Geoff Robins  /  AFP-Getty Images file
A view of the CN Tower, one of the world's tallest structures, in Toronto.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 10/17/2006 3:14:49 PM ET 2006-10-17T19:14:49

Toronto is a chameleon of a city, the darling of the entertainment industry for its ability to look like, well, almost any large urban center in North America. It played Brooklyn in the movie “Moonstruck”, Chicago in “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” and “Chicago”, and Boston in “Good Will Hunting”, among other films.  Does that make it a faceless, personality-free place? On the contrary, the “Little Apple” as many fondly call it, is fiercely cosmopolitan, with a bustling energy that recalls New York City (hence the nickname) and an internationalism that is unmatched in Canada. It boasts the largest Chinese population in North America, and has also welcomed thousands of Vietnamese people, Jamaicans, Indians, Somalians, Italians and others as well. The itinerary below will give you a taste of that multiculturalism as well as a glimpse of the city’s history and strong commitment to the arts.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Start your morning at the restaurant that does breakfast so darn well, it serves it all day long. Over Easy , a sunny blue and yellow bistro, does eggs every which way from Benedicted to shirred, baked with pungent cheese sauce or omeletted-up with such tasty fillings as sundried tomatoes and double-smoked bacon. Though it’s “off-topic” the French Toast is pretty nifty too, topped with caramelized bananas and rich maple syrup. Big appetites can go for the Big Breakfast, a gargantuan plate with three eggs sunny side up, a maple-leaf shaped pancake, baked beans, home fries, bacon, and a grilled tomato.

9 a.m. - 10 a.m.: See the city—all of it!—by heading straight to the CN Tower . At 1815 feet (553 meters) it’s the tallest free-standing structure in the world, and the views are magnificent, especially the one straight-down. For a goose pimples moment head to the Glass Floor which offers a view that plunges from the tip of your toes to the sidewalk far, far, faaar below. You can hang out up here, seeing IMAX movies and playing around on flight simulators (guess the height makes a lot of people wish they could fly), but your time will be better served by getting back to the ground and strolling through the city you’ve been peering at from your eagle’s perch above.

10 a.m. - noon: Chinatown is an especially intriguing area to explore, one of the largest Asian communities in North America with over 350,000 Chinese-Canadians. Exotic and familiar at one and the same time (you can walk or hop a subway to get there, getting off at St. Patrick), it’s chockablock with outdoor food markets, densely packed shops, galleries, historic churches and restaurants. Be sure to mosey into Tai Sun Co , an Asian market which has all of those odd mushrooms and twisted vegetables helpfully labeled in English; step into a Chinese pharmacy to take a gander at the dried seahorses and snakeskins being ground for medicine; and make a stop at one of the best souvenir stores in the area, J&S Arts and Crafts , where you can stock up on Kung Fu shoes, kimonos, glazed bowls and more. Not Asian, but in the vicinity, is the Art Gallery of Toronto , a must for Henry Moore fans. Here you’ll see 800 of his blocky but sinewy statues and other works. Parts of the gallery will be closed, as Frank Gehry is currently expanding it, but it should be interesting just to see that important architect’s work in progress.

MORNING ALTERNATIVE
Afraid of heights? Set your sights on the splendid Casa Loma instead, the medieval castle that adds a touch of eccentricity to the Toronto cityscape. Built as the home for industrialist Sir Henry Pellatt, who was arguably the most influential man in early 20th century Canada (at one point he sat on the boards of 25% of the country’s top companies), it was both his joy and his ruin. The cost of its construction was $3.5 million dollars, an astronomical chunk of change when it was completed in 1914. Ten years later, bankrupted from the upkeep on the place, Pellatt was forced to abandon his home. You’ll see how all the money went as you tour its all-marble conservatory, its secret passageways, baronial great room (with 60 feet tall ceilings), Rhineland turrets and expansive gardens. “Peacock Alley” here is a replica of the one in Windsor Castle.

