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A GUIDE TO TORONTO'S COOLEST SPOTS

BY EMILY NIGHMAN | JAN 20, 2023

Toronto is one of my favourite cities in the world. I might be biased since it’s the city I call home, but with its unique urban character teeming with cultural life, there’s so much to do and see. In the past few years, more neighbourhoods outside the downtown core along the Yonge-University loop have come into their own and made names for themselves on the world stage as interesting, artistic, entrepreneurial, or culinary tourist destinations.

Keep reading for a guide to my favourite spots and neighbourhoods around Toronto. This guide will take you from the west end to downtown, then back down to the east end. It’s far from an exhaustive list and there’s so much I still haven’t done or seen, but it may give you some ideas for your next day trip in the city!

East Liberty St, Liberty Village

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Liberty Market, Liberty Village. Photo: First Capital REIT

Well-known among locals as a hub for young artists and entrepreneurs, Liberty Village is a unique neighbourhood that has been growing steadily for the last 20 years. What started as the site of a prison and Victorian-era factories has transformed into trendy condos with lake views, converted lofts, tech start-ups, and offices for TikTok, Blue Ant Media, and Universal Music Canada. My favourite spot is East Liberty St, which packs in tons of character within only a few blocks. Grab a coffee from Balzac’s and walk past the industrial chic Liberty Market, complete with Edison bulbs strung up next to old red-brick smokestacks and home to dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops. The neighbourhood’s aesthetic charm is enhanced by the residents’ friendly attitude. Everyone seems to know each other and people will actually try to get to know you (which is unusual for the city). The area is a perfect day-trip from downtown, close to popular tourist destinations like Exhibition Place and Fort York.

West Queen West, Near Trinity Bellwoods

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Shops in West Queen West. Photo: Destination Toronto

West Queen West is easily one of the coolest neighbourhoods in Toronto and, according to a 2014 Vogue listicle, it’s also the second coolest neighbourhood in the world. This eclectic street boasts unique boutiques, buzz-worthy restaurants, trendy clothing stores, and dusty record shops. Right outside the entrance to Trinity Bellwoods Park, you’ll find the slightly quieter side of the street home to hidden gems like clothing and accessories store Park & Province (which sells hand-poured soy candles by Sydney Hale Co in support of animal rescue), celebrity chef Matty Matheson’s burger joint Matty’s Patty’s, and Antikka Café and Records (yes, they do both!) This block is also home to iHalo Krunch, which debuted their popular black charcoal ice cream cones in 2017. I remember that summer ordering a swirl with friends, taking it to a parking lot behind quirky loft apartments, and eating it on the curb. That’s the only way to enjoy this neighbourhood — by stepping out of your comfort zone, trying something new, and taking a few friends along for the ride.

1 Hotel, Fashion District

I'm Emily Nighman, an arts and culture writer, digital content creator, and founder and editor of this website. I set out to discover everything I can about movies, TV shows, music, books, food, travel, design, and more. Then I bring it all together and share it right here with you.

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Lobby of 1 Hotel, 550 Wellington St W. Photo: Emily Nighman

The first time I stepped inside the 1 Hotel on Wellington St, my breath was taken away. Between the warm lighting, modern wood panelling, juxtaposition of plush and stone textures, and carefully selected furnishings, the lobby’s interior design constructs a serene oasis only a short streetcar ride from downtown. In addition, the staff provided top-notch service and the room continued the ambience of luxury, relaxation, and coziness. (My boyfriend, Matt, and I splurged a little and spent our last anniversary there!) The 5-star hotel chain takes pride in its environmental sustainability with its locations 100% LEED-certified and carbon neutral. Our room combined high-end small luxuries like a Nespresso machine and heated bathroom floors with clever sustainable hacks like a small ‘do not disturb’ stone instead of the usual cardboard variety. We completed our stay with breakfast at the bright, greenery-filled 1 Kitchen restaurant on the main floor. The food was delicious and definitely worth the trip across town if you’re looking for a classy brunch spot that supports local farmers … or just somewhere that serves a ‘mimosa experience.’

David Pecaut Square, Entertainment District

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David Pecaut Square and Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Toronto Star

Right in the heart of the Entertainment District sits David Pecaut Square. There’s nothing really special about the square itself with its smattering of trees and benches. It’s the view from the square that I’m interested in. To one side is the elegant, glass-enclosed Roy Thomson Hall, which serves as the main performance hall for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and where I saw sardonic writer Fran Lebowitz when she came to town. Directly across the street sits a couple of Mirvish’s most beautiful theatres, the Royal Alexandra and the Princess of Wales, and down the street, along Canada’s Walk of Fame, you’ll stumble upon the Bell Lightbox, home to the Toronto International Film Festival. This spacious theatre houses restaurants, a lounge, the festival box office, and five cinemas where you can see special talks and events, Cinematheque screenings, and new releases. In fact, this small stretch of King St was transformed into Festival Street in September, making David Pecaut Square the perfect place to see a red carpet, grab a drink, see a free screening, and soak in the atmosphere of excitement.

