Twenty years ago, nobody would have called Toronto a world-class city. But things change quickly in Canada’s biggest metropolis. A skyrocketing real estate market, a championship-winning NBA team, burgeoning high-end restaurants, expansive bike lanes and waterfront trails, the existence of Drake, one of the world’s biggest Pride parades— Toronto is now home to some of the best things to do in Canada. The swirling mix of economic, cultural, artistic and gastronomic forces have combined to make Toronto a top-tier travel destination. In honor of the 6ix (so dubbed by Aubrey Graham because of its 416 area code), we present an ode to an area code: 46 things of the best things to do in Toronto, both within the confines of its walkable downtown and out into its under-appreciated outskirts.
Let’s start with the city’s quintessentially hip artistic neighbourhood, which should rightfully be cordoned off for pedestrians only (and, in practice, is not a place you want to drive anyway). Kensington’s rich and diverse history dates back over a century, and includes waves of Jewish, Chinese, Latino, African and Southeast Asian immigration. Today, you’ll find brightly painted cafes and vintage clothing shops packed into duplex row houses next to synagogues, Chinese associations, art galleries and ethnic supermarkets. Raising rent has forced the closure of a few classic mainstays, but you can brave the lines to find good eats at Rasta Pasta (a small fusion Jamaican-Italian joint with excellent jerk chicken), Wanda’s Pie in the Sky (a beautiful little bakery with massive and heavenly croissants), Seven Lives (a small taco shop, always packed) and Pow-Wow Cafe (modernized Native American food with world-class frybread).
Arguably Canada’s best art gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) houses hundreds of paintings by Canadian artists, most notably the famous Group of Seven and their contemporaries, who specialized in expressionist landscapes, as well as Indigenous artists from around the world. But even if you’re not an art buff, the building alone is worth a visit: the redesigned exterior was led by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who envisioned a massive glass whale protruding onto downtown Toronto. Inside, the building’s smooth wooden walkways and curved stairways lead from a modern space into the original Grange mansion built in 1817. Explore behind the AGO to see the brand-new Grange Park (redesigned and reopened in 2019) and the award-winning Ontario College of Art and Design, which is basically a massive funky black-and-white brick perched atop stilts.
Here’s a curveball that won’t appear on most Toronto bucket lists, but absolutely deserves a spot: the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Built literally on the side of a highway in Etobicoke, Toronto’s western suburb, this $40-million Hindu temple is free and open to anyone. Walk right in and you’ll likely be greeted by someone who’ll be more than happy to show off the intricate craftsmanship that went into carving every statue of Italian marble and Turkish limestone. Upstairs at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mendir temple there’s a dizzying array of Hindu statues and ornate pillars, colorfully illuminated in rainbow shades. On your way out, stop at the gift store for some barfi, chewy milk-based sweets. Since the museum is free, you may as well buy a little treat for yourself.
If the weather’s warm, you can expect Toronto’s busiest beach, in the east end neighborhood aptly called The Beach, to be packed. But don’t worry: the eight-kilometer-long Woodbine Beach has plenty of room to spread out, play volleyball and enjoy a coastal bike ride. Visitors expecting a typical lake beach are sometimes shocked—Lake Ontario, like all the Great Lakes, is actually massive, giving one the impression of being at the ocean. You can drive or take the bus if you really want, but the nicest way to get there is to grab a bike (there are plenty to rent downtown from the city’s bike-share program: Bikeshare Toronto) and ride along the Waterfront Trail for 20 or 30 minutes.
It’s hard to get attached to a favorite bar in Toronto, where a merciless real estate market is closing many local haunts. But one mainstay is definitely Sneaky Dee’s. You’ll find dance music at the upstairs venue every night for around a $10 cover, while downstairs, the restaurants’ wooden benches are covered up by millions of Sharpie scribbles, graffiti tags and knife etchings. Cheap breakfasts and draught pitchers are key, but the real draw are the famous nachos, custom built with pounds of cheese, meat, guacamole and any other toppings you like.
