A Love Letter to Toronto’s Underrated Side

Canada’s most populous city is a treasure trove of hidden gems—if you know where to find them.

A Love Letter to Toronto’s Underrated Side

Chinatown is one of Toronto’s must-visit neighborhoods, and worth some time exploring in-depth.

Photos by Bannon Morrissy and Erik Eastman/Unsplash

At first glance, Toronto’s cosmopolitan bustle is comfortingly reminiscent of other North American cities. But you only need a little time in the metropolis to see that landmarks like the emblematic CN Tower and St. Lawrence Market just scratch the surface of what makes this place unique.

Ontario’s capital packs plenty of underrated gems in a diverse city of three million people. Toronto’s offerings for sustainable tourism alone—which can range from a bike ride in the largest urban car-free community in North America to a burgeoning restaurant scene serving both the community and the environment—afford plenty of reasons to hop on over to the Great White North.

So while tried and true landmarks do deserve some of Toronto’s fame, why not celebrate the city’s restaurants, green spaces, and other unsung heroes? After all, these spots make it a destination worth discovering, time and time again.

Restaurants like Ration (left) and Miku (right) are leading the sustainable movement with their takes on local fare.

Restaurants like Ration (left) and Miku (right) are leading the sustainable movement with their takes on local fare.

Photo by Chloe Arrojado

Toronto’s underrated food scene

Take a tour through Kensington Market, and you’ll find Toronto’s kaleidoscope of cultural cuisines in the Jamaican patties (a must-try if you decide to come to the city), momos, and empanadas hitting your plate. Even tastemakers like the Michelin Guide, which announced that the city will be Canada’s first to have a list (set to come out in the fall), are noticing.

Chow down in Chinatown(s)

If you continue down the south side of Kensington Market, the neighborhood eventually makes way for Chinatown alongside Spadina Avenue. It wasn’t always here: In the late 1950s, Toronto’s first Chinatown was uprooted to make way for Toronto’s City Hall. Those who moved west established the Chinatown by Kensington, where eateries like King’s Noodle Restaurant and Swatow Restaurant have been community staples for decades.

So, what happened to the people who decided to move east? Turns out, they decided to set up their own Chinatown, near the intersection of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street. While smaller than its western counterpart, East Chinatown also hosts restaurants and shops selling produce—plus a number of Vietnamese options, thanks to the influx of immigrants to the area over the past century.

Eat at restaurants envisioning the city’s future

Beyond the variety of flavors, Torontonians care about how their food can get to the table in a sustainable way. One such example, Ration, an establishment in The Beverley hotel on Queen Street West, serves an ever-changing rotating menu based on seasonal product availability from local suppliers. The restaurant aims to be as zero-waste as possible by repurposing food byproducts through means of fermentation, pickling, and curing. As a result, prepare to indulge in dishes from lamb tartare in a waffle cone to shoyu mushroom soup, all of which highlight Ration’s preservation techniques.

“We have potato ends and things like that. [We] ferment those, turn them into sauces,” Ration co-founder and executive chef Jef Edwards says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of food byproducts or very little. There’s always something you can do.”

Other tasty and sustainable restaurants to try include Miku, a Japanese spot highlighting locally-sourced seafood and sushi offerings (though their non-seafood dishes, like their brisket udon, also deserve some praise). Another city favorite, Marben, takes on farm-to-table fare by serving dishes like the fresh spring radish salad and koji fried popcorn chicken; try the ricotta & tomato curd for an indulgent option.

The Allan Gardens Conservatory is a paradise for plant lovers.

The Allan Gardens Conservatory is a paradise for plant lovers.

Photo by Chloe Arrojado

Explore Toronto’s underrated nature

Good news for eco-forward travelers: Toronto loves being green (and I’m not just referring to the 400+ cannabis shops in the city). Surrounded by Lake Ontario, the city is never too far from nature. That’s good news, as temperatures hit average lows below 32°F in the winter—giving you plenty of incentive to soak in the summer sun while you can.

Allan Gardens Conservatory

In 1858, local politician George Allan offered the Toronto Horticultural Society a five-acre piece of land to develop a garden. In 1864, the City of Toronto bought five more acres from Allan, which were then released to the Horticultural Society on the condition that the grounds be publicly available and free of charge. Today, the Allan Gardens Conservatory is a testament to that promise, and invites anyone, all year, for a free visit should they be in the Cabbagetown neighborhood.

While plant aficionados can spend a whole day visiting the space, the six greenhouses that make up the conservatory can be explored in less than a couple of hours. Spend that time meandering through the pre-marked pathway and researching some of the plants you come across.

Bike through Centre Island

Book a tour: Toronto Bicycle Tours

One of the best parts of Toronto isn’t actually in the city—well, the mainland at least. About 1.5 miles from Toronto’s ferry terminal, the Toronto Islands are a former peninsula that broke off from the mainland during a storm in 1858. As a result, the 380,000 square-foot collection of 15 islands sits across the inner harbor of Lake Ontario and has been a favorite among both locals and visitors, thanks in part to the Centreville Amusement Park, located at its heart.

The real magic happens when you take the time to explore Centre Island, the large piece of land surrounding the other islands, and learn about this little part of Toronto, including everything from its clothing-optional beach (who knew?) to the ghost story that haunts its lighthouse. The island is easily bikeable, and the skyline views from the waterfront make all that pedaling worth it.

Take a walk through Graffiti Alley for a look at the street artists making an impact on the city.

Take a walk through Graffiti Alley for a look at the street artists making an impact on the city.

Photo by Chloe Arrojado

Toronto’s underrated creative spaces

Toronto is a hotbed of artistic activity, with arts and culture contributing an estimated $11.3 billion to the city’s economy each year. There are plenty of places to see this creativity, including the Art Gallery of Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, and Museum of Contemporary Art. But there are also ways to see how Toronto’s creatives are influencing the city without stepping foot into a gallery.

Walk through Graffiti Alley

In between Richmond and Queen Street West, the hiss of an aerosol can signals that an artist is at work. Dubbed “Graffiti Alley,” this ever-changing thoroughfare of art varies from full-on thematic murals to intricately written tags, all of which you can admire as you take 10 minutes to walk through these couple of blocks.

Visit Stackt Market

At the intersection of Front Street West and Bathurst, a cluster of all-black shipping containers operates as a space for retailers, restaurants, and even cannabis sellers to congregate. Known as Stackt Market, this award-winning space was designed by LGA Architectural Partners as a gathering place for those in Toronto’s fashion district. While you could spend the whole afternoon perusing the delicious dessert options and pop-up clothing stores, the compound itself is worth a gander. The variety of entrances and container configurations can leave you feeling like a mouse in a maze, but the design makes the experience all the more marvelous.

>>Next: Toronto Is the Perfect Weekend Getaway for Adventurous Eaters

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR