22 free things to do in Toronto
There are the givens: walk this and that street, visit this landmark and that monument, check out this urban hike and go see the view from that point. Toronto is fast becoming (or has become, I should say) a hip city, full of you-don’t-wanna-miss attractions, restaurants and shopping. Everybody is full of advice on what to do while in town, and often these tips are good but somewhat costly. The list below is packed only with the stuff you can do in “the six” (that’s what locals call their city) without spending a loonie (that’s Canadian for “a dollar”).
1. A staple of Toronto’s cultural experience is the Art Gallery of Ontario, known as the AGO. Wednesday evenings are free starting at 6 p.m. The gallery closes at 9 p.m., so you’ll have time to take in the permanent collections and appreciate the architecture of this stunning building, recently renovated by world-renowned architect, Frank Gehry.
2. Also free in the middle of the week is the latest addition to the city’s cultural offerings, the very contemporary Aga Khan Museum. You can get in as early as 4 p.m., so if you are planning a night of all-you-can-art, start here.
3. Contemporary art is your thing? Pay (no pun intended) a free visit to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), which is pay-what-you-can at all times. Just promise one day, when you can afford to, you’ll come back and drop a donation.
4. Off the beaten path is the Redpath Sugar Museum. That’s right, sugar fans, you can indulge in sweet history. Just be sure to call or email ahead!
5. The Ryerson Image Centre defines itself as dedicated to research, teaching and exhibiting photography and related media. Perfect for when your tiny Instagram screen won’t cut it anymore!
6. If you’re in Toronto during the winter, see if you’re around in time for Bloor-Yorkville’s annual ice sculpture festival, rightly named Icefest.
So much to see, so little to spend!
7. When I lived in Toronto, I used to love taking an artsy break with a walk through the studios at the Harbourfront Centre, where you can spot artists working on metal, fabric, and glass.
8. The Distillery District is not only hip and gorgeous, but it’s also packed with art galleries, studios, and shops.
9. Visual art not so much your thing? Thank you for reading this far down the list. Toronto Public Library’s 100th branch at Scarborough Civic Centre might be the option for you. I have yet to visit, but its contemporary disposition is making people talk. More than books, this building offers a digital innovation hub, free wifi, an outdoor garden and a green roof.
STREET ART AND ARCHITECTURE
10. Toronto has so much of this. Check out Graffiti Alley just south of Queen Street West between Spadina Ave. and Portland St. for about a kilometre of solid art.
11. You can also walk the town to discover architectural staples. My suggestion is to spend a day walking around Bloor and Yorkville area, check out the ROM (you cannot miss it, it’s the tilted square protruding onto the street) and get lost in the beautiful University of Toronto campus. On another day, you can start at the Famous Eaton Centre, walk along Queen through the now retro Nathan Philip Square and head over to University Avenue, lined with hospitals to your right and taking you down directly to Union Station if you hook a left instead.
12. Toronto has an expansive underground city called P.A.T.H and Union Station is a great way to start discovering it. Follow signs to the stunning First Canada Place and if you look at the right signage, you could end up right back at the Eaton Center. You can also grab this pdf map of the underground city.
13. St Lawrence Market is open year-round and is indoors. Walk around the many aisles, grab lunch or just people-watch.
14. Kensington Market is not technically a market… but you should visit it nonetheless! The small streets of this neighbourhood explode with yummy treats from all corners of the earth, little vintage clothing paradises, colourful people and great coffee.
15. If those words bring running shoes to mine, this is for you. For ice skates, jump to 16. You can always run Toronto (or any town, really!). If you like going solo, I would recommend heading to the lakeshore area, around Queens Quay and all along the lake. If you’d prefer a park, read on to the section below. But if you’d rather find strength in numbers, I suggest joining the free Nike Run Club, which meets several times a week at their very cool Loft space on Richmond Street.
16. During the cold winter months, ice rinks abound in Toronto and are mostly free. Most rinks have scheduled times for different age groups, so if you are planning on doing crazy jumps, check ahead for the times kids won’t be around. Some of the classic rinks include Nathan Phillips Square and the Harbourfront. You can rent skates at both.
17. The Toronto Botanical Garden, apparently termed “the little garden with big ideas”, is nearly four acres and features 17 “city-sized” themed gardens. It’s open daily, from dawn until dusk.
18. The Toronto Islands are really underrated. Also open in the winter, the islands offer stunning views of the city all year long, and during the colder months, you can snowshoe, cross-country ski or just hike around. It’s the perfect way to spend the day! The only cost catch is the ferry, for which you’ll spend $7.71 (return).
19. High Park has over one million visitors annually. Over one-third of it remains in its natural state and is home to many species of wildlife. Well, to be more precise… it has a zoo that is open year round. Although small, the zoo is home to over 45 animals that represent 11 different species of mammals and birds.
20. Snow in the forecast for your trip? Grab your waterproof, warm clothes (or tough it) and go tobogganing. Locals often head to Christie Pits, Trinity Bellwoods, High Park or Riverdale Park, to name a few.
21. For a shorter green break, the Aga Khan Museum, mentioned above, counts with an immaculately landscaped park complete with trees, shrubs and serene reflecting pools that highlight the architecture of the space.
22. HI-Toronto hosts tons of free events on a regular basis — tours, pub crawls, game nights and more. Be sure to check in with them on their website.
Originally written under the nurturing shade of a towering maple tree, and published by the friendly folks at HI Canada.