If a band is only as good as the venue they're playing at, it helps that Toronto has some legendary venues to choose from.
The Toronto metropolis has cultivated some seriously notable, homegrown talent such as Rush, Blue Rodeo, Drake, Metric, Kardinal Offishall, Neil Young and The Band. But the city plays host just as often as it produces and in order to do that it needs some stellar venues.
Look up the touring schedule of your favourite band or singer and nine times out of ten they'll be making a stop in the Big Smoke and the city has no shortage of great spots for them to choose from.
Below is a list of 10 Toronto music venues: some are gritty and some are pristine, but all are deserving of your hard-earned cash, whether you're going to see the Rolling Stones or your friend's sister's boyfriend's garage band.
Whether you're a hardened veteran or a rock-show rookie, these venues (by no means a full list) will at least help you see and hear shows the way they're meant to be experienced. If you want to stay in touch with more Toronto news and blogs, follow BLC on Facebook and Twitter. For more information on these and other venues throughout the city, check out our notable listings page in the Toronto Places section.
Located on the corner of Victoria & Shuter just off Yonge Street, Massey Hall is one of the oldest and most respected venues on the list—I mean, it's a National Historic Site for starters. The acoustics in the building are superb, making the Hall as diverse as it is famous. Whether you're hearing the heart-fluttering voice of Conor Oberst, the howling wickedness of Nick Cave, or the classical bow and cello of Yo-Yo Ma, this theatre can showcase and pull it all off gloriously. If you need to maintain your buzz before the show or want to create one while you wait for the merchandise line to simmer down, Centuries Bar and Lounge is located in the basement. Fair warning though, bigger acts routinely pack Massey Hall and that means bigger prices on the ticket stubs. But what's the point of life if you aren't slashing your grocery bill in half in order to see some shows? Tip: There's not a single bad seat in the house. Buy early if you want the closer rows on the floor, but if you're going to a gig here you're in for a treat no matter what.
Locally known as the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, this Queen Street staple has been around since 1947. You don't just get a name like that by pulling it out of a cereal box – this venue became a legend by hosting legends, from the Ramones to the Police to the Rolling Stones. If you don't believe me just do a Google search. The wooded-saloon interior stretches from the main bar in front to the back bar where the stage is, with stools and pool tables spotting the distance. It's not the biggest and often gets cramped with standing room, but a rock show ain't a rock show unless you're crowded shoulder-to-shoulder. With multiple bands performing weekly and prices that won't break the bank, you could see more than a couple shows every month if you wanted to. Tip: This place holds a lot of energy and people like to use it. If you don't feel like getting squeezed in or bumped around then make sure to see the action from a safe distance further back.
Lee's Palace is another Toronto landmark venue and sort of a "sister venue" to the Horseshoe Tavern after it changed ownership a little over a decade ago. Located on Bloor near Bathurst station, this tiny concert hall has had its own share of legends grace the stage including Nirvana, RHCP and the Smashing Pumpkins. With acts playing almost every night of the week and catering to a (primarily) louder, faster music-loving crowd, Lee's Palace still manages to have one of the best sounds for a venue. There's a small and modest bar in the back—not a large selection but you're here for the show and you can't do much grooving and thrashing with a drink in your hand anyway. Similar in price to the Horseshoe, Lee's also hosts a good amount of local talent. Bonus: when the show's over and you want to maintain the cramped and sweaty vibe, head upstairs to the Dance Cave. Tip: Get a double and sip on it throughout the show. The walk upstairs to the washroom isn't worth missing a song.
Throughout the past two decades, the Phoenix has sold tickets for tonnes of great artists including Green Day, Johnny Marr and Bob Dylan. Located midway between Bloor and Dundas on Sherbourne Street, the Phoenix Concert Theatre is large enough to accommodate bands in demand but still able to pull off smaller shows as well. Don’t mind the cramped hallways and dim lighting as you walk in the front entrance because the main room does open up nicely. One of the largest dance floors in the city sits in front of the concert stage surrounded by five bars in every direction. A second level balcony also sits overhead if you need to give your feet a rest or pre-emptively cure your ‘bangover’. Tip: Buy your merchandise before the show. Waiting around tiny hallways with tired, drunk and eager fans isn't a fun post-show activity.
