Canada’s financial, social and cultural capital, Toronto is cosmopolitan and confident, fast-paced and cutting edge, with unexpected eccentric and bohemian corners. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the Americas — and the third in the world — to legalize same-sex marriage, and its largest city is welcoming, incredibly diverse and a whole lot of fun.
Toronto often takes visitors by surprise, with its sandy beaches, leafy ravines, quirky island archipelago, lush parks, staggering choice of 7,000 restaurants, more than 125 galleries and museums — several housed in some of North America’s most striking arts venues — and jubilant social calendar. Summer boasts an incredible array of festivals, including the North by Northeast (NXNE) music and film festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the gargantuan Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival and, of course, the biggest, shiniest, most flamboyant celebration of them all, Pride Toronto and WorldPride 2014.
The LGBT scene
The scene can be divided into three main areas, with the most rainbow flags to be found flying proudly along a 10-block stretch of Church Street in downtown’s Church-Wellesley Village. Here, you’ll find a plethora of predominantly gay bars, restaurants, boutiques and coffeehouses. Residential condo towers, with large numbers of LGBT inhabitants, flank Church. Meanwhile, a 20-minute cab or streetcar ride along Queen Street takes you to West Queen West — or Queer West — where homo goings on often have a more alternative edge. The area starts roughly at Trinity Bellwoods Park and continues to Roncesvalles (where a pedestrian bridge leads to Sunnyside Beach). From hip Ossington Avenue, site of many excellent restaurants and cafés, walk west to the Drake Hotel, past lesbian-owned bar The Beaver and the Gladstone Hotel. Continuing under the railway bridge through Parkdale, cafés, galleries, bars and restaurants abound. North of Queen, the Dundas West restaurant/bar strip offers a seemingly never-ending supply of hip, new places. Further north — and less easily accessible by public transit — is The Junction, another LGBT-favoured part of town, with artists and families setting up home and opening stores, galleries and bars in the old railroad junction and stockyards neighbourhood. If you follow Queen Street east from downtown, you reach Riverdale and Leslieville, which both have noticeable LGBT populations living in leafy residential streets either side of Queen. The neighbourhoods’ bars, cafés, delis and restaurants make tasty stopovers on your way to The Beach neighbourhood farther east.
Downtown, skyscrapers soar and traffic rushes by, but just a few hundred metres away, dozens of intriguing neighbourhoods exude a more laid-back air. With more than half Toronto’s population born outside Canada and more than 200 ethnicities and 130 languages and dialects heard on its streets, the city vies with New York for the title of World’s Most Multicultural City. With this mix comes a smorgasbord of neighbourhoods to explore, with all the delicious flavours that that entails, including five Chinatowns, two Little Italys, the biggest Indian bazaar outside India, a Little Portugal, Greektown, the Polish Village and even a Tibetan community dotted among the city’s ethnic enclaves.
Toronto’s downtown contains an eclectic collection of distinct neighbourhoods. Downtown you’ll find the Church-Wellesley Village; the mainstream Entertainment District; the (manufacturing rather than retail) Fashion District; the galleries, antique stores and restaurants of King Street West (also check out the furniture and design stores of King Street East); the soaring high rises of the Financial District; Downtown Yonge and Queen West’s shopping; the University of Toronto; Ryerson University; charming Cabbagetown; character-full Old Town; bustling St Lawrence Market and nearby emerging hot spot Corktown; and the resurgent Distillery District. The heart of Chinatown is along Spadina, and to its immediate west, the atmospheric, boho Kensington Market hood is crammed with hole-in-the-wall Latin American eateries, plus vintage and health-food stores.
The West End includes West Queen West and also boasts lively Little Italy, colourful Little Portugal (home of Dundas West), old Polish enclave Roncesvalles and the ravines and trails of the vast High Park.
Most visitors to Midtown spend much of their time there sleeping or shopping, as it’s home to Yorkville’s glitzy stores and to stellar hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt and The Hazelton. It’s also home to several major museums, including the Bata Shoe Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Gardiner Museum of ceramic art — all situated on or near Bloor St West that leads west to the Annex, a fun and lively neighbourhood that borders the University of Toronto and is brimming with cafés, restaurants, bars and food vendors.
To the east, Riverdale and Leslieville lead to the four distinct beaches of The Beach neighbourhood. North, along Gerrard St, you’ll find Little India. Further north again (on the Bloor subway line), is Greektown.
The Waterfront is directly south of downtown and roughly encompasses the arts venues of Harbourfront Centre, some great strolls along Queens Quay and the Toronto Islands. Man-made Sugar Beach is a popular city sun-spot. Cherry Beach is rugged but less crowded. Union Station and the St Lawrence Market are both adjacent.
