The Mole Diaries: Toronto
George Ward spent nearly four months on exchange in Toronto, Canada, in the first term of his 3rd year Journalism studies at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Some of this Mole Diary was originally documented in his blog, but here he tells us in more detail about Toronto and shares some general tips for all exchangers.
When researching university courses back in 2008 I kept a lookout for those that had the option to study abroad as part of the degree and fortunately my chosen course had such an option. The best option for me was Toronto; it has a great reputation for teaching my course, I have family living around half an hour from the centre (who I had not seen in five years) and I have always wanted to live on that side of the world, for a short amount of time at least.
1. Getting there (and back)
From the UK, Canadian Affair is an affordable option, especially if you book well in advance. I booked when during a promotion, and managed to get a return flight for £350, departing the end of August and returning in mid-December. There are a number of companies to fly with, so put time into shopping around and when your exchange place is confirmed, book your seats as soon as you can.
2. The City
The guidebooks are correct. Toronto is a vibrant hub, a concoction of nationalities and cultures in one area, an industrious community, a tourism haven, a youthful zone and many other descriptive words in front of different words for ‘place’. Despite the vast population, Toronto does not have the claustrophobic feel that many cities have, with most people appearing to have a relatively laid-back but not lazy mind-set.
This won’t be the first or last time you’ve heard this, but Toronto is incredibly multicultural. The predominant spoken language is English, but as you discover the individual communities you’ll see how diverse a place it is, with many languages and traditions apparent.
Photo by SanGatiche
3. Toronto Tips
- Currency: The currency in Toronto is the Canadian Dollar. For advice on one possible way to manage your money abroad, read my article about currency cards here.
- Tax: Don’t get a shock when you go to pay for goods at the supermarket or elsewhere – the vast majority of what you will buy will not already include taxes, so be prepared to pay slightly more than you think.
- Tipping: Tips, of around 10-15%, are considered a vital part of the earnings of bar staff, waitresses, hairdressers, taxi drivers, pizza deliverers and others who provide a service.
It’s best to sort out accommodation before you arrive in anywhere new as you may find your potential high stress levels are increased furthermore by not being able to get a roof over your head! The main options for Toronto exchange students are Neill-Wycik Cooperative, Best Western Primrose hotel or private accommodation.
I stayed in Neill-Wycik and can quite honestly say it is the best place to stay Downtown while you are on exchange. Yes, there may be some mouse sightings and yes, some say the area is not the safest, but once you arrive, unpack and meet fellow students from around the globe your worries will vanish and the good times will begin. I could go on about all the benefits in this mole diary, such as its excellent value for money and prime location to Ryerson University, but it might be better for me to link you to my review – you can read it here. If you do decide to stay here, request your international application pack as soon as possible.
5. Days Out
- Niagara Falls: No trip to Toronto would be complete without a trip to Niagara, and remember to take some cash for Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right up-close to the falls.
- CN Tower: The former tallest free-standing structure in the world, standing at 553.33 metres, gives you an incredible view of the city. If you’re feeling brave and willing to spend around £120 you could always hang off the edge of it for half an hour – ‘EdgeWalk’ is the world’s highest full circle hands-free walk on a 1.5m-wide ledge encircling the top of the tower and is not for the fainthearted.
- Toronto Islands: Get a cheap return ferry to this chilled-out leafy set of islands and you will get a fantastic opportunity to see the cityscape in all its glory.
- Canada’s Wonderland: The 69-ride theme park is a real blast for thrill-seekers. The rickety older rides such as the ‘Mighty Canadian Minebuster’ are just as good as the newest beasts such as Behemoth and Leviathan.
- Sporting events: Ice Hockey is widely considered to be Canada’s main pastime and many of the Canadians I met recall going to the ‘ball game’ (Baseball) every so often as they grew up. If you get the chance to see both these sports in action, take it.
- Casa Loma: To soak up some history, visit this majestic castle and gardens (May to October).
- Chinatown: Visiting this culture-rich part of the city is a must.
- High Park: Toronto’s largest park, featuring many trails & a zoo, is a great place to chill.
