The antics in Bellevue Square Park tell you all you need to know about Kensington Market. Yes, there’s a swing set, but it’s literally child’s play compared to the bongo drumming circles, tightrope walking, fire hula-hooping and occasional boomerang tossing that keep the big kids busy. Anything goes in this eccentric – some say just plain weird – neighborhood.

Colorful shops and buildings on Kensington Avenue Market in Toronto
Kensington Market is one of the unique neighborhoods of Toronto © Education Images / Getty Images

A relatively small enclave north of downtown Toronto, Kensington came to fruition in the early 20th century as ‘The Jewish Market’, a history that lives on through two heritage synagogues. In the market’s infancy, families would rig up small stands outside their homes and sell goods to one another.

Other than the cultural landscape, which has mushroomed to include immigrants from the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and Asia, little has changed. It’s an ever-busy jumble of residential houses, eateries and traditional shops like butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and cheese merchants. Covered in enough graffiti to make the tattooed lady jealous, part of Kensington’s charm is that it always seems like it could use a wash.

‘Everyone who lives in Toronto, even if they’re 100 years old, knows Kensington Market,’ says Bruce Bell, a local tour guide who makes regular pilgrimages into the market. ‘I’ve been going there since the ‘70s and physically, it’s pretty much the same.’

A Toronto fashion experience

The narrow streets are packed to the gills, especially on weekends, when everyone from young hipsters in snakeskin ankle boots to ageing hippies in Birkenstocks is sucked into the action. It’s not uncommon to encounter a girl in a muumuu singing into a carrot, a Rastafarian grooving on the sidewalk or a pigtailed granny cruising around on a low-rider bike.

If you’re curious about the source of their outrageous fashion, look no further than Kensington Avenue: this block-long strip of pimped-out Victorian houses, painted in ‘look at me’ shades like canary yellow, turquoise and scarlet, is a vintage clothing hub to be reckoned with. Racks of moth-defying garb from the last seven decades start inside the houses and explode into their front yards, creating a perpetual garage-sale atmosphere – albeit with much higher price tags. Exile (22 Kensington Ave) and Courage My Love (14 Kensington Ave) are two of the best.

Bicycles parked beside big fat burrito outlet in Kensington Market, Toronto
Kensington Market eateries are as exciting visually as they are tasty © Roberto Machado Noa / Getty Images

After forking out a little too much for that hilarious Boy Scout shirt, guilt may preclude a full-fledged restaurant meal. Conveniently, you can fill up on street eats like Jamaican patties, empanadas, arepas and burgers with a bit of pocket change. From Friday through Sunday, a couple of sweet ladies cook up especially tasty Mexican fare at a makeshift cantina in the back of Perola Supermarket (247 Augusta Ave). The cheap bites are best devoured whilst checking out new accessory stalls, which entice a good percentage of passers-by to try on fedoras or ill-fitting sunglasses.

If you have misgivings about joining the would-be circus performers in the park, installing yourself in a corner café next to a grizzled old maven and watching the spectacle slide by is the next best way to get an insider’s perspective on the market. But don’t look for green-and-white logos: chain coffee shops have yet to infiltrate the counter-culture fortress that is Kensington.

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Originally published Sept. 2011. Updated May 2019

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