For a transplanted Washingtonian, Toronto provides a remarkable contrast for not just enduring but actually enjoying winter.

When snow falls, snowplows and trucks lay down heavy doses of salt and are rarely caught off-guard. Workmen suddenly emerge with snow blowers to clear the sidewalks downtown. In residential neighborhoods, homeowners and tenants are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their dwellings. If they neglect to do so, a municipal worker does the shoveling and the city bills the occupant. Traffic slows, but life goes on in defiance of the elements.

Outdoor cafe's stay open on the waterfront. Skating rinks seem to pop up everywhere. And the Harbourfront's Winterfest is the city's ultimate celebration of the cold.

On the other hand, in the harshest days of January and February, when the mercury falls into the single digits and the strong winds come howling off the lake, the trick often is to spend as little time outdoors as possible. And Torontonians like to think of their city as being "weatherproof," with its excellent public transportation system and what they say is the largest subterranean complex in the world, a three-mile labyrinth of tunnels connecting much of the downtown core.

But indoors or out, Toronto, after many metamorphoses, has been transformed into a vibrant, multiethnic city. Recently, actor Peter Ustinov paid the city its most cherished compliment. "Toronto," Ustinov pronounced with some exaggeration, "is New York run by the Swiss."

Toronto of the 1950s and early '60s, however, was widely regarded by outsiders as an insular, uptight and puritanical town. It was sneeringly derided as "Toronto the Good" or, even less kindly, as "Hogtown." The railhead and stockyard center for the marketing of cattle and hogs, it was a city where, up until World War II, pigs were herded in the streets. Growing up in the Toronto of the 1940s and '50s, author Margaret Atwood remembers thinking of the city as "Gurunto." Not only did the taverns, shops and all the restaurants shut down on Sundays, but cur- tains were drawn over the display windows of the largest downtown department store lest any passers-by be tempted to window shop on the Sabbath. The joking question back then went, "What's the most exciting thing in Toronto?" The answer was, "The train to Montreal." People even went to closer Buffalo for a good time.

Toronto socialite Katie Hermant's father, who lived on the western Canadian prairies, so despised the starchy, upright city of Toronto that he was heartbroken when she told him of her decision to marry a man from the town. Even as he escorted her down the aisle to the altar where her groom waited, Hermant recalled laughingly, her father leaned over and whispered ever so softly, "It's not too late yet."

In the late 1960s, as Toronto began a dramatic metamorphosis, graphics designer Clive Beauchamp emigrated to the city from London. He really wanted to live in New York but feared being drafted into the military, so he decided to settle in Toronto. He confesses that it was a decision made with some trepidation, as he had the misimpression that he was going to a village in the wilderness, surrounded by moose, scarlet-coated Royal Canadian Mounties, Eskimos and endless pine trees. He still remembers the jolt of sheer ecstasy he felt when he looked down from the airplane at the handsome, busy metropolis below, its skyline distinguished by striking black steel-and-glass office towers designed by architect Mies van der Rohe. "I shouted to my wife, 'There's a city down there!' "

Today, Americans coming up to visit from the blighted cities of the Midwest and Northeast marvel at the absence of slums in Canada's largest city, its safe streets. Toronto's public transportation network, with interconnecting bus, subway and trolley-car links, is considered among the safest, cleanest, most efficient public transportation on this continent. In the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers and huge shopping complexes, the old low-rise neighborhoods have been preserved and restored. Inspired to a great extent by urban critic Jane Jacobs, who moved here in the 1960s in despair of what she felt was happening to American cities, Toronto's rebirth has been guided by a planning philosophy that eschewed, for the most part, the big, monotonous downtown developments in favor of subtle changes that accepted what was there but inserted something different.

As a result, in the core of a metropolitan area of more than 3 million people, there is still the human scale. Warehouses and factories have been turned into theaters, art galleries, studios, apartments and trendy restaurants. There are a couple of good museums, comedy clubs and lots of live music, including classical, blues, jazz, punk and reggae. Many middle-aged New Yorkers who come here wax nostalgically about how it feels like a "Back to the Future" trip to the lost Golden Age of Manhattan of the 1950s, when there was no crack, no subway graffiti and no daylight muggings around Times Square.

