Toronto, or “home” as I like to call it, is located in Eastern Canada along the shores of Lake Ontario. It’s a bustling metropolis with a large international airport that makes it an easily accessible destination, especially for international travelers. It is a diverse and multicultural city, boasting an immigrant population of approximately 50%. This diverse character is one of my favorite features of this urban jewel, not to mention the many incredible things to do in Toronto.
Things to Do in Toronto
I have lived abroad for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have not spent more than 3 weeks a year in Toronto. This summer, I decided to extend my visit to almost two and a half months! Besides catching up with family and friends, I was able to revisit some of my favourite spots in the city. If you find yourself in the T-dot, here are some “must sees” of things to do in Toronto to make the most of your stay.
1. Kensington Market
As a kid, I remember going to this market and it being one of my favourite places to explore. It was my parent’s go-to for fresh fish and meats. On those rare occasions when we dined out, we ate at Amadeu’s, a quaint Portuguese restaurant on Augusta Avenue. I remember the neighborhood as a bit gritty with a mix of traditional food markets, vintage shops, dive bars, and coffee shops. But over the years, Kensington has become more and more gentrified. Despite that, it maintains its charm and remains my go-to for food and vintage shopping in Toronto.
Despite Kensington covering only a few blocks, it’s easy to spend a day roaming the market’s streets. Start off by having coffee at one of its many cafés (the Swedish FIKA Cafe, or if you want an espresso in a skull cup, try Voodoo Child), peruse street art in nearby alleys, and then stop for lunch at virtually any restaurant and you won’t be disappointed. On my recent visit, I went for Jamaican Italian fusion at Rasta Pasta. End your afternoon by searching for second-hand treasures at the plethora of vintage shops along Kensington Street. Pick up a sweet treat at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky.
On your way home, don’t forget to grab some cheese from Global Cheese, which has been around since I was a kid. (The staff there is super friendly and will let you try before you buy.) If the pie wasn’t enough, you can wander over to Dipped Donuts (voted Toronto’s best donuts). If you loved the street art of Kensington, Toronto’s Graffiti Alley is full of more colourful murals and is just a stroll away.
2. The Distillery District
This area was a new find for me. It wasn’t as popular of a destination before I left Canada as it is now. The District is hip and happening, and also a historical site. In the 1800s, a windmill ground grain at the site. Later, a steam engine helped turn the site into the then-largest distillery in the British Empire. After more than 100 years of operation, the distillery shut down in 1990. The area was converted to a cultural attraction in the early 2000s and has quickly risen to the top of the list of things to do in Toronto.
What’s cool about the Distillery District is that it’s a mix of old and new. If you like history and architecture, this is the place for you. Guided tours are available at various price points, and the District’s official website has a self-guided tour PDF you can download with a brief history of the site and a map showing historic buildings and information about them. I enjoyed wandering the area, map in hand.
But if history isn’t your thing, you can lose yourself in the free art galleries, shops, and rotating exhibits that line the streets. There are also restaurants, bars, and cafés when you feel the need for a rest. I had a gravy soaked turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich followed by a delicate, yet decadent, butter tart at the Brick Street Bakery. Be sure to check out the Distillery District’s website; they sponsor events such as open air markets, movies, and music performances.
3. Toronto Islands
Want to escape the city but don’t feel like driving three hours to cottage country for a tranquil respite? You don’t have to. Toronto has a beach… a few beaches, actually. The Toronto Islands are a chain of small islands in Lake Ontario just off the shore of Toronto. They are easy to get to within minutes by ferry, available from the city’s downtown core. It is where many of us Torontonians go when we want to break away from the “concrete jungle.”
I visited the islands twice this summer. My first stop was Ward’s Island with a close friend. This island is mostly residential with fewer amenities, so if you’re planning to visit, pack a picnic lunch. Ward’s is more chill than the other islands and is perfect if you prefer peace without a lot of people around. If you are looking for a more social vibe, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point tend to be full of people and also have more services, as well as picnic and BBQ areas. It’s also worth mentioning that Hanlan’s Point is one of only two nude beaches in all of Canada, if that’s your thing.
The islands also are a great place to bike (bring your own or rent one), hike, kayak the canals, or even do some ghostbusting. Yup, you read that last right. The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse has long been said to be haunted. I also recommend catching a sunset there for a spectacular view of the Toronto skyline.
4. Galleries and Museums
Whether you’re returning home like I was or are on vacation, it’s always nice to save a few bucks wherever you can. Toronto is full of galleries and museums to suit all tastes. Most have a day with free admission every week. During this trip, I visited both the Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in addition to numerous small and free galleries in the Distillery District.
The Bata Shoe Museum is free on Sundays and, as you might have guessed, is all about shoes! It displays a wide variety of footwear ranging from ancient Egyptian sandals all the way to modern day fashion pieces. The shoes on display are aesthetically appealing, but what’s more interesting is what they reveal about the society and culture in which they were created. Pieces include armoured boots, snow shoes, platform disco shoes, and Manolo Blahnik pumps. This is a quirky museum that is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for things to do in Toronto.
The AGO’s permanent collection includes Canadian, indigenous, European, and modern art, as well as photography, sculpture, prints, and drawings. The museum is free every Wednesday from 6 to 9 PM. Three hours is just enough time to see two to three major exhibits. Since this visit wasn’t my first, I chose to spend my time in the current temporary exhibits which I really enjoyed. The building itself is also a work of art, and sections of it were designed by Toronto’s own Frank Gehry.
5. Wander the Streets
I love walking around and getting lost in any city I visit. It is the best way to learn your way around, discover new places, and get a feel for the place. Toronto is my hometown, but it does not make it an exception to the rule. Whenever I visit, I discover a new neighbourhood, shop, or restaurant.
Toronto is a very walkable city. It’s designed on a grid so it is difficult to lose your way, but if you do that’s part of the fun! If you are ambitious and don’t tire easily like me, I suggest an epic walk of the downtown core, stopping at whatever interesting shop or café you happen upon.
I started at St. Lawrence Market, a traditional European-style food market that has numerous stalls where you can get a drink or something to eat. When I was young, I would go to the market with my dad or sister and have a peameal (aka Canadian bacon) sandwich. I totally recommend grabbing one if you’re in the area. From there I walked toward Union Station.
Along the way, keep an eye out for the Toronto Flatiron building and the Hockey Hall of Fame, as well as the Financial District. It’s easy to lose yourself here, surrounded by a jungle of skyscrapers. If it’s cold outside, head underground to the PATH, the largest subterranean walkway and shopping centre in the world. I decided to wander down Queen Street West, grab a drink to go, and head toward Toronto City Hall for some people watching. An alternative is walking to the waterfront to enjoy the breeze coming off Lake Ontario.
On this particular visit, I headed toward the University of Toronto and Bloor Street West. I walked for five hours. If you’re not like me, break your exploration up into neighbourhoods and really take your time exploring. Worthwhile neighbourhoods (besides Kensington and the Distillery District mentioned above) are Roncesvalles (don’t miss a stroll into High Park here), Parkdale, the University of Toronto and Bloor West, and Leslieville and the Beaches.
Still Not Convinced?
Toronto has a little something for everyone. It’s constantly evolving. If you spend a while there, you will discover new bars, shops, restaurants, graffiti, and green spaces. I’m grateful that I was able to rekindle my love for my old stomping grounds. I invite you to explore my hometown for yourself.
Interested in Reading More About Canada?
If you’re planning on exploring Canada beyond Toronto, how about visiting Ridgetown, Kristen Gammage’s hometown?