Express Your Artistic Side in Toronto

1. Where to Stay

The GladstonePhoto: Courtesy of Gladstone

At the refurbished Gladstone Hotel (from 165 CAD) in scruffy Parkdale, 37 artist-designed rooms and suites—ranging from a cozy Canuck cabin to a quirky teen boudoir—epitomize the area’s tacky-trendy vibe. The hotel’s Melody Bar plays host to raucous karaoke showdowns (often pitting Blondie versus Rush) on Thursday through Sunday nights.

With its myriad of artists in residence, bars, and exhibition spaces, the Drake Hotel (from 179 CAD) has become a primary driving force behind the Queen West neighborhood’s gentrification. The hotel’s high-ceilinged rooms and private yoga studio appeal mainly to globe-trotting creatives, whether film-festival directors or revolving members of local rock collective Broken Social Scene.

For a more refined crash pad, check into the Hôtel Le Germain (from $245 CAD), a sleek and modern boutique in the midst of Toronto’s downtown. Stocked with all manner of scented soaps and Zen-inspired linens, the rooms seem custom-suited to calming overstimulated minds.

2. Where to Eat

Pho Hung in ChinatownPhoto: Courtesy of Pho Hung

Bleary-eyed bohemians and Vice readers recharge on weekend mornings with oatmeal pancakes at Mitzi’s Café, a chilled-out refuge of mismatched mugs and a hodgepodge of furniture on a quiet, tree-lined side street in Parkdale.

Toronto’s Chinatown stuffs starving artists’ stomachs cheaper and more quickly than anywhere else. Vietnamese soups at Pho Hung (350 Spadina Ave.; 416-593-4274) provide lemongrass-scented aromatherapy, while the dangling BBQ pork hides and noodle makers behind the window at King’s Noodle House (296 Spadina Ave.; 416-598-1817) beckon to curious passersby. For the best lamb dumplings (a delicacy in Western China and Southeast Ontario), squeeze into Mother’s Dumplings (79 Huron St.; 416-217-2008).

With a core philosophy of organic (often local) ingredients served at reasonable prices (appetizers under $10; entrées under $20 CAD), Niagara Street Café provides candlelit romance and a terrific wine list. Sommelier-owner Anton Potvin has a thing for local chanteuse Feist, whose songs occasionally warm the small space, tucked away in the King West neighborhood.

A huge nose sculpture above the door is the only sign for Gio Rana’s Really Really Nice Restaurant (1220 Queen St. E.; 416-469-5225). The lively Italian spot—located in a converted bank in new “It” hood Leslieville—deals in shared portions, long waits, and killer osso buco.

3. What to Do

Museum of Contemporary Canadian ArtPhoto: Courtesy of Walter Willems

At the heart of the music and arts scene sits Queen West, a seedy strip of low-rent apartments until a few years back. Walking east from Gladstone Street—where art galleries will soon outnumber repair shops—stop into Camera, a cinephile’s sanctuary owned by director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter). The bar hosts free Saturday screenings of art-house flicks and docs.

A brisk five minutes down Queen West, the recently opened Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art has become a permanent home for exhibits and installations of everyone from local performance artists to the late national icon Emily Carr. The mammoth, mind-bending sculptures of Walter Redinger are on display from February 2 to March 18.

Elsewhere on the avenue, grab some retro swag at 69 Vintage, and a “road pop” (Canadian slang for quick drink) at the hipster HQ, the Social (1100 Queen St. W.; 416-532-4474). For a more genteel break, sip tea from vintage china and snack on Dr. Seuss–inspired cakes at the Red Tea Box (696 Queen St. W.; 416-203-8882).

On frosty nights, settle in at the Horseshoe Tavern, the legendary musical anchor of Queen West. The venue has been rocking for 60 years and will be packed with explosive young bands during March’s Canadian Music Week, an industry conference and blizzard of gigs.

4. Insider’s Tip

Value VillagePhoto: Courtesy of Value Village

Swish vintage clothing stores along Queen West may surely snag your eye with that perfect ironic T-shirt, but true Toronto hipsters are so over the outrageous markups, which can run as high as $40 CAD. To hit the source of these boutiques, spend a few hours picking through one of the city’s eight Value Villages, Wal-Mart-size superstores where bargain-hunting immigrants and fad-hopping teens fight over previously loved (yet still mint-condition) $6 Lacoste windbreakers.

5. An Oddball Day

The Pedestrian Sunday street fairs take over Kensington Market from May through October.Photo: Himy Syed/Courtesy of P.S. Kensington

Kensington Market is the liveliest neighborhood in the city, the Toronto equivalent of the Lower East Side packed into four square blocks. Start Sunday off with the Bella! Did You Eat? brunch at the Free Times Café, featuring live klezmer and the best Jewish breakfast buffet this side of the Catskills. Pick up four-for-one suits at Tom’s Place, a Hungarian haberdashery crammed with designer bargains and shtick-spewing salesmen. Scan the Danish teak furniture and West German housewares at Bungalow. Then get spaced out at the Hot Box, a funky Café with a menu of hemp-seed salads and “stonerwiches” and a, shall we say, permissive attitude about indoor smoking. Cap the day off with cheap beers and crazy-quilt music (anything from disco to live marching bands with Peaches-inspired electroclash) at the Boat (158 Augusta Ave.; 416-593-9218), a former Portuguese restaurant that retains the feel of a seedy, nautical-themed banquet hall.

6. Related Links

Toronto Life posts event and arts listings and boasts the best database of restaurant reviews in town.

The northern sister of Gothamist, Torontoist is the clearinghouse for the Toronto blogosphere and all the randomness it presents.

Eye is one of two free left-wing weeklies that lists all the music, art, cinema, and culture listings an indie mind could crave.

Rule of thumb: If Eye doesn’t list it, Now does; and if Now doesn’t list it, Eye will.

Express Your Artistic Side in Toronto