But Toronto has not evolved completely into a new New York. Not yet. Nor is it clear that Torontonians really want their city to become another New York, although sometimes they seem to think they do. One joke making the rounds here: How many Torontonians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Two. One to install the bulb, the other to call New York to make sure it was done properly.

However, the people of Toronto also enjoy the quiet, unhurried tempo of life in this city, where motorists honk their horns only if there is a true emergency, where residents almost reflexively queue up in neat lines -- at the bank, in supermarkets -- and where one is almost never jostled, not even at the height of rush hour in crowded subways. Salespeople and waiters can be slow and casual, but they are rarely rude or surly. And despite the fixation with New York, Torontonians are not always entirely comfortable with the brash and impatient American visitors who come up. Among themselves, says Toronto Life magazine publisher Peter Herrndorf, Canadians ask, "Why are the Americans so boisterous, so pushy, so confident?"

Successive Toronto mayors have said they have wanted to build a world-class city with small-town civility. There is still much of the small-town flavor, still a certain British reserve. Actor Ted Danson told the Toronto Star that when he first came here for location filming of the movie "Three Men and a Baby," the people he saw on the streets all looked like they were on Valium. But, he said, he found the city to be fun when he brought his family here.

In fact, much of winter life in Toronto revolves around fun:

Skating rinks abound, one of the most popular in the plaza in front of the New City Hall, a futuristic building consisting of a UFO-like structure flanked by two curved high-rises.

Cross-country skiers take to the trails around the animal cages at Toronto's Metropolitan Zoo.

On the weekends from now until mid-February, the city's Harbourfront is holding its Winterfest celebration, including barrel jumping, ice sculpting and outdoor barbecues as well as the dangerous 19th-century sport of ice canoeing races on Lake Ontario. The latter involves dragging, carrying and paddling a small boat over ice and through ice water.

Despite the harsh elements, life in winter goes on as usual here: On the evening of the first heavy snowfall of this year, workers were out in front of the brightly lit Royal Alexandra Theatre downtown, plastering big "Sold Out" stickers on posters. And the schoolchildren of Washington who arise so gleefully on snowy mornings to monitor the radio for the news of school closings would be very disappointed in Toronto. In the last three winters, schools have not shut down once because of snowfall.

Of course, the city does have that marvelous subterranean complex to help Torontonians and visitors alike avoid the elements. There are more than 300 stores, restaurants, banks, even dental offices and nightclubs in the brightly lit and safe maze. Bus shelters, subway stations and the big downtown shopping malls are reinforced with double doors and other insulating designs to ward off the cold.

But it seems many Torontonians don't realize the appeal that the complex holds for visitors. When a random sample of about a dozen local artists, architects, waiters, law students and entrepreneurs was asked to name the city's most popular tourist attraction, only one could do so.

Several thought it might be the gigantic hypodermic needle of the CN Tower, at 1,815 feet billed as the world's tallest free-standing structure. Others guessed that it might be Casa Loma, the hulking Disney-esque medieval castle built by a flamboyant stockbroker at the turn of the century, which has 98 rooms.

Actually, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Toronto, drawing 30 million visitors from outside the city each year, is the big downtown shopping mall, the Eaton Centre, an airy, glass-topped gallery of department stores, shops, trees, fountains and movie theaters.

In addition, well-heeled tourists flock to trendy Bloor Street, a yuppie heaven of designer boutiques and bistros, and they go down to the old garment district near the lake, where furriers say their prices are cheaper than in the United States, even with the duties that must be paid at the border.

The real strength and sinew of Toronto, however, are its diverse ethnic neighborhoods. Oddly, it is a city without a strongly defined center or clearly articulated common ethos. Rather, many different sensibilities bloom.

In the 1950s, the vast majority of Torontonians could trace their ancestry to the British Isles. But as barriers to immigration were lowered in the '60s and '70s, people came from the Orient, the Caribbean and southern Europe. Now there are more than 70 different ethnic groups in the city and more than 100 languages are spoken.

