Where the world comes together
oronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world—almost half of Toronto’s population was born in foreign countries. This vibrant ethnic mosaic is the city’s lifeblood, giving it a passionate spirit that honors age-old tradition yet celebrates fresh ideas. From the Little Italy to Greektown to Little Portugal or Koreatown, visitors can essentially travel the world by exploring Toronto’s 13 distinct neighborhoods.
With Toronto’s thriving arts community and a bold culinary scene, immersing yourself in a wealth of fascinating cultures is as easy as walking out the door. Each of the city’s neighborhoods has their own personalities and flavor (which your taste buds will thank you for). But the city still feels like one big connected community, as demonstrated by Nuit Blanche—a city-wide celebration of art that makes for an unforgettable cultural experience.
The hardest part of your trip is choosing where to go first. We’ve put together a list of musts for your visit.
Shop for global goods at Kensington Market
Grab your walking shoes and explore the streets of Kensington Market, a national historic site and one of the oldest neighborhoods in Toronto. The area, which was once a Jewish neighborhood, is now the bohemian heart of Canada where you might hear any of the 140 different languages spoken by city residents. You’ll find a potpourri of retro thrift shops (no chain stores, please), street performers and live music, plus fresh produce markets, cheese shops and health food stores. If you’re looking for something a little different, you’ve come to the right place. You can find almost any food in the world in Kensington Market: The streets are lined with a mini melting pot of tasty, quirky restaurants and cafes—like a Hungarian/Thai restaurant, Hungary Thai, or a Jamaican-Italian fusion restaurant, Rasta Pasta.
Let worldly art inspire you at West Queen West
Toronto’s West Queen West (the stretch of Queen Street between Bathurst and Gladstone) is a vibrant, dynamic neighborhood that exudes cool. Originally known for its slew of art galleries, WQW (what the locals like to call it) has given way to funky boutiques filled with cutting-edge labels and locally-designed fashions, offbeat cafés and bars, and a wide-range of stylish hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving eclectic international fare. Creative types from all over will find common joy here. You’ll find fusion restaurants that marry flavors and ingredients from multiple regions, including The Good Son, which calls its menu a “reflection of the melting pot of cultures” that make up the neighborhood.
Snap some photos at one of the world’s most ‘grammable spots, Graffiti Alley
Toronto is awash with stunning graffiti, but there’s no better place to admire all the different designs, images and characters than Graffiti Alley. The area marries the unique personalities of Kensington and Queen West, representing the artistic heart of the city. Dozens of virtuosos from near and far have left their marks on the city’s only legalized zone for street art, which in turn is a gorgeous blend of cultures. The alleyway has become a staple of Toronto as its often home to street fests and has also been featured in music videos. Whatever you do, don’t forget to charge your phone, because with almost a kilometer’s worth of muraled wall space, your Instagram will never look better.
Explore diverse beliefs at MOCA
Calling all art lovers! Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has reopened its doors in the former Tower Automotive Building with five times the space of its former home in Queen West. There are five floors of fascinating works designed to excite, involve, and inspire interaction. Programming includes workshops, performances, screenings and talks throughout the building. “BELIEVE”, the first major exhibition (through January 2019), features commissioned pieces from 16 amazing artists, including Can Altay, Matilda Aslizadeh, Carl Beam and more. Working in a variety of media, they explore how our personal beliefs, as well as those we share collectively, determine our way of life in the 21st century.
Celebrate differences all night long at Nuit Blanche
For one night each year, Toronto is transformed into Nuit Blanche (White Night), one of the largest outdoor contemporary art exhibitions in the world. For 12 hours—from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. —this pedestrian-friendly event transports onlookers to a wonderland of sight, sound, creativity and vision. Designed to make contemporary art accessible to everyone, works from hundreds of local, national and international artists will explore how our differences can also bring us together. Don’t look for walls hung with paintings, though; presentations will range from mammoth installations and sculptures to interpretive dance, music, the spoken word or all of the above. The possibilities are as boundless as the artists’ imaginations.
Delight your taste buds with a fusion of flavors at Leña
The philosophy at this posh art deco restaurant is “Live-to-eat,” an invitation to indulge, embrace life and break bread with friends and family. The menu is a vibrant mix of flavors from Argentina, Spain, Italy and Portugal that pay homage to matriarchal cooking and the restaurant’s namesake Elena, the Argentinian mother-in-law of founding chef Anthony Walsh. Her succulent braised organic chicken, mouthwatering grilled rabbit and savory beef empanadas are customer favorites. Executive chef Julie Marteleira’s mother’s recipe for delicious Portuguese salt cod fritters is also wildly popular. Leña is open for all-day dining and is a weekend hotspot for sensational boozy brunches. Downstairs you’ll find Bar Lala, a great place for pre-dinner or late-night get togethers.
Experience indigenous cuisine with French influence at Kūkŭm
Growing up on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Joseph Shawana of the Odawa tribe learned to forage and hunt to help feed his family. Now a chef, he’s combined the skills he honed as a child with his training in classical French cuisine. The result: Kūkŭm (pronounced Koe-Kuhm), the celebrated Mount Pleasant restaurant serving indigenous cuisine prepared using French techniques. Canada is home to around 1.6 million people who identify as indigenous, and Toronto is leading the movement in highlighting their cuisine. Kūkŭm sits at the head of that table, as one of the only upscale indigenous inspired restaurants.
You’ll find unique dishes such as Kūkŭm’s signature Seal Trio with pan-seared seal loin, seal pâté and seal tartare served with crostini and house-made preserves, and traditional-style fish pie with Georgian Bay whitefish, wild onions, dill, whipped potatoes and caramelized shallots. For dessert, try the sweet grass crème brulée or pine needle sorbet. Whatever you decide, this small 30-seat gem fills up fast, so be sure to make a reservation.
Try a flavor you’ve never heard of at Wong’s ice cream shop
East Chinatown has seen major growth and revitalization recently, with a culturally-diverse group of small businesses breathing new energy into the area. Residents still adore the local, community feel of the neighborhood, so when Ed Wong opened an ice cream shop in East Chinatown a year ago, offering inventive Asian-inspired blends like black sesame salt duck egg, wasabi honey, and toasted ramen miso, it instantly became a hit. He’s perfected 20 yummy recipes so far (many of which are vegan or gluten-free) and periodically adds delectable new combinations.