Toronto: Character and Culture in Canada’s Biggest City

Tucked between Augusta Avenue and McDougall Lane in Toronto’s vibrant Queen Street West neighborhood, you’ll find Graffiti Alley, a one-kilometer stretch of legalized street art. Popular among travelers who crave an authentic art experience, it’s just one of many unexpected tourist destinations proving that Canada’s largest city is much more than high rises and hockey. 

Finally getting the recognition it deserves as a travel hotspot, Toronto welcomed a record number of visitors in 2019 when 28.1 million people flocked to the city, spending a $7.7 billion — $200 million more than in 2018. Centrally located between New York City, Chicago, and Montreal, over half the U.S. and Canadian populations, can get to the busy metropolis within 90 minutes by air. 

“Globally, Toronto has seen its reputation grow exponentially over the past decade,” says Matt McNama of Destination Toronto, a not-for-profit agency that calls Toronto a global business, entertainment, and tourism hub, famous for its progressiveness and diversity. “A unique trait about the city is that everyone who visits can find a bit of themselves here — either in the food scene, the nightlife, our arts and culture offerings, or even just peeking into store windows.”

Oneika Raymond is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer and host of Travel Channel’s Big City, Little Budget and One Bag, and You’re Out. Her blog, OneikaTheTraveller.com, examines travel and exploration through the intersections of race, politics, and privilege. She writes unapologetically “as a Black woman writing about travel to countries that my ancestors weren’t allowed to travel to.” She’s traveled to over 115 countries on six continents. Now living in New York City, she’s lived in five countries, but Toronto is her hometown.

Raymond began her blog to keep in touch with family and friends while abroad, but quickly realized it had wider appeal. She recalls bringing her husband to Toronto for his first visit. He was “astounded” by the city’s diversity,” she says. “Wow! Everybody is here!” he said. “There’s no dominant race,” says Raymond, who calls Toronto very cosmopolitan, modern, and progressive. “That’s the strength and beauty of Toronto.”

One thing that surprises people from around the world about Toronto says Raymond is how vast it is. Known, of course, for its dominant skyline, Toronto has more green space than many travelers might imagine. A network of trails along the waterfront and throughout the city’s ravines enables outdoor enthusiasts to bike or run alongside nature in the city’s midst. Bicycles can be rented through the city’s public bike system, called Bixi. You can canoe or kayak the Toronto harbor and Islands or, if you prefer, there are dozens of public golf courses within an hour’s drive of downtown Toronto. 

“Toronto may be an urban oasis, but it’s also a destination filled with outdoor space,” says McNama. “Locals have been embracing that during the pandemic and are rediscovering why this city is so spectacular when experienced outdoors.” He adds, “our hotels, for example, have some of the most spectacular pools, rooftops and views in the city, and spaces like Trinity Bellwoods, Trillium, and High Park (to name a few) are breathtaking, especially in the summer and fall.”

Wandering the city on foot is an excellent way to explore Toronto’s many lively neighborhoods, discovering hidden gems you’re unlikely to find in guidebooks, like Graffiti Alley, along the way. This summer, artists transformed a section of Graffiti Alley with new murals in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We chose Graffiti Alley because it’s in our nature. Being aerosol practitioners, we have a unique skill set that can be used for something greater than ourselves,” says Jessey Pacho, a graffiti artist who co-organized Graffiti Jams, calling Graffiti Alley one of the only safe havens for artists to freely practice their craft. “Leading an event speaking to the lived experiences of black folk and the BLM movement, in general, is important because representation matters. To my community and for the next generation,” says Pacho, who says he is one of few Black graffiti artists in the city. 

Pacho hopes the event, called #PaintTheCityBlack, will continue to happen and happen on a larger scale. With funding, he says, “we can create paid opportunities for artists, while also dedicating our skills to something greater than graffiti, raising awareness to important issues that are unfortunately lived experiences for some of us. I want visitors to understand that graffiti can be used to highlight important issues and that these issues are right here in our own backyard. I want people to want to become informed and go research the portraits we painted and the names we wrote. So that as a society, we can finally come together and stand up to oppression.”

Toronto is a hub for many Canadian creatives, including those in the music, fashion, visual arts, and culinary communities. 

“We’re the gateway to experiencing the very best this country has to offer. Sometimes that’s big-ticket experiences such as Canadian Music Week or the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and other times it’s celebrating our homegrown history with Indigenous Fashion Week and The Toronto Caribbean Carnival,” says McNama. “No matter your reason for visiting, we truly want people to let themselves into the city. Embrace all the quirks and intricacies, be curious about what keeps us moving — and return home feeling changed for having traveled here.”

