The secret to feeling like an insider in Toronto is simple: Make a friend. Surprising, in this city that’s the fourth largest in North America, it’s not a hard thing to do. Whether you’re touring an iconic spot, holding a map on a street corner, or sitting in a local coffee shop, Torontonians will happily answer your questions or pull up a chair and suggest dozens of places you might never find on your own. Ready to find out what they’d advise you to see and do in this great city? This list of popular places and local favorites will point you in the right direction.
Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in Canada. Residents come from all around the world and communities are forged out of nothing more than location and pride. The differences are celebrated through food, music, events and parades that all are welcome to attend.
Where Locals Flock
Pop into Little India for fabrics and jewelry that you’d only expect to find in Mumbai. Stop in Little Jamaica for the music and food of the tropics or head to Greektown for souvlaki and baklava. Yes, they have a Little Italy and a Chinatown (they’re outstanding too) but the cultural enclaves go far beyond that. Corners of the city feel like Korea, Ethiopia, Portugal and more. To see (and taste) it all in one spot head for Kensington Market where you can nosh at options that range from authentic Mexican taquerias to Vietnamese Banh mi stands.
The restaurants you hear about are popular for good reason. Don’t miss 360, the revolving restaurant, in the CN Tower. It’s Canadian-sourced seasonal menu and the world’s highest wine cellar (according to the Guinness World Records) mean you’ll be well positioned to enjoy the one-of-a-kind views of the city from almost 2,000 feet up. Or pop over to Canis, the restaurant recently named one of the top two in the country.
Where Locals Eat
Check out Celebrity Chef Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco in Leslieville. The locally sourced menu changes weekly and family style servings encourage you to linger. Take the bait and hang out in this popular neighborhood that continues to attract creative minds and young families from across the city with spots like the meticulously restored Broadview Hotel. Savor the city view from The Rooftop Terrace or check-in to one of 58 eclectic guest rooms. For breakfast, try Bonjour Brioche where locals pop in for lattes and fresh pastries. And that’s just one neighborhood! Across the city, there are opportunities to snack on whatever you’re in the mood for. For tapas style treats hit Toronto staple, Bar Raval. For nouveau Caribbean, try Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. And if dessert is all you need, city favorite Rosen’s Cinnamon Buns on College Street won’t disappoint. The city’s vegetarian options are growing as well. Go refined at Planta or trendy at the new Vegandale collection of restaurants and breweries in Parkdale.
The city has a richness of upscale bars and award-winning mixologists. You can sip and be seen in spots like Four Seasons’ dBar , Shangri-La’s lobby bar and the Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York.
Where Locals Drink
The Caesar – the clam juice-based concoction topped with everything from bacon to burgers that is popular around the world - was created in Toronto. So, no surprise that cocktail creativity runs rampant across the city. You can get in on the fun at spots like the Grey Tiger cocktail bar in Bloordale, where artist and co-owner Becky Ip gave the bar a unique calling card: The new menu is an occult-themed “spell-book” that encourages guests to embrace their inner witch. Each of the 12 house cocktails is accompanied by an incantation written by her partner, mixologist Ryan Ringer, and one of Ip’s illustrations. When the couple isn’t bewitching guests with their own creations, they recommend spots like the dark and funky Comrade (where taxidermy laden walls offer a unique ambience). Looking for craft breweries? You’re in the right spot. Festivals celebrate the small cask offerings year-round and a host of tours offer easy ways to sip and see. Pull up a stool in cozy neighborhood spots like Saulter Street Brewery (which allows both dogs and kids) or grab a craft beer passport and roam the city while you sample the suds.
Teetotaller? The beautiful tearoom and high-quality offerings at Icha Tea is just one of several places you’ll fall for.
Since it arrived in 2015, the Toronto Sign at Nathan Phillips Square has become a selfie-must for locals and tourists alike. Make sure to peer at the artwork or to snap a selfie in Graffiti Alley, but don’t stop there.
Where Locals Snap
Head for some of the city’s newest hotels for views from up high: The Falcon Skybar at Hotel X, Kost rooftop bar on the 44th floor atop Bisha Hotel, and the Thompson Toronto’s Rooftop Lounge all offer a place to sip and nibble with snap-worthy views. For vantage points that won’t require the cost of a hotel cocktail try Rooster Coffee House in Riverdale or the rooftop of the Green P parking garage at the entrance to Kensington Market.
There is a something to suit every kind of shopper. Find the brands you love at the Toronto Eaton Centre, boutique options in Yorkville and funkier choices on Queen Street West. The spots locals hit for gear that showcases Toronto talent and city pride are easy to find too.
