While the GTA stretches from Burlington in the southwest to Brock in the northeast, you won’t find much need to venture too often or too far from Downtown and the West End on a Toronto vacation unless you’re in town for a week or more. The best places to stay in Toronto tend to be clustered Downtown. Dividing city streets into east and west, Yonge Street—the world’s longest street, at 1,178 miles long—makes almost as good an orientation point as the iconic 1,815 foot-high CN Tower. If you’ve lost your bearings and find yourself on a street with a slight downward slope, you’re probably heading south toward Lake Ontario. With more than 240 distinct neighborhoods within its boundaries, Toronto is a city very definitely defined by its diverse pockets. The city owes its appealing patchwork of unique neighborhoods to patterns of immigration, and exploring Downtown districts is one of the most enjoyable things to do in the city. Many neighborhoods overlap or blend into one another—such as the blurry boundaries between Little Italy and Little Portugal where both flags fly for blocks. To complicate things further, you’ll find a lot of neighborhoods with a couple of aliases—such as the Art and Design District, which locals refer to as Queen West or, in parts, West Queen West.
The hip West End—roughly west of Spadina, east of Roncesvalles and south of Bloor—is home to an eclectic array of neighborhoods, funky Kensington Market; Chinatown; Little Italy; Little Portugal; Koreatown; former warehouse district Liberty Village; Polish Roncesvalles; the University-adjacent Annex; and West Queen West. The center of the country’s alternative arts scene for more than 20 years, West Queen West gets more intriguing with each block. Galleries from edgy alternative dens to prestigious photo and modern art meccas jostle for your attention in the blocks between Bathurst and Dufferin, alongside quirky cafés and boutiques, a slew of interesting eateries, excellent bars, and even a couple of art hotels. Tons of the best places to drink in Toronto are found here, along with many top Toronto restaurants. You’ll find even edgier galleries and some of the city’s most achingly hip bars west of Dufferin, but you’ll also find it’s still pretty gritty and, at times, grimy on this side of the railway bridge as WQW runs into Parkdale, an area of low-income housing that’s also home to the city’s Little Tibet.
Just to confuse people, “Downtown” is used to describe both the non-suburban core of Toronto and the clutch of districts in the absolute heart of the city. Boundaries are blurry, but if you’re meeting someone “Downtown,” you can be pretty certain that it will be south of Bloor and between Bathurst in the west and Jarvis in the east. Within these blocks you’ll find the club-laden Entertainment District—home to some of the best nightlife in Toronto, the (manufacturing rather than retail) Fashion District and fashionable King Street West, the high-rises of the Financial District, the shopping of Downtown’s Yonge and Queen West, the gay and lesbian village Church Wellesley, the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, charming Cabbagetown, faded Old Town and the resurgent Distillery Historic District.
East Toronto hasn’t changed as much as the rest of Toronto’s downtown core and is mostly solid residential districts. Areas worth exploring include Danforth Avenue between Broadview and Jones—North America’s largest Greek neighborhood, North America’s largest South Asian marketplace at Gerrard India Bazaar, and the gentrified Leslieville with its bistros and boutiques. Leslieville’s is a more mature take on revitalization and the strip along Queen Street is more the scene for an excellent dinner and a cocktail, rather than for raucous revelry. The other must-see in the east is The Beach—as the residential Victorian/Edwardian neighborhood hemming Toronto’s strip of eastern beaches is known. The boardwalk along Woodbine, Kew and Balmy beaches is thronged on sunny days.
Affluent Midtown is a culturally diverse and elegant cluster of neighborhoods, including moneyed Rosedale, Yorkville, Summerhill, Davisville and Forest Hill. Other than to stock up on haute couture or to scan for visiting celebrities during Toronto International Film Festival, there aren’t too many reasons to venture up here, but Yorkville’s upscale shopping streets make for an interesting amble and many top Toronto hotels are in Yorkville. Yorkville stretches north from Bloor Street, home to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Bata Shoe Museum. A cluster of young professionals lives at “Yonge and Eg,” the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton.
Toronto Islands and the Waterfront
Downtown’s Waterfront has become increasingly popular in the last couple of years and is one of the top Toronto attractions. Excellent events programming at the Harbourfront Centre and regeneration of docks and parkland have made this an area that locals, as well as visitors, now view as more than simply the inconvenient stretch between the CN Tower, Rogers Centre and the ferry to the islands. Just a few hundred feet offshore, the tiny, interconnected Toronto Islands offer trails, picnic sites, some lovely swimming beaches—including a clothing-optional one—and even an amusement park. Visiting the islands is one of the best Toronto things to do.