It’s the big city that never sleeps, meaning you can see live music any night of the week in Toronto — and most days, too. Of course, Canada’s largest urban center has massive stadiums playing the global headliners. But where is it really happening? The tiny and mid-size halls, clubs, and bars of Toronto’s distinctive neighborhoods.
By all means, check out the bigger venues. For example, The Danforth Music Hall is worth a visit as one of the city’s oldest spots with high-quality sound and lighting, and great sightlines no matter where you stand. But to commune with fans who love what you love, hit these top places — some gritty, some glam, but all authentic. Here’s your guide to hearing the best in Toronto — just pick your genre.
Indie and the next big thing
Catch high quality acts — folk, roots rock, country — over pints at two-room The Cameron House. An ultra-cool converted vintage hotel with murals painted on the ceiling in trendy Queen West, this place is also a record label. The intimate setting makes performances especially impactful. Nearby is the classic Horseshoe Tavern or “The Shoe,” an always-crowded bar where legendary is no exaggeration — an “it” spot since 1947. Yep, the Rolling Stones played here, and so did Willie Nelson and The Ramones. In a warehouse-like club space smaller than a stadium, The Phoenix Concert Theatre’s huge space accommodates rowdy dance parties and some of the world’s best performers, making it another top venue.
Jazz, blues, and soul
Jazz? It has to be The Rex. Club, restaurant, and downtown hotel, this long-running, family-owned 70s-era dive in Queen Street West is your destination for nightly jazz. There are as many as 20 acts a week. Grab a burger before or after the show, too. Another fine option is The Reservoir Lounge, a basement club with sophisticated cocktails, tapas, big bands, swing, and blues on the menu. Also check out the softly-lit, New York-style Hugh’s Room Live near Roncesvalles for blues, roots, and jazz over dinner. Finally, Massey Hall, an iconic space has been around forever and still feels intimate despite being a bigger venue.
DJs, techno, hip hop, and electronica
Drake Underground is it for hip hop and electric, some indie, and anything-goes dancing to a throbbing beat. Set in the chic Queen West hotel of the same name, this local institution is a whole other world entirely. Techno rules at sprawling nightclub CODA near the University of Toronto, host to all-night dance parties. Go to get lost in the music. Psychedelic electric is the theme at Mod Club Theatre. Here you can also find alt rock and dancing, all in a big brick building near Little Italy kitted out with oversized screens and amazing lighting.
Rock, metal, alt country, country, and punk
One of the most popular places to see bands that are in between obscure and huge is the popular, historic 1909 Opera House, a former vaudeville theater turned concert hall in Riverdale. At university student-run The Annex, Lee’s Palace is a grungy, no-frills converted cinema on Bloor Street West. Rock, punk, indie, metal, and alt rockers are all on stage at this iconic spot where Nirvana once played. Wild West-style basement saloon Dakota Tavern in Queen West is the place for country — go for the music and boot-stomping dancing. Locals rave about the weekend Bluegrass Brunch, too . For funk, punk, and indie with a garage-type vibe, you want to check out The Garrison near Little Italy. Nosh at the taco cantina after the show.
For local and international hip-swiveling jazz, electric, big band, and world music, head to spicy Lula Lounge in Brockton Village. It’s impossible to be a wallflower in this colorful, softly lit old Portuguese catering hall animated with neon chandeliers and paper lanterns. Lula hosts live salsa bands and serves Latin soul food and tropical cocktails, including signature mojitos. On weekends, there’s dinner, followed by salsa lessons and dancing. Friday starts off with jazz and world music, then later on, it's Cuban night. It’s open on weeknights, but only if a band is booked, so check the calendar. Another favorite place for dinner and dancing is CopaCabana Brazilian Steakhouse, with an uptown Eglinton and downtown Entertainment District location. Mix juicy grilled South American steak with chimichurri and a little samba on the side.
If Vivaldi and Bach are more your thing, the mainstays are Roy Thompson Hall, The Royal Conservatory, and the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. But consider these insider favorites for something special: 100-year-old chapel Heliconian Hall in Yorkville; industrial-meets-Strauss at Gallery 345, a West End warehouse housing a grand piano; and the whimsical Music Garden, the site of free lakeside public concerts in the summer on Thursdays and Sundays. The garden illustrates the six movements of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello, created by landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It’s hard to imagine a more magical setting.
Festivals and events
Toronto puts on dozens of music festivals throughout the year, so scan this calendar to match your particular interests and timing. The most popular are April’s 10-day Canadian Music Week, spotlighting emerging artists, indie performers, as well as June’s North by Northeast (NXNE) — both of which include many events at The Phoenix and Cameron House. There’s July’s Digital Dreams for electronic aficionados, and the late July OVO Fest,Drake’s annual hip-hop fest, and September’s indie love-in TURF Festival. August’s Boots & Hearts caters to the country crowd. For jazz, the must-see is June-July’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival, but there’s also the eclectic Beaches International Jazz Festival, covering anything and everything from hip-hop and African, to big band, reggae, and blues.
More music? The Toronto Tourism website can help.