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Distraction is in the Districts: Toronto’s Neighbourhoods

VIBE: Long before the theatre lights went up and DJs started cranking out the beats, the Entertainment District was a wealthy residential enclave. The expensive homes eventually gave way to the downtown core’s expansion, which became an industrial sector littered with warehouses. The opening of the Toronto Eaton Centre in 1977 and the investment of the Mirvish family entertainment dynasty saw the warehouses disappear in favour of ritzy theatres and busy nightclubs. Non-stop entertainment is the name of the game here, from lunchtime to well after 2 a.m. when the bars and nightclubs close.
AREA: Queen Street West to the north, York Street to the east, Lakeshore Boulevard to the south and Spadina Avenue to the west.
SHOP: Tackle the 285 stores of the Toronto Eaton Centre. New shops include The Apple Store (647-258-0801), BCBG Max Azria (416-640-2766) and GEOX Shoes (416-599-4369). The Centre connects to a multi-level location of The Bay, Canada’s oldest department store.
SEE: As the name denotes, you’ll find some of the city’s biggest attractions in this area. Toronto’s iconic CN Tower is the world’s tallest building, measuring 1,465 feet tall. Get familiar with Canada’s favourite pastime and see the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame. The industrial-gothic-designed ChumCity Building houses TV’s Fashion Television and MuchMusic. Get star-crazy with Canada’s top talents along the Walk of Fame, which honours stars such as Mike Meyers, Shania Twain and Alanis Morrissette.
EAT: Restaurants abound here and are truly too numerous to account for. Two acclaimed fine dining establishments are 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower and French restaurant The Fifth.
DO: Nighttime is when the Entertainment District really struts its stuff. The newest venue is the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, now the home of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. You can take in a concert at Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall (178 Victoria St., 416-872-4255). Grand theatres dot this area, like the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St. W., 416-872-1212), currently showing the musical adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Other jewels in the theatre crown include the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King St. W., 416-872-1212), the Canon Theatre (263 Yonge St., 416-872-1212) and the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres (189 Yonge St., 416-314-2871), which can boast having one of the last operating double-decker theatres in the world.

VIBE: Très chic shopping. Chic dining. Chic drinking. The highest retail rent in Toronto is here, the home of the most exclusive fashion labels, serious shoppers with platinum cards and ladies who lunch and spa. It’s populated with fashionable bars and nightclubs bursting with even more stylish patrons.
AREA: From Charles Street West up to Davenport Road, and from Avenue Road to Yonge Street.
SHOP: You’ll need the energy to peruse more than 700 boutiques, the biceps to carry the bags loaded with the season’s trendiest items and, most importantly, the attitude to pull it off. Hazelton Lanes and Holt Renfrew Centre are the area’s undisputed high-end shopping complexes. Some of the world’s most coveted stores rub shoulders along Bloor Street. Chanel, Gucci (130 Bloor St. W., 416-963-5127), Plaza Escada and Hermès are just a few. Lululemon has the latest yoga wear and accessories; San Remo (23 St. Thomas St., 416-920-3195) ladies’ boutique is a fave among visiting celebs; m0851 has leather bags and accessories in bold colours.
EAT: At Remys, take a seat on the patio along the cobblestone pathways if you can find space—you can scout out more shops to visit or to keep an eye out for celebs. A more casual lunch can be had at Lettieri (94 Cumberland St., 416-515-8764) or MBCo. (100 Bloor St. W., 416-961-6226).
DO: Let your lunch settle before a visit to high-end art galleries in the area, the Royal Ontario Museum, currently undergoing a renovation, and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, which reopened in June. Posh places to see and be seen come evening: Flow, Amber and the Four Seasons’ chic lounge Avenue. The Roof Lounge (4 Avenue Rd., 416-324-1568) is perched on the 18th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel. Less swanky, but always buzzing, is the rooftop patio at Hemingway’s.INDIA BAZAAR
VIBE: Gerrard Street East’s India Bazaar simmers with heady aromas and pungent spices that tempt your taste buds, while shimmering fabrics in bright jewel tones provide a feast for the eyes. A veritable microcosm of South Asia, the area encompasses inexpensive Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi restaurants, grocers, paan shops, sweet shops and stores that specialize in traditional saris and brightly coloured bangles. Posters of Indian heartthrob Shahrukh Khan tile shop windows, and the heavy beats of bhangra spill from the open doors of DVD emporiums.
AREA: Gerrard Street East, around Coxwell Avenue, Greenwood Avenue and Main Street.
SHOP: Most shops and restaurants are slated to open at noon but cling to their homeland tradition of Indian Standard Time (i.e., time plus 15 minutes extra). Don’t be discouraged if it’s 12:30 p.m. and the door is locked; go for a stroll and come back after 1 p.m. The Six Kumars Silk House (1400 Gerrard St. E., 416-465-7131) and Dulha Dulhan Fashion (1416 Gerrard St. E., 416-466-4314) display stunning pure silk imported saris, salwar kameezes (loose pants and tunics) and kurta pyjamas. Find gold accessories at Shubh Laxmi Jewellers Inc. (1419 Gerrard St. E., 416-778-7560).
EAT: Many South Indian snack food restaurants feature dosa (crispy lentil crêpes stuffed with savory curried potatoes) and utaapam (hearty vegetable pancakes). There’s plenty of eateries of the more common North Indian variety to choose from, too. Vegetarians rejoice. Little India takes meatless dining to a new and ambrosial level. No-frills Udupi Palace (1460 Gerrard St. E., 416-405-8138) serves a tasty dosa. Madras Durbar (1435 Gerrard St. E., 416-465-2733), for all its humble setting and service, offers delish meals for under $10.
DO: Indulge in the Indian tradition of chewing paan, a mixture of betel nuts and other spices wrapped in betel leaf. Chewing it is believed to help the digestion of curried foods, and there are no fewer than five paan shops in Little India. If a pick-me-up is in order before the trek back, make a detour to Punjab Food & Sweets (1448 Gerrard St. E., 416-466-4647) for a Kashmiri tea, a close cousin of chai, with ground pistachios floating atop milky pink liquid.

