Looking for a little guide to the famous Kensington Market in Toronto? Here it is below!
My introduction to Kensington Market happened on the second full day in Toronto while Alyshia and I were on our Ontario-Quebec road trip! We had just spent a few days figuring out all the best things to do in Montréal in the summer, spending a few days in Québec City, one fast day in Ottawa, and one day completely vegged out in her basement to recover from all the travel. We were (somewhat) refreshed and ready to explore the city!
Luckily Alyshia is from Toronto, so she already knew where to go and what to do, and the big one was fully enjoying the cool, hipster-y Kensington Market. It’s kind of funny because when I hear Kensington, I think of the borough in London, and it evokes a sort of rich, expensive neighborhood. Similar to Rodeo Drive in LA or 5th Ave in NYC. But, no, Kensington Market in Canada is a much different experience.
This square, which is formed by College St, Bathurst St, Dundas St W, and Spadina Ave, is exactly what you’d hope to find if you were looking for something lesser known in a huge city. (Though I imagine the market is probably one the top things to do in Toronto!). Here, you’ll find all sorts of eateries that’ll take you around the world via their authentic and fusion cuisines, vintage shops with all the treasures you can imagine, and a little layer of grit to make it feel more local and less touristy.
We spent the afternoon trying as much as we could and perusing the vintage shops. There are seriously so many shops and restaurants in one small neighborhood that I thought I’d put together a bit of a guide to help you when you plan for your trip!
Kensington Market History
Kensington Market’s history goes all the way back to 1815 when a man named George Taylor Denison bought the land where the market stands today to build his estate. After he died in 1853, his estate was subdivided into smaller plots, making it the perfect place for Irish and Scottish immigrants to live when they came in the 1880s. It’s with their arrival that the very rich immigrant culture that makes the market what is today began!
With the Irish and the Scotts, came the Victorian style row homes you see around the square, especially on Wales Avenue. During the 1900s, Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants brought their cultures into the mix. Known then as the Jewish Market, the square was full of smaller businesses such as tailors or bakers and an outdoor market was formed. In the 1950s, immigrants from Azores settled into the market, introducing the current residents to their Portuguese culture. Then came Caribbean and East Asian immigrants who added even more to the neighborhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, the market saw a whole slew of immigrants from around the world!
What you see today is about 160 years of immigrant cultures layered upon and mixed in with each other. It’s a true melting pot that gives Kensington not only a unique vibe, a very cool one! The best is that the market has stubbornly fought against over gentrification, even kicking out a Nike store and creating policies to protect the working class, immigrant community to this day!
A Map of Kensington Market
Kensington Market Restaurants
You know the best part about a multi-cultural community is that the food is almost always promised to be amazing. Authentic bites, fusion dishes… I wish I’d come much more hungry so I could try as many restaurants as I could!
The Best Istanbul
You’ll know you’ve found The Best Istanbul by the Cappadocia mural on the outside. This restaurant serves up authentic Turks dishes from gyros to kebabs and more.
You can’t miss Cheese Magic’s cheesy exterior! The current owner, Ping Chiu, took over the shop from an Italian couple, and has spent nearly 30 years selling a huge variety of, well, cheese!
El Rey Mezcal Bar
If you’re visiting Kensington in the afternoon to evening, then you’ll want to pop into El Rey Mezcal Bar! Besides offering up mezcal, a Mexican alcoholic drink, El Rey offers tacos, burritos, and more.
Film Cafe by Eative
This cute cafe sources their ingredients from local farmers’ markets and small businesses! We stopped in here for a drink towards the end of our day, so we didn’t get to try their menu, but they had some nice outdoor seating and the drinks were delicious.
Fika! Ever since I first learned about the Swedish art of fika and the delicious pastries that come with it when I was visiting my friends in Örebro, I feel like I’m always seeing the word pop up. Fika Cafe’s interiors are filled with Scandinavian design and perfect for a little fika amist the shopping and strolling through the market.
For a fun coffee shop, keep an eye out for Jimmy’s Coffee’s black and yellow sign. The name is inspired by all the great Jimmys through history (Carter, Hendrix, etc)!
Ah! I didn’t realize this existed until I began writing this list! Ever since I tried Chile’s version of an empananda in Santiago, it’s been on my mental list of favorite foods! Jumbo Empanadas serves up authentic Chilean food, and I’d love to see how their their dishes compare to my memory of Empanadas Tinita in Mercado de Providencia!
Little Pebbles Cafe
Little Pebbles brings in the Japanese cafe feel to Kensington. It reminds me a lot of the types of cafes I saw in Hualien, Taiwan, Seoul, Korea, and even in Saigon, Vietnam! They serve up locally roasted coffee and French desserts with a Japanese twist.
If you’re looking for one of the original coffee shops in Kensington, it’s Moonbean Coffee. First opened around 20 years ago, before Kensington became the trendy square it is today, the cafe offers up fair-trade java, teas, and baked goods. If you come in nice weather, they even have some back patio dining!
Otto’s Berlin Döner
Otto’s brings Berlin street food to Toronto, specifically the döner and currywurst. I will warn you – the way their shop is positioned it may look closed, but it is open!
Pow Wow Cafe
The top of my list to try in Kensington was PowWow Cafe. Serving up Indigenous fusion cuisine, the founder and chef, Shawn Adler, comes from the Ojibway tribe. The big thing the cafe is famous for is its Indian tacos. Unfortunately, the hours are quite wonky and it was closed when we went. Your best bet is to follow their Instagram or Facebook as the hours literally change weekly and they’ll post them there!
Cannot recommend Rasta Pasta enough! As the name suggest, the restaurant offers up Jamaican-Italian fusion and is best known for its jerk chicken. My mouth is honestly watering thinking about it. When we went they didn’t have any of their pasta dishes available, so we asked for recommendations and were not disappointed. I wish I could remember exactly, but I just know we tried a roti and a dumpling!
