Living in Toronto: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

by Ellie Cleary

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Just over a year ago, we packed our bags and moved from Mumbai, India to Toronto. A year on, we’ve got to know a bit about living in Toronto as we have found our way around our new city, how it has compared to our expectations. In this post we share how our experience has been living in Toronto and what advice we would give to would-be new Toronto residents!

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Living in Toronto: Our Experiences

If home is where the heart is, the decision to up and move to a new town, city, country or continent is not one to be taken lightly. After all, what we derive our sense of home from is hard to define, and a concept that perhaps becomes ever more elusive, the more we travel in search of it.

When we speak about living in Canada with most of our friends living in other parts of the world, we normally get a favourable response: Wow, Canada’s so beautiful. The nature is incredible. Canadians are so friendly. The political situation is so much better there.

Toronto was our first port of call in Canada – a decision born from practical concerns rather than anything else: It’s on Eastern Standard Time, within 7 hours flying time to Europe, speaking French isn’t mandatory to get a job, and it’s Canada’s most multicultural city. Before we arrived with our six suitcases in Toronto, Ravi had never set foot in Canada, and I’d spent a grand total of two days for business meetings – with no exploration time built in.

It’s fair to say that moving to Toronto was hardly the most considered decision we’ve ever made. What brought us here was Ravi’s Permanent Residency of Canada which he’d been in the application process for a number of months before we had even met.

By the time Ravi’s PR came through I knew I wanted to join him, and I applied for a two year working holiday visa which was miraculously approved within days (some applications sit in the ‘pool’ for months, or never get approved – it’s luck of the draw).

the toronto skyline in summer

Toronto’s skyline on a summer’s evening… not too bad!

And we’re not the only ones. Back in India (and many other countries, we’re sure), Canada is hailed as pretty much the holy land. You can’t drive more than one kilometre in Punjab without seeing a “Study English, move to Canada” advert by some school or another. And more importantly, it’s a country which still allows immigration in some form, where many others (including my home one) are sadly doing all they can to keep migrants out.

This post is written from our own learnings about the experience of moving to and living in Toronto – and perhaps some of what we wish we would have known before hand. It’s written from our perspective: We’re a British and Indian couple in our mid 30’s. We like peace and quiet. We like travelling. We love nature. We love good food even more. And, we love warm weather (you can see where this is going).

We’re not trying to be grumpy middle-aged people complaining about Toronto. Rather we’re trying to bring across what moving to a place like Toronto is really like – especially for those coming from wildly varying cultures and countries.

The Good

Toronto is perhaps the perfect introduction to Canada. It’s Canada’s biggest city as well as its most diverse, and its possible to find a token of most cultures from around the world here. For us that was a bonus point. For obvious reasons we love our Indian food, and Toronto is not short of Indian grocers, supplies and restaurants (although the better ones are in Brampton and Mississauga).

Getting around Toronto is a breeze and although many locals bemoan the public transit system (the TTC) it’s never really hard to get somewhere within the downtown core or city by public transit. The main method of getting around is by trams (streetcar as they are called in Toronto), or for journeys that happen to coincide with the central north-south or west east lines there is a limited subway. Ride hailing with Uber and Lyft is affordable, and Go Trains link downtown Toronto with suburbia within the greater Toronto area (GTA).

public transit in toronto

It’s relatively easy to move around Toronto on the streetcars (trams)

If you’re looking for Entertainment, Bars, and Clubs, Toronto is the city for you: It has some great Entertainment. Just don’t come to us when you find you’ve spent all your paycheck on drinks!

Torontonians themselves are welcoming and are generally willing to help those who look lost or are in need of assistance. Within our first few months in Toronto we were invited to Thanksgiving dinners by new friends; the streetcar drivers actually wait for you when you’re running, and people have always been happy to explain how things work in the city.

