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Photo by Rob Nelson. Click on images to view larger versions.

Discount tickets speed your way through all-star attractions in major cities.

5-Dec-23 – As a first-time visitor to Toronto, I had a loose itinerary in mind: View the city from the top of the CN Tower, roam the Royal Ontario Museum, and embark upon a boat cruise along the harbor. Then I discovered CityPASS, a pre-purchase discount ticket program to major attractions. That gave me extra bandwidth – and dollars – to add a few more experiences.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the capital of Ontario province. It’s a dynamic metropolis on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the coastline is framed by a retinue of modern-day skyscrapers. The city’s signature feature is the CN Tower, so that’s where I began my exploration.

The tower (left), which resembles a donut stuck on a sword, stands 1,815 feet above the metropolis. Built in 1976 as a telecommunications center by Canadian National Railway, it was the world’s tallest building until the Burj Khalifa penetrated the Dubai sky.

High-speed elevators – or 1,776 stairsteps – lift you to the glass-walled observation decks for 360-degree aerial viewing day and night. If you’re brave, stand on the glass floor and look down. The roof of Ripley’s Aquarium next door is painted with silhouettes of two enormous whales. I’m told the glass floor is strong enough to support the weight of 35 moose. An adult moose weighs more than 1,000 pounds, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

If you’re braver still, step onto the outdoor walkway called EdgeWalk (right) and circle the tower while attached to a harness.

CN Tower

CN Tower

Or grab a local craft beer at the casual VUE Bistros like I did. For fancy dining, the revolving 360 Restaurant is known for steak, seafood, and a wine bar.

Toronto from the harbor

For a different perspective of the splendid skyline, I signed on for a cruise of the inner harbor. The 160-passenger Oriole, operated by City Cruises Toronto, is a replica of a vintage Great Lakes steamship. The vessel leaves from Queen’s Quay Terminal several times a day while in season.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The hour-long cruise is accompanied by lively narration covering local history, legends, and quirks.

For example, the record for climbing the 1,776 stair steps at CN Tower is 7 minutes and 52 seconds, set in 1989. Legendary baseball pitcher Babe Ruth is reported to have hit his first and only minor league home run in Toronto in 1914.

Just offshore are the Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 picturesque, interconnected islands and a popular destination for outdoor recreation. The islands, a 13-minute ferry ride from the harbor, are home to the regional Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, an amusement park, yacht clubs, a marina, and beaches. One beach is clothing optional.

A museum of past and future

On to the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, as the venerable institution is known locally. The original buff-hued brick and terra cotta building, designed in grand Romanesque and Neo-Gothic styles, opened in 1914. It’s been expanded several times, most recently with a controversial 2007 addition that looks like a glassy skyscraper crashed and splintered into the facade. The addition is named the “Crystal.”

Crystal’s modernity contrasts sharply with the skeletal futalognkosaurus (right), a long-necked sauropod stretching 110 feet in length across the lobby. The extinct herbivore, which roamed about 88 million years ago, is one of the largest animals ever.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The dinosaur specimen is just one of 13 million objects spanning art, culture, and nature from around the world and across the ages at Canada’s largest museum. Four levels of gallery space feature such diversity as ancient Egypt, precious jewels, Canadian artists and designers, Chinese architecture, four mummies, First Peoples’ art and culture, and oh-so-many more dinosaurs.

Ripley’s watery wonderland

At the base of the CN Tower is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, where 20,000 aquatic creatures make their home in a dozen or so galleries. The Canadian Waters gallery features continental natives, including thousands of alewives schooling and following each other in a cylindrical tank. Rainbow Reef recreates the warm but eroding coral seas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean for a kaleidoscope of more than 100 colorful species.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The largest and perhaps most thrilling gallery is Dangerous Lagoon where a moving sidewalk transports you through an underwater tunnel.

An array of sharks, green sea turtles, Queensland groupers, and other species glide above and beside you in their 800,000-gallon saltwater tank.

Toronto’s urban safari

Canada’s largest zoo, Toronto Zoo, is the guardian of more than 3,000 animals from around the globe. They are grouped among seven zoogeographic regions such as Africa and Eurasia Wilds, based on their native homes. Some can be viewed in outdoor habitats and others in indoor enclosures.

In the Tundra Trek region, the polar bears are visible, frolicking both above and below the water, thanks to the glass wall in an underground tunnel that borders their pond.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The newest addition is an invigorating and immersive outdoor habitat for the zoo’s seven resident orangutans in the Indo-Malaya region. Designed to simulate the primates’ native Borneo forests, the space includes climbing towers connected by ropes, elevated walkways, and platforms. A research station where animal behavior scientists can study the tree-dwellers is integrated within the space.

The Canadian Domain, where animals native to the country live, is at the end of a forested downhill trail. Many people don’t take the trouble to go down there, but you should. Not only is the area less crowded, but you can see Shintay, a 24-year-old grizzly bear; a bison herd; and more. It’s worth the trek.

Storybook castle on the hill

Casa Loma is a Gothic Revival-style mansion and estate that retains the grandeur and decorum of the Gilded Age. Constructed during the pre-World War I years of 1911-1914, it was the residence of wealthy businessman and military commander Sir Henry Pellatt. His most notable accomplishment, other than building the largest private home in Canada, was bringing hydroelectricity to Toronto. Alas, poor investments caused Pellatt to lose both his money and his mansion.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

After undergoing a hefty restoration, Casa Loma is today a historic house museum, hospitality venue, and film backdrop. Parts of Chicago, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and X-Men were filmed there.

With its turrets and crenellations, the brick-and-sandstone Casa Loma bears hallmarks of a medieval castle. The name translates to “house on a hill,” given for its elevated location. Sprawling terraces and lush gardens behind the mansion overlook the city skyscape.

Within the interior of Casa Loma are 98 rooms and 21 fireplaces. The soaring Great Hall features a dramatic 60-foot ceiling and a rare Wurlitzer theater organ, circa 1920, with more than 1,500 pipes. The Conservatory is crowned with a stained-glass domed ceiling. Also inside the mansion is the Blueblood Steakhouse, a modern twist on the classic steakhouse where you can order fine beef from around the world and where Caesar salads are still made tableside.

CityPASSing in Toronto and beyond

I booked my stay at the new Canopy by Hilton Toronto Yorkville, a contemporary boutique hotel with a humorous artsy vibe. Situated between the upscale Yorkville and leafy Rosedale neighborhoods, and convenient to CityPASS attractions, the 184-room property is the first Canopy-branded Hilton in Canada.

Onsite are the discerning Día Restaurant & Lounge with a global menu, and Virtu Cafe, an elevated coffeehouse.

Canopy by Hilton Toronto Yorkville

Canopy by Hilton Toronto Yorkville

CityPASS is one of the best deals for travelers and tourists in North America. Available in 16 cities and destinations, CityPASS tickets bundle deeply discounted admissions – up to 50 percent – to the most popular sites in one easy-to-use, prepaid mobile ticket. Precise details vary from location to location, and participating attractions may change.

CityPASS is also available in Chicago. The five-attraction ticket gets you into Shedd Aquarium and Skydeck Chicago, plus your choice of three more sites and experiences. There’s also a three-attraction option. Both are valid for nine days, starting with your first admission.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.