Canadian Travel Notes: Toronto & Ottawa

The Canadian National Exhibition (aka CNE/”The Ex)

My understanding of state fairs comes largely from longform pieces in magazines like The New Yorker by people like David Foster Wallace, so it’s hard to compare the CNE in Toronto with others. My expectations weren’t high, but it still felt more soulless than I’d imagined.

For example, I’d had a vision of rows of little indie food stalls each offering only a few weird and outrageously unhealthy dishes. In reality, most food options were larger and from bigger chains, which is perhaps not surprising given the scale of the event but still disappointing. Overall, it was fine: I had a noodle burger and a funnel cake with soft-serve ice cream. In retrospect, we should’ve tried the comparatively-deserted ribfest instead, but it was a bit out of the way and we only came across it later. I imagine it’s much busier in the evenings.

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The indoor lantern festival, Legends of the Silk Road Come to Light, was quite pretty in an obvious way. Someone in China has clearly figured out that westerners really like to look at realistic-looking lanterns, and decided to engage in a bit of not-so-subtle cultural diplomacy that a) takes a modicum of credit for all achievements made along “Silk Road” nations and b) encourages us to feel good about their dreadfully-named “Belt and Road Initiative”.

I’d like to know more about how these lanterns are made. It’d make for a good longform article, I think. I can’t imagine they’re especially challenging to make, and I would like to see more daring and innovation amongst the endless dragons and such.

There was a water skiing demo featuring a truly groan-worthy framing story about a wedding party. I guess these stories are a way for announcers to fill the silence and make proceedings seem more ‘approachable’? In any case, I was impressed by the announcer pre-emptively telling us that each stunt was extremely risky in case of its likely failure. One of the skiiers had a ‘water jetpack’ which was even cooler than my highest expectations. We also walked past the parkour, whose audience sounded like they were having more fun..

The flower competition was getting a bit wilted by the time we arrived. I occasionally entertain the idea of finding the least competitive category and entering, so I can add it to my bio.

The shops were generally bad and not worth visiting.

Ottawa

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First off, you must get the National Museums Passport! It costs only $35 and it’s worth it if you plan to visit more than one museum – which you absolutely should.

Ottawa is small. You can walk across it in under an hour. The nightlife looked pretty dull, although Bar Robo was blessed with the DJ of the gods themselves and I had to stop myself from running off with their MacBook just for their playlist. 

The Parliament is free and worth a visit. You’ll want to queue up before 9am to get a good selection of tour times, which can take 30-90 minutes in total. You can take as many photos as you like. There was also a projection-mapped light show in the evening, which was typically Canadian in its educational content and lack of bombast. Also, no fireworks, WTF Ottawa?

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The National Gallery of Canada had a good impressionists exhibition on. The big difference between North American and British exhibitions is that the special exhibition spaces are much bigger and crowds smaller. There’s absolutely no question in my mind that this is a better experience than shuffling along a slow-motion human train to spend a scant few seconds glimpsing a painting. Like all North American exhibitions, there was a selfie area. The Canadian artist galleries were excellent, as was the contemporary gallery (half of which was closed). All of the labels were pretty great.

The Canadian Museum of History (previously the “Museum of Civilization”) had as its centrepiece three enormous galleries about Canadian history. The galleries were all recently redesigned and now have very good representation of First Nations peoples, French, ethnic minorities, and the multifarious bad things Canada (like other nations) has done in the past. I learned an awful lot, which is the highest praise I can give.

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If anything, the museum slightly overcompensates in its representation; there was basically nothing about Toronto and I was left mystified just how the population of Canada went from mostly French and centred in modern-day Quebec to be mostly English-speaking and in Ontario. Perhaps the problem is that I was tired after trekking around the first two galleries and didn’t take these facts in, but to be honest by the third ‘modern day’ gallery, the ‘visitor journey’ was getting awfully fragmented, retreading the same time period three or four different times but from different perspectives.

There were also some oddities in emphasis. The gallery talked about Confederation as if it was obvious what a ‘Confederation’ actually was, let alone that it was the process that lead to the nation of Canada that we know now. Bizarrely modest. That could be the motto of Canada.

Byward Market was nice enough.

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The Mosaïculture Topiary exhibition was a nice enough way to spend an hour walking, although I couldn’t quite get over the terrible labels that were clearly written by an intern browsing Wikipedia, not to mention the bad photos.

We were thwarted at every turn in our attempt to eat an A&W Beyond Meat burger. It’s not clear whether the problem was more on supply or demand-side, but it’s a bad look to have signs apologising for lack of stocks on every till.

Foolish Chicken was good; very friendly service, great ribs. 

More in Toronto

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Come From Away, or as I call it, Canadian Hamilton, was appropriately touching and funny and life-affirming. I already knew the outlines of the story, and it’s likely that you will have heard it from podcasts or articles, as well. The direction and staging was very good, and there was excellent non-stop music. It’s also pretty short – 100 minutes without an interval.

I love swimming outdoors and the Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools have better facilities than any London outdoor pool I’ve been to – and it’s completely free to use. Unbelievable! The pool has an interesting design, being on a raised platform that makes you feel like you’re floating above the surrounding beach as you swim. The lanes are too narrow and are bordered by hand-destroying dividers, but those are minor complaints. If I lived nearby, I’d swim there every day.

Toronto has fantastic food, especially at the low and mid-end (and let’s be honest, who can really afford the ultra-high end?), thanks to the city’s large immigration population, who not only make their own food but are happy to eat each others’; and also due to comparatively lower building costs which reduces startup costs for new ventures. The UK in general – including London – has a depressingly thin and expensive selection of restaurants. People really don’t know what they’re missing. Some of my out-of-the-way favourites:

  • Sake Bar Kushi: $3 Sapporos after 9pm, juicy skewers, and friendly service. No need to book for smaller groups.
  • Little Sister: Good, spicy food, chill ambience. You definitely want to book here. Try the Nasi Goreng.

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  • Hanabusa Cafe: Japanese soufflé pancakes to die for. By coincidence, we’d just read the Guardian article about the pancakes that morning. Even though they’re $15, it’s worth it – just share an order, you get three pancakes in each one.
  • Seven Lives: Fresh, piping hot, gloriously messy $6 tacos. 

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