The Summers! As a consolation prize for the extended months of ice, Toronto gets a hot and humid summer: Which invariably means spending summers out of town alongside lakes (better start saving for that summer cottage now), trips to the Toronto Islands on the Ferry and plenty of things to do in Toronto in Summer from browsing Farmers Markets and Food Festivals to enjoying the green spaces outside of the city. Torontonians seem to have their own schedule for summer: We’ve noticed that many seem to don their shorts come May 1st – regardless of whether the outside temperature is above freezing or not…

the beaches, toronto

“The Beaches” area of Toronto

The Bad

The Cost of Living has been creeping steadily up in Toronto over recent years, particularly as more people move to the city and demand for everything increases. Among the most expensive things about living here are housing (see below for budgets in our FAQ), transportation is expensive with a monthly Toronto Transit pass costing $160.  Alcohol will cost you (as is the case across Canada), and if you’re thinking about owning a car, you might just want to look up the insurance prices first. For clothes, all self-respecting Torontonians head across the border to Buffalo, NY every once in a while where there is a choice of clothing brands at about 30% less of the cost.

The Construction. As Toronto has soared in popularity as a place to live, it has quickly run out of places for its new- and old- comers to live, especially affordable ones. Clearly, more accommodation needs to be built. The skyline of Toronto, like many other “world cities” has become peppered with cranes. Come summer (the season which the ground is not frozen in) and many a luxury downtown condo is surrounded by construction of the same. While development truly necessary (and caused by immigrants such as us), we experienced the reality of living in what is essentially a big construction site: Where we weren’t able to open our windows without being greeted by the predictable melody of drilling.

Toronto construction

Cranes pepper the Toronto skyline, like many other world cities

The Distances as a European, I’m used to the idea of hopping on the train to Paris for lunch. The idea of it taking more than a day to get somewhere by train is unheard of. The idea of not being able to get a train there even less so. Although Toronto is actually one of Canada’s best connected cities, with frequent trains to Montreal and onwards to Quebec, or to Ottawa and Niagara and London ( London, Ontario – that is), what looks like a tiny hop on the map can turn out to be a 7 hour drive. Hardly an option for a day trip. Travel is also expensive in Canada, with sleeper berths on the mighty Canadian (train) to Vancouver going for upwards of $2000 and flights to Vancouver costing the same as a flight back home to London. A weekend escape to Niagara on the Lake will easily set you back about $1000.

The Food – this one might be a bit controversial, as to many, Toronto is a foodie destination, with a wide range of cuisines and cutting edge eateries inspired from around the world. Our issue was with the quality of ingredients. Given that Ontario’s soil is frozen for much of the year, it’s pretty difficult to grow much that tastes good without artificial help and most food is imported from the US. Which played havoc with our stomachs compared to what we were used to in Europe & India.

The Canada you’ve seen on Instagram is not Ontario. Depending on your perspective, this might be a good thing. But generally, we’ve found that when people think of Canada they’re thinking of Banff, Lake Louise and the Rockies. Well: Ontario (and especially not Toronto) look nothing like that. Ontario is flat, full of woods and lakes and is pleasant, but getting out to the prettiness of those woods and lakes takes time, money and a car. Accessing countryside around Toronto is really difficult without a vehicle: Your best bet is to hire one. There is one public bus service during summer to Alonquin Park as an alternative that is worth checking out. Renting a cottage in cottage country is also an option, but prepare to have deep pockets for summer weekends and book well in advance.

The Job Market can be Tough. We had assumed that it would be relatively easy for Ravi to find work in Toronto – after all he has an MBA and several years of experience working in marketing. But the Toronto job market is tough and getting tougher – as local students and immigrants compete for jobs. We found that it was essential to get Canadian experience or studies under our belts in order to have a chance of being considered for jobs, and we’ve come across many immigrants who are doing jobs that are a fraction of the level they would be working at back home.

The Ugly

winter in Toronto

We are the north has a literal meaning, too!

Ravi and I now have a running joke between us that before we want to move anywhere, we have to check the weather forecast. For all seasons of the year.

And that’s because Canadian Winters are no joke. If you love the cold weather and winter sports then you can skip this, you’ll be just fine. For those who like their weather warm (like us) and are concerned about Canadian winters, you have every right to be!

Toronto’s winter is *relatively* mild by Canadian standards, with lows reaching down to a mere -30 degrees C during an average winter. (Montreal gets colder, as does Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and of course anywhere further North). The only milder options are in Nova Scotia and British Columbia: It’s no accident that Vancouver is Canada’s most expensive city.

But the Toronto winter can have a real impact on your life. It gets windy in downtown Toronto, bringing arctic gusts around the tall buildings, creating a piercing chill as you wait for the streetcar. The winter we just survived (2018-9) was apparently one of the worst (we’re not convinced) and lasted from November to May.

