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Downtown Toronto

Kaili loves to get away on vacation and write about the places, food and wine she encounters in her travels.

A view of the downtown skyline from Toronto Island.

A view of the downtown skyline from Toronto Island.

About Downtown Toronto

Toronto is Canada's largest city and also its financial heart. The GTA (Greater Toronto Area), as it is affectionately known, is made up of the city itself plus the four major municipalities that surround it. This bustling zone on the shores of Lake Ontario is home to over 6 million people.

As with many other large North American cities, Toronto is a collection of diverse multicultural neighbourhoods. Some of the downtown neighbourhoods were once stand-alone villages that were absorbed by the city as it grew outward, and the names of these villages reflect the cultural mosaic that makes up the history of Toronto.

Downtown Toronto has it all—shopping, theatre, nightlife, galleries, museums, the CN Tower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, fine restaurants...there is so much to see and do in this fabulous city

Let’s explore a few of the downtown neighbourhoods in "The City of Neighborhoods." All directions provided are from the intersection of King and Yonge in the heart of downtown Toronto.

FACT: Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, starting at Lake Ontario and running north and west for 1800 km—that's more than 1,100 miles!

Eaton Center Toronto

One of downtown Toronto's best known landmarks and also its largest tourist attraction, Phase I of Toronto's Eaton Center (or Eaton Centre, to use the Canadian spelling) first opened in 1977. Modeled after a popular galleria in Milan, Italy, the center has a soaring glass roof that was considered leading-edge when it was first constructed. This sprawling retail center occupies over 1.7 million square feet of space, and has well over 230 stores and services.

The Eaton Center is home to many large international retailers, including Apple, H&M, Michael Kors and Nordstrom. And, so you can stay in touch while shopping, there is free Wi-Fi available throughout the center.

The statue of Timothy Eaton, founder of Eaton's department stores, used to reside at the very north end of the center toward Dundas Street. These days, Timothy lives at the Royal Ontario Museum (The ROM) where you can still visit him and rub the toe of his shoe for good luck.

The center is well-served by public transportation, including both the subway and Queen streetcars, and is also linked to Toronto's underground pedestrian route know as PATH. From the corner of King and Yonge, the southern entrance to the center is only a short four-block walk north along Yonge Street.

Financial and Theatre Districts

Home of Canada's financial heart, Canada's largest banks face off against each other at the corner of Bay and King Streets, just a long city block west of Yonge Street. This part of downtown was originally called New Town, which was an extension of the original Town of York.

This is a densely-constructed part of town, with soaring bank towers, stock brokerages, insurance companies and the Trump Hotel all vying for space. Over 100,000 commuters pour into this area during the workweek, coming off GO Trains at Toronto's Union Station from suburbs across the GTA. The buildings in the financial district are all connected by a series of underground tunnels known as PATH. The bank towers all have shops. restaurants and services on their main floors and/or lower concourses.

Toronto's Theatre District

This lovely area is located just west along King Street, an easy walk from King and Yonge Streets. Toronto's theatre district ranks third in the world in terms of size after only London England and New York. Major productions regularly touch down here, and there are numerous restaurants to feed the pre-and-post dinner crowd.

For information on how to get cheap theatre tickets in Toronto, scroll down to "Budget Sightseeing Tips" below.

Edgewalk at The CN Tower; yes, those are people out there!

Edgewalk at The CN Tower; yes, those are people out there!

CN Tower

What visit to Toronto would be complete without taking in the CN Tower?

Completed in 1976, the CN Tower was the world's tallest tower at that time, and is still the third tallest tower in the world today. Primarily a communications tower, the CN Tower also boasts an indoor and an outdoor observation deck as well as The SkyPod, which is a whopping 446.5 meters or 1,465 feet above the ground.

The 360 Restaurant is a revolving restaurant that serves fine Canadian cuisine. The wine cellar has won the Wine Spectator 'Best of Award of Excellence.' Besides its list of fine wines from Canada, the U.S. and top world wine regions, the wine cellar also happens to be the highest wine cellar in the world. It takes the restaurant a full 72 minutes to complete one rotation, so you don't really notice that it is moving at all.

And, if it won't scare the heck out of you, try the Edgewalk, where you are strapped to an overhead metal safety system that allows you to walk freely around the roof of the 360 Restaurant.

Getting to the CN Tower from downtown is an easy 20-25 minute walk. From King and Yonge, head south to Front Street and then west to Bay and the GO Station/Union Station complex. There is an enclosed walkway from the station to the CN Tower and Skydome.

Toronto Chinatown

Chinatown is a great place to start exploring the city. Tucked in behind the Toronto City Hall, it is a bustling, crowded warren of stalls, shops and some great inexpensive places to eat. From King and Yonge, you can walk there easily by heading north to the Eaton Center and then west along Dundas, or take the subway to the Eaton Center and then transfer to the #505 streetcar along Dundas for fun. The shops in the Dundas and Spadina area sell some unique and interesting Chinese herbs and fruits. Try spicy pineapple chunks on a stick from a fruit vendor. Taste a durian fruit shake…if you dare! Dim sum (meaning “small plates”) restaurants are plentiful and cheap, and in some of them it is a good idea to know a few Chinese names for food—try “har gow” (shrimp dumplings) or pork "shaomai" (ground pork dumplings).

Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market is home to many interesting shops.

Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market is home to many interesting shops.

Kensington Market

Located west of Chinatown, Kensington Market is a funky, fun place to explore. This thriving market area is an old part of the City, and is full of wonderful shops and restaurants and Victorian era buildings. The area was home to a predominantly Jewish population for decades beginning in the early 1900s. The still mostly open-air market is a bustling place full of character—and characters. Vintage clothing stores, fabulous bakeries and cheese stores abound.

The best shopping is from mid-morning until dinner time, when you can slip into one of the fine casual restaurants and refuel after shopping. Walking is the very best way to explore this area, though you can easily catch the TTC to Spadina Avenue from downtown and save your feet for the Market district.

Queen Street West

Queen West is trendy and it knows it…but it was not always so. In the mid-1800s, Claretown was a poor area populated by Irish immigrants. The area is now home to many upscale boutiques, factories that have been turned into posh condos, and some fine eating places. There are fewer art galleries than there once were, but some lovely small galleries still exist, and they exhibit interesting original works of art. Charming bars in this area include “Done Right Inn” at 861 Queen Street West at Niagara. The #501 Queen streetcar from Yonge Street is the way to go.

The Annex

Part of the Annex was once an actual village. Seaton Village was merged into the City in the late 1800s, but this part of the “west” Annex still retains its name. The Annex is primarily a residential neighbourhood full of beautiful old Edwardian and Victorian homes. Close to the University of Toronto, some of these old homes house fraternities these days.

Look along Bloor Street West for some great bistros. The “By-the-Way Café” at 400 Bloor West sits where the famous “Lickin’ Chicken” once was (they had a flashing sign in the window that said “Sorry, out of chicken”).

In October 2013, the most storied landmark in the area was sold to a Vancouver developer. Honest Ed's, located south of the Bathurst Street station at 581 Bloor Street West, was owned by Ed Mirvish, now deceased. Ed was a colorful local hero who made money the old-fashioned way, and never forgot to give back to people. He used to hand out free turkeys at Christmas to poor folks who would line up outside the store. Ed’s was truly a unique shopping experience that had to be seen to be believed. The store was closed in December of 2016, and Ed's old store was demolished.

Beautiful Stonehouse Distillery in the Distillery District

Beautiful Stonehouse Distillery in the Distillery District

Distillery District

The old Gooderham and Worts Distillery sat empty for decades, and was often used as a movie set when producers were looking for buildings and cobbled streets that looked like parts of New York and Chicago in the 1800s. The distillery was once the largest distillery in the world and the area is home to the largest collection of Victorian era Industrial buildings in North America.

Take the King streetcar east to Parliament and walk south to the Distillery District. The stores, art galleries and restaurants in this area are generally not cheap, but if you need a beverage after sightseeing all day, try “Mill Street Brew Pub” at 21 Tank House Lane. They regularly pass around samples of different beers.

Sightseeing Toronto

You will not run out of things to see and do here. There are so many things to see in Toronto, so many places in Toronto that are quite simply unique. Other cool Toronto neighborhoods that are a little farther afield include The Beaches, Greektown (The Danforth), and Little Italy.

Toronto is a very safe city for visitors. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Toronto number 8 out of 50 cities it studied, and the safest city in North America. Visitors also remark on how clean it is for such a large city.

When you tire of walking or fiddling with maps and guidebooks, there are also tour buses available, including double decker buses and hop-on-hop-off buses. As noted below, the TTC also offers day passes that are a real deal, especially if you are venturing outside of the downtown core.

So, come, stay and explore everything that this wonderful city has to offer.

Budget Sightseeing Tips

Getting around Toronto: There are a million things to see in Toronto, and getting around is very easy as there is a well-established and pretty efficient public transportation system. This system is made up of the subway that runs north-south and east-west, streetcars—yes, streetcars!—that travel some of the main routes downtown, and fleets of buses that link it all together and spread out deep into the suburbs.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has day passes available that let you hop on-and-off regular routes across the city. It is an easy—and cheap –—way to explore the neighbourhoods.

Cheap theatre tickets: Check out for discounted tickets. Pay-what-you-can options are a good idea in the summer months, with most outdoor theatre productions operating on this basis. They typically suggest a donation of $20.

Inexpensive Toronto Hotels: Staying in downtown Toronto doesn't have to be expensive. Sure, you could break the bank and stay at the Trump Hotel. But there are cheap Toronto hotels right downtown that offer clean, safe, comfortable accommodation. The Courtyard by Marriott at 475 Yonge, is just below the fabulous shops on Bloor Street and is relatively inexpensive by big city standards. The Clarence Park Hotel at 7 Clarence Square is another option to consider.

© 2012 Kaili Bisson