Our First Year Living In Toronto
We’re about to complete a year in Toronto and life here has been amazing. We are very happy with the neighborhood we chose to live in, the public transportation, schools, parks, people, cultural and public resources. We didn’t know what to expect when we first moved, the few things we knew is that winter is going to be extreme, people are kind and nice and that you get free healthcare, oh and that Deadmau5 lives in Toronto. But beyond that we assumed Toronto to be like any other American city. To our surprise Toronto feels quite different from the US, it feels more like Europe.
The difference is not just of Miles vs Kilometers or Fahrenheit vs Celsius. It’s something deeper, people are really valued and the government invests heavily in its citizens. I now understand why Canada has consistently been ranked high on the Quality of Life Index with Vancouver and Toronto being on top of the list, as the best cities to live in alongside other Western European Cities.
Our first Impressions
It seemed like the city had people from every part of the world. You can’t miss the diversity. You hear so many accents on the street. The elevator we used to take to our apartment had people of every race, color and type, harmoniously talking, laughing, making space for others.
All the signages, description on the packaging of grocery items, etc are both in English and French. You’ll be exposed to a lot of French in your everyday life. Public Schools offer French Immersion. Excited to see my son starting his Kindergarten in French soon.
Great parks and museums, trails and ravines all within the city. Some of the few popular attractions are High Park, Trinity Bellwoods, Riverdale Farm, Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Don Valley Trails.
Good food. Given that Toronto is made up of people from all parts of the world you get good authentic cuisines and great fusion food.
Great programs and resources to support new moms and children. We were more observant of this since we moved with two kids under 4. Throughout the city you have something called “drop in centers” filled with toys and things to do for toddlers. I remember paying for such indoor play areas back in California and here they are free.
Small neighborhood stores are still in business. There is not much of a price difference if you buy from your neighborhood store or Amazon. In one way it’s a good thing but if you are coming from the US where you buy everything on Amazon, it will be a bit of a change. This however didn’t bother us much, given that we’ve adopted a minimalistic lifestyle we were happy we didn’t have Amazon and its same day/2 hr delivery options to get us to buying more.
There is no Safeway, Trader Joes, CVS, Walgreens and Target here. We do however have Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods, Home Depot. You’ll have to get used to interacting with the Canadian brands for your grocery and everyday shopping like Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire (Like Walmart)
Also most of the American banks do not have retail banking here. That means there is no Citibank, Chase etc. You’ll have to open an account with one of the Canadian banks like RBC, Scotia Bank etc. RBC has a special offering for newcomers to Canada, you can get a Credit Card without a job or credit rating. One other option is TD which has an American presence.
The winter in Toronto is not that extreme as compared to other parts of Canada it does get long however. It doesn’t snow much in Toronto, the worst winter months are Jan to March. We stayed in Toronto the entire Winter but the locals have suggested that a short two week holiday in Cuba, Costa Rica, Florida or Jamaica helps make the winter feel shorter.
The city never sleeps, you’ll find restaurants open till 1am. People and children are always out and about irrespective of the weather. Everyone is well equipped for every type of weather and nothing stops them from stepping out. We found this pretty cool.
The city is bursting with creative energy, something you can observe on the walls of Toronto transformed by beautiful artwork and murals. The city is filled with writers, designers, photographers, You-Tubers and other social media celebrities. Some of the best podcasts are Toronto based. We were surprised to find that many American shows and movies are filmed in Toronto where the city often plays the part of New York.
Housing and Neighborhoods
Toronto neighborhoods are said to be quite like San Francisco’s in the sense that every neighborhood is unique. Also much of the action and fun lies in the neighborhoods. You can get a good sense of the various neighborhoods on BlogTo, Wikipedia and Toronto Life. That’s how we learned about the neighborhoods. After arriving we visited a few and settled down on Leslieville which is on the east side of downtown. We totally love it. It’s a great balance between family and fun and almost the entire city is accessible through streetcars (Trams) or buses. If you are a single you might want to live in the many condos in the downtown core. In terms of housing there are many types to choose from - Apartments, Loft, Townhouses, Semi Detached, Detached. There are also different architectural styles, Victorian, Edwardian etc.
The best way to go about your house search is to look up on Kijiji, which is like Craigslist. Though Craigslist also exists in Toronto but we found Kijiji to have far more listings and be a more popular choice here. You can also engage a realtor and the best part is you don’t have to pay them the fee as the landlord pays the agent’s commission. I found this guide on renting quite useful when we were doing our research.
As in our case we did engage an agent but we finally found the house of our liking on Kijiji. It was through Kijiji that we also found our short term rental. Airbnb is another place to look for short term rentals while you are still deciding where to settle down in Toronto. We haven’t explored the Great Toronto Area yet which are the suburbs of Toronto. There are tons of housing options in GTA too.
