4 min

10 great quintessentially Toronto things to do

From beaches to markets, experiences that capture Toronto’s character

Watch the sun set over Toronto from the gay (and clothing-optional) beach at Hanlan’s Point.  Credit: Aefa Mulholland

Toronto has a slew of things to do, see and experience that capture some of the character of this gargantuan Great Lakes city. Some of them just have to be checked off a first-time visitor’s list. Others are ones you’ll find Torontonians flocking to, too.

1.  The Toronto Islands
An atmospheric archipelago that shelters Toronto Harbour from Great Lakes squalls, this scatter of tiny islands has a whole host of trails, quirky cottages, snack bars, kids’ amusements and quaint cafés, such as Ward Island’s Rectory Café and informal burger/juice bar, The Island Café. The islands are essentially one big, laid-back, interlinked park, and you’ll even find a couple of Lake Ontario’s best beaches on their south shores, including Hanlan’s Point, the city’s LGBT-loved, clothing-optional beach; Centre Island’s family-packed sands; and hidden Ward’s Island beach. Take the ferry to Ward’s Island, stop for lunch, then follow the trails over bridges across Centre Island to Hanlan’s Point for some beach time before catching the Hanlan’s Point-City ferry home.

2.  St Lawrence Market
Boasting a plethora of produce, from local mustards, chutneys and jams to Ontario fruits and vegetables to all the snake, ostrich, cariboo and ’gator you need for that exotic barbecue, the 50 vendors of St Lawrence Market stock the pantries of Torontonian homes and restaurants. There are plenty of readymade items, too, for a picnic or lunch. There’s much fuss made about Carousel’s delicious peameal bacon sandwich, but don’t let that fool you into thinking TO’s culinary contributions are limited to bacon in a bun. There are upward of 7,000 restaurants in the GTA, including some particular standouts in the ever-gentrifying neighbourhood around the market itself.

3.  Kensington Market
This former Jewish enclave has seen waves of immigration from almost every corner of the world but has kept something of a Latin American and Mexican flavour, with a noticeable side of eccentricity on top, courtesy of some of Kensington’s characters. Restaurants, cafés, off-the-wall second-hand stores and eclectic shops are crammed into the few blocks between College and Dundas and Spadina to Bathurst. Weekends showcase the area at its quirky best. The Market is car-free and crammed with crowds, street performers and food stalls the last Sunday of the summer months, starting in May and running until October.

4.  The Distillery District
A painstakingly restored Victorian Industrial historic district that dates back to 1859 awaits just to the east of the St Lawrence Market area. What was once the world’s largest distillery is today a cosmopolitan bustle of boutiques and galleries that showcase Canadian art and design. A few upscale bars, cafés and eateries add to the area’s allure, with Soma artisan chocolate boutique a particularly irresistible highlight.

5.  The Harbourfront
The redeveloped waterfront has a cluster of cultural venues, the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and a smorgasbord of summer festivals. Sidle around the boardwalk, up the gangplank of a harbour cruise and back in time for a free outdoor movie — or consult the calendar to find out which music, food or arts events are on when you’re in town.

6.  The CN Tower
A distinctive spike on the skyline since 1976, the soaring 553-metre CN Tower is a near obligatory stop on the Toronto tourist trail. The views of the city to the east, north and west and Lake Ontario to the south are spectacular. Admire them from the 346-metre lookout level or 342-metre glass floor and outdoor terrace or go straight to 360 Restaurant and tuck into the $55 prix fixe lunch while your table revolves 360 degrees. Diners with reservations don’t have to pay the Tower’s $32 entry fee but still get full access to the lookout levels one and two floors below. There’s also the option of ascending another 33 floors higher to the 447-metre SkyPod, where views can stretch 160 kilometres, all the way to Niagara Falls and New York State.

7.  Royal Ontario Museum
The ROM’s dramatic, Daniel Libeskind-designed, five-pronged addition to Canada’s largest museum juts out over busy Bloor Street in ritzy Yorkville. This protrusion of jagged spikes is quite a contrast to the museum’s original ornate neo-Romanesque facade. The venerable institution’s contents display a similar breadth of range; more than a million artifacts, from Ming vases to minerals to Middle Eastern tapestries, await within.

8.  The Beach
Visitors often look inward and explore all that urban Toronto has to offer, but, on top of some cracking beaches on the Toronto Islands, the city also has a string of sandy beaches that hem Lake Ontario to the east. Hop on a Queen streetcar and get off at Kingston Road, then saunter the boardwalk that links Ashbridge’s Bay, Woodbine Beach, Balmy Beach and Kew Beach. Beyond that, the gorgeous Scarborough Bluffs and Bluffers Park Beach stretches another 15 kilometres east.

9.  Bata Shoe Museum
Where else can you find a museum entirely dedicated to shoes? Okay, well, sure, you can also find shoe museums in Germany, England, France, Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands, but none of them are in a building designed to look like a propped-open shoebox, are they? And none of them feature 15th-century German metal sabatons, 19th-century French chestnut-crushing clogs or Marilyn Monroe’s red stilettos. Built to house the vast collection of Sonja Bata, a lady with a serious shoe fetish, the Bata stepped onto Toronto’s museum landscape in 1995. Sonja’s collection of more than 12,500 items is arranged to tell the history of civilization by way of our footwear.

10.  Niagara Falls
Okay, so it’s not officially in Toronto, but it’s just 90 minutes away and it’s well worth the detour, and you get the best view of the three falls — Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veils — from the Canadian side. As well as having the most powerful waterfall in North America in its back yard, Toronto also tastes the benefit of the distinctive microclimate that has made the Niagara region perfect for producing wine. Grape types that excel in Niagara Peninsula soil include pinot noir, gamay noir, cabernet franc, chardonnay and riesling. Dozens of wineries dot the countryside between Toronto and Niagara, with an abundance of tours and tastings on offer. The elegant town of Niagara-on-the-Lake — the diametric opposite of the amusement arcades and wax museum onslaught of Niagara itself — is 30 kilometres north.