Haute cuisine is perhaps not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Canada. But during a recent visit to the country's biggest city the dining experience was, in every sense, one of the high points of my stay.

It was my first time back in Toronto for some 15 years and my wife's first visit to anywhere in Canada, and dinner on our first night had been arranged at one of the city's landmarks - 1,150 feet up in revolving 360 Restaurant on the iconic CN Tower (www.cntower.ca).

I wondered whether I should have told my hosts of my morbid fear of heights as we rocketed skywards in the lift up what was the world's tallest building for 32 years (it stands over 1,800 feet high at its tip). And as we were led to a table next to the floor-toceiling windows and handed the menu, I privately mused whether I might make only a passing acquaintanceship with my food before needing a quick trip to the bathroom.

Yet the view was so amazing as we slowly turned full circle, all negative thoughts and panic totally vanished. The city was laid out below us like a toytown model, the modern glass and steel skyscrapers shimmering in the glorious setting sun, dwarfing grand, older edifices, many of them overlooking Lake Ontario. From our man-made eyrie I could see why Toronto was nicknamed Queen City.

Tiny sailboats bobbed on the calm waters of the lake, which stretched as far as the eye could see. The usually-busy ferry service linking the city with offshore Toronto Island was idle, thanks to a strike by city municipal workers. But the Toronto City Centre Airport on the island's western end buzzed with the frequent arrival and departure of aircraft. And as the sun disappeared, the city turned into a twinkling fairyland.

All the while, we had enjoyed a sumptuous feast of dishes highlighting produce from Ontario and Eastern Canada, washed down by one of the more than 550 Canadian and international wines from its "cellar in the sky". Executive chef Peter George and his team serve up food of the highest order - pun intended. Then, after a visit to the Sky Pod (the world's second-highest observation deck) for some photographs and a fleeting one to the glass-floored observation deck (where I kept my eyes firmly shut), we were whisked back down to earth in a glass-sided elevator (eyes closed again). Terra firma never felt more welcome.

We were lucky to have chosen our first evening to visit the CN Tower. The weather turned the next day, and for the rest of our Toronto stay it was often sheathed in rain clouds. Unseasonal for July, we were told. But then I can make it rain anywhere I travel.

Next morning, we left our city-centre hotel on a walking tour with one of the most knowledgeable and engaging guides I have ever met. Historian Bruce Bell is more than a guide, he is a Toronto legend. Thanks to his tenacity and campaigning, many notable old buildings and sites in the heart of the metropolis are now celebrated with historic marker plaques as part of the Bruce Bell History Project.

They include Toronto's old jail, in the basement below bustling St Lawrence Market - once the city hall - where he took us to show us chain rings still bolted to the brick walls.We walked through unassuming bank buildings to marvel at their unseen architectural splendour inside, from stucco ceilings and chandeliers to grandiose statues and wooden carvings. In their day, at the beginning of the 20th century, they were the citadels of this brave new world across the Atlantic. Many were torn down in the name of progress, as with most cities. Some are no longer banks; one of the grandest of them all now housing the Hockey Hall of Fame.

We also toured the city's opulent Union Station and, just opposite, the elegant interior of another city landmark, the Fairmont Royal York hotel. Bruce revealed he worked there as an elevator operator in the early 1970s. Years later, he has been made the hotel's honorary historian.

The tour continued on to the historic Distillery District (www.thedistillerydistrict.com), its old warehouses now a collection of cafes and boutique stores where you can take Segway tours, and ended with a cab ride to the Royal Ontario Museum (www.rom.on.ca), or ROM as it is affectionately known.

In a city of striking architecture, it is one of the most striking buildings of all. The futuristic Michael Lee-Chin Crystal wing was grafted on to the venerable, ornate Italianate museum and opened in 2007 to mixed reviews. Opinion is still divided today. You either love it, or you hate it. I must admit, while the exterior is undoubtedly breathtaking,I found the ultra-modern angles jutting into the 95-year-old building rather ugly.

However, the museum houses the world's largest collection of fossils and, as you would expect of Canada's largest museum of natural history and global culture, is packed full of galleries where you can lose yourself for hours. We visited the fascinating Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which is on until January 3, 2010.

