panning Kensington Market is not just a market, but a vibrant, living community, home to numerous waves of immigrants over the years.When visiting, I was struck by how many different people from all walks of life gather here to work, eat, live and play. With so many cultures and generations all layered on top of each other, the whole place has a DIY feel you don’t really find anywhere else.
As a destination for art, global street food and community events, there is so much life tucked into every corner of this bustling neighbourhood. It’s nearly impossible to take it all in at once… so, where to start?
Make the Most of Kensington Market
Eat your way through a world of food
Although Kensington Market has some finer dining establishments such as Grey Gardens, more casual spots that only specialize in one or two items are really where it’s at. True to the market’s immigrant roots, you’ll find mom and pop restaurants serving quick street food and authentically cooked meals that bring a taste of their home countries to you.
Seven Lives is a neighbourhood favourite for getting Baja-style tacos, and they’re in demand. This cash only counter has mouthwatering tacos loaded with all the right toppings, and lots of hot sauce options to pick from. Another popular street food, empanadas, are perfect for a quick and affordable snack. At Jumbo Empanada, you can get a taste of Chile for as little as $1.75 for one of their mini pastries.
As a Montrealer I also have to mention NU Bügel. They serve classic Montreal bagels wood fired to perfection and topped with the works, if you wish. Fresco’s Fish and Chips has meanwhile mastered and upgraded a British classic with an optional extra crispy batter made from Miss Vickie’s “crisps.” Then, Golden Patty will deliver on all your flaky, spicy, delicious, beefy needs.
Take the Kensington Market and Chinatown Toronto Food Tour
If you’re new in the area or want to get to know it from a different perspective, taking a tour can be the perfect way to connect with the place. You’ll get to know the stories and the history that helped make Kensington Market the way it is today, and get a taste of what a community like this really means. Plus, it’s clear there’s a lot to taste in this high density foodie destination.
On the Kensington Market & Chinatown Toronto Food Tour, you’ll have the chance to visit 7+ different food stops to taste delicacies that are inspired by global cuisines, and yet take root at a small local business, each with its own story. No single restaurant could bring you a seven course meal this diverse! You’ll definitely get plenty to eat, but you’ll also be enriched by the guide’s insider knowledge as they take you to explore off the main streets and into the real heart of Kensington Market. Have a look at Local Toronto Food Tours.
Take it easy at a local cafe
You might need some extra energy to soak in as much as you can of Kensington Market, so why not treat yourself to a delicious cup of coffee, and maybe a scone?
My favourite place to refresh as I explore the market is Moonbean. The locally owned coffee shop and roastery brings the streets’ energy inside with a sprawling chalkboard menu, loose leaf teas lining the walls, and a cozy art-filled room in the back. They also have two patios, front and back, plentiful baked goods, and just about every drink you can think of, even smoothies. Plus, if you need to make another kind of rest stop, you’ll find kind messages from strangers scrawled all over the bathroom walls.
Another great coffee shop is FIKA, a bright and stylish Sweden-inspired spot that’s a favourite for studying, reading a book, or simply taking it easy. They serve specialty drinks such as a spiced cardamom latte, lavender white hot chocolate, and a mean iced coffee, too – perfect for enjoying on their airy patio in the summer.
See where creativity spills onto the streets
Music, street performances, murals and more fill the streets of Kensington Market with endless inspiration and photo opportunities. With so many artists around, you’ll be pressed to find wall space that doesn’t boast even a speck of paint. They’ve truly made Kensington their own.
Some of my favourite murals are a photo collage on Kensington Ave off St Andrew and a huge Alphonse Mucha inspired mural at Augusta and Oxford. Parked in front the latter, you’ll also find Yvonne Bambrick’s infamous Garden Car, a teeny tiny city park/community art project which has been sprouting in the same spot each summer since ’07. Make sure you keep your eyes up as you explore hidden corners and back alleys, you never know what else you’ll find!
While street performers and pop-up concerts may be a little harder to track, if the sun is out you’re sure to stumble upon some talented buskers at Bellevue Square Park. To increase your odds, come by for Pedestrian Sundays. The whole market is blocked off from traffic on the last Sunday of every summer month, opening it up for people and their experimentations. Support artists directly, too, by checking out the Kensington Market Art Fair.
