Toronto has it all: arts and entertainment, culture and commerce, fashion and cuisine. Canada’s hub of business is also its largest city, with a population (2.5 million, while the Greater Toronto Area is more than twice that) that would be the envy of any major metropolis. It’s no wonder this increasingly popular destination has more current construction projects than any other city in the world. As more people flock to the city on Lake Ontario, its already impressive diversity has only grown.
And what’s true of Toronto as a whole is doubly so when it comes to its vibrant LGBT community. This nexus of queer Canadian culture and history is the place to be, not only for the hometown gays but for the millions of visitors who flock here annually.
We swung through some of Toronto’s hottest neighborhoods, with a special focus on the West Queen Street West and the Gay Village. West Queen West (or just Queen West) is Toronto’s hipster mecca, trendy and upcoming yet still somewhat seedy, with an impressive mix of shops and galleries. Here are the highlights:
1. The Drake Hotel
Queen West’s crown jewel, this magnificently restored boutique hotel has nineteen eclectic rooms from cheapo “crash pads” on up. But The Drake isn’t just a great place to sleep: the building also boasts a stellar restaurant; the Sky Yard, the hotel’s year-round rooftop patio; and the Drake Underground, a notable performance venue featuring bands and DJs– past acts include Grizzly Bear, Beck and La Roux.
2. Queen West Shopping
Queen West is chock-a-block with coffee shops, thrift shops and galleries. It’s known as the Art and Design District, and you won’t escape its clutches without at least a few shopping bags in hand. For design aficionados who want a carefully curated experience, INabstracto is a must, as is VERSO, its store-within-a-store, while BYOB Cocktail Emporium features a mind-blowing array of alcohol-related accessories.
As for clothing, we loved Philistine for both new and vintage items, as well as Oliver Spencer and The Future of Frances Watson. If you’re in the mood for literary fare, stop into The River Trading Company down the street– it’s an impressive used bookstore made for an old-school romantic comedy meet cute.
3. The Melody Bar at the Gladstone
Nightlife in Toronto runs the gamut from clubs to dive bars to live music venues — spanning the geographical breadth of the city. For our money, though, you won’t have more fun than drinking late into the night at the Melody Bar at the Gladstone Hotel. The Gladstone was one of the first outposts of hipsterdom on the West Side of the city; the lovingly-restored hotel on West Queen West features 37 differently themed rooms where the party never ends. (Don’t believe me? Each room also comes with earplugs.) The Melody Bar boasts award-wining bartenders, a legendary Saturday karaoke night (11 years running), and a comfy, cool, artsy décor that welcomes all.
4. Tour the Gay Village
We had the privilege of touring the Church-Wellesley Village with Liz Devine of Rainbow Travel, who showed us the ins and outs of this historic neighborhood. The streets are lined with an assortment of LGBT-owned and operated bars, restaurants, and stores (many of the facades of which you might recognize from the American version of Queer As Folk, which filmed here). The Village is peppered with noteworthy attractions as well– check out the Alexander Wood statue dedicated to the city’s queer pioneer, as well as the AIDS memorial, first dedicated in 1993.
5. The 519 Center
The 519 Church Street Community Centre is the beating heart of the Village. With dozens of programs aimed at the complete extent of LGBT life– meet-ups for teens, seniors and everyone in between, queer parenting resources, 12-step programs, support groups, various arts and entertainment options– there’s something for everyone at the center. They even run the Fabernak, a full-scale restaurant that also serves as a training ground for employees (queer and otherwise) to gain both work experience and on-the-job training. If only every city had a 519 Center!
6. Glad Day Book Shop
Billed as the world’s oldest LBGT bookstore, the Glad Day Book Shop might also be the world’s best. Up a long flight of stairs, the small shop boasts an impressive collection, from queer classics to modern gay YA. Though in recent years the store was threatened with closure, a consortium of concerned patrons banded together to buy the store and have kept it running in style. More than 40 years since it first opened, the shop still manages to proudly chug along.
7. Places to Eat
There’s no more shame in Toronto’s game, as the city has truly become a dining destination in recent years for foodies of all stripes. For lunch in the Ossington Strip, we opted for Cubano food at Delux, where the empanadas were particularly delicious. For dinner, try Sassafraz in Yorkville. This old favorite didn’t disappoint, serving elegant and savory seasonal fare that left us wanting everything on the menu. But the hottest restaurant in town is The Black Hoof, where it’s all about the charcuterie platter and, for the more adventurous, the bone marrow or the sweetbreads.
8. Kensington Market
Kensington Market and its surrounding area charm both tourists and locals with a full range of epicurean and aesthetic delights. Tucked in behind a sprawling Chinatown in the center of the city, Kensington makes for a great side trip, post dim sum (try Lai Wah Heen on Chestnut). The neighborhood was formerly the epicenter of Jewish culture, but today it’s a perfect reflection of the many cultures that make up the melting pot that is Toronto, with over 30 different cultures living shoulder-to-shoulder there. So many little hidden gems await: Cheese Magic, My Market Bakery, Chocolate Addict, House of Spice, and Sanagan’s Meat Locker, just to name a few. Go on Sundays when several streets are blocked off to traffic; in good weather, stores move their wares out front alongside curated cultural events and installations.
A visit to Toronto is not complete without spending a few hours at the Art Gallery of Ontario, known locally as the AGO. Beyond the extensive collection of Canadian art, works in the permanent collection span from the Renaissance to today — plus the Thomson Family’s incredible Ship Model Collection. The exhibits at the museum are consistently top-notch; we enjoyed a loving Frida Kahlo retrospective when we were there, as well as the wonderfully spare works of local sculptor Michael Snow. There are also extensive children’s programs at the AGO down on the basement level.
It should also be said that the building is a wonder in and of itself. The 2008 Frank Gehry-led renovation features a Douglas-Fir-and-glass exoskeletal wrapping on the front of the building, and an 11-story sculptural “Baroque Stair” that connects the museum’s two buildings. Gehry described the narrow, winding staircase as “the kind of place you might meet your future wife.” If that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for…