Travel

A city guide to Toronto

In this ever-changing cityscape, a new world of eco-conscious urban planning is bringing community spaces to industrial wastelands — a gradual greening of Canada’s biggest city. Tuesday, July 9, 2019

By Sarah Barrell
Photographs By Moe Kafer
Farmers’ market, Evergreen Brick Works

Ghosts of raves gone by haunt the old kilns at Evergreen Brick Works. The spectral graffiti of parties past, gossamer-thin from wear and weather, are layered over crumbling walls: a faded 1980s day-glow tag here, a 1990s techno-hippie there, hands outstretched in an eternal dance move.

The Don Valley factory produced the bricks that largely built Toronto in the 1890s, and rebuilt it again after the 1904 blaze that torched the city. It fired its final clay in the 1980s, and then the free partiers moved in. Ghost graffiti aside, the place is still very much alive: bikers and hikers weave along riverside trails beneath leaning smokestacks; old kiln sheds and warehouses now function as exhibition spaces, a garden centre, cafe, bike hire shop, and farmers’ market whose pavilion doubles as a winter skate rink; community learning spaces are decorated with industrial machinery.

Part of Future Cities Canada, the project by urban conservation group Evergreen is a brave new North American world: a pioneering work of architectural reclamation and recycle. From here, the pop-up Toronto cityscape peeks through Don Valley’s trees to the south, dominated by towering cranes and scaffolding: a build-it-up, tear-it-down Downtown where heritage buildings might quake in their Victorian foundations.

The fight for Kensington Market, for one, rumbles on. Of all the compact city’s dense patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods, hippie Kensington is the probably most characterful: an acid-wash poster-child for heritage preservation. Its low-rise, early immigration-era buildings are daubed with draft-dodger-era murals, and still house generations old family businesses, despite the threat of developers.

Win some, lose some: Toronto’s is an ever-changing landscape, and nowhere more than on its lakeshore. City planning is increasingly embracing the vast waters of Lake Ontario, which beyond the original downtown core had been something of a functional backwater.

At westerly Ontario Place, I find a shiny new chrome and concrete contrast to the brickworks, comprising a convention centre, new ‘urban resort’ Hotel X, and the Budweiser Stage where Kenny Chesney fans wait out the afternoon before the big show, drinking beer from coolers stashed in the trunks of oversized trucks.

Further along the lake’s snaking shores is the soon-to-come, mile-long Bentway trail. Dedicated to ice skating, art markets and performances, it will run under the elevated Gardiner Expressway; while Rail Deck Park is a green space set to run over the Downtown railway corridor.Toronto’s vision is looking increasingly green. Further in the future, The Meadoway will transform an underused hydro-corridor into the city’s biggest park; 10 miles of grass and wildflowers stretching from Downtown to the Don Valley and beyond, returning a big chunk of this city back to nature, and connecting it with the brickworks that built its very foundations.

New viewing platform, NC Tower

See & do

Art Gallery of Ontario: One of the few buildings in Toronto designed by native Frank Gehry, this museum now comes with impressive Indigenous Galleries. Find intricate bone carvings, paintings and sculptures of Arctic scenes from the transitional 1960s to 1990s era of Intuit art, and 19th-century bandolier bags. Don’t miss the bonkers-brilliant dress by artist Rebecca Belmore commenting on Commonwealth colonialism — part Victorian ball gown, part beaver dam, with two china saucers woven into the decolletage.

Drink Toronto: A lively, expert walking tour giving gourmet travellers insider tips on where to drink (and dine). Options range from a blended white Niagara wine perfectly paired with Prince Edward Island oysters at one of the city’s atmospheric old seafood joints to refined cicchetti, fritti and aperitivi at Queen West’s contemporary Italian enoteca, and craft beer with artisan Canadian cheese and charcuterie at brewery-bar Northern Maverick Brewing Co. 90 minutes, C$90 (£52). 

