Talk to Torontonians, and they will proudly tell you the defining characteristic of their city is its multiethnicity. In Toronto, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse metropolises, no single group dominates.
But it’s no melting pot, more a blurred-at-the-edges mosaic—you can stand back and enjoy the harmonious whole, but get close and you’ll see that each piece is separate.
This diversity goes beyond cuisine, although you can eat your way around the world here; it shines through the architecture, the religious celebrations, and the way those in the downtown core cultivate an accepting, no-hierarchy attitude. It’s not perfect, but when it comes to delivering the Canadian Dream of a classless society, Toronto does it best.
Six municipalities previously composed what was called Metropolitan Toronto. They merged in the late 1990s as a cost-cutting measure to create a single megacity known for its neighborhoods (there are some 240). And it’s these hoods that are crying out to be explored once you’ve ticked off the tourist must-sees of the CN Tower, a show in the Entertainment District, and a morning exploring the Distillery District.
Jump on a streetcar to delve deep into the one-off boutiques, quirky coffee shops, and secret bars of the West Side—where the vibrant neighborhoods of Kensington, Chinatown, Queen West, Ossington, and Parkdale all lie within blocks of each other.
At first glance Kensington can seem like a tourist trap, but chat with the U.S. draft dodger shopkeepers who arrived in the 1960s and never left or the friendly staff in the mom-and-pop stores, and you’ll find an authentic sense of community.
The Ossington and Parkdale hoods have cleaned up their acts, and they remain areas where creative types thrive and the cafés and bar patios are filled with people happy to shoot the breeze with a curious visitor. Jaywalking, fast-talking Torontonians aren’t shy, and everyone will recommend a new cool spot or can’t-miss taco joint. Just ask.
> Food, Glorious Food
While the suits and foodies feast on deftly prepped tasting menus across the center, head among the plaid shirts and beards of Ossington and Parkdale for culinary fireworks.
Grand Electric’s tacos, especially the Baja fish, light up the palate, although the music is rock-gig loud. Try Malaysian-inspired plates like chili salt tofu at Hawker Bar, addictive maple bourbon bacon and deviled eggs for brunch at the Saint Tavern, and Asian-fusion short ribs at Foxley.
Cross Dundas Street and venture into the Dakota Tavern’s basement for a magical atmosphere at its weekend all-you-can-eat Bluegrass Brunches.
Grab traditional fish-and-chips at Chippy’s on Queen Street West, and eat them picnic style in the park opposite. Nearby, Nadège Patisserie’s salted caramel tart is rightly famous. And if you haven’t had enough, sample the huge sandwiches or maple-dipped fried chicken at Caplansky’s Deli.
> Piles of Style
For aficionados of vintage clothes shopping, Toronto offers an intoxicating blend of rare high quality combined with “Oh, go on, I’ll take both” low prices and seemingly endless choice.
Pointed-collar shirts and original flowing maxi dresses crowd racks under the trees along Kensington Avenue. Flashback 2 has everything from retro, sequined cocktail dresses to sophisticated evening wear. Its brother store, King of Kensington, specializes in 1960s and ’70s menswear, along with leather, luggage, and hats.
Canadian designers rule in many of the Queen West boutiques. Designed in Montreal, Yoga Jeans are stylish and comfy; Shopgirls, in Parkdale, stocks locally made jewelry. Playful prom gowns, dainty knits, and silk-screened tees from mainly Canadian designers, as well as vintage shoes, belts, and bags, keep Coal Miner’s Daughter busy.
Gravitypope’s Ossington micro-department-store has quality men’s and women’s clothing plus a vast selection of eye-catching shoes and an intriguing “apothecary” department. For ultrahigh-end clothing head for Bloor-Yorkville, Toronto’s Rodeo Drive; start at Holt Renfrew and carry on until your credit card begs you to stop.
For a budget alternative, Kensington’s Blue Banana Market mixes Canadiana (from maple syrup candies to candles), blankets from Peru, drums from Africa, and owl pillows.
> Party People
Enthusiastically enforced 2 a.m. liquor laws suggest Toronto isn’t a 24-hour city, but it’s not hard to find an after-hours spot. There’s also the tradition of “cold tea” in open-till-4 a.m. Chinatown restaurants—beer served in a teapot.
Paying homage to the concept but serving beer from bottles in addition to inspired cocktails, Cold Tea Bar (open until 2 a.m.) also has cart-served dim sum and barbecue sessions in its garden. There’s no sign; entry is via the Kensington Mall—look for the red light and push the door. Or hang out at the Embassy with its diner seating and DJs.
The club scene in the Entertainment District is strictly for the “905-ers” (named after the area code for the city’s suburbs). Follow the lead of the “416-ers” who reside in central Toronto, and head to Parkdale’s Cadillac Lounge, with a huge, popular summer patio. Across the street, enjoy daytime pints with the friendly crowd at Rhino.
Among the music-blaring bars of Queen West is possibly one of the world’s finest cocktail bars, BarChef, where co-owner Frankie Solarik creates expensive-but-worth-it molecular gastronomy drinks in a candlelit, velvet-curtained room. The deconstructed Aviation is a multilayered jelly that combines maraschino caviar, a foam, and edible flowers that melt in your mouth to form the perfect drink.
This piece, written by Vancouver-based British writer Nikki Bayley, is a collaboration with Traveler magazine’s U.K. edition, National Geographic Traveller.