I’ve been a fan of Folie à Deux blog for a while now, always looking forward to Jen’s new travel musings and amazing photographs. So it’s with great pleasure that I introduce Jen’s guest post on her home city, Toronto. Enjoy the read!
Last year, an estimated 25.9 million people visited Toronto. Of that number, 10.6 million stayed at least one night or more. And even though Toronto has little to offer by way of history, there is an insatiable interest in the city’s strongest aspect: its multicultural cachet.
The Toronto most visitors would come to know is the one bordered by Bloor Street to the north, Jarvis Street to the east, Queen’s Quay to the south, and Bathurst Street to the west. Few would traverse outside of this expert-approved, time-tested, guidebook-recommended grid, which is enough to load a week’s worth of activities anyway. But whether you go beyond or stay within these limits, you will be rewarded with a Toronto that gyrates to its own rhythmical melting pot.
GREATEST HITS REVISITED
Standing at the base of Toronto’s Entertainment District is the tallest freestanding structure in the world and the city’s most iconic symbol, the CN Tower. A reservation at the sky-high 360 Restaurant is a great way to bypass the admission fee, have an excellent meal with views of Lake Ontario and the greater Toronto area, as well as a free pass to the observation deck just below it!
North of the tower, on Spadina Avenue, is one of Toronto’s two Chinatowns. With a Chinese population of 309,000 (537,000 if you include the outlying municipalities), you can bet your horses that it doesn’t get as authentic as this! Produce stands, herbal emporia, mom-and-pop shops, and garish souvenir stores jostle with restaurants along a stretch that is less than a mile long but can be overwhelmingly chaotic. After this intense sensory overload, Asian Legend, just off the main drag, has reliable dim sum and a la carte menus.
But if Chinese food is not quite your thing, immediately west of Chinatown is the artist enclave of Kensington Market. Brimming with eclectic indie shops and vintage stores, Kensington Market is not the fish and fruit place it once was! Today, Urban Herbivore Vegan restaurant salutes the sun beside Pure Intent Healing Arts Centre, while unique gift seller Blue Banana Market showcases around-the-world finds across the street from an Indian tapas restaurant, Waterfalls. And don’t be surprised if, a few steps down, Mexican restaurant El Trompo starts blasting some salsa music to trump Laura-Jean’s sweet dresses at Fresh Baked Goods and the decadent goodies at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. You could easily spend an entire afternoon in this marketplace.
For fashion fiends looking to fill their urban closet with such reliable yet chic standbys as Club Monaco and Aritzia, make a beeline south from Chinatown to Queen Street West. But if you feel like rubbing elbows with disguised movie stars, head over north to the venerable Bloor Street West in the tony Yorkville area. In no time at all, you will be hobnobbing with society-page regulars in the ateliers of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, Gucci and the likes.
But Toronto is not just about shopping, food, and stalking incognito movie stars. Around the downtown core, there is a wealth of architectural gems waiting to be unearthed. The Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee Chin Pavilion is Daniel Libeskin’s crystal masterpiece that rises five storey above street level. Not to be outdone, Toronto homeboy Frank Gehry recently unveiled his ship-like glass façade for the Art Gallery of Ontario, criticized by the international press as being a bit subdued for his style. Nevertheless, a few blocks away from the AGO is the Ontario College of Art & Design’s precariously perched gigantic Lego block known as the Sharp Centre for Design. However, if Pop architecture is not your thing, you can always head over to the University of Toronto complex, where Gothic Revival school halls frequently double as Harvard’s or Oxford’s when film crews descend upon the city. And for Modernists out there, you can admire the classic simplicity of Mies van der Rohe’s ebony-glassed Toronto-Dominion Centre in the Financial District.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Hot off the heels of Kensington Market is College Street, where reasonably-priced restaurants conglomerate east of Bathurst Street. In a span of a few feet, you can literally sample the world from Iran to Thailand and Mexico to Nirvana. But go past this grid, and you may well find yourself in one of Toronto’s two Little Italy’s. This one on College Street is the original Italian settlement but nowadays, a variety of businesses have penetrated the area, including sushi palaces and hookah lounges. However, long-time Italian favourites are still around: Café Diplomatico and the Sicilian Sidewalk Café.
Further away from the city centre is the former prison and warehouse district now known as Liberty Village. Today, it is packed with converted lofts occupied by creative types. Nightclubs, lounges, and upscale restaurants have sprouted alongside designer home stores like Dekla and Casalife, making this area a popular destination, day or night. Mildred’s Temple Kitchen and Atelier Thuet are two great dining options within the village.
The fact that Liberty Village borders one of the sketchiest neighbourhoods in Toronto ought NOT to deter visitors from coming. In fact, this has not prevented the gentrification of adjacent West Queen West, the ubiquitous extension of shopping mecca, Queen Street West. The hip Drake Hotel, which opened in 2004, single-handedly revived this once grungy, drug-laden Parkdale neighborhood, forming an axis with the Gladstone Hotel to the west and to Bathurst Street one mile away the other way. Along this West Queen West strip, you will find tourists and locals mixing it up in contemporary art galleries, specialty boutiques, avant-garde clothing shops, and countless eateries. A mental health hospital located smack in the heart of this district casts an interesting mix of characters on its vibrant streets.
Other districts that are making waves are Roncesvalles Village where there once was a thriving Polish community. It is currently the neighbourhood-of-choice for young families not only wanting a downtown vibe but also a certain suburban tranquility. It now houses a myriad of cafes and specialty food markets interspersed by children’s stores and independently-owned book shops that are often thronged by stroller-pushing mommies and dog-chasing daddies. Meanwhile, the emerging district of Dundas West, also known as Portugal Town, now hosts a slew of funky hair salons and contemporary furniture galleries, alongside specialty restaurants serving delicious charcuterie and old-school Portuguese bars showing soccer matches.
At the end of the day, soak up your whirlwind micro-tour of the world at one of the city’s lakeside beaches. By now, you will surely have acquired a taste for the international scene in Canada’s largest most populous city.
No matter which neighbourhood you visit in Toronto, it will be hard to ignore that close to 50% of the city’s inhabitants are immigrants. At times, you will find a curious mix of backgrounds: Senegalese-Canadian, Indian-Hakka, Chinese-Jamaican, Jewish-Portuguese, French-Japanese are but few of the interweaving heritages found here. This diversity is conveyed in more that 200 distinct ethnic origins of Toronto’s inhabitants, sealing its reputation as one of the world’s most multicultural cities.