OUR ALL-SEASON GUIDE TO THE ABSOLUTE BEST LOW-COST AND FREE THINGS TO DO IN TORONTO WITH KIDS IN 2015. BY CARA SMUSIAK
Toronto is a fantastic city to explore with the whole family—especially as the weather starts to warm up. These 25 low-cost and free things to do in Toronto with kids offer many opportunities to get everyone outside, regardless of the season, though indoor activities abound, too, for days when the climate is uncooperative.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: The Great Outdoors
Play in the Park
Toronto’s largest urban green space, High Park, is home to a zoo (admission is free), myriad walking trails, lovely gardens, a dog park, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, soccer pitches, picnic areas and much more. Let kids burn off some energy at the super-awesome Jamie Bell Adventure Playground—designed in consultation with children—and then spend some quiet time watching the water fowl at Grenadier Pond. A visit in early spring (late April or early May) is a must to see the stunning cherry blossoms. Of course, if you can’t get to this 400-acre west end attraction, the city has so many other great public parks in which to play: Trinity Bellwoods Park, Withrow Park, Christie Pits and Corktown Common are just a few of the largest and most accessible.
Stop to Smell the Roses
Little green thumbs will love a visit to the Allan Gardens Conservatory, a historic downtown landmark. Plants from around the world comprise the permanent collection, which blooms in six greenhouses with a total area of 16,000 square feet. Kids will stare in awe inside the glass-domed “Palm House” (built in 1910), where soaring palms, bananas and tropical vines surround visitors. Seasonal flower shows ensure you’ll see something new each time you’re here.
Take a Hike
Nature lovers will be happy to learn that Toronto is one of the greenest cities in North America, with a lush canopy and an abundance of wildlife. If you’re looking to escape from the bustle for a little while, why not hike, bike or run along one of Toronto’s five watersheds with trail networks, or take a self-guided Discovery Walk along the waterfront trail. On any given outing you could see butterflies, deer, rabbits, heron, hawks, muskrats and other creatures.
Get an Eco-Education
The Evergreen Brick Works is a community environmental centre that’s also one of Toronto’s most multifaceted family-oriented spaces. Kids can connect with nature in the Children’s Garden (also home to the Brick Works’s wood-fired oven and greenhouse), discover the basics of pottery at the Clay Works or learn about the industrial heritage of the site itself. Not only that, but the Brick Works also plays host to weekend activities year-round, boasts a fantastic farmers’ market and café, and offers workshops, nature hikes and more. From spring to fall, you can rent bikes at Sweet Pete’s to tour around the Don Valley, and in winter you can lace up and skate around Koerner Gardens.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: Fun for Foodies
Take Your Pick at Farmers’ Markets
Toronto is home to some stellar spots for sourcing fresh, local food. Families from across the city flock to the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings year-round (and Sundays during the summer and fall), but pretty much all of the city’s farmers’ markets are neighbourhood hot spots. In midtown, The Stop Community Food Centre at Wychwood Barns runs year-round on Saturdays (8 a.m. to noon), while the nearby Dufferin Grove Organic Farmers’ Market also runs every week—on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. A number of other seasonal farmers’ markets dot the city from May to November, including the east end’s Leslieville Farmers’ Market, Queen West’s Trinity Bellwoods Farmers’ Market and historic Cabbagetown’s Riverdale Farm Farmers’ Market.
Peruse More Food (and Grab a Bite)
For an indoor market experience that’s unmatched anywhere in the city (and indeed, hard to top across North America), head to historic St. Lawrence Market. This two-level market boasts vendors for pretty much every kind of food—from meats, cheeses and fish to grains, fruit, veggies and baked goods—as well as souvenir shops and eateries. Dine on seafood, crepes or Greek or Italian fare, then finish off your meal with a scrumptious pastry or dessert. On warm days, take your eats to go and head for St. James Park, a block north on Jarvis Street.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: Explore the Streets
Wander Through History
Soak up some Victorian-era industrial history as you stride the cobblestone pedestrian-only streets of the Distillery District. This cultural centre is filled with art galleries, artist studios, shops and some great cafés and restaurants. Stop by on a Saturday and you’re bound to see at least one happy couple posing for wedding photos.
