When I first arrived in Canada in mid May 2012, I spent about a month in Toronto. I’d never been there, so unlike many other people I know, who started their Canadian adventure in Vancouver, I decided to check out Toronto. It’s in the eastern province of Ontario, and is Canada’s largest city by population (2.93 million in 2017). This city is known for business, technology, architecture, arts (e.g. music, design, theatre, and TV productions), fashion, culture (museums and galleries, sports events, festivals, national historic sites, etc.), and tourism. Toronto Pearson International Airport is the busiest and largest airport in Canada, and more than 43 million people from all over the world visit this city every year.
My favourite things to do in Toronto
As I’m walking around downtown Toronto on my first evening, a tower higher than any other building amazes me. It’s CN Tower, a communications and observation tower built out of concrete, that is 553.30 meters (1,815.3 ft) high. It’s Toronto’s major icon, first opened in 1976, and more than 1.5 million visitors stop here each year, and until 2009, it was the world’s highest tower! So soon after, I get in line for one of the six glass elevators, that takes me up to the LookOut observation deck within 58 seconds, how exciting! This area is at 346 meters (1,136 ft), and what a great way to see Toronto and beyond from a bird’s eye perspective! There’s also a glass floor to stand on and look down. You can even upgrade to access the SkyPod level at 447 meters (1,465 ft) for a surcharge, where you can see up to 160 km (99 miles), all the way to Niagara Falls and New York state, if weather conditions allow. If you’re really adventurous, the Edge Walk at CN Tower may be the perfect activity for you! Here, you’re walking around the LookOut observation deck outside (on a 1.5 meter/5 ft wide grate!) in 30 minutes while your body is attached to “an overhead safety rail via a trolley and harness system”, according to CN Tower’s website. Of course, a guide is with you at all times, and if you dare, lean forward, and just enjoy the breathtaking view of Toronto! Another cool thing about CN Tower is that it’s often lit in various colours at night, especially during special occasions, like a hockey or baseball game! Last but not least, 360 Restaurant, a fine dining place featuring local, fresh, and sustainable meals from across the country is inside this tower, and at 351 meters (1,151 ft), it has the world’s highest wine cellar! CN Tower is open daily from 10 am to 10 pm, which includes both observation decks, 360 Restaurant and Edge Walk. To ensure physical distancing, you can buy timed tickets only for the observation decks, preferably through their website, same as for the Edge Walk, and maximum 3 people can do this activity at a time.
CN Tower from the outside, and downtown Toronto, as seen from the LookOut observation deck!
The next day, I hang out for a couple hours at Kensington Market, a multicultural and artsy district of Toronto, that has been a World Heritage Site of Canada since 2006. It’s in downtown as well, and has many narrow streets, so it’s easier to walk than drive in this area. Every last Sunday of the month (except during the winter time), only pedestrians can enter Kensington Market, to enjoy live music and street theatre shows, dancing, and games, as well as the Winter Solstice Festival in December. The biggest eye-catcher though, in my opinion, is the colourful Garden Car on Augusta Avenue & Oxford Street, which is used as a community garden from May to November every year. The original one put up in 2007 retired in 2012, but soon after, the second Garden Car took over, and its look was updated again since then as well. It was launched by “Streets for the People”, a (now inactive) local anti-car advocacy group, and I love the many other independent street artworks, too! Kensington Market is also famous for its shopping (e.g. meats, fish, vegetable, cheese shops and bakeries), cafés and restaurants (with food from all over the world), clubs, new and used clothing stores, and lots of street food. Another unique reason to visit this neighbourhood is that it used to be the home of several left-wing stores, such as “Who’s Emma” (from 1996-2000), a non profit punk collective that sold books, zines, t-shirts, records, CD’s, buttons, patches, and vegan cookies. Lastly, Kensington Market has been a popular spot for immigrants to live since the early 20th century, so it’s no surprise that its attractions are so diverse today!
The Garden Car in 2012 and a few examples of street art!
Another place worth visiting is Toronto Islands, a group of 15 small islands inside Lake Ontario, that can be reached by ferry from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in downtown Toronto, or by water taxi, in just 13 minutes! Both locals and visitors come here to have a picnic or BBQ with friends and family at Toronto Island Park, rent a canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or bicycle. There are also tennis courts, Japanese cherry trees (“Sakura”), walking trails, playgrounds, water play areas, Centreville Amusement Park and petting zoo, and disc golfing. This area is also known for its many beautiful beaches, including Hanlan’s Point Beach, where clothing is “not necessary”, one of only two of that kind in Canada! Many of these attractions, as well as the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, completed in 1908, are on Centre Island, the largest and most popular of Toronto Islands. But don’t worry, all islands are connected by bridges and pathways, so it’s easy to get to the other islands. The entire island area is about 5 km (3.1 miles) long. I especially like the distance signs on Centre Island Pier and the view of Toronto Skyline, which always makes a nice picture, whether rain or shine! Toronto Islands is also home to various wild animals, like turtles, herons, swans, Canada geese, and 35 species of fish, and it’s pretty much a car-free area (except for service vehicles). The ferry goes to Centre Island, Hanlan’s Island, and Ward Island several times a day, and roundtrip tickets can be bought online or right by the ferry dock in downtown Toronto. Dogs are welcome on Toronto Islands, as long as they are on a leash, and there are some cafés and restaurants as well. So Toronto Islands is an awesome spot for anyone looking to relax or explore, and escape from the bustling city life for a bit!
