After visiting Toronto’s main tourist area anchored by the big three (CN Tower, SkyDome, and Aquarium), gazing up at the towers in the Financial District, and venturing east to the St-Lawrence Market, you may feel like you’ve “done” Toronto, but trust me, you’ve barely scratched the surface.

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, many of them with a unique ethnic flavour. To really know Toronto you have to visit at least a few of them. You may know Chinatown, but have you heard of Little Korea?

Here are seven ethnic neighbourhoods that may make you feel like you’ve travelled the world without ever leaving the city!

Chinatown

Chinatown, Toronto

Toronto’s best known and most “scenic” Chinatown (there are more than one) is located downtown, with its epicentre at the corner of Dundas St. and Spadina Ave. One of the largest in North America, Toronto’s Chinatown is always busy, but especially so on week-ends when the throngs of people on the sidewalks may make you believe you’re in Hong Kong! Arrive by 11:00 am if you want to find a table for dim sum.

Chinatown restaurant window, Toronto

With produce racks spilling out of food stores, glazed ducks hanging behind restaurant windows, and large red or gold storefront signs, Chinatown is highly photogenic. It’s also a great place for cheap souvenirs and knick-knack. Just don’t expect high quality.

Feel free to take your pick among the dozens of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants. For reliable Chinese food in a nice atmosphere with friendly (English-speaking) service, try Lee Garden. Expect a line-up after 6 PM. If you just want a snack, pop into one of the bakeries and buy a filled steamed bun. My all-time favourite is BBQ pork.

Note: Chinese people will tell you that the best Chinese food is now found in Markham, a city north of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), as well as in the neighbouring town of Richmond Hill.

Nearest subway station: St-Patrick on the yellow line

Little Italy

One of the oldest ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto is Little Italy, centered around College Street, roughly between Bathurst and Ossington Ave. Look up to see the Italian flag colours on the street signs. Pizza, pasta, gelato, martini bars; it’s all here. The area has a nice atmosphere on warm summer nights when people stroll down College St. with a gelato as if on a passeggiata in Italy.

Cafe Diplomatico is a long-standing no-nonsense restaurant serving Italian food at affordable prices. For something a little fancier, try Kalendar.

Little Italy hosts two summer street festivals, and is also home to the independent Royal Cinema which shows older movies and hosts the EU Film Festival in November.

Note: There is a second Little Italy, more off-the-beaten path, along St-Clair Ave. West, to the west of Dufferin Street.

Nearest subway station: Queen’s Park on the yellow line. Take the 506 streetcar going west.

Greektown

Alexander the Great Parkette, Toronto Greektown

Alexander the Great Parkette

Greektown is centered on Danforth Avenue, and extends approximately from Chester to Donlands Ave. Although this neighbourhood offers more than just Greek businesses, the street names spelled out in Greek script leave no doubt as to who’s the dominant group here. Besides oodles of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants, you’ll also find health shops (such as The Big Carrot), clothing stores, and tea houses.

Grilled calamari, Ouzeri restaurant, Toronto

The residential area to the north of Danforth is nice to walk around with its shady sidewalks and old red-brick two-storey dwellings. Around Halloween and Christmas, residents outdo each other to stage the best and most outrageous lawn decorations.

If you get hungry, I recommend Ouzeri (with its perfectly grilled calamari and gut-busting three-course menu) or Pan (with Mediterranean cuisine rather than pure Greek).

Greektown hosts Taste of the Danforth in the summer, a food festival that attracts a large crowd.

Note: If you continue east along Danforth, past Greenwood, you enter a markedly African neighbourhood with Ethiopian restaurants and hookah bars. This area is better explored during daylight.

Nearest subway station: Chester, Pape, or Donlands on the green line

Little India

Your friends at home will probably frown when you tell them that you’ve visited Toronto’s Little India (even if you happen to live here) as this neighbourhood is not very well known. The compact area along Gerrard St. East between Coxwell and Greenwood Ave. packs in Toronto’s highest concentration of Indian restaurants, clothing, electronic stores and grocers.

