A few of my grandparents were born in Ontario, Canada, but their families left for what was then better grounds: around Buffalo, New York, where my extended family is still based. Generations ago, boats ran across Lake Ontario in the summer, as people from Toronto came over to Buffalo to have fun.
Things have changed. Buffalonians now visit Toronto, which has become the largest city in Canada and one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. It’s clean, safe, well-run, and has something for everyone.
And yet. Is Toronto on your bucket list for travel? Would you think of going there? What’s its image for you?
Toronto has spent a generation now trying to convince the world that it’s a world-class city, so much that Canadians write essays making fun of the phrase “world-class”. One of their local newspapers even had a “World-Class Watch” column, as to how they are stacking up.
Toronto’s problem is that of Canada in general—nice place, just not compelling. Toronto is also still not the premier city in Canada. Montreal had long already snarked the position of being the slick, stylish Canadian city, and then Vancouver suddenly became the cool, hipster, maybe even edgy city. Those two cities hosted the Olympics, while Toronto failed in its last bid, for 1996. (Losing to Atlanta, one of the most boring cities I know.) What’s left for Toronto? It’s as if the city was crying “What about me?”
What is Toronto famous for? You could go there to see the Hockey Hall of Fame or the Canadian Walk of Fame (sort of like the Hollywood version, the sidewalk with stars’ names on it). They have art and science museums and such, like most big cities, but nothing, eh, world-class. They had to build a huge tower, the CN Tower, just to have a Tall Thing to Climb to give any visitors something to do. I bet you can’t remember the last time it was in the news besides its drunken mayor, or anything of historical importance there.
Toronto looks like pretty much every other city.
Moreover, Toronto is not quite near anything else famous, except perhaps Niagara Falls (but Buffalo’s waaay closer). Toronto’s not on the way to anything. It’s not near New York City, or Montreal, or Chicago, or anything. Except Buffalo. It has a hard time. It also has the type of weather similar to Buffalo, and to the rest of Canada. Cold and often grey, with snow, a problem not fixable until global warming seriously kicks in. The number of Canadians is limited, and Americans don’t think of going there much. They’ll visit Chicago before they’d go to Toronto (a mistake, in my opinion).
I imagine the Torontonians shouting to the world “Sod you if you don’t think we’re a great city! Look at all our food, our entertainment, our film festival, our 177 languages!” and the rest of the world shrugs, pointing out that Toronto isn’t known for art, history, literature, parties, fashion, film, music, architecture, or really anything. It’s not a cool place to hang. Your cousin might do a semester abroad in Seville or Edinburgh or even Sydney, but not Toronto. It has no image. It’s not even the capital of the country. It’s a world-class city in the same way Atlanta is.
Now that I’ve slammed the place, let me say that I like Toronto quite much. When I lived in Buffalo, we would visit often. I don’t know how many times I’ve been there. Toronto feels like the extended suburbs of a large city, but you rarely get the large city effect itself except right downtown, and even that doesn’t have a vibe, a buzz, some frenzy. The traffic is subdued. It’s not a cheap place, but not as expensive as major world cities, and it never feels packed.
There are no Michelin stars in Toronto, and the restaurant scene isn’t taking off, but it’s awfully easy to get good food. The film industry is large in Toronto (Suicide Squad was filmed there!), but they don’t set the films and shows in Toronto. The city is well-run and clean, and is often an example of both. People shout over and over that it’s a very livable city, that it’s safe.
The more I travel, the less I care about main sights in a city. I’ll drop into the old castle and cathedral and such, but mostly I want some interesting neighborhoods to explore, zones with plenty of shops to drop in and places to eat and drink. Toronto has that.
The city has some sights. The Royal Ontario Museum is quite nice. The Art Gallery of Ontario is totally worth it if you’re just passing by and need to kill some time. The Ripley Aquarium is said to be nice as well, by people who go to such places. There is a Science Center that was cutting-edge when I was nine, but is looking tired now (neither one of us has aged well). The city is on a lake and has an Instagram-worthy waterfront. I expect them to add a huge “Toronto Eye” ferris wheel any year now.
The CN Tower. You can’t miss it.
And there’s the CN Tower, once the tallest building in the world, except it’s not a building; it’s just a tower and thus never counted. The CN Tower would make anyone’s list of “What to do in Toronto” because Tall Things to Climb automatically draw tourists. Most articles on Toronto feature at least one shot of it, and I had to include one here, by law. It’s the only iconic thing Toronto has. You can ride up top and see the view of…downtown. And across the lake, to the U.S. If you need adrenaline, you can be strapped to the top of the tower and walk around outside, on the top. I have a friend who has done this.
If you Google some version of “things to do in Toronto”, it will tell you about the Toronto islands, out in the lake where you can get away from the city, the Harbourfront Centre, which is a planned performance area, the zoo, or perhaps Canada’s Wonderland, an amusement park, things that you may not cross town for, much less travel to a new city to see.
Where Toronto truly shines is the multiculturalism, which is damn good because the city doesn’t project much home-grown culture. It’s not an old city, with any sense of history, but it is a big mix of things. It’s a bit like New York City or London, with immigrants from all over, but more so. Canada doesn’t have the type of culture that demands immigrants assimilate, and thus they keep the wonderful stuff they brought with them.
