Toronto, also known to locals as “The Six” (thank you Drake) is recognized worldwide for its diversity and amazing mix of cultures that contribute to the city’s vibrant character. Toronto has that cool factor that other cities wish they had and it’s evident that the residents here are very proud to call this place home. For the past nine years I have been playing tourist to the city I grew up just outside of, but my frequent trips back to Toronto have allowed me to be build up a pretty extensive list of cool spots to check out.
WHAT TO DO
Neighborhoods to explore
Kensington Market: This area has come a long way in the past few years. What was once a run down part of Toronto, is now a charming neighborhood with an eclectic mix of vintage shops, small boutiques and trendy cafes. Grab a snack at Seven Lives Tacos, then head over to Cocktail Emporium where you can pick up some vintage inspired whiskey glasses. If you’re on the hunt for unique antiques, check out Jade The Vintage Shop, selling everything from old maps to one-of-a-kind jewelry.
Roncesvalles: While this neighborhood may be dubbed as “the place to raise a family” in the city, what a lot of people don’t know is that Roncesvalles has actually turned very trendy in the past few years. Located next to High Park on the west side of Toronto, this quaint area is packed with cute cafes, unique gift shops, yoga studios and live jazz bars. Some of my favorite spots include: Extra Butter for a strong espresso and homemade croissants, The Ten Spot for fresh manis and pedis, Likely General for handmade gifts and Rude Boy for late night burgers.
Queen West: You could spend an entire day wandering up and down Queen Street West. Packed with trendy restaurants and unique shops, there is something for everyone to discover. For quick bites try: Fresh - a modern spot for healthy vegetarian food, Grand Electric - authentic Mexican with a hipster vibe or North of Brooklyn - for a slice of classic Italian pizza. Other sweet spots: Dynasty for fresh plants and tropical botanicals, Cambie Design for beautifully sourced textiles, housewares and home decor and Drake General Store for gifts by homegrown artists and designers. Another cool spot is graffiti alley (also called Rush Lane), which runs west from Spadina Ave. to Portland St. The back alley entrance can be found between Queen St. and Richmond.
Go for a picnic: Packed with locals, Trinity Bellwoods Park is the place to be on a warm, summer Saturday. Take a blanket, red solo cups (to hide the rosé) and pick up some snacks from a few neighborhood favorites including Cumbrae’s on Queen Street. This marble-covered, two-floor temple of a butcher shop is not just known for it’s quality meats, but also for serving up some tasty grab-and-go staples like fresh made-to-order sandwiches, quiches and soups. If you’re in the mood for a cold beer, I suggest heading to Bellwoods Brewery where you can grab a pack of locally crafted brew at their in-house bottle shop. Room for dessert? Try Nadege for a box of their skillfully crafted macarons. Oh ya, the park also hosts a farmer’s market offering local, sustainable, naturally grown products every Tuesday (rain or shine) from May until November.
Soak up some rays at Sugar Beach: Escape the city without actually leaving it. Located just off the highway at Lower Jarvis Street and Queens Quay, Sugar Beach is a small patch of white sand, dotted with pink umbrellas, where locals come to work on their tans. The beach opened in 2010 as one of Waterfront Toronto's many projects aimed at revitalizing the city's shoreline.
Beers and board games: Cozy up with your favorite childhood board game and a couple of beers at Snakes & Lattes. The $6 admission provides access to a full public library of games like Operation, Candyland and Risk and the menu is stocked with classic favorites including mac and cheese, chicken tenders and nachos. They also host a board game brunch on weekends from 10 am - 2 pm.
Check out St. Lawrence Market: Hosting friends for wine night? Visit St. Lawrence Market to pick up a few goodies for the ultimate cheese and charcuterie board. With over 120 vendors, this is Toronto’s biggest (and tastiest) market. Fav spots: Buster's Sea Cove for lobster rolls, European Delight for homemade pierogis, Domenic's Fish Market for fresh shucked oysters and Carousel Bakery for their famous peameal bacon breakfast sandwich.
Smell the roses: The Toronto Flower Market runs from May through October and supports local vendors who sell Ontario grown flowers and plants. Varieties and colors change with the seasons, so don’t expect to find the same bouquets every visit.