VIBE: Queen Street’s anti-establishment attitude belies its patrician beginnings. It began as the pastoral preserve of the city’s first colonists, but as the spacious lots were broken up and sold, smaller homes and factories cropped up, bringing with them an increasing number of Eastern European immigrants. In the 1970s and ’80s, the area attracted artists and musicians who’ve made the area their own. Now one of the city’s most vibrant streetscapes, Queen Street West’s rich history is evident in the mix of boho bars, art galleries and trendy boutiques with down-at-the-heel fabric shops and old-time discount stores.
AREA: Queen Street between University Avenue and Crawford Street.
SHOP: The strip is a shopping mecca for style-conscious locals. Find cool footwear at Get Out Side and Heel Boy, reconfigured vintage at Preloved (613 Queen St. W., 416-504-8704), whimsical dresses at Fashion Crimes and Misdemeanours and fab tops by Montreal designer Francis Beauregard at Space fb (389 Queen St. W., 416-596-7836). For one-of-a-kind gifts, head to The Paper Place. Find funky knitwear and handmade jewellery by local designers at Fresh Collective (692 Queen St. W., 416-594-1313) and gourmet chocolates in yummy flavours (like lemon and thyme) at j.s. bonbons (811 Queen St. W., 416-703-7731).
EAT: Bijou Asian-fusion resto Red Tea Box serves tastefully arranged Asian-inspired bento box lunches. Clafouti’s heavenly pain au chocolat is without peer. Italian bistro Terroni is consistently good and Czehoski has received notice for its culinary daring. Lalot does delicious Vietnamese and San (676 Queen St. W., 416-214-9429) takes on Korean fare. The outdoor patio at The Rivoli is a popular people-watching spot.
DO: Queen Street culture is best experienced in a tour of its many art galleries. Spin Gallery is one of the area’s art stars. Angell Gallery, Clint Roenisch (944 Queen St. W., 416-516-8593), Katharine Mulherin, Edward Day Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art also make space on the scrappy West Queen West strip. Queen Streeters love the nightlife. Live music is on offer at legendary rock ‘n’ roll watering hole The Horseshoe Tavern and the Drake Hotel’s arts, music and cultural programming is jam-packed seven nights a week.

