LGBTQ Travel Guide: Toronto

Toronto's Skyline
The Toronto Skyline.

 Imran Ashraf / GettyImages

Canada's largest city, population 2.93 million and climbing, is also one of its most diverse, creative, hip, and LGBTQ-friendly destinations. Like Montreal and Vancouver, Toronto boasts a "gay village," Church and Wellesley, which became especially famous during the 2000s thanks to Showtime's U.S. version of outrageous gay series "Queer As Folk," which used many of its LGBTQ bars and clubs as shooting locations (although, fun fact, the series was actually set in Pittsburgh).

Toronto is also where many important milestones in Canadian LGBTQ history took place, including a 1981 police raid of gay bathhouses known as Operation Soap that sparked a massive protest and is considered the city's Stonewall Riots equivalent (Montreal experienced a similar event in 1977).

Flash forward a few decades, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proudly made a tradition of marching in Toronto's joyous annual Pride Toronto parade, held during the last weekend in June. Pride events also include a Trans March, Dyke March, and massive 15-block Street Fair (approximately 1,700,000 attended in 2019). Celebrating its 39th year, Pride Toronto 2020 is scheduled for June 26-28.

Every September, the Toronto International Film Festival sees LGBTQ filmmakers and celebrities from around the world (from Pedro Almodovar to Ellen Page) converge for world and North American premieres of their latest features, while late spring’s Inside Out is dedicated entirely to queer work.

For intel on other LGBTQ-related events and resources, check out Toronto Tourism's online "Toronto Diversity" section.

Out On The Street
Tourism Toronto 

The Best Things to Do

Start with the scoop on Toronto's history, LGBTQ and otherwise, through a jaunt with Bruce Bell Tours. The openly gay, jovial Bell offers themed private excursions, as well as a history-rich, 90-minute St. Lawrence Market and Old Town walking tour (scheduled for up to four times a week during peak seasons). His ongoing, namesake "Bruce Bell History Project" plaques mark and tell the tales behind a number of historically significant sites around the city.

Speaking of history, the world's oldest surviving LGBTQ bookstore, Glad Day Bookshop, moved from its cramped second floor Yonge Street space to a nearly 2,700-square-foot, ground floor gay village storefront in 2016, located smack dab on Church Street. Celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2020, Glad Day also added a coffee shop, restaurant, and bar to this new iteration, and hosts weekend dance parties.

For an LGBTQ everything store, from clothing to pride gear, check out the village's Out On The Street.

If graphic novels and comic books are your thing, The Beguiling Books & Art and its sibling Page & Panel, the official shop of Spring's annual Toronto Comics Arts Festival, are well worth a stop, with offerings from many LGBTQ and local writers and illustrators. Keep an eye out for the work of ultra-talented Toronto-based queer comics creator Erik Kostiuk Williams.

TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tourism Toronto 

Created as a permanent home base for the Toronto International Film Festival, the towering TIFF Bell Lightbox is a year-round, multi-screen arthouse cinema screening new and retrospective titles, with a free film reference library, exhibitions, a shop, and excellent ground level cafe and second-floor restaurant.

One of North America's most unique museums, the Bata Shoe Museum holds more than 13,000 artifacts in its collection, including a pair of Elton John's silver platform boots and Queen Victoria's ballroom slippers. Exhibitions by queer Canadian artists and collectives, like General Idea and Bruce La Bruce, are sometimes on display at The Museum of Contemporary Art and Art Gallery of Ontario.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (which celebrated its 40th year in 2019) is a trailblazing alternative and queer theater company and venue with a robust calendar of diverse, edgy performances.

In summertime, many local LGBTQ folks storm Toronto Islands' clothing optional Hanlan’s Beach - site of the country's first queer pride picnic, back in 1971 - for a little sun worship and frolic (Pride Toronto commemorates the occasion with a "Till Sunset Island Party" party in June). And one can always get their sweat and skin on any time of year at one of the city's gay saunas, including Steamworks Toronto.

