Toronto area guide

Beaches, big city buzz, boho charm: take your pick

Toronto area guide Downtown's boho Kensington Market - © Alys Tomlinson/Time Out
By Ruth Jarvis, Kim Gertler, Brent Ledger and Paul French

When Metropolitan Toronto amalgamated its five internal cities into one, it officially dropped the 'Metropolitan' moniker. That was in 1998. Now the whole shebang is simply known as the City of Toronto, or the 'mega-city', and stretches some 32 kilometres (20 miles) across and from the lakeshore to Steeles Avenue in the north.

The population of the central city is 2.6 million and growing by the second. But there's another world on Toronto's doorstep with a population that now exceeds the city's own: the vast expanse of suburbs – Mississauga, Brampton, Richmond Hill, Markham and Pickering, to name a few – strung out on a concrete necklace of freeways and malls. Torontonians dismiss hinterland residents as '905-ers', referring to their telephone area code. Taken together, the city and its 'burbs are now called the GTA, or Greater Toronto Area, which is not a political entity and even less of a unified mindset. The population of the GTA is 5.9 million.

Our guide focuses on the area defined by the original city of Toronto, roughly bounded by Eglinton Avenue on the north side, Victoria Park Avenue to the east, the waterfront and Islington Avenue on the west. Toronto has few defined, named areas; often neighbourhoods are marked by a strip of businesses and named after their main artery – Queen West, the Danforth, Yonge & Eglinton, for example – or their character: Entertainment District, Little Italy and so on.

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Orientation

Toronto is easy to navigate. First, it borders a lake, so if you sense a slight slope downwards, then that's south. Second, it has the world's tallest freestanding building (at least until Burj Dubai is completed), acting as a handy marker near the lakefront, just west of centre. Third, it's built largely on a grid system, with just enough variation to keep it interesting, but not so much that getting lost is easy.

Yonge Street & street numbering

Point zero for east-west street designation and numbering is Yonge Street (pronounced 'Young'), famously if tenuously the longest street in the world. Yonge starts on the central lakefront and heads north – not quite to the North Pole; it veers westward and peters out at the border with Minnesota. So King Street, for example, which runs east-west, is called King Street West to the west of Yonge, and King Street East to the east, with numbers starting from zero at Yonge and running upwards along each arm. (North-south numbering starts at zero at the south end of roads and goes up as the road heads north.)

Downtown

Bright lights and a big city feel characterise Downtown. Toronto's waterfront is on the up: where once were warehouses, fuel stations and port machinery, now there are shops, cafés, theatres, museums, nature reserves and gardens, with more boardwalks and parks on the way.

The nearby Entertainment District hosts a dense concentration of nightclubs centred on and around Richmond Street West between University Avenue and Spadina Avenue. The Air Canada Centre arena, the thrusting needle of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome) stadium, with its famous retractable roof, form a mighty triumvirate of attractions.

Clustered around Bay Street are the windswept concrete canyons of Toronto's Financial District – an area synonymous with both Canadian monetary power and the dour Presbyterian work ethic that made Toronto such a dull city for so long.

Dundas Square is the heart of downtown but unfortunately this treeless granite park bathed in the neon glare of billboards resembles a bus terminal more than Times Square. Along Dundas Street West and nearby is Toronto's original Chinatown, the heart and soul of Toronto's large and dynamic Chinese community.

A more tranquil time can be had in the University quarter, where the tourist can enjoy the old-fashioned beauty of the University of York's campus. Church & Wellesley is home to the local gay village, or 'the ghetto', as it's most commonly called, while Cabbagetown has risen from its roots as a slum for Irish emigres to become a well-do gentrified suburb.

Midtown

Though characterised by leafy streets and neighbourhood charm, a place for swanky shopping and park life, Midtown is starting to feel like Downtown in places. As more towers fill empty pockets of land, the high densities of downtown are creeping north.

