Kensington Market is the heart of multiculturalism in Toronto. Jewish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Caribbean, South Americans and University of Toronto students have made this downtown neighborhood, bordered by Chinatown and the Art Gallery of Ontario, their starting point.
Each culture left its mark. The result is an eclectic, bustling bazaar of a neighborhood packed with restaurants, cafes and merchants selling international food, spices, clothing and anything else you might need or want.
The district is not a big one, spanning about five blocks in either direction from Kensington Avenue, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in character.
Jason Kucherawy, who leads pedestrian tours with Intrepid Travel's Urban Adventures, says he "likes to take people into the nooks and crannies of the market." We find out why, when after being led through a narrow alley, we're surrounded by colorful murals of graffiti. Kucherawy points out the signature features of this artist's piece. A "piece," we find out, is graffiti lingo for more intricate work, separating it from a "throw-up" or a "tag." There are many impressive pieces in Kensington Market, reflecting its hip culture.
The area is also a Canadian National Historic Site and we visit some of its more notable landmarks, including the architecturally distinctive Kiever Synagogue, 25 Bellevue Ave. A statue in Bellevue Square Park honors Al Waxman, a TV star made famous by his role as a market vendor in "The King of Kensington," a Canadian TV show (he also is known for his part as the lieutenant in the 1980s U.S. police drama "Cagney and Lacey").
Just as easily as our tour guide can identity a graffiti mural artist, he can recite the area's history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish merchants, excluded from the city's main business district, moved into the neighborhood and began selling goods. They started with handcarts pushed through the streets, then opened stalls and stores, often on the ground floor of the owner's house. By the 1920s, approximately 80 percent of Toronto's Jewish population lived in the area, worshipping at more than 30 local synagogues.
In the 1950s, the Jewish community started to move into outlying areas and post-war immigrants moved in. As each group grew more affluent and moved on, others replaced them, adding layers to an ever-changing market district, creating the vibrant and eccentric atmosphere that exists today.
The two best ways to experience this -- and the two reasons most Torontonians frequent this neighborhood -- are to eat and to shop. You won't find any big chains; residents are fiercely loyal to their local establishments and have refused to patronize any that have attempted to move in.
>Wear it out
In addition to food stalls, clothing is a big draw. Courage My Love, 14 Kensington, a neighborhood fixture since 1975, is a hippie-flavored clothing store. Its loyal following flocks here for cheap vintage clothes, exotic jewelry, scarves, kitschy home accessories and trinkets of all sorts.
Next door is Exile, 22 Kensington, also well-known for its vintage clothes collection. Its busiest time is Halloween, as partygoers transform into Mad Men, Lady Gaga, burlesque showgirls and vampires. The rest of the year brings in people looking for something different, whether it's used denim and '80s iron-on transfers or vintage cocktail dresses and prom wear.
Blue Banana Market, 250 Augusta Ave., sells on consignment from numerous vendors, so you'll find handcrafted jewelry next to houseware products, and artwork sharing space with imported toys and candy.
Once you've worked up an appetite, it's on to the next popular pastime -- eating. At Big Fat Burrito, 285 Augusta, (next to a tattoo parlor), students and professionals sit elbow to elbow to savor spicy steak burritos and nachos.
Jumbo Empanadas, 245 Augusta, is where you'll find Toronto's version of Chilean street food. You'll find traditional styles of empanadas (stuffed baked or fried pastries) like cheese, beef, vegetable and chicken, but also more exotic versions like kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage), empanadas and corn pies (pastel de choclo).
More upmarket is Torito Tapas Bar, 276 Augusta, modeled after Barcelona tapas bars. This intimate yet lively restaurant serves up snack-sized Spanish dishes, like tortillas, crab croquettes, shrimp ajillo (garlic) and braised beef tongue and cheeks.
And for something completely different, there's Hungary Thai, 196 Augusta, which is, as its name suggests, a mix of Hungarian and Thai cuisine. Combo plates with spring rolls, cabbage rolls, chicken pad thai and wiener schnitzels are available. This mix would be extremely odd in any other place, but here in Kensington Market, where a mix of cultural influences is the norm, it somehow fits right in.
If you go:
The district's approximate borders are College Street to the north, Dundas Street West to the south, Spadina Avenue to the east and Bellevue Avenue to the west.