A Local Guide to Toronto with Tattoo Artist Jess Chen

Where do Torontonians go to get tattoos, Korean food, and great stationary?

toronto beach front pier
Hit Toronto for outdoor hangs, laid-back cafes, and art | LMspencer/Shutterstock
Hit Toronto for outdoor hangs, laid-back cafes, and art | LMspencer/Shutterstock
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Toronto is indie enough to give birth to Scott Pilgrim, vibey enough to be a weed legalization pioneer, and hip enough to be Drake’s hometown. So it’s no surprise that creative types thrive here—which is exactly why everything Jess Chen touches turns to gold.

Or, more accurately, to pastels: paintings, illustrations, film photographs, 8-bit video games, ceramic dishware, and—once you’ve stopped in at her tattoo studio—your body.

A proud lifelong Torontonian, it seems like Chen and her floral art were born for the city’s abundant greenspaces—but it’s really the diversity that she lives for. “I never really appreciated or understood how diverse Toronto was until I started traveling,” she says. “That’s when I was like, wow, I'm really lucky to be in this place where I get to see all types of cultures, eat all types of food, and just be around different types of people.”

artist jess chen
Artist Jess Chen in her studio | Photo courtesy of Jess Chen

That carries over to the ink scene, where just about everybody you meet is down to mix things up. “In a lot of different places around the world, they're known for like black line tattoos, or Americana traditional,” explains Chen. “In Toronto, you can get a huge mix of things. And I find my clients in Toronto are also incredibly open-minded about different styles and getting more outside-the-box tattoos, things that are a little bit more unique and not-so-traditional, or nothing that you've seen before. I really appreciate that.”

If you, like a tattooed Torontonian, are also down to be open-minded and not-so-traditional, look no further. Skip the CN Tower for a more local look at life in Toronto with Chen’s guide to good food, disco dancing, and more in Canada’s biggest cultural hub.

inside a cafe
The Tempered Room Pâtisserie in Parkdale | The Tempered Room

Start the day in a cozy cafe 

“For breakfast, I like to go to the Parkdale neighborhood. There's a lot of really cute cafes and good breakfast spots, like The Tempered Room. It has really good coffee, and really really good pastries. And then I go to a place called Rustic Cosmo Cafe. It’s a really good, no-frills brunch spot for breakfast bagels, eggs benny, and pancakes.”

Get outside in Toronto’s best parks

“High Park is probably at the top of my list. It’s actually quite big, so even if it is a busy Saturday afternoon, you can probably find a spot to yourself, which to me is like the most important thing—that a place isn’t too crowded. Another spot I go to is Christie Pits. It's quite busy, but it’s close to a lot of good restaurants, so I love it there.”

a greenhouse
Immerse yourself in tropical plants at the Allan Gardens | Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock

Find some inspiration

“I like going to Allan Gardens Conservatory. It's this really small greenhouse downtown, and it's just a great opportunity to study tropical plants. I bring my sketchbooks, and there are benches everywhere, so I just sit and sketch plants.”

Get inked 

“A few studios I’d recommend: Delete After Death, which is owned by @jayrosetattoo and @sewp. They focus on black and grey illustrative tattoos. Also Eden Tattoo Studio, newly opened by @humblebeetattoo who is known for their linework style. And Corner Pocket Tattoo—the best studio if you are interested in American traditional tattoos. I'm a big fan of @moveslow.”

display inside the Gardiner Museum
Ai Weiwei at the Gardiner Museum | The Gardiner Museum

Visit the most underrated museum in Toronto

“I recommend going to the Gardiner Museum. I don’t think a lot of people really know about it, but it’s a ceramics museum and it’s so quiet—there’s hardly ever many people in there, so it’s always really nice.” 

Pick up some souvenirs

“There’s a great stationery shop in Parkdale called Paper Plus Cloth. It specializes in Japanese stationery—just a huge range of paper products, pens, art supplies, washi, tape, stickers, all that good stuff.  There’s also this store on Queen Street called 100% SILK Shop. It’s a gallery, as well. They sell very curated designer clothing, and a lot of Toronto artists sell their stuff there, too.”

people dancing at The Piston
Disco isn't dead at The Piston | The Piston Bar

Remind yourself that disco isn’t dead

“There’s this disco night at The Piston that’s incredible.”

Eat and shop your way through Koreatown

“There are so many good places [in Koreatown]. There's a restaurant there, Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu, and it's amazing. The place has a very specific atmosphere to it—it's always busy. It’s super cheap, bustling, very quick—so a great lunch spot.

There's a Korean grocery store called PAT, and it's a really good spot to get a lot of Asian specialty groceries, which is not super common in downtown Toronto other than in Chinatown. Inside, there’s also a place called Kevin's Taiyaki. And it’s the best taiyaki in Toronto for sure. You can choose between custard or red bean, and it's all made to order, so it's super fresh every time. It's perfect for a light snack or dessert.

Hodo Kwaja is this restaurant that specializes in Korean walnut cake. You can either choose between red bean, or walnut, or potato. It’s pretty well known in Toronto and they also do shaved ice in the summer.

Another place to go to is Hanji Gifts. It specializes in Korean hanji paper, stationery, and greeting cards. I usually go once in a while just to pick up some really nice paper—everything’s really high quality.

patrons inside a bar
Pop into Bar Isabel for tapas and dessert | Bar Isabel

Don’t forget dinner

“On the more expensive side, I’d pick Miku if you want to treat yourself. It’s amazing, really high quality Japanese food. Another one of my favorites that I go to for all of my birthdays is called Bar Isabel. I’ve gone so many times, and it’s very consistent—every time is amazing. It’s a Spanish tapas restaurant, and they have this insane cake if you like dessert. It’s called a Basque cake and it has a sherry cream on top. 

There’s also a big Italian food place, and all the prices are pretty reasonable, called Sugo. It’s really good for pasta, sandwiches, stuff like that.”

bikers on the Toronto Islands
Take a nature break on the Toronto Islands | Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock

Hit the one tourist trap that’s actually worth it

The Toronto Islands are definitely a tourist spot, but it’s amazing. You take a 10-minute ferry from the most southern point of the city. There are no cars. It’s best to bring your bike, ideally in the summer or spring. But take your friends, have a picnic, and be surrounded by water and a little nature. It’s really peaceful there.”

One last word of advice: Skip the Uber

“I tell all my clients who are from out of town to just walk everywhere. Toronto is quite large, but if you spend the day walking you'll hit up a lot of different neighborhoods and you'll really begin to understand what Toronto is all about. It's definitely walkable. I lived in New York for a year, and realized the same exact thing—you learn so much about a city just by walking everywhere versus transiting.”

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Tiana Attride will never be as cool as Ramona Flowers, but you can find her trying her best on Instagram and Twitter.