Exploring Toronto’s Kensington Market Neighbourhood

When travelling to a new city, I am often up for exploring on my own – sometimes I’ll read up on the area first, so I know a few highlights to look out for and occasionally I mark up a map with my personal points of interest. So it was when I first visited Toronto’s Kensington Market back in 2015, my first time in the city. I took a detour from my meander around Chinatown to get a glimpse of nearby Kensington Market and I liked what I saw.

When I returned to Toronto a year later, I enlisted the help of a professional tour guide to see and learn more of the area. Mike Carter from Tour Guys provided a two hour walking tour, filling us in on the history of Kensington Market, some of the quirks of local life and his favourite food-focused restaurants, bakeries, delis, groceries and specialist stores.

The first thing to point out is that Kensington Market is not actually a market but a colourful, lively and historically significant neighbourhood of the city. Today it’s known for its Bohemian vibe, with lots of street art, plenty of ethnic shops and restaurants, and some great shopping for those who love food, vintage clothing and handmade products. The neighbourhood is roughly bound by College Street to the North, Spadina Avenue to the east, Dundas Street West to the south and Bathhurst Street to the west.

For fellow history geeks… click here for the story of immigration into the neighbourhood, a key part of the history of Toronto...

For thousands of years, the First Nations people of North America lived in this region.

The first Europeans here were the French who set up trading posts in the early and mid 1700s, but these were abandoned when the British came. The first European settlers were a large influx of British, many of whom came from the States, which was in the throws of its war of Independence – those who wished to remain loyal to the British crown headed up to Canada rather than make the long sea journey back to Britain.

The British government had decided to split their Canada territories into Upper and Lower Canada, and when Lord Dorchester arrived in Quebec City as Governor-in-Chief of British North America in 1786, he decided the capital for the new province would be in the Toronto area. Recognising the aboriginal title to the land, he bought more than 250,000 acres of land from the Mississaugas, though it was a long fight for them to get compensation.

On the arrival of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe the following year, the capital was set up in the location of modern-day Toronto, which he renamed to York after King George’s son, the Duke of York. Today, locations such as York Street, the Royal York Hotel and York University commemorate this name for the city, which endured until 1834. (At that point, with a population of around 9000 people, the Town of York incorporated into a city, reverting to Toronto in order to avoid confusion with New York City).

Simcoe laid out the original ten-block plan for York-Toronto, setting aside some of the land for expansion of the government and dividing the rest into 32 100-acre lots for settlement. To entice the British gentry to emigrate, he contacted many of his friends and associates back in Britain and offered a huge plot of land and a well-paid government job to finance the building of a grand new home. Many took up the offer including Captain John Denison.

The plot that encompassed the Kensington Market neighbourhood was bought by John’s son, Colonel George Taylor Denison in 1815 and he built the family homestead Belle Vue House here. The original road from the house down to St Stephen’s-in-the-Field Church (paid for by John’s grandson Robert Denison) is now Denison Avenue and many locations and landmarks are named for the family including Denison Square, Denison Creek and Bellevue Avenue.

Eventually, the Denisons started to subdivide their land and sold small plots to Scottish and Irish settlers, who built their homes here. As this neighbourhood was being developed, so too was St John’s Ward (known as The Ward) to the East – a notorious slum of dilapidated shanty-town buildings where the poorest immigrants would first settle. Immigrants included Jews escaping from purges in Russia and Eastern Europe, Irish escaping the Irish Potato Famine, African American slaves fleeing via the Underground railroad to find a life of freedom and Chinese labourers brought in to build the railroads. Toronto’s original Chinatown was here, further East than it is today.

Many of the Jewish immigrants worked in the sweatshops on lower Spadina, but the requirement to work on the Sabbath was an issue and many preferred to go into business for themselves and so they became peddlers. Visiting St Lawrence Market at the end of the day, they bought leftover produce on sale, loaded it onto their pushcarts and headed back to the poorer residential neighbourhoods where they sold it for a profit. The use of rags – scraps of fabric from the refuse of richer inhabitants – to make clothes, was the origin of the rags-to-riches expression.

