as ballast on Spanish ships. Lining the roads are stucco houses, many with wrought-iron balconies, painted lime green and banana yellow, guava pink, and papaya orange (think New Orleans' French Quarter with the volume turned up). Interestingly, these bright hues are a relatively new addition to San Juan; the city government used to dictate permissible paint colors, and the palette was surprisingly muted.

We pass a mural of the azucena man and his trademark bouquet of lilies and duck into Restaurant Siglo XX, a small traditional diner that's been around since the mid-1950s. At this time of day, the obvious choice is a mallorca, a sweet bread roll stuffed with ham and cheese and crowned with enough powdered sugar to make a beignet blush.

“San Juan is a village. We're called the Island of Enchantment, and you won't leave without getting bitten." —Lady Lee Andrews

I've noticed that Andrews can barely walk a block without stopping to hug someone, though she insists that this says more about the neighborhood's character than her own. “The first time I went to France to visit my husband's family," she tells me as she stirs brown sugar into her café con leche, “I was shocked that he had lived in the same house his whole life and didn't know his neighbors. So, being the Puerto Rican that I am, I went over, banged on the door, and said hi. And now, 18 years later, they're best friends."

Our casco walk takes us past chattering wild parrots fighting over a pizza crust near the port and the baby-blue facade of La Fortaleza, a 16th-century fortification that serves as the governor's residence. At the end of the cliffside Calle del Cristo sits a tiny, age-mottled chapel, which has a story: This street once hosted dangerous horse races, in which the rider who got closest to the edge would win. One man plunged over and miraculously survived the fall, and local residents went on to build the Capilla del Santo Cristo to thank God.

El Yunque National Forest's Mount Britton observation towerEl Yunque National Forest's Mount Britton observation tower

We continue down Calle Fortaleza, past Barrachina, the restaurant where the piña colada was invented in 1963, and duck into Andrews' shop, Mi Pequeño San Juan, where she and her painter husband, Nicolas, create plaster replicas of local landmarks. Around the corner from here is her café, the Poet's Passage, its counter modeled after a roll-top desk, with slips of paper and pens on each table in case the spirit moves you. There's also a chihuahua named Federico García Lorca, a green parrot named Pablo Neruda, and a lovebird named Robert Frost. Another bird, Maya Angelou, died a couple of years ago—coincidentally, at around the same time as Maya Angelou the poet.

I say goodbye to Andrews and head to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, which is housed in a 1909 neo-classical hospital with a contemporary annex. While outside the limits of Old San Juan, it's an institution steeped in history. Like the building, the museum's Laurel Kitchen/Art Bar plays with the theme of old-meets-new. Here, Next Iron Chef contestant Mario Pagán lovingly remixes the flavors of his homeland.

“We're all about the pork," he says, dishing up pig-ear crackling with tamarind sauce and plantain mofongo. So begins a cascade of courses that include brie croquettes with papaya skin preserves; lamb alcapurrias (fritters) with mint pique aioli; pegao (crispy rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot) with blood sausage, caramelized fennel, avocado, and egg white; black Chilean sea bass with truffled yuca puree and a port wine and foie gras sauce; and, for a finale, a slab of guava goat cheesecake. “I hope you're going to take a long nap after this," Pagán says with a grin.

But no rest for the gastronomically weary. I'm meeting the museum's Venezuelan-born curator, Juan Carlos López Quintero, for a tour. The museum is organized according to themes rather than chronology—“You have 18th-century paintings next to photographs next to video installations"—which makes for a lively experience. It seems fitting that the first gallery we enter, after such a gluttonous lunch, is “Plátano Pride"—a collection of artworks celebrating the island's staple starch, including a portrait of a boy wearing a life-size gold plantain on a chain around his neck.

“The plantain has been an icon of Puerto Rican art since José Campeche," López Quintero says, leading me to the master's 1797 portrait of the governor's two young daughters. “For the first time, you have elements that belong to this country—the maracas, the pineapple." I'm particularly taken with a massive triptych nearby called The Garden of Intolerance by Arnaldo Roche Rabell, a local neo-Expressionist painter whose swirls of thickly applied paint call to mind a tropical van Gogh. It also seems a perfect representation of the island's noise and humidity and color—the “muchness" of Puerto Rico.

