How to Be a Solo Female Traveler in Toronto
a hyped-up man shouts as he punches the air with his fist and walks by the window my friend Jen and I were sitting at. He shouted over a disjointed chorus of car horns honking, bicycle bells twinkling, and Drake beats blasting out of subwoofers. The streets sounded like a middle school band performance where the students had thrown a mutiny against the conductor, and each student decided to play their own songs on top of each other. The city was roaring with energy.
WE THE NORTH
Jen and I watched as another man wearing a plaid shirt leans out of the car and screams, “WHOOOOOOHOOOOOO,” as his driver disregards the city speed limits for the first time in his polite life.
“What a welcome to Toronto!” Jen said, “ I’ve never seen people this excited before, not even on Canada day.”
I had arrived to the Big 6 just a few hours earlier on that cool June evening. I was there for a few reasons: a press trip, working on my book on how to be a solo female traveler, and to eat all of the chocolate with Jen.
Jen and I met years ago in Peru. We were roommates in Arequipa as part of our chocolate making apprenticeship. I could go on about the wild time we had there, or I can save some words on this post and suggest you listen to my podcast episode with her here. (End of shameless promotion.)
Jen was living in Toronto and suggested we meet at Bathurst Local, a classy cocktail bar around the corner from the Gosling’s Landing, where I was staying in the first few days.
We walk into what felt like an art house turned into a speakeasy. It was the same ragtag style that struggling artists decorate their homes with: mostly free antiques picked up off the side of the road and, somehow, tastefully put together.
Old paintings, repolished vintage tables, mismatched chairs: the iPad I paid on was the only item from the 21st century, an anachronistic reminder of our modernity. We turned around and sat down in a nearly empty room. It was so quiet I could hear the bartender texting from across the room. It was the antithesis of what was going on across the rest of the city, unbeknownst to us.
For the next two hours, Jen and I caught up on our life paths and general updates you give a friend who you haven’t seen in a while. The only light we had was from the tiny plastic candles that flickered on each table. It helped blur the quiet signs of aging on my 30-year-old friend. I still saw her as the 25-year-old I had met five years ago in Peru. A few soft lines sat around her eyes. Subtle, very subtle. It’s a beautiful privilege to watch someone get older.
No more than five people joined during the two hours we were there. Around midnight, Jen and I decided to call it a night and stepped out of the bar...and they emerged.
Hmmm, maybe emerged isn’t the right word. It sounds a little too slow, like the speed of seedlings pushing up out of the ground.
This was more like a stampede. A storm. A riot.
The Toronto Raptors had just won the NBA championship. While the United States slept and rolled their eyes at Canada beating the Golden State Warriors (one time), Toronto exploded. It was the first time the Raptors had won the NBA, which astounded half of America, who turned around told the other half that Canada had a basketball team in the first place. I don’t do sports, so I was in the second category, and completely oblivious to the excitement.
Groups of college students, adults bypassing their bedtime, and rogue crew of teenagers took over the streets shouting, “WE THE NORTH.” Cars were driven with white knuckles and in any direction where the driver could gather some speed to release their adrenaline into the gas pedal. Their wheels tore over the pavement, and the roads looked like they had been scribbled on with giant-sized magic markers. The constant twittering of bicycle bells sounded as if your entire contact list was simultaneously texting you and your volume control was broken.
Jen and I relished over the excitement as she walked me back to my hostel. We hugged and said goodbye over the cacophony around us that would continue to lull me to sleep for the rest of the night. Unfortunately the sounds of celebration are not as soothing as the crickets that would replace them the following evenings. I got my first taste of North America’s fastest-growing city and most multicultural city in the world.
Welcome to Toronto
“Diversity is Canada’s strength,” said the chiseled Titan that is Justin Trudeau at a meeting in London in 2015.
Toronto has been an important destination for immigrants since it has been established ( by Europeans...). In Toronto, nearly 200 languages and dialects can be heard as you wander through the city streets or sit on the tram.