When the British eventually moved out of the Kensington Market neighbourhood, they started to rent their original homes to the Jewish community, who moved west from The Ward. Those pushcarts were now parked on the front lawn, and then the large front living rooms were converted into shop fronts, with the family living above. In the 1920s, the area became known as the Jewish Market, and 80% of Toronto’s Jewish population lived here – many were able to buy their homes instead of renting.

As the British had moved out, so in turn did most of the Jewish community a few decades later, renting their homes to the next waves of immigrants – the Italians who came after World War 2 to build the city’s subways and skyscrapers; they later moved out to the area around College Street, where Little Italy is now located. In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s came the Portuguese – first from the Azores and then from mainland Portugal, who brought with them a tradition of brightly coloured houses; they later moved onwards to Dundas Street, where Little Portugal is now based. This era also saw newcomers from the Caribbean, East Asia and even America (during the years of the Vietnam War). In the ‘80s and ‘90s immigrants came from trouble spots around the world including Central America, Chile, Ethiopia, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam.

Each immigrant community had an impact on the vibe of Kensington Market, bringing with them food (and new ingredients), culture, art and more.

In 2006, the area was designated a National Historic Site, in recognition of it’s contribution to multi-culturism in Toronto.

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Mike talking us through a map of the neighbourhood located at Denison Square; Pete and I in Kensington Market

Houses and businesses are colourfully painted, some sporting impressive murals. Artworks such as the car that’s been turned into a planter, add to the eclectic vibe.

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Many of the residential homes (and vehicles) are just as colourfully decorated as the businesses

The photo on the right (above) shows one of Toronto’s Marijuana Dispensaries. Canadian law allows people to buy marijuana for medical use from an officially licensed producer, of which there are very few. However, that hasn’t stopped an army of marijuana vendors from setting up shops in Toronto. Many, nominally, require a doctor’s prescription but some have a resident doctor on site to dispense these, some ask only for a letter of diagnosis of the condition from any medical practitioner (including chiropractors, for example) and others waive the requirement completely.

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Some of the many fruit and vegetable shops in the neighbourhood

Several of the stores sell fresh fruit and vegetables – I’m drawn as always to their displays of produce.

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Global Cheese

There are three cheese shops within the neighbourhood. Global Cheese is a popular choice, with a great selection of local and regional cheeses, plus a fair offering of international ones.

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The Blackbird Baking Co

Blackbird is a charming bakery offering a range of high quality bakery items, some still warm from the oven.

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Jimmy’s Coffee

Founded in 2009, Jimmy’s Coffee is a small Toronto chain that provides a great place to stop for coffee. The shop on Baldwin Street was the second they opened; if the weather’s good, make your way out to the garden out back.

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House of Spice

There are plenty of ethnic grocery stores in the neighbourhood, and I could easily spend an entire day exploring their offerings. House of Spice is one such store. It’s main focus is on ingredients from the Indian subcontinent but I also spotted my favourite Spanish paprika brand there and huge bags of dried mulberries.

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Nu Bügel

Nu Bügel offers some excellent bagels. As is the style in this part of the world, they are first boiled in honeyed water before baking in a wood-fire oven. The onion bagel we tried was delicious.

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Toronto Popcorn Company

Offering a bewildering range of popcorn flavours, the Toronto Popcorn Company was established in 2013 by a family who moved to Canada from the Philippines just two years earlier. With over 200 flavours, it’s not easy to pick but luckily you can try a few before you buy.

We spent just a couple of hours in the neighbourhood, but I could easily spend longer – there are plenty of food shops to explore, not to mention some great options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The neighbourhood combines well with Chinatown, at its Eastern edge, which also has great plenty of great shopping and eating.

More things to do in Toronto.

With thanks to Ontario Tourism for organising our Toronto walking tour with Tour Guys. Note that Tour Guys are also the providers of Toronto walking tours marketed by Urban Adventures.

