Toronto had been on my bucket list for a very long time – the film festival, the beaches of Lake Ontario, the bustling food scene and the internationality of Canada’s largest city have created a very particular image in my head, and I wanted to check it out for myself. After years of longing and dreaming I finally had the opportunity to visit at the end of a weeklong trip around the province of Ontario – and as you can imagine, just as with any other destination that has built up for a long time in your dreams, I was shocked to find that it was completely different to what I had expected.
After a week of road-tripping along the free and seemingly empty roads of Ontario, and canoe-camping in Killarney Provincial Park, I experienced what you might call culture shock. Toronto’s high-rise glass towers in the downtown district, the traffic jams, the humidity, the streets bustling with people and excitement for Toronto International Film Festival – I was overwhelmed. Luckily I had over a week to discover the city, to get to know the places that locals love the most, and to gather insider tips to share with you!
So without further ado, I present to you the Travelettes Guide to Toronto – with the best tips on where to stay, what to see and do, where to eat and drink, and of course which areas are the best for shopping.
What to Do & See
The Touristy Bits
I wouldn’t describe Toronto as the classic tourist destination – the Niagara Falls take on that role when it comes to Ontario. Instead it’s a city to be experienced from a local point of view. That said, there are of course loads of attractions aimed at tourists and touring locals alike. Equipped with a map and good walking shoes I ventured down the touristy route and visited some of Toronto’s best attractions. You can save a lot of money by getting a City Pass, which covers all of the attractions below and more.
The CN Tower: At over 1,800ft (553m) the CN Tower is the most iconic building of the Toronto skyline. The City Pass includes a ride up with the glass elevator to the two viewing platforms at 1,122 and 1,136ft. For an additional fee you can climb even further up to the Skypod or overcome your fear of heights with the Edge Walk. On a clear day you may see the incredible extent of Lake Ontario, but even on a hazy day you get a great view of the city below.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada: Not less intimidating is the walk through the aquarium tunnel at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, which is conveniently located at the foot of CN Tower. The aquarium is not massive, but the tunnel really is an attraction and seeing huge sharks, sawfish, rays and hundreds of fish from all sides is very impressive!
Royal Ontario Museum: This museum is a mix and match of Canadian and international art, natural history, dinosaur skeletons, ancient history and much more. The real magnet at the moment though is the temporary exhibition dedicated entirely to glass artist Chihuly. If you haven’t heard of him yet, it’s time to change that! The colourful glass pieces are so peaceful and make for a fantastic afternoon activity after braving the bustle of downtown Toronto.
Other attractions included with the City Pass are Casa Loma, the only Edwardian castle in North America, and the Toronto Zoo or alternatively the Ontario Science Centre.
Toronto off the beaten path
Toronto has a lot to offer when you look for special experiences off the beaten path. Here are some of my favourites:
Bata Shoe Museum: I was a bit skeptical when Ontario Travel suggested a visit to the Bata Shoe Museum (BSM). Of course, I like shoes, but was this enough to visit a museum entirely dedicated to footwear? I was lucky enough to be welcomed and guided by the museum’s curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, and after one peek into the museum’s two archival storage rooms I was sold on the concept. BSM has one semi-permanent exhibition about the cultural meaning and the history of shoes, but also three excellent curated temporary exhibitions focusing on various aspects of shoe culture. I learnt about the origin of the heel (did you know they were originally men’s fashion?), the different techniques of clothes and shoemaking among the indigenous people across the Arctic, and the health risks involved in the shoemaking industry. BSM is a cool museum to check out if you are looking for something different to do, but have a look at their event programme as well, as they regularly host film screenings, talks and other events.
Bata Shoe Museum, website
Street Art & Graffiti Tour: Whenever I’m in a new city I’m keen to learn more about the local street art and graffiti movement, because I believe that urban art can tell us a lot about the cultural landscape of a place, about generational issues within its population, about issues of housing developments and about the self-representation of a city. All this is true in the case of Toronto, where graffiti and street art stand on much smaller ground than in places like New York, Berlin or London. The scene isn’t particularly massive,and yet urban art is everywhere. I went on a graffiti tour with Daniel from Tour Guys, who showed me some of the most outstanding pieces of street art around Graffiti Alley and Queen Street West. Other areas he recommended for more urban art were the Ossington laneways around Humbert and Queen Street, as well as the lanes around Kensington Market.
