Exploring home: Tourist in Toronto – Part 1

Has it ever happened to you that you are listening to something or someone and a casually made comment/statement just hits a chord and becomes something you never forget, happens with me all the time. On one such occasion a few months ago, while on a walk to work at 8 am I remember a zerototravel podcast interview in which the guest, in context of travel, said –  ‘Your adventure is someone else’s home’ it made me think as I was crossing the street, how true it was. At that moment as I was rushing to work I looked around and wondered how many people in that crowd were visiting Toronto and walking around exploring the same intersection that I was passing through without paying much attention.  That is when I decided that before I fly off and explore the world, I got to explore my own city with a fresh pair of eyes. Almost a decade in Toronto and I cannot claim I have seen it all, but I doubt anyone can. Hence, when I had the opportunity with my time off to be wherever I wanted to be and travel anywhere I decided to start right here at home, I decided to play a tourist in Toronto.
Many of my friends asked me how come I was still around and why I was not already on a flight somewhere, many thought spending precious one month out of a year at home might be a waste, but I beg to differ.  Outside of practical reason of needing time to wrap up a decade worth of life and an emotional one of bidding good bye to all my friends, I wanted to explore Toronto.  September is a great month to be in the city, fall is on the onset, Summer isn’t done yet and ‘thanks to global warming’ which is not something I am necessarily happy about, September this year seems more like peak of summer than fall. But I digress, the point being, it was a perfect time to start my adventure right here from home.
As I decided to play tourist in Toronto, I thought about where to begin and the natural starting point seemed neighborhoods of Toronto.  One thing I have loved about this city is that a 10 min walk and you feel like you are in a different part of the world.  Toronto is not one big city with a city vibe, its more like a cluster of neighborhoods each with a different vibe.  In a day and age where value of diversity has become a topic of debate, when multiculturalism is in question and there are varied point of views on why or why not we should or shouldn’t have immigrants in any country or city, Toronto stands tall as one of the most multicultural cities in the world and this is reflected in its neighborhoods, its vibe, its food and its people.  It is one of many reasons I love Toronto and one of many reasons I decided, as I do a 10 year reboot of life, it was time  explore these neighborhoods that together make a great city.
I researched to see where to begin, GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is huge and includes regions like Mississauga, Oakhville, Brampton on the west end and Scarbrough, Pickering and Ajax among others on the east.  Realistically, in a month it was not practical to try and explore the entire GTA.  So, I decided to keep my boundaries limited to the ‘City of Toronto’.  Than came the task of picking neighborhoods, one good way to check these is any real estate site, they usually have a map of city neighborhoods.  But, I wanted a bit more than just a geographic map, since I had limited time, I wanted to get a sense of cafes, bars and overall vibe of the place so I checked out http://www.blogto.com/neighbourhoods/ and made a list of potential areas I wanted to explore.  The idea was not to have a concrete plan but some idea or a sketch of a plan.  I was amazed how much there was to see and explore and it seriously felt like a month wasn’t enough.  It definitely made me realize how ‘taken for granted’ is the city you live in
My goal – explore 10 neighborhoods in one month
My style – walk around, sit at a cafe and spend hours reading, watching people, writing and/or trying restaurants and bars.
  1. Yorkville – one of the first neighborhoods I explored or saw when I first moved to Toronto was Yorkville.  This was in 2008/2009, walking around I remember looking at the big highend brands and thinking wow!! who shops here.  Fast forward 9 years, I do!!! Rarely .  As re-discovered the Yorkville neighborhood, I noticed how so many things had changed and in may ways nothing had changed at all. Most of the stores are still beyond my sensibility, since anything that costs more than an air ticket somewhere, is not something I can buy, but I digress.  The point being, Yorkville is still one of highend fashion / shopping areas in Toronto, but what makes it so interesting is, not its fifth avenue style fashion street, but the beauty of nestled cafes and restaurants right around the corner.  One minute you are on this big wide road with huge window displays and on the next turn you see an ally restaurant that transports you to a small European town somewhere.
    • How to get there – take the subway (TTC) to Bay street stop on Bloor west line and walk around to explore
    • Interesting places to eat
      • Evenings, I have been to Hemingway’s nice bar, patio.
      • During the day, pick a coffee and sit on the big rock. Occasionally there is live band playing.
      • In winters there is a beautiful water fountain and ice sculptures