- Riverdale Farm: Just minutes from the bustling city centre is a relaxed, free-admission farm.
6. Nights Out
There are a range of bars, clubs and bars that are clubs in the downtown Toronto area, with the below being the more memorable ones I experienced, ranked in order of enjoyment.
1. The Brunswick: Known as ‘The Brunny’, this $5 entry cheap chart-fest is best visited with a large group of mates. Slightly sleazy, if you happen to be female, be prepared for ‘attention’ but don’t be afraid to put lads in their place. Great tunes, cheap drinks and a student vibe, plus good seating areas – it’s all good, really.
2. The Ballroom Bowl: When you turn up here for the first time, you may think you’re at the wrong venue – don’t worry – it is a bowling alley, but above you will find a relaxed bar and dance area. As the night goes on, everyone will be on the dance floor or conversing in the decked-out outdoor area.
3. Lou Dawg’s: This student-friendly bar is a great place to socialise, and if you’re a keen singer (or can open your mouth to make some form of noise) the karaoke nights are a laugh. Remember to try some pulled pork poutine (see the food and drink section below).
4. Grace O’Malley’s: This compact Irish jaunt is always buzzing, with the live music nights often showcasing some decent talent.
5. Tequila Jacks: This club has a fairly odd layout but manages to be trendy and student-friendly all the same.
6. Mick E Fynns: More than an average Irish pub, Fynns turns into a slightly congested but enjoyable disco towards the end of the week.
7. The Ram in the Rye: Ryerson University’s student pub hosts a number of events through the week and is a good place to catch up after class.
8. Century: Very expensive, crowded and unappealing music – not the best venue by far.
Other venues I did not try include The Guvernment and Madison Avenue, the former being rated one of the best clubs in the world, but you have to be 21 to enter. There are a wide range of live music performances across the city throughout the year. You may also be invited to a ‘frat (fraternity) party’, with mixed results.
If you don’t drink, or want a quieter night for once, there is plenty more to do in the evenings:
- See a TV show being filmed: Look out for tickets to be in the audience – I watched an episode of The Ron James Show and The Rick Mercer Report being filmed at CBC.
- Go to the cinema: It is $5 Tuesdays at Rainbow and Carlton Cinemas, and not much more money the rest of the week – Canada often shows films weeks or months ahead of the UK.
7. Food and Drink
I went out onto the streets and asked a range of students about their food preferences. In the video I ask them to compare Starbucks with Tim Horton’s (coffee merchants), Metro and Loblaws (supermarkets) and I ask about their favourite Toronto dish, amongst other things:
- Poutine: Poutine, a combination of chips, cheese curds and gravy, is widely regarded to be the city’s ‘dish’, despite its origins in Quebec. Smokes Poutinerie and ‘The Mighty Loutine’ from Lou Dawg’s bar (which includes pulled pork) are a must.
- Burgers: If you’re a fan of burgers, you must check out my Burger Battle blog post and try all of my suggestions – you won’t be disappointed.
- Food in supermarkets: it's roughly the same as in the UK, although some things are significantly cheaper (steaks and fizzy drinks) and some things are more expensive (cheese).
- O.Noir: Ever eaten in pitch black darkness before? This unique ‘dine in the dark’ experience sees you order your food in a dimly lit reception area before being led into the no-lights-whatsoever dining area by an actual blind waiter, one hand on the shoulder of the person in your group ahead of you. After being seated, you try your hardest to get used to the darkness but it definitely is a bizarre atmosphere throughout the duration of the meal. The food itself is of good quality, and it’s true that it was appreciated more as a result of ‘losing’ one of your senses. If you’re feeling up to it, you can order a ‘surprise’ dish and attempt to figure out what is on your plate, as you eat it. Despite being relatively expensive, this is a very interesting restaurant concept and makes you appreciate your sight a great deal more.
- Eaton Centre: With over 230 retailers, you won’t be able to miss this huge mall in the heart of the city centre. Food, clothes, technology and more are all under one roof.
- Cinnamon Rolls: Get one of these tasty treats at Panera Bread or Cinnabon.
