Get to know Toronto better

Kensington Market sign post Toronto

Toronto is Canada’s largest city and also its most culturally diverse. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each distinctive with its own unique character and selection of restaurants and shops to enjoy.

For the citizens of Toronto (known as “Torontonians”) and visitors the variety of culinary and cultural experiences is as varied as its people. More than 40% of the city’s population was born outside of Canada, diversity is an aspect of life here that is not only accepted, it’s celebrated. The “Canadian identity” is one of mixed backgrounds and a mosaic of cultures. Most Canadians identify themselves with one or more “foreign” origins and cultural pride is something all levels of government support with funding for festivals and celebrations throughout the year. In Toronto there are numerous events centered around international festivals and holidays from the four corners of the globe. You can travel the world in a single day by visiting several neighbourhoods where cultural groups have settled into miniature versions of their homeland. Little Italy, Koreatown, Chinatown, Greektown, Little Portugal, and Little India are some of the names bestowed upon parts of Toronto that have come to be known for their ethnic character, shaped by people who have left their home countries to settle here. They have brought with them their beliefs, their customs, their cuisine and their dreams and together have helped create a city that ranks as one of the safest and most prosperous in North America.

Toronto from Nathan Philips Square skyscrapers

Travelling Toronto is like travelling the world, and as a local Torontonian, having the world at my doorstep is something I miss when I go abroad. I think what I miss most when I’m away is the food. Here I can have French crepes for breakfast, enjoy Chinese dim sum for lunch and stuff myself with Ethipoian food for dinner.  Later in the evening I can satisfy my sweet tooth with Italian gellato – all made and served up by people who find the food much less exotic than I do.

The options for entertainment and recreation here are hard to beat. With world class museums, Broadway style shows, independent theatre productions, stand-up comedy, and countless art galleries, any culture hound will find more than enough to keep themselves busy for days at a time. Toronto is called a “city in a park” with plenty of green spaces, both small and manicured and large and untamed to explore or to simply relax in under a tree with a good book.

Toronto is easy to navigate either by public transit or by foot. Most Torontonians who live downtown find having a car more of a nuisance than a convenience and bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation for many with mild winters making almost cycling year-round a possibility.

Toronto is best experienced on foot and at a leisurely pace to allow time for popping into shops and to enjoy a coffee at any of the many franchise and independent cafes when one feels like a break or a caffeine fix.

For visitors, having a local guide give you a tour and advice on where to spend your time is money well spent. For locals, taking a tour of Toronto will reveal a side of the city you might not have known, and will give a better appreciation of Toronto than you have ever had. Most Torontonians are unaware of the tumultuous past and the multitude of stories that make up the city’s history. Our history is  punctuated with cholera epidemics, catastrophic fires, riots, and rebellion. Toronto’s story reads like a coming of age epic, growing  from small British colony with a nearby fort to today’s multicultural “megacity”.

Toronto is a phenomenal place to visit and an even better place to live. I hope you take the time to get to know this city better with us through a Toronto Urban Adventure!

Local Travel Movement

St Lawrence Market in Toronto Canada

I think there is a shift happening in the kinds of travel experiences many people are seeking: a drift away from traditional sun and sand vacations towards a more meaningful type of trip. The cruises and resort vacations will always be popular, but it seems more and more people are seeking out moments of cultural authenticity, deeper local experiences, and ways to connect with their chosen destination. To me, these are the elements that define the essence of the local travel movement and what this new breed of travelers are seeking.

Cultural authenticity. People are seeking cultural experiences that are REAL. Travelers want to eat local food, see local art, touch (and buy) local craft items, and meet the people who live in the destination. They don’t want replicas, menus “tamed” for foreign tastes, or actors in costumes parading before them. They want to see the culture as it is, not how gift shops package it.

