This is a list of the ten things I think all visitors to Toronto should try to see while they’re in town. Taken together, they’ll give a very good sense of what makes this city special. In some cases, an individual item represents and anchors a wider district that is also worth visiting while you’re in that part of town.

The List

  1. The John Street Roundhouse. Visit the Steam Whistle brewery and have a free sample (or more, or even go for a tour), then ride the miniature railroad at the Toronto Railway Museum. Look across at the base of the CN Tower and realize what a massive structure it really is. The new aquarium is right there, too, but I haven’t visited it and I can’t offer an opinion either way. From here, it’s not far to the waterfront…

  2. The Waterfront. It’s getting better all the time, although until they tear the Gardiner down (and build a gondola line?) it’s always going to feel a bit isolated. Once you brave the falling concrete and some dark tunnels, you’ll find yourself on a lively and extensive waterfront with lots to do and see. From east to west, there’s Sherbourne Common and Sugar Beach, the Redpath Sugar Refinery (with a museum!), the Island Ferry Terminal, the Queen’s Quay Terminal Building (home to the Museum of Inuit Art, one of my favourites), parks, beaches, and trails.

  3. C’est What. The best beer selection in the city, great food, and a nice atmosphere. Plus, you’re in the heart of the Saint Lawrence Neighbourhood, which combines some of Toronto’s oldest buildings with a 20th-century housing development so successfully that you won’t even notice (a rare thing indeed). Don’t forget to see the Gooderham Flatiron Building across the street (there’s even a pub in the basement). While you’re in the neighbourhood, be sure to visit the Saint Lawrence Market. Visit the North Market on Saturday mornings to buy directly from farmers (I recommend sausage rolls from El Gaucho and the elk jerky from Second Wind), or on Sundays to check out the antiques and flea market. The South Market has all kinds of permanent vendors on two levels (try a bagel with smoked salmon cream cheese from St. Urbain, or pick up some specialty mustard from Kozlik’s) and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.

  4. Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Worth it for the architecture alone, but the collection of Canadian art is extensive and excellent, as is the Thomson Collection. Museum fatigue will set in long before you see everything, unfortunately. When it does, visit the Galleria Italia, which runs the entire length of the building on Dundas Street West, and have an espresso before visiting the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre. If you’re a member (or visiting with us), you can have an excellent lunch at the Members’ Lounge in the historic Grange manor (built 1817). You’re in the neighbourhood, so also check out Grange Park and Will Alsop’s silly OCAD Building. From here, it’s not far to Kensington Market and Chinatown…

  5. Kensington Market & Chinatown. I’m not super-familiar with this neighbourhood, but I know it’s a great place to spend some time on a Sunday, particularly in the summer when Kensington Avenue is closed to cars. There’s bound to be a store that strikes your fancy – the Blue Banana is a good place to start, and there are many small specialty grocers, cheesemongers, and pretty much everything else, too. When you’re done shopping in Kensington, check out the many interesting stores along Spadina and Dundas, and marvel at the effect of the Chinatown Special Sign District (commercial signs like this aren’t permitted everywhere in the city).

  6. Honest Ed’s is a Toronto landmark if there ever was one, and your time is running out to visit it (it’s closing forever on December 31, 2016). It’s a one-of-a-kind of place that sells almost everything on many floors and in countless rooms. The illuminated midway-style facade, hand-painted signage, and endless slogans provide an especially unusual shopping environment. Also in this neighbourhood, known as Mirvish Village, is the Centre for Social Innovation (an incubator space, if you’re into that kind of thing, with a nice lobby and coffee shop) and the Victory Café (a pub with a nice menu and beer selection).

  7. City Hall & Nathan Phillips Square comprise the focal point of downtown Toronto and are one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. A true piazza is an usual feature in many North American cities, and while Toronto’s is a bit too concrete-y for my tastes, it’s still a nice place to sit by the fountain (in summer), skate (in winter), or stumble across an event or farmers’ market. Be sure to go inside City Hall to fully appreciate Viljo Revell’s unique design, including the giant stucco mushroom that supports the council chambers.

  8. Yonge+Dundas Square: Another open space downtown, this time in emulation of New York’s Times Square (complete with giant screens, enormous billboards, eccentric characters, and lots of street-corner preaching). There are often events and concerts, advertising promotions (with free samples), and of course ample people-watching opportunities. You could sit on one of the restaurant patios overlooking the square, shop at the Eaton Centre, begin your exploration of PATH (Toronto’s underground city), or have a beer at the unusual Imperial Pub just one block east on Dundas Street. While you’re in the neighbourhood, also visit…

  9. The Jazz Bistro or The Rex. These are two fantastic venues to see live jazz in Toronto, and between the two of them there’s bound to be something on every night of the week. Both have decent food and beer, too, and the Jazz Bistro has an excellent Jazz Brunch on Sunday afternoons. The Rex is on Queen Street, so also see…

  10. Queen Street East and West: I have spent some time on Queen Street and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’s one of the best and most interesting streets I’ve ever visited. Supporting my assertion is the fact that Queen Street will actually take you straight to many of the other destinations in this top ten list. You can see it by streetcar, but I recommend walking at least part of it to visit some of its hundreds (thousands?) of unique shops and attractions. Start at Yonge Street and head east to visit the Arcadia Bookstore, Marty Millionaire’s, Gilead Café, Corktown Common, the Don Valley and its trails, Leslieville, and the Beaches. Or head west to hit some great shopping districts, art galleries, Trinity Bellwoods Park, MOCCA, High Park, and excellent waterfront recreation amenities. Over its entire length, Queen Street really does have it all.

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