One of Toronto’s more unique museums is the Bata Shoe Museum, which chronicles the anthropological, cultural and aesthetic history of shoes. A visit won’t take more than two hours, but it’s worth it to see ancient and ultra-modern footwear from various cultures, all housed in a building shaped like a shoebox with wonderfully creative window displays facing the street. If you feel like saving some cash, visit on Thursday after 5 p.m., when the entire museum is pay-what-you-can.
If the weather’s nice, swing by Rouge Park, a massive urban national park out in Scarborough, on the cusp of the city itself. The artificial wetlands were created as an ecological reserve for animals and flood relief for the surrounding city. You can visit the Toronto Zoo inside the parkland if you like, but if you prefer your animals uncaged, just spend the day in nature, hiking its 12 kilometers of hiking trails among the deer, coyotes, foxes, swans and, of course, beavers.
A rapidly changing area is downtown Chinatown, located mainly on Spadina Ave. between College and Dundas streets. The historic neighborhood is decorated with kitschy red dragons, but serves as a core artery within the city, with glossy new trains running down the streetcar tracks. In addition to authentic cuisine from various Chinese provinces, and a solid array of Dim Sum (namely Rosewood and Rol San), for a quick and cheap bite you can pop into any Chinese bakery for one-dollar buns packed with sweet red bean paste, barbecue pork, lotus cream or shredded pork.
While it’s on the well-beaten path, the pedestrian-only Distillery District is one of Toronto’s most unique offerings. These cobblestoned streets once held up a large whiskey distillery; today they lie beneath high-rise glass condos and the nationally famous Mill Street Brewery’s flagship location. The restaurants, art galleries, clothing stores, bakeries and craft shops are upscale and a little touristy, but the whole area is beautifully preserved and kept up. If you’re there in the winter, you may want to wait in line to visit the Christmas Market held every year, with mulled wine and fairy lights strung about.
It’s a slog to reach without a car, but Splendid China Mall out in Markham—the largest indoor Asian shopping mall in North America—is the best spot to visit for Asian goods, truly authentic Chinese food, herbal medicines and, notoriously, bootleg bags and DVDs. (Canadian police raid certain shops routinely and, in 2018, the Office of the United States Trade Representative branded it as a “notorious market” because its vendors work “largely with impunity”.) If you have a free day in the city, it’s worth the drive out.
At more than 500 meters high, the CN Tower looms tall over the city, an emblem of Toronto in every postcard. A visit is worthwhile (especially the glass floor at the top, which is profoundly terrifying). But most visitors don’t know that if they make a reservation at 360 Restaurant: the rotating sky-high restaurant, they get the same view, plus a meal. Yes, the two-course prix fixe meal is $65, but here’s the thing—the food is actually surprisingly good. If you want to skip the meal and visit the tower, you’ll be paying $30 anyway. Cross your fingers for a clear day and enjoy the food with your view.
When the weather’s warm, nothing beats a visit to the wide-open Rogers Stadium (still called the SkyDome to most locals) to catch a baseball game by the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays won the World Series once upon a time, but have since petered out into obscurity while some other local team went on to build a devoted following and win an NBA championship. Yes, the Raptors are hotter these days, but tickets are also more expensive—just like the always-overpriced and always-disappointing Maple Leafs. If you want an affordable sporting event, check out the Jays’ cheap seats for as little as $12. Plus, the stadium is famously BYO-food. Don’t sweat overpriced pizza prices when you can bring in any pizza—or wings, or burgers, or an entire rotisserie chicken—without hassle.
Toronto Island is one of the city’s best assets, a beautiful stretch of land past the mainland southern tip in Lake Ontario. And what better way to celebrate the bountiful outdoors than at Canada’s only official nude beach? Hanlan’s Point Beach offers a secluded, one-kilometer strip of sand that, in 2002, became legally “clothing optional”, and is now popular among nudists, queer folk and sunbathers who hate tan lines. When you’re done, you can put your clothes back on to visit the rest of the islands, including various cafes and plenty of bike paths.
Perched atop a hill that separates downtown from midtown, Casa Loma is a sterling Gothic Revival mansion built between 1911 and 1914. The architect, E. J. Lennox, is one of Toronto’s most famous, and Casa Loma is one of his most impressive works. However, some may not be satisfied merely buying a $30 ticket to wander around the stone walls. Take your visit to another level with Casa Loma’s escape room series, combining the building’s heritage status with a modern gaming trend. There have been five games created so far, and surely more to come.