Deeper local experiences. It means cultural immersion at a level not possible at a resort or at an airport souvenir shop. Travelers might want accommodation other than the big hotel chains, or even a homestay. They might want  a meal at a restaurant only locals know about, to learn a local dance, or have a revealing and enlightening conversation with a member of the local community. Many want to plunge as deeply into the experience as possible and try as much as they can. As a student of anthropology, we would call this “participant observation”, where the observer participates in whatever activity their anthropological subject is doing to help better understand the culture. It’s not just a “when in Rome” attitude these sorts of travelers have, it’s more of a “going native” approach to interaction with a sincere interest and curiosity about the local culture at the heart of it.

Connecting to the place. Travelers want to connect to the people and the place they are visiting and create a meaningful travel experience through those connections. They want to feel like they have done more than just relax and recharge – they want to feel as though they have learned something and or they have become more aware of themselves and the world in which they live. For travelers who seek a local travel experience, it is difficult to do so without some sort of “in” or way to connect with locals. A tourist with a tourist map in hand will likely only find the tourist attractions and sites with the budget to advertise in tourist publications. It’s difficult for most travelers to find the deep, authentic experiences on their own, especially when time is limited. The best way to travel local is with a local guide. In anthropological research, this guide or “informant” is essential – a person who can interpret their culture or help explain things to the anthropologist (or in this case the traveler). The trick is finding a guide who is aware enough of their own culture to explain the finer idioms and nuances (without a mere shrug of their shoulders) and lead the traveler quickly past the souvenir stands and tourist attractions, off the beaten path and down the back streets into the communities to show them how people really live.

Something I’ve left out of my definition of local travel is the benefit to the local community. It is quite possible to have a local travel experience that does not in any way benefit the local community, but I think the best kind of travel is done when issues of responsibility and sustainability are addressed and considered as important as the accommodation and destination itself. Are the hotel staff paid a living wage? Does money spent in a store or hotel stay in the community, or are profits sent off to a foreigner’s bank account? Is the food local, or is it imported at a great environmental cost? Will visitors continue to benefit the community indefinitely? Ideally, local travel done correctly – done with the benefit of the community in mind – result in a win-win for both the traveler and the people they encounter, from the local shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and taxi drivers to the local tour guide.

Where does Tour Guys fit into the local travel scene?

  • Our guides live in the cities we operate in. A Tour Guys tour is done by a local guide showing you the places they know and love. We share ways to best get around town, the coolest things to see and do, and often ways to save you time and money while visiting!
  • Tour Guys supports local businesses. We’re a local small business, and when we suggest someplace to shop, eat or grab a drink, it’s not WalMart or McDonald’s. It’s not a Starbucks (although we like them). We want our guests to spend their money in a way that maximizes the benefit to the local community – at independently owned and operated establishments!
  • Our tours are designed to give our foreign guests a better idea of what it’s like to live, work, and play in the city. We want them to understand why we love our country and the city we call home as much as we do. We also want our local guests to see their city in a new light and hopefully fall in love with it even more deeply than before! We think our tours are a nice mix of great stories, personal anecdotes, advice and opinions – all wrapped up in a nice walk with a friendly local… That would be us of course.

For more on the growing local travel movement and to get involved with (or inspired by) it, visit Local Travel.

Best Pubs and Restaurants in Toronto

A Tour Guys’ guide to eating and drinking downtown Toronto

I’ve put together a list of my favourite downtown Toronto pubs and restaurants. Everyone has their favourites, and these are the ones I personally like the most. Therefore in my mind, they are the best and are the pubs and restaurants I patronize with my friends and where I take people who are visiting from out of town. They are  listed in no particular order by neighbourhood (some with a major attraction nearby) and all are considered “downtown”.

Old Toronto (St Lawrence Market, Hockey Hall of Fame area)

Old Spaghetti Factory – It’s kitschy, it’s busy, but the pasta is always fresh, delicious and the portions are great value. Popular with tourists and people celebrating birthdays (when your meal is free)! Great for kids!