Santa Mar\u00eda Magdalena de Pazzis CemeterySanta María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

I find my appetite inexplicably whetted, so I drive a few minutes to Jose Enrique, an unassuming eatery set in a bungalow on the lively square La Placita. Enrique trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and was the first Puerto Rican chef nominated for a James Beard Award. He personifies a new wave of chefs here, but his hearty rustic fare—rice and red beans, tripletail fish fritters, deep-fried skirt steak topped with fried eggs, coconut pudding—would satisfy the most ardently traditionalist abuelita.

Before bed, I stop for a drink at La Factoría, whose pocked walls and dim lighting call to mind the kind of place where (heavily tattooed) revolutionaries might have gathered to talk shop. The feeling of intrigue is heightened by the nesting-doll layout, with different bars extending beyond a succession of unmarked doors. I sit beside a wall inscribed with “Hijos de Borinquen" (Borinquen being the island's pre-Columbian Taíno name) and sip a De Lo Mejor, a cocktail of housemade horchata, tequila, Cointreau, lime, and a smoky local rum, Ron del Barrilito.

This hip speakeasy vibe is spreading. Just next door is La Cubanita, a new bodega-inspired cocktail bar (its shelves ironically stocked with saint candles and bottles of Clorox) where you can order spirits mixed with fresh juices. My Guayabera (Barrilito, guava, lime, and sugar) is a great drink but a terrible nightcap, in that it makes me want to go dance the merengue rather than settle down. But it's been a long day. Maybe tomorrow.

Day 2 Graphic

In which Nicholas explores newly hip Santurce and enjoys an ocean-view dinner by a Michelin-starred chef in Condado

I've been in Puerto Rico only a day, but I'm already singing salsa tunes in the shower. I don't know any lyrics, so it's just coming out awkwardly like boom t-ting-ting, boom boom t-ting-ting. It's almost scary how contagious the energy is here.

Having explored the city's past, today I'm turning my attention to its future. Just over the bridge from Old San Juan is Santurce, a scrappy urban area that has become an enclave of street artists, chefs, activists, and gallerists. The word “Brooklyn" gets thrown around a lot, but a more apt comparison might be contemporary Berlin or '90s Soho.

La Factor\u00eda cocktail bar in Old San JuanLa Factoría cocktail bar in Old San Juan

I fortify myself with croquettes and fresh-baked bread at Panificadora Jerezana, the favorite bakery of local artist Martín Albarrán López. After breakfast, he drives me to La Productora, his industrial gallery on thrumming Cerra Street. The gallery got its name from the recording studios that once lined the block, churning out tropical music from the 1950s on. “This was the mecca, where salsa began," Albarrán López says. “But with iPods, the Internet, it all went down."

A few years ago, artists began to fill the void. “I don't know if you understand the word 'cojones,'" he says, “but we had the cojones to make it happen." A block from La Productora, Jaime Rodriguez Crespo crafts whimsical plastic replicas of island wildlife, such as blowfish and the ubiquitous chango (grackle), a gregarious cousin of the crow, which he depicts stealing onion rings and dog food—an ironic urban take on the pink flamingo lawn ornament.

Albarrán López shares his gallery with two other artists:Jotham Malavé, a realist painter currently exploring the theme of voyeurism through nighttime images of the suburbs, and Gil Ramos, a former lawyer with no formal training who makes wild collages with found objects, like bikinis and scraps of paper. “I try to make conversations with these humble, discarded materials," he says. “I get a kick out of watching these materials elevate themselves. I'm trying to escape the value society gives them." It's an apt metaphor for the way artists are transforming this once-maligned area.

Artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo takes on the half-pipeArtist Chemi Rosado-Seijo takes on the half-pipe

The district's streets burst with art too. Much of the graffiti is produced during the annual Santurce Es Ley festival, in which street artists from around the world are invited to use buildings as canvases. Works range from Pop Art to Banksy-like stencils to Alexis Diaz's surreal zoological murals, including a crow-octopus-human hybrid on a wall outside the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico.

Next, Albarrán López, Malavé, and Ramos take me to lunch at Soda Estudio de Cocina. Named for Argentine rockers Soda Stereo (on the stereo when we arrive), it's a funky spot with wall-size shrines to the band's late lead singer, Gustavo Cerati, and pinup queen Bettie Page. And if the decor seems ambitious, you should meet chef Hector Rosa. “We call it the New Puerto Rican Kitchen," he says, “the food of the future."

