Toronto is truly a superlative city, with its enviable location on the edge of Lake Ontario, dozens of vibrant neighborhoods studded with pocket parks, sky-scraping luxury hotels, massive museums, and globe-trotting cuisine.
As Canada’s largest and most diverse city, Toronto is the epicenter of cutting-edge cool and a convergence of cultures where more than 150 languages can be heard spoken on its streets. Spring is an ideal time to discover the essence of this down-to-earth destination. This guide is all you need to soak up the city’s energetic vibe on a spring weekend getaway.
ICONS TO DISCOVER
Distillery District: Get immersed in the mashup of Victorian industrial architecture and 21st-century design in Toronto’s Distillery District. There’s an aura of Europe at this National Historic Site, whose modern renaissance was realized by entrepreneurs and creative thinkers. Forty brick buildings (formerly the world’s largest whiskey distillery) are central to this arts, culture, and entertainment destination. Among the lanes you can take in a performance at Soulpepper Theatre Company and browse contemporary art at Corkin Gallery, among other venues. Be sure to make a pit stop at SOMA Chocolatemaker to taste its micro-batch chocolates such as Stratus made with ice wine lees.
Chinatown: Toronto’s Old Chinatown — one of North America’s largest — radiates from the heart of downtown. Plump roasted ducks are displayed in shop windows and street-front stalls overflow with Asian produce, herbs, and more. Taste tradition at old-school eateries like Mother’s Dumplings where delectable pork-filled packages are handmade daily. At R&D, it’s all about modern Asian fare. Menu items range from stir-fried beef spring rolls with smoked mozzarella cheese to crispy tofu spiced with Sichuan peppercorns and Thai chilis.
St. Lawrence Market: More than 200 years of history form the foundation for St. Lawrence Market, previously ranked as the world’s best food market by National Geographic, edging out Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. All your senses will be satisfied at this Old Town’s trio of buildings that include a gallery and gourmet food market with 120-plus specialty vendors. Activity amps up on the weekends, with the Saturday farmers’ market, a crowd-pleasing tradition that dates back to 1903, while Sundays draw treasure hunters to the 80 antique dealers.
Trinity Bellwoods Park: Urban green space Trinity Bellwoods Park is a living room for locals who come for a little chill time amid groves of trees and grassy meadows. Bordered by the trendy communities of Queen Street West (which Vogue named the second-coolest ’hood on the globe when it comes to street style) and Dundas West, it offers both respite from Toronto’s non-stop action and a chance to chat with Ontario’s farmers and food producers who set up shop here when market season starts up in spring.
High Park: Heavenly High Park becomes transcendent in spring when cherry blossoms form soft shadows against the sky. A network of trails (some of the city’s longest) crisscross this 400-acre urban oasis where you can hike and cycle, passing a pond and streams, and glimpse into Toronto’s history at Colborne Lodge, an 1836 home that’s now a museum.
The Toronto Islands: Get a lungful of fresh air during the 13-minute ferry ride across Lake Ontario. After hopping aboard from downtown, you’ll arrive at a string of small islands stitched together by pathways and bridges — collectively called Toronto Islands or Toronto Island Park — that beg exploring. Indigenous people used this natural sandspit for fishing, hunting, and spiritual purposes. Today, it’s a car-free haven where you can stand-up paddle board on the calm lagoons off Algonquin Bridge, stroll sand dunes at Hanlan’s Point, discover Canada’s oldest standing lighthouse at Gibraltar Point, and gaze at Toronto’s amazing cityscape from a quiet spot on Ward’s Island.
Laissez Faire: The relaxed atmosphere and approachable menu at Laissez Faire in the King West neighborhood are fitting for this new French-inspired bistro whose name translates to “let it be.” Chef Zachary Barnes, who has worked at celebrated establishments such as Daniel in New York City, elevates simple ingredients in superb dishes. Standouts include veg-friendly beetroot tartare with horseradish crème fraîche, and unctuous pork belly paired with sherry gastrique.
