An Alternative Guide to Toronto and Its Best-Kept Secrets

The CN Tower juts into a typically blue sky above Toronto
The CN Tower juts into a typically blue sky above Toronto | manoa / Getty Images
Photo of Megan Honan
19 December 2019

From a tucked-away speakeasy to Shakespeare’s First Folio to a wacky, real-life dollhouse, here are nine alternative spots that are the best-kept secrets in the city of Toronto.

Toronto, Ontario’s capital city, is buzzing with just shy of 3 million residents and a booming tourism industry. In 2017, the city had a record-breaking year, welcoming 43 million visitors – which is no surprise considering the countless tourist attractions, local events and concerts as well as the growing, superb restaurant scene. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still secret gems to be discovered far from the crowds and loved by Torontonians. Here are nine of Toronto’s best-kept secrets and where to find them.

Read first-edition books at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Library
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Thomas Fisher Library is home to some of the world's rarest books
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is quite large | Game Of Light / Alamy Stock Photo
For a break from the bustle of the city, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is a unique must-see. Visitors can request to view and handle some of the world’s rarest books, such as Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and Margaret Atwood’s original works. Located on the University of Toronto campus, this collection is open to the public, with over 800,000 books to peruse. Grab a cup of joe and set out in search of the rarest of books, including the ‘Wicked Bible’ with a misprint encouraging readers, “Thou shalt commit adultery”.

Step back in time at the Aga Khan Museum

Museum, Park
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16th century marble and sandstone mosaic Egypt  inside Aga Khan museum toronto canada
The Aga Khan Museum teaches visitors about Islamic civilizations and their contributions to the world | © canada / Alamy Stock Photo
This museum honours Islamic art, Iranian art and Muslim culture, but the building itself often draws in visitors for its unique architecture. The core collection of the museum was curated by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who began collecting art during his Harvard University days. Today, the donated pieces make up the majority of the works at Aga Khan – which is the first North American museum dedicated exclusively to Islamic arts.

Catch a wave at Woodbine Beach

Natural Feature
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Woodbine Beach has waves all year-round for keen surfers
Woodbine Beach Park is a great place to visit no matter the time of year | © EXImages / Alamy Stock Photo

While the city isn’t known for its beaches, surfers gather during the coldest winter days to surf the icy waters at Woodbine Beach. Though you can often find Torontonians hitting the waves year-round, winter storms tend to bring in the biggest waves from December to February. Don’t know how to surf? Local company Surf the Greats will get you started with a 2.5-hour class covering the basics and getting you up on your first wave.

Warm up with a cocktail at Coffee Oysters Champagne

Bar, Cocktails, Coffee, Seafood
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COC1
Coffee Oysters Champagne serves exactly what its name suggests, with dozens of options for each | Courtesy of Coffee Oysters Champagne

This restaurant may be in Toronto’s busy entertainment district, but with strict reservations, it keeps the crowd small for intimate gatherings. The best part? Follow the champagne tour to discover the secret speakeasy, À Toi, in the back of the restaurant, and get your dancing shoes ready. The restaurant offers the largest collection of champagne in the city, with endless options ranging from cheap sparkling wine to a $4,888 bottle of vintage Louis Roederer ‘Cristal’ Brut – in case you’re feeling fancy.

Listen to local legends at Lee’s Palace

Music Venue, Building, Shop
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Lee's palace rock Concert hall on Bloor street, Toronto
From local musical legends to world-renowned musicians, Lee’s Palace hosts the best rock gigs in the city | Roberto Machado Noa / Getty Images
A Toronto institution with a local crowd, Lee’s Palace hosts rock bands from some of the biggest names in music to hometown heroes every weekend. Tucked away in the Annex, it would be easy to miss if not for its colourful exterior. Once the event ends, concert-goers can head upstairs to find a club venue playing the best alternative hits, mostly from the early 2000s. Drinks are cheap, and if you have a student ID handy, entrance is free.

Score vintage finds at Black Market Clothing

Store
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This vintage store has become a beloved institution; everything is for purchase for $10. Stock up on jean jackets, vintage Levis and cheap sunnies for a cheap wardrobe refresh. Those who collect vintage records will love the vinyl shop also located in the back of the store. While it may take some digging, there are plenty of quality finds to be taken home for next to nothing.

Skip Steam Whistle and grab a pint at The Maddie

Bar, Pub, Beer
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The Madison Avenue Pub is popular for an after-work pint and can easily accommodate big groups for a fun night on the town. After all, the pub’s slogan is “Serving friends in Toronto since 1982!” Find easy-to-chat-with Torontonians inside the three connected Victorian mansions. With a different vibe on each level, visitors can choose from live entertainment (a piano-playing maestro), darts, pool and even a bit of dancing.

Smell the roses at Allan Gardens

Park
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Late Summer in Allan Gardens.
Allan Gardens is the perfect spot to unwind after a day of sightseeing | Paul Cieniuch / Alamy Stock Photo
This Victorian-era greenhouse stands out in downtown Toronto with its domed roof; inside you’ll find a botanical oasis. Changing with each season, the conservatory houses rare plant species from around the world and makes for some great photos. Outside the greenhouse, find two large dog parks and take a walk along the ground of one of the oldest parks in the city.

Feel the weight of a thousand eyes at Leslieville’s Crazy Doll House

Museum
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Find one of Toronto’s strangest curiosities in the quiet neighbourhood of Leslieville, where owner Shirley Sumaiser has decked out her house in hundreds of toys. Known as the resident ‘dollhouse,’ the site gives passers-by the chance to spot Hello Kitties, the Toy Story gang, Mickey Mouse and many more notable characters. With a collection growing for over 20 years, visitors should be sure to stop by time and time again, as there are often seasonal additions for each holiday.

These recommendations were updated on December 19, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.