C’est What? – This cosy basement pub is renowned for its craft beer selection and its menu reflects Canada’s cultural (and culinary) diversity. I really like their coffee and chocolate hazelnut beers. The antijitos are really good too. Lack of a patio is not good for summer business, but the comfy couches around the fireplace are the best seats during the colder months.

Betty’s on King – Originally opened as “BettyFord’s” after the clinic founded by the former American First Lady, it has since been renamed, and is a favourite watering hole for students from nearby George Brown College and reporters and media types from the nearby newspaper offices. Inexpensive food and a large selection of drafts keep bringing me back.

Queen St. West (MuchMusic, Entertainment District)

The Rivoli – Nice atmosphere, interesting (and delicious) menu, and live music or comedy in the back room. Try the “Wookie balls”, pad thai, burger or roti.

Trimurti – My favourite Indian restaurant in Toronto. It is the bar by which I measure all other butter chicken and channa masala dishes. The owners and staff are wonderful and their lunch buffet… out of this world.

Chez Cora – The smiling sun on the logo is to me the image of contentment, and its how I feel after breakfast here. The franchise started in Quebec and I squealed like a 12-year-old girl surprised with a new pet pony when I saw one open in Toronto.

Baldwin Village (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Sin and Redemption – opened just a couple of years ago across from a Catholic church, this Belgian style pub has a great selection of beers, nice ambiance, and great service. Try Fruli strawberry beer or Delirium beer.

Village Idiot – Across the street from the Art Gallery of Ontario, right next door to Sin and Redemption (mentioned above), this place is a cozy British style pub with a fine selection of beer from the Isles, including one of my Scottish favourites: Tennants.

Kuni Sushi-ya – Shortly after this spot opened on Baldwin Street, actor Samuel L. Jackson ate there, loved it, and has been back again. I like this place for its Japanese curry chicken katsu among other things. The food here is great value and you don’t pay tax on take-out orders over $20!

Margharitas – I once brought some Mexican teenagers here and they were impressed. They thought they were going to be having “Taco Bell” type food (the only Mexican food they thought we had) and were really impressed. My favourite dish here is the chicken burrito in the mole (cocoa) sauce washed down with their refreshing sangria… followed by a siesta.

Chinatown and Kensington Market

Dark Horse Espresso Bar – I’ve found the new location at 215 Spadina Ave (Chinatown) to be perfect for casual meetings and chitchat. The coffee is prepared perfectly and the baked good are great.

Pho Hung – I have to admit I have not sampled the pho (soup) here, but the “19A” is one of my all-time favourite lunches. Greens topped with vermicelli noodles, chopped chicken and a spring roll with all the hot sauce and dark sweet hoisin sauce you can squirt on top of it all. Finish with a strong Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk (hot or iced) and you’ve got a power lunch for less than $10.

Rol San – When it’s 3am and I crave late-night Chinese, this is where I go. HUGE portions served up with speed and efficiency until 4am make this Chinatown place popular. Try the sweet and sour pork, garlic baby bok-choy, and the Singapore style noodles. They also serve dim sum!

Grilled Cheese – Two guys closed up their restaurant in New York City and brought it to Kensington Market. Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches served with potato chips. They open late (lunch) and are open late (after the bars close).

The Blue Banana Market – It’s not a bar or restaurant, but this amazing gift store has a little coffee bar inside that serves up organic baked goods and Balzac’s coffee, which is awesome.

Yonge and Dundas Square (Eaton Centre)

Eggspectations – I was first introduced to this franchise in Ottawa, and was thrilled to see one open on Yonge St in the Eaton Centre. I do prefer the French name Cirque des Ouefs – “The Egg Circus”. How fun does that sound?

The Mansion Keg – If you like steak and are prepared to spend a nice sum of money one one you will remember for a very long time, then check out this restaurant in a swanky historical (and haunted) Victorian Mansion. At my most recent meal here at one point I felt the steak I was eating was too good for me. But I kept quiet and pretended otherwise.


