Toronto is an ever-growing metropolis. I grew up here, and though I have lived in London, and Buenos Aires, I can confidently say that Toronto is the best city in the world.
What makes it so special? Well first of all, Toronto is not a place you visit. To know it well, you have to live here. Each neighourhood in Toronto has its own culture, style, flavour and attitude.
That’s why I’m always disappointed when I see tourists perusing the same boring places they read in travel guides. Sure the financial district, St. Lawrence Market, Rogers Centre and CN Tower are interesting places to check out, but it’s not where you’ll find Torontonians.
When I travel, I prefer spending my time at local pubs or coffee shops, rather than museums and landmarks. I love to watch people as they make their way to work. By doing this I find that I’m establishing a deeper connection with the locals, and what life in the area must be like.
Keep in mind that Toronto is a modern city, so it’s not like visiting Rome, or Paris. Other than Casa Loma, we lack a long historical framework to keep you conventionally entertained, but we do have a vibrant, cosmopolitan city unlike anything you will ever experience. The only difficulty is that you have to seek it out, it’s not staring you right in the face demanding appreciation.
Every neighbourhood in Toronto is easily accessible by foot, so I’m going to provide a brief list of my favourite places that I believe you should be familiar with. Try and explore the city outside of the downtown core, and though the theatre and sports events are nice, so are the pubs, bars and bakeries. This is a short list; there are many places I haven’t included and in the future I will add more, so think of this as the first chapter of a long book.
1. The Junction. I’ve written about The Junction before. Though it’s not easily accessible by TTC, it’s still worth a visit. The main intersection is Dundas Street West and Keele St. and there are buses that leave from High Park and Keele subway stations every 30 minutes, or more frequently, I don’t know because I tend to walk rather than wait for the bus. The Junction used to be an autonomous city known as West Toronto until it amalgamated with the rest of the city back in 1909. Back in the early 1900s the area was a booze mecca, and behaviour got so out of hand that alcohol was prohibited until 1998! It wasn’t until 2000 that the first drink was poured. Nowadays it’s lined from end to end with pubs and eateries.
When in The Junction be sure to check out my favourite three places:
- Bunner’s. A gluten-free vegan bakery that is very popular with locals. Voted best dessert shop by Now you’ll find yourself in cupcake heaven. Be sure to check out the cinnamon rolls but I do warn you, gluten food can be very heavy on the stomach and one item is more than enough to satisfy your sweet tooth. My review.
- Indie Ale House. It was a long time coming, but when Indie Ale House finally opened its doors last year, it was an instant hit. You’ll be hard pressed to ever find it empty. A small independent craft brewery with an impeccable food menu, Indie Ale House aims to please. Be sure to order their sampler of custom-made beer, and then choose the one that suits your palate the best. Don’t be shy to tell the staff which beer you disliked though! It’s all good, the owners are dedicated to quality, and want to know. My review.
- The Sweet Potato. A grocery shop with local natural foods to whet your appetite and culinary desires. The Sweet Potato offers everything, from the finest in local organic produce, delicious fresh baked goods, organic dairy and scrumptious desserts, all at amazing low prices. My review.
2. Leslieville. I love this area of Toronto and wouldn’t mind moving here permanently. Leslieville gentrified rapidly between 2000 and 2010 when it was commonly referred to as an up-and-coming neighbourhood, with new restaurants, shops and cafés popping up all over the place. Though the average house sells for half a million dollars, it still has a large working-class and middle-class sensibility. A former factory town, some of the former industrial areas have seen the emergence of large film studios, including Cinevillage and Showline Studios. To the south, in the Port Lands area, the massive new Pinewood Toronto Studios have been built. Television shows such as NBC’s Hannibal are filmed right here in Toronto.
When in Leslieville be sure to check out my three favourite places:
- Wayla. Wayla is code for What Are You Looking At. Opened in 2010, it’s a queer-friendly establishment with a congenial staff. They operate 7 days a week between 5pm and 2am with themed dance parties during the weekend, like “Ginger Bear Night” and the like! This is a great place for gay people who don’t want to be confined the Church-Wellesley village. It’s a pretty low-key affair with an eclectic mix of gay and straight people looking for a place to dance the beer off.