VIBE: As the downtown filled up and quarters got tight in the late 19th century, wealthy families looking for more space fled to this lush district. Founding families like the Gooderhams, Eatons and Masseys built magnificent homes here. Exclusivity didn’t last and neither did fortunes, and many soon moved north to Rosedale, leaving behind whole blocks of elegant Romanesque revival mansions that were soon inhabited by students and professors. Proximity to the University of Toronto makes The Annex a university-centric ‘hood. That means plenty of cool coffeehouses, cheap eats, bookstores and bars.
AREA: Bloor Street West from Avenue Road to Bathurst Street, north to Dupont Street.
SHOP: Honest Ed’s bargain emporium, with its garish exterior of twinkling Hollywood lights, offers the quintessential Annex photo op. A few specialty shops make their home here, including Secrets from Your Sister, which features sexy lingerie, and Grassroots, a great source for environmental home, garden, beauty and paper products.
EAT: Grab a latté at central social hub Future Bakery (483 Bloor St. W., 416-922-5875), or take your time and enjoy an omelette at the popular By The Way Café. The Annex is graced with two of the city’s favourite ice cream stops: Greg’s Ice Cream (750 Spadina Ave., 416-962-4734) at Bloor Street Jewish Community Centre and Sweet Fantasies (398 Bloor St. W., 416-968-8816), located in a treehouse-like structure. A small but diverse collection of ethnic restaurants include Serra (378 Bloor St. W., 416-922-6999) and Via Oliveto (376 Bloor St. W., 416-925-6689), both long-established local Italian restaurants. Right next to the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W., 416-516-2331), a repertory movie theatre, find cheap and cheerful falafel takeout at Ghazale (504 Bloor St. W., 416-537-4417).
DO: The Bata Shoe Museum’s exterior playfully suggests an origami shoebox. Step inside to check out the vast collection, which includes the shoes of Elton John, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. From Bloor Street, turn down St. George Street and amble through the leafy University of Toronto campus. Architecture buffs ought to check out Ron Thom’s elegant Massey College and Pritzker Prize-winning Thom Mayne’s Graduate House. Back on Bloor, check the concert listings at graffiti-covered Lee’s Palace; the venue has seen the likes of Nirvana, Foo Fighters and The Tragically Hip.
VIBE: Think SoHo or Covent Garden. In the mid-1800s, the place was the largest distillery in the British Empire and, in recent times, has been used as the set of many big-budget films, including Chicago, The Recruit and Cinderella Man. Today, the Distillery Historic District encompasses shops, galleries, restaurants, a microbrewery, jewellery stores and a très cool café. All tenants are hand-picked by the property owners, and absolutely no franchise or chain operations are allowed. It’s accessible for families, singles, artists and business types alike.
AREA: Mill Street from Parliament to Cherry streets.
SHOP: Original art is for sale at a number of galleries, including Blue Dot Gallery, Sandra Ainsley and NAME TK, unique jewellery pieces from Corktown Designs, home accessories from Found Objects, custom sound theatre from Sound Design, beer from The Mill Street Brewery (416-681-0338), such as its organic lager, and decadent treats from Soma Chocolates.
EAT: Fine dining options include Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill, The Boiler House and Archeo (416-815-9898); for casual fare, there’s La Creperie (416-203-1590) and Balzac’s Coffee House. Perigee Restaurant offers blind tasting menus and one of the best dining experiences in the city.
DO: The Distillery Visitor Centre, an interpretation gallery, offers guided tours as well as audio guide units to further explore the history and architecture of the site. The centre also houses innovative design objects, including David Small’s Illuminated Manuscript, a large-format book with touch-manipulated video text projected on the pages. Come evening, take in a stage production by Souldpepper Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