My favorite area of Toronto is close to downtown, centered along the east-west Dundas Street and north-south Spadina Avenue. (The streets run slightly diagonal, not exactly east-west or north-south, but we’ll ignore that.) Go to the intersection of those two streets and you’re at the heart of one of Toronto’s three or four Chinatown areas.
This isn’t like San Francisco, where tourists are walking around with “I ❤ Chinatown” tote bags on their way to eat dim sum. Also, it’s not really so Chinese anymore. The southeast Asians have moved into this area, and you’re likely to find more Vietnamese and Thai than Chinese these days, but that’s quite fine because their food is just as good. I’ve eaten often at Pho Pasteur restaurant, at 525 Dundas, near this corner, where an old grandmother type was always sitting in the back of the dining room. “Chào bà”, I would say to her (Hello, grandmother), and she would cackle with glee.
Just south, on Spadina, is the Chinatown Centre, a small shopping mall with the damnest things. Not a single chain store was in here; it’s all independent vendors, many seemingly without a specialty. Just about everything in here is Asian. I’ve spent much time flicking through the DVD and CD vendors on the main floor.
Keep going north on Spadina, north of Dundas, and you’ll hit the most interesting section. Chinatowns all over North America are always a bit rundown, a good thing, as that keeps weird, independent places open. Lots of grocery stores sit here, the old-fashioned type with an open front or bins of fresh produce out on the street. Cheap. This is a good area to grab some dragonfruit or mangosteens.
You’ll find Asian food, no problem
The west side of the street is the more interesting, but on both sides, the stores are random. Some sell watches, perfume, noodles, all-day dim sum, gourmet banh mi, herbs, bakery items, and ramen. Speaking of ramen, Ajisen Ramen, at #332 is a good bet even though it’s a chain (scallop ramen for $9.50), and is right next to the Dumpling House, another good place.
The street is littered with home accessories stores, such as B&J Trading at #376. A huge percentage of the cups, bowls, and plates I use at home come from this block, where I found beautiful Japanese tableware at dirt-cheap prices. The street is also lined with massage places, and other joints that are a bit sordid. Some years ago, Toronto city officials decided not to go after these places for the extra services they provide, and thus they’ve multiplied.
Let’s move inland. Head west one block, you’re back in the western world. This area, an old Jewish neighborhood, is called Kensington Market. There’s no central market here, just a neighborhood with that name, centered around, naturally, Kensington Street. Here you’ll find more produce stores, with less dragonfruit and more olives, and also more boutique type of shops and lots more coffee.
Kensington Market is somewhat hipster, but it’s been that way before hipsters were invented. Including the coffeehouses. It’s a great place for vintage clothing, with places such as Courage My Love at #14 which has my vote for Best Boutique Name Ever. Up the street is the Global Cheese Shop at #76 and just around the corner is Cheese Magic at #182 Baldwin. Continue on Baldwin for Mexican food at Reg Dry Foods at #202 and clothing at the so-wonderful named Tom’s Place at #190.
Seafood tacos on Augusta Avenue
Short, little Baldwin street runs into Augusta Avenue, where you should keep walking for more of the same. This area is somewhat Hispanic, and you should eat seafood tacos here.
You can’t quaff coffee forever, and Kensington Market has some decent drinking spots for stronger libations, including Thirsty and Miserable at #197 Baldwin. The coolest drinking spot is called Cold Tea, a true insider spot. No sign, and you gotta hunt for it. Find the sign saying “Kensington Mall” near #60 Kensington Avenue, west side of the street. Look for an open hallway under the sign and walk inside. Go until you see a red light sticking out of the wall by a door. Open the unmarked door, and you’re in.
Just inside is a woman selling Chinese stuffed buns, the only food available in this drinking spot. “Cold Tea” used to be the code that after-hours drinking spots in Chinatown would use to order booze. “Do you have any cold tea (wink, wink)?” the customer would say, and be delivered a tea kettle full of beer. The interior is pure hipster, graffiti walls and exposed pipes, but the drinks are solid and the place doesn’t take itself too seriously or try to call itself a speakeasy. One night there, a girl next to me found a hole in her shoe, and we spent the evening cutting up the beer mats into feet shapes to make her a temporary insole.
Cold Tea, the bar
When you’re done with this area, head back to the corner of Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue, where we started this little story, and check out Dundas, heading east towards downtown. (If you’re ever lost around here, just look up and find the CN tower to orient yourself.) You’ll pass more cool things, Cambodian restaurants, herbal stores, and various “tradegoods” places that could sell everything. Eventually, you’ll go by the Art Gallery of Ontario and that means the funky neighborhoods end.
Downtown Toronto won’t vary much from other large cities, but it does have lots of cheap food, especially falafels, shawarmas, and kebabs on rice, about $5, and on Tuesdays they are two-for-one. Three-dollar hot dog carts are on every corner, and every one of them has veggie dogs. A normal Molson beer in a pub downtown is $8, and oh sod it, just go back to the more interesting neighborhoods. Downtown has shopping, and has the interesting St. Lawrence Market, which is an upscale market and food hall. One could go down to the waterfront, to the parks and entertainment areas, but I feel the best part of the Toronto is the authentic, organic neighborhoods such as you just wandered.