Two Weeks in Toronto: How I Lost My Solo Travel Virginity By @smudge.photography
[reading time: 5-6 minutes]
This is a guest post written by Matt Smith from Smudge Photography
I’ve read a lot of stories and know a few people who have been travelling on their own. The majority say the main reason they do it is for the independence and freedom that it brings. As great as this sounds for some, it didn’t massively appeal to me. I’ve always preferred to go away with friends and share my travel experience with others.
The main reason I embarked on a solo trip to Canada wasn’t out of any urge to get away and be free, but actually out of simply being sick of waiting for my friends plans (and the planets!) to align to allow us to go away together. Even when it did finally come together, it was difficult to get them all to agree on a place to go.
Why did I choose Toronto? Well, this was very spontaneous. I have a good friend who lives about an hour outside of Toronto and I was chatting to him online. Out of sheer curiosity I jumped onto our favourite flight search engine and saw that the flights were nearly half the price I expected. I kept an eye on them for about a week and decided to pile in and book and chose to arrange everything around that.
You would have thought that for someone who was going to another continent on their own for the first time, I would have put a bit more time into the planning of my trip, but I have never been the most organised of people. After I booked, I had a couple of significant changes to my work and social life which meant sorting things out went on the back burner. When I eventually sat down and looked at accommodation and activities, I decided it would be best to book into a hostel as a base and work out the rest from there.
I had a search online and made a list of all the places I wanted to visit and things I wanted to do and kept that saved on my phone. I’ve never been one for making itineraries as I think plans always get mixed up and I prefer having the flexibility to change around and do what you are in the mood for.
When I arrived, I was pleased to find out that the hostel I had booked was in the middle of one of the areas that had appeared in most of the ‘things to do’ lists in Toronto - Kensington Market. Kensington is completely different to it’s London namesake - a bohemian intercultural neighbourhood with a mix of shops, cuisines and bars that is probably closer to the atmosphere in Camden or Brixton. It really was a refreshing place to stay with something new around every corner and in every store and bar. Also in the summer at the last Sunday of the month, they close all the streets and in turn, all the local street artists and musicians come out, turning the whole place into a carnival-style festival.
A few of the other places in Toronto which I felt really stood out would be St Lawrence Market and the Distillery District. St Lawrence Market is basically a massive indoor food hall with a variety of independent butchers, baker, fishmongers and delicatessens serving a range of cuisines. The smells in the place are something else and I would recommend trying the lobster rolls at Buster’s.
The Distillery District is an old whisky distillery which has been purchased by the city and turned into a home for bars and restaurants as well as independent shops and antiques sellers.
Toronto Islands were also of great value. They’re basically a group of islands off the coast of the city that helps create the Toronto harbour which looks out over the Toronto cityscape on one side, and out across the vast Lake Ontario on the other. It is a nature reserve and tourist attraction at the same time with restaurants and an amusement park alongside many nature paths and beaches (including a clothing optional beach which I didn’t quite have the nerve to attend). I only spent one day here but would easily have gone back as there’s so much to do. With 3 regular ferries from the city from only a few dollars, it was really easy (and cheap) to get to.
A surprise find was that I was only a few blocks away from ‘Graffiti Alley’, a section of backstreets that have been dedicated to graffiti art and attracts the best street artists from all over the world. I visited this place a couple of times to see if I could get some good pictures and was surprised at the variety and quality of the art as well as the scale - some of the pieces span large walls across multiple storeys. If you do want to go, I would suggest getting there early as it is can get busy with tourists and it can be quite difficult to get a clear picture.
One of the few places I actively made time to visit before arriving was Niagara Falls. It’s kinda one of those places you have to go if you ever get a chance. The size of the Falls and the amount of water crashing over the cliffs is hard to comprehend. I would definitely recommend getting on the ferry that goes right into the mist of the falls as this gives you an idea of just how powerful they are. The most surprising thing about Niagara is the town. It’s a bit like Blackpool or Scarborough in the UK with a North American sense of optimism and ‘cheese’. There’s amusement arcades and ice cream shops as well as wax museum and so on, but all with a gloss and polish, which our seaside destinations at home just can’t quite manage.
Lastly, I wanted to make sure I got to take in some of the music scene in Toronto that I’ve heard a lot about. A close friend of mine told me that I had to go see a band called KC Roberts & The Live Revolution. Unfortunately they weren’t gigging at the time I was there but I found out that KC himself was doing an acoustic set on his own at a little bar about a 30-minute walk away from my hostel. It turned out to be one of the best gigs I had been to in a long time. The bar was a narrow side bar and there must’ve been about 15 people maximum in there so I was sat about 4 feet away from KC. He played a variety of his own songs as well as some covers with a great singer called Genevieve Marentette. I had a bit more to drink than I expected but had a great night listening to some funky soulful tunes and being surprised at how approachable and friendly the artists were. Their version of Harvest Moon by Neil Young was something very special and unique and if there was any footage of it out there, I would share the link with you.
There were many other places I visited that I could talk about in great detail but just don’t have the time such as Evergreen Brickworks and its nature reserve and variety of walks. I also found watching Canadian College Ice Hockey fascinating due to the difference between how much of a show university/college sport is in North America compared to at home. Another highlight was Toronto Blue Jays baseball match and consuming beer and poutine (Canadian name for chips, cheese and gravy) in a rooftop bar afterwards.
When I look back now, the best decision I made was to stay in a hostel and realise that the majority of people there were also travelling on their own. The hostel I chose was great as they put evening activities which helped me to get talking to other people. Karaoke night was particularly special and after a few cans of beer from the 24-hour convenience store next door, getting up and singing Club Tropicana is always going to win you a few friends. Watching a tone-deaf German sing the Pokemon theme tune at the top of his lungs is a sight and sound I am never going to forget.
If I did anything different it would have been to give myself a bit more time and visited Montreal as well while I was there, but it is all a learning experience.
If I have any advice for anyone who is feeling a bit anxious about travelling alone it is to keep it simple and dive straight in. Don’t worry about leaving your friends behind and going it alone, they’ll understand and be happy for you. Being able to be independent and meet new people can make you realise what you are capable of. I may not travel on my own again but if I do, I know now that I won’t be worried about it.