Sometimes you have to hit it like a tourist in your own back yard to appreciate what you’ve got…
By Doug Wallace
Main photo by Conor Samuel/Unsplash
With world-class everything, the fourth-largest city in North America is never short on things to do – you simply have to get out there and experience it for yourself. Create your very own “Never Have I Ever” Toronto moment by getting out and enjoying unique experiences close to home. Whether it is an afternoon adventure in a new neighbourhood, a nice dinner out at a new restaurant that you haven’t tried before or discover one of the city’s exciting hotels with an overnight staycation. Your excuse to live it up a bit and explore all of Toronto, not just downtown or the village? You deserve it.
Dig out an overnight bag and find a new part of town to hang your hat for a night or two.
A short walk from the Gay Village, The Anndore House is your new 113-room home away from home, slick and sexy, all low lighting, gold frames, velvet furniture and dark wood. Rooms have a retro, loft-style air to them, augmented with wood shutters, leather club chairs and a record player. Industrial-style white bathrooms are dressed in gold. Downstairs, Constantine restaurant draws a crowd from all over town, lured by a clever mix of Italian and Middle Eastern fare.
The cool and the eco-conscious are checking into the new 1 Hotel Toronto, showcasing a sustainability-minded design with more than 3,000 plants sprouting throughout the property, including the 112 rooms and suites. Expect soft neutral tones and natural textures, reclaimed wood and organic linens. 1 Kitchen Toronto features a plant-forward menu built around local ingredients and Casa Madera serves organic Cali-Mex meals, while the rooftop Harriet’s Toronto offers an open-concept sushi bar and poolside bottle service.
Just outside the downtown core in a corner of Exhibition Place, Hotel X Toronto is a top spot for overnighters looking for recreation via the biggest hotel gym in Canada – 28,000 square metres of it. Find four indoor tennis courts, nine glassed-back squash courts, a golf simulator with 90+ courses, and four studios for yoga, spinning, Pilates and group fitness. More than 400 rooms are pared down but posh, with orange leather chairs, high-design lamps, blue and gold carpets and textured walls. Find time for the Guerlain Spa, the first ever in Canada.
Formerly a strip club, the Romanesque Revival-style Broadview Hotel is a bubbling 58-room boutique hotel anchoring the Riverdale and Riverside neighbourhoods. The history of the building is incorporated into the design and construction, the décor a mix of time periods. Rooms feature dark-wood furniture, red velvet curtains and all-marble bathrooms. Pin your visit to a meal at The Civic on the main floor or an evening at the 100-seat Rooftop, which sports a 360-degree view of the city and a smart cocktail list.
Managed by Loews Hotels, Bisha Toronto Hotel oozes sex appeal, fusing laid-back glamour with razor-sharp design via crushed velvet, etched gold and black marble. It takes over the first eight floors of a 44-storey building just a stone’s throw from the CN Tower. The 100 rooms – including an entire floor designed by Lenny Kravitz – sport a salon-style art-gallery vibe and old-school opulence – think lacquer armoires and patent leather. Popular KOST restaurant on the 44th floor offers a swim and a stunning view of downtown.
The arts-oriented, 19-room Drake Hotel on the Queen Street West strip is still a strong cultural hub, blending music, art, food and shopping into one eclectic overnight experience. Public areas maintain original granite flooring and wood-panelling, propped up with informal and quirky art. Expect retro-style furnishings and simple wood shelving in the colourful, comfortable and functional rooms replete with Bose speakers. The hip Sky Yard rooftop serves the best burger in town, while the main-floor café veritably hums at brunch/lunchtime.
The Waterfront and the city-centre aside, Toronto is awash in a multi-culti environs to explore.
Head out to Queen Street West to experience eclectic Parkdale, with its balanced mix of trendy shops, in-vogue open kitchens and Caribbean-Polish-Vietnamese family flavour. Arts-centric with a bit of an edge, the area is good for tiny galleries, vintage stores and eggs over easy. Visitors trip to see the murals of the Milky Way, hit a Tibetan restaurant, patio-hop or ease along the western stretch of the waterfront trail to Sunnyside Beach.
Gentrifying at lightning speed, the once blue-collar district of Leslieville midway between Downtown and The Beaches is the east-end up-and-comer. This family-forward zone is filled with niche retailers, stylish brunch spots, cool coffee shops and aesthetics pitstops – eyebrows, facials, manicures and more. Parks and playgrounds, too. The neighbourhood includes the ever-growing Gerrard Street East strip of fun eateries and chill cocktail bars.
Set within the confluence of four railway lines, the Junction Triangle and its main strip of Sterling Road are the city’s next big thing. Self-tour yourself to several outstanding shops selling eclectic clothing and high-style home furnishings – but go with an empty stomach to taste-test perfect espresso, craft beer, fried chicken and pork sandwiches. The region is also home to numerous galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Gay Village has been a traditional gathering place for the town’s LGBTQ+ crowd for decades, it’s melange of residential and commercial spirit buzzing along day and night. Take refuge in North America’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, the always ambitious Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Barbara Hall Park and the stalwart Woody’s bar, pulling pints since 1989.
