Neighbourhood guide to Toronto

Toronto doesn't like to brag, yet the modest Canadian city has plenty to shout about — from a culturally diverse neighbourhood that's now a hybrid cuisine hotspot to an arts hub that's thriving due to dead pigs

By David Whitley
Published 26 Nov 2016, 13:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 09:56 BST
Views of the skyline from the ferry ride to Centre Island

Views of the skyline from the ferry ride to Centre Island

Photograph by Susan Seubert

When listing the great North American cities, Toronto often falls through the mental net. It has grown quietly and largely without incident, the epitome of Canadian niceness. But there are some surprises to be had in a city that fits 2.6 million people in without anyone noticing. A recent study showed Toronto to have the most diverse population of any city on Earth, and that shows as Greek areas turn to Chinese then Portuguese, and so on. There's also an accumulation of likability, whereby no single neighbourhood totally enraptures, but virtually all of them are surprisingly engaging. And that accumulation of rather good ends up outweighing a one-off hit of great.

Kensington Market

The story begins in the distinctive, bay-and-gable Victorian houses on Kensington Avenue. "They were built in the late 19th century for English and Scottish immigrants," says Jason Kucherawy, owner of tour company Toronto Urban Adventures. "So they had sitting rooms or parlours."

The Jewish migrants that arrived later, however, could see no use for the parlours in the homes they'd worked hard to afford. So they turned them into shops, and moved kitchens upstairs, living apartment-style above their small businesses. Then, after World War II, there was an influx of people from Italy and Portugal. Toronto wasn't as welcoming then as it is now, but the landlords didn't care where people were from as long as they paid the rent. Kensington Market became the logical initial settlement point for several more waves of migrants after that.

"Wherever the hotspot in the world was, the people fleeing it came here," says Jason.

The name is misleading — there's no market. But Kensington Market is full of small shops, cafes and restaurants, many of which combine cultures in rather unexpected ways. On Kensington Avenue, a case in point is Rasta Pasta, which has a Jamaican-style oil drum barbecue at the front but serves up Jamaican-Italian crossovers such as jerk pork panini.

Elsewhere, there are the likes of Caribbean Syrian Connection — a West Indian juice bar at the front and Akram's Shoppe behind it, selling authentic Middle Eastern foods. Or Hungary Thai Bar & Eatery, where a pad thai or spring rolls can be followed up with goulash soup or a schnitzel. "He's Hungarian, she's Thai," says Jason with a 'hey, why not?' shrug of the shoulder.

If Kensington Avenue is old school Kensington Market — slightly scuzzier and occasionally overdosing on the tie-dye Tibetan dresses — Augusta Avenue is the way it is heading. It's more restaurants than shops, more artisan baking than existence-scraping. But it's still independent — chains attempting to encroach quickly get snarled out of affordable and unashamedly global Kensington Market.

Jason leads me into El Gordo Fine Foods (214 Augusta Avenue. T: 00 1 416 205 9981), in search of Alfonso Segovia, who set up a Chilean empanada stall, then expanded the space into a shabby-but-superb food court. Alfonso still sells 42 different types of empanada, with fillings ranging from spinach and feta to kimchi, but he's now been joined by Tito Ron's, selling Filipino-Caribbean hybrids — including a dessert that the man serving it likens to the Philippines' famously gaudy halo-halo "on steroids". There's also a churros bakery and a gazpacho and paella joint.

"This," says Jason, "is the neighbourhood where I come to eat."

Distillery District

"From 1877 to 1905, this was the world's largest distillery," says Arron Binder of Go Tours Canada. Whatever replaced it as the top dog must have been gigantic because the former Gooderham and Worts distillery covers several blocks with a remarkably uniform look: red-brick storage buildings, bottling plants and distilling rooms are accompanied by red brick pavements. But the stench of whisky is long gone.

Booze-making operations closed in 1990, and for the remainder of the 20th century, the 13-acre site was used as a location for hundreds of films and TV shows. Then, after a multi-million-dollar refit, it reopened in 2003 as a new neighbourhood. It's a revitalisation project in the same vein as Sydney's Darling Harbour or Cape Town's V&A Waterfront. Massive art installations turn heads at every junction and the diverse mix of tenants ranges from a gallery showcasing the art of native peoples and a lavishly decorated Mexican restaurant to a centre for the performing arts and a host of quirky shops; these include Bergo Designs, which sells everything from model planes to spaghetti servers and Smurf chess sets.