The Greek enclave on the east side of the city has a kind of carefree "Never on Sunday" ambiance, with Greek music blaring. The restaurants and markets along broad boulevards marked in Greek and English stay open until the wee hours. Just a few blocks away, the pace of life is contrastingly, primly sedate in Rosedale, home of the rich old Scots who still run the banks and through their control of the political system still make the rules.

In Kensington Market, in the old downtown Jewish neighborhood, there are now Chinese and Jamaican grocers selling their special condiments and produce, Portuguese fish merchants and East Indians vending hundreds of spices. Mandel's Dairy and Nussbaum's shoe store remain in the neighborhood, which is architecturally similar to New York's Lower East Side. But many other landmarks of an older era have vanished and been replaced by Chinese establishments whose English signs spell out their colorful names: The Tee Hee Jewelry, Go Charm Travel, the Happy Meat Market.

Further west, in the Portuguese quarter, the drab red brick houses that are common to Toronto have been painted yellow and turquoise, and balconies added on the front. There are coffeehouses and photography studios that display the wedding and communion portraits of the proud families of the neighborhood.

The first thing old Torontonians mention when they talk about the effect on the city of the influx of Italians, Greeks, Jamaicans, East Indians, Portuguese and Chinese over the past generation is the difference in the food. In the late 1950s, dining out in Toronto pretty much meant a choice between chicken-in-a-basket or a char-broiled steak. Today, there are more than 5,000 restaurants in the Toronto metropolitan area; the Yellow Pages listings break them down into 62 separate national categories.

In Chinatown now, the choices range from dim sum in a Hong-Kong-style restaurant to seafood, from Mandarin to Szechuan, from Vietnamese to Cantonese. On the east end of the city, there are Indian and Pakistani restaurants where tandoori chicken is baked in clay ovens, and a long, broad stretch of Greek restaurants on Danforth Avenue. In Slavic and German neighborhoods in western Toronto, there are many delicatessens, as well as Polish and Hungarian restaurants with their cabbage rolls and pirogi.

But if the new immigrants have changed Toronto, the city has also changed them. People from lively cultures in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean seem to have adapted to the more subdued style of the city. Their children acquire Canadian accents and punctuate their speech with the all-purpose Canadian query -- "Eh."

In fact, this is a city with egalitarian ideals, even though there is a tremendous concentration of wealth in the hands of the very rich. "America is a much more Darwinian society where winners and losers are clearly defined," says publisher Herrndorf. "We have a way of fudging that."

I like to take visitors on a tour that includes a stop at the sleekly modern St. Lawrence complex of apartments, shops, schools and a long greensward in a trendy downtown neighborhood near the shores of Lake Ontario. Then I explain that that particular complex is public housing and watch the faces. Actually, this is city-built housing open to those with middle incomes, who pay full rent, and the poor, who get subsidies.

"What we have done here is buy our way out of trouble by giving poor people enough money to survive," says Martin Goldfarb, a Toronto-based pollster and key political adviser. "In this country it's almost expected that if you're in trouble or you're lazy, the government will take you over this period of personal dysfunction."

One of the many undocumented Central American refugees who fled the United States after the immigration crackdown last year put it differently when he arrived in Toronto. He said that among illegal aliens in the United States, the word was that Toronto was "a cold place, but the people have warm hearts."

GETTING THERE: USAir has several direct flights daily to Toronto from Washington National. The current round-trip fare is $200; tickets must be purchased 30 days in advance. Eastern and Northwest also offer connecting service to Toronto from Washington.

In addition, there is daily train service between the cities. It's about a 15 1/2-hour ride, and until May, Amtrak is offering a special excursion fare of $138 round trip.

Native-born U.S. citizens do not need passports and may show a birth certificate or driver's license to enter Canada. Naturalized citizens need certificates of naturalization or other evidence of citizenship. Permanent residents of the United States (who are not citizens) need to show an alien registration receipt.

CURRENCY: While the U.S. dollar has fallen elsewhere, it has remained more or less steady in its value of about $1.34 in Canadian currency. Americans are advised to change money at banks, because most stores, while gladly accepting greenbacks, tend to give poorer rates of exchange.

