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A world of entertainment is yours in 'the District'

TORONTO -- The first time that I set foot in Toronto, more than half a century ago, there was hardly anything entertaining to do for a young man like myself. The Toronto Entertainment District was not even on peoples' minds. To have fun, people traveled to Buffalo, Detroit or Montreal.

"Toronto the Good" was a fine, but a boring city. For a lonely newcomer arriving from western Canada, roaming the streets or going to movies was about the only entertainment choice. Sunday was the worst day because restaurants weren't open. If I didn't buy food and take it illegally to my room on Saturday, Sunday would be a day of fasting.

How things have changed.

Toronto, Canada's largest metropolis today, has become a magnetic urban center for young and old alike. Innumerable places of entertainment, honeymoon getaways and the foods of the world are found in the hundreds of eating places that dot every corner of the city. Food buffs assert that one can eat in these restaurants -- most open seven days a week, 365 days a year -- and not have the same ethnic food twice.

I was discussing this transformation of Toronto with a friend and he advised that the top spot to find this new city is the Toronto Entertainment District.

The District, as it is commonly called, has all the goodies of the city in its eight-square blocks located in the heart of the city. Bordered by Bay/Yonge and the Financial District on the east, Queen Street on the north, Spadina and the Fashion sector on the west, and the Lakeshore on the south, the area is easily accessible.

The undisputed entertainment capital of Canada, the District is a heartland of good food and a lively concentration of bars, nightclubs and other entertainment spots bursting with inspiration. It boasts the world's largest and longest underground shopping complex with 1,200 shops. The District incorporates an incredible number of art galleries, boutiques, bistros, cafes, top-class luxury hotels, a myriad of gourmet restaurants and theater life galore.

Here one can shop both above ground and below ground; drink in its innumerable pubs and patios; dine in the best of Italian and French cuisine or the other fine foods of the world; catch a movie or a live performance in one of its six theaters; attend an art exhibit or a sports event; and climb the highest tower in the world to get a birds'-eye view of Toronto in all its glory, then return to rest in one of the District's six luxury hotels.

When I first roamed Toronto in the early 1950s, this neighborhood was an area of neglected warehouses and rundown homes. Yet, when the city was first established, it was set aside for the homes of Toronto's upper crust. In the ensuing years, after urban decay, there was growth and renewal. The neighborhood that was magnificently restored has now evolved into the premier center of Toronto and one of North America's most diverse entertainment destinations.

Among the historic landmarks that remain from the bygone era are the Campbell House, an example of Georgian architecture; St. Andrew's Church, once the leading church in the social reform movement of the Victorian era; the Black Bull Tavern, dating back to the early 1800s; Union Station, the train terminal that was inspired by the basilicas of ancient Rome; the CPR John Street Roundhouse, a reminder of the steam technology and the role of rail in Toronto; and the Royal York Hotel (today known as the Fairmont Royal York), renowned for its physical presence and beauty and hailed, when first constructed in 1929, as the largest hotel in the British Empire.

The most well-known landmarks that give the District its renown are the Roger's Centre, (formally called the Sky Dome), an impressive cathedral of sport boasting the world's first fully retractable roof and home to the Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays; the CN Tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure; the Air Canada Centre, home of the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs; the CHUM City Building, an innovative television station noted for its unique Gothic architecture; and the CBC Building, edged by Simcoe Park, designated the first park in Toronto in 1827.

Vying with these giant attractions are the famous Princess of Wales, the first privately built theater in North America; the Royal Alexandra Theatre, an architectural gem which has featured on its stage the most famous theatrical stars of the 20th century; and the spectacular Roy Thompson Hall, renowned in the world of entertainment. These three theaters have been largely instrumental in making Toronto the third largest theatergoing city in the English-speaking world.

The good number of plush condominiums being built around the District is gradually making it a popular high-demand residential area, especially for the young. The neighborhood's energy is seen at its best at night when the streets fill up with people dressed their best, ready for a night on the town. Numerous clubs host special events geared for enjoyment, creating a friendly atmosphere full of pleasure.

Every attraction, shop, restaurant and entertainment establishment is literally next door to the next. Considered a modern and fast paced neighborhood, it is constantly abuzz with entertainment and activities. Amazing, when one ponders that what was once a neglected area has become today a mecca of culture.

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If you go

For more information on the Entertainment District: (416) 397-0815, www.thedistrict.ca. For general Toronto information: www.tourismtoronto.com

Facts about the the Toronto Entertainment District:

It is easy to access by car and public transit (bus, subway and streetcar).

The Entertainment District has a volunteer-based association comprised of more than 200 area businesses committed to the development of marketing programs and promotion of tourism.

The District reflects the multicultural city of Toronto.

See the District from the top of a double-decker bus aboard one of the city tours.

Take a walking tour to learn about the rich history and rejuvenation of the area.

There are 12 neighborhood churches.

Visitors won't find a problem parking -- there are many surface parking lots within the district.

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Three good places to eat:

*Azure Restaurant & Bar, 225 Front Street West, is a distinguished restaurant with a Four Diamond Award of Excellence. Info: (416) 597-8142; www.azurerestaurant.ca. Cost for a fine dinner is about $40 CDN a person; $60 with wine.

*Penelope Restaurant, 225 King Street West, a fine eating place that recaptures the culinary style of authentic Greek cuisine. Average cost of a dinner entree about $20. Info: (416) 351-9393, www.peneloperestaurant.com.

*Kama, 214 King Street West, offers very reasonably priced classical and exotic Indian cuisine. Lunch buffet is $10.95 to $11.95; dinner buffet is $16.95 to 18.95. Info: (416) 599-5262, www.kamaindia.com.