It's also become a breeding ground for experimentation. Arron leads me towards one of the longer-standing tenants, Soma Chocolatemaker, where the forceful whiff of chocolate hits the moment the doors are opened. At the back, machines are whirring as staff work on luxurious creations like Thai Stick and Vietnamese Coffee — many with chocolate sourced from overseas. At the front, customers mull over which truffle, cookie, toffee and gelato flavours to sample.

The tasting continues at fellow anchor tenant, the Mill Street Brewery, which started with basic lagers and has now branched off into the wacky world of tropical fruit-heavy IPAs and bierschnaps — a spirit made from beer. "It's a Northern German thing — from around Hannover," says Arron. "But here they can sell it hardly anywhere outside of the brewery due to government rules."

It's not the only unusual hard stuff being made in the Distillery District, either — relative newcomer, the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company has set up a sake brewery with a mission to educate. Terms are explained, the types of rice used are demonstrated, and the advantages of serving the beverage cold are spelt out (served warm, apparently, is often a trick to disguise the extra brewer's alcohol added on the cheap).

West Queen West

In a roundabout way, we have dead pigs to thank for West Queen West becoming Toronto's arts hub. "There was an abattoir to the south, and the wind comes in off the lake in the afternoon," says Art InSite's Betty Ann Jordan. "It brought the stench with it." That, and the presence of a lunatic asylum and poor housing stock, kept rents along the western stretch of Queen Street appealingly cheap.

Times change, though, and now the galleries are feeling the pinch. The David Kaye Gallery (ceramics) displays lots of eye-catching works, but the owner struggles to keep smiling when the subject of rent comes up.

Galleries are not the only form of artistic expression in these parts, though. Betty Ann leads me down Brookfield Street, an alley where there are extravagantly detailed murals. "The city has embraced street art, and this is an initiative to encourage people to go into the alleys. It makes them less attractive for drug deals too."

On Shaw Street is another initiative, part of the city-wide Artscape project, where disused buildings are renovated, then given over to artists as cheap studios. In this case, the Shaw Street Public School is now Artscape Youngplace, with dramatic installations lining the corridors and staircases and dozens of creative types doing their thing in the former classrooms and offices.

A big part of West Queen West's resurgence, though, comes from two hotels. The Gladstone Hotel has kept to its 19th century roots — vintage lift and all — while adding a blizzard of art and a bar where locals hang out. The Drake Hotel has gone even further, with commissioned paintings in the rooms and tongue-in-cheek in-house postcards quoting negative TripAdvisor reviews from prudes. It also has a tiny barbershop and a microstore dedicated to New Balance trainers across the street.

This freewheeling, make-yourself-stand-out attitude is evident all along West Queen West. Shops focus on organic goods, or cocktail-making supplies while proudly brandishing 'Queer Street West' rainbow stickers. And restaurants have the freedom to plump for bizarre decor — The Good Son serves up the likes of bulgogi short ribs with kimchi fried rice and quail egg, among leather couches and walls of antique clocks. And here, the only dead pigs are on top of the spicy soppressata wood-fired pizzas.

When in Toronto…

Ice hockey
This is Canada, so if people are getting excited about sport, chances are it's ice hockey they're getting behind. The Toronto Maple Leafs play at the Air Canada Centre, Downtown, near the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The hip, higher-quality alternative to Starbucks, or the equally soul-sapping Canadian chain Tim Hortons, is local effort Jimmy's Coffee. All coffees are named after a famous James, Jim or Jimmy, and staff are encouraged to hand out freebies.

Ice wine
Canada's prime contribution to the world of viticulture is ice wine — made from grapes that have frozen on the vine. Much of it is grown in nearby Niagara, on the Lake. Due to the state's monopoly on alcohol sales, you'll have to buy it in a bar or at an LCBO store.

Portuguese food
Toronto's ethnic melange includes a large Portuguese population. Little Portugal — the western end of College Street, and a few blocks south — is the best place to find custard tarts and piri piri chicken.

As soon as the sun comes out, competition among bars and restaurants to provide the best terrace (here, called a patio) heats up. There's an extensive list at, but the one at El Catrin, in the Distillery District, is darned impressive.


More info (recommended for restaurant and bar information)
Fodor's Toronto. RRP: £14.99
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Toronto. RRP: £7.99

How to do it
Expedia offers seven nights at the Chelsea Hotel, Toronto, including Air Transat flights from Gatwick, from £699 per person.

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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