A view of downtown Toronto's gleaming skyline, from the ferry boat to Hanlan's Point, part of the Toronto Islands and site of the clothing-optional gay beach. The tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere, the 1,815-foot-tall CN Tower, stands guard over the skyline, right beside the Rogers Centre (fka the SkyDome) baseball stadium.
One of the world's great epicenters of gay and lesbian culture, Toronto is Canada's largest city - it's also a bona fide hub of fine arts, theater, fashionable shopping, sophisticated dining and hotels, and diverse gay nightlife. In recent decades, a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world has helped give Toronto a vibrant international sensibility - many neighborhoods in Toronto reflect this, as do such gay-popular areas as Church Street Village and Queen Street West. Here's a guide to the best attractions, neighborhoods, and experiences in Toronto for LGBT travelers.
Church Street Gay Village, Toronto
It looks, at first glance, like plenty of other urban neighborhoods in North America, but look a little closer at the rainbow banners hung from the street lamps, and you may detect that this stretch of Church Street (looking south from near the intersection with Wellesley Street) constitutes one of the world's most famous gay districts. known variously as Church Wellesley Village, the Church Street Village, or just the Gay Village, this strip of Church Street between roughly Bloor Street to the north and Gerrard Street to the south is lined with gay bars, restaurants, and shops. The gay scene actually spans a block to the west (as far as Yonge Street) and a block east to Jarvis Street, and you'll find quite a few LGBT-oriented businesses along several of the cross streets, including Carlton, Maitland, Wellesley, and Gloucester streets.
Toronto's enormously popular and well-attended Gay Pride celebration takes place each summer in the Church Wellesley Village, and just about any warm day you'll spot plenty of lesbians, gay guys, and friends of the community hobnobbing on the patios of the many cafes, lounges, and eateries in these parts that have them.
The Village has few accommodations (although there are few very attractive and welcoming B&Bs, including Victoria's Mansion, Chicago House, and Dundonald House among them), but the neighborhood is within a 10- to 20-minute walk of many downtown Toronto hotels, from the Financial District right up to Bloor Street.
Church Wellesley Village has cultivated a gay scene for several decades, discreetly so prior to the early 1980s, but in a very conspicuous and official sense since then. Fans of the American version of Queer As Folk will recognize it from many scenes in that TV show, which though set in Pittsburgh was filmed here in Toronto. As dining and entertainment districts go, the neighborhood is relatively stable - many of the same bars, shops, and restaurants have been going strong here for a decade or two. For longtime fans of the neighborhood and tourists seeking a reliably popular gay entertainment district, this is a good thing. If you're more interested in edgy, up-and-coming neighborhoods with more eclectic vibes, you might want to explore some of Toronto's trendier, mixed gay/straight areas, such as West Queen West (and adjacent Ossington Avenue) and Leslieville.
The Danforth Greek Village in Toronto
The Danforth, also known as Greektown, is one of the most beloved ethnic food neighborhoods in Toronto. It's in northeast of the city center, about 3 miles due east of the Gay Village (an easy and affordable cab ride), and it's definitely worth venturing over here for arguably the best strip of Greek restaurants in North America (I'd put it right up there with Astoria in Queens, NYC). Just head to just about anywhere on the 300 to 600 blocks of Danforth Avenue (around the intersection with Pape Avenue), and you'll find one Greek eatery after another, many of them serving fast-food on the go, and others with a more upscale feel, sit-down service, and creative contemporary fare.
Pictured here (on a persistently rainy spring evening) is Messini Authentic Gyros, one of the cheaper spot with simple and quick service and huge portions of lamb gyros, chicken souvlaki, Greek salads, and pita with incredibly and wonderfully garlic-y tzatziki. Other reliable options in the vicinity include Mezes (which has a profoundly enormous selection of delicious appetizers), Ouzeri, Pan on Danforth (more upscale, and with some quite creative dishes), and Pantheon (especially for seafood).
