We came to a crossroads fairly early on in our trip. East coast or west coast? Canada is pretty unique in that almost its entire population is based on one coast or the other, with very few big cities in between. All of the advice we received from friends and family was to pick one – east or west, then visit the other in the future, if you got the chance.
The problem here was that we both wanted a different side. T was obsessed with the idea of seeing whales in Vancouver, while I wanted to visit the cool foodie spots of Toronto. The other, slightly bigger, problem was that we also really wanted that middle bit – with very little population and huge Rocky Mountains. For us, that was what Canada was all about.
So, we took all of the advice given to us, and we threw it out. We decided that we’d have two holidays in one, take 3 weeks and span the entire country. And I have to say, it’s the best decision we made. This way, we got a real sense of the breadth of this vast and varied nation. We heard the Canadian accent transform, the scenery, wildlife and temperature change as we physically drove through time zones.
Yes, there was a lot of travelling, but boy was it worth it. We caught a Greyhound bus from Niagara to Toronto, where we were just a few short subway stops to our Airbnb in Bloor St. We weren’t aware when we booked it, but apparently Bloor St is a really fun and fashionable neighbourhood. There were loads of interesting restaurants (COO was the sweetest Asian fusion bistro opposite our street) and independent stores.
Everyone in Toronto lived up to that classic stereotype – yes, it’s true, all Canadians are really nice. The nicest. Nothing was too much trouble. In bars I asked for beer recommendations without receiving the glare you’re thrown in London, and people on the subway gave us suggestions of places to visit because they actually wanted us to enjoy the city. It’s probably the friendliest subway experience possible. They also really care about sport – I left Toronto as a huge Blue Jays fan.
And the food… oh the food. Toronto’s strongest points were the restaurants, the craft beer, the individuality and sense of community. Kensington Market is a really fun district, with its car planted in a tree and cool street art. Moonbean Coffee is off the main street, and offers extreme comfort, warmth and deliciousness at an insanely reasonable price. The Distillery District is also unique – hire bikes and ride the cycle paths to explore. It’s like having a permanent farmer’s market to look around – there’s great Ramen at Boku too.
The most beautiful spot we found in Toronto was on the beach. I know what you’re thinking – Toronto’s inland, right? Vancouver is famously the ‘city on the water’? Well it turns out that Lake Ontario is quite the lake. You’d definitely be fooled into thinking you were near the sea, except from the distinct lack of saltwater. We picked up a couple of bikes from the stations in the centre of Downtown and cycled along the path on the lake edge, all the way to Sunnyside Pavilion. On a warm day the breeze on the bike was very welcome, and the sun was low by the time we reached the beach house. We got a slush puppy and ice cream and sat and looked across the lake to Mississauga, where huge skyscrapers sprouted from the blue grey waters. Thunder was brewing and we cycled back into the city under the brooding sky, pointing out at the sail boats and harbours on the edge of this sprawling cosmopolitan city.
Vancouver was very different to what we had experienced in Toronto. Beautifully located among forests and mountains, Vancouver is one of the most outdoorsy cities in the world. Grouse Mountain is just north of the coast and you can even get a free bus there to explore. A ferry journey away is Vancouver Island, famed for its beautiful seascapes, colourful gardens and even a rain forest. The west coast completely trumps Toronto’s natural offering. Even within the city itself, we had a great bike ride around Stanley Park, circling the city’s ‘central park’ and looking at the flashy boats and sea planes. One Wes Anderson-style lighthouse and a suspension bridge later and we were in awe of how easy it was to escape from the city.
We were staying out of the centre, in a really pretty neighbourhood near Trout Lake, just off Commercial. The food in the area was really special - Bandidas Taqueria takes vegetarian Mexican to a whole other level. People were friendly as ever, and the unique atmosphere and culture of Richmond was fascinating. We had the best ramen of our lives in Ramen Danbo, with the authentic Japanese calling in and out (a first for us). I guess the city felt most similar to New York, with its Instagram-famous restaurants and winding queues, cool neighbourhoods and a beautiful historical district in Gastown. While Vancouver didn’t have the same height, the glamour was still present – designers lined the streets and you could feel the bustle.
On our second day, Tim had organised an amazing trip for me: to go whale watching in a beautiful village called Steveston, south of Richmond. Our charming and extremely chipper bus driver gave us a guided tour on the way, informing us of the outrageous housing market and extreme wealth in Vancouver, as well as the density of the Asian population due to the events and subsequent mass emigration of Hong Kong in ‘91. After driving through the wealth of Richmond, the luxury cars, designer stores and huge malls, we got to a quaint and idyllic fishing village. I guess it’s the equivalent of Londoners driving down to Kent, or Brighton. I loved how close wildlife, especially whales of all things, was to this huge wealthy city.
The final crux for Vancouver, however, was the weather. Living in Wales now, I understand the problems of west coast living, but the result is far less damp for us – thank god for Ireland. It’s pretty much constant rain in Vancouver. There are a couple of dry beautiful months in the summer, and then the rain settles in. We happened to get to Vancouver just as the glorious sunshine decided to vacate the city, which felt like such a huge contrast to the beautiful blue skies we’d experienced in Banff. We just couldn’t deal with the constant rain, and neither could our raincoats.
Our verdict is purely based on our experience in the two places, which I fully expect may change if we were to go back, but we both agree that we prefer Toronto – especially if we were deciding on where to live.
Vancouver was built up too far in our expectations before we arrived, off the back of a picture (and weather) perfect trip. We didn’t really bond with the city, but can definitely see the appeal for others. We didn’t visit Vancouver Island (which by all accounts is the best part of any visit to Vancouver) because the time we had there couldn’t do it justice. But in the four days we had in Vancouver, we ran out of things to do – it really is an outdoors-oriented city. Bearing in mind the rain is the situation for the majority of the year, Toronto felt less wet and overall more welcoming, more cosmopolitan, far safer and less touristy.
In Toronto, as you look around, it’s hard not to notice that everyone is really casual. Jeans and a band t-shirt were the norm – a huge contrast from the glam valley girls of Cardiff, or the suited and booted of London. Hardly anything was branded. This was the Canada I’d been told about – a relaxed, welcoming and inclusive community. Vancouver was its flashy cousin, with Gucci sunglasses and rapidly increasing rent prices. I guess it all comes down to what you like, and Toronto was more suited to us.