Of course you could wander all these locations on your own, but I find a knowledgeable guide who is involved in the local scene can give you a better idea of the meaning of the pieces, tell you more about the artists (some of the local heroes are Elixier, Uber, Spud or Artchild) and tell you everything about legal implications and the value of art in urban spaces.
Daniel also told me about a project by the Toronto City Council that connects business and property owners with artists to commission art on their walls to keep vandals from spraying on them.
Tall Ship ‘Kajama’: When people hear the words ‘harbour tour’ they mostly imagine one of those gruesome tourist boats with space for hundreds of people and an audio guide blaring facts and figures through the loudspeakers. I didn’t fancy that at all, and thought I’d take a look at the Toronto skyline from across the water at Toronto Islands. Sadly I just didn’t find the time, and so – on my final evening in Toronto – I decided to get aboard the Tall Ship ‘Kajama’, a huge sailing boat that tours the harbour of Toronto several times a week all summer long. It was the best decision ever. Not only did I get to see the skyline dipped in perfect golden hues, I also met another solo traveler and chatted away into sunset.
Stand Up Paddling (SUP) on Woodbine Beach: Through the Travelettes FB Group I was lucky enough to connect with Renee from Travelling Chingrita who took me stand up paddling (SUP) on Woodbine Beach, one of Toronto’s beaches in the neighbourhood fittingly called The Beaches. We rented our boards from WSUP Toronto for CAD$25 an hour and paddled towards the skyline, lounged in the sun and tried some yoga poses on our boards. SUP is a great way to spend a sunny day in Toronto, and such a unique way to experience the city!
Where to Stay
Toronto is an important financial centre, playing a significant role in the film industry and with loads of space for markets and conventions – naturally there are tons of hotels catering to all budgets.
I was treated to a couple of nights at the Thompson Toronto, a boutique hotel in the Central King West area surrounded by condo buildings and a nice little park. It’s a stylish joint with the kind of celebrity atmosphere that makes you excited about the film festival, and indeed there were several film and media events going on during my stay in the lead-up to TIFF. And yet, the service was the kind of down-to-earth and friendly that I like. I had a beautiful corner room with a view of the CN Tower, a huge king-size bed I could have spent all my time in, and a sleek bathroom.
The hotel offers several restaurants and bars, such as Colette, a French bakery and cafe, and an American-style diner, Thompson Diner. This is also where I had breakfast and all my veggie special requests were fulfilled by staff without batting an eyelid!
The absolute highlight of Thompson Toronto however is its rooftop, but I’ll tell you about that in a moment.
Where to Eat & Drink
When I asked a local travelette for great restaurants, she didn’t immediately answer with recommendations but first enquired which cuisines I didn’t have at home but wanted to try. Read: there is a little bit of everything in Toronto! Here are some of my favourite discoveries:
Tucked away on Queen Street East in Leslieville this little joint cooks up a real Canadian storm with whatever is available on that day. The seasonal menu changes daily, so that your choice of dish is made for you – although there is always a veggie option available as well! (Leslieville)
The Organic Press
This place doubles up as a juice bar and a plant shop, so it’s ideal when you need more greens in your life – and some WiFi. (Kensington Market)
I wouldn’t usually recommend chains in my city guides, but for Pizzaiola I will make an exception. One hot and humid late summer evening I stumbled into a little pizza joint in West Queen West, craving a pizza that wouldn’t lie too heavily in my belly – the place was Pizzaiola and the pizza was a slice of Vittoria, their vegan pizza. It was the juiciest pizza I have ever had, and not for one bite did I miss the cheese! Pizzaiola stores are all over Toronto which turns them into a welcome safety net if you’re starving and don’t want to search for too long. (Various locations)
Healthy fast food is not always easy to find, but I found some pretty great options at Fresh on Spadina Avenue. I had an energising green smoothie on the go, but they also have a vegetarian menu with tacos, salads, wraps, burgers, bowls and an even larger variety of fresh juices. (Spadina Av/Downtown)
‘Go to the Distillery District for dinner or drinks’, my local hosts told me; so when I met up with a friend I met on a Galapagos cruise last year and they suggested El Catrin I was more than excited. This Mexican restaurant lies at the heart of the cobble-stone neighbourhood (check out the Christmas market here in winter!) and serves Mexican delicacies in a Spanish tapas style – to share and whenever the dishes are ready. We stuffed our faces with fresh guacamole (made at our table), a variety of tacos and yummy cocktails. Book ahead, even during the week, and ask for a table in the heated outdoor seating area. (Distillery District)
I made it my mission to find Toronto’s best coffee shops, defined by me as having great coffee, good food and most importantly free WiFi and a productive atmosphere. I am working on a more extensive list of my favourite coffee shops from my stay, but for now, try Kaffebar or The Good Neighbour in the Junction neighbourhood, Hello Darling close to Landsdowne station and Quantum Coffee on King St W (Downtown).