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), in the Queen Street West District
A highlight of Toronto's always engaging Queen Street West Art and Design District (it's the part of the neighborhood out west beyond Bathurst Street and nicknamed West Queen West), the provocative Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) (952 Queen St. W, 416-395-0067) is set back from the street in a building to which it relocated in 2005. The museum contains a significant permanent collection and also presents rotating exhibits throughout the year. Pictured here is a David LaChapelle mural, set in the museum's courtyard and parking area, which was shown throughout the Toronto Photography Festival one year.
West Queen West Art & Design District
The eclectic and arty West Queen West Art & Design District is one part of Toronto where you're never more than a few steps from an edgy gallery, minimalist design shop, fair-trade coffeehouse, or hip lounge. This neighborhood set along West Queen Street in the city's West End is also sometimes nicknamed Queer West Village, especially out near the intersection with Gladstone Avenue, thanks to the pronounced LGBT presence. In this sense, West Queen West counters the Church Street Gay Village, which is largely a traditional strip of gay clubs and shops and lacks the former's diversity of style and age, not to mention the decided pan-sexuality
You'll find a genuinely exciting mix of retail, nightlife, and dining along West Queen West, which runs for nearly 2 kilometers from about Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue. Also check out Ossington Avenue, which runs north from West Queen Street to Dundas Street and contains a similar stretch of diverting shops, bars, and cafes - plus the acclaimed Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA). Also be sure to check out leafy Trinity Bellwoods Park, a lovely place to sip coffee or nosh on the food you've picked up at one of the area's many excellent restaurants.
The "queer" presence around here is brightest along the blocks between Ossington and Gladstone - many of the businesses on this part of Queen Street West take part in the Queer West Arts and Cultural Festival, held in August. The gay-popular Gladstone Hotel, with its 37 one-of-a-kind artist-designed guest rooms, is one of the most interesting lodging options in town, and on-site Gladstone Cafe and Melody Bar have a decidedly queer following. Nearby, The Beaver is another bar and restaurant with plenty of GLBT adherents.
Trinity Bellwoods Park
The regal and meticulously landscaped Trinity Bellwoods Park lies in the heart of Toronto's GLBT-popular West Queen West Art & Design District. Queen Street forms the park's southern boundary, with Dundas Street forming the northern edge. Trails, park benches, a dog run, and sports fields and tennis courts, and a recreation center are components of this popular green space - it's an excellent spot for a picnic on a warm day.
Set a few miles east of Toronto's downtown Financial District, and just east of the Don River Valley, the steadily gentrifying neighborhood of Leslieville has become increasingly in vogue for its offbeat shopping, affordable indie cafes, and friendly neighborhood bars - much of the action is along Queen Street East, from about the rail tracks (or Booth Avenue) for several blocks to Greenwood Avenue. In recent years, this area south of Greektown has also become fashionable with Toronto lesbians, hence the neighborhood's rather obvious nickname, "Lesbianville." On the north-south streets that intersect with Queen Street, especially as you go north, you'll find a number of attractively refurbished, mostly smaller to mid-size homes - the neighborhood was largely a working-class area, but with its increased resonance with lesbians and gay men, young couples, students, and the like, Leslieville has taken on a more eclectic and diverse demeanor.
You'll find quite a few cool eateries along Queen Street East in Leslieville - highlights include Sushi Marche, Chino Locos (Asian-meets-Latin), the amusingly named Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant, the cool brunch and breakfast favorite Lady Marmalade, and Swirl wine bar. There aren't really any specifically queer bars in the neighborhood, but low-keyed nightspots like The Curzon, the homey Roy Public House, and the swanky What Are You Looking At Bar (campy name, much?) draw plenty of Family.
Passengers Line up for the Ferry at Hanlan's Point, en Route Back to the City
Ferries run from downtown Toronto at the foot of Bay Street (next to the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel) year-round to Hanlan's Point, the westernmost of the Toronto Islands and the home of the official clothing-optional beach (which, unofficially, is also Toronto's de facto gay beach). The boat ride takes about 15 minutes, and service is more frequent during the warmer months, but boats leave the city as early as 9 am and return as late as 11:15 pm in summer. Round-trip fare is $7.50.
