Whatever brings you to Toronto, whether it be a Toronto Blue Jays game in September or an October business trip, you shouldn’t leave Canada’s biggest city without kicking back in its burgeoning Entertainment District. Roughly bound by Queen Street West to the north, Spadina Avenue to the west, Simcoe Street to the east and Lake Shore Boulevard West to the south, the neighborhood reimagines some older attractions (the CN Tower), adds some new ones (Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada) and continues to try to build up the area (the soon-to-come controversial Frank Gehry-designed condo towers on King Street West).
We take you on a tour of the up-and-coming Entertainment District and show you how to have a good time during your trip to Toronto.
Where to Stay
Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star SoHo Metropolitan Hotel, Toronto puts you in a great location—you’ll be a block from John Street, the main cultural corridor that cuts through the Entertainment District, but is removed from the hordes of Blue Jays fans pouring into the Rogers Centre.
The boutique hotel’s 92 contemporary rooms are filled with light wood and bright modern art. After a long day walking around the Entertainment District, you’ll covet the cream-marble-covered bathroom with heated floors, deep-soaking tub and separate shower. For the most luxurious stay (and the choice of celebrities who are in town filming or attending the Toronto Film Festival), upgrade to the three-story penthouse. A private glass elevator shoots you up to the 15th-floor space, which comes with floor-to-ceiling windows, a full kitchen, a library, two bedrooms, five bathrooms — one of which boasts a Kohler Sok infinity tub with chromatherapy lights — and the 1,400-square-foot rooftop terrace with a hot tub.
What to Do
A trifecta of Toronto attractions anchors John Street: the Rogers Centre, the CN Tower and Ripley’s. The latter opened in 2013 to much fanfare — in Canada’s largest indoor aquarium, you’ll encounter more than 16,000 marine creatures, the biggest shark collection in North America, one of the world’s most extensive jelly fish exhibits and a bamboo shark touch pool.
If you are an adventurous traveler, make your way to the CN Tower. The skyline icon’s EdgeWalk experience puts you a dizzying 1,168 feet in the air for about 30 minutes. There’s surprisingly little preparation for the hands-free walk along the five-foot-wide metal ledge circling the tower top. You’ll don a red jumpsuit and harness (which is double checked by different staff), and in an anteroom, you’ll get strapped into the rail system and receive brief instructions on what not to touch on your harness. Less than 10 minutes later, you’ll be teetering on the edge of the building with your guide safely snapping photos and offering instructions from the sidelines. He’ll direct you to push off the edge with your back to the city so that your body looks like it is falling backwards, and to lean forward at a 45-degree angle as if you’re about to dive headfirst into the metropolis below. But the most terrifying challenge is the one that seems most simple: inching your feet so that they dangle off of the edge; it’s a vertigo-inducing move. The payoff is that conquering the EdgeWalk is exhilarating, and it will give you the most amazing views of the city and Lake Ontario (you’ll get a video, photos and bragging rights as part of your ticket).
After such an adrenaline-pumping adventure, you’ll want to unwind. Head to Steam Whistle Brewing, just south of the CN Tower. Housed in the Roundhouse, formerly a 1929 Canadian Pacific Rail steam locomotive repair facility, the brewery crafts European-style pilsners, which was a void in Canada’s beer scene when the company started in 1998. Take a tour to see how the pilsner goes from ingredients to bottle, gaze at local art (Steam Whistle hosts monthly art shows that are free for artists who, in turn, donate a piece of their choice afterward to beautify the brewery) and, of course, to nab a smooth and refreshing beer fresh off of the bottling line. You’ll want to pick up a couple more for a souvenir; this Toronto-made beer is only sold in Canada.
One of the must-hit cultural spots in Toronto is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which sits at the tip of the Entertainment District. It’s a 15-minute walk from the SoHo Met. The museum sees visiting exhibits (up next: British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s art on October 31), but the reason to peruse the 80,000-piece collection is for the Group of Seven’s distinctly Canadian works. Formed in 1920, the group showcased the country’s landscape and helped shape Canada’s artistic identity. Be sure to check out Lawren S. Harris’ vibrantly colored but desolate oil paintings of Bylot Island and the Rockies.