Where to stay
Obviously, if visiting for Pride, Downtown and the Church-Wellesley Village are good choices, but the West End will also work well as an address for a WorldPride visit. For a quieter stay to retreat to after the crowds of Church Street, consider the Waterfront or Yorkville.
Where to eat
Downtown and the gay village have no shortage of eating options. But if you want to wander, walk north to Bloor Street and go west. Bloor is lined with restaurants as it passes through the university neighbourhood, the Annex and Koreatown. Alternatively, go west along College to explore Little Italy, or cab east to Little India. Queen Street, almost its entire length, is seemingly populated almost entirely by places to eat. Ossington runs north from Queen to Dundas and offers some exciting eateries. Chinatown (Spadina, from Queen to College) has all the pho, dumplings and satay you could shake a stick at, but hidden two blocks east of the neon-lit main drag and north of (also noticeably neon) Dundas, the off-the-tourist’s radar Baldwin Village has a delightful strip of upscale and casual restaurants. For picnic ingredients, you can’t beat St Lawrence Market or the colourful stalls and stores of Kensington Market.
Built mostly on a grid system, Toronto is an easy city to navigate. Yonge Street — said to be the world’s longest street — divides city streets into east and west. If you notice a slight slope downward, you can safely assume that you’re heading south toward Lake Ontario. The CN Tower makes another useful landmark.
The Toronto Transit Commission — TTC —consists of bus, streetcar and subway services, and tickets are valid on all three modes of transport. One ticket ($3, exact change) can be used on multiple combinations of transit, as long as you are continuing in one direction, on one journey. It can’t be reused to return or if you’re making a stopover. Lines and routes link frequently and changing between them is straightforward and marked on transit system maps — wall-mounted at most subway stations. If you can, avoid the TTC during rush hour, between 8 and 9am and 4:30 and 6:30pm, as transit is invariably crammed.
While buses and subway trains are quite modern, the streetcar system has been running on Toronto’s streets since 1921, and the current crop of red-and-white cars seem like a picturesque retro throwback. Shiny new cars are on the horizon, so take a trip on these rail-rattlers while you can. The streetcars are a good way to get around and see the city if you’re not in a hurry. Take the Queen car west to visit Trinity Bellwoods Park, the Ossington restaurant strip, West Queen West, Parkdale, and Sunnyside beach and boardwalk. Take the same car east to Leslieville and The Beach neighbourhood. The Dundas car passes many of Dundas West’s hip bars and restaurants going west to Polish neighbourhood Roncesvalles. The College car goes west through Little Italy. The Bathurst and Spadina cars go north-south and connect Bloor Street with Kensington Market, Chinatown and Harbourfront.
Toronto has two main subway lines, the U-shaped, yellow, number 1 line, also known as the Yonge-University line, and the green number 2 Bloor line that cuts across the city from close to the airport through downtown and on toward the eastern suburbs. It’s the best way to get somewhere fast and is great if you’re planning on concentrating your tourist and social activities in the heart of downtown. Take the subway to visit Yorkville’s upscale stores and museums, to King, Queen, Dundas or College downtown and to Wellesley, for the gay village.
Of Toronto’s duo of airports, the miniscule Toronto Island Airport (officially YTZ, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport) is the most convenient for downtown, situated a (literally) two-minute ferry ride from the mainland (and streetcar stops and taxi ranks) at the foot of Bathurst Street. Porter and Air Canada flights are offered from various North American cities, including Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Myrtle Beach, Newark and Halifax. Most flights land at Pearson (YYZ), Canada’s busiest airport. It’s 23 kilometres northwest of downtown and is a major destination for US and international carriers. A cab takes 45 minutes to over an hour, depending on traffic. Bus 192 — the Airport Rocket — links Pearson to nearby Kipling subway station, where trains head downtown every few minutes and take 25 to 40 minutes, depending where in the city you’re going.
If you’re arriving by train, Canada’s Via Rail network links Toronto with Halifax and Montreal, to the east, and Vancouver, to the west. It also meets Amtrak’s Maple Leaf from New York at the border.
For information on the gay village, churchwellesleyvillage.ca is a valuable resource.
The queerwest.org site provides the lowdown on West Queen West’s LGBT goings-on.
For eating and drinking specifics and reviews, turn to blogto.com or torontolife.com. If you really want to get your teeth into Toronto’s restaurant scene, Toronto Life’s annual restaurant guide is available to buy in bookstores and newspaper shops.