Photographer and writer Ryan Bolton and I have run in the same circles for a few years now, but somehow we’ve never crossed paths in person — probably because he’s always out and about running around Toronto; and me? Well, I’m a bit of a homebody. But somehow, some of his favorite spots in “the city” (as people call it who live in the towns neighboring Toronto) are some of my favorites as well. It’s safe to say that his taste is impeccable — or perhaps I’m being biased. But regardless, having lived in Toronto for just under a decade, Ryan’s 24-hour guide is spot-on and super relevant considering Toronto’s ever-changing landscape of shops, restaurants, bars and attractions. From Americanos to vintage shops to the best tattoo parlors and nachos fit for a king, if you’re ever spending some time in this great city, be sure to hit up these spots to soak in what Toronto is all about. (Go Canada!) —Sabrina
I’m a writer and photographer living in Toronto. I’ve been around these parts for the past eight or so years. Having worked in historic Cabbagetown for five years, I now work on Queen Street West at a creative agency. (According to Vogue, Queen West is the world’s second coolest district. We’ll take it.)
And I damn well love it here.
Like any major North American city, Toronto is ever the shape-shifter. There’s a constant swing of new shops, haunts, record stores, music venues and eateries. So. many. restaurants. It’s actually a little ridiculous. Here’s a snapshot of some of my favourite spots in downtown Toronto, albeit there’s way more out there. I wanted to keep it focused to the downtown core to make it a little more, well, digestible. Here’s my guide to Toronto.
8-9 am: First things first: coffee. Toronto is well known for its love of third-wave coffee spots. The city is brimming with cafes. My go-to is Jimmy’s Coffee, which now boasts a couple of locations. Its Americanos are next to none. If not there, I’ll hit up Sense Appeal or a longstanding favourite, Dark Horse Espresso Bar. It’s a little pricier, but worth it.
10-11 am: With a healthy dose of caffeine pulsing through my veins, I’ll head out to do a little record shopping. My go-to is the newly moved and renovated Sonic Boom record store. They have pretty much any record (new or used) you could want. If not there, I’ll hit Rotate This or Grasshopper Records.
11-12 pm: Having an unruly beard, a clean-up is a must. The barbershop is having a modern-day revival, and Toronto is loving it. There’s a new barbershop popping up on every corner across the city. My favourites are Crows Nest Barbershop, Hastings Barbershop or Bellwoods Barbers. For the ladies, try out the Grateful Head.
12-1 pm: Oh, lunchtime. An infinite number of options. Like its barbershops, Toronto can’t get enough of its craft burgers. It’s a burger explosion, and I’m totally okay with it. My all-time favourite is P&L Burger because they’re as ridiculously big as they are good. A close second is Burger’s Priest, especially with their secret menu. Look it up first. You won’t be disappointed.
2-3 pm: You can’t visit Toronto without checking out Kensington Market. This hodgepodge market boasts a little bit of everything, but is strictly independent. If you’re on the hunt for some vintage finds, Kensington St. is riddled with them. My favourites are Courage My Love and Ego.
On the same street is my favourite tattoo shop, Pearl Harbour Gift Shop, (I have a sleeve by Daniel Innes there) with its traditional Japanese inspired work. Also in Kensington are a lot of authentic Mexican taco shops alongside Big Fat Burrito for a quick snack that you won’t be able to finish. Yes, that’s a challenge.
4-5 pm: To kill some time before dinner, I would hit up one of my favourite stores quite possibly ever: She Said Boom! Its curated collection of used books and vinyl just warms my heart and empties my pockets. I want every damn record and book in there. If you’re looking for an antique to remember Toronto by, Abraham’s Trading Inc. may be hard to leave. It’s a spacious place, but you can’t tell because it’s chock-full (seriously, it’s hard to navigate) with antiques that you’ve never seen before, including taxidermy if you’re into that kind of stuff.
5-7 pm: Where do I even start for dinner? Okay, let’s see what I can jam into here. For tacos, head to Parkdale for Grand Electric. Or La Carnita. The best Thai in town is definitely Kao San Road, though Soko Thai is a close second. One of the owner’s of Kao San Road just opened a new shop called Nana on Queen West, too. If you’ve never tried Venezuelan food, Arepa Cafe and their cornbread sandwiches (arepas) will change your life. Trust.
The best smoked meat outside of Montreal can be found at Caplansky’s Delicatessen. You’ll get a second sandwich, guaranteed. If you’re feeling Chinese food, Toronto’s Chinatown will make your jaw drop.
My favourite is Mother’s Dumplings. There menu is exhaustive. Their food is filling and always delicious.
If you’re into beer, take some friends out to Toronto’s waterfront to Amsterdam Brewery’s Brewhouse. This sprawling lakeside restaurant has all of their beers on tap to sample while you eat swordfish, woodfire pizzas or good ole wings in a beer sauce. Because, beer.
8-10 pm: One of the best parts of living in Toronto is that all of the world’s greatest bands come to town. One of my favourite venues anywhere, not just in Toronto, is the Horseshoe Tavern. Having opened in 1947, the “Shoe” is a Toronto mainstay where bands like the Rolling Stones and The Band have taken to its legendary stage.
If you’re in for a quieter night, head down to Cameron House to hear some up-and-comers test their mettle. If you get the chance to check out Lee’s Palace, you’ll know why it’s on this list. A perfect venue size with nary a bad place to stand to see a show. An up-and-comer venue is also the Danforth Music Hall.
If you’re going out for a date, try Snakes and Lagers where you can get drinks and play board games. Or if you’re into the more touristy attractions, you can take that special one to the newly-minted Ripley’s Aquarium for one of its Friday Night Jazz events. Can’t go wrong there.
11 pm -?: This is when the city comes alive. As of late, the number of “cool spots” for drinks has exploded. Anywhere along the base of Ossington St. is coveted, which has now creeped up along Dundas West with a bevy of great drinking holes like The Communist’s Daughter, Get Well, Camp 4, Unlovable and The Dock Ellis, a terrific “hipster sports bar.”
But to be specific, the best dive bar in Toronto easily goes to Wide Open, which is pretty much just a roof on a spray-painted alleyway with some of the cheapest drinks around. A good place to start or end the night.
If you’re into dancing you might as well do it to rock ‘n’ roll classics at Stone’s Place, a Rolling Stones themed bar. It’s a delight. But every visitor to the “T Dot” should check out the longstanding Sneaky Dee’s for their King’s Crown nachos, good music and a pitcher of beer. Or three.
Perfect end to any night, really.
- If it’s the summer, you need to check out the Toronto Island. Hit Hanlan’s Point.
- If you’re looking for a green hostel, Planet Traveler is your spot.
- Remember to get lost in Kensington Market.
- Peruse High Park, especially in the spring for the Cherry Blossoms.
- The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is a must. Ditto for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). See the dinosaurs.
- Oh, there’s also this thing called the CN Tower that you may have heard about. It’s tall.