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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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The CN Tower is seen from Underpass Park, a revitalized part of Toronto covered with vibrant street art.
The CN Tower is seen from Underpass Park, a revitalized part of Toronto covered with vibrant street art.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Toronto

The CN Tower is seen from Underpass Park, a revitalized part of Toronto covered with vibrant street art.
The CN Tower is seen from Underpass Park, a revitalized part of Toronto covered with vibrant street art.
  • By Mai Nguyen
  • Photos by Chris Donovan
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Some people think Toronto has no soul. Sure, housing is absurdly expensive, the homeless population is rising, and there are way, way too many cranes. The things that make Toronto great aren’t always obvious to outsiders — and we kind of like it that way, because we know where to find its true soul.

You’ll find it in the colorful laneways of Kensington Market, the shelves at the Toronto Reference Library or “the dog bowl” at Trinity Bellwoods park. Or take a ferry ride to the islands, hit up all the bakeries in Chinatown or hop on the streetcar. Just don’t even think about driving downtown.

Meet Mai Nguyen

Mai has lived in Toronto since 2006. Before that, she lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Vancouver, B.C.; and Halifax, Nova Scotia — which has kept her from developing the center-of-the-universe complex that Torontonians sometimes get.

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IN THE ACTION
West Queen West
Torontonians already knew West Queen West was in vogue, but it was nice when the neighborhood was named in Vogue magazine in 2014 as the second-hippest district in the world. This strip is lined with small galleries, homegrown retailers, restaurants and lots of bars. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
The Beaches
Named after the four beaches along Lake Ontario, this community is about a 40-minute streetcar ride from downtown. It’s got cafes, pubs, bistros, boutiques and parks. Plus, there’s a boardwalk that runs along the shoreline. The only animosity you’ll find here is between people who disagree on whether it’s called the “Beaches” or the “Beach.” Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Le Petit Déjeuner
If you’ve never had a Belgian waffle made by an actual Belgian, this might be the place to do it. The Bruges-born chef Johan Maes’s carb grids are the perfect vessel for maple syrup, chantilly cream and fruit. Other items not to be overlooked: the eggs Benedict, smoked salmon omelet and croque madame, all served with a side of potato rosti and apple coleslaw in a casual setting with shiny green banquettes.
BTW: Get here before 11 a.m. to avoid the weekend brunch pileup.
Le Petit Déjeuner, 191 King St. E., Toronto, Ontario, M5A 1J5
BREAKFAST
I Deal Coffee
Grab a drink made from in-house beans, read a page from the Toronto Star, and pet a dog or two on the concrete patio at this beloved Kensington Market spot. It’s tucked away on a quieter strip off the pedestrian-packed Augusta Avenue, which means you can really dig into your book or get some work done. If you’re just stopping in, pick up some of their fresh roasted coffee beans to go and ask for them to be ground the way you like.
BTW: Fans of iced coffee will be happy to know there’s no diluting here: This joint believes in coffee ice cubes.
I Deal Coffee, 84 Nassau St., Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1M5
LUNCH
Rol San
If you’ve got a friend who will make a stink about plastic tablecloths, leave them at home. Besides, that means more har gow and chicken feet for you. Rol San is a staple all-day dim-sum spot in Chinatown. Round up a group (four or more people is ideal for tasting more items on the menu), and order the deep-fried taro puffs, leaf-wrapped sticky rice and fried squid tentacles.
BTW: Walk through the dining hall where you’ll find a less crowded backroom.
Rol San, 323 Spadina Ave. Toronto, Ontario, M5T 2E9
LUNCH
Seven Lives
In some taquerias, you have to eat at least three tacos before you’re full. At the cash-only Seven Lives, you could call it quits after one thanks to the generous fillings (the deep-fried haddock taco is definitely a two-hand effort). However, you’ll need to push through so you can also order the signature Gobernador (house-smoked marlin, shrimp and cheese) and the pulpo a la Mexican (grilled octopus and crema) that are both deserving of your attention.
BTW: Get a friend to save one of the benches out front while you order; there’s not much seating inside.
Seven Lives, 69 Kensington Ave., Toronto, Ontario M5T 2K2
DINNER
Fat Pasha
The most exciting thing to happen to cauliflower can be found at this Middle Eastern restaurant where chef Anthony Rose serves up a whole roasted cauliflower topped with a layer of tahini and pomegranate seeds. It’s easily one of the most photographed dishes on the menu. You’ll come for the cauliflower but stay for the next-level latkes and delightful salatim platter of dips, pickled vegetables, Israeli-style salads, smoky eggplant, olives and warm pita.
BTW: The portions are huge and meant to be shared.
Fat Pasha, 414 Dupont St., Toronto, Ontario M5R 1V9
DINNER
Banh Mi Boys
Before the Chau brothers came on the scene, nobody was paying more than $3 for banh mi. Yet somehow, the Vietnamese trio behind this quick-serve joint have persuaded Torontonians to pay upward of $7.50 a pop. How? They’ve done away with traditional cold cuts in favor of spice-rubbed pork belly, marinated kalbi beef and duck confit while keeping the crispy baguette and carrot-and-daikon slaw. They’ve also got a variety of steamed baos and tacos that make for perfect seconds.
BTW: The Queen Street location is right beside Kekou, a gelato shop that serves up Asian-inspired floats and popsicles.
Banh Mi Boys, 392 Queen St. W. Toronto, Ontario M5V 2A9
LATE-NIGHT
Black Dice
What do you get when you combine Japanese whisky, rockabilly vibes and a vintage jukebox? You get this Dundas West drinking hole from owner Hideki Saito. The space is super narrow, which makes it great for meeting strangers and getting into heated debates about the superiority of Yamazaki single malt. The beauty of this bar is the details: The taps are made from a recycled motorcycle gas tank, the Surf Champ pinball machine has a whiteboard beside it listing its highest scorers, and the vintage TV above the bar plays black-and-white films on a loop.
BTW: Bring quarters if you want to play songs on the jukebox.
Black Dice, 1574 Dundas St. W., Toronto, Ontario M6K 1T8
LATE-NIGHT
Eva’s Original Chimneys
The city went crazy for Hungarian chimney cakes when the delicious ice-cream-cone-like pastries made their debut in 2015. Now that Toronto’s collective blood sugar levels have come down, this homegrown dessert can be enjoyed without the lines. Inspired by the kurtoskalacs of Budapest, the recipe was developed with help from the owners’ grandmother for whom the shop is named. The cones are spun over a rotisserie grill until they’re golden brown, then they’re coated in sugar and filled with the soft serve and toppings of your choice.
BTW: Vegan soft-serve options are available, including soy vanilla and coconut whipped cream.
Eva’s Original Chimneys, 454 Bloor St. W., Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1X8
(Toronto illustrator Tim Singleton for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. There are some funky smells in this city, which ripen in the summer. Expect offensive whiffs if you’re near the gelatin factory, in the Bloor/Lansdowne area, or too many other areas to name.
  2. If it’s raining, head underground to the PATH in the financial district. It’s an 18-mile indoor pedestrian tunnel with shopping and food courts.
  3. It’s pronounced “Turonno.”
(Toronto illustrator Tim Singleton for The Washington Post)