A hop, skip and jump (or lean, stumble and crawl, depending on your state) from Broadview Station, the Music Hall has been around for almost a hundred years and narrowly avoided a grim death in the early 2000s and again in 2010 due to piled-up bills. But that can’t tarnish the headline acts it’s seen over the years. From Calgary indie pop duo Tegan and Sara, to East Coast hero Joel Plaskett and even hometown rockers the Tragically Hip. The rectangular hall can hold up to 1500 people, with a tiered standing floor and permanent balcony seating above. Bars are serving on both levels to keep your buzz up and feet moving. Tip: There’s a McDicks across the street to help with the subway ride home.
Taking the dinner-entertainment angle to a new level, Hugh's Room has been comfortably situated among the top music venues in Canada for many years now. That's saying something considering it only opened in 2001. Tucked away in Roncesvalles Village with an unassuming exterior and basic marquee, Hugh's real draw lies with the vibe inside. Combining a succulent menu with an almost nightly array of diverse talent, Hugh's Room gives patrons plenty of reasons for repeat visits. Expect the bill grow if you're dining along with the show – entrees hover around the mid $20 mark and the drink and dessert menus are also pretty tempting. While the space provides a special show platform for any genre, Hugh's Room is primarily known for the top notch Blues and Jazz musicians it attracts. Tip: Seating for shows is only available by first come first serve, so combine your ticket with a meal to ensure a table.
Not every show is about screaming along until your lungs go empty and your throat dries with pain. Sometimes you want to avoid the shouting, spitting and prodding elbows of the grittier venues and opt for a nice sit-down environment. If that sounds more to your liking, then the Sony Centre is where you can hope your act ends up. Located at 1 Front Street on the corner of Yonge, the brightly lit, yellow-bulb canopy sticks out over the pavement that leads into the large foyer. With a capacity just over 3100, this soft-seat theatre is perfect for comfort whether the performance is calm and intimate or riveting and electrical. The second floor balcony has three bars for you to loosen up at before the show or during an intermission (or if you don't care about the opening act). Tip: The sound is remarkable throughout, but if you get stuck far back in the cheap seats bring your binoculars because you'll be squinting to see who’s playing guitar and who’s singing.
If you’re the type that loves knowing about a band before they even know they’re a band, then this is the venue you’ll want to frequent. A hub for indie-rock talent, the Garrison is a dive bar in size with hall-level sound. It has close quarters in the back but if you like to be surprised with something new or hunt out an obscure band based on that amazing YouTube video, this is a likely choice. Shows are typically less than $20 and there’s a cheap tapas menu served late. Sticky floors, small washrooms and pricey beer but who cares, cause rock and roll. Tip: Earplugs.
A gem on Queen Street West, the Great Hall is as old and as classy as they come. A moderately sized venue, it stands strongly equipped with the lustre of being well over a century old and still running strong—what more could you want? A small bar in the Main Hall, a 150 seat U-shaped balcony for upper viewing and a stylish red curtain draping the edges of the stage? Cause it has all that, too. Able to seamlessly go from a back-to-school dance party one night to an intimate solo performance the next, the Great Hall has maintained its notable position by reaching out to and supporting a wide range of musical tastes, artistic endeavours and culture shows. Tip: It can get hot inside if the crowd is right, so you might want to use some of that beer change on coat check if it's not summertime. Otherwise stick to the plan and order another Mill Street.
The only outdoor venue on the list and it's a damn good one. Second only to the ACC for largest in Toronto, the Amphitheatre has a substantial 16,000 capacity. The partially covered amphitheatre has seen acts from jazz to rock to rap with the latter being showcased by hometown performer Drake hosting his annual OVO festival here – attracting the likes of Eminem, Kanye and Jay-Z. Situated on the water off Lakeshore, the venue offers covered seating, open seating and a lawn section. With plenty of space to spare, the site has multiple beer and booze vendors and carts, merchandise stations, food trucks and washroom facilities. It's no surprise day-long events, festivals and big names come to light this place up. Just don't stray from the crowd when the show ends near midnight and everyone walks through the creepy-and-sorta-sketchy almost-vacant exhibition place. Tip: Unless you're sweet, made of sugar and can't handle the possible threat of rain, buy a lawn ticket: they're cheaper and allow more dancing room.
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