The silhouette of Toronto’s skyline is among the world’s most recognizable.
But the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (née SkyDome), while testaments to architecture, offer little to the traveler, except perhaps easy-to-spot markers to get your bearings.
So if you scratch those must-sees off of your must-see list, what’s left? Well, lucky for travelers to Toronto, there are plenty of lesser known attractions—hidden gems that many locals hope will remain hidden.
So keep these under your Tilley hat!
While the CN Tower seems the obvious choice, locals turn up their nose.
Instead, they turn to the Panorama Lounge, located at the top of the Manulife Centre’s 51st floor at Bay and Bloor, where guests (19 and older, sorry kids!) can enjoy views both uptown and downtown and enjoy a from-all-accounts-fabulous meal.
Few tourists make their way far enough east along Queen Street to The Beaches neighborhood, which is a mecca for local families and lake-lovers. You may recognize the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant, a Toronto landmark that has appeared in several films.
Stroll along the boardwalk alongside Lake Ontario, stop for homemade ice cream at Ed’s Real Scoop and eat at any of the cafés with outdoor patios. This area is bounded by Queen Street, Woodbine and Kingston Road and is accessible by streetcar from downtown.
Another up-and-coming area is Liberty Village, located near King and Dufferin (Liberty runs parallel to King, one street south). Formerly home to warehouses, it has been revitalized as a trendy go-to area featuring a local farmer’s market (from June through October), Balzac’s coffee shop (which has a selection of gluten-free sweets) and a wonderful décor shop named Haveli Home, featuring antique and recycled furniture that owner David Anderson picks up on his frequent travels to India.
Fashion mavens may be familiar with Virginia Johnson, whose designs have been featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Well, she hails from Toronto and her flagship store marks an growing hot spot along Ossington, north of Queen. Here, you’ll find a bevy of organic eateries, vintage shops and designer boutiques to keep you occupied all day long. 132 Ossington Ave.
Locals flock to the waterfront in the summer because after a long Canadian winter, you don’t want to miss a second of sailboats or sunshine.
The Distillery district is a stone’s throw from the lake and is booming these days. At one point in the 1800s, the district was the largest distillery in the British empire.
Today it’s brick-lined streets and a pedestrian “village,” featuring galleries, boutiques and bars aplenty. Mill Street Brew Pub, with its awesome handcrafted organic offerings, is a popular spot. www.millstreetbrewpub.ca/
Kensington Market is the original dollar store! This is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Toronto and is now an official National Historic Site.
Navigate narrow alleys as you check out the myriad stalls offering up everything from vintage clothing to authentic ethnic cuisine (or the ingredients required to make-it-yourself) from the ethnicities that make Toronto their home. Some faves include Courage My Love, a vintage clothing shop and House of Spice (if you can’t find your spice here, it doesn’t exist). It’s west of Spadina between Dundas and College.
Taste-test your way through the indoor St. Lawrence Market, located on Front St. at Jarvis.
The buildings served as Toronto’s first city hall back in the 1800s and today they are home to 120 vendors offering up everything from authentic Montreal-style bagels to incredible seafood.
On Wednesday through Saturday, you can take a guided tour of Old Town Toronto and through the market with Bruce Bell, the official historian of St. Lawrence Market; www.stlawrencemarket.com
DRINKING AND DINING
How to choose one among the many? Toronto is home to so many incredible spots to eat that it’s impossible. The Pomegranate on College gets a nod for its incredible Persian fare and its cozy, homey environment. After working your way through affordable and savory dishes such as maast-o khiar (yogurt mixed with cucumber, walnuts, raisins and rose petals), olive tapenade with a pomegranate sauce, and a rich stew called fesenjaan, you’ll leave with your stomach stuffed and your wallet still full. 420 College Street; 416-921-7557, pomegranaterestaurant.ca
On Queen Street, you may notice Honest Ed’s Department Store (a blast from the past created by larger-than-life Torontonian Ed Mirvish—he’s the guy responsible for bringing so much theater to the city). Well, around the corner is Southern Accent on Bathurst and Bloor, which offers up amazing Cajun/Creole cuisine and is a personal favorite. The prix fix menu is an unbeatable value—for $27, you can work your way through comfort food such as hush puppies with lime-garlic sauce, jambalaya over collard greens, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce. 595 Markham Street; 416-536-3211, www.southernaccent.com
Headed to Toronto? Check out our Canada travel section, eh?
And, when a restaurant calls itself Gio Rana’s Really Really Nice Restaurant, you know it has to be good. Otherwise known as “The Nose,” for its paper mâché proboscis overhanging the doorway, Gio’s is always busy, always noisy and always good. You may not expect much when you approach the restaurant, housed in a stodgy old bank building, but the eclectic thrift-store décor and hearty Southern Italian cuisine will have you coming back for more. 1220 Queen Street E. at Leslie Street; 416-469-5225
Toronto’s newest museum is also, perhaps, its most Toronto-centric. The original home of de Havilland Aircraft of Canada has become home to past and present aeronautical achievements and innovation. This is also a great spot for families with plenty of children’s activities beyond the obvious appeal of aircraft. Located at Downsview Park in north Toronto.
Don’t miss a visit to the Toronto Music Garden. During the summer, visitors can take in an audio tour of a landscape creation set to world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s favorite piece of music: The First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by Bach.
According to Toronto-based travel writer Kate Pocock, a video series about the piece was created for TV in collaboration with Boston landscape designer Mulie Moir Messervy. When their landscape creation was completed, Boston rejected it and then-mayor of Toronto Barbara Hall asked if Toronto could have it. The creation can be seen on the western end of Toronto’s Harbourfront, where visitors can rent earphones and hear the music as they travel from one section to the next, each dedicated to a different movement of the musical piece.
Sounds like fun, eh?
By Leslie Garrett for PeterGreenberg.com.
Leslie Garrett is a former Torontonian and the author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World. Visit her at www.thevirtuoustraveler.com.
Previously By Leslie Garrett:
- Community-Based Tourism: Creating Authentic Travel Experiences
- Capital Green: Washington, DC’s Eco-Tourism Cred
- Austin: Texas Gold and Green
- Carbon Offsets: Travel With a Clean Conscience?
- Eco-Oakland: The City You Only Thought You Knew
- Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye
- The Good, The Green and the Downright Crazy Tours
- Green Travel Gadgets
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