The Best LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

The Church and Wellesley gay village has seen closures of a few longtime favorites, including Fly 2.0 (which endured for two decades, and was featured in the U.S. version of "Queer as Folk") and The Barn, yet you're still spoiled for choice when it comes to nightlife options.

Woody’s has been called the gay "Cheers" of Toronto, but it's a lot more colorful than the comparison suggests (it's a lot more like NYC's Stonewall), and you can expect drag queen performances and hot guy contests between the socializing. Another neighborhood-y staple, Pegasus on Church features weekly open mic comedy (Mondays), bingo (Tuesday) and trivia (Wednesday) nights, plus pool tables, darts, shuffleboard and other games.

Billed as Toronto's "#1 Drag Bar," Crews & Tangos is where you'll find fierce local queens working the stage—and those who feel ready to give it a try on Mondays' open mic equivalent—while the almost 7-year-old Church Street Garage adds food to the literal menu, plus RuPaul's Drag Race viewing parties. LGBTQ sports fans can catch the games, drink specials, burgers and pizzas, and other events at the three-year-old Striker Sports Bar.

France-inspired cocktails and an open-air front patio distinguish Boutique Bar (their decadent Belvedere Truffle consists of Belvedere, Frangelica, creme de cacao, and a Nutella cube), while leather, bears, daddies, and their collective admirers (and friendlies!) fill out the Black Eagle.

On weekends, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Tallulah's nightclub is one of the most fun spots in town. Check the online calendar for special theme parties (e.g. a "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" tribute) that might require advance tickets.

Meanwhile, in Toronto's West side, don't miss hipster, alternative LGBTQ spots The Beaver Cafe and El Convento Rico, and to the East, WAYLA, a.k.a. What Are You Looking At.

 The 519

The Best Places to Eat

Make a beeline for breakfast, brunch, or lunch to Fabarnak, a cafe located at The 519 Community Center. Besides the altruistic element of its profits directly benefitting at-risk LGBTQ community members, the from-scratch, vegetarian-friendly menu is absolutely delicious, from a spicy bacon club sandwich to slow-roasted pork belly bowl to tofu scramble.

Long-running gastropub Hair of the Dog remains a gay village favorite, while ramen fans can enjoy some seriously slurpable tonkatsu, clear chicken, and creamy vegan varieties at Church Street's Jinya Ramen Bar. If you're more into Japanese shared plates, skewers, and a little sushi, Kintaro Izakaya is right next to Woody's.

On Toronto's east side, take a stroll through the Distillery District, which features excellent restaurants and specialty cafes and confectionaries, including the Italian-inspired Archeo, craft java cafe Arvo Coffee, and outstanding local chocolatier, SOMA.

Hotel X
Tourism Toronto 

Where to Stay

Queen Street West is Toronto's haven for hipsters and the alternative LGBTQ scene, and its 37-room (each designed by a different artist) Gladstone Hotel embraces what it calls a "Queer Street West" location and hosts a daily schedule of Pride month events and exhibitions, plus Pride-themed room packages.

Toronto has seriously upped its hotel game over the past decade, and its fresh, slick luxury properties include the Yorkville neighborhood's 55-story, 259-room Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, which debuted a massive, brand new 30,000-square-foot spa in 2018. The Four Seasons also boasts interior design by Toronto gay power couple and design gurus George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg. Also five stars, the 202-room Shangri-La Hotel Toronto features floor to ceiling windows and a Miraj Hammam Spa for a little self-care indulgence.

Part of The Library Hotel Collection and dubbed as an "urban resort," the 404-room Hotel X Toronto opened in 2018 at downtown's Exhibition Place, and wows with its lobby's lush living wall, a rooftop pool, a tri-level rooftop SkyBar, a cinema and screening room, and more. Hip and artsy, Queen Street West's 19-room The Drake is hip and artsy, serving as an exhibition space for contemporary work and music (bonus for guests: a discount at the hotel's local-centric gift shop).

A favorite location for movie and TV shoots (notably, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale) Toronto's Grande Dame property, Old Toronto's Fairmont Royal York, celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019 with stunning and cinematic renovations.

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