Walking Tour: Chinatown & Kensington Market
Start: St. Patrick subway station.
Finish: Queen's Park subway station.
Time: At least 2 hours. Depending on how long you want to linger at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at various stops, perhaps as long as 8 hours.
Best Times: Tuesday through Saturday during the day.
Worst Times: Monday, when the Art Gallery is closed.
This walk takes you through the oldest of Toronto's existing Chinatowns (the city's original Chinatown was on York St., between King and Queen sts., but skyscrapers replaced it long ago). Although at least four Chinatowns exist today, and most Chinese live in the suburbs, the intersection of Dundas Street and Spadina (pronounced spa-dye-na) Avenue is still a major shopping and dining area for the Asian communities.
Kensington has changed dramatically over the years. Originally a Jewish community, it then became home to Portuguese and other European immigrants, and then changed again as the bordering Chinatown expanded at the same time shopkeepers from the Caribbean, the Middle East, and elsewhere arrived. There are several Asian herbalists and grocers, as well as West Indian and Middle Eastern shops. Kensington Avenue has the greatest concentration of vintage clothing stores in the city as well as some good grub and excellent cafes for refueling.
From the St. Patrick subway station, exit on the NW corner of Dundas St. and University Ave., and walk W on Dundas St. Turn right onto McCaul St. At no. 131, you'll see:
1. St. Patrick's Church
Built in 1861 for Toronto's Irish Catholic community, this church became the base of German-speaking Catholics from 1929 to the late 1960s. Inside, you'll find some of the most beautiful stained glass in Toronto. The church is also a popular site for concerts.
Go back toward Dundas St. and walk W; looking S on McCaul St., you'll see:
2. Sharp Centre for Design
This is one of the city's more controversial contributions to the recent surge in new and bold architecture. Will Alsop's building, which is part of the Ontario College of Art & Design, looks like a checkerboard box on stilts. The Sharp Centre won a Worldwide Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2004; they described it as "courageous, bold, and just a little insane." Admire the insanity from the outside; visitors are not allowed beyond the lobby, although there is a shop worth a look.
Continue W along Dundas St. On your left is the:
3. Art Gallery of Ontario
Newly renovated -- by local boy Frank Gehry, who grew up around the corner -- and now blessed with the brilliant Thomson Collection, the AGO is arguably Toronto's best gallery. Visit for the stellar collection of paintings by Canadian legends and European masters, the best collection of Henry Moore sculpture in the world, the photography gallery, and much more. A recent gift from local collector and philanthropist Dr. Ydessa Hendeles added 32 Canadian and international contemporary artworks -- the most significant single gift of contemporary art in the AGO's 110-year history.
Walk behind the AGO, following Beverley St. S. Behind the AGO, you'll find:
4. The Grange
This historic mansion was the original home of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Built in 1817, the Georgian mansion is still part of the AGO. Although there are tours of the kitchens, most of the building now houses the AGO's members club. The surrounding Grange Park is charming, if a bit rough in spots.
Retrace your steps to Dundas St. W. and cross so that you're on the N side of the street. On this block, you'll find:
This gallery, at 340 Dundas St. W., represents contemporary Canadian artists. It's been in business since 1965 and offers a worthwhile perspective on the national current art scene.
Walk W along Dundas St.; at the NW corner of Beverley and Dundas sts. is the:
6. Consulate General of Italy
It doesn't look like a government building: The rambling late-19th-century mansion, with its sandy-colored brick, quasi-Gothic windows and wrought-iron decoration, is a beauty. Too bad you can't go in.
You're now walking into the heart of Chinatown, with its grocery stores, bakeries, trinkets, and emporiums selling herbs and handcrafts.
What follows are some of my favorite stops along the stretch of Dundas St. between Beverley St. and Spadina Ave. On the S side, or the left side as you go W, is:
7. The Herb Depot
At nos. 407-409, this market carries every herb under the sun. Many are a mystery, but the terrific English-speaking herbalists and acupuncturists on duty are happy to help. Several markets in Chinatown carry similar wares, but this one is the best bet for those who don't speak Chinese.
On the N side of the street is:
8. J & S Arts and Crafts
This shop, at no. 430, is a good place to pick up souvenirs, including kimonos and happy coats, kung-fu suits, cushion covers, and all-cotton Chinatown T-shirts. Kim Moon, no. 438, is an Asian bakery that features abalone cookies, deep-fried lotus crisps, and dim sum pork buns (my husband is a huge fan).
9. Ten Ren Tea
Ten Ren Tea sells all kinds of tea -- black, oolong, green -- stored in large canisters at the back of the store. Charming ceramic teapots and cups are on sale here, along with gnarled root ginseng. You can break here for tea -- but even if you don't want to sit down, the staff will probably urge you to sample an unfamiliar variety in a tiny cup. 454 Dundas St. tel. 416/598-7872.
Cross Dundas St. so that you are on the S side of the street again. Turn left at Spadina Ave. and walk S to the first stoplight. Cross Spadina Ave. at this light and directly ahead of you is:
10. Chinatown Centre
This huge complex at 222 Spadina Ave. is now the go-to Chinatown mall. It has an impressive array of businesses under one roof: Clean Slate Beauty is here, as is Fortune Jade (which stocks costume jewelry, as well as real pieces), and Kid's House, which has great deals on clothing for children. There's also a food court and a Super 8 motel.
Walk N on Spadina Ave.; at the SW corner of Spadina and Dundas is:
11. Dragon City
This mall at 280 Spadina Ave. is smaller -- and far quieter -- than Chinatown Centre. Still, it's notable for a few things. The pet store Downtown Pet Centre is in the basement; they have emperor sharks, fancy orandas, and piranhas to watch in the aquariums, as well as a great collection of gear for your dog/cat/bird/fish at home. Dragon City also has Hui's Pharmacy, a Canada Post outlet inside Sun Wa bookstore, and free Wi-Fi throughout the building.
