Every September, Toronto shuts down one of its busiest downtown streets to roll out the red carpet for actors premiering their films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). But with the Screen Actors Guild still on strike, there will be a marked absence of celebrities who had scheduled 2023 TIFF premieres, such as Kate Winslet and Robert DeNiro, from the red carpet. Thankfully, TIFF’s foundational value—celebrating independent and international filmmakers—turns out to be its greatest strength this year, as the 2023 lineup features films representing 70 countries around the world. TIFF’s commitment to diversity is emblematic of the city in which its based—Toronto, which boasts one of the most multicultural populations in the world, reflected by the more than 200 languages spoken in the city.
Toronto’s rich cultural tapestry make it a destination worth visiting even for the eager stans who attend TIFF just to see the stars. Better yet, without as much congestion from all the fans waiting to spot the stars, visitors can experience the energy of Toronto during TIFF without the crowds. Despite the shifted TIFF programming, hotels and restaurants plan to carry on with TIFF festivities and elevated experiences provide an opportunity for visitors to pamper themselves like a celebrity too. The festival’s location in the heart of Toronto also make it the ideal launching pad for exploring the city’s many distinctive neighborhoods—from Little Portugal to trendy Trinity Bellwoods to historic hippie hotspot Kensington Market.
Just because the stars are skipping Toronto this year, doesn’t mean you should too. Here’s where to stay, eat and play to experience the best of Toronto during TIFF and beyond.
Where to Stay
With its location just a few minutes’ walk from the TIFF red carpet, the Shangri-La has long been one of visitors’—actors and movie-goers alike—hotel of choice for the festival. The lobby lounge—decorated with rotating displays of couture gowns, including the yellow gown that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala—is the place to see and be see. The 15 floors above it boast 202 rooms featuring elegant earth-tone furnishings, French doors adorned with Asian motifs and marble bathrooms with wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling windows.
Cinephiles will want to check out the hotel’s 42-seat movie screening room while a discreet garden terrace on the third floor features a beehive used to produce honey for the cocktails served downstairs in the lobby lounge and at their signature restaurant, Bosk. The honey is also used in products incorporated into the treatments at the hotel’s Miraj Hammam Spa. Inspired by ancient rituals of the Middle East, the spa is unique for their wide range of plant-based facials and for offering treatments in a hammam steam room. Across the hall, a 9,000-square-foot wellness facility includes a 64-foot pool, 24/7 gym and group-fitness studio.
What to Do
Feel the pulse of TIFF at the Bell Lightbox
While TIFF screenings take place at multiple theaters in downtown Toronto, no TIFF festival experience would be complete without a visit to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Out front of the building, King Street is transformed into a pedestrian-only street full of activations and of course, the red carpet. If you’re not there to catch one of over 200 films screening this year or to attend one of the festival’s many events, such as the TIFF People’s Choice Awards, Industry Conference or Gala Presentation, take some time to explore the Lightbox building. Inside you’ll find two restaurants—Luma and O&B Canteen—and an eclectic gift shop. But the building’s best-kept secret is TIFF’s Film Reference Library. Here you can explore the comprehensive, non-circulating collection of films and archival materials, and rotating exhibitions that celebrate the art of filmmaking.
Fly a helicopter over Niagara Falls
If celebrity-obsessed visitors are taking a more relaxed approach to TIFF this year, it means there is more time to take a day trip down to Niagara Falls. With the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America, the combined American and Canadian falls are a magnificent sight. You can take them in by boat, from a Niagara City Cruise, or from a new observation deck at the Niagara Parks Power Station. Visitors arrive at the deck after walking through a 2,200-foot-long tunnel, 180 feet below the power plant, which also has immersive exhibits and restored artifacts to explore.
But the most impressive view of the falls is from the sky on a helicopter tour. For the full celebrity treatment, the Shangri-La can whisk you by helicopter straight to the falls from your hotel and then onwards to one of the country’s most impressive wineries, Peller Estates. Here you can indulge in a three-course lunch and wine tour, which includes tasting ice wine in their ice room. Wine aficionados will want to take extra time to explore the Niagara region, which boasts more than 50 wineries due to its unique microclimate.
