Toronto area guide

A comprehensive guide to Canada’s largest city

When Metropolitan Toronto amalgamated its five internal cities into one, it officially dropped the 'Metropolitan' moniker. That was in 1998. Now the whole shebang is simply known as the City of Toronto, or the 'mega-city', and stretches some 32 kilometres (20 miles) across and from the lakeshore to Steeles Avenue in the north.

The population of the central city is 2.6 million and growing by the second. But there's another world on Toronto's doorstep with a population that now exceeds the city's own: the vast expanse of suburbs – Mississauga, Brampton, Richmond Hill, Markham and Pickering, to name a few – strung out on a concrete necklace of freeways and malls. Torontonians dismiss hinterland residents as '905-ers', referring to their telephone area code. Taken together, the city and its 'burbs are now called the GTA, or Greater Toronto Area, which is not a political entity and even less of a unified mindset. The population of the GTA is 5.9 million.

Our guide focuses on the area defined by the original city of Toronto, roughly bounded by Eglinton Avenue on the north side, Victoria Park Avenue to the east, the waterfront and Islington Avenue on the west. Toronto has few defined, named areas; often neighbourhoods are marked by a strip of businesses and named after their main artery – Queen West, the Danforth, Yonge & Eglinton, for example – or their character: Entertainment District, Little Italy and so on.

Toronto is easy to navigate. First, it borders a lake, so if you sense a slight slope downwards, then that's south. Second, it has what used to be the tallest freestanding building (at least until Burj Khalifa was completed), acting as a handy marker near the lakefront, just west of centre. Third, it's built largely on a grid system, with just enough variation to keep it interesting, but not so much that getting lost is easy.

Yonge Street & street numbering
Point zero for east-west street designation and numbering is Yonge Street (pronounced 'Young'), famously if tenuously the longest street in the world. Yonge starts on the central lakefront and heads north – not quite to the North Pole; it veers westward and peters out at the border with Minnesota. So King Street, for example, which runs east-west, is called King Street West to the west of Yonge, and King Street East to the east, with numbers starting from zero at Yonge and running upwards along each arm. (North-south numbering starts at zero at the south end of roads and goes up as the road heads north.)

Bright lights and a big city feel characterise Downtown. Toronto's waterfront is on the up: where once were warehouses, fuel stations and port machinery, now there are shops, cafés, theatres, museums, nature reserves and gardens, with more boardwalks and parks on the way.

The nearby Entertainment District hosts a dense concentration of nightclubs centred on and around Richmond Street West between University Avenue and Spadina Avenue. The Air Canada Centre arena, the thrusting needle of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome) stadium, with its famous retractable roof, form a mighty triumvirate of attractions.

Clustered around Bay Street are the windswept concrete canyons of Toronto's Financial District – an area synonymous with both Canadian monetary power and the dour Presbyterian work ethic that made Toronto such a dull city for so long.

Dundas Square is the heart of downtown but unfortunately this treeless granite park bathed in the neon glare of billboards resembles a bus terminal more than Times Square. Along Dundas Street West and nearby is Toronto's original Chinatown, the heart and soul of Toronto's large and dynamic Chinese community.

A more tranquil time can be had in the University quarter, where the tourist can enjoy the old-fashioned beauty of the University of York's campus. Church & Wellesley is home to the local gay village, or 'the ghetto', as it's most commonly called, while Cabbagetown has risen from its roots as a slum for Irish emigres to become a well-do gentrified suburb.

Though characterised by leafy streets and neighbourhood charm, a place for swanky shopping and park life, Midtown is starting to feel like Downtown in places. As more towers fill empty pockets of land, the high densities of downtown are creeping north.

Despite the plethora of cranes and construction sites, Midtown still has its fair share of picturesque villages. Once rich in hippy heritage, Yorkville is now rich in cash, with glamorous hotels, boutiques and restaurants lining its exclusive streets. The Annex boasts Victorian and Edwardian architecture, plus cafés, pubs and shops geared towards both students and yuppies.

Further north, there's the exclusive Forest Hill, with its centre tidily concentrated around neat florists, prim boutiques, coffee shops and greengrocers along upper Spadina (note that it's Spadina Road up here, not Avenue). Rosedale's secretive, spiralling crescents still confound the map-wielding visitor, but this ravine-lined, tree-filled enclave for the privileged is worth seeking out: it's one of Toronto's most beautiful neighbourhoods.

West End
The East arguably has better beaches, plus the bluffs and the Danforth. The West End has plenty of parks, shopping and sights, but best of all its neighbourhoods are ideal for charting out the city's kaleidoscopic cultural diversity. Of the 80 or so different communities in the city, many settled in the expanse west of Bathurst Street stretching to the Humber River.

The trend factor tilts in the West End's favour too, though this would be contested by some east-side dwellers. Pockets of bohemia arise spontaneously amid the vintage storefronts and industrial warehouse spaces. The West End also harbours the artery of the Toronto art scene: West Queen West; plus boasting the centre of Toronto's lively Italian population and the Portuguese village.

North Toronto
Mansion-lined gardens, cemeteries and several interesting museums are the reward for visitors who go north. It's a chance to get away from it all without leaving town. All that space, though, means distances are spread out, and while transit services do exist, you might want to consider renting a bike or a car for destinations off the subway line.

East Toronto
The Don Valley cuts through the heart of Toronto, and its wide green gap is more than a geographical division: it separates a mentality. Head east across the graceful five-arch span of the Bloor Viaduct (Prince Edward Viaduct on the map, but nobody calls it that), and you leave downtown behind and enter a world of old-fashioned, small-town neighbourhoods – quiet streets canopied by lines of trees, sprawling parks, mom-and-pop cornerstores – and some of the best skyline views in the city. East Toronto is also home to a large Greektown and Little India, as well as the most accessible stretch of city shoreline along Lake Ontario in the Beach neighbourhood.

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