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Streetcars, sharks, pandas and parasols. Canada's largest city will soon be vibrantly alive. Just watch out for construction.
The biggest news here is the planned opening this summer of Ripley's Aquarium, a US$130-million project that is Toronto's first big new tourist attraction in two decades.
It will be home to 15,000 fish and other creatures. It also promises a moving walkway that passes through a tunnel below a 750,000-gallon shark lagoon.
On a windy April day, I walked to the aquarium in the shadow of the CN Tower to find dozens of workmen toiling on the unfinished glass building.
"When will it be done?" I inquired.
"Never," said a grinning, hard-hatted workman. "The outside windows won't keep out the rain, and the inside windows won't keep in the fish."
Ah, a little aquatic joke! The aquarium is supposed to start stocking fish tanks in June and open this summer, according to Ripley's spokeswoman Erin Burcham.
But fish are not the only tourism story here. In furry mammal news, the Toronto Zoo has just welcomed two giant pandas from China, which arrived by Federal Express in March. With an exhibit opening May 18, the zoo will showcase Er Shun and Da Mao for at least five years.
The third thing tourists should know about Toronto this summer is that there will be a lot of construction in this booming city. Spindly cranes reach for the clouds as new glass skyscrapers rise.
The biggest disruptions are on Front Street, which is partly closed, and at Union Station - all part of a giant five-year renovation to modernize.
Many tourists are familiar with Toronto from its earnest days as a "Phantom of the Opera" one-note destination. Today, the multicultural city welcomes 2 million visitors a year from the US - and this ever-growing city of 2.7 million people spreads out like a colourful quilt.
Most American visitors get the hang of riding the Toronto TTC subway with its U-shaped route. Many still shy away from the bright red streetcars, which require one to run into the street and jump onto a car packed elbow to elbow.
That is too bad, because the streetcars generally run east and west to supplement the subway, which primarily goes north and south. And the same US$3 token works for both. Just elbow your way on. When you want to get off, pull the yellow cord.
This summer also will be lively at two of Toronto's most endearing spots, St. Lawrence Market and Kensington Market, two places that tourists often mix up.
St. Lawrence Market is literally a market. One giant hall has dozens of vendors and farmers selling fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, pastries - everything from halibut heads to tulips.
There is a Saturday farmers market, a Sunday antiques market and more activities that spill out onto the streets. The market is on Front Street at Jarvis, a few blocks east of Union Station.
Kensington Market is a groovy neighbourhood near Chinatown northwest of Spadina and Dundas. (Both streets have streetcars, so take a chance and ride one to the market.) During the summer, some days the area becomes a pedestrian-only zone.
One of the coolest little corners is where Kensington meets Baldwin, home of the Good Luck Shop ("the name brings good luck to the customers," says the manager of the shop that sells games, socks, clocks, wigs and assorted low-budget merchandise.) Across the street is Global Cheese, from which the ripe smell of Stilton drifts into the street.
On the blocks nearby are wares for sale, including frilly petticoats, macrame hammocks, artisan bread, curried goat, chocolate truffles and buckets of parasols; in other words, all the necessities of life in modern Toronto.
GETTING AROUND: Use public transit, unless you are physically challenged (subways have a lot of stairs and walking).
LODGING: Toronto is the biggest city in Canada, with major metropolitan city prices to match. Lodging is generally US$180 to US$350 ($411) a night. Make sure any hotel-rate quote includes taxes and fees.
DINING: Toronto's varied dining scene means you can try high-end restaurants every night or choose tiny ethnic restaurants (my preference). Lots of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, hole-in-the wall spots save your budget without sacrificing flavour.
PHONES: Beware of international roaming charges on your cell phone; contact your carrier to confirm service and rates.
NEW FOR TOURISTS IN TORONTO
Ripley's Aquarium - Set to open sometime in the summer 2013 at 288 Bremner Blvd., next to the CN Tower. Admission not yet set but other Ripley's Aquariums are $24.99 ($29.3), $12.99 ($15.25) for children ages 3-11.
Christian Louboutin Retrospective - You can see this exhibit on the history of the elite shoes and their designer at Design Exchange, June 21-Sept. 15; US$10 ($11.7), US$8 for students and free for ages 6 and under.
"Game On 2.0" - Check out an exhibit on the history of video games at the Ontario Science Centre. Now through Sept. 2; US$22 ($25.8), US$13 for ages 4-12 and free for ages 3 and under.
CN Tower EdgeWalk - Season Three is now open for those who want to walk on the outside ledge of the tower.
Legoland Discovery Centre - This just opened near Canada's Wonderland. It's an indoor playland, with rides, LEGO building areas and replicas of the Toronto skyline built of LEGOs; US$22 ($25.8), US$18 for ages 3-13, free for ages 2 and younger.
7 TORONTO SUMMER EVENTS
June 20-23: Redpath Waterfront Festival includes fleet of tall ships commemorating the War of 1812.
June 20-29: Toronto Jazz Festival
June 21-30 (especially June 28-30): Toronto Pride
July 3-14: Toronto Fringe Festival
Aug. 1-4: Caribbean Carnival (Caribana)
Aug. 3-11: Rogers Cup
Aug. 22-25: Toronto BuskerFest
For details on all these and other events, go to seetorontonow.com.