Travel

Fall in Love With This Vibrant, Underrated Canadian Metropolis

Consider this your ultimate travel guide to Toronto.

Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure. Be sure to check travel restrictions, protocols, and openings before you head out.

They say there are two kinds of Canadians: those who live in Toronto and those who hate Toronto. Growing up four hours away in Ottawa, I was decidedly in the dislike camp. 

Canadian dislike for Toronto usually goes a little something like this: Toronto is filled with smog and its buildings are scary-tall. It’s a wannabe New York and embraces a level of American-style capitalism that’s so un-Canadian. It costs $20 to get into mediocre bars, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are a straight-up goon squad. 

But then something strange happened: I moved here for six months, and it shattered every preconceived notion about Ontario’s cultural hub. Well, except the part about the Leafs (curse you, Tie Domi!).

I learned that while Toronto has some scary skyscrapers, its 19th-century Victorian buildings are charming as hell. The outdoor spaces are expansive and endlessly explorable, especially when taking advantage of the cannabis culture which allows you to partake in public. In non-Covid times, weekends are packed with events and the bars are incredible. The people are neighbo(u)rly amidst the hustle and bustle, and yes, the food is stupidly good…  though nobody ever questioned that last part.

In a time when overseas tourism is on pause, North American travel is undoubtedly going to bounce back. When it does, Toronto is a city just waiting for you to fall in love with it. For a look at what gives this unique Canadian metropolis its verve, here’s the lowdown on Toronto’s parks, neighborhoods, restaurants, and more.

Church Street Toronto
This historic flatiron building in Old Toronto has a pub in the basement. | Nadine Shaabana/Unsplash

Toronto has so many unique neighborhoods to wander

Toronto is big, yes, but you don’t need a car to get around. The city is well-connected and full of distinctive neighborhoods that are fully walkable and worthy of exploration. 

"The neighborhoods make you feel like the city is a walkable museum full of history and story,” said Tygr Willy, aka Ty Sloane, a non-binary Anishinaabe-Chinese performer, activist, and curator at Pride Toronto

Sloane's perfect day in Toronto looks a little something like this: "Getting mango lassi in the east end in Little India, watching drive-in movies in Christie Pits Park, smoking a jay and playing music in Trinity Bellwoods Park, or taking a ferry ride to the Toronto Islands and going to Hanlan’s [Point Beach] and being in your full naked glory,” they said.

You’ll also want to check out the graffiti-scrawled Kensington Market for a food crawl and some thrift shopping; Queen Street West, The Annex, and Ossington Avenue for hip shops, restaurants, and bars; and the gay village at Church and Wellesley for a drag show. The Entertainment District downtown is for visiting the Harbourfront and catching big shows or sports games. Travel further afield to suburbs like Scarborough to dig in at diverse, delicious mom and pop eateries.

Looking for more local recs? Lifelong Torontonion, tattoo artist, and general badass Jess Chen shared her favorite shops, cafes, and Koreatown eats.

the Islands Toronto
The Islands are "definitely a tourist spot, but it’s amazing" says Jess Chen. | MARC BRUXELLE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Hanging out in Toronto's parks is a non-negotiable

(Unless you're visiting in the dead of winter, which like, why?) While Toronto’s downtown core is a little dystopian, a 15-minute ferry to the Toronto Islands lands you on some lovely city beaches with killer skyline views. The Islands can get touristy, but locals still love it for serene picnics by the water and Saturday bike rides.

You’ll also encounter fun-loving locals getting high and gazing at cherry blossoms in High Park, gathering for free outdoor movies in Trinity Bellwoods or Christie Pits, and ice skating at rinks all over the city in the winter months. Check out our full guide to all the best places to be outside in Toronto.

Pride parade flag in Toronto
Gay Pride Toronto is one of the largest and liveliest celebrations out there. | SHAWN GOLDBERG/SHUTTERSTOCK

Toronto has one of the world’s most vibrant LGBTQ+ scenes

Toronto hosts one of the largest annual Pride parades in the world—an event that, in normal times, attracts hundreds of thousands to the city every June. Year-round, the LGBTQ+ community gathers at Church and Wellesley, aka The Village—a neighborhood lined with gay bars, queer-owned businesses, and drag brunch joints. One local staple is Glad Day Bookshop; established in 1970, it’s the oldest queer bookstore in the world, and in non-pandemic times hosts a busy slate of drag brunches, dance parties, theme nights, readings, writing workshops, and more. Check out our interview with Glad Day's co-founder and his picks for fun places to go when you're in The Village.

DaiLo
We will accept any and all invitations to dine at DaiLo. | DaiLo

The food scene offers up cuisine from across the globe

With over 230 nationalities represented, Toronto is quite possibly the most diverse city on Earth (take that London). And the city’s legendary food scene follows suit. “Our food scene is exciting and wonderfully diverse,” said Joshna Maharaj, a chef, activist, and author of Take Back the Tray“We have masterful cooks from all over the world who have brought their flavors and skill to this city. What results is a very creative and innovative food culture that is never just one thing.”

