Explore Toronto like a local
I have a special love story with Toronto because it’s where our actual love story started.
We discovered the city separately and together for 3 years and discovered hidden gems, unique places and experienced the popular tourist spots from a local’s perspective.
We’ve put all our insider tips into this guide to give you the best information how to discover Toronto like a local yourself.
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How to get around Toronto
First things first, how to get around Toronto?
There are three subway lines today with extensions and another line planned to be operational in 2023. It’s a quick and simple way to get around. Just buy single tickets, tokens or passes at any station.
Tokens are tiny little coins that look like currency. You can use them to pay for a ride on the subway, streetcar or bus. When buying tokens you can get single ones or multiples, they’re cheaper when you buy more. You can get them at any subway station and have to use one token every time you hop on. The good thing of switching between streetcar or bus is that you can ask for a transfer the first time. Then you can use it for your continuous journey for up to 2 hours.
You can get different passes from multiple days to weeks to months. There’s machines for that at any subway station and you can pay either cash or by card.
If you don’t want to buy tokens or passes pay cash every time you get on the streetcar or bus. But if you take public transit a lot it’ll work out cheaper if you buy tokens or passes.
It’s helpful to know that Toronto is divided into east and west by Yonge Street. A map of the city looks like a grid so it’s pretty easy to get around.
How to not stand out like a tourist
Now that you know how to get around Toronto let us tell you where to actually go.
There is so much to see and do in the city that you could easily spend weeks and months there. Or, you know, just move and live there already.
If you want to discover Toronto like a local there are a few simple rules:
- Don’t pronounce it Toron-T-o! Nobody living in Toronto pronounces the second T, it’s Torono!
- Avoid the tourist spots. That means the CN Tower, most of downtown, Casa Loma, sightseeing hop-on-hop-off buses, the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum)…pretty much anything included in the Toronto City Pass.
Depending on how much time you have in Toronto you can do so much cool and amazing stuff.
St Lawrence Market and the Toronto Islands
A great place to escape the tourists is to go to St Lawrence market. Pick up some delicious antipasti, cheese, wine or beer and freshly baked bread. Then head to the ferry terminal and catch one to the Toronto Islands.
There are no cars on the islands but you can walk, take a bike or rent one to get around. Find a spot for a picnic and spend your day soaking in the sun, swimming in Lake Ontario or renting a canoe.
If you don’t want to head out to the islands but still want to spend time outside you should go to The Beaches, a neighborhood in the east of Toronto. It’s hip, it’s cool, and you feel like you’re in the Caribbean.
For a smaller and less crowded beach go to the west end to Sunnyside Beach. It’s close to High Park and Trinity Bellwoods Park which, in the summer, are packed with locals having picnics and hanging out after work.
The west end
The west end of Toronto from Spadina Avenue to Roncesvalles Avenue is a great area to walk down Queen Street. It has lots of cool shops, bars and restaurants. There’s an Anthropology store inside a converted church, a coffee shop that also has a tattoo parlor and a spot called Cocktail Emporium which sells anything you possibly need to throw a good party.
Toronto has some great neighborhoods and they all have their distinct identity.
In Chinatown you can find butcher shops with whole pig heads in the window.
Every restaurant in Little Italy shows soccer games.
In Yorkville you’ll find all the big and fancy names like Gucci, Louis Vuitton etc.
Events in Toronto
There’s always something going on in Toronto no matter what time of year you visit.
In spring and summer get outside and enjoy the beaches, parks and islands. Indulge in the best ice cream at Ed’s Real Scoop. They make their own ice cream cones in house and roll them so they’re still warm when they put in the ice cream.
Yonge-Dundas Square always has entertainment going on, especially during Nuit Blanche, an art exhibition which transforms the entire city. It’s free and you can just wander the city and enjoy the art work.
If you’re visiting Toronto in the summer and love fairs head to the Canadian National Exhibition, or CNE or The Ex, for rides, games and deep fried Oreos. You can try your luck riding a bull, too, but we recommend not doing that after having those delicious Oreos.
If you think visiting Toronto in the winter is a stupid decision because it’s freezing you’re dead wrong. Well, not about the freezing part. It does easily go below -20 degrees Celsius, especially in February and March, but there is also a lot of really cool stuff happening during the winter.
If you’re a fan of Christmas markets (and being 50% German in this couple we are) head to the Distillery District and enjoy mulled wine, Bratwurst and beautiful Christmas decorations. They also have amazing craft brewing places like Mill Street Brew Pub and small artisanal stores for antiques, clothing or hand-made jewelry. Those are open year round and definitely worth checking out even if you’re not going over Christmas time.