The Winter Solstice Festival also takes over the market annually on December 21st, lighting up the longest night of the year with creativity and passion.
Shop around for locally made goods
Naturally, the storefronts in Kensington Market sell products by people just as diverse as its residents. Creativity is concentrated at a few charming stores offering handmade and locally produced goods that range from artwork to accessories to home decor, and more.
First off, Kid Icarus is a sweet, stylish screen printing studio and gift shop all in one. They focus on paper products like greeting cards and stationary, but you’ll find pins, soap and other creative crafts, too. Everything in store is made by Canadian artists and artisans, and it’s irresistibly cute.
Another good place to pick up Canadian-made gifts is The Blue Banana Market. The giant store is practically a warehouse for locally made goods and novelty items from around the globe. Then, for comic book lovers, manga fans, and graphic novel enthusiasts, there’s The Beguiling. You’ll find the famed comic book store just a couple steps from the market on College Ave. Even if you weren’t looking for any of those, there’s something about it that just draws you in.
Finally, if you’re looking for some unique jewellery, you’re in luck. One Love is one man’s tiny storefront selling handcrafted goods and jewellery, with a smile. You can also find other similarly handmade pieces displayed on tabletops around the market. Follow your instinct as you stroll the streets and see what speaks to you!
Pick up some specialty ingredients
Grocery shopping might be an underrated form of entertainment, but one of the big draw-ins of Kensington Market is its high density of specialty grocers. There’s nothing better than treating yourself to some of the freshest ingredients you can get. Whether you’re cooking up a special meal or just having a snack, you’ll see the difference that freshness makes.
Even if you don’t have a kitchen at your disposal, these spots can help you feel right at home. There’s nothing better than fresh bread from Toronto’s favourite Blackbird Baking Co. topped with your favourite creamy delight from the Global Cheese Shoppe just around the corner.
For carnivores, Sanagan’s Meat Locker is your local go-to. They emphasize building relationships with farmers, meaning you can trace everything in store back to its source. All that’s left to do is let the helpful staff guide you to picking the perfect cut. Next, you’ll find fruit and vegetable stands all around the market to add a little colour to your meal, while House of Spice will help bring the flavour. You’re sure to discover something new while you’re in there, too.
If you’re looking for place to shop that’s a little better rounded, 4 Life Natural Foods has it all when it comes to organic goods. With spacious aisles, wooden shelves and so many ethically sourced food options, the whole experience of being there is simply a pleasure.
Discover the wonder of thrift shops
Kensington Market is truly a haven for lovers of vintage. With shops selling unique finds around every corner, its no wonder the area’s residents all look so cool. Plus, buying secondhand clothes is a simple way to take it easy on Mother Earth.
Perhaps the most well-known vintage shop in the area is Courage My Love, a cozy and colourful store perfect for finding cashmere pieces, theatrical accessories, beads, buttons and other DIY necessities, as well as the perfect pair of cowboy boots. Another favourite is Sub Rosa Vintage just next door, which boasts a hand picked selection of clothes more in line with today’s fashion trends. Meanwhile, Vintage Depot has top tier threads in just about any shape or colour, including some designer finds, Exile delivers on the costume department and Bungalow mixes the old with the new making it a one-stop shop for any lover of retro style.
If you’re in the mood for a little shopping spree, you’ll find the highest concentration of other vintage shops on Kensington Ave around Courage My Love and Sub Rosa.
Explore neighbouring Chinatown
A mere block away from the heart of Kensington Market is another bustling urban community. Chinatown is full of family-owned business of all sorts, but the main attraction is definitely the food. While the number of restaurants serving different variations on the same cuisine was a little overwhelming at first, after a little exploring I’ve narrowed down my favourite spots, depending on what you’re looking for.
Dumplings? Try Mother’s Dumplings, and watch the little bundles of flavour be made right in front of your eyes. Noodles? Despite the name, Chinese Traditional Buns serves some awesome Dan Dan Noodles, without the frills. Soup? Phở Hưng has all you could want, and more. Sandwich? Banh Mi Nguyen Huong serves Banh Mi that’s quick, cheap and most of all delicious. Buns? Now, those are top-tier at Mashion Bakery.