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Toronto, Canada's largest city, is booming

By Detroit Free Press

TORONTO -- Streetcars, sharks, pandas and parasols.

This summer, Canada's largest city will be vibrantly alive.

Just watch out for construction.

The biggest news here is the planned opening this summer of Ripley's Aquarium, a $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, hardhatted 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 that opened May 18, the zoo showcases 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.

This multicultural city welcomes 2 million visitors a year from the U.S. -- and this ever-growing city of 2.7 million people spreads out like a colorful 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 $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 neighborhood 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, macramé hammocks, artisan bread, curried goat, chocolate truffles and buckets of parasols; in other words, all the necessities of life in modern Toronto.

Want to go?

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 $180 to $350 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 flavor.

MONEY AND PHONES: The Canadian and U.S. dollars are of equal value, so don't expect a discount. Beware of international roaming charges on your cellphone; contact your carrier to confirm service and rates.

CROSSING THE BORDER: Visitors ages 16 and older must show a passport, enhanced driver's license or Nexus card at the border. Bring birth certificates for younger children.

New in Toronto

Ripley's Aquarium: Set to open sometime this summer at 288 Bremner Blvd., next to the CN Tower. Admission not yet set, but other Ripley's Aquariums are $24.99, $12.99 for children ages 3-11 (www.ripleyaquariums.com/canada/, 647-351-3474).

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; $10, $8 for students and free for ages 6 and under (www.dx.org, 416-363-6121).

"Game On 2.0": Check out an exhibit on the history of video games at the Ontario Science Centre. Now through Sept. 2; $22, $13 for ages 4-12 and free for ages 3 and under (www.ontariosciencecentre.ca, 416-696-1000).

CN Tower EdgeWalk: Season Three is now open for those who want to walk on the outside ledge of the tower (www.cntower.ca, 416-868-6937).

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 LEGO blocks; $22, $18 for ages 3-13, free for ages 2 and younger (www.legolanddiscoverycentre.ca/toronto/).

Summer events in Toronto

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, visit www.seetorontonow.com.


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