After visiting Toronto, Canada for a conference a few years back, I found the city to be perhaps one of the most underrated in North America. The city is a melting pot of different cultures, bringing in ethnic eateries with influences from China, Vietnam, India and beyond. The young and hip have moved into neighborhoods, bringing with them coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, and bike shops. The standard attractions are easy to visit, plus the city is incredibly easy to get around. Public art projects have brought in large scale murals from internationally recognized artists, beautifying blank walls around town. Toronto is an easy trip from the east coast of the United States, accessible via train and bus. Otherwise, flying is your best bet when you want to see what’s so great about the Canadian city.
Those staying in the downtown area might miss all the unique neighborhoods but there is plenty to see outside the CBD. Here you’ll find where the locals hang out, including shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and even a few museums.
Kensington Market is a neighborhood named for the outdoor market nearby. Here you’ll find Latin American shops and restaurants, boutiques and other local establishments. There’s been a heavy pushback when chains try to open up here, which is good for visitors who want a unique experience. Grab a vegan muffin from Bunner’s, Mexican from El Trompo, or healthy fare at Wanda’s Pie In The Sky.
The Distillery District is named for the over 40 buildings that made up the Victorian-era Gooderham & Worts Whiskey Distillery. A decade ago, forward-thinking locals rehabilitated the brick buildings to create a community of art galleries, retail stores, and restaurants. Grab a coffee from Balzac’s Distillery District as you walk the cobblestone streets.
Queen Street West is a streetcar-lined neighborhood known for its street art and graffiti. The Ontario College of Art and Design nearby was responsible for many of the changes to the neighborhood, creating a bohemian vibe. Former boarding houses are now boutique hotels and saloons are now chic stores. For more on Queen West, read this article on Lonely Planet.
Chinatown is one of four enclaves around town, but the one near Kensington Market is easily accessible. There’s always something going on, including late night dim sum and stores selling all sorts of knickknacks. It was first settled in the 1800s.
Restaurants and Cafes
Toronto is a melting pot of different cultures so you’ll find all sorts of cuisines around town at all sorts of price ranges. My visit hardly scratched the surface and consisted mainly of eateries around the convention center and my hostel, but I’ve also included a few I hope to visit on my next trip. Did I leave out your favorites? Leave them in the comments below!
Lou Dawg’s is not the most authentic restaurant for barbecue or poutine, but I had both on my two visits during my trip to Toronto. In addition to the Canadian national dish, you’ll find pulled pork, ribs and sandwiches along with beer and bourbon served late into the night.
Betty’s is another mostly bar that has good food like the massive nachos pictured below. Choose a brew from the extensive beer menu along with a hearty sandwich. The weekend brunch buffet is also a crowd pleaser.
Loka is a new restaurant that I haven’t yet visited opened by my friend Ayngelina and her partner Dave. I was one of the Kickstarter contributors so you might see my name on the wall! The menu focuses on local Canadian products.
The Burgernator exists for when all you want is a big, juicy burger. But fear not, vegetarians and dietarily restricted, as there are options for you as well! Pair with a side of fries with housemade aioli and a deep fried Mars bar.
NU Bügel was where I had one of my first meals in town as soon as I checked into my hostel. The bagels aren’t the New York style I was used to but were great on a sandwich with a side salad. Sit in the window for the best people watching.
Otto’s Berlin Döner brings Berlin’s favorite street food to the streets of Toronto. I didn’t make it here, but I’ve heard great things about the authenticity of the doner kebabs. You can even get German beers and currywurst!
Torteria San Cosme has authentic Mexican sandwiches with toppings like chorizo, pork, and even cactus. Other favorites include street style corn on the cob and churros.
Smoke’s Poutinerie provides a totally different poutine experience, allowing guests to choose their own toppings at their Toronto locations. This might include chicken, pork, vegetables, and a variety of sauces.
Banh Mi Boys is another international fast-casual restaurant selling Vietnam’s most famous sandwich. Choose your own protein or have a taco, steamed bao, or salad.
White Squirrel Coffee Shop is a go-to for a caffeine fix with a side of light bites like sandwiches and pastries. They feature as many local products as possible.
Red Rocket Coffee is not your average coffee shop, offering weekly events like live music, paint night, and comedy shows. They also serve pastries and snacks.
Boxcar Social is certainly a curated experience more than a corner coffee shop but 0ffers a rotating selection of the best coffee around. Later on, you can also get beer, wine, or whiskey.