A trip to Canada would not be complete without having a taste of Poutine, the French-Canadian delicacy made up of fries, cheese curds and gravy. My plan was to check out Nom Nom Nom Poutine near Kensington Market, but the stall was closed every time I came past it. I ended up trying another chain, Poutini’s House of Poutine and was delighted to hear about their veggie gravy and vegan cheese options! The poutine itself was great as well.
Where to Shop
The great thing about Toronto is that there are so many little neighborhoods to explore, and each comes with its own kind of high street dotted with shops, bars and restaurants. There really is plenty of shopping opportunity in this city – and yet, I’ll try to keep it short:
Kensington Market & Chinatown
Chinatown and neighboring Kensington Market are great for a shopping stroll, whether you’re exploring the various veggies and fruit sold by street vendors, discovering staples for Chinese cooking, browsing interior design in one of the many cash & carries, or window shopping through the vintage and design shops of Kensington Market. One of my favorite shops was Kid Icarus (205 Augusta Ave), a stationery shop (love stationery!) combined with a screen print studio. Another shop I could have spent ages in was Plaiter Place (384 Spadina Ave) which sells all sorts of wicker and handicraft products.
West Queen West
West Queen West is a very hip, up-and-coming area. Most people stop exploring Queen Street W by the time they hit Bathurst St, but they would be missing out on the gems tucked away even further west around the bottom of Ossington Avenue. Don’t make the same mistake!
I lost myself in a variety of vintage shops here – with Public Butter (1290 Queen St West) and House of Vintage (1239 Queen St West) leaving particularly everlasting impressions. However there was also a great food shop, the West End Food Co-op (1229 Queen Street West) where I could finally get my hands on organic eggs (if there is one thing I hate about North America, it’s that you hardly ever find non-cage hen eggs in regular supermarkets).
I didn’t know what to expect from The Junction area because by the looks of it, it was miles away from downtown. And yes, it is a bit of a trek to come out here to West Toronto, but if you’re into interior design, vintage home stores and antiques, this neighbourhood is perfect for you!
My favourite discovery was a store called Smash, where I met local artist Ashley Smallwood from Snack Paintings. I took a good while discovering all the furniture, decor and artwork they had in the shop – it felt more like walking through a gallery. Ashley was busy painting a face onto a huge white wooden moon. ‘It’s for a party during the weekend, you should come!’, she said proving once again that Canadians are simply the friendliest people on Earth.
Hidden Photo Spots
Thompson Rooftop Pool
There is no place like the rooftop pool and bar at Thompson Hotel. I woke up at dawn and had the pool all to myself as I watched the sun dipping Toronto’s skyline in yellow and golden hues. No sunrise could be better.
I stumbled upon Draper Street completely by accident, on my way from the CN Tower back to my hotel. It was hot, humid and stuffy out, so I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and take a cold shower. And yet, I couldn’t resist spending some time in Draper Street, looking at all the historical houses and taking photos of the flowers. There are maybe 20 houses here, but every single one of them is worth a photo. Little signs next to the doors tell you the history of the house, the year it was built and who used to live in it. It’s really quite fascinating to see such houses among the glass towers of downtown Toronto.
‘If you love photography, you will love the Distillery District’, Renee told me while we were paddling across Lake Ontario. And she was right – Distillery District is a cute little area that makes for an awesome photo tour!
I got a lot of inspiration for my trip by browsing BlogTO, looking for restaurant recommendations and ideas for unusual things to do. If you follow their FB page you will always have the latest tips in your feed.
To keep up with events and news grab a free copy of NOW magazine in one of the magazine boxes on the streets of Toronto.
A place where there is always something on is the Harbourfront Centre – I went along for the Veg Food Fest and learnt a lot about the local veggie association and vegan restaurants. Check their events section for info on upcoming events.
Toronto has really surprised me and I’m glad I took over a week to explore this city at my own pace. I hope you enjoyed this guide and that it gives you some inspiration for your trip to the city!
Did I miss anything in my guide which you think is a must-see or must-do in Toronto? Share your experiences and more info in the comments!
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: This trip was supported by Ontario Travel and See Toronto Now, and arranged by Lieb Management.