Toronto is home to the one of the world’s hottest film festivals (reminder: tickets for TIFF’s 40th annual Toronto Film Festival have already gone on sale), but it’s a movie destination all year round. A central festival venue, the TIFF Bell Lightbox regularly shows films on five screens and offers a third-floor members-only spot that’s great for pre-movie lounging with gratis snacks, coffee and tea and views of King and John streets below. Hardcore movie buffs will want to check out the Film Reference Library that’s hidden among offices on the fourth floor. It stocks more than 2,000 scripts, 11,000 films, 19,000 books, 11,000 movie posters and special collections dedicated to Canadian auteurs like David Cronenberg (among the offerings are drafts of his Naked Lunch).
Cap off any evening in the Entertainment District with Second City Toronto, which is a block away from the SoHo Met. The Toronto sketch and improv troupe, which has been around since 1973, delivers the same smart, sassy, politically charged humor of its famed Chicago brethren during its nightly performances. The next show is in previews (temporarily called the Fall 2015 Mainstage Revue). While we won’t know the official show name until it opens on August 25, we did find out that the theme will take on the notion of transformation, from the agonies of puberty to becoming a responsible adult, as well as similar changes in nature, technology and civilizations.
Most of the strong cast from the last revue, How to Kill a Comedian, will return. Lucky for us, that includes the very talented Kirsten Rasmussen, whose turn as a worker at Shoppers Drug Mart (Canada’s equivalent to Walgreens) in Comedian recalled Kristen Wiig’s Target lady, only much funnier.
Where to Eat
You’ll find a restaurant to sate every craving in the Entertainment District, whether you want ramen (David Chang’s famed Momofuku Noodle Bar), Italian (The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto’s Four-Star TOCA) or fusion (Asian-Canadian at Shangri-La, Hotel Toronto’s Bosk). But one of the best Entertainment District restaurants is right in the SoHo Met, Susur Lee’s hip Luckee.
Lee may be known for his stints on TV shows like Top Chef Masters and Chopped Canada, but his nouvelle Chinese cuisine proves that he’s more chef than celebrity. Don’t miss his mouthwatering dim sum. You won’t be able to help yourself from gorging on the parade of irresistible dishes: Dim sum staple har gow gets a twist with bright orange carrot wrappers, which complement their juicy shrimp fillings; the hot, crispy rice doughnut comes stuffed with savory ingredients like chicken choy poh, Chinese chives, jicama and shrimp; and the shrimp cheung fun — our favorite — gives a delightful contrast of textures with the crunchy rice tuile enveloping the soft shrimp in one mouthwatering roll.
If you opt to come for dinner, the star plates are the “Luckee duck,” a do-it-yourself platter of duck tacos with a decadent, creamy five-spice foie gras torchon topping, and the wok-fried lobster with, ginger, scallions, crisped kale and fiery XO sauce.
One of the area’s newest restaurants is Montecito, which debuted in July 2014. The name hints at what you’ll taste inside: Chef Jonathan Waxman cooks up California cuisine using Canadian ingredients. In true farm-to-table style, the menu changes weekly, but Waxman’s famous juicy, slow-roasted and seared chicken slathered in salsa verde is a mainstay (it’s big enough for two—split it along with the kale salad with pecorino and anchovy dressing). And if you wonder why a Stay Puft marshmallow man hovers among the bar’s liquor bottles and appears on the dessert menu (as baked Alaska), it’s a nod to co-owner and longtime Waxman pal Ivan Reitman, the Canadian director of Ghostbusters.
Stay tuned for Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s forthcoming restaurant, his first in Canada, to open in the Theatre Park building in late 2015. It’s just one of the new places popping up in the Entertainment District. This neighborhood is just getting started.