The Annex Food Hall: A fresh take on dining has unfolded at The Annex Food Hall where a mix of Toronto’s best bites are tucked under one roof. Dive into big bowls of greens at vegan-friendly Urban Herbivore, bite into delicate steamed-bun sandwiches at Mean Bao, and indulge in authentic Mexican food at El Nahual Tacos, which sources its ingredients from Kensington Market.
TORA: Purity, precision, and a reverence for history are inherent in the art of making sushi, but TORA is pushing the Japanese dining experience firmly into the future. Canada’s first TORA by Aburi Restaurants, which specializes in aburi (flame-seared) sushi, provides guests with touch-screen menus (they’re all the rage in Japan) that enable plates to be delivered directly from the chef to your seat via a sophisticated system of conveyor belts.
Chotto Matte: The Japanese diaspora to Peru has given birth to an exciting new cuisine called Nikkei. Chotto Matte, a brand with restaurants in London and Miami, has transported this fusion of flavors and cultures to Toronto’s Brookfield Place — its first foray into Canada. Small-plate sharing menus let you try twists on traditional tastes: ebi tempura with Peruvian chilli, and Nikkei robata barbecue, where chicken is prepared with miso, daikon radish, and yellow chilli salsa.
Left Field Brewery: Baseball meets beer at Left Field Brewery in Leslieville, where the owners’ playful brews can be tasted in the dog-friendly taproom. All bases are covered from sweet to sour with inventive offerings such as the Sweet Spot, a mocha-marshmallow stout, and Sunlight Park, a seasonal offering that’s on tap in spring. This grapefruit saison was named for the city’s first professional baseball stadium, an all-wooden structure built in 1886.
Halo Brewery: Fruit, spices, and other novel ingredients are what make Halo Brewery’s beers tasty and unique. Callum Hay, owner and head brewer, started off as a software engineer before taking his basement-brewing operation to Junction Triangle. Sample his alchemy in beers like Impossible Geometrics, a hoppy IPA complemented by aromas of orange, pineapple, and blueberry.
Radical Road Brewing Company: Queen Street East’s Radical Road Brewing Company is quietly starting a revolution with its seasonal specials of small-batch beers. Yuzu, for instance, trips to the Pacific Northwest for its tangy West Coast hops. Then it detours to Japan for the pale ale’s signature citrus flavors. Usher in spring with the refreshing Cucumber Mint Kolsch, and pair it with a Jerk Pork sandwich or pretzel from the extensive food menu.
Biergärten: Steam Whistle has been quenching Canadians’ thirst for premium pilsner since the Toronto-based brewery opened in 1998. Now it’s taking inspiration from Munich’s traditional bier gartens and bier halls for its newest venture, Biergärten. Rest assured, although Steam Whistle is emulating those Bavarian beer-hall vibes, it remains dedicated to its roots of making refreshing brews with only four ingredients: pure spring water, malted barley, hops, and yeast.
Saulter Street Brewery: Big red barn doors beckon you to enter Saulter Street Brewery in Riverside. Its “cheers to now” motto encourages you to forget other distractions and simply sit and sip. New brews are crafted on a weekly basis, like Paradise Found and Magic Hour Golden Ale, so there’s always a reason to stop in to taste what’s on tap.
Rorschach Brewing Co.: At Rorschach Brewing Co. there’s a mind-bending variety of beer on tap , which are listed on the menu with psychological descriptors like “positive reinforcement.” You’re sure to find something to tempt your palate and match your state of mind. For “reminiscence,” they recommend the Mexican lager. It’s brewed with a touch of corn, giving it a slight tortilla taste that might take you back to carefree days imbibing and eating at beachside taco stands. Another way to explore the nuances of Rorschach’s suds? Go to this Leslieville brewery’s monthly beer and cheese pairing nights.