Rosa lets the market-fresh ingredients do the talking, often with a subtle twist: chorizo with guava, papaya, tomato, and avocado; fettuccine with chicharrones de pollo, satay sauce, and an alfredo-inspired celery root puree; and, for dessert, a bread pudding made from Krispy Kreme donuts that winks at the role of American mass culture on the island.

“Santurce is a zone that's been stigmatized, because the slaves and workers used to live here," Rosa tells me. “As raw as it is now, you don't always have a neighborhood where you know it's going to be amazing."

Fried red snapper at Soda Estudio de CocinaFried red snapper at Soda Estudio de Cocina

Not far from here is LAB: Laboratorio de Artes Binarios, a stark space bookended by modernist cement windows latticed with geometric concrete gratings. The vast space works well for Chemi Rosado-Seijo, whose latest project involves skateboarding on custom ramps around the world, spreading the dirt from his wheels in abstract swirls and loops. “The shape of the ramp, the person skating, the dirt from that country affect the colors," he explains. “It's abstraction and performance art and modernism together." Across the hall, Ricardo Morales Hernández paints massive monochromatic works that expand on his daughters' doodles.

It's only a five-minute drive from Santurce to my next stop, but the two places couldn't be less alike. Condado is a South Beach–esque stretch of condos and resorts, including the Condado Vanderbilt, a Spanish Revival property built in 1919 (by the firm behind Grand Central Terminal) and restored to full glory late last year. I'm having dinner at the hotel's 1919 Restaurant, a place of sleek leather chairs and mother-of-pearl chandeliers. The Michelin-starred chef here, Juan José Cuevas, combines influences from Spain and his native Puerto Rico. I grab a seat overlooking the sea and tuck into a plate of cochinillo (suckling pig) ravioli with burrata, caramelized eggplant, and Iberico ham, and a paella-inspired dish of rabbit, bomba rice, maitake, conch, and octopus.

I'm spending the night across the street at the Mediterranean-themed O:Live Boutique Hotel. This is where the Real Housewives of Atlanta stayed while in town, but don't expect paparazzi—or catfights. Inspired by the owners' wedding in Sorrento, the hotel feels like a sanctuary you'd find in Campania or Provence, with furnishings crafted from century-old reclaimed wood. It's a little shot of the Old World in a city that's become a vibrant symbol of what it means to be “new."

Day 3 Graphic

In which Nicholas scales a jungle peak (sort of) and goes birdwatching at the St. Regis Bahia Beach

Having immersed myself in urban San Juan, today I'm turning my attention to the nearby countryside—specifically El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, a 40-minute drive from the city. My tiny rental chugs up the side of a mountain, which gets denser and greener as I go. Pretty soon, I'm surrounded by waterfalls, prehistoric-looking ferns, soaring palms, and exotic parrots.

At the forest headquarters, I meet archaeologist Raymond Feliciano, who has offered to drive me around the park in his SUV. The selfie-stick crowd tends to keep to the main route, but Feliciano wants to show me another side of the forest: the top. Because my idea of mountain climbing is getting up the subway steps in one piece, we make the ascent by car rather than foot.

As we navigate a series of treacherous switchbacks, I mention how untouched the forest feels. “I wanted to get in a couple of dinosaurs," Feliciano says dryly, “which wasn't well received. But you do get the whole Jurassic Park experience." In fact, this land-that-time-apparently-forgot is mostly second-growth forest, planted by the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps following the ravages of erosion and misuse. Feliciano describes it as “created nature."

Raymond Feliciano, archaeologist, El Yunque National ForestRaymond Feliciano, archaeologist, El Yunque National Forest

Our destination is the 1930s Mount Britton observation tower, which looks like a giant rook from a chess set. We climb the spiral staircase and emerge onto a castellated roof overlooking a staggeringly epic expanse. From this height, you can see San Juan, as well as the islands of Vieques and Culebra. “On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Virgin Islands," Feliciano says.

Closer at hand is El Yunque Peak, the second-tallest mountain in the forest. “When the Spanish came to extract gold, the mountain was covered by a cloud," Feliciano tells me. “The Taíno natives called it yu-ke, the resting place of their god of creation. The Spanish heard yunque, which means 'anvil.' So now people come expecting to see an anvil." Anvil or no, it's easy to be swept up in the grandeur of it all.