MOCA: Its new purpose-designed home in the revamped Tower Automotive Building sets the Museum of Contemporary Art as the centrepiece of west Toronto’s emerging Lower Junction neighbourhood. The polished industrial concrete floors and curvaceous pillars of this 1919 tower block are a beautiful blank backdrop for bold exhibitions of contemporary Canadian and international art. The first-floor bookstore cafe pegs itself as a community area. 

Royal Ontario Museum: This gorgeous Victorian-era museum, augmented with Daniel Libeskind’s ‘crystal’ entrance, has a cracking natural history collection: towering Nisga’a and Haida totem poles, the Tagish Lake meteorite, and Canada’s largest displayed dinosaur, the duck-billed hadrosaur. A classic family venue, ROM’s Friday Night Live charms an older crowd with DJs and dancing — locally labelled ‘drunk with dinosaurs’ (7-11.30pm). 

The Tour Guys Graffiti Tour: Taking in the mosaic of murals and tags around Queen Street West, including Graffiti Alley, this 90-minute stroll is free (donations encouraged), offering a crash course on Toronto’s satirical street art scene. Spot sharp cartoonish commentary on former Mayor Rob Ford’s war on graffiti by Spud, expressive portraits by Elicser, and the signature yellow chicks of Uber5000.

Hit the water: The shores of Lake Ontario become a proper playground when summer comes. Bike, hike, barbecue, rollerblade and stroll along the newly installed boardwalks and man-made beaches east and west of Downtown, or at such central urban hubs as Sugar Beach or Queens Quay. Alternatively, take the ferry 15-minutes from Quay West terminal to Toronto Island (aka Center Island, part of a three-mile string of bridge-connected islets a couple of miles offshore).

Mushrooms

Eat

Toronto’s nickname, Hogtown, is said to originate from its prominence as a 19th-century meatpacking hub; today it’s regularly cited as one of the world’s most vegan-friendly cities.

King’s Noodles: This family-run Chinatown landmark is the place for Hong Kong Cantonese classics: barbecue pork, mammoth noodle soups, and sticky soy chicken. 296 Spadina Avenue

Saint Lawrence Market: Take a pan-Canadian food tour at this redbrick 19th-century market via 50-plus merchants and farmers selling everything from Montreal bagels and Ontario hot dogs to West Coast crab and Quebec poutine. 

Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen: One of formerly tatty Queen West’s slick new addresses, serving cocktails as vibrant as its tropical wallpaper. Don’t miss the ackee and salt fish on fried dumplings or the excellent goat curries. 

Grey Gardens: This modern Canadian restaurant contrasts happily with Kensington Market’s graffiti-headshop landscape. A cool-calm open kitchen dispenses dishes presented with delicate sushi-like precision, accompanied by elegantly inventive cocktails.

Like a local

Water & wine: It’s just a 12-minute flight from Billy Bishop Airport, a short hop from Downtown Toronto, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Toronto’s beautiful wine country, and also the falls themselves (up to three hours by road in Toronto traffic). flygta.com

Vegan food: Parkville, Toronto’s ‘all-vegan’ neighbourhood, now goes by the local name of Vegandale, with a dedicated food and drink festival (10 August; vegandale.com). Meanwhile in ritzy Yorkville, and just-opened on Queen St West, vegan comes with Vogue-style flair at elegant Planta, with upscale eats, and ‘healthy’ cocktails; order the dirty-spiced chai latte with pistachio.

Hipster fit: Work out like only an Ossington neighbourhood local can, and flip tractor tires, swing a sledgehammer and reward yourself with a killer cold-press coffee at Academy of Lions, the city’s self-titled ‘crossfit/functional lifestyle outfitter’. 

Buy

Drake General Store: For classic-kitsch Canadiana, from coasters featuring Canadian Mounties to candles in vintage maple syrup cans. The annex hotel is equally arty. 

Taglialatella Galleries: This small but prestigiously packed new Yorkville art showroom (the first Canadian offshoot of the American gallerist) stocks the likes of Banksy and Warhol.