Looking for a drink outside of Toronto’s gay village? Here are a few hot spots.
With Cocktail Bar, the plain-Jane name barely scratches the surface. Imbibers peruse a fun list of clever libations and an ample selection of wines and beer in a cozy, calm and low-lit room on Dundas West near Trinity Bellwoods Park. It’s classic and cool, with white leaded-glass bar shelving and a shiny tin ceiling. Sister spot Rhum Corner is conveniently across the street, so make it a mini-crawl.
The swirling mahogany walls will have you at “Ola” at Bar Raval, a little slice of Barcelona on College Street. The bar menu highlights highballs that favour the seltzer bottle, refined classics and a host of house-invented specialties. Look forward to a ton of Iberian wine – including fortified and orange – much of it by the glass. Leave room for the tapas, or you will be sorry.
Alobar Yorkville, a mid-town offshoot of the esteemed downtown restaurant, is hidden in a little courtyard off Cumberland. Here, tufted red leather banquettes give way to an elegant interior of soft peach and turquoise booths… Surprise! This is cocktail bar is also a restaurant. Choose something from the raw bar and get your after-work buzz on.
Toronto’s top experiences – new and familiar, contemplative and daring – deliver in spades.
With more than 95,000 works, from the first century to the present day, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest in the world at 45,000 square metres. This means plenty of room to roam Henry Moore sculptures, a vast Canadian Collection that includes works by the Group of Seven, a new centre for Indigenous and Canadian art, and wildly popular, Instagram-worthy touring exhibits. The gallery is open later on Wednesday or Friday nights, so make it a date.
Of course, there are so many galleries and museums across the GTA that you can spend an afternoon exploring. Among the most popular: The Royal Ontario Museum, the Bata Shoe Museum, the Gardiner Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aga Khan Museum, Black Creek Pioneer Village and the Ontario Science Centre.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada delivers an array of stingrays in the Ray Bay, pufferfish and sea horses in The Gallery, sharks and sawfish in Dangerous Lagoon, and the massive Planet Jellies, which showcases all the stages of the jellyfish’s strange life. Plan for two to three hours, and be sure to buy your tickets in advance.
The Toronto Zoo is the largest zoo in Canada with over 5,000 animals and seven geographic regions representing 460 species. Open year round the sprawling facility in Scarborough is a hit with the kids (and most adults).
Going for an external walk on the ledge of the CN Tower may seem like a crazy dream, but you can make it a reality with the 360-degree EdgeWalk, an adrenalin-inducing stroll around the big bulb – tethered, of course – in a bright orange jumpsuit. You can even get married on the Walk, in pink and black-tuxedo suits and elasticized rings, with the ceremony streamed to your family and friends inside.
Which way to the gay beach? Just head to the Toronto Island airport and turn left. Hanlan’s Point is home to one of Canada’s few clothing optional beaches, a one-kilometre swath of mostly bare flesh on the island’s western point. Pack a picnic basket and plenty of sunscreen and spend the day people-watching. Skip the crowds by setting your email to bounce and go on a weekday.
Not feeling the beach, but still want to be by the water? Explore the shores of Lake Ontario by heading west to Humber Bay Shores Park, a beautiful spot for a hike or picnic and the best views of the Toronto skyline. Alternatively, you could head east of the downtown core to the Scarborough Bluffs, also known as The Bluffs, for a scenic afternoon.
Dressed up or down, Toronto delivers a smorgasbord of international flavours at every turn.
One of the nicest rooms in the city, stylish and quiet, Alo Restaurant is an honoured member of the Relais & Châteaux association, dishing up refined contemporary French cuisine with pure passion. Take on tuna tartare, striped bass, rack of pork and more. Or go for the tasting menu and don’t look back.
At Kōjin on the top floor above Momofuku Noodle Bar, guests eye up mouth-watering meats and fish, everything cooked over a charcoal fire – hence the name, the Japanese god of fire. Global cuisine references Hawaii and Singapore, with delectable items like pork dumplings, glazed duck and roast chicken.
Find the best burger in town – in perhaps every permutation imaginable – at Ozzy’s Burgers in Kensington Market, itself a tasty food adventure. Tuck into 100% prime AAA beef burgers, hand-pressed and halal, served on red-and-white checked paper held together with little pegs. The lamb burger is to die for.
Transport yourself to Sicily with a meal at Ardo on King Street East, one of the city’s best unfussy Italian restaurants, a homespun family operation, comfortable and cool. Go for perfectly grilled octopus, thick beef ragoût, house-made Sicilian sausage and more.
The LGBTQ+-owned, retro-styled hotspot Lavender Menace in the east end is a cocktail bar with a difference, where “everyone is welcome except bigots.” Chow down on home-style Southern comfort food with a few surprises; think vegan mac and cheese and salmon cakes. Craft and even bespoke cocktails can be shaken or stirred.
Food exploits at gathering places like Stackt Market and Eataly offer several hours of delicious expedition. The former fits a few dozen gourmet outlets and eateries into a mixed-use market of 120 reclaimed shipping containers, while the latter is chock-full of artisanal Italian goodies to-go or linger over. Bon appetit!