Strike out: The Ballroom is making bowling cool again by combining the old school sport and alcohol. With two floors of fun, accommodating up to 900 guests, this is a great place to come for a boozy birthday with your friends. Order a few beers and bet on who scores highest - loser picks up the tab!
Grab an ice cream at Bang Bang: This is one of my favorite summer snack spots in the city and even if there’s a foot of snow outside, loyal lovers of Bang Bang continue to come. This small ice-cream shop/bakery serves up unique flavors like Burnt Toffee, Italian Eggnog and The Bee’s Knees. If you’re extra hungry, make it a sandwich with any of their fresh baked cookies.
Catch a sports game: Whether you’re watching a baseball game in the summer or a hockey match in the winter, the energy at any Toronto game is infectious. And while they may not have the best ranked teams, their fans are some of the most avid and loyal in the world.
Explore High Park: An oasis from the city grind, High Park has everything from hiking trails and tennis courts to baseball diamonds and a swimming pool. Every summer the park hosts a different Shakespeare play at the outdoor amphitheater under the stars. High Park is also the best place to see the cherry trees in full bloom between late April and early May.
WHERE TO EAT
Han Moto: This tiny 30-seat restaurant/dive bar has an open kitchen, exposed brick walls and is furnished with eclectic pieces from Han's personal collection. The food is exploding with flavor and the cocktails are mini art masterpieces. Try the dino wings, moto eggs, miso steak and to drink, the cherry bakudan.
Electric Mud BBQ: If you have a craving for serious southern cooking head to Electric Mud BBQ. Located on Queen West, this kitschy spot is serving up smoked meats and craft beer in a patio style setting. Try the fried chicken, crack rolls and the mac and cheese
Miss Thing’s: Designed with a tropical, mid-century vibe this place has great food and pretty cocktails. Bring your girlfriends on a Saturday night and share a few plates. Try the Hoki Poke - ahi tuna, avocado and sesame soy dressing, Loco Moco - marinated flank steak, duck egg, coconut rice and Maggie Made Me Do It margarita with cointreau, red chili, mint, lime and pineapple juice.
Bazara: This under the radar sushi restaurant has the freshest fish in the city. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Try the volcano roll with black rice and the salmon sashimi.
La Cubana: This place has an old school diner feel with a mix of aqua tiled walls and Spanish inspired floors. Try the house special - pressed cubano with a side of the red cabbage slaw.
Sweet Jesus: With a few locations around Toronto, Sweet Jesus has become an Instagram sensation. The secret is to follow their social media for the off-menu items. My favorite: Krusty The Kone - vanilla soft-serve with clouds of cotton candy bursting out of the sides.
Colette: I’m a sucker for interior design, so I immediately fell in love with the space at Colette. Filled with powder blue booths and beautifully tiled floors, this place is French elegance at its finest (and the food is pretty great too). On Sundays they host a seriously tasty buffet brunch for $54 per guest.
Golden Turtle: This hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurant serves up the best, authentic pho in the city. It has a small outdoor patio, but it’s cash only so make sure you bring your dollar bills.
Thompson Diner: Although the name may suggest an old school atmosphere, Thompson Diner is more of a swankier spin on the classic diner. Open 24 hours and serving serious comfort food like double mac & cheese and Belgian waffles, this place has seen its fair share of drunk party goers.
Forno Cultura: Located on the lower street level below King and Portland, you might walk right by this spot if you didn’t know it was there. These third generation bakers are serving up fresh coffee and huge Italian sandwiches on homemade bread.
Sky Yard at The Drake Hotel: This rooftop hangout is open all year long (don’t worry it’s covered and heated in the winter) and is a favorite spot among Torontonians. The food is good (especially the burger) and the clientele is a mix of young creatives, professional urbanites and trendchasers.
Beast: Best hangover cure. Located in an old house in a residential neighborhood, Beast is very unpretentious. The interior is nothing special, but the food is why you come. Try the challah french toast with duck confit or the mad maple sandwich with fried chicken, bacon, maple syrup and a fried egg. Get here before 11 am as seats fill up fast.
