Toronto is a patchwork of neighborhoods, and the best way to discover its soul and flavor is to meander along its streets. On foot, you can best appreciate the sights, sounds, and tastes that lend each area its particular character. Below are some of the most interesting neighborhoods.
Signs & Whispers -- Have you ever wandered around a neighborhood that intrigued you, wishing that you could get some inside information on the place? Now, thanks to [murmur], you can -- at least, in a few Toronto districts, including Kensington Market, the Art & Design District on West Queen West, the Annex around Bloor Street West, and Fort York. Look for signs that have a green ear logo and a phone number underneath; when you dial that number, you'll hear an interesting tidbit that will deepen your appreciation for what you're seeing. The project was developed as part of the city of Toronto's Culture Capital program, and its creators hope to eventually expand it throughout the city. Visit www.murmurtoronto.ca for details.
Art & Design District -- Also known as West Queen West. Queen Street west of Bathurst Street used to be a no-man's land -- not because it was dangerous, but because little of importance was believed to be that far from the downtown core. How times have changed: This is one of the liveliest 'hoods in the city (one magazine dubbed it the coolest in the country). It's home to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, or MOCCA; chic hotels the Drake Hotel and the Gladstone Hotel; and a bounty of good cafes, small clubs, and restaurants.
West Queen West is all funky fun. It's got great shops, including Type Books for great reads and local scribes, and excellent art galleries, such as the Stephen Bulger. The clothing boutiques are exceptional: glamorous Cabaret for vintage, Girl Friday for original designs, and Delphic for menswear. It also has some fine-but-affordable dining, such as Oyster Boy. Take the subway to Osgoode and the streetcar over to Bathurst, and start walking west from there.
Chinatown -- Stretching along Dundas Street west from Bay Street to Spadina Avenue, and north and south along Spadina Avenue, Chinatown is home to some of Toronto's 350,000 Chinese-Canadian residents. Packed with crammed shops and loud restaurants, it has bilingual street signs and red-painted poles topped by dragons along Spadina.
As you stroll through Chinatown, stop in at some of the shops and teahouses. A couple of popular stores include Tap Phong and B&J Trading. A walk through Chinatown at night is especially exciting -- the sidewalks fill with people, and neon lights shimmer everywhere. You'll pass gleaming noodle houses, windows hung with rows of glossy-brown cooked ducks, record stores selling the Top 10 in Chinese, and trading companies filled with Asian produce.
To get to Chinatown, take the subway to St. Patrick station and walk west.
Little Italy -- Along College Street, between Euclid and Shaw, Little Italy competes with West Queen West as one of the hottest spot in the city (although Dundas West and Ossington are contenders). The area hums at night as people crowd the coffee bars, pool lounges, nightclubs, and trattorie. Notable restaurants in the area include longstanding favorite Trattoria Giancarlo, with its nice patio and its cool little adjoining wine bar, plus the new and very hot L.A.B. and Sottovoce, which also has a good terrace for people-watching. There's lots more, from burgers to pizzas and a nice little street-side fish eatery. A great boutique in the area is Sim & Jones, which features chic, smart casual clothing for women. To get here, ride any College Street streetcar west to Euclid Avenue.
Queen Street West -- This street was once considered the heart of Toronto's avant-garde scene. That would be a stretch today. Sure, it's home to several clubs -- such as the Rivoli and the Horseshoe -- where major Canadian artists and singers have launched their careers, but it's also where you'll find mainstream shops such as Club Monaco, Gap, and Le Chateau. Edgy? Not anymore.
Queen Street West officially starts at Yonge Street, but it doesn't really pick up, style-wise, till you cross University Avenue. This is prime shopping territory, with one-of-a-kind clothing boutiques such as Fresh Collective and Peach Berserk. You'll also find a number of antiquarian bookstores, antiques and/or junk shops, nostalgic record emporiums, kitchen supply stores, and discount fabric houses. To start exploring, take the subway to Osgoode and walk west along Queen Street West.
The Beaches -- This is one of the neighborhoods that makes Toronto a unique city. Here, near the terminus of the Queen Street East streetcar line, you can stroll or cycle along the lakefront boardwalk. Because of its natural assets, it has become a popular residential neighborhood for young boomers and their families, and Queen Street has plenty of browse-able stores, such as Book City. Just beyond Waverley Road, you can turn down through Kew Gardens to the boardwalk and walk all the way past the Olympic Pool to Ashbridge's Bay Park. To get to the Beaches, take the Queen Street East streetcar to Woodbine Avenue.
Leslieville -- Queen Street East between Broadview and Leslie Street has become the place to shop for well-priced antique and vintage furniture. Stop in at Zig Zag, G.U.F.F., and Uppity!. Vintage clothing is another Leslieville specialty: Stop in at Gadabout or Thrill of the Find. This is also a great spot for lounges (such as Barrio) and bistros (such as Edward Levesque's Kitchen).
Mirvish Village -- One of the city's most illustrious characters is the late Honest Ed Mirvish, who started his career in the 1950s with a no-frills department store at the corner of Markham and Bloor streets (It's still there, 1 block west of Bathurst St.). Even from blocks away, neon signs race and advertisements touting bargains hit you from every direction. Among his other accomplishments, Mirvish saved the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street from demolition; established a row of adjacent restaurants for theater patrons; and developed this block-long area with art galleries, restaurants, and bookstores. The late, great Mirvish was also responsible for saving and renovating London's Old Vic.
Stop by and browse, and don't forget to stop for a tour of the singular Honest Ed's. To start your visit, take the subway to Bathurst.
Bloor-Yorkville -- It's tonier here than ever after the recent completion of a C$20-million "transformation project" that widened boulevards and added greenery. This area stretches north of Bloor Street West, between Avenue Road and Bay Street. Since its founding in 1853 as a village outside the city proper, Yorkville has experienced many transformations, and it's going through another right now. In the 1960s, it was Toronto's answer to Haight-Ashbury. In the 1980s, it became the hunting ground of the chic, who spent liberally at Hermès, Chanel, and Cartier. Today, the area is still a shopper's paradise from high-end Holt Renfrew to bargain-basement Winners. If you want to be really decadent, visit the Stillwater Spa at the Park Hyatt hotel or the Holt Renfrew Spa. The Aquatic Reiki treatment at the Stillwater -- which takes place in a water-filled room -- is a memorable experience.
If you're an architecture buff, take a look at architect Raymond Moriyama's redbrick building on Bloor Street at the end of Yorkville Avenue that houses the Toronto Reference Library. Step inside, and you'll find one of Toronto's most serene spots. To reach Yorkville, take the subway to Bay.
The East End
Danforth/Greektown -- This eclectic area along Danforth Street east of the Don River is lined with quaint, often two-story buildings that together form a critical mass of mostly Greek restaurants, plus an assortment of shops, pubs, and clubs. Visitors can browse the traditional Greek stores, including Akropol, a Greek bakery at no. 458 (tel. 416/465-1232) that displays stunning multi-tiered wedding cakes in the window. The neighborhood is becoming more ethnically diverse, and its new character is reflected by stores such as Blue Moon (no. 375; tel. 416/778-6991), which sells beautiful crafts from the developing world (the store supports only producers that provide healthy working conditions and fair pay), and El Pipil (no. 267; tel. 416/465-9625), which has colorful clothing, knapsacks, and jewelry. To get to the Danforth, ride the subway to Broadview and walk east.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.