Alright I should start this by saying that even though I’ve only lived in Toronto for four years, I am a Torontonian. (I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Most people who say they are from Toronto, are actually from somewhere else. They likely moved to this city a few years ago, loved it and adopted it as their own.)
When people come to Toronto, they always make a bee-line for the CN Tower, take in a baseball game at the Skydome (I really hate the name Rogers Centre) and then hit the shops in the Eaton Centre. But having lived here four years, I promise you there is much more to do in this city. Here is my list for places to visit to take in the real Toronto (for free!)
1) Window shop in China Town and Kensington Market
Located along Spadina Avenue, between Queen and College, China Town offers authentic tasting dim sum, and of course Chinese restaurants. They also have a ridiculous choice of fruits and veggies; dragon fruit anyone? Kensington Market is known for its eclectic clothing, cheese shops, and items you can’t find anywhere else. To get the full experience, make sure to come by on a Saturday morning.
2) Take in a demonstration at Yonge & Dundas Square or Queen’s Park
Toronto is made up of so many communities from so many places in the world that there is a protest or demonstration going on almost every weekend. Going to one is an exhilarating experience. I’ve probably been to 10 or 12 demonstrations in my time here, and they are always very inspiring. It’s not often that you get to see someone with such passion.
3) Take a walk through the Annex
Make sure to visit Honest Ed’s, a huge discount department store on Bloor and Bathurst that carries everything and sells it at very cheap prices. The outside of the building is covered with flashing signs and the inside is filled with cheesy slogans – Awesome. Also stop by Lee’s Palace, you can pick it out by its graffiti wall. Lee’s has played host to Nirvana, Oasis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among many, many others. (Also the Dance Cave club upstairs is a great way to spend the night.) You also can’t miss The Brunswick House. It is the hangout for first-year U of T and Ryerson students and is jokingly known as the place to use your fake ID for over 100 years.
4) Smell the flowers at Allan Gardens
This greenhouse on Carlton and Jarvis is more than 100 years old and is probably the best place to go on a cold winter afternoon as they keep it a balmy 25 C all year-long. There are over 16,000 exotic plants and touches like fish ponds and gnomes. I like to go when I’m completely fed up with cold weather.
5) Go for a run along the boardwalk in the Beaches
Any time I stay at my Aunt’s house in the Beaches, I go out every morning for a run along the boardwalk, because the view is amazing. The Beaches are East of downtown, so have nature around you, but can see the skyline up ahead. There is really no better way to spend a warm summer morning. Feel free to bring your bike, roller blades or dog.
6) Go dancing in The Village
Toronto has Canada’s biggest gay community and it is centred around Church and Wellesley (about a block from where I live). Going dancing in a gay bar is something that you can’t do in many other places, so I always try to take a friend to one if they’re visiting from out-of-town. If you’re lucky enough to come in during Pride Week, held the in July, then the area becomes pedestrian only, the bars get a special permit to stay open to 4 a.m. and there are concerts on the weekend. Amazing!
7) Take in the Distillery district
This part of town is filled with dozens of free art galleries, yummy cafés (Soma!) and quirky boutiques. It’s an easy way to take in some culture without paying anything. I normally start my day off at the St. Lawrence market, a couple blocks west and buy some bagels at St. Urbain to munch on as I stroll around. (They’re the closest to Montreal bagels Toronto has. You can see my comparison of Montreal and Toronto here).
8) Walk through one (or many) or Toronto’s ethnic neighbourhoods
I’ve mentioned China Town already, but there is also Little Italy, Greek Town, Korea Town, Portugal Village, Little India and Little Poland, and I’ve probably forgotten several. Each neighbourhood has authentic cuisine, shops and its own little culture. In a weekend, you can actually feel like you’ve travelled around the world.
9) Be with the cool crowd on Queen West
Queen Street West is known as the coolest area of Toronto, probably because of all the celebrities who have visited Much Music at Queen and John Street over the years. The area is filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques and trendy restaurants. I like to come down here on hot afternoons, when I just want an excuse to be outside.
10) Visit a museum
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is free every Wednesday night from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is free to university and college students every Tuesday night.