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39 Comments to "Exploring Toronto’s Kensington Market Neighbourhood"

  1. kellie@foodtoglow

    This looks like my kind of place, Kavey! The breadth of what’s available is truly staggering. I have never booked a tour such as this but perhaps I should to really get to know a place. I’ve never been to Toronto but I know that you are big fan of Canada in general. I think of Toronto is all shiny and modern, but I am drawn to this more eclectic side.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, it’s such a charming and warm neighbourhood, and I love the waves of immigration that have each left a cultural imprint. I am not generally a tour person when it comes to the whole trip but I like to book a guided tour now and again to get more insight into an area. We did a fabulous food walking tour in Hong Kong recently, expensive but worth it. A friend’s mum generously did a private tour for us in Taipei. And even in Japan I booked a goodwill guide for a day in Fukuoka and asked her to give our day a bit of a food focus. She was wonderful!

    Reply
  2. Margot

    Wow, this place looks like heaven to me!! I could probably spend there hours. If I ever visit Toronto the Kensington Market will be one of the first places for me to visit. I absolutely adore those colourful corn cobs! 🙂

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, and you have China Town right next to it which is worthy of another few hours, especially on the days when the street vendors are out in force as well as the regular shops!

    Reply
  3. Tara

    Such a beautiful neighborhood! I love all the color and food. I haven’t been to Toronto yet, but will definitely keep this area on my list when I do.

    Reply
  4. Katie | Healthy Seasonal Recipes

    This makes me want to visit! We’re going on a road trip this June and I so wanted an excuse to go through Toronto. But honestly I think it deserves it’s own trip. There is so much to see! Can’t believe this one neighborhood has so much going on!

    Reply
  5. Syama

    I could shop here and get lost lol . Just cant stop admiring the vibrant colors of produce – especially corn ! When were these pictures taken ?

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    During a visit in September last year. Beautiful produce, couldn’t get enough of it. You may also like some of my other posts in food markets in Canada. ❤

    Reply
  6. Shumaila

    I spent two months in Toronto but didnt end up visiting this place. Thanks for the virtual tour! My parents are traveling there this summer will ask them to visit.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I hope they will enjoy. It’s right next to China Town so easy to take a look around on the same day as visiting China Town.

    Reply
  7. Jennifer

    I love exploring neighborhoods like this with a lot of independent food sellers and restaurants. The bagels look really delicious – it’s hard to get a proper bagel in France. I’m curious about the cheese, too. What kind of cheese is made regionally?

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Many different types of cheese, many traditional European cheeses were brought over by settlers, mainly French and British.

    Reply
  8. sara | belly rumbles

    What a gorgeous neighbourhood. Bohemian vibes and street art, what is not to love. I could spend hours walking around the streets and foraging in those gorgeous shops.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It’s a really lovely area to walk around and there were so many great stores to forage!

    Reply
  9. kaveyeats

    Ah that’s great to hear, this was my first experience with them and it was great!

    Reply
  10. Jenna

    We loved the Kensington Market and Chinatown area of Toronto! Would be fun to take a tour there to learn more about the neighborhood. The produce, cheese and bagels all look so delicous Sounds like a fantastic tour!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, I loved learning the history, which I then delved into some more when I got home!

    Reply
  11. Vicki Louise

    I could spend hours exploring that market – there is so much to see and do and the variety of things available is incredible! Your tour sounded great way to get your bearings too!

    Reply
  12. Elisa

    What a colorful place to hang around for a while! And also thanks for the historical, cultural introduction

    Reply
  13. stacey veikalas

    UM Global Cheese! I could spend all day there! Love this post – well because I love food! This looks amazing I could wander all day following your food tour here! The markets also look amazing!

    Reply
  14. kaveyeats

    Yes, if we had a self-catering apartment, I’d have been doing a lot more shopping!

    Reply
  15. Jacqueline Meldrum

    I’d love to visit Toronto. I heard a lot about it from my cousin when he lived their with his wife and kids for a few years. I am loving your photos too.

    Reply
  16. Nisha

    First, this place is full of colors! Markets are usually but your neighborhood is amazing. I could spend hours exploring that market. Never knew this side of Toronto.

    Reply
  17. Lauren

    Ah, Kensington – my own backyard! 🙂 I come here all the time and it’s such a great neighborhood in Toronto. Lots of great restaurants there, too! I love Kings Cafe and Bunners Bake Shop 🙂

    Reply

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