Park area on Central Island, Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, beach area, distance signs, a group of Canada geese, and Toronto’s famous Skyline!
A few weeks later, I learn about the NXNE Music & Gaming Festival in a local newspaper, which lasts for 10 days every June, and has been a part of Toronto’s entertainment scene since 1995. Its main location is Yonge-Dundas Square and a part of Yonge Street, but also many other venues in downtown. Apart from live music, visitors can watch comedy shows, participate in eSports gaming tournaments, and browse a flea market. According to NXNE’s website, more than 200,000 people visit this festival every year. With time, NXNE Festival has been proud to host many local but also some famous music acts, like Billy Talent, Iggy and the Stooges, The Lumineers, The Tragically Hip, and Ludacris. The open air shows at Yonge-Dundas Square are always free, but you’ll have to pay for a ticket to go to concerts at other venues. To make things easy, visitors can buy a wristband for C$ 29.00, to get priority access to all shows! As I keep reading, I find out who’s one of this year’s headliners playing at Yonge-Dundas Square: Bad Religion, another punk rock band I love, so there’s no way I’m missing this! Masses of other people feel the same, and I arrive just after the show started, so I’m at the back of the crowd this time, but luckily, a screen is nearby, so I feel “closer” to the band, lol! Bad Religion has been around since 1980, so they play a mix of songs from three decades, like “Suffer” (1988), “I want to Conquer the World” (1989), “21st Century (Digital Boy)” (1990),”Punk Rock Song” (1996), “Sorrow” (2002), and “Wrong Way Kids” (2010). The entire set lasts about 90 minutes, and although I didn’t pogo dance this time, I still feel “high” when the show ends! Unfortunately, NXNE Music & Gaming Festival was cancelled this and last year because of COVID-19, but it’s planned to be back in June 2022.
Bad Religion’s lead singer Greg Graffin and bassist Jay Bentley performing at NXNE Music & Gaming Festival.
What else to do in Toronto’s downtown area
Canada’s Walk of Fame. This is a collection of stars looking similar to maple leaves that can be found along King Street West and Simcoe Street. It was founded in 1998 and honours famous Canadians from various fields, like Bryan Adams, Terry Fox, Celine Dion, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Neil Young, Wayne Gretzky, and Alexander Graham Bell. Since the first induction in 1998, more than 190 Canadians have been added, and you can even nominate a celebrity who you think deserves to be a part of this! Besides, Canada’s Walk of Fame hosts the RBC Emerging Musician Program every year, to support young Canadian musicians (15 to 35 years) who are looking for a boost in their career, whether it’s a cash prize, recording an album, gaining exposure and connecting with people of the music industry, or playing a show at the Canadian Music Week or the Festival du Voyageur in Winnipeg in 2022.
Lake Ontario. This attraction is a nice spot to relax, soak up the sun, and watch the many boats and ships go by. Lake Ontario is the smallest of the five Great Lakes in North America by surface (18,960 sq km/7,340 sq miles), and is accessible through parts of Southern Ontario and a part of New York state. The word “Ontario” was taken from the Huron word Ontarí’io, which means “great lake”, and the deepest spot of Lake Ontario is at 244 m (802 ft). Since 1954, nearly 50 people have completed a swim across Lake Ontario, with the most recent being done by 14-year old Annaleise Carr in 2012.
Sugar Beach Park. This man-made urban sandy beach park next to Toronto’s East Bay waterfront was opened in 2010, and is right across from the Redpath Sugar Refinery. While visitors aren’t allowed to wade or swim in Lake Ontario, there are lots of other things to do, like chilling in one of the lounging chairs, reading, playing in the sand, and joining social activities. Sugar Beach Park also has umbrellas, two giant granite rocks to sit on, an amphitheatre, and candy trim, so it’s a beautiful place to hang out without having to leave the city! Sugar Beach Park is also a popular spot for concerts and other events.
Bata Shoe Museum, a museum about footwear and its history. It has four galleries, and “regularly displays over a thousand shoes and related artifacts, chosen from a collection of over 13,000 objects”, and “celebrates the style, development and function of footwear”, as per their About page. Over 4,500 years of history are featured in “All about shoes”, their permanent collection, and the three other gallery displays change on a regular basis. This summer, they also offer an online exhibit called “The Perfect Pair”, which shows wedding shoes from around the world, and other virtual tours, as well as virtual sketching sessions in their galleries. In 1979, Sonja Bata started the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, and in 1995, the Bata Shoe Museum opened its doors. Unfortunately, I only saw this cool-sounding place from the outside, but some people I know visited it, and had an awesome time! As of now, the Bata Shoe Museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am – 5 pm, and Sundays from 12-5 pm, and visitors are requested to wear masks and buy tickets through their website.