Film Café, Kensington Market

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Film Café in Kensington Market. Photo: blogTO

Heading slightly north in the city, you’ll quickly find yourself in the ultra-popular neighbourhood of Kensington Market. This area is buzzing with life and is home to some of Toronto’s best street food spots, quirky cafés, and vintage thrift stores. My personal favourite is Film Café. You can’t miss it — it’s the building on the corner of Nassau and Augusta with the massive film reel on the façade. The coffee shop and restaurant has a large patio in the summer, but if you want to avoid the hot and sticky warmer months, when the area becomes overrun with tourists, I recommend visiting in the fall or winter. The cozy interior has a great vibe, free wifi, and a projector screen playing non-stop movie clips. The eclectic menu offers all-day breakfast, Japanese and Mexican street food, deli favourites, espresso drinks, smoothies, and milkshakes, and even used to offer gold leaf-covered ice cream.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Grange Park

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Frank Gehry's Galleria Italia at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Emily Nighman

Near Toronto’s bustling Chinatown neighbourhood, you’ll come upon the imposing glass façade of the AGO. The collection inside its walls includes Canadian works by the Group of Seven and Indigenous artists, medieval and Renaissance paintings from the European masters, modern pieces by Henri Matisse and Claude Monet, and towering abstract plaster sculptures in their own cavernous gallery. The space also welcomes must-see travelling exhibitions. In 2021, Matt and I paid a visit for ‘Picasso: Painting the Blue Period’ and last year, we immersed ourselves in experimental Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrored Room.’ Despite its diverse collection and exhibitions, perhaps the gallery’s most striking feature is its design. In 2008, the AGO commissioned Toronto-born and massively influential architect Frank Gehry to redesign the gallery, resulting in its famed spiral staircase and dramatic wood-and-glass Galleria Italia. You can easily spend hours getting lost in the gallery’s many halls.

Gardiner Museum, Bay-Cloverhill

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Gardiner Museum. Photo: Emily Nighman

The ROM has a special place in my heart and I have many happy memories of trips to the museum with my parents when I was growing up. But right across the street, hidden in plain sight, is the beautiful and hugely under-rated Gardiner Museum. The gallery houses an impressive collection of ceramics and pottery from around the globe within the walls of an ultra-modern design by the award-winning architecture firm, KPMB. Strolling through the exhibits, you can tell that real care went into the exhibit design to showcase the stunning collection of Inuit sculptures, German tea services, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and much more. The museum is steps from the best of Bay-Cloverhill, Yorkville, and the University of Toronto, making it convenient to get to and immerse in Toronto’s cultural scene.

St James Park, Old Town

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St James Park. Photo: Friends of St James Park Toronto

Back down on King St, only this time on the east end, you can find a peaceful refuge from the bustling downtown core at St James Park. Nestled between high-rise condos and 19th-century vestiges of Old Toronto, this green space contains walking trails, floral gardens, a gazebo, and dozens of happy dogs. The beautiful Gothic revival Cathedral Church of St James, which gave the park its name, stands prominently on the corner and showcases the city’s unique blend of antique and modern. Nearby, you can wander into various high-end interior design shops with beautiful items from the best American, Japanese, and Scandinavian designers. Further along King sits the soaring Globe and Mail office and, just a block south, meet locals and tourists at the charming, always-busy St Lawrence Market.

Distillery District

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Distillery District. Photo: Emily Nighman

Arguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Toronto, the Distillery District is still one of my favourite spots. There are so many special shops, restaurants, and events that I never get tired of the trip to the city’s southeastern end. Once the site of the Victorian industrial Gooderham & Worts Distillery, the historic pedestrian-only neighbourhood is now an exciting shopping and dining district inspired by SoHo and Chelsea, complete with converted red-brick buildings, string lights, colossal art installations, and the Winter Village, one of North America’s largest Christmas markets. If you’re not a fan of tripping over massive crowds, head over in the off-season (spring, fall, or winter after the New Year). Check out shops like Bergo Designs, Blackbird Vintage Finds, Gotstyle, Sniffany & Co, or Wildly Delicious, as well as restaurants such as Balzac’s, Cacao 70, Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie, Madrina Bar y Tapas, or Sweetie Pie.

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Toronto is a big city with so much to offer and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Share your favourite spots or neighbourhoods with me on socials @emilynighman!

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