Seven Lives Taco y Mariscos
Serving up Baja-style tacos, Seven Lives is very much legit (though I will say Agave in Saigon is currently my favorite taco place in the world, keeping in mind I have YET to visit Mexico). I got the carnitas, but I wish I’d gotten the fish one that Alyshia got as it was much more fitting for a summer day!
Wanda’s Pie in the Sky
Got a sweet tooth? Stop in to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky! All pies are made fresh each day, and they also offer vegetarian lunch options. If you’re not sure which to get, their cherry pie is award-winning.
Kensington Market Vintage Stores
I’m honestly still in shock by how many good vintage stores exist in just Kensington Market. It’s kind of a good think I’m too big for most of it because I would’ve probably gone right back into credit card debt. I’m not kidding the sheer amount of treasures to be found…! Unfortunately, being vintage, most of it realistically only goes up to an L unless it’s oversized, but it’s still fun to poke around and see what you can find. I did snag an up-cycled black polo that was cropped in a fun way!
Courage My Love
First up is the blue facade of Courage My Love! This particular vintage store has been around since 1975. One of the ways they stand out is their up-cycling of clothes and their iconic $5 rack. This is where I got my shirt. They do have an Etsy shop as well but it looks like it’s only for vintage jewelry.
Flamingo Vintage has been a mainstay in Kensington since 1999 and has a truly incredible collection of vintage, especially Levis!
Exile is a very funky, retro-kind of vintage shop that has clothing for a ton of decades and styles. It’s one of the shops that you’ll want to visit if you’re looking for a history-specific piece. The owner, Lynn Harpell, opened the store all the way back in 1975 and named the store after the Rolling Stone song, “Exile on Main Street.” This is the stop to go if you’re hoping to find a silky gem from the 1940s!
For something a little different – Paul’s Boutique sells all sorts of vintage guitars and other musical equipment!
Urban Catwalk is a family-owned vintage store with an absolutely packed selection of options. I found lot of it is more leisure/casual wear, especially sports jerseys and T-shirts.
There are honestly even more vintage stores I didn’t include on this list. At one point, you just kind of walk down one street and every single store is vintage!
Other Things to Do in Kensington Market
General shopping in Kensington
Beyond the vintage shops, there are also a few boutique/market shops with a pretty big selection. I thought 6×8 Market was cute, and it had a pretty giant collection of over 70 local vendors. Dancing Days is a the spot for hippies, and it looks like Mirami & Micah, which is replacing Subrosa Vintage, sells some vintage pieces with other stationery goods while Tom’s Place is known for its men’s suits.
Shop for a lil cannabis
Weed is legal in Canada, and we saw a few cannabis shops around the market!
Get a tattoo
Maybe! I saw two tattoo parlors and I think one of Alyshia’s sisters got her tattoo here.
Look for all the murals
Kensington is home to quite a few murals (and that’s not including restaurants who decorate their storefronts in a fun way). The most central is probably this mural by Ryan Dineen & Alex Bacon with the colorful car right in front. There’s plenty more if you stroll around that helps give Kensington its cool vibe!
Relax in Bellevue Square Park
There is some greenspace in Kensington Market, and that’s at Bellevue Square Park. It even has a playground if you’re visiting with kids.
Do a little grocery shopping
Lots of cool markets and small grocery shops mixed in with the vintage and eateries! If you’re here longer term or living nearby, you might as well bring some canvas bags and do a little grocery shopping.
Tours Including Kensington Market
If you’d prefer, there are quite a few tours that go through Kensington Market. Here are some to try:
|Where to Book
|$ Kensington Market & Chinatown Walking Tour
|– History of Old & New Chinatown
– Various stops in Kensington Market
– Multiple landmarks in both neighborhoods
|Get Your Guide
|– St. Lawrence Market
– The Path in Downtown Toronto
– Toronto City Hall
– The Grange
– Kensington Market
|$$ Small Group Kensington Market & Chinatown Walking Tour
|– max of 12 people
– history of Kensington Market
– visit to a local food vendor
– local stories and history about Chinatown
– various restaurant recommendations
– coffee/tea and snack
|$$ Private Toronto Kensington Market and Chinatown Walking Tour
|– Campbell House Museum
– Kensington Market
– Art Gallery of Ontario
– Kiever Historic Synagogue
|$$ Kensington Market by the Sidewalk Food Tour
|– history of Kensington Market
– various tasting locations
– cost of food
|$$$ Kensington Market -Toronto’s Neighborhood International Food Tour
|– tasting of 6 international cuisines
– skipping any lines
– cost of food
|$$$ Toronto Food Tour: Taste the World in Kensington Market
|– max 10 people
– stop in Chinatown
– multiple tastings
– cost of food
– custom treat
Nearby Kensington Market, Toronto
About a 10 minute walk from Kensington is the famous CN Tower! For quite a while, it was the tallest free-standing structure in the world, though today it’s in 9th place (not too shabby). You can go up into the observatory and get a panoramic view of Toronto; just make sure to book online ahead!
Toronto’s Chinatown neighbors Kensington Market, so chances are you’ll walk through without even trying. See if you can spot the mural of Ben Thanh Market in Saigon!
For even more shopping, walk along Queen Street. There are a few cool boutiques but it’s most the big franchises you can get anywhere.
The Toronto Sign
Walking along Queen Street will bring you to Nathan Philips Square which is where you can find the giant Toronto sign as well as one of “The Handmaid’s Tale” filming locations.
And there you have it! All my best advice on visiting Kensington Market, Toronto as well as what to do nearby. Gonna have to return again and try all the eateries I didn’t get a chance to the first time!
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