Queen St. Warehouse: Although this spot is more of a bar than restaurant, I listed it under “Where To Eat” because it’s an absolute gem, especially if you’re on a budget. Every item on the menu is just $4.95. The food is tasty and what’s even better, the TV screens set up around the bar play old school concert vids and throwback tunes from the '80s and ‘90s.
What A Bagel: I admit, this place needs a little help when it comes to quick service and efficiency, but if you’re patient enough to wait, What A Bagel is a hangover treat. Choose your fresh, baked bagel from the basket, then load up on toppings. Try the smoked salmon with regular cream cheese.
416 Snack Bar: The name itself is a little confusing. Is it a snack place or a bar? But the answer is both. This place specializes in carefully crafted cocktails and small finger foods like steak tartare, Korean fried chicken and Scotch egg bennies.
WHERE TO DRINK
Brooklynn Bar: Open from Tuesday to Saturday, Brooklynn is a regular go-to spot for locals. It gets busy pretty on the weekend, so make sure you get there before the cut off. The half club, half bar vibe is chill and the dance floor is always packed.
Supermarket: Located on Augusta Avenue just outside Kensington market, this restaurant/bar always has a live band or seriously good playlist to keep the dance party going. While the decor is nothing special (even a little grunge) the vibe is cool and it’s a fun place to go out dancing with your girlfriends.
Cold Tea: You would never know this small, hidden speakeasy even existed if you weren’t looking for it. Tucked away in a rundown building in the heart of Kensington, this little hideaway has a backyard patio and serves a funky mix of craft cocktails and dumplings.
El Rey: Mezcal on mezcal on mezcal, you won’t be leaving this bar sober. El Rey is known for serving up strong, Mexican inspired cocktails in a rustic atmosphere - think rich wood, exposed brick and terracotta accents. They also have a great patio during the summer. Fav drinks: Oaxaca Old Fashioned - tequila, mezcal, orange, mole and Open Windows - tequila, mezcal, pineapple lime, chili.
Apt. 200: A perfect mix between going out and staying in. As the name suggests, Apartment 200 is meant to resemble a very cool house party. Located up a graffitied staircase, the space is decorated with comfy couches, arcade video games, a pool table and multiple bars throughout.
Baby Huey: The vibe here is definitely on point, even if the decor is not. With graffitied walls, kitschy vintage posters and ugly chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, this junky looking bar isn’t exactly pretty, but the drinks are cheap, music is always good and the crowd is cool.
WEEKEND & DAY TRIPS
Prince Edward County: Located just two hours outside Toronto, this charming Southern Ontario community is a perfect and affordable weekend getaway. What to do: check out Wellington Farmers’ Market every Saturday from 8 am - 1 pm, score some antiques including county pine furniture, vintage tools and other oddities at Dead Peoples Stuff, rent bikes and cruise around the wineries and catch some live music at Agrarian speakeasy. Where to eat: Drake Devonshire - trendy, lakefront dining filled with amateur musicians, The Miller House Cafe Brasserie - a building dating back to 1796 with epic views of the bay, Norman Hardie - wood-fired, thin crust pizza on the patio overlooking the vineyard and Slickers county ice cream - for obvious reasons.
Ward’s Beach: You don’t need to go very far to escape the concrete jungle and most out-of-towners don’t know that Toronto actually has its own beach located just across the water. It might not be the white sandy beaches of Mexico (and yes the water has to be tested on a daily basis to make sure it’s not toxic) but it’s still worth the quick ferry ride to Ward’s Island to spend a few hours in the sun, have a picnic or play a game of volleyball. Also, on the first Saturday of every month the island throws a huge beach party.
Muskoka: If you aren’t lucky enough to have friends with cottages outside the city, you can still easily take a weekend trip to the lake. The Muskoka area has always been a chill getaway spot for hot, tired city dwellers. If you’re looking for something more luxurious, check out the JW Marriott on the shores of Lake Rosseau. They offer fine dining, spa services and a swim-thru indoor/outdoor pool. But if you want more of a true Canadian cottage experience, I suggest renting an Airbnb. There are always a ton of prime lakefront properties available, so grab your friends and escape the city heat for a weekend on the water.