VIBE: On the edge of pretty Lake Ontario, where sailboat-dotted water meets a blue sky, Harbourfront Centre offers visitors a potent cocktail of art and culture from Canada and around the world. It’s a great weekend destination, with adult and family activities that go on all day and into the night, and a festival every weekend.
AREA: Queens Quay West from Bay Street to Spadina Avenue.
SHOP: Shopping includes one-of-a-kind works by emerging and established Canadian artists, a healthy selection of Inuit art and crafts, and assorted shops with a Canadian focus at Queen’s Quay Terminal, or peruse the wares of studio artists at work at Harbourfront Centre’s Bounty.
EAT: At the Queen’s Quay Terminal, options with a lakeview include The Boathouse Bar & Grill (416-203-6300), Il Fornello (416-861-1028), Lago (416-848-0005) and Pearl Harbourfront Chinese Cuisine. Find casual fare at Lakeside Terrace (235 Queens Quay W., 416-973-3000), seafood eatery Pier 4 and The World Café, an outdoor café highlighting world cuisines (weekends only). Near the ferry docks, get a 38th-floor harbour view at Toulà at The Westin Harbour Castle; sister restaurant The Mizzen offers an à la carte menu and buffet.
DO: The waterfront is also a picturesque backdrop to some of the city’s most esteemed cultural attractions—The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Premiere Dance Theatre and Harbourfront Theatre Centre. How to pass the time? Enjoy a cultural, music or food festival every weekend, or catch a free concert in the Toronto Music Garden. Tour the Toronto Islands by one of the many cruises on offer here. For more information on Harbourfront events, call 416-973-4000 or see www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

VIBE: People have a fascination with markets—it’s the chance they give to observe locals in the natural environment. They’re the fast-beating heart of a city. Kensington Market reflects Toronto’s ever-expanding cultural landscape. Eclectic and offbeat, the market has undergone a slight gentrification in the last 10 years, which hasn’t taken anything away from its gritty character. Today, the market is an ethnic quilt: a Portuguese clothing shop sits next to a Mexican empanada shop, which is just down the street from a Brazilian butcher, and around the corner from a West Indian roti shop.
AREA: West of Spadina Avenue, between College and Dundas streets.
SHOP: Kensington Street is a vintage shopper’s dream. It’s easy to spend hours at Courage My Love, the cocoon of kitsch which has been in business for decades. It sells everything from Bakelite buttons from the 1920s and ’50s prom dresses, to silver jewellery brought back from the earth’s four corners. More than a dozen vintage stores are on Kensington Avenue alone, most housed in old Victorian houses whose front yards are covered with racks of clothes, bags and shoes for sale. Fresh Baked Goods sells new clothing and accessories by local independent designers and artisans.
EAT: Bring takeout to the nearby park or eat on the go. Sample cheeses, olives and marinated vegetables, and seafood from stores like Cheese Magic (182 Baldwin Ave., 416-593-9531). For a sit-down meal, La Palette and the gingham-covered tables of the Bellevue Street Diner (61 Bellevue Ave., 416-597-6912), which is anything but a diner, are both elegantly bohemian and serve top-of-the-line French fare at reasonable prices.
DO: At night, your best bet is Supermarket, a funky, casual bar with live music and Asian-inspired fare.THE BEACH
VIBE: With such an easy escape from the metropolis, it’s possible in a short amount of time to go from walking on concrete to walking on sand. The heart of The Beach neighbourhood starts around Kingston Road on Queen Street East. Actively used areas include Woodbine Beaches and Kew-Balmy Beach, bordered by a three-kilometre boardwalk and adjacent cycling and inline-skating trail. Lakefront offerings are pleasantly next to none, but just a few blocks north, bustling Queen Street is a good antidote to the chilled-out waterside vibe.
AREA: Queen Street East, from Coxwell Avenue eastward to Neville Park Boulevard.
SHOP: Stylin’ souvenirs are on offer at Arts on Queen, packed with work by local artists. Mourguet Jewellery (1918 Queen St. E., 416-698-8404) has contemporary silver pieces. If tea is your cup, there’s Pippins Tea (2106 Queen St. E., 416-694-7772), stocked with loose leafs and every imaginable accessory. Enjoy a classic afternoon tea with crustless sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and homemade jams at La Tea Da (2305 Queen St. E., 416-686-5787).
EAT: If you’re hitting the area early, have breakfast at the Sunset Grill. But be patient, because there’s often a lineup. If you want to grab a cold one, there’s no shortage of pubs: Quigley’s (2232 Queen St. E., 416-699-9998) and Lion On the Beach (1958 Queen St. E., 416-690-1984) have large patios and views of the street. Fine dining offerings out here are few, but Peppinos on the Beach (2343 Queen St. E., 416-699-3552) is a favourite among locals. For something cold and sweet, there’s Ben & Jerry’s near the park at Kew Gardens, but an even better option is to keep going east for homemade ice cream at Ed’s Real Scoop (2224 Queen St. E., 416-699-6100).
DO: The city’s athletic contingent are well pleased by the countless recreational opportunities available. Runners, walkers, Sunday strollers, cyclists, kayakers and inline skaters can be seen bronzing in the sun from the early hours of the morning until long after the sun has set. Stroll along the boardwalk or recline in one of the area’s parks, like Kew Beach Gardens and Ashbridges Bay Park.