And there are plenty of reasons to visit Toronto. It is the economic, media, and business hub of Canada. The city offers tons of historical sights, architecture, sports activities, entertainment, and nature excursions. It is the New York of Canada (and it even pretends to be it in movies. An egomaniac like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho isn’t even possible in cordial Canadian culture)
Diversity comes through in its people and architecture. Some areas have a homey and charming feel with cobblestone streets, Victorian houses, and enough space for front gardens. The residential areas hold a small-town feel where everyone knows each other. Whereas the downtown definitely catches the eye with its sparking blue-glass buildings. The buildings reflect all of the action, diversity, and lifestyles that peacefully coexist here.
I was here for all of it: the food, the culture and, little did I know, the chaos.
But I was mainly here to explore what it was like to be in one of the best cities for female entrepreneurship. I am currently writing a book on how to be a solo- female traveler and want to focus on how to support local female entrepreneurs while traveling. Through this research, I found that Toronto is in the top 10 best cities for female-entrepreneurship, and I wanted to see for myself exactly why. I was fortunate to speak to a number of business ladies who were taking on Toronto and what their experiences were like. We will get to that meat in other posts.
In this upcoming series, we will go through how to navigate the fastest moving city in Canada as a solo female traveler:
What it is like to be a woman in Canada.
How to travel safely as a solo female traveler.
What it was like to be a solo female traveler in Toronto.
How to get around in Toronto.
Where to stay in Toronto as a solo female traveler.
What it is Like to Be a Woman in Canada
Although the Canadian government is gun-ho and cherry-eyed about diversity, Canada is still struggling to excel female rights and alleviate the plight they face every day. Canada is notably more progressive than the vast majority of the world with their Socialist healthcare system, generous maternity leave, and legal abortion at all stages. However, Canada hasn’t progressed much further than the rest of the world. Only 26% of the Canadian Parliament is female, and Canada is still behind on giving women equal pay ( but it also isn’t regressing in obscene ways as its downstairs neighbor).
Safety in Toronto
Toronto is incredibly safe, and Canada as a whole is one of the top countries to travel in if you are a solo female traveler. You have a higher probability of being trampled on by a moose in Toronto than being kidnapped and sold into an underground sex trade.
As a solo female traveler, I felt incredibly safe walking around late at night, and at no point did I feel threatened. To be fair, I did stay in the more populated areas, and Toronto does seem to have a large homeless population. From personal experience, the homeless population tended to not be violent and kept to themselves.
Regardless of where you are in the world, there are higher risks if you are a woman. In developing nations, 65-80% of women are harassed on the street every year. We are warned to take extra precautions at night ( can’t wait till I can stop saying my rape whistle is a fashion statement in Japan). Toronto is no exception. Fortunately, there are fewer of those instances in Toronto than other places, statistically speaking. Like in typically safe areas, if anything does happen, it comes down to luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Where to avoid
The few areas you should try to avoid in Toronto ( and why as a traveler you would end up here anyway is beyond me): Jane & Finch area, St. Jamestown, Regent Park & Moss Park, Cabbagetown (after dark), Kipling & Albion area, Neilson & Finch, and the Malvern area.
How to Get Around in Toronto
Personally, I believe that biking is the ideal way to explore a city. You get to go at your own pace, can typically park your bike basically anywhere, and don’t have to deal with as many traffic issues ( unless you are in Denmark where the bikers outnumber the cars and you can get splattered with the sweat of the person who is trying to cut you off). Toronto was extremely bike friendly and had plenty of bike racks to park on.
I will have to admit that I am a bit of an aggressive biker, given that drivers still look at bikers as an inconvenience in my town.
So, the few times I was a biker, I continued to peddle with my entitled attitude of having right of way ALL the time. Buzzing through red lights, passing other bikers, and going the wrong way down one way streets. The one person who called me out lived up to my expectations of Torontonians.
I paused at a stoplight at Queens Street, a busy intersection, and my bike is sticking out into the road. I was edging and hoping that with the right timing I could speed through the traffic ( my legs have the impulse to keep going).
*It’s amazing how when we start moving from one place to the next, we immediately become the most important person- everyone is in MY way. I am no exception.
So I’m standing one foot lifted up on the pedal and the other on the ground, frozen in mid-Kung foo kick. A car pulls up and is clearly navigating right, and I’m an inconvenience from him getting on his way. His head turns toward his window, and I’m anticipating that New York frustration to blast through the car, shattering the glass, and get it all over my bike. The rage that rules my hometown.
He rolls down his window, leans over for me to hear him better... and to my utmost surprise at a completely reasonable volume says: “You should move your bike.”
