I returned from Toronto with two things; a case overflowing with vintage treasures and a stream of handwritten lists. Every person that we asked for advice, from our hotel concierge to a stranger to on the street, was more generous with their time and recommendations than I have ever encountered, scrawling their favourite places and hidden gems onto scraps of paper and pressing them into our hands.
We worked our way through as much of the lists as our time allowed, mixing and matching the local suggestions with our own chance discoveries to see as much of the city as we could. Looking back on what we experienced, below is how I would design my own list;
Where to stay? | The Ivy at Verity
The Ivy at Verity boutique hotel on Queen Street East is one of the most luxurious and visually pleasing hotels I have ever had the opportunity to stay in. Located in a former chocolate factory, each of the four suites is uniquely designed and a perfect mixture of classic luxury (gold leaf chandeliers, fresh flowers, Italian linens, marble bathrooms, honour bar, private terrace) and modern convenience (full spa, computer tablets, high speed wifi, curved screen televisions with complimentary Netflix).
Prior to booking The Ivy, those in the know repeatedly recommended The Drake, a quirkily designed downtown hotel on Queen Street West. While The Ivy was a better fit for us (a spa will always trump a nightclub in my eyes) the Drake is an amazing place for drinks and would be an ideal option for anyone seeking a faster pace of stay in what Vogue calls the second coolest neighbourhood in the world.
When to go? | Nuit Blanche
Nuit Blanche is a sunset to sunrise cultural arts festival inspired by Jean Blaise and Les Allumeés. For one night a year in early October, the city of Toronto becomes a monumental, moonlit gallery filled with art installations, exhibitions, performances and social gatherings. In 2015 I was one of the estimated one million people marching merrily along the streets, attempting to take it all in. Nuit Blanche is so vast and the art so subjective that no two people will ever have the same experience but my personal highlights from that night included the Jessica Gorlicky installation at the Twist Gallery, the 10 For The 10th exhibition curated by Che Kothari and Tania Bruguera’s ‘Untitled’ (since titled ‘Referendum’) interactive performance that asked viewers to vote yes or no to abolishing national borders. For those who can be flexible with their travel plans, timing the trip to coincide with Nuit Blanche will ensure that you see Toronto’s famously creative heart at it’s most spectacular.
Once a derelict collection of industrial Victorian buildings, The Distillery is a luxuriously quirky village of its own within the city. While there are plenty of boutiques within lanes, I didn’t find them to be particularly interesting. The pull of this area for me, aside from the architecture, lies within the food. Highlights of our trip included the tasting menu with paired Margaritas in the garden at El Catrin, hot chocolate and truffles at Soma Chocolate Maker and the stunning small plates at Cluny Bisto, all found within The Distillery.
Queen Street West
This neighbourhood quite possible holds the highest concentration of hipster aesthetic that I have ever seen. I am obsessed with it. The area is home to the Museum Of Contemporary Art, the visually dazzling Graffiti Alley, as well as Toronto’s Soho House. Restaurants, coffee shops, bars and boutiques line the street, an artful mix of new ideas and old, ramshackle glamour.
The hipster vibe continues on Ossington Avenue, an artery of pop up shops, farmers markets, custom cocktails, artist studios and a charming tangle of contradictions. The elegant and expensive restaurant BÖEHMER hosts a dog friendly supper club. Southern eatery Omaw effortlessly combines both comfort food and hard edged style. Every flavour, from Korean kimchi at OddSeoul to retro inspired ice-cream sandwiches at Bang Bang, can be found here.
This is by far my favourite neighbourhood for vintage shopping and the carnival coloured storefronts can’t fail to raise a smile. The spirit here is bohemian, appearing as culturally diverse as it does close knit. Anything with ‘market’ in the titles all too often signifies a holding pen for pointless souvenirs and mass produced nonsense but Kensington is the real deal, servicing the local community with essentials as well as eccentricities. Start with a home roasted espresso at Ideal Coffee and spend the afternoon exploring.
King Street West
This area is far less quirky than the others with two notable exceptions; Her Majesty’s Pleasure and WVURST. HMP is an award winning boutique, spa and cocktail bar open everyday, with a 10pm closing time Wednesday – Saturday. The extended opening hours make it the perfect place for a quick blow dry and a glass of champagne before heading straight out and it is a permanent fixture for those in the know. Far less fancy but equally intriguing is WVURST, a craft beer and cider hall with high ceilings and artisan sausage based menu. If a classic German Beer Hall were crossed with Meat Liquor and filled with Canadians, it might look something like WVURST. Tables are communal and, despite the casual atmosphere, the high attention to detail is plain to see.