Lonely Planet's top 10 Toronto hotspots

A jigsaw puzzle of distinctly flavored neighborhoods, Toronto only really makes sense when you view it as a whole. But who wants to do that? Half the fun of being here is pretending you’re eating noodles in Macau, wandering along a leafy Dublin backstreet or sipping ouzo in Athens. This is a city that takes the best of world cultures and delivers it to you in compact, neighborhood-sized pieces. Graze from ’hood to ’hood, focusing on the parts without trying to define the whole. Here are ten of the best spots to browse.

CN Tower
This funky spike remains every bit as cool and iconic as it was when it opened in 1976. Its primary function is as a 553-metre-tall radio and TV communications tower, but riding the great glass elevators up the second-highest freestanding structure in the world (Burj Khalifa in Dubai surpassed it for world's highest in 2007) is one of those things in life you just have to do. On a clear day the views from the Observation Deck are absolutely astounding, and those from the uppermost SkyPod viewing area are even more spectacular. Lay supine on the Glass Floor deck to snap a photo – rest assured that the reinforced glass is strong enough to hold 16 hippopotami. For a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, strap on a harness and attempt the EdgeWalk, a hands-free stroll outside the tower, along a breezy 116-storey-tall deck (356m).

Rogers Centre
Even if you can’t score tickets to a Toronto Blue Jays (baseball) or Toronto Argonauts (football) game, you can check out the world’s first retractable roof on a tour ($16; 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily, events permitting). Visitors can also watch vintage footage of major moments in the stadium’s history, as well as view box suites, locker rooms (without the athletes) and a museum of sport artifacts.

Toronto Islands
Once upon a time, there were no Toronto Islands. There was only an immense sandbar. On April 13, 1858, a hurricane blasted through the sandbar, swallowed a hotel and created the gap now known as the Eastern Channel. Toronto’s jewel-like islands were born – nearly two-dozen isles covering 600 acres. When you visit the close-knit, 800-strong artistic communities on Algonquin Island and Ward’s Island, expect pangs of jealousy. They’ve got a peaceful, trusting, kid-safe community, little pollution, photogenic clusters of cottages among tall maples and incredible city skyline views.

The Toronto Islands provide a nice natural respite from the metropolitan clamour of the city. Image by Derek Hatfield / CC BY 2.0 The Toronto Islands provide a nice natural respite from the metropolitan clamour of the city. Image by Derek Hatfield / CC BY 2.0

Kensington Market
Tattered around the edges, shabby-chic Kensington Market is multicultural Toronto at its most authentic. Predictably, eating here is an absolute joy, and shopping is a blast. Local specialties include fresh produce, baked goods, vintage duds and discount clothing. Lining the underbelly of Kensington Market is a seamy bohemian element. The streets are full of artists, urban hippies, punks, potheads, junkies, dealers, bikers, goths, musicians and anarchists. Graffiti says, ‘Resistance is Fertile!’, and T-shirts decry, ‘F*CK WAR.’ The streets simmer with a mildly menacing, massively chaotic, hung-over vibe, but it’s rarely unsafe.

Royal Ontario Museum
ROM’s collections bounce between natural science, ancient civilization and art exhibits. The Chinese temple sculptures, Gallery of Korean Art and costumery and textile collections are some of the best in the world. Don’t miss the cedar crest poles carved by First Nations tribes in British Columbia; the largest pole (85m) was shipped from the West Coast by train, then lowered through the museum roof, leaving only centimeters to spare.

The Royal Ontario Museum. Image by The City of Toronto / CC BY 2.0 The Royal Ontario Museum. Image by The City of Toronto / CC BY 2.0

Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
The MOCCA is the city’s only museum mandated to collect and promote works by living Canadian visual artists. It says a lot about West Queen West’s consolidation as an arts and design strip that the museum chose this district for its new facility. The permanent holdings only number about 400 works, curated since 1985, but award-winning exhibitions focus on new artists from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

The Beaches
Development took off here during the ’70s and the onslaught of beachfront construction along Lake Ontario hasn’t stopped since. Fortunately, the side streets east of Woodbine Ave still have gardens bursting with colour and quaint Victorian mansions. The three beaches themselves – Woodbine, Kew and Balmy – are good for sunbathing and picnicking. The main strip, Queen St East, a few blocks up from the lake, is chock-full of funky boutiques, inviting restaurants and old-fashioned ice cream parlors.

Any type of luxury – at a price – can be found at Bloor-Yorkville, dubbed Toronto’s ‘Mink Mile,’ where Toronto’s upper crust flock to dine and drink their way through the glitterati-graced patios of the area’s sidewalk cafes and rooftops. If you’re looking for a sneaky splurge or just some unique window-shopping, you can find some of Toronto’s most specialized stores and designer boutiques in this area’s nooks and crannies.

The sublime exterior of Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. Image by Ian Muttoo / CC BY-SA 2.0 Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. Image by Ian Muttoo / CC BY-SA 2.0

Hockey Hall Of Fame
Inside an ornate, gray stone rococo Bank of Montréal building (c 1885), this shrine to the great game helps you comprehend Canada’s passion for hockey. Check out the collection of antiquated goalkeeping masks, attempt to stop Wayne Gretzky’s virtual shot or have your photo taken with hockey’s biggest prize – the hefty Stanley Cup. Even visitors unfamiliar with this superfast, ultraviolent sport will be impressed with nostalgic hockey memorabilia the newest feature: a 3D movie, featuring archival footage of history’s greatest playoff moments.

Art Gallery Of Ontario
The AGO’s art collections are excellent and extensive – unless you have a lot of stamina, you’ll need more than one trip to take it all in. The continually expanding collection is rich with Canadian content, from rare Québécois religious statuary to First Nations and Inuit carvings to major Canadian works by Emily Carr and the Group of Seven.

This article was originally published in October 2010. It was updated in October 2014 by Sarah Richards.