Story by Andrew Seale
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Sometimes an “I heart T.O.” T-shirt does the trick — especially if you’re setting the souvenir bar at “mediocrity.” Go ahead, Uncle Tony will love it and nod enthusiastically, until you’re gone and the T-shirt finds its way to that spot behind the hamper where socks are prone to inexplicably disappear.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But isn’t it nice when friends and family are actually excited to give you a souvenir? When they’ve traipsed around for three weeks with some small memento tucked in the folds of their bag because it seemed like the perfect little gift to give you?
If you’ve ever found yourself wandering down a cobblestone alley on a quest for eclectic keepsakes or haggling with a merchant over the price of a one-of-a-kind trinket, this list of unique spots to get souvenirs in Toronto will save you some time.
1. Drake General Store
1144 Queen Street West
This hotel tuck shop meets cabinet of curiosities is one of the most intriguing spots to track down Canadiana. Retro Toronto city maps, Drake Granola and breath spray called “Look and Feel Canadian” (whatever that means) line the shelves and stacked crates at Drake General. As far as souvenir shops go, this is the antipode to the cookie-cut, run-of-the-mill tourist traps dotting Front Street and other tourist-heavy areas in Toronto. Let’s call it “thoughtful Canadiana.”
While you’re in the ’hood: Swing by the Drake Hotel — a cultural landmark and trendy restaurant, bar and live music/gallery space. If you’re there during the daytime, poke around the myriad galleries in an area dubbed Toronto’s Design District by locals.
2. Good Egg
267 Augusta Avenue
If your trek home includes a pit stop at customs, you might want to forego bringing back dry food goods or spices as a gift. With that in mind, Good Egg is the next best thing when it comes to picking up a souvenir for that special foodie back home. In Kensington Market, this off-beat shop stocks an array of quirky cooking-related gifts and some books from local authors.
While you’re in the ’hood: Explore. Kensington Market is an experience in itself; a multicultural splattering of all that Toronto has to offer. Rastafarians pump reggae from street-side speakers while hipsters ping-pong in and out of record stores and pop-up taco shops in the area. Wander around and you’re guaranteed to find some hidden gems.
3. Kid Icarus
205 Augusta Avenue
Original silkscreen posters designed for independent artists nominated for the prestigious Canadian music award the Polaris Prize and cards emblazoned with Canadian imagery speckle the walls and stands of this handmade goods and screen-printing shop. Just down the road from Good Egg, Kid Icarus is heaven for stationary-o-philes (they exist). If you’re worried about larger format prints getting damaged on your return home, there are plenty of Canadiana-themed postcards and notebooks.
While you’re in the ’hood: Walk two blocks east to the hustle and bustle of Toronto’s Chinatown. Don’t let the name fool you, the strip offers a range of Asian wares and food from Vietnamese to Korean.
4. Distill Gallery
24 Tank House Lane
Tucked in Toronto’s Distillery District is the aptly named Distill gallery. There are tons of trinkets and gifts made by Canadian artisans including Toronto subway bracelets and hockey rink cufflinks. Much like the Drake General Store, Distill’s inventory defies classification. But if you peruse the space long enough, you’re bound to spot the perfect souvenir.
While you’re in the ’hood: Try some local beer — it is the Distillery District after all, and the Mill Street Brew Pub is ranked among the Vacay.ca Top 24 Brewpubs in Canada. If you’re not one for libations, the historic neighbourhood plays host to a cluster of shops and cafes to hold your attention.
5. Art Gallery of Ontario gift shop
317 Dundas Street West
So maybe the gift shop at the Toronto’s most popular art gallery seems like a counterintuitive spot to look for souvenirs but I’d be remiss to not include it on the list. After all, Canada’s artistic identity has many roots within this city. The shop has a unique selection of souvenirs for both the frugal and the affluent. In addition to prints from famous Toronto artists, the gift shop also stocks home décor and — you guessed it — unique trinkets.
While you’re in the ’hood: You’re blocks away from Chinatown and Kensington Market but if have a predilection toward the serene, why not check out the gallery itself? Admission is free on Wednesdays from 6-8:30 pm. If you’re feeling ambitious, check out the intriguing architecture of nearby OCAD U — the university of art and creativity.
[box_light]Read about the newly opened Ai Weiwei exhibit at the AGO[/box_light]
6. Outer Layer
430 Bloor Street West (also 577 Queen Street West)
The last and most bizarre of the group is Outer Layer. It’s like a candy shop for the eccentric. It’s also perfect for those who love that claustrophobic feeling associated with bargain department stores. Deemed by many locals as “Toronto’s most unique shop,” Outer Layer is brimming with ephemera magnets, soap from the Rocky Mountain Soap Company and the usual (read: unusual) Canadian-made knickknacks.
While you’re in the hood: Take in the Victorian homes on the tree-lined avenues of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. If you’re feeling like a trek, walk 15 minutes east to the Royal Ontario Museum or Bata Shoe Museum.