Do

Trillium Park
There’s something simultaneously soothing and thrilling about watching planes land and take off. This parking lot turned waterfront park is one of the best spots to watch basic aerodynamics at the Billy Bishop island airport play out on repeat while getting incredible views of the city skyline. The park was developed with input from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, and you’ll find nods to the Indigenous population’s heritage and culture throughout it. Bring a blanket and picnic basket, and plane-spot until the sun goes down.
BTW: Bring your own wood and pay a $50 fee to reserve the pit to make an urban bonfire.
Trillium Park, 955 Lake Shore Blvd. W., Toronto, Ontario M6K 3B9
Don River Valley Park
You can’t say Toronto has no greenery when there’s a sprawling valley of unspoiled nature that hugs a major highway. The trails that snake through this vast park are perfect for hiking and biking. They go all the way to Evergreen Brick Works, a former factory that hosts various events. Keep an eye out for public artwork along the trail, like the 14 cast concrete gargoyles by Cree artist Duane Linklater.
BTW: Evergreen Brick Works hosts a farmers’ market on Saturday and an artisans market on Sunday from May to November.
Evergreen Brick Works, 550 Bayview Ave, Toronto, Ontario M4W 3X8
Underpass Park
This revitalized concrete space is less touristy than Graffiti Alley but still has covetable backdrops. Some of the city’s coolest street art can be found here, as well as a basketball court, skate park and jungle gym. What makes this such a gem is that it shows how smart urban planning can transform a few neglected blocks under an elevated highway into a sweet urban escape.
BTW: Look up. Octagonal mirrors are suspended from above for the trippiest selfies.
Underpass Park, 29 Lower River St., Toronto, Ontario M5A 1M6
Another Story Bookshop
This indie bookstore is beloved by many for having some of the most inclusive selections in the city, thanks to its late owner, Sheila Koffman, a fierce social activist who opened the shop in the late 1980s. Along with best-sellers, you’ll find titles about sex positivity, diasporic experiences and police brutality. There’s stuff for kids, too, that focuses on themes of social justice, diversity and equity.
BTW: Take your purchases to the various cafes that line Roncesvalles Avenue, like Extra Butter Coffee and Lit Espresso Bar.
Another Story Bookshop, 315 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto, Ontario M6R 2M6
The Great Hall
Everybody knows basketball was invented by a Canadian, right? One of the first games was played right here in this historic Victorian building back when it was a YMCA gymnasium in the late 1800s. Today, it serves as a venue for all kinds of good times: couples tying the knot, bands rocking the house and famous comedians cracking people up. Despite going through many changes, the Great Hall still has the original wood running track from its old rec-center days.
BTW: Make sure to check the online calendar before your visit.
The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario M6J 1H3
Revue Cinema
If you ever get the urge to watch an old movie in a theater, check Revue Cinema’s schedule: It might just be playing here. This heritage hangout was built in the early 1910s, making it the city’s oldest operating moviehouse playing first- and second-run movies. Look out for special events like the Bechdel Tested series, spotlighting women-centric films, and the Drunken Cinema series, where the audience must drink every time certain actions happen on-screen.
BTW: On Tuesdays, general admission is only $6.
Revue Cinema, 400 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto, Ontario M6R 2M9
Temporarily closed
Mai Nguyen
Mai has lived in Toronto since 2006. Before that, she lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Vancouver, B.C.; and Halifax, Nova Scotia — which has kept her from developing the center-of-the-universe complex that Torontonians sometimes get.
Instagram
bymainguyen
Chris Donovan
Chris is a Toronto-based contributing photographer for The Washington Post who grew up on the ocean and misses it dearly (but on good days, when the sun glistens off Lake Ontario, it does just fine). He loves living in Toronto because of the diversity and great food from around the world.
Instagram
cdonovanphoto

CITY GUIDES