Toronto welcomes travelers from all over the globe to visit its historic landmarks, experience its world-famous attractions, and sample its eclectic culinary scene without judgment and with open arms. With such a rich, vibrant and progressive culture, we wanted to get an insider’s perspective on what this city is all about, and how visitors can get the most out of their time here. That’s why we’ve partnered with out traveler and former Torontonian – Barry Hoy, aka @asianmapleleaf – to share what makes Toronto the beautiful, welcoming and unique city that it is, and provide some of his top recommendations for when you’re ‘OUT in Toronto’.
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Some call it Canada’s Downtown. Others call it Toronto the Good, Hogtown, T-dot or The Six. Toronto has many nicknames, but I just call it home. Despite moving to NYC a few years ago, I still consider myself a Torontonian and often find myself missing the city when I am away. So much so that I visit almost every month to get my dose of Toronto – the people are friendly, the streets are clean, but most importantly, I feel welcomed. I feel welcomed in the village where I still own a condo. I feel welcomed in Chinatown where I go for dim sum with my friends. I feel welcomed in Corso Italia where my family still lives and the neighbors still recognize me. No matter how long I have been, or will be away, this is the one place where I know I am welcomed to just be me. So let me be the first to welcome you to my city, my home, Toronto, and share some of my absolute favorite things to do while here.
Gay Village (Church Wellesley Village)
I may be biased, but Toronto has the best gay scene in the world. If you’re visiting for the first time, make sure to stop at Woody’s, a Toronto institution where they filmed parts of “Queer as Folk”. This is usually where people start off their evening before heading to a night club like, Fly 2.0. I lived in the Gay Village for over ten years, and I still stay there and go out to the bars when I visit. The neighborhood brings people together, and really represents Toronto’s philosophy of acceptance and diversity. Which is fitting, because it serves as the epicenter of the Pride Month celebrations in June.
Queen West and Graffiti Alley
I personally love Queen West because I live for interesting, one-of-a-kind boutique stores and cafes. This area of the city is truly unique to Toronto and different from any other city that I have visited. Even if you don’t go into the stores, the window shopping alone makes this area worth the visit. Also known as “Queer West”, most – if not all – businesses in the area are openly and visibly gay-welcoming. If you’re a taco fiend like me, definitely hit up The Beaver Cafe, a local-frequented spot, for one of their warm-tortilla beef tacos. Delicious!
“Queer West” is also home to one of the city’s most popular boutique hotels: The Drake Hotel - an institution for local art, music and food that just happens to have hotel rooms. This is the place to stay if you want to ditch traditional hotel accommodations and be immersed in a truly cultural art experience. Drake also offers one of the best brunches I’ve ever had. But I warn you; my stomach would always hurt after going there, from eating my weight in food and laughing so hard with my friends.
As a travel writer, I’m all about a great Instagram photo op. If you are looking for the same, make sure you stop by Graffiti Alley, just south of Queen Street West (between Spadina and Portland). There are some incredible outdoor murals there, so make sure you bring your camera and get ready for a fun Instagram post! I have a mean sweet tooth, so whenever I visit, I go to iHalo Krunch. They’ve got really strange (yet yummy!) soft-serve flavors, with my personal go-to being either sweet purple yam or charcoal.
Discover the Distillery District
Whenever I’m hungry, this is my favorite area of Toronto! I usually start my day at the St. Lawrence Market ( not in the Distillery, but a short distance away), Toronto’s famous public market, where there are endless stalls selling everything from fresh fruit, meats, spices and almost any other food you can think of. I always get a peameal bacon sandwich, at Carousel Bakery, for lunch (oh-so-fantastic!), and then make my way over to the Distillery to explore the cute shops and curated art galleries. This historic, pedestrian-only neighborhood is filled with 1800s-era industrial architecture and cobblestone streets – it almost makes me feel like I am in a different time period. This is another area very much unique to Toronto, and its quaint charm always makes me fall in love with the city a little bit more.
There’s so much great culture to soak up in the Distillery, but its wide range of food options and restaurants is why I truly love it. El Catrin, where you can find authentic Mexican cuisine, is where I had my farewell dinner before moving to New York City for work, and will always have a soft spot in my heart. If you’re feeling pescatarian, you can find fresh-caught seafood at Pure Spirits Oyster Bar & Grill, just-baked bread and pastries at the charming Brick Street Bakery or – if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, like me – super interesting sweets at SOMA Chocolatemaker. I always opt for the bean chocolate!
There are coffee shops on almost every block across Toronto, but did you know Torontonians also love their tea? Following the British tradition of relaxing mid-day with freshly steeped tea, accompanied with scones, sandwiches and sweets – this afternoon indulgence is one of my favorite things to do with friends. Here are my top tea spots:
Traditional tea at the Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York hotel: Make sure you ask about the hotel tour after the tea service to explore this historic property. Enjoying the grounds is a great way to end an afternoon tea.
High tea at the Shangri-La Hotel lobby: I’m always fascinated by their tea wall, featuring seventy-five different kinds of tea.
Lastly, one of the city’s best afternoon teas is served in the Norma Ridley Members’ Lounge,located in the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). Unfortunately, it is only open for AGO members, so if you don’t already know someone who has a membership, get friendly and make some new friends! Or you can consider getting a membership if you visit Toronto often, and love art. The AGO has some amazing pieces with ever-changing exhibits, and the membership comes with a reciprocal program, where you can access museums across Canada and the US.
If you are like me and love amusement parks, your Toronto itinerary needs to include a visit to Canada’s Wonderland – home to North America’s largest variety of roller coasters. As a kid, I would be so excited about going to Wonderland that I could not fall asleep until well into the night. Yes, it’s that fun! Opening for the 2019 season is Yukon Striker, where you'll hang over a 90-degree drop for three breathtaking seconds, staring 245-feet down into an underwater tunnel. It will be the world’s fastest, tallest and longest dive coaster! I cannot even wait! If that’s not enough, included in your ticket to Wonderland is the Splash Works waterpark – so make sure you bring a change of clothes and swimwear.
Don’t worry if the Summer’s over – Wonderland stays open through October for their annual Halloween Haunt. You can still enjoy some of the rides, but with the added excitement of the park being transformed into a giant haunted house. Also, make sure you try a funnel cake with everything on it – it’s totally worth the calories!
Toronto Islands and a day out on the Lake
After a few days of urban exploration, I love to head to the Toronto Islands to see the city from another point of view. The Toronto Islands are only fifteen minutes from downtown Toronto and are a great way to unwind and relax. I used to take the ferry as a kid, thinking I was going somewhere far away on vacation. Today, when I go, I usually go with my gay friends to the Hanlan’s Point Beach – a popular, clothing optional beach where the gays go in the summer. Hanlan’s point is one of those places, outside of the gay clubs, where you go to see and be seen, and everyone seems to know each other. It’s another quirky location that’s very Toronto-specific. It’s hard to find such a laidback and welcoming environment that offers such breathtaking city views.
Whether you enjoy visiting historic landmarks, amusement parks, or experiencing the nightlife scene, Toronto has something for everyone. For more information on any of these Toronto spots, and to find out why the vies are different here, visit See Toronto Now.