24+ Interesting Things to Do in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District
By Ana Bilokin on June 1st, 2018
Victorian era architecture, cobble stone streets and no cars… no you haven’t travelled in time, it’s Toronto’s Distillery District! The place is historic but run by creatives so there’s always something new and exciting to see.
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Your Guide to Toronto’s Distillery District
The Distillery District is an architectural treasure and a top destination for arts, culture and entertainment. What began as the Gooderham and Worts Distillery is now a National Historic Site of Canada. The area is a unique pocket of Victorian-era industrial architecture surrounded by a city of concrete and glass. It’s the world’s largest preserved collection of it, in fact. As you explore the romantically European cobblestone streets you’ll be transported back in time… But now that the area is populated by artists and their studios, its also been transformed into a hub for forward-thinking art and design – all while preserving its historic character. And the best part: no cars allowed, just like the olden days!
If you love art, specialty stores, and outdoor markets, check out Toronto’s other most pedestrian friendly neighbourhood: Kensington Market! You might like to see what’s going on over at artsy Trinity Bellwoods too…
1. Settle in for a delicious meal
The area’s got a few delicious restaurants. They’ll serve you dinner amongst stone walls and steel beams, mixing their historic setting with contemporary cuisine. Out of all of them, these ones are real stand-outs.
When you mention the Distillery District to someone from Toronto they’ll often tell you: make sure you go to Cluny Bistro. This spacious French Bistrowithdazzling decor is a destination in itself. Whether you’re there for brunch, lunch or dinner, their seafood options – such as the tuna tartar – are simply mouthwatering. Make sure to book a reservation and skip the line! website
This place brings together fine dining and Mexican cuisine. Plus, El Catrin has a lot to offer: some of the best tacos in the city, a huge heated patio that lets you can eat outdoors year round, 120 types of tequila and mescal, as well as a giant indoor mural painted by some of Mexico’s best artists. website
What has long been a sushi place has now reimagined itself as a noodle bar, and we’re excited! The rebrand just opened on May 31st, 2018, so it’s a fresh new spot with lots of charm. Stop by for some delightful ramen, izakaya bites, and a great selection of creative Japanese-inspired cocktails. website
2. Browse the local art galleries
One thing you’ll notice when you’re in the Distillery District: the place is run by artists. As a result, there’s naturally a wide selection of galleries that showcase both local and international art.
Visit Arta Gallery to see a regularly-changing array of contemporary art exhibitions, from both their artists in residence and other international figures. Seeking to bring art closer to the public’s daily life, Arta is a fully functional event space and provides art consultations for those wishing to add to their collections. website
This gallery has a focus on contemporary photography and abstract visual art, and has a vast collection of vintage photographs. Their exhibitions swing between looking to future and back at the past, making the gallery dynamic, unpredictable and worth coming back to time after time. website
The only gallery in Toronto specializing in Quebec artists, ranging from contemporary painters and sculptors to a collection of work by old Quebec masters. Exposed brick and limestone walls make for a striking background to their exhibits. website
3. Sample the fruits of today’s alcohol production
While it’s days as the largest distillery in the British Empire are over, there are a couple spaces in the Distillery District that are still leaders in the game of alcohol production, carrying on its tradition. And lucky for you, these are products you can try on your next visit to the area.
What is now their Distillery District brewpub began as the headquarters for this brewing big-shot. After starting off in 2002 by making Ontario’s first organic beer, they still make many of their seasonal brews right in the heart of this historic neighbourhood. Come in, sip some pints and have a meal right next to the fermentation action. website
Another Ontario front runner, this sake brewery brings Japanese methods and recipes to eastern North America for the first time. You can go and sample the locally brewed sake right at their Distillery District factory in the retail store, or pick up some bottles to take home. website
And naturally, true to its roots, there’s a distillery in the District. Spirit of York make premium spirits using state-of-the-art, hand crafted copper stills. Take a tour of their tasting room, see the production behind a glass wall, smell the botanicals used in their gin and, of course, try the finished products in their cocktail lounge. website
From mid-November until Christmas the Toronto Christmas Market takes over and transforms the Distillery District into a winter wonderland. And there’s so much to do! The market is packed with vendors and craftsmen selling artisanal goods that make perfect gifts, as well as lots of tasty treats. Pick up anything from soap, to fleece sweaters, to holiday souvenirs. You can also have your photo (or your pet’s!) taken with Santa, sip mulled wine by the fire in an outdoor beer garden or head over to the main stage for musical performances every night of the week. website
5. Check out some specialty stores
The owners of the Distillery District turned it from a collection of derelict buildings into the creatively charged and inspiring destination it is today. To keep this spirit in the streets, they won’t rent space to large corporations and franchises, so you can be sure all the stores are locally owned and operated, or at least have a stand-out ethos.
