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Toronto's Top Live Music Venues Beat iTunes Every Time



There are few things as wonderful as watching an amazing band. More guilt-free than gorging on chocolate with a similar joy, a snack of music can feed the soul. Toronto, in all of its culturally diverse glory, has a plethora of places to feed the innate need we all have to listen. In these diverse spaces, we can drown out the sound of our own voices and become wrapped up in someone else's.

There are obviously a lot of choices when it comes to musical flavour. Major headlining acts can be found at any location, but most frequently at Massey Hall or The Horseshoe Tavern. If you are going for more of the music and less of the name, you can pick your favourite genre. Bluegrass fans are right at home with the banjo picking, side stepping crowd at The Dakota Tavern. Jazz aficionados enjoy both food and entertainment at the dazzling Jazz Bistro or the intimate Hugh's Room

Live music captures the heart of the audience in a way that no vinyl could come close to. Whether the venue seats thousands or hundreds, being able to sit close to the person playing the guitar feels personal. Toronto is slightly addicted to it, with amazing musicians serenading us everywhere from sushi bars to subway cars. Take your earbuds out and make a plan to catch a world-class show any night of the week.


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The Garrison
Photo courtesy of Regine Hervy


The Garrison is a no-frills place where some of the top acts in the city congregate. It has the two essentials of live music: good acoustics and space to dance (or at least sway without taking someone's eye out). Go into the front room to get an earful of the night's offerings. Once you are ready to commit, pay your cover and get prepared to say "What?" as things can get quite loud. Not only do they have bands, but also DJ nights, and even an expose of book titles from Coach House books. Check out the schedule on their website, open every day but Monday to entertain the hell out of you.

Recommended for Live Music because: The Garrison is the place for indie music fans with a full rosta of weekly entertainment for hipsters.

Courtney's expert tip: Tuesdays are $2 steak taco night, which will go nicely with the many inexpensive beers in house.

Read more about The Garrison →


Drake Underground
Photo courtesy of Jen Aaron


In some ways, Toronto is an underground labyrinth. With subways connected to condos connected to office buildings, there are many months of the year where Torontonians do not see the light of day. Why not celebrate this vampire quality with a music venue that is delightfully underground, settled into the Drake Hotel? Live indie shows range from a Daft Punk cover band to big names like Beck and M.I.A. The 250-person space provides an intimate mood at every concert. DJ dance parties, film screenings and comedy performances round out the offerings on other evenings. There is no cell phone service in the basement, so stay close to your fist-pumping friends.

Recommended for Live Music because: A cool, dark space with excellent concerts from big name acts or local favourites.

Courtney's expert tip: The cover fee is an all access pass to every floor of the Drake. If the Underground isn't yet hopping, take yourself up to the patio for a fancy cocktail or two.

Read more about Drake Underground →


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West Toronto
The Dakota Tavern
Photo courtesy of The Dakota Tavern Facebook page


Fancy a little bluegrass with your brunch? Dakota Tavern has that. Whether you want to bring your kids along for some foot stomping bacon and eggs, or have an adults-only evening with cocktails and a folk band, Dakota Tavern is a uniquely incredible venue in Toronto. In between live sets, the staff spins their favourite like-minded music, from country to folk. The furniture looks like it is from the 70s and the retro feel extends throughout the small venue. No need to get dressed up: flannel shirts are welcome. Dark, small and underground, it may not be the ideal location for the summer, but it is dreamily cosy for "Cold" Man Winter.

Recommended for Live Music because: The Dakota Tavern is so small, you will feel like you are on the stage yourself. Keep the playing to the professionals.

Courtney's expert tip: This basement location will keep you disconnected, so make sure you solidify plans with your friends before you go underground.

Read more about The Dakota Tavern →


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Horseshoe Tavern


The Horseshoe has been entertaining Torontonians since 1947. Most people who have lived in Toronto for some time have a Horseshoe Tavern story. An innocuous looking place on Queen Street West, it changes along with the times, providing everything from folk to reggae to rock and roll. It has become an accomplishment for a local musician to secure a gig and the Horseshoe is proudly dedicated to showcasing the best of the best of Canadian local talent. Throughout its formidable history, it has become a place for the famous to play intimate surprise concerts, from the Rolling Stones to Blue Rodeo to Etta James. It may be a little bit of a dive, but it's Toronto's favourite dive for 65 years and counting.

Recommended for Live Music because: Grungy and rough on the outside, this local bar is all about the music and has a Toronto history that is unparalleled.

Courtney's expert tip: The size of the venue guarantees that you do not have to worry about acoustics, but the layout can make it hard to see the stage. As soon as the band gets close to starting, make sure you are near the front for the best view.

