Sunday Seven – Toronto, Slightly Off the Beaten Path

While brainstorming topics for this week’s Sunday round-up, I came to the somewhat-shocking realization that I have yet to write about my own backyard, Toronto!

I have a love-hate relationship with the city: I love the multicultural dynamic and mix of communities, but rather dislike the cocky attitude that exists. I love getting around on my bike, but hate the lack of lanes. I am mortified by our mayor. It took moving away for a year and then leaving the country for several months more to fully grasp that I missed the damn place, and particularly the following seven aspects of it:

7. Kensington Market
In grade 9, for reasons I have yet to figure out, my suburban high school bused our geography classes to downtown Toronto and essentially let us run free. It was a gong show. People got lost. Tempers (of locals) flared. Teachers underestimated what they were getting into. However, I remember somehow making it to Kensington and thinking that Toronto was the best place ever, as I sat in a cafe eating a bagel with a glass of milk, because I did not drink pop and calcium was very important for growing bones, thank you. I wandered small, cramped shops selling vintage clothes and funny smelling sticks that were on fire, watched musicians work the crowds, and scrunched my nose at the strong stench of fresh fish. To me, Kensington was cool.

Flash forward 15 years later, and one of my favourite things to do is sit on the patio of Wanda’s Pie in the Sky with a vegan cupcake and soy latte and people watch. It’s been polished up quite a bit the last few years, but the magic that first sparked my interest at 14 is still there. Check it out on a Pedestrian Sunday in the summer months, when you can wander the streets without fear of traffic and pause whenever a musician, artist or patio strikes your fancy.

6. High Park
Hugely popular with locals, and locals with adorable dogs, High Park is an enormous park in the west end of the city. You can bike, swim, hike, play tennis, go to a zoo (for now, anyway) or just sprawl out with a picnic and a good book. And someone else’s dog that drops by for a hello. It’s a nice place to go to get away from the honking and general noise of downtown, and a swell spot to spend a Saturday morning with a coffee. Spring is a great time to go, particularly because of the cherry blossoms – but avoid evenings or weekends or you’ll quickly get trapped in a pedestrian traffic jam.

5. Festivals
One of the perks of living in a multicultural city is that everyone feels the need to celebrate during the summer months, all the time. It’s easy to plan your weekends around the prospect of stuffing your face with kabobs at Taste of the Danforth, perogies at the Roncesvalles Polish Festival, or samosas at the Taste of Little India Festival. When you’re stuffed, put on your dancing shoes and hit up Corso Italia or the Beaches International Jazz Festival. Or perhaps you’d like to kick back and take in a thoughtful discussion with filmmakers at Hot Docs or the Toronto International Film Festival, or see the next big act at Canadian Music Week. If arts are more your thing, check out a personal favourite of my mum and I, the Queen West Art Crawl, or pack your thermos of coffee and hit up Nuit Blanche and watch inexplicable performance art like mascots trying to take each other out at 3 a.m. Yes, that actually happened.

Pick out a local paper like Now or The Grid when you’re in town – chances are you’ll find something going on that strikes your fancy.

4. Street Art
Some call graffiti an eye sore, I call it art. Unless it’s blatantly offensive in any way. I wish more people appreciated the talent that can be found on walls and doors across the city. There are some great examples between Keele and Dundas West as well as Lawrence East subway stations (these are all “legal” walls), as well as Graffiti Alley south of Queen and east of Spadina. Just wander Queen, in fact – east or west, you’ll spy splashes of colour guaranteed.

If graffiti isn’t your thing, Toronto is full of street sculptures large and small. Douglas Coupland has a few examples scattered around the city including a giant canoe and soldiers, and you can also find cows, businessmen and the quintessential token of Canadiana, hockey players.

3. Eat!
This ties in nicely with the multiculturalism. While some naysayers will always say “it’s just not the same as eating it in ____”, I have had darn good Thai, Latin, Tex Mex, raw, vegan, and everything in between. Ignore the haters and check out festivals like Summerlicious and Winterlicious to sample cuisine from the city’s finer restaurants, or venture east for excellent Ethiopian and Indian food, north for sushi, just east of downtown for dim sum, and west for late-night nachos. Due to a variety of reasons, food trucks haven’t really caught on, but there are more than enough local haunts to keep taste buds happy.

Also go for brunch. East or west, lots of good bets.

2. See the Blue Jays When the Dome is Open, Or Other Sports
I did title this post “slightly off the beaten path”, for those surprised at this one. I don’t go often, but there’s something so enjoyable about packing into the Rogers Centre (formerly known, and forever in our hearts, as the SkyDome) and watching the Jays with a beer in one hand while the other shields your eyes from the evening sun. Sit in the nosebleeds for the true, slightly frat-house-esque experience.

Baseball not your thing? Fair enough. How about lacrosse (the Toronto Rock generally do well – something that Torontonians seem to ignore and insist on being gluttons for punishment), or my favourite the Toronto Roller Derby, which is North America’s largest flat-track derby league. Grab a beer (sensing a theme here?) and bring a cushion as the benches are as hard as the hits the women dish out.

1. Bike the Waterfront Trail from the Bluffs to Port Credit
This is far. Maybe don’t do it all at once, but rent a bike and get out on the waterfront. You’ll pass through a cross-section of some of the city’s posher neighbourhoods – ignore your envy over the size and views from the houses in the Beach and keep your eyes on the waves rolling in from Lake Ontario. Along the way, stop for ice cream, sprawl out on a blanket under willow trees, join in a game of beach volleyball, go for a dip in a giant outdoor pool, take the ferry to Toronto Island, stop off at the Canadian National Exhibition, see a concert on the lawns at the Molson Amphitheatre, bird watch at Humber Bay and collapse just in time for dinner in Port Credit. Too much for one day?

There’s lots more to see and do – this barely scratches the surface (don’t even get me started on all the charming boutiques and local designers). As a general rule of thumb, I always like to explore outlying neighbourhoods rather than the downtown core when I travel, and this is pretty good advice for Toronto too.

So, Torontonians former and present, what have I missed?

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8 thoughts on “Sunday Seven – Toronto, Slightly Off the Beaten Path

  1. How about toboganning in Riverdale Park with the CN Tower in the foreground; skating at Nathan Phillips Square; cobblestone streets in the Beach; the amazing fall colours down the Don Valley … to mention just a few. And though I am happiest returning to the burbs after a visit, I do sometimes miss living there.

  2. Absolutely! There are tons of others that I could have included. Glad that you are happiest when you leave 😉

  3. You’ve covered my faves nicely. I also would add the Brickworks and the Distillery. Nothing beats a little Blue Rodeo on a late August night while overlooking the CNE lights and drinking a $10 Canadian.

  4. Ahem… there is going to be a craft beer tent at Brickworks. All summer. With food trucks. We are going.

    That is all.

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