Despite the plethora of cranes and construction sites, Midtown still has its fair share of picturesque villages. Once rich in hippy heritage, Yorkville is now rich in cash, with glamorous hotels, boutiques and restaurants lining its exclusive streets. The Annex boasts Victorian and Edwardian architecture, plus cafés, pubs and shops geared towards both students and yuppies.

Further north, there's the exclusive Forest Hill, with its centre tidily concentrated around neat florists, prim boutiques, coffee shops and greengrocers along upper Spadina (note that it's Spadina Road up here, not Avenue). Rosedale's secretive, spiralling crescents still confound the map-wielding visitor, but this ravine-lined, tree-filled enclave for the privileged is worth seeking out: it's one of Toronto's most beautiful neighbourhoods.

West End

The East arguably has better beaches, plus the bluffs and the Danforth. The West End has plenty of parks, shopping and sights, but best of all its neighbourhoods are ideal for charting out the city's kaleidoscopic cultural diversity. Of the 80 or so different communities in the city, many settled in the expanse west of Bathurst Street stretching to the Humber River.

The trend factor tilts in the West End's favour too, though this would be contested by some east-side dwellers. Pockets of bohemia arise spontaneously amid the vintage storefronts and industrial warehouse spaces. The West End also harbours the artery of the Toronto art scene: West Queen West; plus boasting the centre of Toronto's lively Italian population and the Portuguese village.

North Toronto

Mansion-lined gardens, cemeteries and several interesting museums are the reward for visitors who go north. It's a chance to get away from it all without leaving town. All that space, though, means distances are spread out, and while transit services do exist, you might want to consider renting a bike or a car for destinations off the subway line.

East Toronto

The Don Valley cuts through the heart of Toronto, and its wide green gap is more than a geographical division: it separates a mentality. Head east across the graceful five-arch span of the Bloor Viaduct (Prince Edward Viaduct on the map, but nobody calls it that), and you leave downtown behind and enter a world of old-fashioned, small-town neighbourhoods – quiet streets canopied by lines of trees, sprawling parks, mom-and-pop cornerstores – and some of the best skyline views in the city. East Toronto is also home to a large Greektown and Little India, as well as the most accessible stretch of city shoreline along Lake Ontario in the Beach neighbourhood.

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Comments

By Arthur - Jun 1 2013

Your print version of the Toronto guide is so ridiculously out of date (and slyly condescendingly toward the city) that it is of no use to the average tourist. Firstly, why does every travel guide about Toronto have to sound like they have simply rehashed every other travel guide going all the way back to Jan Morris' bizarre 1950's diatribes about Toronto? You just don't seem to "get" either Toronto or Montreal in your guides and instead rely on old stereotypes. Montreal sounds like Paris in your guide when the reality is nothing like it.
You need fresh eyes to come to Canada and see Toronto as a tourist would
instead of relying on the old local writers who are stuck in their ways. Travel guides, in general, really should let go of their obsession with how boring they all seem to have heard Toronto was 100 years ago. A modern tourist is only interested in "The Now". Come with an open mind and start from scratch, instead of just updating the previous edition.

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By Vu Phan - Oct 8 2010

toronto is a mega city now, shouldn't it have one Mayor instead of 5?

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By Pat Mullen - Jul 14 2010

I was hugely shocked when I recently visited Toronto, as I was unprepared for what an exciting, cosmopolitan city it has become. The major cultural institutions (museums, art galleries, etc...) have been recently invigorated with lavish new renovations, and the city has a "buzz" that is not felt in other North American cities other than NYC. Check out the Luminato Festival of the Arts in early June; already it is probably the premiere arts festival in North America. This is a foodie town, so bring your appetite, and try some of the local Ontario wines too. I'll be back very soon.

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By Liz - May 18 2010

just reading through this but found an error in the downtown section
"A more tranquil time can be had in the University quarter, where the tourist can enjoy the old-fashioned beauty of the University of York's campus. " I believe you mean the University of Toronto as there is no University of York just a York University, whose '60s concrete campus lies in a hinterland up near the northern border of the city.

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