Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the whole world, which is one of the many reasons why I fell so hard for it – so many cultures to explore, people to talk to, things to see and places to discover. Having lived there for more than a year I always longed to return, both to catch up with old friends and to explore the city itself and the beautiful nature around it even further. For those lucky enough to stop by for a visit, I’ve listed 15 of my favourite things to do when in town. Enjoy!
1. Ride your bike around Toronto Island
Toronto Island actually is a whole chain of little islands and a beautiful place to escape to. The public ferry service works really well and a ferry ride from downtown to the island will only cost you $7 back and forth. I recommend renting a bike and taking it with you on the ferry (no extra charge!) to fully discover the island – it’s full of hidden gems and amazing panoramic views of the beautiful Toronto skyline. Don’t forget to bring your camera and make sure to check out the ferry schedule before you set off.
2. Have a walk on Lakeshore Boulevard
One of the first places I always have to visit when in Toronto is the waterfront. I just dig that H2O stuff. The area around Harbourfront Centre is close to where the ferries leave from and (though pretty touristy) worth a visit, but I prefer the calmer strips of Lakeshore Boulevard. My personal favourite is riding the street car down Queen Street all the way west to Parkdale and accessing the lake via the bridge that crosses the highway at the corner of Queen Street and Roncesvalles Ave. The view is priceless and somehow always calms me down. Bring special people or go solo, pack some snacks and a blanket and admire the sky (spoiler: It might get a bit romantic when the sun goes down!).
3. Grab a coffee at white squirrel coffeeshop for a walk through Trinity Bellwoods park
Toronto’s barista scene is quite impressive and your americano-sampling session might take a while (poor you!). Kathi has already told you about her favourites and I’m going to complicate things further by telling you that there is no place like white squirrel coffeeshop. It’s located right across the street from Trinity Bellwoods park, so I highly recommend just smoothly ordering a coffee through their cute little shop window and going for a walk in the park. Their espresso roast is full-bodied and chocolatey and they also offer amazing leak-proof reusable To-Go cups that reduce waste and provide a lovely souvenir to take home.
4. Visit a farmers’ market
Farmers’ markets are a thing worth checking out for an authentic Toronto experience. I really love those long market strolls, soaking up the scents and colours, listening to a diverse mix of people chatting separately about what to make for dinner. It’s also a good spot to learn about local specialities and to get to know farmers and all kinds of locals – food always gets people talking and connecting. My favourite is the market at Dufferin Grove which takes place year-round, every Thursday (in wintertime it’s inside). On my last trip a tall, bearded guy, wearing a red-checkered flannel shirt (what else?) and the warmest smile on his face told me everything about the fluffy, toddler-sized, slightly odd-looking ball he was carrying with him – It was a mushroom: A “giant puffball” to be precise. And I just fell in love with this country a little bit more. Find a good list of other markets here.
5. Have some local beer and good conversation at Bellwoods Brewery
If you are more into beer than giant spongy mushrooms you will find happiness at Bellwoods Brewery, located on the south stretch of Ossington Street. They offer a variety of tasty self-brewed beers to drink in-house or take away and also some bar food. On warmer days the big patio is open and whether you are by yourself or with friends it’s always easy to get chatting with other people.
6. Visit MoCa Gallery
MoCa used to be one of my favourite galleries in Toronto, showcasing an eclectic mix of modern Canadian art. The original gallery was located in the Art and Design district on Queen Street. In 2015 it had to move out of its old spot and will open up again in 2017 – hopefully soon enough to be checked out on your next trip. Stay tuned via their website.
7. Check out Hot Doc Cinema
Toronto is known for its vibrant film scene and the world-famous Toronto International Film Festival. One of the biggest theatres is the Tiff Bell light box, but I really like the very special and much smaller Hot Doc Cinema, focussing on documentaries only and showcasing new perspectives and refreshing ideas. If you have the time you should totally check out their schedule and swing by.