  2. King West – King west can be different for different people.  You could be between Spadina and Portland or Bathurst on King street on a Saturday night at 10:00 PM and that’s Toronto’s happening club district for you.  But that’s not the part I intended to explore.  As much as I love dancing, the idea of lining up for a club is not much of my thing anymore.  What I ended up exploring is during the day beyond Bathurst King West.  The vibe changes substantially, quieter more relaxed residential.  Not sure what is the history of this neighborhood but as I walked through it I get a feeling that it is one of the turn around kind of places.  One that’s in transition, with newer buildings coming up, new small businesses opening up.  It is interesting to observe how neighborhoods, no different than humans, go through transition, they grow and change with time.  I ended up at @simitandchaicompany  a Turkish Cafe chain, as I sat there with my book for hours I fell in love with the vibe, enough to walk back a few days later.  As I ‘people watched’ felt like I was away from home somewhere in another city.  At one point a nice individual noticed the title of my book and stopped to ask what it was about, a really small thing if you think about it, yet so rare compared to my hours spent at Starbucks in downtown.  As I flipped through the pages of ‘Bastards of Istanbul’  and read about breakfast SIMITs while also trying one for the first time, for a split second,I could imagine being in Turkey a place I really want to travel one day.  In that moment as I was transported to another place and time, the above statement struck me as a reminder that sometimes you don’t have to travel far to discover something new, sometimes adventure is right in your backyard you just have to change your perspective and pause to notice.
    • Where – on King street west walk past the clubs, walk past portland and keep waling beyond Bathurst
    • Where to hang out – if you are anything like me walk the street and try different places.  If you want a night out and go dancing, try Citizen if you want some good Spanish food there is Patria and if you are craving a mean Manhattan there is a big yellow door of Westlodge, wander in.  Essentially, whatever you are in a mood off and whatever time of the day or night you decide to explore there is something you can find to do
  3. Distillery District – This is probably one of the top neighborhoods to visit according to every Toronto guide book.  On the east end of downtown its neatly tucked between Parliament, Cherry and Mill street.  Cobbled streets, art galleries, local patio cafes, ally patios and bars this is intentionally designed to transport you to a European city feel. Distillery district is a popular spot in summer with weekend festivals and beautiful cozy patios perfect for a date, and is famous for its christmas market in winter.  About a decade ago, a group of Torontonians envisioned converting a cluster of victorian buildings that were named a national historic site into a nice relaxing European patio district and that’s exactly what they did.  As you walk around Distillery you feel like you are some where in Europe with nice small cafes, and ally patios just perfect for an afternoon drink or an evening out.  Always bustling and alive in all seasons this is a great spot right in downtown Toronto a few blocks away from ‘Bay street’ the financial district that provides an easy get away.
  4. The Junction – Probably the one neighborhood I had not discovered until recently and what a shame.  Based on my little research, this neighborhood has an interesting history that goes back to late 1800.  Technically it is just outside of the core downtown Toronto area on the west side.  It was a manufacturing community in the late 19th century with firms getting attracted to lower taxes than Toronto.  Similar reasons attracted early immigrants.  Like life and probably history of any city, country and neighborhood it seems like this one went through multiple ups and downs in its history.  Early 1900’s the commercial stretch of the area saw a decline but that sure changed, because based on my few visit and hours of exploration its hustling and bustling.  The junction today offers great, cool & cozy cafes, restaurants and pubs that provide perfect spot spend an afternoon or evening.  Walking on this stretch of Dundas west, I spotted cool art shops, paint lounges and restaurants that offered great food options.  The vibe is more relaxed and architecture is old brick building and full of character.  It is impressive to pause and think transitions a neighborhood has gone through and history that you are surrounded by.
  5. Ossington Village – Ossington is one neighborhood best explored in the evening.   This was an area that was coming up when I was new in the city about 8 yrs. ago and today it is probably one of the top places to hang out, if you are into nice cozy lounges, patios and live music.  It offers some of the best lounges and restaurants that are worth spending your evening at.  My favorite by far is The Reposado for its beautiful backyard patio that, according to me, is a great date spot.  Also the latest discovery in this area is Bang Bang, the ice cream shop.  You would know you are at Bang Bang when you spot a crazy long line up few blocks away, but the wait is worth it.  The flavors, the puffs and the cookie and waffle ice cream sandwiches are to die for. Ossington is a neighbourhood spread all the way from Collage street to Bloor. The vibe is casual, cool and relaxed. The bars are small but cozy restaurants range from Argentinian, Italian to Indian. Summer is buzzing with small cozy patios and winters offer nice lounges to spend your evenings at. As I discovered these hoods sometimes alone other times with friends I fall in love with Toronto all over again. Ironically as I reboot life and leave this city for the next 6 months, I get to view it with a fresh perspective. Often life gets too busy to pause and appreciate where you are, sometimes years can go by sleep walking through life and other times you feel more alive in 30 days.

Next up Part 2 of the the blog – 5 more neighbourhoods.

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