Access via the Boardwalk to Hanlan's Point Gay - and Nude - Beach
Reaching Toronto's world-famous gay beach, at Hanlan's Point in the Toronto Islands, is quite simple - in fact, from the bustle of the city's downtown Financial District (ferries depart from Queens Quay, at the foot of Bay Street, right by the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel), you're a mere half-hour or so from this scenic beach overlooking Lake Ontario, where nudity is officially sanctioned. Just bear in mind that public sex is illegal, so don't confuse Hanlan's Point with an outdoor bathhouse. Also, while the beach here has a strong gay following, it welcomes all kinds and isn't specifically GLBT.
Once you'd taken the 15-minute ferry to from downtown to Hanlan's Point, once you leave the boat, follow the paved walkway for about 10 or 15 minutes away from the ferry dock. If it's a sunny day, and especially a weekend, from spring through early fall, you'll have no trouble finding the gay beach - just follow the shirtless boys and bikini-clad girls in tiny suits. There are also a few signs on posts with arrows pointing the way toward the "clothing-optional beach." Eventually, you'll come to a meadow, at which point it's best to cut to your right off the paved path and walk toward the low thicket of trees that marks the edge of the dunes behind the beach. A rather artful natural-wood trellis or archway marks the official entry to the boardwalk (pictured here), which opens to the beach.
Hanlan's Point Nude - and Generally Quite Gay - Beach, in the Toronto Islands
Toronto's gay beach, at Hanlan's Point in the scenic Toronto Islands, overlooks calm Lake Ontario and draws considerable crowds on warm days. This is one of the most popular - and famous - clothing-optional beaches in North America, and certainly one of the best gay beaches in Canada. Hanlan's Point is without significant amenities; however, a paved walking path leads to Centre Island, with its numerous amusements, restaurants and snack bars, and additional ferry service back to the city.
If you're used to ocean beaches, you may find it a bit strange to note the one obvious feature of this beach, which fringes Lake Ontario: it's not tidal, and the surf is minimal. In fact, it's slightly mucky where the water meets the sand. The beach itself, however, soft, clean, and well-kept - it's a pleasant place to while away the afternoon. And although clothing is optional, you won't be alone if you choose to keep your suit on. Generally, only about half the visitors to Hanlan's Point beach strip down to nothing.
Centre Island, the Most Touristy of the Toronto Islands
The busiest and most touristy of the Toronto Islands is Centre Island, to and from the largest of the archipelago's ferries operates from spring through fall (there's no winter service to Centre Island). Whereas adjacent Hanlan's Point has a discernible gay scene, thanks to that island's clothing-optional beach, Centre Island is decidedly mainstream, straight, and traditional, mostly the domain of families. You'll plenty of restaurants and amusements here, however. And one very enjoyable way to experience the Toronto Islands is to take the ferry from downtown Toronto to Centre Island and return via the Hanlan's Point ferry, or vice versa (all ferries to and from the Toronto Islands come and go from the foot of Bay Street, next to the Westin Hotel, in downtown Toronto).
A paved walkway leads from Centre Island (over a bridge) clear over to Hanlan's Point. From ferry drop-off at Centre Island to the clothing-optional (gay) beach at Hanlan's Point, it's a good 30- to 60-minute walk, depending on how quickly you walk. Pictured here is a meadow, looking north from Centre Island - you can see the 1,815-foot CN Tower rising over downtown Toronto in the center of the photo.
Glad Day Bookshop, the Venerable GLBT Bookstore in the Gay Village
Considered the oldest gay bookstore in North America, the venerable Glad Day Bookstore at 598 Yonge Street (416-961-4161) in the Gay Village opened in 1969. It's a shopping highlight for all book lovers, but especially if you're trying to find lesser-known titles on queer literature and history - the store also does a strong mail-order business. Alas, sales have been sluggish at Glad Day in recent years, and there is talk that the store may close if numbers don't improve considerably. With so many LGBT bookstores having shuttered in recent years, it would be a particular shame to lose this literary legend - here's hoping business improves.