VIBE: It wasn’t until a large population of Greek immigrants fleeing the chaos of post-WWII Europe settled here that the neighbourhood established a distinct personality. Greek restaurants, bakeries and churches dot the avenue in tribute to these founding families. Attracted by the area’s casual atmosphere and lovely old homes, well-to-do families of all stripes have moved in. Ethnic restaurants, home decor shops and upscale boutiques have come with them.
AREA: Danforth Avenue between Broadview and Pape avenues.
SHOP: Stylish accessories are available at funky Butterfield 8 and Wash Up & Brush Co. (107 Danforth Ave., 416-484-8592). Fashionable finds can be had at Maxi Boutique, Studio Labiri (548 Danforth Ave., 416-778-6820), Eight Clothing (541 Danforth Ave., 416-461-5339), Five0Seven (496 Danforth Ave., 416-466-5677) and Korry’s (569 Danforth Ave., 416-463-1115). A number of home decor stores cluster here, too.
EAT:A bounty of eateries reside on Danforth, including many Greek and Mediterranean restaurants and bakeries. Mezes (456 Danforth Ave., 416-778-5150) and Christina’s do their homeland proud. Pan on the Danforth and Lolita’s Lust (513 Danforth Ave., 416-465-1751) serve acclaimed fare. The Big Carrot juice bar in the eco-friendly Carrot Common mall (348 Danforth Ave., 416-466-2644) serves juices, smoothies, free trade organic coffee and yummy salads and sandwiches.
DO: In the evening, make your way to Allen’s Irish pub (143 Danforth Ave., 416-463-3086) or its adjoining sister establishment Dora Keogh (141 Danforth Ave., 416-778-1804). On August 11 to 13, the annual Krinos Taste of the Danforth, Greektown’s most popular street party with food from area restaurants and live music, attracts an estimated one million people each year.

VIBE: Formerly considered the Town of York, this was once the city’s central hub of political, religious, educational and commercial activity. Today, the area is dotted with many historical buildings that reflect the area’s rich history, and is a retail hub for furniture and home accessories.
AREA: Front Street from Yonge Street to the Don River, south to The Esplanade and north to Queen Street.
SHOP: One of the more impressive local interiors is that of Brookfield Place. Its soaring 85-foot-high arches, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, house a complex of shops and restaurants. A must is the St. Lawrence Market (corner of Jarvis and Front streets), named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the 25 best markets in the world. Inside, find a cornucopia of vendors selling fresh cheese, meats and fish, plus assorted fruits, vegetables and grains. Home decor boutiques dot Front and King streets east of Church Street.
EAT: Upmarket restaurants in the area include George, Esplanade Bier Markt, Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and Biagio (155 King St. E., 416-366-4040). Try world cuisines—Japanese at Izakaya, Moroccan at The Sultan’s Tent, Mexican at Hernando’s Hideaway, French at Biff’s or Le Papillon, or Korean at Ninth Gate. For casual fare, there’s pub C’est What and Hot House Café.
DO: Take a two-hour St. Lawrence Market’s Food and History Walking Tour ($25, including food), which departs at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday; call 647-393-8687. Vintage architectural highlights include the landmark Flatiron Building (49 Wellington St. E.). The performing arts has a strong presence here, with the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front St. E., 416-393-7469) and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E., 416-366-7723), home to Canadian Stage Company (CanStage). Or check out the Hockey

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