The “polar vortex” arrived in February and brought frozen water and air that bit any skin it touched.

For winter in Toronto, newcomers need to be well prepared. That means serious winter coats made from down that will set you back a few hundred dollars. You need a coat that at least goes down to your thighs and has a hood. Hats, good gloves and boots that can handle the snow are all a must.

But then aside from the winter itself are its effects. Much of Toronto seems to hibernate and social activities grind to a halt for all but the most determined. It’s easy to stay indoors and not do much at all, which over time can lead to depression. I found myself getting headaches from the cold on windy days as my brain struggled to understand how it could look so warm and beautiful looking outside from in (the winter skies are often a piercing blue) despite the temperature being -20 degrees celsius.

Clearly we are not fans of cold and the winter got us down. All of the things to do in and near Toronto in winter involve winter sports, so if you are not a winter person, we urge you to think carefully about this aspect of living in Toronto as winters are long and can last more than half the year. With the average starter job vacation leave of 2 weeks per year, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to fly south often to escape it, either.

Corktown Common, Toronto

Our favourite place in Toronto: Corktown Common

In Search of Home

Our experiences of living in Toronto may not be those of typical newcomers to the city. After all, I had firmly decided that I didn’t intend to live anywhere colder than London (UK), and that I didn’t want to live in a big city. But then we ended up in Toronto.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that the concrete and icy coldness of Toronto choked us and left us with a soul-less feeling.

Our journeying to Toronto from Mumbai – a warm, wet, still partly jungled city could not have provided more of a contrast. The lack of people on the street, the privacy and the overwhelming consumerism of the average North American city provide real reverse culture shock. Then there’s the fact that no-one knows who their neighbours are in the condo-blocks, let alone talks to them. It’s perhaps obvious that we found it hard to make friends: We found that although the welcome is friendly, there’s a limit to that friendliness. Finding friends who you can call up to hang out with at five minutes notice takes time – more time than we were willing to give Toronto.

There’s no doubt that living in Toronto – and Canada – in general offers a great quality of life. It’s possible to get things done without bribing officials, the crime levels are generally low, health care is good (*if* you have access to it – those on temporary work permits do not which gets expensive) and salaries can be good. But the cost of living is also high.

Despite the hardships that are prevalent in many developing countries, they all have something which is missing from the streets of Toronto: Innocent joy. Whether it’s reading the morning paper in the sunshine, enjoying a fresh cup of ginger chai, or listening to the sound of kids playing in the streets… these are the things we miss.

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Want to know more about living in toronto? We share our experiences about moving to toronto as two expats - read more

Living in Toronto FAQs

How much does Living in Toronto cost? 

At time of writing, a one bedroom condo (apartment) in downtown Toronto (of very small proportions) can easily go for around $2000 CAD per month, excluding utilities. If you’re willing to move further out away from downtown or live in a basement, rents decrease to around $1500 per month. Sharing with others can be a good way to save money too. Mobile/Cell phone plans are some of the most expensive in the world here, and you can easily expect to pay around $100 a month on your phone. Groceries cost around $500 per month for 2 people. 

What’s the Toronto winter like? 

Although winter in Toronto is pretty bad, it’s not as cold in Toronto as it gets in Montreal, Calgary, or anywhere further north in Canada. Winter is usually bright skies and sunny days, but chilling temperatures of down to negative 20 or negative 30 degrees centigrade, more when you add in wind chill. Winters are dry but there’s a fair amount of snowfall. Luckily, the city is well prepared for snow, and it doesn’t stop people from getting around. Winter generally lasts from October – March or April. Autumn/fall can be rainy, and spring can take a long while to warm up. We don’t recommend moving to Toronto in winter if you haven’t lived in a very cold climate before, as it can cause real depression. 

Leaving Toronto

Everyone has their own ideas about what makes a great place to live. It’s clear that Toronto wasn’t ours. So in August 2019, just over a year after we moved to Toronto we made the call to follow our hearts and head west, to Vancouver Island. Not only is it home to incredible nature and wildlife, it’s home to the mildest winter in Canada.

We haven’t looked back 😉

Are you considering moving to Toronto, or are you living in Toronto as an expat? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

Read more on Toronto on Soul Travel: 

Moving to Toronto

Visiting Toronto Islands in Winter

Our Favourite things to do in Toronto in Spring & Summer

 

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