I have a list of destinations on my iPhone’s notepad. At 136 lines long (and counting), it acts as my travel bible, and expands when I read an article, see a savvy snap on Instagram, or hear a local suggest a restaurant or hotel that fits my fancy. Toronto’s eats and sleeps occupy a good chunk of these nomadic notes.

In spring 2013, I met some Toronto-based journalists while traveling. Knowing I’d be visiting Canada’s largest city in early summer, I ran my list of Toronto picks by them. My newfound globetrotting friends agreed with most of my selections, told me to drop a few, as well as added their local favorites to the expanding mix!

When I hit the ground in Toronto, I hit it running, armed with in-the-know finds, plus a few of my own anticipated discoveries. Then, I panicked. En route to the restaurants and urban beaches and museums firmly planted in my itinerary, I found more and more I wanted to check out. In a state of information overload, I met with a friend and local. She slowed my pace and encouraged me to take baby steps through the major metro. While I wanted to see it all as a first-time visitor, I realized I would have to prioritize. 

We met at a light rail transit stop, where she handed me a vintage-looking silver token – I love that Toronto uses real tokens – to insert in the fare slot. After a five-minute buzz down Queen Street, we ended up at The Drake Hotel – one of Toronto’s indie check-ins – for coffee, lunch, and a shopping session. I liked it the second I saw it. The coffee shop poured good brew (but I was mostly enamored by the lengthy chandelier made out of multicolored bike frames); the Drake General Store had stuff like skinny camo ties and lip balm promising the wearer will “look and feel Canadian instantly”; and the rooftop restaurant had a watermelon, mint, and goat cheese salad to write home about. Three spots checked off my list, bazillions to go.

Our where-the-locals-lounge mission took us back down Queen Street on foot to browse off-list stops like Nadège, a patisserie-come-gallery, where the macarons are the Monets and the mini croissants are the Cézannes. Pretty pleased I’d had a mini salad for lunch, treat time quickly followed.

Viewfinder Tip: Walk as much as possible when you’re exploring a new city. It’s amazing what you find when you travel slowly.

The afternoon took us to the Royal Ontario Museum (pictured at the top), the most visually stunning building in Toronto – I could stare at it all day. Originally opened in 1914, it was partially redesigned by Daniel Libeskind in 2005 to look like a deconstructed crystal. While I’m not sure if locals lounge here – it’s a massive space with 6 million objects and 30 galleries – they probably sip coffee while gawking at its grander.

That evening I was flying solo. Making sure to fill my Toronto time with more townie (vs tourist) hangouts, I double-checked my dinner decision with a local: the chef at the Templar Hotel, a sleeker than sleek urban villa where I slept during part of my stay. He confirmed my nearby selection.


Templar Hotel

I sat by myself at Patria’s bar. Strangely, I didn’t feel lonely. The design of the restaurant – think Spanish tapestry meets edgy – and my sparkling rose kept me company (so did the bartender). Over Datiles con Tocino Iberico (bacon-wrapped peppers stuffed with dates and manchego cheese), we talked about an apropos topic: the best Canadian bacon cooking techniques (brush it with maple syrup, then bake it, by the way).

Pizzeria Libretto

The next day I hit Sugar Beach, a pink umbrella-studded sandy stretch where downtown Torontonians don bathing suits and seek a summer glow (in season, of course). This was the relaxation part of my list – imperative on a busy urban itinerary. In the evening, I met with more friends in Toronto’s Ossington neighborhood at Pizzeria Libretto. This is a real-deal pizza place; Edison-style bulbs strung over marble tables create the environs, and an oven built in Naples by a 3rd generation pizza oven craftsman creates the cuisine. My blistering hot margherita pizza, baking for a swift 90 seconds, was Italy-good.

My final foray into local lounging drew me downstairs, a block from dinner, to an off-list dive bar. Cowboyed-up in western motifs and live folk bands, The Dakota Tavern reminded me of friends’ rumpus rooms when I was growing up: wood paneling, exposed brick, a bar saddled with barrel stools, and a piano in the corner. I felt at home. Herein lies the moral of this Toronto tale: make your list, check it twice, and consult a local to confirm what’s nice.

What have been your best travel finds as a result of chatting with locals?