Raymond says one thing that excites her most about Toronto is the range and scope of cultural festivals, including food and art festivals hosted by many of Toronto’s cultural communities. Likely best known is Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival, established in 1967 as part of Canada’s Centennial celebrations. It has evolved into North America’s largest event of its kind, with over one million participants annually. In 2020, like so many festivals, Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival moved online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all travel destinations across the globe, Toronto is working to ensure the city is safe and ready to welcome travelers from abroad.

“Like most destinations, our arts and culture scene was heavily impacted by the pandemic, so my hope is that our live music and theatre scene can safely restart towards the end of 2020 and into 2021,” says McNama, adding that Mirvish Theatre is set to bring back Hamilton, whose run was cut short, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is set to make its Canadian debut in Toronto.

“Collectively, we’ve embraced physical distancing, and our neighborhoods have adapted to that current reality. Part of that comes with acknowledging that the effort we put in now will only benefit everyone in the future, including future visitors,” says McNama. “In the context of 2020, parts of our streets have been closed off to pedestrians and cyclists only, and restaurants have expanded patio space. That’s the level of accessibility visitors want, and we’re adapting to accommodate that to keep everyone safe.”

Nick Di Donato, President, and CEO of Liberty Entertainment Group, which is redefining Toronto’s dining, nightlife, and special event experience through its impressive roster of venues and restaurants, believes in Toronto’s resilience. Responsible for the development of many of Toronto’s most prolific restaurants, Liberty Group is also responsible for Casa Loma, a treasured 20th-century castle located in midtown Toronto and a popular tourist destination. Di Donato also added a high-end restaurant inside called BlueBlood Steakhouse and has become another venue for weddings, garden parties, and other large functions within the historic castle. 

“Toronto, restaurants, and the tourism industry here will be resilient and come back stronger than ever,” he says. “From a museum perspective, we have had to pivot and really focus on local tourism. Creating new family friendly events to engage the local community was critical. Our newest project, Celebrity Gallery, will engage Torontonians of every age and will bring those that have visited the castle back for an entirely new experience, exploring the history of Casa Loma in the movies.”

Di Donato says Toronto is “on a threshold, ready to be catapulted onto the world stage and stay there” because of its unparalleled culinary and entertainment offerings. “Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America, offering big-city experiences, but has a small-town heart! You can’t go anywhere and not feel welcome. It offers all you can ask for from a big city experience but provided in a uniquely Canadian way. An extremely nice version of New York or Chicago.”

When asked what makes Toronto unique, the answer is unanimous. Food!

“Toronto is a uniquely multicultural city,” says Di Donato. As Canadians, we have always welcomed all cultures and did not expect them to assimilate, but provided immigrants the opportunity to retain their heritage from culture to cuisine. “When in Toronto, you will find Italian food as good as you will find in Naples or Turkish food as good as in Istanbul.”

McNama agrees. “From our neighborhoods to what Toronto has to offer, it’s an eclectic mix. There’s no better reflection of our diversity than our food scene. Whether you’re looking for a fine dining experience or a quick bite from a food truck, you’ll find authentic cuisine that reflects the diversity of who we are.” One of his favorite neighborhoods is historic Riverside, with its bustling food scene, breweries, heritage buildings, and walkable neighborhood full of public art. “I also have a soft spot for Liberty Village which is a hop and skip away from both the waterfront to the south and the Ossington strip to the west,” he adds. 

“There’s no place more culinarily interesting than Toronto,” says Raymond, who has written about food from her travels. “It’s the most multicultural city,” she says, “and you see that reflected in the cuisine.” Raymond, who uses her platforms to show people that “life is limitless if you let the possibility in,” says Toronto’s international cuisine is earning a reputation globally.

We can’t end an article about Toronto without mentioning some of the tourist attractions the city is best known for, including the CN Tower. There’s also the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada’s largest and most comprehensive museum, home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects, and natural history specimens. Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is another fun tourist spot in the city with its 12,500 square foot space filled with sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and other aquatic life. When asked what’s next for Toronto, McNama suggests Immersive Van Gogh, a new experience taking over a five-story vacant building on Yonge Street that “literally places you inside the work of Vincent Van Gogh.” He adds that several new big attractions are coming to Toronto, including FlyOver Canada, “a high-tech flight simulator that lets you experience Canada like you never have before,” located next to Ripley’s and the CN Tower. 

There’s something for everyone in Toronto, whether you’re traveling on business, visiting with the family, adventuring solo, or looking for an escape with your partner or friends. Don’t let the skyscrapers fool you. The city has much more to offer, whether you’re looking to indulge in food and drink, enjoy some green space, or immerse yourself in Toronto’s unparalleled creative spirit and cultural heritage. 

Photo(s) provided by: Destination Toronto, Liberty Group, and Oneika Raymond