Saturday, June 4, 2011
Life Abroad City Guide: Toronto
Commonly a stop on most people’s trips to Canada, Toronto is a vibrant, multi-cultural city with lots to offer. I have nowhere near scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants, shops, and markets within the city, but am nonetheless excited to share with you what I have found to be the best of Toronto. If you have anything to add, please feel free to leave them in the comments section, I would love to hear your recommendations too! I’ve compiled a 3-day guide, and this handy map below helps to organize all the points of interest:
View Life Abroad's Toronto Map in a larger map
Where to Stay:
I recommend Hotel Le Germain, a beautiful boutique hotel on Mercer Street. Right across from the Toronto International Film Festival Tiff Bell Lightbox, the red-brick hotel is a hotspot for visiting celebs and non-celebs alike! Of course there are tons of hotels in the downtown core, and searching sites like Travelzoo, and Priceline are super-helpful in finding great deals. Last year I stayed at the Yorkville Intercontinental hotel on Bloor Street for my university-reunion, and through a Priceline deal, scored it for only $90/night!
Brunch Al Fresco: The Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill serves up some of the best cuisine in the city. From its Belgian Waffles to its Broccoli, Leek, and Goat Cheese Quiche, there is something for everyone on this menu. In warmer weather, the patio is relaxed and cool, with chic outdoor sofas and a lounge-y vibe. Close to Union Station (Toronto’s main train terminal), the Yonge & Front location of the grill makes it perfect for a first-stop in Toronto.
Browse the Market: A long-time favourite place of mine is the St. Lawrence Market. Set in an area of the city which boasts picturesque brick buildings, including the famous Flatiron building, the St. Lawrence Market is a thriving indoor space with cuisine from around the globe. Head downstairs to the basement level for some of the best. cabbage roles. of. your. life. The samples of cheeses, crackers, meats, and breads on the main-floor of the market alone are reason enough to visit! On Saturday mornings, across the street from the main market pavilion, is a smaller structure housing organic, independent farmers. It’s a great place to pick up some gluten-free baked goods or home-grown produce. On Sundays, across the street is transformed into an antiques market, both indoor and outdoor. From vintage clothing and jewelry to retro furniture, the Sunday antiques market is a shopper’s haven.
Pound the Bricks: After spending the morning at the market, head on over to Toronto’s famous Distillery District, a national Historic Site. On the east-end of the city, travelers to the Distillery District are recommended to take a quick 5 minute cab ride to get there. Walking is doable, but it leads through some of the sketchier areas of town, with not much to see between St. Lawrence Market and the Distillery District. Once you arrive, you will be greeted with beautifully rustic brick buildings, brick streets, and modern art galleries. Home to some of the best lofts in the city, the Distillery District was once a whiskey-brewing area of town, with many of the buildings dating back to the mid-1800s. This gorgeous area of town has been restored to its true beauty, and many boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and cafes can now be found here. If you’re lucky, one of the many festivals hosted here will be going on during your visit! Grab some lunch at a restaurant as you make your way around this famous historic area.
Go Thai: After a day spent browsing the market and the Distillery District, an affordable and delicious Thai meal is sure to satisfy your appetite. Thai Princess is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant we noticed immediately after moving to Toronto. Why? Because in the summer its patio is always packed with people; everyone from the Financial District suits to the bohemian artists of the city love this place. We were immediately curious and had to give it a try. Since then, we’ve been back at least fifty times, and always enjoy impeccable service and hot, tasty food. My favourites are their pad thai and coconut rice, but everything on the menu is delicious. With a nice dining room and great prices, Thai Princess is my go-to place for a late-night dinner.
Catch a Film: Last summer, the Tiff Bell Lightbox opened its doors as the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival. This multi-million dollar behemoth is set in the heart of the Entertainment District, and when the festival isn’t on, plays host to daily viewings of movies from around the world and exhibitions. It’s also home to two Oliver & Bonacini restaurants: O&B Canteen and Luma. After your satisfying meal at Thai Princess, cross the street to Tiff to enjoy a foreign film or movie exhibition, like Midnight Madness or Hollywood Classics. It’s a great way to spend an evening, and a nightcap at any one of the multitude of bars in the surrounding area is the perfect way to finish off the night.
Break Bread: Cora’s is a Canadian landmark restaurant, with locations all across the country. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know about the amazing menu selection, the fresh fruit sculptures, and Cora’s signature dishes. You’ll also know about the lines of hungry early-risers who undoubtedly come with almost all of Cora’s locations. All I can say is, it’s worth the wait. I recommend the Wellington Street/Blue Jay’s Way location. You will leave with full tummies, ready to tackle a new day of sight-seeing, shopping, and exploring!
Be a Tourist: Any first-time visitor to Toronto must see the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Sky Dome). Take the elevator 112 stories high to the Glass floor, where you can look down upon the city. Known as one of the Modern Wonders of the World, the CN Tower looms above the Toronto skyline and is the city’s iconic structure. If you visit in season, taking in a Blue Jay’s Game at the Rogers Centre is a nice way to spend an afternoon, and is very affordable! If you’re brave enough, enjoying some “street meat” from a hot dog vendor is also an iconic Toronto treat.
Cool Off: Just steps away from the CN Tower and Rogers Centre is the Toronto Harbourfront Centre. Here you’ll find a sprawling boardwalk, summer festivals, outside patios, and a man-made beach in HTO park. A quick stroll around this area showcases the city’s nautical side, and is especially buzzing on warm days.
Get Fresh: Satisfy your hunger with lunch at Freshii on Spadina Avenue. This vegetarian restaurant is anything but boring, and all the ingredients are, well, fresh! It also has tons of gluten-free options. You’ll leave feeling energized and ready to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in Toronto’s Fashion District.
Shop Around: The King West corridor is quickly becoming the best place for shopping in Toronto. It’s also packed with amazing bars, modern restaurants, and quaint cafes. Stores like Design Within Reach have found a home here, which makes for some great shopping. Just a few blocks north, Queen West has long-since been known as one of Toronto’s best shopping areas.
Treat Yourself: Right in the heart of Toronto’s shopping scene, on Queen West and Peter Street, Little Nicky’s is one of the city’s best-kept-secrets. An independently-owned coffee shop, Little Nicky’s boasts eclectic décor, a relaxed vibe, and freshly-made-on-the-spot mini doughnuts sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar ($2.75 for 6, $4.00 for a dozen). You will fall for the vintage doughnut maker which spurts these pint-sized delights out immediately upon order.
Never Grow Up: After trips to the Eaton Centre, bustling Yonge Street, and the Times Square wannabe “Young & Dundas Square”, dinner at one of Queen Street West’s many restaurants is your best bet for something authentic and non-franchisey. While the Queen Mother Café is excellent, as is the Black Bull for patio season, I have fallen hard for Peter Pan, on the corner of Queen and Peter. It is, without a doubt, my favourite restaurant in the city. With a constantly-evolving menu involving in-season ingredients, Peter Pan has never disappointed. Whether it’s a casually elegant meal paired with local wines, or a fresh lunch, you just can’t beat the value you receive at Peter Pan. Very affordable, very fresh, and very delicious. Plus its steeped in history, with its 1930/1940s charming wood booths, floors, and tin ceilings. You will love it. Guaranteed.
Party with a Rock Star: Another Toronto landmark? The HorseShoe Tavern. This rough tavern, located on Queen West near Spadina Avenue, once played host to such bands as The Rolling Stones, The Blues Brothers, and Blue Rodeo. Since 1947, it has been the place to discover new bands, or see some old favourites. Catch a show after dinner and feel the gritty rock history of Toronto’s past.
Laugh and Unwind: After hearing some bands play at the Horseshoe Tavern, I recommend stopping in at Second City, the comedy club which made acts like Mike Meyers famous. They have improv nights, and hilarious comedy shows. For a late-night scene, head along King Street West, where all the city’s best bars are located. I like Bier Markt. With its wood-paneled walls, hundreds of beers, and live music, it’s a relaxed place that feels quintessentially European (and has excellent food too!). I recommend the cheese fondue to share over beers.
Sip and Read: Start the day with some Italian-style coffee at the Dark Horse Espresso Bar on Spadina Avenue. Sprawl out on a large wooden communal table as you browse through the Toronto papers, munch on some freshly baked organic pastries, and sip your caffeine. The Dark Horse stays true to its motto: “Improving Toronto’s Coffee Scene: One Latte at a Time.” The people-watching and loft-like décor of the Dark Horse makes it a fun alternative to a packed breakfast house. In the surrounding area of ChinaTown, there are plenty of curbside food stands and shops to see.
Go Boho: Kensington Market is a famously vibrant area of Toronto. Not your typical “market” per se, its moniker comes from the multitude of stores, fruit stalls, ethnic eateries, and boutiques jam-packed into a few city blocks. With an inherently bohemian vibe, Kensington Market makes for the perfect way to get lost in an afternoon. Besides its vintage clothing and furniture stores, Kensington Market is also a vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free dream! If you simply like to people-watch and feel the history of a city, this is the place to go. Grab lunch at one of the many independently-owned restaurants in the area, like The Grilled Cheese, before heading up-town.
Learn a Little: The Royal Ontario Museum (aka The ROM), recently got a major face-lift from some clever architects. Last summer we saw the Warrior Emperor’s Terracotta Army, and I was immediately smitten with this Toronto institution. It has changing exhibits, alongside its more permanent displays. There is something for everyone, and is very child-friendly as well (especially super-cool attractions like The Bat Cave).
Get Swanky: Spend the evening strolling the streets of Yorkville, Toronto’s premier neighbourhood and celebrity haven. It has lots of high-end designer boutiques, as well as more mainstream shops like Anthropologie. In the summer months, Yorkville has gorgeous hanging baskets flanking its cobblestoned sidewalks, and has no shortage of chic cafes. For dinner, you can choose from a variety of seen-and-be-seen places, or opt for something a bit more casual, like Café Nervosa, which serves up some of the best Italian pizza in the city. Finish off the night on the casual patio at Hemingway’s, drinking with the Yorkville set.
Pictures in this post from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.