Cross Dundas St. and walk N on Spadina Ave.; at no. 310 is:
12. Oriental Harvest
Look at all the different provisions -- chili and fish sauces, fresh meat and fish (including live tilapia in tanks), preserved plums, chrysanthemum tea and other infusions, moon cakes, and large sacks of rice. There's also a great selection of Kasugai Japanese-made gummy candies (my favorite flavor is lychee) and sweet rice snacks to keep you going.
13. Happy Seven and Lee Garden
For fine, reasonably priced food, a Chinatown favorite is Happy Seven (358 Spadina Ave.; tel. 416/971-9820). If you don't mind lining up, head for the ever-popular Lee Garden (331 Spadina Ave.; tel. 416/593-9524).
Continuing N, cross St. Andrews St. to reach:
14. Tap Phong Trading Company
This shop, at 360 Spadina Ave., stocks terrific wicker baskets of all shapes and sizes, as well as woks and ceramic cookware, attractive mortars and pestles, and other household items.
Cross Baldwin St., and you'll come to:
15. Plaiter Place
At 384 Spadina Ave., Plaiter Place has a huge selection of wicker baskets, birdcages, woven blinds, bamboo steamers, hats, and other souvenirs. Fortune Housewares, no. 388, carries kitchen and household items -- including brand names -- for prices at least 20% lower than most other spots in the city.
Now double back to Baldwin Street. You're heading into the heart of the Kensington Market area, which is particularly rich with cultural diversity. Once, it was primarily a Jewish market; later, it became a Portuguese neighborhood. Today, it is largely Asian and Caribbean, but its past lives on in many ways.
Head back to Baldwin St. and walk W; you'll find:
16. Tom's Place
This traditional haberdasher -- located at 190 Baldwin St. -- is a place where you can still haggle for a deal on good, Made-In-Italy men's shirts. The store also sells women's clothing, but it's mostly the men's suits and clothing that draw crowds.
Across the street is:
17. Chocolate Addict
Located at 185 Baldwin St., this tiny temple to chocolate has some tasty, unusual offerings (mmm, wasabi truffles . . . ).
Across the street and down a few shops, look for:
18. My Market Bakery
At 172 Baldwin St. is one of the market's finest bakeries, with plenty of fresh goods baked on-site, plus a selection from some other small bakeries around town. Good for breads, pastries, and cookies, too.
Further down the street, at no. 64, is Tutti Frutti, a well-stocked health-oriented grocery store (great for those with food allergies or celiac disease).
As you stroll S along Kensington Ave. and pass St. Andrews St., you will find a series of secondhand- and vintage-clothing stores:
At 62 Kensington Ave., on the west side of the street, this store has good jeans, leather jackets, and assorted accessories.
20. Courage My Love
The best spot for cheap but chic vintage clothing is at no. 14. It stocks retro gowns and wedding dresses, suits, and accessories, as well as new jewelry and beads for do-it-yourself projects. The C$5 rack out front (in nice weather) has some great deals; if you take some of these exquisite but damaged dresses and coats to a tailor, you can end up with beautiful, original pieces for a song.
21. Dancing Days
At no. 17 (on the east side of the street), you'll find party-ready glad rags that will make you look like an extra in Grease.
When you reach Dundas St., turn right and walk 1 block to Augusta Ave. Turn right on Augusta Ave. As you walk N and cross Wales Ave., you'll find:
22. Bellevue Square Park
On maps, this park is often referred to as Denison Square. Either way, it's a lovely spot. While you're checking out the statue of Canadian actor Al Waxman, you may smell whiffs of marijuana in the air. Kensington Market is home to a few head shops, and smoking cannabis in public -- while illegal -- is not uncommon in and around the park.
Stroll through the park; at the corner of Bellevue Ave. and Denison Sq., you'll find:
23. Kiever Synagogue
This building, at 28 Denison Sq., was completed in 1927. Architect Benjamin Swartz designed it with Byzantine style in mind. The most striking features are the twin domes atop the building (sadly, the building isn't open to the public). The Kiever Synagogue was the first specifically Jewish building designated an historic site by the province of Ontario.
Turn back toward Augusta Ave., and you'll see:
24. La Tortilleria
This tiny spot -- -just a few stools inside and, weather permitting, tables out front -- serves good corn tortillas made daily. Tacos and bottled drinks from Mexico round out the tiny menu. 198 Augusta Ave.; tel. 647/723-8760.
Walk N on Augusta Ave. to:
25. Casa Acoreana
An old-fashioned store at no. 235, it stocks a full range of fresh coffees, as well as great pecans and filberts.
Just up the street is:
26. Perola Supermarket
This store, at 247 Augusta Ave., is great for cassava and strings of peppers -- ancho, arbol, pasilla -- that are hung up to dry. Check out the bins of other exotic fruits and herbs, too.
27. Kensington Market
The Aspetta Caffe (207 Augusta Ave.; tel. 416/916-8275) is a perfect perch if you want to people-watch while sipping a caffe and having a tasty panini or pasta.
Continue N along Augusta Ave. to College St. Turn W on College St., and you'll find:
28. Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields
This small but historically significant church has had to fight hard to ward off the condo developers circling Kensington Market. Ironically, the Anglican Diocesan Council wanted to sell its own church, and the local community -- many of whom have no religious connection to the church -- came together to save it. The building is a lovely example of Gothic Revival architecture, built in 1858, and contains some splendid stained-glass windows.
On College St., hop on an eastbound streetcar, which will deliver you to the Queen's Park subway station. The southbound train will take you downtown.