Wherever you go in Toronto, a great meal is all but guaranteed, whether it’s flavor-packed dumplings, ethereal Ethiopian food, or the best oxtail outside of the Caribbean. If you need help narrowing the field, we asked three local chefs to dish (!) on their favorite places to grab a bite in Toronto.

416 Snack Bar
416 is an industry favorite for cold drinks and small plates. | 416 Snack Bar

The city's best bars are... also the city's best restaurants?

When the sun sets on Toronto, you've got options. You can hit one of the bouncy clubs in the Entertainment District, catch a live show in The Annex, or just hop around Queen West or Ossington. One thing you probably don't have to worry about (much) is a hangover, since many of the city's adored watering holes—like 416 Snack Bar, Bar Isabel, and Bar Raval—also sling incredible food. 

For that vibey low-lit, high-cinema cocktail experience, you can't go wrong with BarChef. Owner and mixology master Frankie Solarik kindly pointed the way to more of Toronto's best speakeasies, dives, and last call dining destinations.

High Park train stop
A great place to smoke, and not just because of the name, honest! | CSABA PAP/UNSPLASH

Did we mention weed was legal?

There are only a handful of places in the world where you can chill in a park on a sunny day with a joint without breaking any laws. Toronto is one of them.

“Having a big city like Toronto with amazing nightlife already and a new alternative to alcohol is very exciting, and you're starting to see people embrace that,” said Paul Weaver, an American immigrant and former head of innovation at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest cannabis company.

Luckily, the pandemic hasn’t put a stick in Toronto’s spokes—in fact, more than 100 dispensaries have opened since March 2020. With so much bud, and so many places to go exploring in an elevated state, Toronto is making a valiant play at being Canada’s cannabis capital. For tips on where to buy it, where to smoke it, and where to eat when you hit the stratosphere, check out our full guide to smoking weed in Toronto.

Kensington Market
Pick up some artsy boho vides in the Kensington Market neighborhood. | Atomazul/Shutterstock

Art and cultural festivals abound

If you’re a filmmaker, photographer, painter, or just plain artsy, making it in Canada requires being in Toronto. The art scene is huge (and competitive, which can weigh on artists struggling to pay the bills). To get a taste, visit the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Aga Khan Museum, or any of the smaller galleries (like the surprisingly awesome Bata Shoe Museumor performance spaces across the city.

When festivals are back, there are few better places to be than in Toronto. Highlights include Nuit Blanche where the city turns into one giant art exhibit; the Toronto International Film Festival, which attracts the Hollywood A-listers; North America’s largest Caribbean carnival, Carabana; Doors Open Toronto, which allows you to check out some of the city’s most fascinating architectural feats; and NXNE, a scaled down version of SXSW. 

Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall
Started from the bottom, now we're here. | Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall

The music scene goes well beyond Drake

OK, you know Drake—the rapper, streaming king, awkward dancer, and biggest artist to come out of Toronto (with all due respect to Rush, Metric, The Weeknd, and Barenaked Ladies). But that's far from the end of the story.

“Being from Toronto, I was aware of the scene before Drake got big, but things have definitely changed since he blew up,” said Haviah Mighty, one of the city’s up-and-coming rappers (peep her latest video, Obeah”). Born in the diverse suburb of Brampton, Mighty says Toronto’s music scene benefits from the mix of cultures that mingle in its neighborhoods. “Having people from so many different regions congregating renders a wild collaborative energy,” she says. 

Mighty loves seeing shows at The Mod Club or Rebel. All music venues in Toronto are currently on hiatus, but in normal times, you can go to the iconic Massey Hall, a National Historic Site, to see legendary acts that deserve a more intimate setting than Scotiabank Arena. There’s Koerner Hall, with bone-buzzing acoustics for jazz and classical. Cameron House is good for a rowdy folk show and Junction City Music Hall for its small hip-hop shows that are literally underground.

toronto raptors
A victory for the Toronto Raptors | Christian Mendoza/Unsplash

The city’s sports culture is champion level

When the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals, it was one of those “Where were you?” moments. The streets flooded with tens of thousands of screaming fans standing on cars, and you could feel the collective release of decades of pro championship-less frustration.

Toronto writer Perry King was there for the championship parade when Marc Gasol bathed in champagne and Kawhi Leonard blessed us with his awkward laugh. “Seeing Jurassic Park (AKA Maple Leaf Square) during that 2019 playoff run was a joy that could not be replicated in other American cities.”

You can head to Scotiabank Arena for a Raps or Leafs game, or even to Rogers Centre to catch a Blue Jays match. But here's the thing: this is also a soccer city.

“You absolutely have to see a Toronto FC match and absolutely have to experience that match in the supporters' section (section 112 and 113)!” recommended King. “The soccer chants, the colored smoke, the taunts to the visiting team— all of those things crystallize the kind of sports city that we are.”

Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.
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