- Alcohol: The drinking age is 19. The only places you can purchase alcoholic beverages for home consumption are specific outlets such as LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) and The Beer Store, the walls of which you may become very familiar with! You’ll find a usual array or alcohol, although cider is not as popular as it is in the UK. If you and your new found friends plan on consuming a fair amount of booze, and if you have storage space, you could keep all your empty cans and bottles and recycle them at The Beer Store, where you’ll get money back for doing so. My flatmate and I received around £30 for our flat’s 3-month stash which we carted for ten minutes, getting some strange looks along the way – but it was worth it. It’s definitely an initiative that should be considered everywhere.
Toronto has a great transport system. The TTC website will give you up-to-date prices for the Subway, Bus and Streetcar networks and if you’re travelling further afield, the double-decker Go Trains may be your best option. Taxis cost around about the same as they do in the UK.
If you plan to visit places such as Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City or perhaps New York or Chicago, there are a number of good-value bus trips on offer. Planes are advisable if you are considering going further afield, and if you decide to rent a car, make sure you acclimatise to the ways of the roads beforehand.
Known as one of the safest cities in North America, if not the world, Toronto does contain some areas that are best avoided (like every city) but for the most part, especially if you are walking in groups, you will be fine. If any beggars do ask, persist and follow you for money, a firm ‘no’ should shake them off.
10. Seasonal Events
- Toronto International Film Festival (September): TIFF is one of the main film festivals in the world, screening more than 300 films from over 60 countries – keep an eye out for screenings and stars in the downtown Toronto area.
- Thanksgiving: Celebrated on the second Monday of October, this is an excellent opportunity to have a large meal with your new friends (and family, if you’re lucky enough to have any over there like me) and be thankful for what you have, including your exchange experience.
- Hallowe'en (31st October): This tradition is observed on a very large scale in this part of the world. Take part, and watch your back – zombies roam the streets as part of the ‘Toronto Zombie Walk’, just one downtown Halloween spectacle.
- Nuit Blanche (September/October): This annual contemporary arts event exhibits a variety of ‘interesting’ works and is sprawled across the city from 7pm to sunrise.
- Ice Skating (Winter): A large rink is set up as winter draws closer, and there is a rink on Gould Street, a main pathway for Ryerson University students.
- Christmas Market at the Distillery District: Get in the festive mood at this annual event.
11. Ryerson University
I am privileged to have studied at Ryerson, with its fantastic teaching staff, courses and facilities, including The Mattamy Athletic Centre complex (formerly Maple Leaf Gardens, the old home of the Toronto Maple Leafs Ice Hockey team). Rather than simply being given timetabled modules there is a 2-week manic-module-grab here, whereby you must search and select your own classes (vacancy-permitting). I was enrolled in 2 of my 4 choices but I picked up a third which covered my required quota. This is something you have to prepare to research in depth - ensure your home university is happy with your choices. Learning new skills in a different teaching environment forms the whole purpose of studying abroad so make sure you represent your home university well.
12. General exchange tips
- Plan ahead: While arranging tables and lecture stands, the first thing one of my new tutors said was: “The most important thing is to get the furniture right.” I immediately over-analysed this quote to form the basis of my first tip; by getting the ‘furniture’ or ‘basics’ right at the start of your exchange, you can enjoy the experience that follows a lot more. It is said that if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail, so make sure you pack everything you need but also prepare for the unexpected – it’s going to happen.
- Chill out: If someone you are in regular contact with is getting on your nerves, try not to get too hacked off.
- Get Skype: This is vital for free face-to-face global communication.
- Stay safe: There are ‘no-go’ areas wherever you go for your year abroad. If you don’t go looking for trouble, it generally won’t come looking for you.
- Enjoy yourself: This is a once-in-a-lifetime-chance that you’ve probably worked hard to pay for - don’t waste a moment.
- Go for it. Arrive with an open mind, put mishaps into perspective and soon it will be you constantly remembering, learning from and sharing your incredible venture. Whether you’re going on exchange to Canada’s largest city or not, you must go to Toronto at some point - or as the locals say, ‘Toronno’!