Toronto Designers Market: Small businesses are a big deal in Toronto Designers Market, a showcase of some 40 local companies situated in the vibrant Parkdale neighborhood. Shop for luxurious and sustainably-crafted candles at Andie & Co., eco-friendly bamboo sunglasses at Amevie, and handmade (in Toronto) bowties, pocket squares, and other accessories at Vivid. In spring, the weekend pop-up market adds to the excitement with additional vendors setting up shop on the patio.
Scout: Charm oozes from Scout, a gift shop brimming with treasures made by independent artisans from Canada and beyond. Make your way to Roncesvalles Village (Toronto’s “Little Poland”) to browse original items like pretty pendants by Lisbeth Jewelry, handmade ceramics by Jenny Rijke, and Dot + Lil’s heady perfume oil.
Drake General Store: Canadiana gets the cool treatment at Drake General Store. Located in the the artsy Drake Hotel on Queen Street West, it’s a chic outpost piled with products from home-grown designers and artists. Modern meets whimsical at this boutique that blurs the lines between museum and general store. Find socks decorated with Mounties on horseback, cozy knit caps bearing the maple leaf, and lightweight cotton throw blankets you can press into service when picnicking in one of Toronto’s pocket parks.
Coal Miner’s Daughter: At Coal Miner’s Daughter, co-owners Janine Haller and Krysten Caddy show their staunch support for Canadian-designed clothing and accessories. Their three Toronto boutiques (named for Caddy’s grandmother — a coal miner’s daughter) proudly stock jumpsuits, tees, strappy sandals, and jewelry from locally-born brands such as Crywolf, Fitzy Design, and Willmore, among others.
October’s Very Own (OVO): Toronto-born rapper Drake and Oliver El-Khatib are the design-savvy partners behind the streetwear empire better known as OVO. Men and women can stock up on affordable essentials at the Dundas Street and Yorkdale flagship stores. What’s hot? Hoodies, track pants, and T-shirts decked with the brand’s signature owl logo. Along with those basics in easy-to-wear neutral tones, look out for limited-edition collaborations with companies like Toronto-born outerwear brand Canada Goose.
Urban art: Home to Canada’s largest museums and galleries, Toronto’s arts venues are eminently alluring. The city is also an incubator for a flourishing (and legal) street arts scene, where murals and graffiti grace brick-walled buildings. Rush Lane and Graffiti Alley (hidden behind Spadina Avenue and Portland Street) have attracted artists to this seven-block area where they’ve transformed unremarkable spaces into a morphing museum.
Electric Island: Chilled-out Hanlan’s Point pulses to the waves of underground music during the Electric Island concert and picnic series. Getting to this beach on the Toronto Islands is a quick jaunt from downtown’s Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Then it’s all about dancing to house and techno beats, and refueling on bites served by vendors on site.
Art Gallery of Ontario: Star architect Frank Gehry is a Toronto native whose legacy can been seen at Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). This architectural landmark is one of North America’s largest museums. It’s home to a staggering 90,000 works of art, including its exciting new acquisition, Infinity Mirrored Room — Let’s Survive Forever, by Japanese experimental artist Yayoi Kusama. The AGO is also the perfect place to discover Canada’s celebrated Group of Seven painters as well as works by Indigenous Canadian artists such as Brian Jungen. He pushes boundaries with his abstract modernist sculptures such as ceremonial masks constructed from collectible Nike Air Jordan shoes.
University of Toronto Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library: Read Margaret Atwood’s first draft (handwritten, no less) of The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel that was adapted into a cult-fave TV series. At the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library you can also peek at the Toronto-based author’s extensive collection of manuscripts, personal letters, and illustrations, as well as other rare gems like late singer Leonard Cohen’s personal notebooks.
Gardiner Museum: Making, looking, and thinking through clay is the ethos of the fascinating Gardiner Museum, located on Queens Park across from another cultural icon, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It’s a place that invites you to take a deep dive into the role and relevance of ceramics. Browse pieces from the impressive permanent collection, like ancient earthenware vessels from the Americas and Italian Renaissance pottery. And don’t miss out on the thought-provoking exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken, a showcase of the provocative Chinese artist’s iconic pieces, plus the international debut of his new LEGO series.