Read more about Horseshoe Tavern →


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High Park/Roncesvalles
Hugh's Room
Photo courtesy of Bently Quast


Music is becoming more and more private. Earbuds are stuffed into our eardrums to create an internal symphony. However, remember the concert? The small venues where you felt like you had a relationship with the artist on stage, and there was nothing distracting you from the music? Hugh's Room provides just that. This nightspot is a cozy venue in the Roncesvalles area with small circular tables that harbour groups or couples. Dinner is available before the show, or you can be bar happy as you enjoy some great acts. Big names like Colin Hay, Richie Havens and Ron Sexsmith have played here. It is small enough to feel like they are playing just for you and your beloved if you choose to make a date night of it.

Recommended for Live Music because: Legends from the music industry take a seat here, making you feel like family. It is baby boomer heaven.

Courtney's expert tip: In order to secure a table, you have to do more than buy a ticket to the show. Make a night out of it with a dinner reservation.

Read more about Hugh's Room →


Adelaide Hall
Photo courtesy of Adelaide Hall Facebook page

Adelaide Hall is the place you go to when you want to actually see the band as well as listen to the music. Going out with the purpose of viewing live music becomes a magical experience when you are within a sight line of the guitar fingering and you can watch the sweat drip off the musician (if you like that sort of thing). Whether you are watching from the front row or you step up to the second floor balcony, you will be within ear-splitting distance with a 680 person capacity. Open Monday-Sunday, Adelaide Hall is the place to see local and international indie musicians.

Recommended for Live Music because: A newer music venue that is supremely likeable and has more live music than anything else.

Courtney's expert tip: Adelaide Hall has booked some solid acts that have sold out very quickly. If you want to be in the industry know, follow their Twitter feed.

Read more about Adelaide Hall →




The Danforth music hall, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Your sloped floor allows us to see the stage from almost any vantage point. You are the Goldilocks of concert halls: not too big, not to small. You don't judge music or seem to have preferences: you play it all and you celebrate it all. Originally a cinema (in 1919!), The Danforth Music Hall has been featuring live music since the 1970s and now includes everything from drag queen nights to comedy shows. It is a place to go to be entertained without having to be entertaining yourself. Turn off that busy brain of yours.

Recommended for Live Music because: Great headlining acts, and a sloped floor so that you can actually see those acts.

Courtney's expert tip: There is no re-entry, so make sure you have your things in order outside of the venue before you settle in for the night.

Read more about Danforth Music Hall →


The Cameron House
Photo courtesy of Cameron House Facebook page


We live in a time where you can say "dive bar" and it isn't necessarily a bad thing. It could mean that it was done intentionally, so you didn't feel any hint of a dress code. You knew you could come there in your comfy clothes and just be yourself. This is exactly what you should expect at The Cameron House. Live music plays six days a week, with as many as five shows in just one night. There is a beautiful fresco on the ceiling and pints of beer for just over $5. There is a sign on the wall that says "This is paradise." For music lovers, it absolutely is.

Recommended for Live Music because: Cozy and unpretentious, a visit to The Cameron House is a funky live music experience that fits right in with the Queen Street crowd.

Courtney's expert tip: There are also sketch comedy and book launches here, so check the regularly updated schedule on their website to see that they have what you are looking for in the name of entertainment.

Read more about The Cameron House →


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Downtown


Jazz musician J. J. Johnson said, "Jazz is restless. It won't stay put and it never will." For the foreseeable future, Jazz Bistro is staying put to give Toronto a jazz club with style. From hot music to spectacular food, it entertains on all levels. Dinner is incredible, with share plates that satisfy, from beef sliders to Japanese style fried chicken that washes down nicely with a glass of wine. The stage is visible from all angles. Whether you are going to fill your ears with a new and startlingly talented musician, or you are reminding yourself of the soft spot you hold for a revered artist, the music circulates around the room beautifully. That's jazz, man.

Recommended for Live Music because: People come for the music first and the conversation second. You will hear every note with open ears.

Courtney's expert tip: Check out their jazz brunch, because what goes better with eggs benny than some cool cats?

Read more about Jazz Bistro →


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Downtown


Massey Hall is definitely bigger than the other music venues on our list, but somehow it retains an intimate vibe. The fans of most shows are incredibly enthusiastic and it is as if the musician directly breathes in this energy. This results in astounding performances. Guess we have to chalk it up to the Massey Hall mojo. Each year since 1967, Canadian folk musician Gordon Lightfoot has played a multi-night residency at Massey Hall. Other greats like Neil Young and Bob Dylan have also played here. When your favourite band has a scheduled concert at Massey Hall, it is a sign from the musical gods that must not be ignored.

Recommended for Live Music because: Massey Hall is a historic venue that can hold 2,700 of a musician's closest friends. The acoustics make the place feel smaller than it is.

Courtney's expert tip: Grab a beer before the show at one of the amazing bars in the area. The lineups for a beer at Massey Hall can get astoundingly long, so best to load up before.

Read more about Massey Hall →


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Meet Courtney Sunday

Courtney Sunday has lived in England, Switzerland, Canada and the US, finding her way into the professions of freelance writing and yoga teaching in between travel opportunities. She learned...  More About Courtney

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