Bars and Nightlife
Toronto is a surprising beer city with both well-known breweries and bars that put an emphasis on Canadian beers. But you’ll also find hip cocktail bars and more upscale drinkeries. Just ask around for whatever type of establishment you’re looking for.
The Loose Moose is more than your average sports bar. They have over 65 beer taps with an emphasis on Canadian made. It’s the perfect place to watch your favorite team while chowing down on sandwiches, burgers, tacos and more.
Irish Embassy Pub and Grill is an Irish pub set in an old bank building. Here you’ll find your proper pints of Guinness, spirits, and upscale pub fare.
C’est What is one of the city’s best beer bar, located underground near St. Lawrence Market. Ask the certified cicerones for advice on different styles of beer, mostly from Canada.
Mill St. Brew Pub is one of Canada’s biggest brewing success stories. Stop by their brewery or the downtown brewpub, which has a full menu.
Steam Whistle Brewing is located downtown near the top attractions, which is easy to stop by. Learn more about the brewing process and enjoy samples along the way.
Bar Hop is another beloved beer bar featuring 36 taps with rotating cask selections. The two locations both have a hearty menu to line your stomach between brews.
Granite Brewery has been a Toronto brewery since the 1990s that focuses on the hoppy and delicious. They have a frequently changing menu to keep everything seasonal.
Cold Tea is a speakeasy tucked into a seemingly nondescript mall. Cold tea is code for alcohol, in case you were wondering. Follow them on social media to find out how to get in.
Things to Do
The top things to do in Toronto are typically day trips and museums. Once you’ve seen all the attractions you want to see in the city, check out the Niagara area, including the falls, as well as the wine region.
Niagara Falls is perhaps the most well-known landmark in the greater Toronto area. It straddles the line between Canada and the United States, so you can see two countries in one afternoon. Be sure to take a boat ride, whether it’s the Maid of the Mist or a jet boat.
CN Tower is a downtown landmark, offering the best views in the city. Their Edgewalk experience allows guests to get strapped into a contraption that allows you to walk around the outside of the observation deck.
Casa Loma was originally the private home of Henry Pellatt, the son of British aristocrats. His travels in Europe inspired his dream castle. While he eventually went into debt, it remains one of Toronto’s most iconic tourist attractions.
Centre Island is a short ferry ride from downtown Toronto and opens seasonally with a theme park, petting zoo, walking paths, and restaurants.
Toronto has dozens of unique museums on any given topic. Just a few that I’ve heard good things about are the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Bata Shoe Museum, Hockey Hall of Fame, and Royal Ontario Museum.
For more of the best museums in Toronto, see this post on Blog TO.
I also recommend checking out the walking tours available in Toronto. I went on tours with both Urban Adventures, one of my favorite companies, and Tour Guys, one of their local partners, and had great experiences. They focus on unique niches to the city like meat, beer, and local history.
Seek out Toronto’s markets for the best shopping. St. Lawrence Market is a food market with fresh items to take home as well as ready-to-eat fare. You can also pick up a few locally made goods and unique souvenirs. Near Kensington Market, you’ll find shops selling high-priced bicycles, vinyl records, vintage clothing and everything in between. It’s more of an area than a full market.
For more on the best shopping in the city, check out this guide on Toronto.com.
Where to Stay
Toronto is a fairly affordable city in terms of North American destinations but factor in which neighborhood you’ll be spending most of your time. Ideal accommodations should have easy access to public transportation. The Planet Traveler Hostel in Kensington Market was my base for my trip, which was an environmentally-friendly budget accommodation well connected via public transportation. HI-TORONTO YOUTH HOSTEL is closer to the city and has its own bar and bike rentals. Mid-range and luxury properties can also be found in Toronto. Be 650 is a pod-style hotel in the middle of the city with all the amenities. The Drake Hotel is a hipster haven with brightly colored walls and various sizes of rooms, depending on your budget. The Ivy At Verity is an upscale option in a former chocolate factory. Each room is luxuriously decorated. AirBnB also has some great properties to rent if you want a more local experience or are traveling with a group. Get a discount off your first stay by clicking here.
Public transportation well-services Toronto via streetcar, bus, and train. You can purchase passes for all three from the Toronto Transit Commission. Bike rentals are another great way to get around the city and you have plenty of options. Bike Share Toronto is just one, offering docking stations around town. Some include locks while others you’ll need to provide your own lock, helmet, and other accessories. And, of course, the downtown area is extremely walkable.