Now that construction on the main highway (the Gardiner) into Toronto is complete, it’s entirely feasible to be door-to-door, Buffalo to Toronto, in an hour and 20 minutes.
I open with this because it negates any excuse not to visit there more often, even for just a day trip. Especially because there are countless things to do and ways to theme a day, or even better, a weekend. Book lovers’ tour? Check. High-end shopping weekend? Oh, yes. Family weekend? So many things to do.
On our latest trip (earlier this month) we focused on Toronto’s art and film scene. Part the weekend included attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The other part included arts-focused stops that represented only a tiny fraction of the city’s options. The coolest aspect was that our three main stops collectively defined the widest possible scope of art.
TIFF’s over now, but you can experience the art destinations any time of year. My three recommendations, one of which just opened to the public for the first time:
1. The Museum of Contemporary Art
Formerly located on Queen Street West (and shuttered for the past year) this is a major expansion for the museum and its collection. Now located in the city’s Junction Triangle neighborhood — a mix of residences and industrial buildings in various stages of rehab — it officially opened Friday, Sept 21, with inaugural exhibit “Believe.” Curator David Liss explained that it’s an exploration of truth versus lies, providing ”perspectives on beliefs, mythologies and personal experiences.”
It’s also five floors of art from contemporary artists including Canadian Carl Beam, known for his indigenous art from the '70s-'90s; American artist Barbara Kruger, famous for word-based art that emerged in the 1980s; and a soil exhibit (yes, soil) from up-and coming Turkish artist Can Altay. The museum is a quick Uber ride from downtown, and a great excuse to explore an emerging neighborhood that includes gems like Drake Commissary next door — a bakery, bar and artisanal market in a space bursting with creativity and art. (158 Sterling Road; museumofcontemporaryart.ca)
Nearby: Explore the Junction proper, a neighboring area that feels like a slice of Brooklyn. If you don’t know better, you might drive right through; but hoof through the neighborhood (especially main artery Dundas Street) and you’ll be rewarded with esoteric discoveries like an artist-owned industrial furniture store (Pekota), a charming art supply store and gallery (Articulations), at least two giant salvage and furniture stores (frequented, I’m told, by the city’s film set designers), plus eateries and bars like Famous Last Words, where the craft cocktails are named after literary works, the walls are lined with books and the bar top is refinished with Scrabble tiles.
2. Graffiti Alley
A guided tour opened my eyes to the both the artistry and social impact of what I’ve long considered as background noise: outdoor graffiti. I left Toronto with a new appreciation and understanding of the art form. Grafitti abounds throughout the city’s enclaves, but the epicenter is Grafitti Alley, a literal alley lined with chainlink fences, dumpsters and the usual urban detritus — plus a concentration of the most vibrant and interesting graffiti art you’re ever likely to see.
In fact, graffiti has become such a mainstay of Toronto culture in recent years that artists are being commissioned by mainstream businesses like Loblaws and Taco Bell to paint their walls, too. Perhaps most interesting about Toronto’s graffiti is that it’s state-sanctioned (and controlled): a government agency oversees where graffiti exists; when it’s considered an aesthetic improvement to the street landscape; and when it needs to be cleaned up (decisions not without controversy).
The Tour Guys offers “pay what you feel” tours through Graffiti Alley and beyond. Our guide, company founder Jason, knows many of the artists personally, and understands the history and social issues surrounding the art form…which makes for a truly eye-opening 90 minutes.
Best accessed on Queen Street West, between Spadina and Portland Street.
Nearby: Kensington Market. What sounds like a proper British enclave is actually one of Toronto’s most diverse and bohemian neighborhoods, and a melting pot for Toronto’s newest immigrants. Once a bastion for Russian Jews, then Italians, it’s now a mix of countless cultures. Restaurants along Augusta Avenue summon you with mouthwatering aromas — some familiar, some not. They’re interspersed among stores with vintage clothing, books, gifts and more.
3. Art Gallery of Ontario
The most traditional art experience of our weekend, this stop is breathtaking in its own right. Not only are there works by old masters including Rubens, Rembrandt and Monet, the modern collection features pieces by Picasso and Andy Warhol, and the museum boasts the world’s largest collection by Canadian artists. You’ll also be awed by the space itself, highlighted by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s 2008 expansion, whose sleek, slinky wood stairwells and outdoor glass facade bring a fresh modernity to the traditional space. (317 Dundas Street West; ago.ca)
When you need a break: Take a seat in the serene space of AGO Bistro and order lunch that’s as beautifully presented as the art you’ve just seen. Be sure to order something that comes with French fries (served with a side of aoli — a Canadian trope) — they are as good as French fries come.