Another old Toronto institution which has undergone an avant-garde makeover is the Art Gallery of Ontario (www.ago.net) - known, of course, as AGO. Toronto's own Frank Gehry - the architect celebrated for structures including Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum - was commissioned to transform and expand it. The result was unveiled in November 2008 and is utterly mesmerising, from its titanium and glass south wing to the sinuous spiral stairway and wooden Galleria Italia. The museum houses art ranging from Old Masters and Renaissance treasures to modern art and sculptures, but I found myself staring more at the building than its contents at times. The queue for the extended evening opening stretched around the corner as it was free entry, yet nobody minded.

One of our favourite city excursions was to Casa Loma (www.casaloma.org), an extravagant 98-room castle built by entrepreneur Sir Henry Pellatt.

Besides its many museums, among others the Ontario Science Centre (www.ontariosciencecentre.ca) and Museum of InuitArt (www.miamuseum.ca), Toronto boasts the world's third-largest theatre district, and in a short break you can catch top productions such as The Sound of Music.

The city is also a pulsating cultural melting pot; a world within a city where immigrants have created a kaleidoscope of ethnic neighbourhoods. They include four Chinatowns, a Greektown, a Little India and a Little Italy, which is more Portuguese these days.

As the fifth most populous city in North America and capital of Ontario (but not Canada - that is Ottawa, also in Ontario), shopping is a major pastime in Toronto. You can flash cash and credit cards at several shopping centres, including the sprawling Eaton Centre. And even the bone-chilling winters are no barrier. This is troglodyte city; its downtown is linked by nearly 17 miles of underground walkways which form the PATH system. A word of warning, though - it is easy to get disorientated in the maze of corridors, as we did. We had to be rescued by a friend whose bank building we were trying, and failing, to find.

Having scaled Toronto's highs and got lost in its lows, I found a city which had changed out of all recognition from my previous visit. I won't leave it 15 years before I pay a return visit.

Toronto facts

When to go
Any time of year. Summers are warm and late spring to early autumn is best for exploring beyond Toronto. Winters are bitter, but Niagara Falls is spectacular sheathed in ice and Toronto has underground walkways.

Getting there
British Airways (www.ba.com) and Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) fly to Toronto from Heathrow, year-round. Flights are also offered year round from Gatwick by Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com), using partner carriers Thomas Cook Airlines and Air Transat, and by Flyglobespan (www.flyglobespan.co.uk) to nearby Hamilton.

Accommodation
Among Toronto hotels are the Hyatt Regency Toronto (www.torontoregency.hyatt.com), in the city centre, close to the theatre district, and the historic Fairmont Royal York (www.fairmont.com/royalyork). Niagara Falls has several big hotels overlooking the falls, some with casinos. For a quieter stay an easy walk from the falls, try the boutique Old Stone Inn (www.oldstoneinn.on.ca).
In Muskoka, stay at The Rosseau, Canada's first JW Marriott Resort & Spa (www.jwrosseau.com).

Tour operators
Operators offering short breaks include: Frontier Canada (www.frontier-canada.co.uk), Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com),Thomas Cook (www.thomascook.co.uk), Flyglobespan (www.flyglobespan.co.uk), 1st Class Holidays (www.1stclassholidays.com), Key 2 Holidays (www.key2holidays.co.uk) and Tailor Made Holidays (www.tailor-made.co.uk).

Getting around/attractions
Toronto has excellent public transport including buses, streetcars and a subway system with four lines. Save money by buying blocks of tickets, single-day or week passes from the Toronto Transit Commission(www.ttc.ca).Walking tours: Bruce Bell Tours (www.brucebelltours.ca). Niagara Parks (www.niagaraparks.com) operates many of the Niagara Falls attractions, including the People Mover Bus which links major sites. A combined Adventure Pass gives 40% savings on fourtop attractions. Fly high with Niagara Helicopters (www.niagarahelicopters.com). Rent a car
to explore Niagara and Muskoka from Dollar Car Rental (www.dollar.co.uk).

Tourist information
Ontario Tourism: www.ontariotravel.net/uk
Toronto Tourism: www.tourismtoronto.com
Canadian Tourism Commission: 0870 380 0070,
http://uk.canada.travel

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Toronto.