8. Go treasure hunting at Honest Ed’s
If you are a sucker for weird objects and quirky souvenirs like me, there’s no way you don’t stop by at Honest Ed’s for the ultimate (and sometimes a little disturbing) treasure hunt. Get lost in a maze of plastic and weird stuff you did not know you needed and find new friends (mostly Chinese tourists and broke art students) plus the perfect souvenir for your crazy aunt.
9. Do some small business shopping
Obviously Toronto has more to offer shopping-wise than plastic flamingos (even though there might be situations in life where you really need one). If big malls also are not your thing, Toronto will spoil you with local small business options. Search for hidden gems and you’ll find well-crafted interiors, creative ideas and passionate makers. My personal favourites are Easy Tiger Goods, a lifestyle concept store specializing in carefully designed and well-made products, Good Egg, a book store focused on cook books, Chosen Vintage for a real nice selection of vintage clothes, the boutique Fawn and BYOB Cocktail Emporium, every bartender’s paradise.
10. Ride a streetcar all the way down Queen Street
If you are looking for a cheap and authentic way to explore the city then don’t miss out on a ride in one of the cute, red, typical Torontonian street cars. To discover some of the huge contrasts and tensions that this city is all about, start in former affordable (and in some parts pretty dark), but now trending Parkdale, and take the 501 Eastbound Queen car all the way through the Art and Design District and the fancy financial district to the east end of Queen Street, where kids’ and dogs’ clothing shops meet (sometimes hard to tell apart). Soak up the different vibes and when you’re done prove you are a pro by casually pulling the ancient-looking orange strap attached to the ceiling of the car – this is how to tell the driver you want to stop. Quite charming, eh?
11. Get plant spoiled at Planta restaurant
Toronto’s food scene is as awesome as you’d expect from a city that is home to so many different cultures and countries. United in the desire to indulge, new restaurants pop up on a weekly basis, serving all kinds of food to all kinds of people. I am always very happy that there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options and curious to check out new places. One of my new favourites when seeking a finer experience is the fully vegan restaurant “Planta”, which combines beautifully designed interiors with a great selection of vegan food that has been inspired by cuisines from all over the world, and which will please everyone – not just the leaf-lovers. Find the menu and make a reservation on their website. I really dug the watermelon poke and the chickpea fries with lemon aioli.
12.Search for the perfect scenic view.
Kathi found hers, and I had some good ones too already, but Toronto seems to never run out of beautiful scenic views. Find your special spot and admire Toronto’s skyline. One of my (very accessible) downtown favourites is the view down from Bathurst St Bridge, but there are plenty more good urban sights waiting to be discovered.
13. Treat yourself at Tri Mari Bakery
Italy may be far away from Toronto, but you will still find some of the best Italian spots here, thanks to all the Italian families who have made Canada their home. My all-time favourite is Tre Mari Bakery. A fully family-run business, existing since the 60s, it is filled with the smell of fresh bread and a love for good food and one another. Serving all kinds of baked goods, antipasti, meat, cheese and lunch from a hot table to stay in or take away, this is a casual and chat-filled gathering spot for the whole neighbourhood.
14. Check out the Bluffs
A bit more far out, but worth the ride and full of dramatic views as well the Scarborough Bluffs (“the Bluffs”) are a group of cliffs, stretching over 15 km along lake Ontario. A truly mesmerizing geological feature that is more than 12,000 years old and surrounded by some lovely nature, in summertime people come here to swim and in wintertime the frozen lake turns the whole thing into an icy fairytale experience.
15. Visit Evergreen Brickworks and enjoy the incredible view
Last but not least I’m letting you in on one of my absolute all time favourite spots in Toronto – Evergreen Brickworks, a former industrial site, located in the Don River Valley. For more than 100 years the brickworks used to produce building materials for many of the city’s houses. Nowadays the beautiful site and manufacturing hall function as an event and community space with a focus on sustainability and collective ideas. Check out the beautiful farmers’ market on weekends, visit the cafe or one of the exhibitions and events or simply have a walk and enjoy the very special vibe (and view!). Getting there from downtown is a bit of a journey (you’ll find detailed directions on the website), but it’s straightforward enough with public transport and is totally worth it!
All photos by Tabea Mathern.