People often describe Toronto as a soulless, corporate greyscape, but I think those that complain simply haven’t visited the unique and eclectic tapestry of neighborhoods this city has to offer. Toronto has been ranked as one of the most walkable cities in the world. In addition to being pedestrian-friendly, routes here are densely packed with stores and sights to marvel at. Therefore, strolls in Toronto are not boring but rather an exciting adventure!
Major streets and neighbourhoods
The areas directly surrounding U of T aren’t exactly student friendly. Yorkville, just north of campus, is full of swanky restaurants and designer boutiques. South of campus, the streets are mostly lined with hospitals and office buildings. However, if you wander just a little farther, you will come across the following beautiful, accessible areas with lots to offer.
- The Annex (Distance from Robarts library: 10 minute walk)
The Annex is located right on the northwest side of campus, on Bloor Street West. It’s a great place to grab an affordable lunch or dinner after class. It has a few cheap bookstores with amazing selections — because who can afford Indigo these days? The Annex is also home to the iconic Toronto concert and bar venue Lee’s Palace, a couple of clubbing venues, and the Hot Docs Ted Rogers cinema.
- Chinatown/Kensington Market (Distance from Robarts library: 10 minute walk or five minute streetcar ride)
One of the things that make Toronto special is our incredibly vibrant immigrant community. Spadina’s Chinatown and Kensington Market are neighborhoods that represent this diversity well. A five-minute streetcar ride will take you from campus to these two boroughs, which are full of mom-and-pop stores, art supplies shops, record stores, a plethora of thrift shops, and a variety of global cuisines to try! Also, both neighborhoods are just a few blocks away is the Art Gallery of Ontario.
- Queen Street West (Distance from Robarts library: 20 minute walk or 10 minute subway ride)
Queen Street West is a kilometres-long stretch of fun. Hipster cafes, quirky boutiques, jazz bars, and an overwhelming amount of restaurants line this street. It has quintessentially Toronto charm, home to much of the city’s music and subculture history. Down Queen Street, you’ll also find Trinity Bellwoods Park; here, on any given day, kids are running around the cherry trees, people are reading in the shade, and couples are entwining hands on the bench. It’s a lovely site to relax and take in the beauty of everyday life!
- The Harbourfront (Distance from Robarts library: 30 minute subway ride)
You may not be able to see it from campus, but Toronto has a waterfront. When it’s not freezing cold outside, the Harbourfront area — also known as Queen’s Quay — lines Lake Ontario with a wide boardwalk and many lush parks. In the spring and summer months, the Music Garden is especially pretty, with each section of the garden inspired by a dance movement in Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello.
In my journeys, I’ve also unearthed many lesser-known spots that feel like they give Toronto its personality. I’ve highlighted some of the ones I’ve found below.
Unlike typical antique shops, Abraham’s has a cozy and welcoming feel. The front door is usually propped open for casual onlookers to peep inside. Priceless treasures are displayed casually, such as the shelves of matryoshka dolls and porcelain angels. Abraham — the store’s owner — also frequently leaves his display booth unmanned to fiddle with Coltrane records. As a result, there is a sense of openness that permeates this store; it is a space where everyone is invited to enjoy Abraham’s vintage delights.
Tucked in a hidden corner of the Chinatown Centre, this aptly-titled store has some of the best records in the city. The store carries everything a music nerd could dream of, from rare presses and label merch to records from esoteric genres, such as doom metal and dub techno — in other words, all the goodies that the big chains don’t stock.
With its discreet exterior, this gem is frequently overlooked by casual pedestrians, but, as any local will tell you, do not judge it by its cover. Inside is a gorgeous space I’d describe as designed with wabi-sabi principles, filled to the brim with vintage furniture and tasteful clutter: city-pop vinyls, a rustic guitar, calligraphy scrolls, and plants. The café is also known for its skillfully brewed coffee, made using premium beans from classic cult favourite roasters such as Hatch and Koppi. Although prices lean towards the expensive side, every cup is a truly delightful experience.
Every month, this gallery showcases a well curated assortment of works — usually by Canadian artists — in mediums ranging from sculpture to film to installations. Selected pieces tend to be aesthetically ambitious and politically charged. Therefore, a MOCA experience isn’t about looking at pretty things or taking photos for instagram; it’s designed to challenge the viewer to critically think — and personally, that’s exactly what I want out of art.