Many of the restaurants serve fixed-price buffet lunches or dinners, and clothing stores offer saris in all colours of the rainbow. If you have a craving for aromatic Indian sweets, they can be found here, along with Indian spices and other cooking ingredients.

During Indian holidays, live performances are sometimes staged along the street.

Nearest subway station: Coxwell or Greenwood (green line) then take the bus south. Or hop the 506 streetcar all the way from College station.

Koreatown

Along Bloor Street, between Markham and Christie Street, you will find Koreatown, also called Little Korea. Toronto has the largest single concentration of Koreans in Canada. Starting in the late 1960s, many Koreans settled in this area, although today it’s mostly a business area and few Koreans live there. Affordable Korean restaurants, bakeries, gift shops and travel agencies line this small area.

Try a bibimbap or a warm fresh-out-of-the-oven walnut cake (those little walnut-shaped pastries you see in the windows).

Walnut cakes, Koreatown, Toronto

Note: Since it’s just a few blocks north of Little Italy, you could easily combine the two in one visit.

Nearest subway station: Christie on the green line

Little Portugal

Spreading along Dundas St. West between Shaw Street and Rusholme Road, Little Portugal is a business district that got settled during the 50s, 60s and early 70s. Portuguese pastries are famous, and if you haven’t tried a pasteis de nata yet (a creamy egg tart) you don’t know what you’re missing.

Besides residents of Portuguese descent, this neighbourhood is also home to Brazilians, so you will find Brazilian restaurants here as well. Because this area is not very well known by tourists, there is no need to fight the crowds.

Note: Immediately to the south-west of Little Italy, so you could easily combine both in a single visit. It is also fairly close to Chinatown.

Nearest subway station: St-Patrick (yellow line) and take the 505 streetcar going west. Alternatively get off at Ossington station (green line) and take bus 63 south.

Eastern European neighbourhoods

If you don’t mind travelling to the western edge of the city proper, you’ll discover Bloor West Village and Roncesvalles Village (Little Poland) where you’re likely to hear people speak Ukrainian, Polish and other Eastern European languages.

Bloor West Village is located just west of High Park, along and north of Bloor St. West, all the way to Jane Street. You’ll find hundreds of cafes, restaurants, and shops.

Roncesvalles Village is a narrow north-south strip centered on commercial street Roncesvalles (east of High Park), and bounded by Bloor and Queen Street. Polish butchers, bakeries, and restaurants share the space with two Catholic churches, the Revue Cinema which shows second-run movies, and several institutions catering to the Polish population who lives here.

Each fall, Roncesvalles is closed off to cars and the largest Polish festival in North America is held! Perogies anyone?

Nearest subway station: Runnymede or Jane station for Bloor West Village, and Dundas West for Roncesvalles Village (all on the green line)

Bonus neighbourhood: Kensington Market

If you can’t decide which ethnic neighbourhood you’d like to visit, come here!

Augusta Street

Kensington Market refers to both the commercial streets and the residential area surrounding them. The market area proper includes vintage clothing stores, food stores (fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, fish, bread, etc), restaurants, and cafes. The place has a very artistic and bohemian vibe, enhanced by the murals and whimsical sculptures found around every corner.

Jason explaining graffiti art

Originally a Jewish neighbourhood in the early decades of the 20th century, it became gradually more multi-ethnic as successive waves of immigrants moved here, attracted by its affordability. Many of them later moved to more upscale areas as they became wealthier. What they left behind is the most multi-cultural neighbourhood in the city, where Portuguese, African, Latino, Middle-Eastern, Jamaican, Jewish, and many other cultures rub shoulders.

Here is a post I wrote about a walking tour I did there.

Nearest subway station: St-Patrick or Queen’s Park on the yellow line

I hope you enjoyed reading about these seven ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto. But this is just a sample. There are more areas with a distinct character in the city. Follow this link for a complete map of Toronto neighbourhoods.

For more ways to explore lesser-known areas of Toronto on foot, you may wish to read the following posts:


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