Our local guide takes us through Toronto’s myriad of diverse neighbourhoods, from morning coffee to evening cocktails, and shows us that the city is a cultural hop-scotch of authentic and exciting experiences.

Ripley Aquarium's Lizzie Sibbald
Ripley’s Aquarium’s Lizzie Sibbald

“Toronto’s neighbourhoods are an attraction on their own — all so distinct, each with their own vibe and distinct communities,” says Lizzie Sibbald, Marketing and Communications Manager at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in downtown Toronto. Originally from Kilkenny, Ireland, this 30-year-old has been living in Toronto for seven years. She encourages visitors and locals alike to “neighbourhood-hop” to get the full picture of the city. “The Junction, High Park, the Annex, Riverdale — they’re all really different.”

“ Toronto feels like a small city in a lot of ways, with a real sense of community in all the distinct neighbourhoods. You get something different from each one.” — Lizzie Sibbald

Caffeinate in Cabbagetown

Lizzie is a big fan of The Epicure Shop, a community coffee house on Parliament Street near her home in Cabbagetown, just east of the downtown core. “They do awesome iced coffees and the most amazing fresh-baked goods, with a beautiful food counter — it’s a real staple in the community.” This part of town is good for all kinds of tasty treats, including the espresso-based coffees at nearby Jet Fuel Coffee, one of Toronto’s oldest independent coffee shops.

A person looks at the Toronto skyline from Riverdale Park in Toronto's east end
The view of Toronto's downtown skyline is unmatched from Riverdale Park

Clear your mind in the Don Valley

Before the shops open, there’s time for early risers to wander over to Riverdale Park for some of the best views of the city. “You can see the entire Toronto skyline from there,” Lizzie says. “It’s the perfect place to bike or walk around on the trails. You can take your breakfast or a picnic lunch and just watch the cityscape.” There’s an outdoor skating rink in the winter, when the hillside of the park becomes the best toboggan run in town.

“This is a spooky choice, but I also go for walks in the Toronto Necropolis off Riverdale Park East,” Lizzie says. “It’s almost like you’re in a forest.” She also likes to hike the trails and wooden staircases through Crothers Woods in the Lower Don River Parklands. And if the weather isn’t cooperating, there’s always something going on in the pavilions and markets of the Evergreen Brickworks.

Grab brunch on St. Clair West

While there are hundreds of great places in Toronto for brunching, Lizzie’s favourite is Emma’s Country Kitchen, particularly for its fresh-baked doughnuts and specialty pancakes. “It’s the best ever, one of my hidden gems – I almost don’t tell people about it! The staff is so friendly. It’s just a short streetcar ride away, so you can just pop up and then back downtown if you like.” Other signature highlights here include Biscuits and Gravy, Eggs Benedict and Brunch Poutine.

The shops and boutiques of Queen Street West neighbourhood
Hunt for vintage finds on Queen Street West

Go sustainable shopping Downtown

Lizzie is big into Toronto’s vintage stores, which pepper Queen Street West. She favours the iconic Black Market and its offshoot Public Butter, which stocks more premium and collectors’ vintage pieces. “Tribal Rhythm has more of a ’40s and ’50s vibe, but it’s real hidden gem for anyone wanting more quirky, out-there kinds of clothing,” she says. “Thrifting is such a big part of people’s lives right now.”

Fashion aside, antiquarian bookstore The Monkeys Paw on Bloor Street West is also one of Lizzie’s preferred places to browse. “It is also home to the world’s first Biblio-Mat, a vending machine that spits out a random book for you for $3.”

The exterior of Mahjong Bar in Toronto
You'd never guess that Mahjong Bar is hidden behind this storefront on Dundas West

Drink your way through the West End

“I missed the nightlife and restaurant scene the most during these past two years of shutdowns,” Lizzie says. Accordingly, she has quite the list of cocktail bars and taprooms at the ready. “A pre-dinner cocktail is never a bad thing!”

On the west side, Lizzie’s favourite is the almost-hidden Mahjong Bar on Dundas Street West. It’s like a little secret,” she says. “It looks like a store until you get to the very back, where they do an amazing drink called the Pirate Punch — a mix of rum, peach, pineapple, lime and ginger beer — the perfect summertime cocktail.” She also favours Big Trouble in Chinatown for its Gin Lemonade and Lychee Mojitos, plus the tantalizing mix of pan-Asian small plates.

Paradise Grapevine
Sip wine on Paradise Grapevine's secluded back patio

Other cocktail cornerstones on and off the beaten west-end path include the luxe vibes of Project Gigglewater, the laid-back patio of Bellwoods Brewery, the greenhouse effect of Paradise Grapevine and the retro glassware at The Shameful Tiki Room.

Bring your appetite absolutely everywhere

The international scope of Toronto’s culinary scene knows no bounds. Whether it’s the Northern Thailand magic of Lizzie-approved Sabai Sabai on Bloor Street East or the internationally inspired fare at Paris Paris on Ossington Avenue, Toronto’s gastronomic offerings are killer. “My favourite small restaurant right now is Bar Raval, a College Street tapas bar where the menu is always changing,” Lizzie says. “It’s great for groups or just by yourself, with an awesome atmosphere and an amazing patio—one of my top picks.” 

Let your curiosity run wild

“Toronto has a sense of chill about it that I haven’t found anywhere else, and it has a lot more personality and charm than a lot of other cities I’ve visited,” Lizzie says. Safe to say, she is enjoying her adopted home. “On one hand, Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America—a tech hub, a busy financial centre. But on the other hand, it feels like a small city in a lot of ways, with a real sense of community in all the distinct neighbourhoods. You get something different from each one.”