Map of stars of Canada’s Walk of Fame (photo courtesy of Canada’s Walk of Fame), Sugar Beach Park, boats and ships on Lake Ontario, and an outside poster of the Bata Shoe Museum.
Where I stayed in Toronto
HI Toronto Hostel. This is THE place to stay in Toronto for budget travelers and backpackers. First of all, it has dorms with comfy bunk beds for 4 to 14 people (co-ed, men-only and women-only), but also private rooms for single travelers, friends, and couples. Groups can be accommodated as well. All reservations include towels and linens, lockers, free wifi, and use of the kitchen; private rooms even have an en-suite bathroom and TV. As this hostel has six floors, the elevator is a big help, and you can store luggage in their luggage room, and BBQ’s often happen on the patio as well. If you stay in a dorm, breakfast is free, and at night, you can enjoy cheap drinks while listening to an open mic or live music show at the Cavern Bar & Café! Guests are also welcome to join exciting events on a daily basis, like pub crawls, games night, walking tours, beer pong tournaments, and karaoke nights, which helps to make friends with travelers from around the world! HI Toronto Hostel is right in downtown, so many tourist attractions (e.g. CN Tower, Lake Ontario, and Canada’s Walk of Fame) are just a short walk away. Please note: Normally HI Toronto Hostel is open year-round, but unfortunately, it’s closed at the moment because of the pandemic, until further notice. Hopefully it can reopen soon!
4-bed dorm, private room, outside patio, and a common area inside the lobby. All photo courtesy of HI Hostels Canada.
Couchsurfing. For about half of the time in Toronto, I’m couch surfing. It’s a worldwide online community, where you can sign up to stay at local people’s homes at no charge. I really like meeting and getting to know my couch surfing hosts, seeing some parts of Toronto I haven’t been to before (unfortunately, I don’t remember the specific neighbourhoods), getting insider tips on what to do, and saving lots of cash! Because let’s be honest, although it’s fun to stay in hostels and hotels, the cost for accommodation can add up very quickly! I even heard that some of these stayovers can turn into friendships or even relationships for life! On average, I stay with a host for 2 to 4 days, and everyone is very kind and helpful. For example, one host introduces me to Dollarama, which I’m going to take advantage of a lot in the future. Others allow me to borrow their bike to cruise around the city, and let me use the gym inside their building. As a thank you, I help with cooking or household chores, buy them some booze, and tell them about my travel stories. It’s important though to stay with hosts who are verified by the couch surfing community, who have received good reviews from previous guests, and to tell your friends or acquaintances where you’re staying, especially if you’re a solo traveler. Please note: Back in 2012, it was free to use the Couchsurfing website, but since May 2020, members in most developed countries, including Canada, have to pay a monthly fee of US$ 3.19 or US$ 15.56 for a whole year.
Unfortunately, I only ate at restaurants in Toronto a few times, and don’t remember their names (Tim Hortons and Second Cup don’t count, lol). But if I visit this city again someday, I’ll make up for this big time, especially because there are supposed to be 100+ vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Toronto!
How to get around in Toronto
It’s easy to get around in Toronto and its suburbs by public transit, which consists of subways, streetcars, and buses. The subway has two lines, the Yellow Line from Yonge Street to Union Station (north to south) and the Green Line, which runs from Etobicoke to Scarborough (via downtown Toronto) from east to west. There’s also a subway connection from downtown to Toronto Pearson International Airport (about 25 minutes) and back, and buses and streetcars go pretty much everywhere in and close to Toronto. GO Transit buses and trains and VIA Rail have their hub at Union Station in downtown, which take passengers to the Greater Golden Horseshoe region and other places in Ontario and beyond. So in my opinion, it’s not necessary to rent a car, especially as traffic can be insane during rush hour in Toronto’s city centre! Of course, there are taxis as well, which can be expensive though, as well as Uber and Lyft rides. If you’re into biking, Bike Share Toronto has 3,000 bikes available at almost 300 stations throughout the city, so it’s super easy to find one. But it’s fun to walk all over Toronto’s downtown area and beyond as well, unless you’re carrying lots of luggage with you, lol!
Spending time in Toronto was an awesome start to my Canadian adventures. First of all, I was impressed that the city was quite clean compared to other big cities I’d been to, and the locals I met were very nice and helpful. For example, I walked around with a tourist map (my antique phone didn’t have Google Maps) one day, looking for places, and was surprised when total strangers asked me if they could help! This had never happened before, although I heard they are getting paid for this, and even if that was true, I much appreciated it! I also liked Toronto’s multicultural and open-minded society, which in particular became evident in the couch surfing hosts I stayed with, who were from various countries and backgrounds, so it was interesting to learn about their culture and customs a little bit. But there was one downside: It was really tough to find a job in May and June, which might have to do with me not having much work experience (and none from Canada), and some people told me that many temporary positions were already filled earlier in the year with students. Of course, this is not Toronto’s fault, and I can’t wait to visit again one day, and see more of what it has to offer!
So, as you can see, Toronto has lots of fun things to see and do for everyone, whether you’re staying for just a short or a longer time! Until next time, happy travels 🙂