A charming boutique for women’s clothing, bags and accessories, Hoi Bo’s products are smart, sustainable, and functional, not to mention stylish. Everything is crafted with care and intention. Plus, their bags and pouches are completely unique; made of waxed cotton or even washable, treated paper, they’re unlike anything we’ve seen before. website
Though it’s now a global enterprise, this Toronto-based beauty company is an umbrella for several game changing brands. Their mission is this: transparency and integrity. They’ll tell you exactly what they put in their products, and why, so you’ll know you’re getting something that simply works. website
A step in another direction: get lost amongst the found treasures of Blackbird Vintage Finds and unearth some souvenirs of the past. The store’s owner has quite the obsession with antiques, which is pretty fitting in an area that’s antique itself. website
Check out GW General for another adventure in vintage items and curiosities, it’s packed to the brim with just that! From beautiful to plain weird… the variety is endless. Best of all, they have lots of antique furniture, and even do custom designs. This is a stop you won’t want to miss. website
Bergo is another store that you can poke around in for a while, but instead of looking to the past, it’s a journey through contemporary design. They have lots of unconventional home goods, decorations and watches that make perfect gifts for the special people in your life. website
These studios were one of the first tenants as part of the new wave of community-building in the Distillery District. Infusing the area with vibrancy, the building is home to dozens of artists and creatives who work in all kinds of mediums. There, you can check out the studio-galleries of artists like Barbara Wybou, who makes delightful, hand carved woodblock prints, or Susan Card and her ceramics project Dish Gallery + Studio, as well as illustration based mehoi, which sells charming goods from pins to greeting cards. It also houses the studios of numerous dance and theatre companies who’s performances you can see in venues around the city, or even online in the case of Expect Theatre‘s podcasting-based project, PlayME, which brings Canadian theatre right to your earbuds.
7. Savour the day at a cafe
There’s so much to do in the Distillery District, but luckily there’s some cafes around to fuel you up and keep you going. Take a load off your feet and have a pause at one of these delightful coffee shops.
Part of a small chain of locally owned cafes, Balzac’s Coffee Roasters is a Toronto favourite. Their Distillery District coffee shop brings all the vintage charm you’d expect from a Parisian cafe to the 1895 Pump House, making it the perfect place to get cozy and watch people go by on the cobblestone streets. website
Not only is it a charming multi-roaster cafe with Australian influence, Arvo is also a florist. They sell succulents, floral arrangements and pretty things of the sort. They also source seasonal coffee, among other drinks, from around the globe, and prepare it using espresso, drip or specialty pourover techniques. website
8. Experience Toronto’s performing arts scene
Not just Artscape, but the whole area is a hub for the performing arts. Stop by for some live action excitement, whether its theatre or beyond!
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts is home to both the George Brown Theatre School and Toronto’s famed independent, not-for-profit theatre company: Soulpepper. Catch their shows and ones from visiting artists to laugh, cry, feel and be inspired at this energetic venue. website
Ernest Balmer Studio
This studio space is used in collaboration by Nightwood Theater, a feminist theatre company working out of the Distillery District with shows around the city, and Tapestry Opera, a contemporary opera company. This year they’re partnering with Luminato Festival for a production of Tables Turned and with Pride Toronto for Tap This! A Queerated Opera Series. shows
To watch some multidisciplinary and innovative dance performances by local and international artists check out Dancemakers. They’re committed to pushing forward the field of contemporary dance through residencies, performances and workshops, including projects such as the Flowchart performance series. website
9. Interact with the public art installations
At the moment, there are two massive and striking sculptures on display in the Distillery District’s streets. Dennis Oppenheim’s “Still Dancing” is a twisted and colourful depiction of the area’s past as a distillery (if you want it to be) located at the intersection of Distillery Lane and Trinity Street. Meanwhile, Michael Christian’s “I.T.” looks over the neighbourhood with an alien stare from it’s post on Gristmill Lane. A common theme in the area’s installations is love; a red heart even acts as a gateway to the district off Parliament Street. There is also a much photographed steel sign spelling out “LOVE” on Tank House Lane is covered in locks left there by lovers visiting from around the world, and maybe you?
If you’re a big fan of public sculpture head over to the neighbouring West Don Lands Area, less than a 5 minute walk away, to see it’s streets saturated in public works such as Mark di Suvero’s iconic “No Shoes” as well as bouncy and playful yet incisive group work “The Water Guardians.”
10. Nibble on some sweet treats
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’re in luck! There’s a fair share of deliciously sweet eats on offer in the area. Savour some as you walk the streets, or maybe bring them back for someone you think is sweet, too.
Think you know chocolate? This factory store in the heart of the Distillery District might teach you a thing or two. They’re sure to spice up your chocolate experience, even if it takes trying the spiced mayan drinking chocolate, hot pink raspberry bar or their citrusy caramels. website
Torontonians will tell you, Greg’s homemade ice cream is some of the best in the city. Picture yourself sitting on a bench in the Distillery District on a warm summer night… The moment’s not complete without one of their cones in hand! What fun, unique flavour will you pick? facebook
Cookies, pastries, tarts and danishes… the smell of warm sugar and organic flour wafts through this bakery. It’s the perfect place to stop by while visiting the Christmas Market for a hot chocolate and Christmas pudding, or for lunch any time of year. They have the best BLTs in the city, served on homemade bread. website
11. Discover the surrounding neighbourhoods
The Distillery District is at the heart of Old Toronto, so if you wander past its perimeter there is so much more to see.
If you walk west from Mill St. and Gristmill Lane along David Crombie Park you’ll reach the St. Lawrence Market, full of fresh local produce, cheese, and artisans selling souvenirs, clothing, jewellery, and much more. While you’re there you have to try Toronto’s signature Peameal bacon sandwich. The market is also not far from the Gooderham Building, which is often referred to as Toronto’s Flatiron Building, but is actually named the son of William Gooderham, the founder of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery… yep that’s the distillery that is now the Distillery District. There are also a couple Performing Arts Centres in the area as well as popular brewpub C’est What and the majestic St. James Cathedral, an exemplary piece of Gothic Revival architecture.
In the other direction to the north you’ll discover Corktown, another historic district. There, you’ll find original 19th century British style row housing, the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse Museum, commemorating and situated in the first free school in Toronto, and St. Paul’s Basilica, the first Roman Catholic church in Toronto.
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Life in Trinity Bellwoods revolves around the area’s gorgeous park, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is… check out our recommendations for places to eat, drink, and see all the art made by local creatives