Where Locals Spend
Try Spacing for everything from T-shirts that sport the city’s iconic streetcars to quirky racoon socks that show off Toronto’s unofficial mascot. Looking for something more discreet? The aptly named Souvenir shop where Toronto artisanal offerings including cushions, furniture and art all for sale. And at Scout you’ll find a focus on handmade items by independent Canadian artists.
Toronto is often referred to as Hollywood North thanks to an abundance of Broadway-style offerings at places like the Mirvish Theatres and cinematic celebrity-magnets like Hot Docs and the TIFF Bell Lightbox – home to the Toronto International Film Festival. But the city’s array of cultural offerings (which include the celebration of contemporary art at Nuit Blanche, and of architectural stunners at Doors Open Toronto) mean there are a variety of ways to celebrate the arts.
Where Locals Step Out
Stephanie Kallay, who helps run the Toronto Summer Music Festival, has a list of must-sees for Toronto culture vultures. There’s outdoor theater at Shakespeare in High Park and modern operatic interpretations in unique city venues from Against the Grain Theatre. Toronto’s cultural beacons are constantly re-inventing themselves with opportunities for tourists and locals to come together. Both The Royal Ontario Museum’s Friday Night Live events and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursdays bring together live music, a cash bar and local artists. Looking for a laugh? Comedic geniuses like Mike Myers and Eugene Levy got their start at Second City in Toronto. The theatre company still runs live shows and workshops. And watch for the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opening in fall 2018.
The city starts at the shores of Lake Ontario and make the waterfront well worth a visit. Make time for the wavy boardwalk seating areas around Harbourfront Centre, renewed concert venues and bicycle paths at Ontario Place and the iconic ferry ride over to the Toronto Islands.
Where Locals Explore
With more than 28 miles of waterfront, explore The Beach village neighborhood – home to Woodbine, Kew and Cherry Beach - and you’ll find volleyball pits and swimming options well into the fall and a boardwalk worth wandering even in the colder months. And there’s no better place to catch the sunset over the city’s skyline than from Toronto Island Park. Go for the day: Join a bike tour or canoe paddle and picnic excursion. Or while away your afternoon in the buff at the clothing optional Hanlan’s point beach, and offer people landing at the island airport a unique view of their own.
Join the crowds to cheer on one of Toronto’s sports teams. The Raptors (basketball), Maple Leafs (hockey), Blue Jays (baseball), Argonauts (football), The Toronto Wolfpack (Rugby) and Toronto Football Club (Soccer) have fans worldwide and dedicated venues in the city for taking in the action. But at spots around the city, locals find plenty of other reasons to gather as well.
Even if you can’t catch a professional sports game, there are plenty of ways to show a team love. Hockey fans won’t want to skip the Hockey Hall of Fame where interactive exhibits include the chance to shoot the puck. And if you’re looking to flex your cheering muscles (and not your actual ones) head for one of the sports bars where fans gather. At The Football Factory doors open as early as 7 a.m. on weekends to make sure soccer fans have a place to catch international games. At Real Sports, you’re steps from the arenas but amongst a crowd that’s no less vocal as they cheer. (So much so that ESPN voted it the #1 sports bar in North America.) Rather raise a glass in a quieter spot? Sample the small-batch, seasonal, craft beer offerings at Millstreet Toronto Brewpub in the Distillery District. It’s a tasty spot perfect for toasting your team.
You’ll likely be shimmying next to locals if you hit the Entertainment District on Richmond Street where Deejays offer a variety of music most nights of the week. Looking for a particular genre or a live band? Toronto’s got that too.
What Locals Know
Iconic spots like the Lula lounge for Latin music, Reservoir Lounge for jazz, and afterhours options like the upscale Li’ly Resto-Lounge won’t disappoint. Plus, drag queen shows have made El Convento Rico a legendary stop for anyone looking for a fun night out.
Summer is Toronto’s tourist season, but there are plenty of reasons to visit year-round. From the changing fall colors in the city parks to the hosted events at ice rinks across the city, weather never stands in the way of a good time.
What Locals Enjoy
Patio season is year-round too. Top spots like Sky Yard at The Drake Hotel and The Broadview Hotel’s ’s The Rooftop are just two of many winterized patios where you can drink under the stars all year long. Want to skate outside in the summertime? At the Ontario Place rink you can do that. And while The Bentway offers a unique winter skating trail that runs underneath the city’s Gardiner Expressway, in the summer it also offers a spot to test out your skateboarding skills, enjoy live music and relax in an outdoor beer garden.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel and a local Toronto writer who also loves her city. You can follow her travels on Twitter.