Noon - 2 p.m.: Stay in Chinatown for a dim sum lunch at Bright Pearl . Pick your meal from the dozens of carts that go careening through this banquet hall, filled with 75 different dishes on weekdays, a whopping 150 on weekends. All types of dumplings, mango pudding, sticky rice and pork wrapped in lotus leaves are just a few of the tasty options.

2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: You won’t be able to see all of Canada’s largest museum, The Royal Ontario Museum , in just three hours, but you’ll get an aesthetic kick out of trying. Like the Art Gallery of Toronto, one of the big names in 21st century architecture is currently involved in an expansion, in this case Daniel Liebeskind, who’s most famous for being lead architect on the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. His new wing, which looks like a mountain of glass shards—a compliment, really—will be open in the summer of 2007, but you’ll be able to take in much of it from the outside right now. The museum is still tourable, however, though certain galleries may be shuttered when you visit. Divided between natural history and world cultures, the museum is strongest in its Asian arts (its Korean art and artifacts collection is unparalleled in North America), its dinosaur and fossil collections, and its monumental holdings in textiles and costumes.

AFTERNOON ALTERNATIVE
Indulge your inner foot fetish with a visit to the Bata Shoe Museum , which houses some 10,000 pairs of shoes. Surprisingly compelling, the museum traces the history of shoes from the time no one wore them (you’ll see a cast of a 4 million year old human foot print discovered by Mary Leakey), to ancient “funerary shoes” worn only after death, to clogs with spikes used to crush chestnuts in 17th century France. And of course, there are also spangly, famous celeb shoes, like the platforms worn by Elton John in his “Rocketman” phase.

5:30-7:30:  For dinner, make your way to Perigee , which is at one and the same time the most contemporary and historic of restaurants. Set in the midst of the Distillery District, a perfectly preserved warehouse area that was built in the 1840’s, its atmosphere, with its with wood-beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls, is old-timey. Until it comes time to order, that is, and it’s not the waiter, but the chef Pat Riley who comes to your table to discuss your likes and dislikes. After an intent appraisal, he customizes dinner to your specifications, taking his daily changing tasting menu and adding, say, an extra course of seared maine scallops set on a slice of crisply fried pork belly for those who like gourmet surf and turf; or ditching the Brussels sprouts in favor of buttery sautéed escarole. You’ll watch all of this being prepared in the sunken open kitchen at the heart of the dining room. Though this type of personalization doesn’t come cheap, the high quality of the cooking, and the fun of playing chef, make this a foodie paradise.

8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: What do Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Jim Carrey and Rich Little all have in common? Beside being some of the funniest people on the planet, they’re all Canadian. If you’d like to see the next generation of funnymen and women at work, get a ticket for Toronto’s version of the Second City . Though it’s moved away from improvisation to more of a revue-format, it remains the laugh-generator it’s always been.

10 p.m. - on … The coolest DJ’s in town now play regularly at Gallery , so if grooving to the beat is your idea of the perfect nightcap, this is where you should head. Part of the Guvernment complex, it’s intimate, quirky (there’s a moose head over the DJ booth) and fun, though you won’t have access to the other rooms until after 2:30am. No loss, there’s enough to keep you hopping here.  

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Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

Over Easy, 208 Bloor Street West, phone 416/922-2345.

CN Tower, 301 Front St. W, phone 416/868-6937; www.cntower.ca. Open daily 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. Basic admission (Look Out and Glass Floor) C$20 (US$16) adults, C$18 (US$14.40) seniors, C$14 (US$11.20) children 4-12; Observation Experience (Look Out, Glass Floor, and Skypod) C$26 (US$20.80) adults, C$24 (US$19.20) seniors, C$20 (US$16) children 4-12; Total Tower Experience (includes Look Out, Glass Floor, Skypod, film, and 2 rides) C$32 (US$25.60) all ages. Motion simulator rides C$8 (US$6.40)

Tai Sun Co, 407-409 Dundas Street.

J&S Arts and Crafts,430 Dundas Street.

Art Gallery of Toronto, 317 Dundas St. W; phone 416/977-0414; www.ago.net. Open Wed-Fri 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sat-Sun 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Admission C$8 (US$6.40) adults, C$5 (US$4) seniors and students and children age 6 and up, free for children 5 and under.