Indulge in a TIFF High Tea
In the spirit of TIFF, many of Toronto’s top hotels and restaurants offer specials during the festival run. But few are as impressive as the movie-inspired high tea served in the lobby lounge of the Shangri-La. The full tea service includes four savory bites followed by five desserts, all paired with your choice of tea. Savory items like salmon gravlax, mini deep-dish pizzas and potato croquettes celebrate nostalgic Canadian flavors while the sweets are inspired by classic movies. ‘Willy Wonka’s Magic Mushroom’—a brown butter financier with birch syrup caramel sauce—is meant to evoke daydreams of Willy Wonka’s fantasy land, while ‘Mathilda’s Chocolate Cake’ reimagines the one in the film with a pecan crunch layer and salted caramel center.
Taste your way through St. Lawrence Market
Since opening as a public market over two centuries ago, St. Lawrence Market has remained a local favourite for a leisurely lunch and grocery shop. While the market is divided between three buildings, the one you’ll want to visit is the South Market, which contains over 120 food stalls and shops spread between two floors. Arguably the most famous eat at the market is Carousel Bakery’s peameal bacon sandwich. If you like yours with mustard, pair your bakery visit with a stop at Kozlick’s Mustard. Cheese-lovers will want to peruse the impressive selection at Alex Farm. But the best foodie experience of the market is had on a tour with Bruce Bell. An actor, comedian and historian, Bell turns the story of the neighborhood into entertainment, making it the perfect tour for movie-lovers.
Shop Kensington Market
A 20-minute walk north from TIFF, you’ll find one of Toronto’s most vibrant and well-known neighborhoods. A National Historic Site of Canada, Kensington Market lives up to its name by feeling like an outdoor market with its many independent shops selling bread, produce and meat, connected by pedestrian-only streets. Unlike other Toronto neighorhoods, Kensington Market has successfully resisted commercial gentrification, and maintained all of its historic hippie charm. You’ll find the best vintage shops on Kensington Avenue, and restaurants and cafes on Augusta Avenue one street over. Don’t miss the ‘Garden Car,’ a public art piece that doubles as a community garden.
Where to Eat and Drink
After many hours in the dark of a movie theatre, this bright and airy plant-based restaurant across from the Shangri-La is a breath of fresh air. What started as a vegan Mexican menu has since broadened its source of inspiration to include the entire South American continent, so you can expect to find mushroom and pasilla empanadas, ceviches made of jicama and beets, and chile relleno, in addition to Mexican classics like tacos and flautas. It’s hard to miss meat and cheese with substitutions like slow-braised jackfruit, plant-based chorizo and cashew crema. Equally as colorful as the plates are the drinks, which include everything from Mexican Tea (a mix of tequila and beer) to mezcal flights to non-alcoholic versions of the classics like pina colada, gin and tonic, and sangria.
For a more refined Mexican dining experience, head to Quetzal, the city’s only Mexican restaurant to receive a Michelin star. With almost everything on the menu passing through the kitchen’s impressive 26-foot-long wood-burning grill, the focus here is fire. Heirloom corn is nixtamalized and ground in-house to prepare the tortillas that are grilled on the kitchen’s earthenware comal. They serve as the cradle for bone marrow and shrimp drizzled in an Ontario wild flower honey glaze. When ingredients aren’t supplied locally—like Morrel mushrooms from British Columbia and scallops from Newfoundland—they’re the finest cuts from around the world, like A5 wagyu sourced from Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. Don’t skip on the inventive ‘postres’ like avocado leaf ice cream and an Oaxaca-inspired corn and coconut nicuatole with hibiscus meringue.
With such a diverse population lending itself to a vast food scene, it’s rare to find Torontonians choosing a hotel restaurant for dinner. The ACE hotel is an exception, for their sleek restaurant on the main floor headed by Michelin-starred chef Patrick Kriss, best known for his growing Alo empire, which includes Alo, Aloette, Alobar Yorkville and Aloette Go. Chef Kriss takes inspiration from the Mediterranean to create bright dishes like burrata and charred apricot on grilled sourdough and cucumber salad topped with lemon creme fraiche and hazelnut dukkah. The chef’s love for the flame is expressed through decadent proteins like Australian lamb, braised short rib and grilled octopus. Conveniently located just a few blocks from the TIFF Bell Lightbox, you’ll want to book in advance.
