TORONTO is to Canada what New York City is to the United States - the economic and cultural hub of a nation. But this city is less frenetic and has a dash of British sensibility spicing its flavorful ethnic stew.
Compared with New York's conspicuous clash of rich and poor and its residents' well-honed survival instincts, Toronto's economic strata seem less extreme. And because they live in one of North America's safest cities, Torontonians don't need to be combat ready when out for a stroll.
It is this ``civilized'' quality that makes Toronto different while evoking a feeling of familiarity, especially among Americans. Yet there are unmistakable signs that this is a ``foreign'' city.
Canada is officially bilingual, so there are French translations on everything from highway signs to cereal boxes. And unlike Boston, for instance, pedestrians are king in Toronto - yet are admonished by street-corner signs to ``obey your signals.''
Metropolitan Toronto is home to 3.9 million people. Excluding adjacent municipalities, the city itself has about 700,000 inhabitants and is among the cleanest - if not the most spic-and-span - of the major cities in North America.
Tourists from the United States can scarcely believe it: No trash in the gutters. No wads of newspapers blowing down the street. It's a sure reminder to visitors that - despite the familiarity of the fast-food franchises - being in this city isn't just like being back in the good old (messy) USA. Visitors also get the distinct feeling of being a world citizen, a feeling that flows from Toronto's ethnic and cultural shift.
In 1957, Europe was the source of 95 percent of Canada's immigrants, most of them from the United Kingdom. By 1990, European immigrants were 29 percent of the total, compared with 49 percent from Asia, most of whom settled in cities. ``Visible minorities'' in metropolitan Toronto now make up 24 percent of its residents, say sociologists Larry Bourne and David Ley.
THIS shift is most in evidence when exploring Toronto's streets, where its ethnic and cultural vitality are on display: Chinatown stretches along Dundas St. West; Little Italy is on College St. West; ``The Danforth'' holds a Greek enclave.
A subtler indicator of change comes in conversation. Popping up now and again is the phrase ``Toronto the good,'' a backhanded compliment Canadians pay their city that harks back to when everything from politics to cooking was white, European, and Protestant. Reinforcing the old image of a bland city that tucks itself in at night is the famous remark by W.C. Fields: ``I went to Toronto last Sunday; it was closed.''
But this city long ago shed the vestiges of dullness for a high-octane vitality that wraps into one package sports, architecture, multicultural festivals, food, theater, and film. Today it is ``Toronto the vibrant.''
For example, there's Caribana, a huge Caribbean festival that runs from July 18 to Aug. 1 with a big parade July 30. Such attractions have helped make Toronto the most-often-visited city in Canada, with 25 million visitors in 1992. More than one-third of them came from the United States.
``Toronto is a very sophisticated city, culturally,'' says Don Rubin, founding editor of The Canadian Theatre Review, Canada's national theater journal. ``It's a great place to live. I spend a good deal of time in New York, but I love coming back to Toronto.''
Since government began subsidizing the arts after World War II, Toronto has become a theater town with few equals. The major regional theater for Toronto is at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Canada's official stage company.
At any given time of the year there are from 30 to 100 productions, from experimental to classical to huge commercial productions like ``Les Miserables,'' ``Phantom of the Opera,'' and ``Miss Saigon.''
Where Toronto excels is in theater's ``middle range,'' the realm between avant-garde and big commercial productions that caters to women, children, and seniors, says Mr. Rubin, who is also the editor of a 16-volume encyclopedia of contemporary world theater.
Alongside the intellectual stimulus of the theater, sports will be big in Toronto this summer.
After clinching their second World Series championship in a row last year, the Toronto Blue Jays will try for a third this summer. The Jays are scheduled to play 52 games from June through September in the SkyDome. The SkyDome, a 51,000-seat stadium with the world's first fully retractable dome, has become a tourist site unto itself.
Even though professional hockey is dormant, summer is still a great time for hockey fans and others to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame's glittering year-old home at the corner of Front and Yonge Streets in BCE Place. (It's a good place to take pre-teens, because many displays are interactive, including one where visitors play goalie and try to stop a video ``puck.'')
Indy-car races will roar through town down by the glittering waterfront of Lake Ontario July 15-17. For basketball aficionados who can't wait for the arrival of Toronto's own professional team in 1995, there is the 1994 World Basketball Championship Aug. 4-14. A million-plus tickets will be sold to 64 games among 16 international teams, including the US ``Dream Team II.''
Toronto must be one of the easiest cities in the world to navigate. It's laid out on a grid with Yonge Street as the main North-South axis. To get a dramatic visual grasp of the city, though, take a ride straight up.
Toronto's most prominent landmark is the Canadian National Railways television tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure and a great place to get your bearings once you arrive. At 1,815 feet, the CN Tower soars over the 1,377-foot-high World Trade Center in New York. On a crystal-clear day, you can see 60 miles to the cloud of mist rising over Niagara Falls.
* For more information, contact the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association at (800) 363-1990.