From June 20-29, Toronto is host to World Pride 2014, one of the top LGBT celebrations in the world. If you’re traveling to Canada’s largest city for the event—or for any reason, really—you’re in luck: It has it all—arts and entertainment, culture and commerce, fashion, cuisine and a vibrant gay 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.
Below, we swing through some of Toronto’s hottest neighborhoods, with a special focus on the the Gay Village and Queen Street West, Toronto’s up-and-coming hipster mecca.
1. Check Into The Drake Hotel
West Queen West’s crown jewel, this magnificently restored boutique hotel has 19 eclectic rooms from inexpensive “crash pads” to more deluxe accommodations.
But the Drake isn’t just a great place to sleep: It’s a hotbed of creativity, with regular art exhibits, markets and community events.
The building also boasts a stellar restaurant, the rooftop Sky Yard and the Drake Underground, a notable performance venue that’s hosted Grizzly Bear, Beck and La Roux.
2. Shop In Queen West
Chock full of galleries, coffee shops and vintage stores, Queen West is known as the city’s 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 vintage bookstore that’s also the perfect spot for a rom-com-style meet-cute.
3. Order A Nightcap At The Melody Bar
Nightlife in Toronto runs the gamut from clubs and dive bars to live music venues. For our money, though, it doesn’t get better than drinking late into the night at the Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar.
The Gladstone was one of the first cool spots to gentrify West Queen West: The lovingly restored hotel features 37 differently themed rooms where the party never ends. (To wit: each room comes with a set of earplugs.)
The Melody Bar boasts award-wining bartenders, a legendary Saturday karaoke night and an artsy but welcoming décor.
4. Tour the Gay Village
Church and Wellesley is Toronto’s LGBT enclave, roughly bordered by Gerrard Street to the south, Yonge Street to the west, Charles Street to the north, and Jarvis Street to the east. The main commercial drag (pun intended) is along Church Street from Wellesley to Alexander.
The streets in this historic neighborhood are lined with an assortment of gay-owned-and-operated restaurants, stores and bars like Woody’s, Pegasus and Zipperz/Cellblock. If the area looks familiar, that’s because the American version of Queer As Folk filmed here.
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!
5. Walk Outside The CN Tower
Burj Dubai is currently the world’s tallest skyscraper, but this 147-story highrise still offers stunning views of Toronto. If you’ve got a brave spirit, sign up for EdgeWalk, a tethered stroll outside the circumference of the Tower’s roof.
6. Buy A Book At Glad Day
Billed as the world’s oldest operating LBGT bookstore, Glad Day Book Shop might also be the world’s best: Up a long flight of stairs, the cozy shop boasts an impressive collection, from queer classics to modern gay YA. Though gay bookstores around the world are facing an economic crunch, a consortium of concerned patrons banded together to buy Glad Day and have kept it running in style into its fifth decade.
For lunch in the Ossington Strip, we opted for Cubano food at Delux, where the empanadas were divine. 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.
Another great option is The Black Hoof, where it’s all about the charcuterie platter and, for the more adventurous, the bone marrow or sweetbreads.
8. Visit 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.
9. Get Artsy At AGO
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 are consistently top-notch—we enjoyed a 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.
The building is a wonder in and of itself: The 2008 Frank Gehry-led renovation features a Douglas-fir-and-glass wrap around the facade, and an 11-story sculptural “Baroque Stair” that connects the museum’s two buildings.