I am incredibly lucky to live in Toronto when it comes to art, design, food and fashion. In fact, while some people may argue that New York City is the ‘King of Culture’ in North America, I believe my city, and one street in particular, is the Queen: Queen Street West, that is. If you have ever been to Toronto, you’ll know that Queen Street West has long been described as the bohemian heart of the city, a street filled with independent boutiques by startup designers, vintage clothing stores, small cafes and restaurants, textile supply stores, exotic decor shops (read hookah pipes)….the list goes on and on. Even the streetcar route that follows Queen was described by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Trolley Rides in the World, taking you from the Beaches in the east (now ‘The Beach’, following a recent poll to determine the rightful name for the neighbourhood), to the Long Branch Loop 25 kilometres to the west. (It’s also the longest streetcar route in North America.)
Originally Queen West referred to the stretch from University Avenue to Spadina – a rent-friendly neighbourhood that attracted fringe designers and artists who set up shops or lived in the second story apartments above them. Inevitably, though, mainstream moved in, resulting in the ‘GAP-ification’ of the retail scene, with cookie-cutter clothing chains taking over from independents and driving real estate values higher. Despite this, Queen Street bravely soldiered on, moving its independent spirt, (and designers), further west past Bathurst, keeping its original authenticity intact. Proof positive of this: Lonely Planet recently called the stretch of Queen past Bathurst ‘Toronto’s coolest neighbourhood‘ and for good reason: funky boutique hotels, interesting cafes and art galleries, unique bars and restaurants and of course the shopping!
West Queen West, as this cultural mecca is now called, is a retail adventure that requires hours to properly explore, and depending on where you start, could end up becoming an all-day affair. For example, if antiques are your shopping drug of choice, you could start exploring Queen even further west closer to Roncesvalles, a once sketchy area that is becoming increasingly hip, and where retail icons like Sam the Chandelier Man (Sam Mozun) has been selling antique light fixtures for decades – and his overstuffed store has the inventory to prove it.
If you are more into jewellery, Made You Look just west of Dufferin represents over 100 local designers’ work, along with a studio that houses 20 independent artists who rent space and work their magic on-site. However, If you don’t want to make a career out of exploring all 25 kilometres of Queen, I would recommend a walk that begins instead at Gladstone Avenue, where the 125-year old Gladstone Hotel stands proudly on the northeast corner.
A Victorian beauty dating from 1889, the Gladstone Hotel holds the title of longest continuously operating hotel in Toronto, and after decades of decline, has been reinvented as a boutique property offering artist-designed rooms that are fashion statements in their own right.
From the Gladstone, simply walk east until your feet – or your credit card – gets tired. If you can’t find something to your taste, (you’ll find food options from poutine to sushi and clothing from vintage to fashion-forward), just keep going – and you will certainly find something that tempts you. The only challenge you might have is deciding how to efficiently navigate both sides of the street in order to take it all in. Be prepared to criss-cross the street or you might miss out on unique gems like The Paper Place (beautiful Japanese and hand-crafted papers to die for) vying for your attention on the south side near Trinity Bellwoods Park.
I’m not a fashionista by any stretch, any more than I am a foodie or an antique collector, but exploring a city is all about finding what makes it unique, and Queen Street West is a jewel in Toronto’s cultural crown. I didn’t realize this until I went looking for similar neighbourhoods while visiting Boston, Chicago, and even Los Angeles: hours of research yielded options that were either too few or too far between when compared to the smorgasbord that Toronto serves up. It’s why I can honestly say that block-for-block, Queen Street West will yield you more bohemian bang-for-your-block than all of those cities combined. Maybe it’s time you took a walk around this block, too.