First Timer’s Guide to Toronto

Guest Writer: Toni-Rose Mabazza

As the biggest city in Canada, Toronto has been named “The Most Diverse City in the World” and has topped the lists as one of the most livable cities in the world for many years. It is also the hometown of some of the biggest musicians such as Drake and The Weeknd. Toronto is a large city and has something for everyone, but there’s so much to discover that it can’t be done in one short visit.

If you’re making your first visit to Toronto or have always wanted to, here are seven essential places open all-season round that you should not miss when you visit Toronto:

1. CN Tower and Edgewalk

The CN Tower is an iconic landmark located at the heart of Toronto’s downtown core. This 553.3 m-high concrete observation tower was completed in 1976. The name comes from Canadian National “CN” — the railway company that built the tower. At 114 storeys high, this tower is complete with a restaurant and observation deck where you can get a 360 view of Toronto. Complete your CN Tower experience with the CN Tower Edgewalk! The EdgeWalk holds the Guinness World Record for the “World’s Highest External Walk on a Building”. This experience is not for the faint of heart — you’ll strap into the side of the CN Tower and do a full-circle hands-free walk on a 5 ft (1.5 m) wide ledge on the top of the Tower’s main pod. Make sure to book in advance to secure a spot for the ultimate Toronto experience!

2. The Queen West Neighborhood

The Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto was ranked the 2nd coolest neighbourhood in the world by Vogue and personifies the artsy and bohemian archetype of a Torontonian. Home to the best local shopping boutiques, coolest bars and restaurants, famous art hotels like The Gladstone Hotel and The Drake Hotel, and #1 hotspot for park hangs, Queen West is the spot to be. Spend a day hanging out at Trinity Bellwoods Park in the company of others with a drink in hand, spend an evening out at one of Queen West’s best restaurants like Fresh, Terroni or Otto’s Bierhalle, or at the coolest bars like Lobby, Death & Taxes, or Apt 200, and you’ll feel just like a local. Just off of Queen Street is Graffiti Alley — a tourist hot spot and the perfect insta backdrop that features graffiti that is 100% legal and celebrates Toronto’s underground art culture.

3. Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and located an hour and a half from Toronto! While this is technically not in Toronto, you must visit Niagara Falls for a day trip while you’re in the city. These natural wonders are said to be over 12,000 years old and the cascading falls are worth visiting. Whether you’re taking in the Falls from above or going on the Maid of the Mist cruise to experience the cascading waterfalls up close, you’ll be amazed at these powerful waters. The city area has become pretty commercialized with tourist attractions, so venture out past the Falls and visit the surrounding wine country and hike the Niagara Gorge to see the Niagara Whirlpool.

4. The Distillery District

Located on the East side of Toronto’s downtown core, the Distillery District takes you back in time with a modern 21st-century twist. It was first opened to the public in 2003 after the Victorian industrial buildings, that were once home to a large whiskey distillery, became transformed. Today you’ll find cobblestone streets tracing their way to Toronto’s distilleries and bars like Mill St. and Spirit of York, artisanal bakeries and cafés like Brick Street Bakery and Balzac’s, one-of-a-kind shopping boutiques from clothing to home decor, and award-winning restaurants of international cuisines like El Catrin and Cluny Bistro. Art lovers can rejoice and enjoy the galleries, marvel at the architecture and outdoor sculptures, and music and stage performances at the area’s several theatres. Visit the Distillery District in the summertime or visit in December for their annual Toronto Christmas Market where you can enjoy rides, Christmas carollers, and seasonal shopping markets while sipping on a hot chocolate and cinnamon apple cider!

Related: Visiting Toronto with CityPASS

5. Kensington Market

Kensington Market is a favourite spot among locals and tourists for its eclectic vintage shops, neighbourhood cafes, restaurants and bars, and other attractions. The charm of Kensington is thanks in part to the immigrant communities and artists that have shaped this vibrant neighbourhood. It can be overwhelming at first, but take a walk around the main streets of Kensington Ave. and Augusta Ave. You can find your favourite vintage shops for some hidden gems, hole in the wall restaurant spots, or explore in a bar crawl to Kensington’s numerous bars in the area. During the summer on the last Sunday of every month, Kensington Market becomes pedestrian-friendly to invite street performers, shoppers, and food vendors to the eccentric neighbourhood.

6. St. Lawrence Market

St. Lawrence Market is a long-standing historic landmark of Toronto. Established in 1803, St. Lawrence Market was once Toronto’s first permanent city hall and jailhouse from 1845 to 1899. Today, it is now a food market which is home to more than 50 speciality vendors known for their fresh variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, grains, baked goods and dairy products. There are 50 food stalls which serve diverse international cuisine and you can find Toronto’s own staple: the back bacon sandwich. Unique non-food items are also for sale. The North Market is primarily known for its Saturday Farmers’ Market and Sunday Antique Market. 

7. Toronto’s Many Museums and Galleries

Take a deep dive into Toronto’s art and cultural scene. No matter what you’re looking for, there is something amazing to discover for any type of art and culture enthusiast. From the fine art to the contemporary art museums in Toronto, Islamic artefacts to hockey artefacts, natural history collections to historical shoe collections, there is lots to marvel at. Beyond the art, you’ll fall in love with the architecture and design of these cultural institutions. If you are looking to explore Toronto’s art scene, be sure to check out these museums:

  • Art Gallery of Ontario — includes over 90,000 works of distinguished artists including Canada’s famous art collective, Group of Seven, Indigenous cultural works, rotating exhibits which have famously featured Yayoi Kusama, Guillermo Del Toro, Andy Warhol and more.
  • Royal Ontario Museum — extensive dinosaur fossil collection and rotating exhibits from textile design, wildlife photography, pop culture, and natural history.
  • Aga Khan Museum — features Islamic art and artefacts from historically significant Muslim civilizations, communities and diasporas from around the world. The main collection was collected by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933–2003), uncle of His Highness, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV. 
  • Hockey Hall of Fame — home of the Stanley Cup and commemorates some of NHL’s greatest players, iconic hockey moments in history, and rare hockey memorabilia.
  • Casa Loma — This Gothic Revival style mansion and garden in midtown Toronto is a historical attraction built in 1911-1914 by Canadian financier Sir Henry Pellatt. It features collections of period furnishings and antiques, artwork from The Group of Seven, a collection of antique cars, Hollywood film, and a glimpse into Toronto’s history.

Thanks to Toni-Rose for writing this guest article and sharing all the images. You can follow her on Instagram at @tonirosemabazza and check out her blog

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