Travel

It’s Time To Fall In Love With This Vibrant, Underrated Canadian Metropolis

These local luminaries love Toronto. Here's why you should too.

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.

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 is a straight-up goon squad. 

But then something strange happened: I moved here, 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 greenspaces. 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. When it does, Toronto is a city just waiting for you to fall in love with it. For a look at what makes gives this unique Canadian metropolis its verve, I spoke to prominent locals, including one of the city’s top purveyors of fun, a chef revolutionizing institutional food, a rising rap star, a cannabis exec, and a guy writing a book about the future of Toronto sports. These luminaries love Toronto. Here’s why you should too. 

MORE:  Make it a point to hit up these 18 essential Toronto experiences

Kensington Market
Kensington Market, Downtown Toronto | Atomazul/Shutterstock

Toronto is a haven for expression and art

If you’re a filmmaker, photographer, painter, or just plain artsy, making it in Canada and abroad requires being in Toronto: It’s pretty much the Canadian dream. 

But with everyone flocking to the big city, the competition in Toronto’s art scene can get mighty fierce, which can weigh on artists struggling to pay the bills. Yet despite the hustle, Torontonians always make time to kick it, according to Tygr Willy, AKA Ty Sloane, a non-binary Anishnaabe-Chinese performer, activist, and curator at Pride Toronto: “If you could have the over-achiever and the partier be the same person -- it would be Toronto and its people!”

They said visiting Toronto’s many great exhibitions is a must -- on any given day you can see world-class art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Aga Khan Museum, or at any of the smaller galleries or performances across the city. But if you don’t want to spend any money all you need to do is walk around to experience the city’s unique artistic vibe.

“The neighborhoods that exist here that hold indie documentary festivals or community-based festivals with food and vendors … make you feel like the city is a walkable museum full of history and story,” Sloane said.

Some of these neighborhoods are the graffiti-scrawled bohemian Kensington Market; Queen Street West -- AKA Queer West -- and its collection of hip shops, restaurants, and bars; and the gay village at Church and Wellesley. 

Sloane’s curated itinerary goes a little something like this: “My personal favorite places to go [include] 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.

Bar Raval
Fresh seafood at Bar Raval | Bar Raval

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 Taking Back the Tray, a book about making institutional food more wholesome, affordable, and delicious. “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 roti outside of the Caribbean.

But if you want to have a target for your meal Maharaj listed her picks: “Go to Pai for everything, though highlights include the khao soi, Thai chicken wings, and the Thai iced tea ice cream that you can take home by the pint. Go eat a meal at Richmond Station (killer burger, thoughtful seasonal food). Go to Patois for crazy good Chinese-Jamaican food -- I especially love the OG Fried Cauliflower, the oxtail, and the hibiscus negroni. Wong's Ice Cream brings lots of beautiful Southeast-Asian flavours to the scoop, including [black sesame salted duck egg], Vietnamese coffee, and Lychee lemonade sorbet.”

Maharaj also recommends the bread at Bar Raval, the seasonal indigenous cuisine at Nish Dish, the pancakes at Mildred's Temple Kitchen, and a classic Jamaican patty at Bathurst subway station.

MORE:  Here’s your Toronto food bucket list

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

Okay, you know Drake – the rapper, streaming king, awkward dancer, and biggest artist to come out of Toronto, with respect to Rush, Metric, deadmau5, Kardinal Offishall, The Weeknd, and Barenaked Ladies. Nobody has repped Toronto harder than the 6 God. Yet even with such a tremendous figurehead, the Toronto scene continues to thrive as its own beast. 

“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 best upcoming rappers (peep her latest video, “Thirteen”).

Born in the remarkably diverse suburb of Brampton, Haviah Mighty said Toronto’s music scene has benefited from the cultures that mingle in its neighborhoods. 

“Having people from so many different regions congregating renders a wild collaborative energy,” she said. “The energy of the city translates from the music to the events the music is played at.”

There are so many venues to see live music in Toronto (though, currently, many are on hiatus). 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. 

Haviah Mighty loves seeing shows at The Mod Club or Rebel, and said visitors should be on the lookout for “obscure places that show you what the non-mainstream side of the city is like.” 

MORE:  Drake’s Toronto references, ranked

ByMinistry
Cannabis. It's what's for dinner. | ByMinistry

Toronto is Canada’s cannabis capital

There are few other places in the world where you can walk around on a sunny day or chill in a park with a joint without breaking any laws. Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, and Toronto has subsequently become one of the best places in the world to get high.

“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 head of innovation at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest cannabis company.

With all of Toronto’s restaurants, clubs, sports venues, festivals, parks, and more clustered downtown, the city is a great place to explore in an elevated state. You can even get high at a cannabis lounge, Vapor Central, which manages to get around rules that prohibit smoking indoors by listing itself as a scientific-research facility. 

You can also blaze up for the cannabis-themed Underground Cafe 420 comedy club; head over to Toronto Islands or High Park to ...well, the name already explains it; experience one of ByMinistry’s upscale cannabis supper-club events; and get baked after baking some tasty treats at a Cannabis Cooking Class.

There’s so much to do and still the city has a lot of room to improve its cannabis offerings. “We’re not quite in the golden age, but we’re right at the precipice,” said Weaver.

MORE:  Toronto is about to become Canada’s cannabis capital

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 with the shaking of condo buildings.

Toronto writer Perry King was there at Nathan Phillips Square for the championship parade when Marc Gasol bathed in champagne and Kawhi Leonard blessed us with his awkward laugh. “The fan atmosphere [was] nothing [like] I've ever seen in Toronto,” King said.

King is writing a book about the future of sports in the city, and he said the fandom around the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays, and Toronto FC feels like a small college town at the best of times. 

“I love knowing that the local fan base has the Raptors' collective back, and that it could be its own home field advantage!” he said. “Seeing Jurassic Park (AKA Maple Leaf Square) during that 2019 playoff run was a joy that could not be replicated in other American cities.”

Visitors to the city will want to get a taste of Toronto’s fandom by catching a game, but you won’t miss out if you can’t make it to Scotiabank Arena for a Raps or Leafs game. 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.