With international travel plans still on hold, I have not been doing the trip planning that I normally would at the start of a new year. Instead, I’ve been looking for places to discover locally, and what better way to substitute travel abroad than exploring the cultures of Toronto?
Toronto, Ontario is the most diverse city in Canada and one of the most multicultural in the world. In the 2016 census, 51.5% of its 2.9 million residents identified as belonging to visible minority groups and over 180 different dialects are spoken. It is not just the demographic diversity that makes Toronto unique; it is known for embracing its cross-cultural nature, perhaps best reflected by the mosaic of thriving ethnic neighbourhoods that make up the city. Here are a few notable ones that are worth visiting if you find yourself in the area.
📍Nearest subway station: Spadina
Centred at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West in the downtown core, Toronto’s oldest existing Chinatown was established in the late 1950s. The area developed as a consequence of the government expropriating the first Chinatown which had been set in the area that now houses New City Hall and Nathan Phillip’s Square, thereby pushing its native residents and businesses westward. The current Chinatown was previously a Jewish district, later becoming an enclave primarily made up of immigrants from southern China and Hong Kong. There is also a small but significant population from Vietnam, who have opened eateries here and serve some of the best Vietnamese food in Toronto.
Since the 1990s, downtown Chinatown has been redefining itself in the face of changing demographics and gentrification. Once an intensely busy pocket of the city, I have personally noticed the decline in foot traffic and business development in the area. In fact, most Torontonians in the know will advise visitors to venture out to the suburban Chinatowns of Scarborough and Markham for more extensive options in Chinese cuisine.
📍 Nearest subway station: Dundas
Little Tokyo is an unofficial ethnic neighbourhood, referring to a short stretch of Dundas West between Bay Street and University Avenue. In recent years, it has become home to an abundance of Japanese restaurants, notably Japango for sushi; Uncle Tetsu’s Angel Cafe for Japanese desserts; Don Don Izakaya for small plates; and Sansotei Ramen for noodles. It doesn’t compare to the Japantowns found in other major cities like San Francisco, but is at least a centrally located area that serves as a good start to a Japanese culinary journey around the city.
📍 Nearest subway station: Christie
Koreatown in Seaton Village is another historic Asian ethnic enclave in Toronto. Initially populated by people from Central and South America, an influx of Korean immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s led to the development of Koreatown in this area northwest of the downtown core, running along Bloor Street West between Christie and Bathurst Streets. In recent decades, the Korean population of Toronto has grown and extended into the district of North York, leading to establishment of a Koreatown North as well.
I spend more time in the Seaton Village Koreatown, where I enjoy trips to P.A.T Central, Toronto’s first Korean supermarket; The Fry, for Korean fried chicken; Buk Chang Dong, for soon tofu; and Hodo Kwaja, for walnut cakes. Oh, and don’t forget about Korean BBQ! This is also the neighbourhood to go for a well-priced and nice haircut, as there are several salons with stylists who actually know how to properly handle Asian hair.
📍 Nearest subway station: Dundas West
Within the neighbourhood of Parkdale in west Toronto, you will find Little Tibet. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 3000 Tibetans immigrated to Toronto, making it the largest Tibetan Canadian community in North America. Since then, a concentration of Tibetan restaurants has opened in the area, serving such regional specialties as momos and butter tea. In the summer, the Students for a Free Tibet hosts a Momo Crawl, where participants get the chance to taste a selection of these steam filled dumplings from the restaurants around Little Tibet. It’s one of my favourite annual food events in Toronto.
Little Tibet and surrounding Parkdale are another part of the city facing the consequences of rapid gentrification. For decades, Parkdale has been been the site of low income housing and settlement for recent immigrants. With the rise of new condo developments, trendy shops, and their accompanying rent increases, the most vulnerable members of this community are at risk of being pushed out and further marginalized.
📍 Nearest subway station: Dundas West
West of Parkdale lies the neighbourhood of Roncesvalles Village, culturally known as Little Poland. If you have an appetite for Eastern European delicacies, this is the place to be. A walk through the streets of Roncesvalles will bring you to delicatessens and restaurants serving hand-made pierogies, juicy sausages, sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, and traditional soups. In September each year, the area is host to the Roncesvalles Polish Festival, North America’s largest celebration of Polish culture. In 2019, I went to the festival for the pierogies and incidentally had the chance to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well.