Staying with Christmas and the whole festive season you should check out Nathan Philips Square for the yearly tree lighting ceremony in front of City Hall. Every year the Christmas season starts off by lighting the massive tree on Nathan Philips Square, and all other lights in the city follow. During New Year’s Eve they also have concerts in front of City Hall and pretty spectacular fireworks. Plus the square itself turns into a huge ice rink in the winter and you can rent skates or bring your own.
Tourists spots in Toronto, like a local
If you do want to see some sights like the CN Tower (it is after all the tallest man-made structure in the northern hemisphere), go just before it closes so it’s not too crowded. Going later in the day/evening also means you get to see the sunset from the tallest building in the city and that’s just plain cool.
While you’re checking off some sights anyway you might also enjoy the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). They have some pretty cool exhibits and if you’re into dinosaurs you can check out their permanent exhibition Age of Dinosaurs. There’s also some temporary exhibitions you can visit so look at their website to see if there’s something for you.
For those who’d love to see a Gothic Revival mansion from 1914 you should definitely put Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House) on your list.
Again, it’s one of those tourist places that is included in the Toronto City Pass but if you know when and how to avoid the ordinary masses it becomes a unique experience.
There is always some sort of event going on at Casa Loma like concerts, art shows or orchestras. You only have access with a ticket, which are limited, which means you pretty much have the mansion and garden to yourself and get to see some really cool event not everybody knows about.
We went to see an orchestra during the summer and it was the ultimate VIP feeling walking around the mansion and listening to beautiful music with only a few dozen others.
Dance the night away Toronto-style
Toronto has some really cool bars and nightclubs plus lots of open-air concerts or music festivals in the summer.
Try The Drake Hotel on Queen Street West for yummy cocktails and good music; they also have a rooftop terrace which is great in the summer.
Music festivals are a thing in Toronto, from over-in-a-day ones to full weekend shenanigans.
Check out Dreams if you’re into electronic and dance music, it’s every summer for 2 days on Echo Beach. Or try VELD at Downsview Park.
Another great festival is North by Northeast which mainly focuses on music but also offers other cool stuff like a film and comedy festival, video games and art exhibitions.
Where to eat in Toronto - local's favourite spots
Your best bet is to stay away from pretty much any place downtown and head east, west or north for the best food and drinks.
To start off your day go to School. It’s just off King Street West and you can indulge in sweet, savory or greasy breakfast. Anything on their menu is delicious.
Try Kotta Japanese on King Street West for delicious sushi, especially their crispy Philadelphia roll.
And don’t miss out on nachos at Sneaky Dee’s, a cool place by Bathurst at College.
When you tell people you visited Toronto they will ask you if you tried poutine. Answer that with a heart-felt yes! after trying the best one at Poutini’s House of Poutine on Queen Street West.
If you’re into hot dogs (and even if you’re not) you should head to WVRST on King Street West. They make delicious gourmet hot dogs and insanely good duck fat fries, complemented by a large craft beer selection.
For more great drinks try either The Drake Hotel, The Gladstone or Sangria Lounge. They’re all in the west end on Queen Street West or just off Queen on Roncesvalles Avenue. You’ll get a cool atmosphere and laid back vibe at The Drake and The Gladstone. If you’re opting for sangria make sure to add a shot of grand Marnier (thank us later).
Food & Liquor is a great insider tip if you want good drinks, food and a relaxing evening with friends.
Of course there’s not only places for food and drinks but also for any kind of sweet your heart desires.
Huge, home-made and delicious doughnuts at Glory Hole Doughnuts on Queen Street West, for example. Home-made ice cream in freshly baked and rolled waffle cones at Ed’s Real Scoop on Roncesvalles Avenue. Yummy cupcakes and cookies at Yummy Stuff Bakery or sweet and savory crepes at Café Crepe, both on Queen West.
Niagara Falls day trip from Toronto
Take the Greyhound or Megabus to go on a day trip to Niagara Falls. The bus terminal for all long haul buses is close to Yonge-Dundas Square and you can easily buy the tickets online or at the bus station. While you’re waiting for the bus try your luck at Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake; they’re insanely good but the line is also always insanely long so be there early.
Hi, I’m Nadine
Part-time traveler with full-time wanderlust.
I explore the world one weekend and one vacation at a time and share my experiences, travel and photography tips, and food recs on this blog.
I believe the answer to (almost) any question is traveling.
Have you tried it?
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