Toronto is one of those very rare cities that felt instantly, entirely welcoming to me.
In my three years here, that feeling has endured. Never once have I felt unsafe in the city. That’s pretty incredible!
So consider this my little love letter to my home-away-from-home. While I may not be here forever, there’s security in knowing places like Toronto exist in the world.
It’s one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Something like half of the city’s population was born outside of Toronto. We’ve got about 200 ethnic groups and nearly 150 spoken languages. That’s badass whatever way you look at it. Even if it’s only for the result is the most incredible selection of authentic foods from all over the world.
Summer in the City
There is nothing like summer in Toronto. As I sit, listening to an ‘ice storm’ rage outside, I am wistfully dreaming of the change in seasons. It’s all ice-coffee and park-livin’ my friends. My favourite thing about the warmer months in the city is the body positivity.
Ladies and gents, if you’re hot and those short shorts are looking appealing, thrown them on! Literally nobody cares. The locals are tattooed and more concerned with their craft beers and weed to care too much what you’re sweating in!
I’m sure this is a nightmare to some. Tom Ford would likely cry at this casual summer oasis. But I’m not Tom and I’m not interested in spending an hour of my summer day getting dressed. What I am interested in is getting up, clean and out to Trinity Bellwoods or one of the Islands with a couple of cans, some music and mates.
Now, I’m Irish. My bar for live music is high, friends. And basically this paragraph was created for three spots in particular.
- The Rex: perfect, all-day jazz in a bar that’s half Cheers and half English pub. It’s not fancy, their cocktail menu is small, laminated and sits in a wooden holder. But you’re not there for those anyways! Grab a beer, snatch a seat if there’s one going and listen to some incredibly talented musicians do their thing. Usually free up until their 9.30pm show, and even then cover is only like $12. If you’re in Toronto for one night, I’d say go to the Rex.
- Rebel: Ah Rebel, it’s as if a strip club mated with an underground punk club and you were born. I’ve seen some great acts there over the years. Kasabian and Liam Gallagher being highlights. It’s the perfect level of grit and darkness. You can get up to no good at Rebel.
- The Garrison: This is the most ‘Irish’ venue I’ve come across. It could be Whelan’s little cousin. With a bar at the front, the actual gig venue is at the back of the building. Again it’s a tall cans crowd with nothing too fancy going on. The crowds are here for the music and it gets fully dark when acts are on stage. They bring in a brilliant mix of artists and can be a decent bet any night you’ve got nothing to do. My favourite to date was seeing my Irish brother Gavin James bring the whole room to silence.
I could go into details about other museums too but, to be honest, you know how to Google and we all know it’s all about the ROM; The Royal Ontario Museum is where I spend a good six hours, once a month. They’ve always got some brilliant feature exhibition; I’ve seen in-depth historical showings from Pompeii all the way to the incredible Dior exhibit that just closed. Try to catch the National Photographer of the Year shots if you’re in town!
They’ve got dinosaurs. They’ve got full set-ups of Victorian English living rooms. They’ve art from all corners of the world. It’s an Aladdin’s cave to while away weekday – don’t go on the weekend, it’s a screaming, stroller-packed hell.
I’ve got some favourite places that I wanted to share but they didn’t fit neatly into a category so here we go:
- Lena restaurant: the most stunning, Instagram-worthy bar. It’s all Gatsby drama here. It’s definitely worth stopping by to start your evening on a classy note. I usually go here by myself though – their bar is the perfect spot to rear, write or people watch. I’d stick to drinks here, the food is pricey and only ok.
- Kempton-Howard park: a little off the beaten path but that’s the beauty of this park. While the likes of Bellwoods packs up in the summer months KH is expansive and calm. Watch the cute dogs at the pup park. Try to figure out softball. Park your butt under a tree. It’s all you could ask for in a park! When you’re done, stroll up to the Danforth and eat some brilliant Greek food.
- El Almacen: Argentinian coffee with a side of empanada? Ugh, yes! At one of the few tiny tables in the sun-drenched front of the store is where you want to be. The perfect vantage point to watch all the weird and wonderful of Queen West wander past! Their cortado is on point!
- The Auld Spot: Hands down my favourite pub in the city. Just a stones throw from Kempton park this long, narrow bar with its fairly-lit ceiling and dimmed lighting is just perfect. The staff are wonderful and, importantly, rarely turned over. The food is plentiful and fresh – if a touch pricey. Go there for a date or a good, long chat.
- BMV, Bloor Street: Dig a hole and bury me here. The BMV sells used books, as well as games and music. For brilliant prices pick up some classic favourites or niche reads. These guys have it all; it’s three stories of actual heaven! It’s a chain, but the Bloor St. store is my home.
I know, I know, you’re thinking ‘I’ve got to get to Toronto NOW!’, but I’ve always promised honesty and, after three years, I think I’m in an impartial place *real journalist vibes*, so here we go…
Oh yeah, it may look all picturesque. Trust me. It’s the fucking worst. Accept no other description of the ice-filled hell that is January to May (yes, I meant to write May!). That’s when shit gets real – you’re broke, the Holidays are over and suddenly it’s -30. If I hadn’t overspent over Christmas and New Years, I’d have fled every year I’ve spent here. It’s the price we pay for those idyllic summers. And yes, I know it’s not as bad as Montreal or Calgary but my Irish ass isn’t made for this nonsense.
But if you must come here in those doomed months, come smart. I’ll do a full post on my Canadian winter essentials but the basics are a decent, arse-covering coat (trust me, keep your bum warm) and boots that aren’t at risk from salt damage – no suede/fabric, if you’re doing leather be sure to clean that shit off once back inside.
Yes that phallic landmark that houses a rotating restaurant is on the bad list. Did you really think a rotating restaurant would be good?!
Ok a lot of tourists like to go to the top for a photo op of the Toronto skyline. But here’s my logic. The Toronto skyline without the CN tower is just any other city. You need the Tower to remind you where you are. You can’t get a real TO skyline photo when you’re up the bloody thing!
Plus it’s like $30 to visit. Ditch it, spend your $30 on beer and find a rooftop overlooking the real skyline instead.
Jesus, you Torontonians love to eat out. Which is great, you support that economy. But it means that from Thursday to Sunday you better know what the fuck you want to eat and plan accordingly, preferably a week in advance. No spontaneous tacos for you, friend!
Tip: OpenTable.com is pretty good if you don’t want to be calling every restaurant in the city.
Toronto loves icecream. If there’s an icecream fad going, you’ll see it here – recognise it from the queues down the street. No joke, this city, which is under icy 50% of the year anyway, will line up in their droves for any kind of charcoal/unicorn/whatever icecream trend that’s going.
Last Autumn, I was walking from one bar to another at about 10.45pm and I see a queue of about fifty people. Amazing, some new bar – I think to myself. So I leave my friend in the line and skip up to get a sneak peep.
It was Sweet Jesus. An icecream joint. AT QUARTER TO ELEVEN AT NIGHT!