Spuntini – This is where a lot of celebrities dine when they are in T.O. so if you want to treat yourself (or someone special) to a memorable Italian fine-dining experience, look no further than this Yorkville hotspot. It’s kind of fun to overhear snippets of conversation about riding cubs and indoor pool troubles at home. Best value is the penne in vodka cream sauce for $13. Bravo! Go early ( before 6pm) or make a reservation.

Hemingway’s – It’s a slice of New Zealand in Toronto. Although it’s in the trendy Yorkville ‘hood, it’s not expensive. This place has an amazing patio that gets packed after work, especially on Fridays. Try the butter chicken!

Eat A Pita – It’s a little lunch hole in the wall near Yonge and Bloor St and sets itself apart from others in the falafel department by frying them right there in front of you. Talk about fresh! The shawarma is excellently seasoned, made with care, and the sandwich/pop special is $5. Win! When I worked in the area, I used to eat there at least once a week.

Distillery District

Mill Street Brew Pub – In the Distillery District, when the shooting wrapped for the movie “Chicago” a few years back, the bar set was closed, Mill Street moved in. They make two of my all-time favourite beers – Mill Street Organic and Mill Street Coffee Porter (brewed with Balzac’s coffee). The food here is also exceptional – traditional pub fare with a gastro-twist.

Little Italy

Amato Pizza – My first delivery pizza from Amato was so incredible it almost prompted a thank-you call. The guy who made my pizza wrote “Thanks! Eat more Amato!” on the plain white pizza box and signed his name. Not the cheapest delivery pizza, but well worth the few extra bucks. They serve pizza by the slice, as well as delivery, and have several locations around Toronto.

Sneaky Dee’s – My friends and I lovingly called it “Sneaky Disease” when it was one of our regular haunts back in university. It’s sketchy looking as hell, covered in graffiti, plastered with old posters and junk on the walls and speakers pump out what amounts to my CD collection circa 1994 (grunge rock and brit-pop). It also serves up some of the best tex-mex food and beer at a bargain. Brunch is excellent, and I love their Hawaiian nacho platter with ham and pineapple. Upstairs is a great bar for live music!

The Annex

Insomnia – This internet cafe turned internet cafe/restaurant/bar turned restaurant/bar has been a long-time favourite, ever since I lived nearby as a student. Fun martinis, killer banana chocolate pancakes for brunch, and really nice servers are just a few of the many things this pace has going for it. And it’s open until 2am!

Sarah’s Shawarma and Falafel – For a very long time my favourite shawarma in the city, and still a place I just can’t seem to pass by without entering. Try the chicken shawarma in a pita with a bit of the hot sauce and wash it down with a mango nectar.

Boulevard Café – Many people list this as their favourite Latin American restaurant in the city, and you can count me among them. The delicious, aromatic Peruvian cuisine is unique, leans slightly towards seafood, and is served by outstanding staff. I can’t say enough about this place.

Olympic Torch Relay in Creemore

Jason, the Toronto Tour Guy here. On December 29th, I had an AMAZING time in Creemore ON running with the Olympic Flame. There was supposed to be a live feed online of my run, but it didn’t happen. My friend Kim took a video of the whole thing with my camera and I uploaded it to YouTube. Here it is:

Tour Guys will be running walking tours throughout the duration of the Olympic Games in Vancouver. Keep your eye on our website for details, follow us on Twitter, or become a fan on facebook!

Happy New Year everyone!

Happy Holidays from Tour Guys

The holidays are upon us, and we want to wish everyone the merriest of Christmases, happiest of holidays and the most seasonal of greetings!

Happy Holidays from Tour GuysWe hope to see you on one of our walking tours in the new year! 2010 is going to be a great year for Toronto, and even better for Vancouver I hear. Something about a big sporting event is happening there I think. 😉