On those hot, humid summer days, little beats dipping into Lake Ontario for a swim. Thankfully, with beaches lining the southern edge of the city, you have your pick: Woodbine and Kew in the east, Sunnyside and Marie Curtis in the west and the Island to the south. All are accessible by public transit or bike, though be warned: this is a lake, not the ocean, and the sand gets pretty pebbly. Also, the water isn’t typically warm enough to swim outside of July and August. But barring those conditions, having a beach a short ride away can be a wonderful thing.
The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern opened in 1947, and has since welcomed pretty much every major Canadian act of the last several decades (the Band, Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace; the list goes on), plus numerous world-famous bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Ramones. It reeks of cheap beer and its black-and-white checkered tile floor is in need of a deep clean, but that’s the charm of this grungy rockabilly venue, where you can find cheap tickets to terrific up-and-coming bands. If you’re in need of something to warm up your night, start your night down the street at the Cameron House, which is much smaller, but offers no-cover music during the early evening.
Visiting in September? Congratulations (or apologies, if you hate crowds)—you’re in the city for one of the biggest film festivals in North America. The Toronto International Film Festival has evolved over the years from an indie showcase into a Hollywood blowout, where tickets to world premieres sell out quickly and the entire American media industry descends on the city. Streets close down, waiters work overtime and, best of all, celebrities are suddenly everywhere. Your best bets will be the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre, the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Montecito and the members-only Soho House.
Toronto’s all about views, and there’s no better way to enjoy them than from the vantage point of one of its many rooftop bars. Some of the best rooftop bars in Toronto sit atop destinations all their own, like the Sky Yard at the boutique Drake Hotel (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the rapper of the same name). These places offer incredible views, quick service and Instagram-worthy offerings.
The St. Lawrence Market is one of those touristy destinations that deserves the recognition. With lovely vendors, charming buskers and enticing aromas wafting throughout the hall, the Saturday-morning market is a tradition for many locals, one that offers fresh-baked bread, fine imported cured meats and local Canadian cheese. But you’ll probably get hungry—that’s when you should visit Carousel Bakery, home of the world-famous peameal sandwich. The simple, salty, thick-cut ham melts in your mouth, and has attracted the attention of numerous celebrity chefs. It’s a little pricey at $6 or so, but you’re paying for the experience more than the ingredients.
Most outsiders don’t know that Toronto is effectively bordered by two rivers—the Humber to the west and the Don River to the east. These rivers are enclosed by protected parkland, creating pristine rivines for biking, trail running and hiking. The Don is easier to reach, due to its proximity to downtown and multiple entrance points. It runs from the northern edge of the city down to the lake, so pick a spot and enjoy.
Hosted by PortsToronto, the Sail-in Cinema is a summer mainstay series of classic, family-friendly movies hosted off Sugar Beach. (You can’t swim off this beach; it’s just sand and pink umbrellas in an otherwise pretty corporate neighborhood.) Organizers erect a large screen and project a different film each week. Anyone lucky enough to have a boat is invited to dock nearby and watch, though if you aren’t so affluent, you can join the couple hundred pedestrians in popping a towel down on the sand and enjoying the movie from the beach.
If you want to see gentrification in action, Parkdale is the place to see. This cozy neighborhood is home to many immigrants living in affordable high-rise rentals, but has undergone breakneck transformation in the last few years as one of the few truly cheap places left in the city. That, of course, has drawn the attention of students and artists and everyone wanting to sell beer and clothes to those people, which has made the whole area a lot less cheap. Now you can find quietly advertised authentic Nepalese momos next to loud hipster spots that are collectively known as “Vegandale”. There’s no need to pick a side: generally, the newcomers are supportive of the older establishments, and lord knows both vegans and Nepalis cook good food.