Stroll the City’s Most Eclectic Neighbourhood
If you’re seeking a bohemian hot spot in the heart of downtown (and frankly, who wouldn’t be?), head to Kensington Market. This vibrant and diverse pocket of the city is home to an eclectic mix of eateries, cafés, shops and more, and the colourful buildings and signage are a sight to see. Swing by on a “Pedestrian Sunday” from May to October—the car-free occasion is arguably the best way to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the ‘hood.
Explore Ethnic Enclaves
Over the decades Toronto has attracted hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of newcomers to Canada. Each community has made a space for itself—which means you can find some pretty amazing cultural and culinary experiences in pockets across the city. Plan to spend some time wandering and eating in at least one of these neighbourhoods: Chinatown (Spadina Avenue north of Queen Street), the India Bazaar (Gerrard Street East between Coxwell and Greenwood avenues), Koreatown (Bloor Street West, between Markham and Christie streets), Little Italy (bordered by College, Bathurst and Bloor streets and Dovercourt Road) and The Danforth, also known as Greektown (Danforth Avenue roughly between Chester and Jones streets).
Tour Around Town
Budding city explorers can get a crash course on some of Toronto’s more interesting aspects on free summertime walking tours hosted by Tour Guys. Among the intriguing topics are “Trains, Teams and the CN Tower,” “Politics, Power and the PATH” and a more macabre “Death, Disease and Destruction” tour about the city’s darker history.
Find the City’s Spooky Side
There are plenty of ghost tours on offer in Toronto, but if you’ve got a rambunctious crew and are looking for something a little less structured, the Toronto Ghost & Hauntings Research Society offers a free self-guided walking tour of downtown. The itinerary will take you to the former Toronto Stock Exchange (now the Design Exchange), Old City Hall, Queen’s Park, Mackenzie House and many other buildings. Start practicing your spooky voices and dramatic pauses.
See Our Seat of Governance
Take kids on a self-guided tour of City Hall to get a glimpse of what it takes to run the largest city in Canada. While you’re there, spend some time outdoors at Nathan Phillips Square. In the summer months, sit by the reflecting pool and people watch, or take in one of the many events and festivals that are hosted in the square. In the winter, the pond becomes a free skating rink—you can rent a pair of skates if you don’t have your own.
Spy the Scholastic Sights
There’s lots to see and do at the University of Toronto’s historic St. George campus. Many of the school’s beautiful Gothic and Romanesque buildings are at least partially open to the public (though do be mindful of classes in session), and both Hart House and University College house fantastic public art galleries (the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and U of T Art Centre, respectively). Budding athletes can also glimpse their future selves by taking in a game at Varsity Stadium (tickets are free for most sports, football excepted) or kick around a soccer ball on one of the many common fields.
Scope Out Graffiti Alley
Whether your kids are already street-art fans or you’re looking to share a vibrant slice of city living with them, you can’t miss Graffiti Alley, which runs south of Queen Street, between Spadina and Portland. This landmark—where CBC comedian Rick Mercer often films his Rick Mercer Report rants—is an ever-evolving expression of creativity in Toronto; artists are adding to the build-up of imagery pretty much all the time.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: Waterside Retreats
Get Cultured by the Lake
Head to the Harbourfront Centre, where cool events and activities abound all year long. During the summer, partake in a new and exciting cultural festival each weekend. Throughout the year you can also discover contemporary art at The Power Plant and in Harbourfront Centre’s own diverse galleries. In the winter, enjoy a slick Saturday DJ skate night at the scenic outdoor Natrel Rink.
Soak Up Even More Waterfront Fun
There’s plenty more family entertainment to be had along Queens Quay. Take the kids down to this bustling lakeshore strip and let them run wild on the Simcoe Wave Deck before strolling west in search of the tall ships that routinely dock here. Little ones are also sure to spot numerous water taxis, paddle boats and other marine vessels puttering around the inner harbour. Looking for more to explore? Don’t miss the serene Toronto Music Garden or the Purina PawsWay, a venue “devoted to bringing the pet perspective to life.”