Spacing Store: Find city-focused books on art, design and Torontonian cultural etiquette, plus badges based on subway station logos and candles with neighbourhood scents. It’s just one of the 140 shops in the 401 Galleries, set in a 19th-century tin factory. 401richmond.com

Courage my Love: Shop for vintage threads, beads and baubles, and some old-time Kensington Market hippie charm.
14 Kensington Avenue

“The fact that over 50% of the residents of Toronto aren’t from Canada is always a good thing, creatively, and for food especially. That’s easily a city’s biggest strength, and it’s Toronto’s unique strength.”

by Anthony Bourdain

Sleep

The Anndore House: A former apartment block with a colourful history, this 2018 opening offers determinedly dark, sexy decor, and 113 retro-sleek loft-style rooms set over 10 storeys. It’s also minutes from the smart shops of Bloor and Yorkville. Constantine, the perennially packed bar-restaurant, dominates the ground floor and terrace.

Gladstone Hotel: This 19th-century railway hostelry doubles as a gallery and studio space, while a manual cage lift whisks guests to 37 rooms each decorated by a different local artist. Seasonally changing local chefs cater the cafe-bar, which hosts gigs and film screenings. 

Kimpton Saint George Hotel: From Tisha Myles’s lobby wallpaper to the facade’s graffiti mural by JerryRug, this new Downtown-adjacent opening has reinvented the former Holiday Inn. A daily wine hour, the Fortunate Fox pub and surrounding university buildings ensure a lively crowd. 

Preparing drinks

After hours

Hip hangouts: A glass of crisp Niagara Peninsula Riesling, sunset CN Tower views and some cheeky decorative nods to its past life as a strip club are the draw at Broadview Hotel’s Rooftop Bar. Or head underground, to the Drake Hotel’s basement for dance parties, slam poetry plus forays up for panoramic views from roof terrace bar. thebroadviewhotel.ca thedrake.ca

The Distillery District: Converted 19th-century grain stores host shiny bars and a couple of independent theatres. If you can cope with the cobbled streets after a few cocktails, it’s easy pickings for partying. 

Clubs: After the recent bemoaned closure of beloved Uniun, the inclusive alternative for clubbers is CODA, where you can dance until dawn — but arrive before midnight for the best chance of entry. For sportier after-sundown pursuits, College Street’s Track & Field is the place for beers, bocce bowling and the Ontario-native, disk-flicking table game of crokinole. codatoronto.com trackandfieldbar.com

Essentials

Getting there & around

As summer 2019, British Airways now flies non-stop from both Heathrow and Gatwick to Toronto Pearson Airport, along with Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet. Air Transat also flies from Manchester. ba.com aircanada.com airtransat.com  westjet.com

Average flight time: 8h.

The journey between Pearson and Downtown takes about half an hour in a taxi, for C$60 (£35), and 25 minutes by direct rail link, which costs C$24 (£14). Getting around Toronto by public transport costs from £7 with a TTC Day Pass. ttc.ca

Via Rail serves destinations beyond the city, largely from the recently restored Union Station (a building that’s reminiscent of New York’s Grand Central), including nearby Niagara Falls and the wine region of Niagara-on-the-Lake. viarail.com

A Toronto CityPass provides access to key city attractions such as the CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. From £52 (adults), £34 (children). citypass.com/toronto

When to go

Summers are often humid but sunny, with temperatures averaging in the mid-to-late 20s. Fiery-leafed fall is often golden-warm and celebratory, with Thanksgiving (14 October), Toronto International Film Festival (5-15 September; tiff.net), and the gargantuan arts event Nuit Blanche (5 October; toronto.ca/nuitblanche) taking over the city. Long winters and brief springs can be blustery, snowy and as cold as -3C.

More info

seetorontonow.com

ontariotravel.net

uk-keepexploring.canada.travel

How to do it

Canadian Affair offers four nights at the new Kimpton Saint George Hotel from £1,023 per person including, return flights and transfers with Air Transat. canadianaffair.com

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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