With apologies to the modern universities of York and Ryerson, the University of Toronto offers easily the most beautiful campus in the city—probably even in the province. Historic brick and stone buildings date back to the 1800s, while constant new builds keep the neighborhood fresh and growing to accommodate the ballooning student population. The area is sprawling, with its University of Toronto- St. George campus connecting the hip Annex with eclectic Chinatown and the University Ave. hospital district, making it a perfect area to walk through to get from one spot to another. For a terrific view of the CN Tower and Convocation Hall, make sure to visit King’s College Circle.
With nearly 60,000 Korean residents in the city, Toronto boasts one of the biggest Koreatowns in the world, with its roots dating back to the influx of Korean immigrants during the late 1960s. The intersection of Bathurst and Bloor is now a vibrant Korean neighborhood—culturally, at least, even if most actual Korean-Canadians are moving farther north to escape the exorbitant rent. Thankfully, Koreatown still offers excellent Korean food (Sunrise House is a local favorite) and private karaoke rooms, called noraebang. Twenty bucks an hour is standard and cheap, but some go higher, especially if they offer a better selection of songs. Gorhe Gorhe, Echo and JaYunGongGan are some of the last ones standing in the area; not too far, on Yonge Street, Bar+ offers a better experience. Just don’t bring in your own alcohol—they sometimes check.
For those into birdwatching and calmer days, the Leslie Street Spit is a godsend. Technically called Tommy Thompson Park (though nobody calls it that), the spit is an artificial peninsula made literally from decades’ worth of garbage. In fact, the southern half is still a dumping ground. But the rest is a beautiful green space: the land evolved from a man-made landfill in the 1950s into a nature reserve starting in the 1980s. Today, it’s famous for its birdwatching opportunities. Snowy owls, terns, gulls and herons are among the 300 species of birdlife that you could spot there, if you have the equipment and the patience.
Every August, The Danforth transforms into a massive, million-person Greek food and culture festival. But here’s the thing: most vendors are just local restaurants extending their patios out onto the street, and you can eat at those restaurants at literally any time. Taste of the Danforth, which is the festival’s name, is worth a visit for the sake of color and novelty, but if you’d rather avoid the long lines for quality souvlaki, head over any other time of the year. Mezes is a popular mainstay, and Athens Pastries is a small and lovely bakery with tantalizing honey puffs called loukoumathes.
Toronto is famous in TV and cinema for standing in for other cities, most often New York. Suicide Squad, The Handmaid’s Tale, RoboCop—there’s a whole culture in Toronto of scoping out where things were filmed, and locals take great pride in pointing to the screen and finding a familiar street. Some movies, like The F Word or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, take pride in being filmed in the city; a memorable scene from The F Word takes place in the beautiful Riverdale Park in the East End, with views of the whole city. Regardless, if you look up where your favorite flicks were filmed, odds are at least one was in Toronto—and you can visit the shooting spot.
Toronto is famous for its comedy scene, which brings both world-class acts and cultivates local talent. The most prominent stand-up club is Yuk Yuk’s, which has its flagship location in the city’s downtown core—it’s a reliable spot for late-night shows and a decent bite. If you want something independent, Comedy Bar, near Bloor and Ossington, is in a hipper venue with sketch, improv and other late-night shows for a cheaper price.
A lovely and little-visited spot is the Allan Gardens Conservatory, a free, public indoor greenhouse near Carlton and Jarvis. Constructed in 1879 in one of the city’s oldest public parks, the original building burned down and was rebuilt in 1910, which is the structure that’s still standing. A walk through the whole 16,000-square-foot venue won’t take more than 20 minutes, but you’ll be able to find orchids, succulents, hibiscus and cacti, plus seasonal shows in the winter months.
Once upon a time, Queen West was the dingy part of town, surrounded by fabric shops, greasy spoons and dive bars. A scant few of those original joints still exist, but most of Queen West has exploded into a hip, chic, expensive shopping mecca, having gentrified throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Things really exploded, however, in 2014, when Vogue crowned the district the second coolest neighborhood in the world. Needless to say, that really got to the city’s head. Despite the high prices and fancy shops, walking across the strip is still a great way to explore the city. While you’re there, check out Graffiti Alley, genuinely one of the cooler displays of free public art in the city, running parallel to Queen just south of it.
