Discover Chinatown Toronto, a bustling downtown Toronto neighbourhood with much to attract the traveller, bargain shopper, foodie, heritage fan and art lover.
Say the phrase Toronto Chinatown and locals will immediately ask you: Which one?
There are currently at least five Chinatowns in the Toronto area: the downtown one surrounding the corner of Spadina and Dundas, East Chinatown (Broadview and Gerrard), and the ones in Scarborough, Markham and Richmond Hill.
The Toronto Chinatown I’m going to share with you here is the one at Spadina and Dundas.
Located just west of the heart of downtown Toronto and City Hall, it’s easily accessible even to visitors with only a short time to spare... but reader beware: You may find yourself spending a lot more time in this area than you’d planned to, especially if you’re a shopper!
When I lived in Toronto, I used to come here to buy groceries on the weekend because the fruit and veggies were often much cheaper here than in the big grocery stores. But cheap bananas, nuts, bok choy and rice aren’t the only “finds” in this busy district. You’ll also find Chinese herbs, colourful tins full of tea (great for decorating your kitchen shelves), videos, electronics, music CDs, adult clothing, purses, jewellery and accessories as well as a surprisingly wide array of children’s clothes and toys.
I also remember furnishing my bare-bones apartment with household goods from Chinatown, such as dishes, cute teapots, and all kinds of wicker and bamboo goods including Chinese fans. This is also a great place to discover unique gifts as well.
Many of the shops in Chinatown are located in historic brick buildings (some with gingerbread trim around the windows and the cornice) but you’ll also find two modern malls, the Dragon City and the Chinatown Centre complex.
Restaurants & Bakeries in Chinatown Toronto
The second thing that draws local and tourists to this neighbourhood is the chance to dine at authentic Chinese restaurants. Fancy some dim sum? You’ll find it here. If you have time, try one of the places offering Peking duck. I still remember my first taste of this delicacy. A dinner of Peking duck is not just a meal; it’s an event.
You’ll find a range of restaurants, big and small, fancy and simple. You’ll come across not just Chinese but Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants too.
The Chinese bakeries are my favourite spots. Step in the door and discover shelves and bins full of egg tarts, buns filled with curry beef, pork, and chicken, rice cakes, sesame seed balls, cookies, and fancy Western-style cakes with icing. These cost anywhere from 85 cents to $2.50 or so, and are perfect for nibbling while you’re shopping. Or if you want to sit down then I’d recommend my former lunchtime favourite, Kim Moon bakery on Dundas Street which offers a wide choice of baked goods and tasty dim sum items in the back room restaurant.
Architecture & Art in Chinatown Toronto
When you’re walking around, be sure to look up every now and then at the tops of the buildings. There’s a lot of history here and some unexpected architectural treats from the past.
Before it was Chinatown, this area was full of textile factories and warehouses, many of them owned by Jewish immigrants. Spadina Street has long been a magnet for Canadian newcomers. Many of the former buildings have been converted to other purposes now... offices and shops. There are still some fashion-related companies though, just enough to retain the name “Fashion District” that you’ll see on some of the street signs, but not nearly as many as there were in the past.
Also look into the middle of the street and then up for art. When the streetcar line (or LRT as you’ll sometimes hear) was built in the late 1990s, the transit system planned public art to decorate the central streetcar platform.
The art is located on the tops of towering poles. I’m not sure why they put these sculptures up so high ... unless they were trying to avoid the problem of graffiti or destruction. Some of them you can barely see, in fact. And probably many people walk or drive by without even noticing. It’s a shame.
Live music clubs include The Silver Dollar (on Spadina), and the Horseshoe Tavern (on Queen at Spadina).
On Spadina above College is the derelict Waverly Hotel – a dive, but dear to me because it was once the home of one of my favourite Canadian poets Milton Acorn.
Chinatown is a short walk from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Textile Museum of Canada, University of Toronto, City Hall, the Eaton Centre, Yonge Street shopping district, and the Entertainment District along King Street East.
Also close by is the Kensington Market neighbourhood. It’s full of vintage shops, restaurants, and food shops. For more information, see my detailed article: Kensington Market Toronto.
Festivals in Chinatown Toronto
The Annual Chinatown festival in September includes dragon dances, kung fu demonstrations, and live music.
Staying in Chinatown Toronto
If you’re looking for a cheap place to stay in the neighbourhood, there’s the Global Village Backpackers Hostel on Spadina.
There’s also a Super 8 at Chinatown Centre (222 Spadina Avenue).
Chinatown’s boundaries are roughly from College in the north to Queen Street in the south, and along Dundas Street from Augusta to Beverly.
If you’re downtown and using the subway, the closest subway stop is St. Andrews. Exit the subway and walk along Dundas, stopping at the various shops and bakeries that catch your eye, until you get to the corner of Spadina. Then turn right (north) on Spadina and walk up the east side. When you reach College, turn down the other (west) side to Queen.
If you’re coming from another direction, the north or west end of the city for example, then you might want to take the streetcar (or Spadina LRT as it’s called) from Spadina Station. You can also catch the Spadina car from down near the waterfront and head north.
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