Now that spring is here and temperatures are getting warmer, it’s time to come explore Canada’s largest city. And what best way to do that than by taking a walking tour through two of Toronto’s many culturally distinct neighbourhoods.

This past Sunday, I joined tour guide Jason Kucherawy of Toronto Urban Aventures and two other urban explorers on a walking tour of Chinatown and Kensington Market. Jason met us in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Dundas Street West. Right off the bat, he seemed like a very personable guy, and put everyone at ease. Over the next couple of hours, his stories showed an intimate knowledge of a neighbourhood where he spent the largest part of his life.

Chinatown storefront

Urban Adventures is owned by Intrepid Travel, an Australian company mostly known for its small-group adventure tours all over the world. Urban Adventures operates in over 90 cities around the globe. Its goal is to provide an off-the-beaten path look at a destination through local eyes. It gives people with only a day to spare the ability to really connect with a city.

From the AGO, we walked through Chinatown on Dundas Street and then north on Spadina Avenue where Jason pointed out his favourite Vietnamese and Chinese eateries, which sustained him during his years as a student of cultural anthropology. One thing I didn’t know: Toronto’s Chinatown used to be located where City Hall now stands before being “pushed out” for the construction of the new civic building in the early 1960’s. Shop and restaurant owners slowly acquired properties to the West, leading to the Chinatown we know today, centered at Dundas and Spadina.

Best dim sum?

Best dim sum? Who would have thought!

As we entered Kensington Market, the neighbourhood to the west, Jason’s enthusiasm and passion for street art really shone through. I didn’t remember so many murals and graffiti art from my last visit here a year or so ago. Not only does he know some of the artists personally, he was also able to explain some of the painting techniques as well as anecdotes from some of the pieces.

Jason explaining graffiti art

Jason explaining graffiti art

Of course you can’t visit Kensington without mentioning two other aspects of this eclectic multi-ethnic neighbourhood: its history and its food. Most of that history I already knew. (Believe it or not, I used to lead a foodie tour through this area 12 years ago!) Originally an enclave of the British working class, it gradually became a Jewish Market in the early 20th century as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe moved in, and was gradually occupied by various other groups from Portugal, Italy, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Middle East. Today you find Portuguese fish stores side by side with Caribbean patty shops, Mexican restaurants, Latin American grocery stores and various fruits and vegetables shops.

This fish shop sources its fish directly from the boats!

This fish shop sources its fish directly from the boats!

Jason related to us the story of some of the businesses, and recommended several of the shops and restaurants, some of which were completely new to me. If there is something that doesn’t change in Kensington, it is this wave of constant renewal, as some people make their fortunes and move to richer neighbourhoods, and new people settle in. One thing that the inhabitants of this multi-ethnic neighbourhood have in common is their support of small local businesses and their distaste for large conglomerates. Sure enough, there isn’t a Starbucks or McDonalds to be seen.

We made a stop at the long standing My Market Bakery and Jason treated us to butter tarts, a traditional Canadian dessert made of sugar, butter and raisins. Yes, it is as decadently sweet and rich as it sounds! We then had a rest at Jimmy’s Coffee where we discussed Toronto’s coffee culture over lattes.

Re-energized, we walked up Augusta Street, mostly home to Latin American shops and restaurants but also a bagel shop (where a guitarist played as we walked by), a pie shop, a vegetarian restaurant, and a hamburger joint. If you’re looking for half-decent Mexican food in Toronto, this is where you’ll find it.

Augusta Street

Augusta Street

After walking back down one of Kensington’s residential streets, we found ourselves in Bellevue Park where a status honours the “King of Kensington” (from a late 70’s sitcom filmed in the area), actor and director Al Waxman.

The two-hour tour ended up lasting two-and-a-half hours, but nobody seemed to mind, least of all our guide who was busy giving lunch place recommendations. Total cost for the tour: $30 CAD. Could you save the money and tour by yourself? Yes, you could. But you would probably miss out on the back alleys and half the murals, to say nothing of the historical facts and local information that Jason provided. And by eating at the places he suggests, you can probably save yourself at least half the cost of the tour!

Mural hidden in a back alley

Mural hidden in a back alley

Despite having lived in Toronto for 26 years, and even led tours in the area, I still learned new things from Jason, and made a mental note of a bunch of new eateries that I want to revisit soon!

Note: I was a guest of Toronto Urban Adventures on this walking tour called “Kensington Market & Chinatown”. All opinions are my own.

Update May 12, 2015: One year later, and I went on another Toronto Urban Adventure with Jason. This time, pigs were included!

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