The biggest documentary film festival in North America happens right on Bloor every April. The Hot Docs festival brings hundreds of filmmakers, producers, distributors and documentary subjects to Toronto, where many of the best docs you’ll see on Netflix or Prime Video get their debut. Hot Docs is a lot cozier than the enormous TIFF, but that low-key vibe means tickets are more affordable and easier to access. Even if you’re not in the city during the festival, you can head to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, a classic theatre in the Annex that’s been bought by the documentary organization and repurposed as a venue screening the best of Hot Docs festivals past.
Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUPing, is a relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors and the tranquil Lake Ontario without worrying too much about the sand and beach crowds. Numerous organizations offer their services, like Toronto Island SUP, SUPGirlz and WSUP Toronto, the latter of which offers yoga on the water. If the weather’s too cold for a dip in the water, SUPing might be the closest you can get.
At the Free Times Cafe on College Street, owner Judy Perly started a weekly all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch called “Bella, Did Ya Eat?” more than 20 years ago. Sure, there are terrific bagels and blintzes and gefilte fish and French toast, but Judy herself is the star of the show. A true Jewish mother, she greets everyone at the door, introduces herself and checks up on them to make sure they’re eating enough. The Free Times is an awesome venue any time of the week, but on Sundays, brunch diners can listen to two hours of klezmer music—a sort of Yiddish folk music from East Europe—which Judy introduces with her well-worn spiel, instructing the crowd to shout out a hearty “Oy!” to set the mood. There are two shows, usually starting at around 10 and 1 p.m., and the music is often incredible, unique and soulful.
High Park is Toronto’s Central Park—just a bit less central. The massive patch of green space runs from the edge of downtown right to the lake itself, and is packed with families wanting to see the High Park petting zoo (home of the infamous capybaras that once escaped in 2016, mesmerizing the city) and cherry blossoms in the spring. But if you’re visiting in the summer, consider checking out the high-quality productions of Shakespeare in the Park, which always match the Bard’s poetic verse nicely with the wondrous nature that surrounds audiences. Tickets aren’t terribly expensive, and the actors often include some of the finest in Canada.
When you want to talk malls in Toronto, two dominate the conversation: the Eaton Centre and Yorkdale. Eaton occupies a massive plot in the heart of downtown, with a sunny atrium, some fun art, a wide array of shops and more visitors than any other mall in North America (around 50 million each year). It’s almost an inevitable stop on any visit to Toronto, if only because it’s so big you sometimes have to walk through it to get where you need to go. Yorkdale is much farther away (you’ll probably want to take the subway), sitting on a massive plot around which condos are sprouting up every year. This former underdog used to be somewhat run-down, until a massive revitalization project expanded its walls, refinished its interiors and led to many old tenants leaving for high-end fashion and jewelry brands.
Sure, most big cities have a Chinatown. Many have a Little Italy. Some have a Koreatown. But what about Little Malta? And Little Portugal? And a Polish neighborhood, and a second Little Italy, and a Cambodian restaurant, and… Look, the list goes on. Toronto is home to multiple ethnic neighbourhoods, only some of which get all the glory. Roncesvalles is a bit posh now, but it retains a lot of its Polish heritage in an annual festival and local deli; the Junction, likewise, doesn’t seem very Maltese, until you notice the Malta Park sign, the excellent Maltese bakery and other little hints at the neighborhood’s past. You can discover a lot about the city’s waves of immigration by checking out the history of these diverse communities.
The corner of Yonge and Dundas (Yonge-Dundas Square) is often described as a weak alternative to Times Square. But that isn’t quite fair. Yonge and Dundas was never designed to be surrounded by flashing neon signs and massive electronic billboards. (In fact, its original architect loathes the place now.) Nonetheless, it’s now home to dozens of festivals, performances and concerts each year. Due to the open-air nature of the stage, many of these are free; if you walk past on a random weekend afternoon, you’re likely to hear music blaring. It’s worth checking their events page to see if your visit coincides with anything interesting.
Okay, Canada’s Wonderland isn’t technically in Toronto, but the amusement park is just beyond the city limits—a quick bus ride away. Packed with more rides and games than you could handle in a day, the park is a fantastic day trip for families and thrillseekers. Once you approach, you’ll find the massive loops of one of the world’s tallest roller coasters, Leviathan—the largest coaster in Canada. (The second largest, Behemoth, right there next to it.) If heights aren’t your thing, don’t worry: there are plenty of free shows, dances and circus performances that are actually really exciting for when you just need to sit down and take a break. Bring your swimsuit, too, for the massive water park inside.