- The Hitch Bar. This place recently opened, and is named after the late Christopher Hitchens. They have a great selection of whiskey and scotch and of course, beer on tap for people like me who love a good lager or pilsner. On weekends the owner plays movies for the patrons, usually themed, like Arnold Schwarzenegger starring vehicles, or Star Trek movie night. It’s really cozy, relaxing and friendly with a patio opening soon. My review.
- Paulette’s Original Donuts and Chicken. I’m not much interested in the chicken, but Paulette’s has an impressive array of fresh, homemade donuts to choose from. If you’re feeling peckish for a little treat, make sure you check this place out early in the day, because by afternoon, most of the mouth-watering selections are sold out. My review.
3. Riverdale. One of my all-time favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto, Riverdale is located just east of the downtown core. The residential tree-lined landscape within Riverdale is made up of some of the oldest Victorian and Edwardian style homes in Canada, which were constructed in the 1800s as boarding rooms for the working-class. Many of the residences have since been redeveloped into homes for young families. In recent times, as is the case in most areas of Toronto, local housing values have increased significantly. As a result, a new generation of young professionals and their families have moved to the area, furthering widespread gentrification.
Riverdale’s character is defined by its multiculturalism, with several cultural neighbourhoods along its major paths. Danforth Avenue, commonly referred to as “The Danforth”, has a high concentration of Greek restaurants while Gerrard Street East and parts of Broadview Avenue are home to a variety of Asian shops and restaurants, commonly referred to as East Chinatown.
Riverdale is also home to three large recreational parks; Riverdale Park, adjacent to the Don River, Withrow Park, in the North Riverdale, and Jimmie Simpson Park, in the Riverside District.
Animal life at Riverdale Farm
Just west of Riverdale Park you will also find the Riverdale Farm, home to sheep, pigs, cows, horses, chickens and more. Admission is free, and the trip well worth it.
4. The Waterfront/Toronto Islands. When you think of Toronto you probably don’t envision beaches. But they do exist, and in abundance. The Toronto Islands are a beautiful place to check out, including the clothing-optional beach knowns as Hanlan’s Point. The islands comprise the largest urban car-free community in North America, though some service vehicles are permitted. Recreational bicyclists are accommodated on the ferries, and bicycles, quadracycles, and canoes can be rented on the islands too. There is no fixed road link (thank God!) from the mainland to the Toronto Islands, and therefore ferries, water taxis and other boats are required to get there.
You can catch the ferry from Queens Quay and Bay for $7 (Adult) to Centre Island, Ward Island or Hanlan’s Point. The latter is where you can find the clothing optional beach that I mentioned earlier.
On the mainland there is a vibrant waterfront, most of it is under massive development in preparation for the PanAm Games in two years time, but Sugar and HTO Beach are close to downtown, and in great demand.
Sugar Beach at 8 a.m.
5. Leslie Street Spit. The Leslie Street Spit’s transition into an urban wilderness was never part of the city’s plans. Over the years, Leslie Street Spit has come to life, and Torontonians love having wilderness right in the city.
The northern half of the spit has been designated as Tommy Thompson Park, named after the former Toronto Parks Commissioner, and eventually the entire spit will become parkland. Friends of the Spit was founded in 1977. Its original members included people as varied as birdwatchers, naturalists, and cyclists. The Friends’ goals are to keep the Leslie Street Spit open to the public, and to keep it in its naturalized state, squashing any development plans by private companies.
Over 300 bird species are located on the Leslie Street Spit. Birds that can be observed are the ring-billed gull, the black-crowned night-heron, the double-crested cormorant, the common tern, the Caspian tern, and the herring gull. Because of this, The Spit has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Nature Canada and Bird Studies Canada which are the Canadian partners of BirdLife International. Peninsula D has also become the site of the comprehensive Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, which operates seven days a week during spring and fall migration.
While walking towards Tommy Thompson Park it is impossible to ignore the calls of the birds resting atop tree branches or flying steadfastly overhead. It’s quite the sight, and the sounds, deafening!