No anger. No command. No huffing red-faced driver growing like a puffer fish. Just a lovely, well-intentioned suggestion. Even their road rage is dialed down ( remember, weed is legal here). I turned to him and awkwardly scooted back on my bike like a penguin trying to go backward and keep its egg between its feet at the same time. He drove off and waved. That was the most appropriately handled driving altercation I’d seen...ever. It weirded me out.
However, if you aren’t able to grab a bike or visit during the winter, the main forms of public transportation on the TTC ( The Toronto Transit Commission) are the subway, street car, and buses. They cost 3.25 Canadian currency ( $2.50 for Americans).
The times I took them, they were totally safe and reliable. But I still suggest get a bike if you can ( weather permitting).
Where to Stay as a Solo Female Traveler in Toronto
I rocked up to Gosling’s Landing a few hours after I had anticipated. My flight leaving New York had decided to awkwardly hang out on the tarmac for an extra 45 minutes, the way a dinner guest arrives too early and chooses to go into a CVS just to peruse, not to buy anything, just to kill time. There was no one at the front desk, which was totally fine because the entrance and exit system is entirely locked with codes, both the front door and my personal door. So all the owner, Wengsi, had to do was email me the codes. Spectacular. I was able to get in without any issues, and I loved not having to worry about holding on to a key.
When I arrived, no one was in the common area. It was a large room with community tables, couches, games, and snacks. Everything was neatly organized but still had a homey feel to it. White doors to each room lined the bright yellow walls. The common area opened up into a large kitchen with an eclectic assortment of mugs, the kind of mismatched collection you have from just picking up new ones at yard sales or in a free box.
I opened my room door and splayed out, a 2-person bunk bed with a giant bay window that peered out into a wild backyard. I loved having a view of some nature. The bathrooms were all ways sparkling and had some funny pictures displayed around. ( Gosling’s Landing even had pads in their bathrooms! Ugh, a feminists dream).
Each night I had a great sleep, and I enjoyed the coziness of the place. Gosling’s Landing only houses 14 people at a time, so it never felt overwhelmed with travelers. It struck a good balance for socializing and having some privacy. Gosling’s Landing is also a great location to get some serious work done but was an easy space to strike up a conversation with anyone else who was in the common area.
I loved the intimacy of it, and it didn’t feel like an airport the way some hostels do. People just filtering in and out and barely having time to put their bags down.
Wengsi was a complete delight. You could feel the care that she has put into her business. She is also a solo female traveler and wanted to create a space where travelers could come and feel at home. She totally nailed it! I felt safe here as a solo female travel and can easily say that it is one of the best hostels for solo female travel that I got to stay at.
It was also so badass to have a female host, which is something I have rarely seen. She was totally independent ( well, her dad does check-in sometimes) but was able to hold her own and take care of her space.
I’ll be featuring her in my upcoming book on solo female travel.
Planet Traveler Hostel
Planet Traveler Hostel, just down the road from Kensington Market, was the opposite experience to Gosling’s Landing but no less enjoyable.
This four stories hostel houses over 112 travelers at a time and have a lot of community spaces for people to hangout: kitchen area, living room space, and rooftop. I was put in a six-person all-female room. The beds were spacious, and each had their own plugs and nightlight. Although I can’t control the snoring of my bedmate, I did have a comfortable night's rest there.
The attendants were friendly and informative and also from all over the place. It had more of a transient feel to it but offered more opportunities to connect with fellow travelers.
The kitchen was spacious and didn’t feel overcrowded with the number of people moving about, and it offered a wonderful array of cereals and breakfast foods in the morning.
I will say my favorite part was their rooftop. They had an expansive view of the city. On one side you could see the skyline of the scintillating buildings cusping the water. On the other side was the cozy homes of Torontonians carefully decorated and as diverse in architecture as the people who lived there. There was also a clear shot of a full mural across the street of what I thought was an apathetic 90s Keanu Reeves, which I thought was hilarious. It was a perfect spot to have a quiet breakfast and get some writing done.
Planet Hotel excelled at creating a community and offered daily activities to get people together. I didn’t attend any, but this would be great for any traveler looking to make friends. They had trivia, movie nights, and an array of board games to play when people got bored of staring at their phones.