Hit the Beach
Toronto’s south shore is lined with 11 swimming beaches, including eight that bear “blue flag” certification for meeting a high standard of environmental health. The most popular spots are in the east end, including Woodbine Beach, where you’ll find more than 100 recreational beach volleyball courts—where enthusiasts serve up a whole lot of fun every evening in the spring and summer—plus plenty of public courts for pickup games. If you’re just looking for a sandy spot to hang out, Sugar Beach on Queen Quay offers easy access, plus, if you’re lucky, a front-row seat to see cargo ships offloading sugar at the Redpath Sugar Refinery.
Cross the Harbour
The famous Toronto Islands also boast a few great summertime beaches (though note that the Hanlan’s Point beach is clothing optional), plus the tykes’ favourite Centreville amusement park and other kid-friendly attractions. There’s less to do when cold weather arrives, but a wintry journey to the Islands can still be a blast, as Centre Island’s vast open fields are great for a romp after a big snowfall. Whenever you visit, don’t forget to take a family portrait; the city’s skyline makes a perfect backdrop.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: Live with Culture
Peruse a Huge Collection
While general admission to the Art Gallery of Ontario is worth every penny, if you’re looking to see a bit of art but don’t want to make a day of it, you can get your fix for free on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. (Note, however, that free admission does not include entry to special exhibitions.)
Lend an Ear
Arts-loving kids will adore the chance to see and hear some fantastic musical and dance performances—and moms and dads will love that it doesn’t cost a penny. The Canadian Opera Company’s free concert series spans a range of arts and musical styles, from ballet and flamenco recitals to chamber music, jazz, vocal and world music concerts. The performances typically take place Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon (from September through June) in the light-filled Richard Bradshaw Theatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Step on the Stars
Head to the Entertainment District and find your kinfolk’s favourite famous Canucks on Canada’s Walk of Fame. The inductees’ stars line the sidewalks along King Street West, between John and Simcoe streets, as well as Simcoe Street from King to Wellington streets—and there are 157 of them to spot. With such notable names as Alexander Graham Bell, Paul Anka, Craig and Marc Kielburger, William Shatner and Mario Lemieux, there’s bound to be a star for everyone in your family to admire.
Embrace a Public Space
Toronto’s answer to Times Square, Yonge-Dundas Square is the ever-bustling heart of downtown. It routinely hosts free concerts (including big-time bands during NXNE every June) and events, plus movie nights in the summer. The Square is also home to TO TIX, a one-stop box office for tickets to theatre, dance, opera, sports and more, often at a discount. Bonus: the square is also a free WiFi hotspot.
Free Things to Do in Toronto with Kids: Discover Our History
Explore Our Rural Roots
Riverdale Farm offers a taste of the country in the heart of the bustling city. With wooded areas, ponds, vegetable gardens and barns spread across 7.5 acres, the quaint site boasts ample space for agricultural discovery. Kids can visit with the animals and chat with the farmers as they go about their chores.
Discover Broadcasting History
Housed in the CBC’s Toronto headquarters is a little-known kid-friendly gem: the CBC Museum. Youngsters will get a kick out of the exhibits that showcase their favourite CBC Kids shows—and parents can indulge in a little nostalgia with a look inside Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk and a peek at Casey and Finnegan’s treehouse. Older children will enjoy the CBC News exhibits and historical broadcasting equipment.
Walk Among the Tombstones
Macabre munchkins will have a ghoulish time wandering through Mount Pleasant Cemetery in search of famous dead people—and you can work in a little history lesson along the way. Look for insulin pioneers Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best, hockey player Billy Burch, ace pilot “Punch” Dickins, pianist Glenn Gould, prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and suffragist and doctor Emily Howard Stowe, to name a few of the eternal residents. And be sure to make a stop at the Empress of Ireland and the Steamship Noronic memorials.