Stroll one of downtown Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods to uncover its multicultural past and present.
For more than a century Kensington Market has served as a multicultural gathering place and shopping district, where successive waves of immigration have left behind traces of their presence—even as new newcomers arrive to make their own mark.
For the visitor, the result is a walkable, shoppable, dine-able museum to Toronto’s multicultural history. To take your historic stroll of the neighbourhood, hop on the 506 College streetcar to Borden Street and start walking east to reach your first destination.
British and Irish Kensington
Immigrants from the British Isles started to transform the area west of Spadina Avenue from agricultural land into a neighbourhood in the 19th century. You’ll notice many of the storefronts conceal the type of Victorian brick house that they constructed all over Toronto.
Our first stop is a place of worship they built: St. Stephen-in-the-Fields (103 Bellevue Ave.). It’s an Anglican church that also holds concerts, which can be a pleasant way to admire the architecture inside.
Next, stop at Makom (402 College St.), a Jewish cultural centre dedicated to keeping the community’s presence alive in Kensington. Note the window, which says: “Butter, cheese, cream, eggs. Fresh every day” in Yiddish, a language you would have heard a lot around here in the first half of the 20th century, when Jewish immigrants from Europe were busy transforming the neighbourhood into the market district.
By the 1930s, many European Jewish immigrants worked in the garment factories along Spadina Avenue, and businesses sprouted up to cater to their needs. Many of those businesses migrated away or closed when the Jewish community established a firmer footing in other neighbourhoods further north.
Two synagogues stayed behind, however: the Kiever Shul (25 Bellevue Ave.), which originally opened in 1927, and the Anshei Minsk Synagogue (10 St. Andrew St.).
In the 1960s, the Canadian government took steps to eliminate overt racial discrimination from its criteria for immigration into the country, which encouraged people to come to Toronto from the Caribbean.
By 1985, Jamaican-Canadians found themselves locked in a battle with federal food regulators, who insisted Jamaican beef patties must be sold as “pies.” The now-departed Kensington Patty Palace on Baldwin Street fought back. Not only did the community win, but the Jamaican patty has also since become a Toronto food staple (watch for hurried commuters grabbing them to go at subway food stands). To try that local experience, stroll over to Golden Patty (187 Baldwin St.); their buttery, flaky patties include veggie, goat and of course the ever-popular spicy beef.
Latin American Kensington
Most recently, Kensington has become a haven for Latin American-Torontonians. On Augusta Avenue you can sample delicacies from their homelands. Start at a cluster of specialist takeout counters at 214 Augusta Avenue, offering everything from empanadas to churros. For a full meal, the taqueria El Trompo (277 Augusta Ave.) is top notch—try the tongue tacos, trust us.
And now … bagels? NU Bügel (240 Augusta Ave.) boasts weekend line-ups for its wood-fired bagels, some of the best in the city. The owners aren’t Jewish; they’re originally from Venezuela. Their perfectly dense and chewy little rings are a tasty homage to Kensington’s history—bringing the market full circle, as it were.
Finally, looking for a souvenir before you go? Head to One Heart (178 Baldwin St.). Owner and jewellery maker Walter Muñoz—who immigrated from Guatemala—extends a friendly greeting to every customer, giving us hope that the market will remain a welcoming place for many years (and many people) to come.