There’s no shortage of things to do in Toronto: the city’s events and festivals draw people from all over Canada and the world year-round—even as the weather tries to fight them away—and keep the city buzzing for culture-hungry locals. But the likes of annual heat-seekers like North by Northeast and the Toronto Film Festival are not the only reasons to hit up Toronto: Canada’s biggest city has a bunch of perennial attractions worthy of any North American bucket list. From some of Canada’s best art museums to one of the world’s kitschiest amusement parks to a melting pot market for food-lovers, Toronto teems with reasons cross the lake.
Essential Toronto attractions
Sometimes derided for being a tired attraction (after a 30-year run, it lost the title of world’s tallest free-standing structure a few years ago), Toronto’s icon is still indisputably in your face, providing astonishing views, particularly of all the new downtown construction, which climbs ever upward to its lower viewing deck. The CN Tower’s EdgeWalk, introduced a few years ago, gives thrill-seekers a chance to get some air walking on the roof and leaning vertiginously on their tether over the side of the main pod. Different LED light schemes play out on the tower’s exterior from dusk till 2am; the best one lights the main deck to look like a throbbing UFO hanging over the city.
With delights ranging from the retro family-friendly Centreville Amusement Park to the freewheeling party atmosphere of the clothing-optional beach at Hanlan’s Point and the twee hobbit-town homes of Ward’s Island, the Islands have something for everybody, so long as the sun is shining. Food options are limited, especially near Hanlan’s. If you forget to pack a lunch, the best bet is The Rectory Café on Ward’s Island. Skip the line-ups at the ferry terminal at the foot of Bay Street and hail a water taxi for just a couple of bucks more (647-347-8454) from the foot of Spadina Avenue. It doesn’t cost anything to ride the ferry back to the city. The Islands’ Billy Bishop Airport has its own ferry and underground pedestrian tunnel but is fenced off from everything else.
This huge tank of a building (it holds 1.5 million gallons of water) at the base of the CN Tower opened in 2013, stealing some of the Toronto Zoo’s thunder. The main attraction, the moving-floor tunnel under the shark tank, sets the tone for the dreamy magic of Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The colourful slow-motion coral tank may induce a trance. Those with enough gumption can touch horseshoe crabs, sharks and stingrays in a controlled environment. Get there before 11am or after 4pm to avoid drowning in crowds. Dive shows take place every two hours.
The country’s first theme park (hockey star Wayne Gretsky raised the flag here in 1981) and still its largest, Canada’s Wonderland boasts a gut-churning 16 roller coasters. The newest park additions have focused on water fun: the Typhoon zips riders through back-to-back turns and spirals before dropping them like stuffed toys into a giant funnel. The costumed characters from the Peanuts comic strip feel a little dated, but some of the acrobatics shows are entertaining enough. Online tickets or promotional offers through retailers can be significantly cheaper than tickets at the gate. The month-long Halloween Haunt event every October is a fearsome teenager magnet.
The narrow streets and graffiti-splashed laneways of Kensington Market represent the throbbing and multicultural heart of Toronto, with empanadas, arepas, rasta pasta, bagels, French cheese, halal meat and organic veggies vying for your stomach’s attention. Funky cafés, quirky shops and great vintage clothing abound from storefronts that spill out onto the street. Arguably Toronto’s best people-watching at all hours of the day. Pedestrian Sundays, when the market’s streets are closed to cars, unleash the city’s inner hippie.
Toronto got its version of La Rambla with a makeover that opened in 2015 of this principal lakefront boulevard. The number of car lanes was halved to make room for expanded pedestrian and bike lanes. Top Canadian and international landscape architects have added whimsy all along the route with two undulating WaveDecks, HTO Park, Toronto Music Garden and, east of Yonge Street, Sugar Beach, with its oversized pink umbrellas and sexy party vibe, and Sherbourne Common’s water features. Harbourfront Centre is a major cultural hub, hosting concerts, craft workshops and exhibitions, the Power Plant contemporary art gallery and two theatres.
Something of a pilgrimage from downtown, this massive, shimmering Hindu temple was constructed of Turkish limestone, Indian pink stone and more than 24,000 pieces of marble hand-carved by artisans in India and imported in container ships. It sets out to be—and is—a place of spiritual contemplation for people of all religions. But it’s also a work of art. Consider the small museum a bonus, rather than an integral part of the experience. Sections of the mandir close for rituals throughout the day, so be prepared to wait a bit to take in the whole site.
Toronto is famous for its valleys and ravines, considered by one wag to hold the dark subconscious desires of its otherwise inhibited citizenry. This former brick foundry has been transformed into an eco-theme park, which hosts sustainable everything from farmers’ markets to seed exchanges to bicycle repair workshops. The Evergreen Brick Works site also provides a great jumping off point for exploring the nooks and crannies of the Don Valley, which cuts the city in half. Maps are available for self-guided tours of nearby nature trails; there are also periodic guided tours. Buy locally grown treats at the Saturday farmers’ market for a picnic in the reclaimed quarry.
If the thought of visiting a water treatment plant doesn’t thrill, consider the dramatic location of this imposing 1930s Art Deco building: it sits on a terraced landscape with an unimpeded view of the vastness of Lake Ontario. Visitors feel like they’re on a movie set, even though the hum inside is real equipment cleaning 950 million litres of water per day. The interior is infrequently opened to visitors. The RC Harris Water Treatment Plant is a short walk, bike or rollerblade from The Beach (or, more contentiously, The Beaches), the city’s finest stretch of sand and one of the best neighbourhoods to eat ice cream in.
Any given section of this network of underground tunnels connecting dozens of downtown buildings may look like a second-rate food court, but those who press on like a rat in a maze will become giddy with the never-ending vastness of it all. With more than 30 kilometres of shopping, eating and services, there’s always an undiscovered passageway to explore. During business hours, suited execs close deals while lined up for fast food, as office assistants scurry to pick up dry-cleaning for their bosses. After 6pm, though, PATH becomes eerily quiet. With links to several hotels and entertainment venues, the place is a godsend in the winter. The signage isn’t as clear as it should be—look for the distinctive blue-hued maps at the entrances and exits of buildings.
Toronto’s other postcard attraction, just like the CN Tower in its day, was once considered an eye sore. This brash 18th-century Gothic Revival castle—turret and all—stands outlandishly against the otherwise Victorian architectural sensibility of the city. Built between 1911 and 1914 by the man who established the first hydro-generating plant at Niagara Falls, Casa Loma was abandoned after the family went bankrupt, remaining unoccupied until the city bought it in 1937. Most beloved by bridal parties for weddings, a better bet is next door at Spadina House Museum, a grand private home now capitalizing on the Downton Abbey craze with its period furnishings, and privileged lifestyle, on view.
A late 18th- and 19th-century defence against invaders (i.e., Americans), Fort York was destroyed during the War of 1812 and rebuilt to ward off a further U.S. invasion in 1814. The 43-acre site is a reminder of how unnecessary such defences have become and how much of Lake Ontario the city has reclaimed—the site used to be right on the waterfront. A chic and award-winning new Visitor Centre and exhibition space, tucked away under an expressway, gives street cred to this venerable historic site, now surrounded by shiny condo towers. Historic re-enactments on offer.