📍 Nearest subway station: Ossington
Toronto’s Little Italy is centred on College Street, approximately on a stretch between Harbord Street and Dundas Street and extending east-west from Bathurst Street to Ossington Avenue. Italians first arrived in Toronto in large numbers during the early 20th century, initially settling in the area then known as The Ward on University Avenue and College Street. Following World War I, several thousand more Italians came to Canada and by the 1920s, many had moved west of Bathurst Street and into the Palmerston neighbourhood, establishing the first official Little Italy.
Today, you can find a plethora of Italian owned businesses and restaurants here. Also, in keeping with its Catholic tradition, the city’s largest Good Friday procession takes place here along College Street. The annual Taste of Little Italy celebrates the city’s Italian gastronomy, although I still haven’t found a place with tiramisu that compares to the ones we had in Rome. The neighbourhood continues to evolve and has now attracted an influx of Portuguese, Chinese, and Vietnamese residents — making it one of the most multicultural communities in Toronto.
📍 Nearest subway station: Dufferin
Just west of Little Italy is Portugal Village, bounded by Lansdowne Avenue to the west and Bathurst Street to the east. Although there are several businesses along Dundas Street West and College Street, the area is mostly residential. My most vivid memories of this neighbourhood while growing up in Toronto were passing through during high stakes football matches. If the Portuguese team wins, be prepared to be met by excited crowds revelling on the streets.
In terms of food recommendations, trying Portuguese-style peri peri chicken and potatoes is a must. 🤤
📍 Nearest subway station: Pape
The Danforth in east Toronto has been an ethnic enclave of Greek immigrants since the period following World War I. Later on in the 1960s, the area saw an influx of Greek immigrants who were fleeing political and economic unrest that eventually culminated in seizure of power by the Greek military junta. By the 1970s and 1980s, the Danforth became known as the largest Greektown in North America.
Greektown boasts one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per kilometre in the world, highlighted during the Taste of the Danforth food festival that takes place annually in mid-August. I would actually recommend visiting outside of festival week so that you can properly enjoy the experience without the packed crowds.
📍 Nearest subway station: Greenwood
Also known as the Gerrard India Bazaar, Little India is located in the Leslieville neighbourhood east of downtown Toronto. It is situated along a portion of Gerrard Street between Greenwood Avenue and Coxwell Avenue, initially established in 1972 with opening of the Naaz Theatre which screened Bollywood and Pakistani films. This attracted large numbers of Indo-Canadian visitors to the area, leading to rapid expansion and development of hundreds of stores and restaurants. Little India is now ranked as the seventh largest South Asian marketplace in North America.
Since the late 2000s, Toronto’s South Asian population has expanded into other parts of the city, including multiple neighbourhoods within the suburban districts of Etobicoke and Scarborough. Although Little India has lost its central position in South Asian commerce, it remains an important part of Toronto’s cultural history.
The melting pot: Kensington Market
📍 Nearest subway station: Spadina
If you want to find a place that offers a diverse experience of Toronto’s various cultures, Kensington Market is probably the city’s best example of a melting pot. This distinctive neighbourhood in downtown Toronto adjacent to Chinatown has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada, known for its eclectic shops, cafes, and attractions.
In the early 1900s, the area was flooded with Jewish immigrants mostly from Eastern Europe, turning it into an “old world marketplace” that continued to flourish for the next 30 years. Since the late 1960s, Kensington has become an highly diverse area, hosting immigrants with backgrounds ranging from Eastern Europe, Portugal, Italy, China, East India, and Afro-Caribbean. Of course, the best way to enjoy this melding of cultures is to eat! I recommend Seven Lives for tacos; Golden Patty for Jamaican patties; Rasta Pasta for jerk chicken; Blackbird Baking Co. for bread and French pastries; and Daan Go for cute Asian flavour inspired cakes. During normal summers through to mid-autumn, Kensington Market hosts Pedestrian Sundays, where the neighbourhood goes car-free and vendors and artists line the streets with their wares.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip around the world, within Toronto!