Things to do
Toronto is a great city, every neighborhood has a different feel. Some of the neighborhoods that we really enjoyed visiting for fun and eats are Trinity Bellwoods, West Queen West, Beaches, Greektown, Yorkville, Riverside, Ossington Strip and Harbourfront. We’ve still got a lot of Toronto to discover. There are awesome museums, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum, Bata Shoe Museum, AGA Khan. Our absolute favorite place for food is Kensington Market. We love the Queen’s Park and the Philosopher’s Walk. Centre Islands in Toronto is also quite loved by locals and very popular during the summer. The island is a 15 minutes ferry ride from downtown. Lake Ontario is a pleasant sight, a vast lake that feels like an ocean. There is a lot to do on the lake in summer like rowing, sailing, paddle boarding, etc.
If you are moving here with children or planning to have one Toronto by far is the best place to raise them. We were so impressed with how great this city is for families. There is a lot of emphasis given to children’s needs and welfare. In addition the communities have retained the old ways, like those of letting kids play outside without much adult interference. It’s common to have neighborhood kids come knocking on our door calling for our son and then heading into the laneway or park to play.
New moms get one year of Maternity Leave and post that there are great daycare options. What we’ve seen here is that most parents prefer to go with Nannies (yes Toronto like India or Singapore has abundance of nannies) and they are quite reasonable to hire. In addition to taking care of your child they also do light household chores. The city of Toronto offers tons of options for infants and toddlers to stay entertained. Drop In centers located in public school buildings are like indoor play areas for children under 5 years. Good quality toys and learning material with story time, circle time and outings are offered through the weekdays. There are great kids park everywhere. No matter where you are in the city, you are never far from a children’s playground. Well thought about play structures and splash pools (to beat the heat in summer). There are about 6 to 7 playgrounds walking distance from our house with every playground offering something unique. Toronto Library branches offer great programming for kids including storytime, LEGO play, puppetry and more. Their selection of children’s books are also great. Since we’ve moved we haven’t had to buy a single books for our kids. We’ve found every title - all the award winning books, new releases classics at the Toronto Library. The hold option is great, any book that’s not available at our local branch we put it on hold on the website and we get it within few days from Toronto Reference Library. My wife uses the Library Website quite like Amazon, she goes crazy putting books on hold for herself and kids to read. The only difference is that we don’t have to pay.
As unlike the US, Toronto public School offers two years of Kindergarten starting at the age of 4 years. The kindergarten program is modeled on the Montessori method with emphasis on learning through play. The year we moved my older son was turning 4 years in December, we were lucky to have moved in Fall and have him start school in September. My wife was quite apprehensive though having him start school that early but after she learnt about the play based methodology and his school’s daily schedule which included lot of outdoor play, sports, music, yoga, library all her fears were dismissed. Our son has really thrived. We are happy with the kind of stimulation and play both our kids get. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. We opted to enroll our son in the French program for his second year of Kindergarten and are thrilled to have given him the opportunity to learn a another language.
Every neighborhood in Toronto has a community center with indoor swimming pools and other sport activities. We have two such community centers walking distance from our house. One offers completely free programs and the other has paid programs but at very reasonable rates. Couple days in a week these centers offer unstructured play for children in their indoor gyms. They provide all the toys, cars, bikes etc. We found this specially useful in the winter months when the weather in not apt for outdoor play.
Also there are numerous programs offered for children and youth by the city such as gymnastics, karate, swimming, ice skating, soccer, summer camps etc which are highly affordable. You have to enrol for these program online and we’ve heard stories of parents waking up extra early on the day of the registration to make sure their kids get a spot.
One other great difference we’ve found moving here from the Bay Area is that we don’t have to strap our kids in the car seat for every little thing. All the kids stuff is walking distance, contained within the neighborhood and so less driving. Also that are kids everywhere and the playgrounds are filled with kids. In the Bay area despite its great weather we found that the playgrounds were mostly empty.
Toronto has great public transportation. If you are living in the city you don’t necessarily need to own a car. We didn’t know what to expect so we imported one of our cars from the US. But now that we’ve lived and experienced all four seasons, we would have done fine without a car. In fact for the first 6 months we didn’t use our car at all. I just enjoyed taking a break from driving, it was just easier to catch a streetcar (tram) without having to worry about parking. Toronto has great streetcar, buses, subway network. The downtown core is quite walkable so if you are living in one of the condos then you can walk to almost any part. Biking is another popular mode of commute, people bike through the year barring few days of snow. Toronto boasts of a great bike share network. You can take an annual membership for just $90 a month and bike to just about anywhere in Toronto. A lot of our neighbors use bike share to commute to work. They find it easier to riding their own bikes to work.