Casa Loma, 1 Austin Terrace,phone 416/923-1171; www.casaloma.org. Open daily 9:30 a.m. -5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.)  Admission C$12 (US$9.60) adults, C$7.50 (US$6) seniors and children 14-17, C$6.75 (US$5.40) children 4-13, free for children 3 and under 

Bright Pearl,346 - 348 Spadina Ave., phone 416/979-3988; www.brightpearlseafood.com. Open daily 9:00 AM - 11:00 PM.

Royal Ontario Musuem, 100 Queens park; phone 416/586-8000; www.rom.on.ca. Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors and $12 for kids age 5-12. Open Sat-Thurs 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Fri 10 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.

Bata Shoe Museum, 327 Bloor St. W at St. George St, phone 416/979-7799; www.batashoemuseum.ca/. Open Tues-Wed and Fri-Sat 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Thurs 10 a.m. -8 p.m.; Sun noon - 5 p.m. Admission C$8 (US$6.40) adults, C$6 (US$4.80) seniors and students with ID, C$4 (US$3.20) children 5-14, C$20 (US$16) family (2 adults, 2 children). Free to all Thurs 5-8 p.m. 

Perigee, 55 Mill Street (call 416/364-1397 and ask for directions as the restaurant is on the second floor, down an unmarked lane and thus difficult to find). Closed Mondays, advance reservations recommended.

Second City,56 Blue Jays Way, phone 800/263-4485, 416/343-0011; www.secondcity.com/.

Gallery, 123 Queens Quay East in Guvernment, phone 416/869-0045; www.theguvernment.com.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

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Photos: Toronto: An urban gem

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  1. Casa Loma Garden

    The former home of Canadian financier Sir Henry Pellatt, Canada's foremost castle is complete with decorated suites, secret passages, an 800-foot tunnel, towers, stables and beautiful 5-acre estate gardens (open May-Oct.). (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Nathan Phillips Square

    Nathan Phillips Square is a city square that forms the front (south) entrance to Toronto City Hall or 'New City Hall', and features an ice rink/reflecting pool, a peace garden, and the 'Three-Way Piece No. 2' ('The Archer') by Henry Moore at the north end in front of City Hall. (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The Rexall Centre

    The Rexall Centre is an international tennis center built with the local community in mind. The park-like setting provides dining, shopping and interactive activities to add to the tennis experience. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Toronto Zoo

    Sumatran tiger cubs play in their pen at the Toronto Zoo. (Adrian Wyld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Royal Ontario Museum

    A totem pole extends towards the skylight in the main stairwell of the Royal Ontario Museum. (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Air Canada Centre

    The Air Canada Centre, often referred to simply as The ACC, is a multi-purpose arena located on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, Ontario. It is the home of the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, and the Toronto Rock of the NLL. It was also home to the Toronto Phantoms of the AFL during their brief existence. (Robert Laberge / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Chinatown

    Toronto has the second largest Chinatown in North America and the largest when all six Chinatowns are grouped as one. It has grown significantly over the years and has come to reflect a diverse set of Asian cultures through its shops and restaurants, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rogers Centre

    The Rogers Centre is home to Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. While it is primarily a sports venue, Rogers Centre also hosts other large-scale events such as conventions, trade fairs and concerts. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Hockey Hall of Fame

    The Hockey Hall of Fame which celebrates the history of ice hockey with exhibits featuring memorabilia and NHL trophies (including the Stanley Cup). (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Eaton Centre

    The Toronto Eaton Centre is a large shopping mall and office complex in downtown Toronto, and is a top tourist attraction. One of the most prominent sights in the shopping mall is the group of fibre glass Canada Geese hanging from the ceiling. This sculpture, named Flight Stop, is the work of artist Michael Snow. (Tourism Toronto) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Toronto skyline

    The Toronto skyline with a view of the CN Tower, at 1,815 feet, 5 inches tall, is the world's tallest freestanding structure on land. It is considered the signature icon of the city; more than two million international visitors are attracted annually to the tower. Guinness World Records has listed the CN Tower as the world's tallest 'building' for 30 years. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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