“People see El Yunque as a spiritual, mystical landmark. It used to be called the Sacred Mountain. When the Forest Service tried to do timber in the '80s, they were up in arms. So we shifted from timber to recreation, and now it feels like a pristine area—what God created." —Raymond Feliciano

For lunch, I head to the nearby Luquillo Beach kioskos. These ramshackle eateries are a staple along Puerto Rican beaches, each serving its take on classics like alcapurrias de jueyes (crab fritters) and bacalaítos (fried salt cod pancakes). I stop at kiosk 20, Terruño, take a seat overlooking the palm-lined beach, and order a Medalla Light (a local light beer that's less than $2 a pop), a crispy rabbit turnover, and a snow-white dish of grouper cooked in rice and coconut milk.

From here, it's a 20-minute drive to the decidedly more elegant confines of the St. Regis Bahia Beach. Occupying 400-plus acres on a former coconut plantation bounded by two rivers, the resort is centered on the Plantation House, where I check in. I wander past a minimalist koi pond and into what feels like a grand private estate, where I'm immediately greeted with a rum punch.

Luxury, though, is only part of the story here. The St. Regis Bahia Beach is the first property in the Caribbean to be named a Gold-Certified Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International. “We function like a tiny national park," says resident ecologist Ashley Perez, who's waiting for me at the hotel's boathouse, ready to coax me into a two-person kayak.

Within minutes of paddling away from the dock, we're surrounded by a diverse array of wildlife, including a green heron, which responds to our presence with dramatic squawking. “He's cursing at us," she says with a laugh. “'You ruined my lunch!' They're very clever. They use tools—they throw sticks in the water as bait." We see egrets and chickenlike gallinules walking among mangrove roots on comically oversize feet. “I love the little sandpipers," Perez says, “because they always look like they're dancing."

A bird-loving Old San Juan localA bird-loving Old San Juan local

Then there's the feisty chango—the same bird that so inspired Santurce artist Jaime Rodriguez Crespo. These birds, Perez tells me, have a habit of whining and begging their parents for food even after they're old enough to feed themselves. “When Puerto Rican kids get really annoying," she says with a laugh, “their parents always say, 'Ay chango!'"

We dock the kayak and set out in a golf cart to explore the nonwatery part of the preserve, passing trees swollen with cementlike termite nests. Soon, a mongoose skitters across our path. “They're rare to see!" Perez exclaims. “Mongoose were brought to the island to kill rats. And now … Puerto Rico just has rats and mongooses."

The sun has started to set, so I freshen up in my suite's room-size rainforest shower, then head to dinner at the Plantation House. To get there, I navigate the boardwalks that crisscross the resort (better to leave the slithering blue ground lizards and lumbering iguanas below undisturbed), serenaded by a chorus of coqui frogs croaking the two-syllable refrain that gives them their onomatopoeic name. It's a sound that nearly every Puerto Rican I've met has said they'd miss if they ever left the island.

Spilling out onto a seafront veranda, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Fern is an exceptionally refined affair. After a refreshing watermelon julep and a dinner of roasted lobster with creamy corn and chili vinaigrette, I pop down to the lobby bar. Every St. Regis boasts a signature Bloody Mary (the drink was invented at the Manhattan flagship in 1934), and here it's the spicy Encanto Mary, infused with ají picante chilies, rimmed with crushed plantain chips, and garnished with plantain-stuffed olives.

The bartender catches me staring at the painting behind the bar, a monumental neo-Expressionist work depicting a Taíno native cutting through a plant-filled marsh in a boat. “It's an Arnaldo Roche Rabell," she says, and I'm reminded of something an art museum employee told me: “Puerto Rican art is colorful and loud and spicy and full of flavor—and so is our food, and so is our music, and so is all of our culture." Even in a place like this genteel bar, you can't escape the true essence of Puerto Rico.

Hemispheres senior editor NicholasDeRenzo never considered himself a rum guy until the whiskeylike Ron del Barrillito came salsa-ing into his life


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Marvelous sites to local hideaways: the expert’s guide to Toronto

By Nick Harper

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 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.

Ripleys Aquarium Ripleys Aquarium

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 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.

Casa Loma Casa Loma

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 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[9] . 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.

The essentials

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 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 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.


Taking action to make a global impact

By The Hub team , January 17, 2020

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

Help us (and Ellen DeGeneres) support wildfire relief efforts in Australia

By The Hub team , January 08, 2020

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.

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