Yorkville is buzzing during TIFF, but it’s worth the visit alone for a luxurious meal at this upscale Italian restaurant. The contemporary minimalist dining room serves as the backdrop for vibrant dishes that showcase the best of the coastal Italian region of Liguria. The birthplace of pesto and focaccia di recco (bread stuffed with stracchino cheese), it’s no surprise they excel at both here. But the star of the show is their seafood. Delicate sea urchin sourced from British Columbia is presented on a bed of thick cut spaghetti while hand-braided pasta is interwoven with wild squid and bay scallops. Seafood lovers won’t want to miss the ‘Frutti di Mare alla Griglia’—a show-stopping platter of grilled market seafood.
Set 51 floors above a movie theatre and Toronto’s swanky Yorkville neighborhood, it’s hard not to feel like a celebrity upon stepping into the private elevator that whisks you up to AP. Named after the celebrity chef at the helm, Antonio Park, the menu is a celebration of his Korean heritage and experience growing up in South America and Canada. Traditional sushi get a glow up with the addition of luxurious meat and seafood, such as Ora King salmon, Canadian lobster and A5 wagyu. To dine like a celebrity, opt for the 6-course chef tasting menu which includes an amuse bouche, two appetizers, a palate cleanser, main course and dessert. Each course comes with a sake and wine pairing prepared by the in-house sommelier.
A stone’s throw from the red carpet, lies a discreet French restaurant serving up fresh takes on classic bistro fare. With its vintage oil lamps, sumptuous green booths and green marble bar, it’s hard to not feel like you’re on the Hollywood set of a 1920s movie here. French staples like beef tartare are reimagined with chermoula and North African crackers while the grilled rack of lamb is given some heat with salsa macha and jalapeno crema. Cocktails similarly balance tradition with invention, like the ‘George in Manhattan’ which combines bourbon with americano and banana liquer.
Toronto has no shortage of Italian restaurants, but few celebrate plant-based cooking like Gia. Local suppliers provide the vegetables that take center stage in handmade pasta dishes like porcini mushroom agnolotti and corn- and mascarpone-filled ravioli. The organic and sustainable approach is also taken with their drinks, which range from biodynamic Italian wines and proxies to local alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers to elegant cocktails and mocktails, like the sparkling hibiscus-flavored ‘Tom Ford.’
Set on the 31st floor of the St. Regis Toronto, a visit to Louix Louis feels like you’re stepping back in time to the cocktail parlours of New York and Paris. The grand two-story-high bar houses one of the largest liquor collections in North America with over 500 dark spirits, while a 60-foot ceiling mural is inspired by Canadian whisky. But it’s not all about the drinks here. The French-Canadian fare is equally as opulent wish dishes like lobster risotto and truffle glazed chicken. During TIFF, the restaurant will offer a set menu of two or three courses, TIFF-inspired cocktails and late night bites inspired by the regions featured in TIFF’s 2023 film selections.
Inspired by 1920s Japanese ‘kissatens’—Japanese-style tearooms which also serve alcohol—this new vinyl listening lounge is a swanky hideaway in the heart of TIFF. Decorated with disco balls and velvet green furniture, the centerpiece of the lounge is the wood-panelled DJ booth in front of a wall housing some 2500 vinyl records. Audiophiles will appreciate the custom-built sound system and cocktails named after famous albums and singles like Drake’s ‘Take Care’. Japanese-inspired eats range from elevated bar food like Yakitori chicken skewers to splurge-worthy plates like a $75 sandwich made of Hokkaido milk bread and Wagyu Katsu. If you’re seeking more of a club vibe, head upstairs to the Studio 54-inspired lounge.
Another globally-inspired, lively venue to wine and dine near TIFF is Soluna. This spacious bohemian-themed restaurant is less about the food and more about the atmosphere, with its quilted chandeliers imported from Bali, costumed dancers playing with fire, and Afro and Latin house beats pulsing from the DJ booth. While the aesthetic appears casual, an enforced dress code makes this a place to see and be seen. The menu reflects the energetic vibe with colorful cocktails, Mediterranean tapas, Asian and Latin-inspired raw bar items, and hearty mains like a $300 platter of lamb, branzino, tenderloin, shrimp and a whole chicken.