WHERE TO STAY:A double room at the elegant, top-of-the-line Four Seasons Hotel (21 Avenue Rd., {416} 964-0411) in the trendy Yorkville section runs about $180 U.S. per night. Accommodations for two in the comfortable downtown Holiday Inn (89 Chestnut St., {416} 977-0707) cost about $85 a night. Both hotels, like many others in the city, offer half rates on Friday and Saturday nights as part of a citywide program called "Double Your Pleasure." (Cheaper rates are available at suburban hotels.)

WHERE TO EAT: For Greek fare, the best bet is to stroll along Danforth Avenue and pick the one with the roasting lamb in the windows that you like.

There are also many choices in Chinatown. Wah Sing at 41 Baldwin St. is a Chinese seafood restaurant. Two spicy lobsters cost less than $20 U.S. Crisp, garlicky string beans and crunchy shrimp are favorites at the Peking Dining and Tavern, 359 Spadina Ave., where a party of six can drink beer and get stuffed for less than $70 U.S. Dim sum in a Hong-Kong-style atmosphere can be found at Hsin Kuang, 346 Spadina.

Toronto is filled with first-rate Italian restaurants. Two of them are Orso at 106 John St. and Masaniello Ristorante at 647 College St. Dinner for two with wine runs about $50-$60 U.S. Much cheaper is Old Angelo's at 45 Elm St.

Sushi lovers like the Masa Japanese restaurant at 195 Richmond St. Those who prefer Indian tandoori cuisine are especially fond of the Shan-E-Hind Bar-Be-Que Hut, 1438 Gerrard St. East in the Little India section of Toronto.

For a good steak and the Victorian atmosphere of old Toronto, there is Winston's in the Bay Street financial district, a favorite haunt of bankers and stockbrokers, 104 Adelaide St. West.

Shopsy's Delicatessen at 33 Yonge St. East is a Toronto institution. And plain fare can be found on the cheap fixed-price menu at Old Ed's restaurant, 276 King St. West (where owner Ed Mirvish strictly enforces a jacket-and-tie rule). MUSEUMS & GALLERIES:The Royal Ontario Museum, at Avenue Road and Bloor Street, has dinosaurs, mummies, an extensive collection of Chinese artifacts and an adjoining planetarium. Across the street from it is the George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, whose exquisite collection includes pre-Columbian ceramics, English delftware and 18th-century European porcelain.The Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. West, includes a much-admired collection of Henry Moore sculpture. FOR CHILDREN:The Ontario Science Centre, 770 Don Mills Rd., is a hands-on museum with buttons to push, knobs to turn, levers to pull and sophisticated, educational video games.

Toronto's Harbourfront redevelopment project, which runs along Lake Ontario from York to Bathurst streets, includes a 1 1/2-acre ice rink; boutiques and restaurants in a gentrified, former warehouse; a dance theater, and an antique emporium. Winterfest at Harbourfront is from Jan. 30 to Feb. 14.

The Metro Zoo, with more than 4,000 animals on 710 acres, is about 10 miles from the city on Meadowvale Road, north of Highway 401. NIGHTCLUBS: For the '60s and older generations, the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel, 100 Front St., brings back memories. The younger set might prefer the rock and dancing at the Diamond Club, 410 Sherburne, or the El Mocambo Tavern, 464 Spadina Ave. There is reggae at the Copa, 21 Scollard, and sometimes at the Bamboo, 312 Queen St. West. There is rhythm and blues at the Club Blue Note, 128 Pears Ave., and at Brunswick House, 481 Bloor St. West. Among the choices available to jazz enthusiasts are George's Spaghetti House, 290 Dundas St. East; Cafe' des Copains, 48 Wellington St. East; and the Underground Railroad, a soul-food restaurant at 225 King St. East. COMEDY: Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Gilda Radner got their training at the Second City, Toronto's premier comedy club, which is housed in a 100-year-old firehouse at 110 Lombard St. "Saturday Night Live" scouts still come up from New York to see the improvisational routines that make Toronto laugh. INFORMATION: Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, Suite 110, 220 Yonge St., Box 510, Toronto M5B 2H1, Canada, (416) 979-3143.