Near the city limits sits a beautiful escarpment in the suburb of Scarborough. Bluffers Park offers the best views of these ragged rocks, which shoot 300 feet into the air and span more than nine miles long. It’s a great area for a walk and some photography, with the dramatic peaks and angles shooting out from the water. Be careful, though: the bluffs aren’t exactly stable, which is partly why people tend to keep their distance and appreciate them from afar.
Need a break from the sun? (Or maybe the snow, if you’re a bold winter traveller?) Head to one of the city’s excellent libraries. The City of Toronto has actually invested quite heavily in its library network, including building a few beautiful new modern spaces. Two new gems include the Scarborough Civic Centre, connecting wooded views with high rises in a broad, glassy, rustic style, and the Fort York library, built in the heart of a rising condo area. Both are sleek and fun to just walk through or relax in for a bit. If you prefer something more 20th century, check out the Toronto Reference Library, whose sweeping staircases and cool neutral tones are a wonderful example of mid-century modern architecture.
Toronto’s theatre scene is vibrant, with dozens of independent local theatre companies staging all sorts of plays. Tourists may flock to the grand musicals always being staged at the Mirvish theatres downtown (the Royal Alexandra and and Princess of Wales, on King West, are most popular), but independent venues like the Factory Theatre, Soulpepper and Tarragon stage consistently terrific seasons in beautifully old brick buildings. (Plus, tickets tend to be a bit cheaper than the bigger shows.) If you want something even more alternative, look out for independent companies like Outside the March, which stages immersive site-specific experiences across the city, or come during the summer to check out the massive Fringe Festival, which transforms Toronto into a sprawl of global one-acts, sketch comedy, musicals and operas.
One of the biggest gay districts in the world sits at the intersection of Church and Wellesley. Colloquially called the Village (from the Gay Village, it’s sort-of official name), the area is a prime spot for queer-owned and gay-friendly bars, restaurants and lounges. Visit during Pride Month (June) and you can see the place really bloom with rainbows on every storefront and crosswalk, plus one of the world’s biggest Pride parades in the world.
One of Toronto’s best museums is the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM), which could be a daylong adventure if you wanted to see everything. Housing dinosaur bones and Indigenous artifacts, with a rotation of ethnic art, animal installations and historical exhibits, the ROM is a massive institution with all sorts of special programming for kids and adults alike. Even if you don’t want to spend hours in a museum, check it out from the outside, because the architecture is also worth checking out. A controversial addition was built in 2007 that looks like a glass meteor crashed into an original Neo-Romanesque building from the 1910s. The contemporary addition divided the public and architectural critics, but for better or worse, it’s now an icon of the city.
The entire province of Ontario is home to a bursting craft beer scene, and Toronto is home to some of the best. Some of the biggest names are Left Field, Great Lakes, Henderson and Bellwoods, whose products you can also find in the local liquor store, the LCBO. But there are some smaller upstarts worth checking out, too, especially because their brew pubs serve up quality food: Beaches Brewing Co., the Six and Junction are all worth checking out in their respective corners of the city.
Toronto is home to two courses for disc golf (a.k.a. Frisbee golf, a.k.a. frolf): one pretty far north in Sunnybrook Park, which you can reach via a fun bike ride along the Don River or simply by car, and another on Toronto Island (Toronto Island Disc Golf Course), which you’ll need to reach by ferry. Both courses are totally free and open; Sunnybrook’s has 18 baskets, while the island’s has 27. If nothing else, both make for a great walk along the greenery.
If you’re visiting in the winter, the pond outside at the downtown Nathan Phillips Square will be frozen over, and the nearby ice skate-rental shop will open its doors. It can get pretty packed around Christmastime, but the rink is actually open until late March, so don’t feel obliged to follow the crowds. The rink gives you a lovely view of both city halls: the new, curvy mid-century one and the old historic one, which is now a municipal courthouse.