Toronto is a notoriously expensive metropolis. While there’s a lot to see and do, most of it unfortunately comes with a large price tag. That said, its steeper offerings shouldn’t deter you from visiting this captivating city.
When I moved to Toronto a few years ago, I had just returned from a year of living abroad, didn’t know the city, and was dead broke — to top it off, I was just starting my post-graduate studies. I bounced around from pullout sofa to air mattress for a few months, trying but failing to make ends meet while working in a pub on the weekends and attending school full-time during the week. It wasn’t an easy start, but I was living in a city I had never called home before, and being an adventurous sort of gal, I wanted to live it as best I could.
I quickly learned to seek out the free nooks and crannies of Toronto, which allowed me to experience the city with just the change in my pockets. So, if you’re a traveler on a budget, fear not! The city has a lot to offer, for any price point.
Here are a few fun things to do and places to see to help you get a feel for Toronto without hurting your wallet. Some are more hidden than others, but the best part is, most of them won’t cost you a thing!
Dig through vintage treasures at Kensington Market
Kensington Market is a small hipster village made up of several streets that are lined with neat shops to peruse. Here, you can try on all kinds of wacky vintage clothing as bubbles drift through the air and buskers provide the soundtrack to your afternoon. It’s such a colorful neighborhood (quite literally, as it’s covered in street art), and it offers tons of tasty street-style food options, such as baja style tacos at Seven Lives, or fusion dishes at Rasta Pasta. Amble along the streets, bring your camera, and poke into the shops to look around — you don’t need to make any purchases to enjoy a sunny day here!
Step into a tropical paradise at Allan Gardens
Right in the heart of the city, just minutes from the bustling Yonge-Dundas Square, is Allan Gardens, a huge greenhouse that feels like stepping into a mystical rainforest. This beautiful glass conservatory, for which there is no admission fee, is bursting with exotic plants, turtles, foot paths, and trickling ponds. It’s the perfect place to escape the concrete-jungle blues. Benches line the walls throughout much of the conservatory as well, making it ideal for reading, sketching, writing, or a bit of quiet time.
Amble the storied streets of the Distillery District
The Distillery District is Toronto’s historic quarter, complete with cobbled paths, old brick buildings, and zero cars. Wander freely through the streets, admiring the quaint 19th-century buildings and passing through several funky art galleries — all while gathering creative inspiration along the way. Photo opportunities abound here, including the iconic Gooderham & Worts sign, various sculptures, and the love lock installation, Toronto’s answer to the Parisian practice of immortalizing your love in a padlock clipped to a public bridge. The district also hosts the most magical Christmas market you are likely to find in Ontario, which is free to enter on weekdays during the holiday season. Weekend admission, which starts at 5 p.m. on Fridays, costs only $6.
Grab some popcorn and enjoy Free Flick Mondays at the Royal
Entering the Royal Cinema feels like stepping back in time, into a classic theater complete with velvet seats and red curtains flanking the screen. And on one Monday each month, the establishment gives film fanatics the chance to see old movies on the big screen — for free! You’ll have to line up for your seat, but the whole experience is communal and friendly, and there’s always a collective buzz humming throughout the queue. Though you’ll probably end up sitting next to people you don’t know (the theater is always packed), this only adds to the charm of the experience. So if you’re traveling solo, this is the perfect event event to attend, as you’ll inevitably end up chatting with some other movie buffs throughout the evening.
Try something new with the Toronto Slackline Crew
On Wednesday evenings in Trinity Bellwoods, a group of slackliners meets in the park from around 6 p.m. until sundown to practice the unique sport, which involves balancing tightrope-style on lines slung between the trees. It’s a very inclusive group, with friendly people ready to share both their slacklines and their expertise, and everyone from beginners to experts are welcome. Often, people will work with aerial silks as well, and clusters of acro yoga break out nearby. Many members even bring out their light-up poi balls after dark, so you can sit back and watch the show as they practice and play. Bring some treats to share on the grass and make new friends!
Feel the small-town summer vibes of the Beaches
The Beaches is a little neighborhood at the east end of Toronto with a small-town feel that will have you forgetting the hustle and bustle of the city. Here, you can walk along the shores of Lake Ontario for miles via sandy boardwalk, relax in the sun, hit up the ice cream trucks (there are several), and peruse the quaint shops along Queen Street. The village also screens free outdoor movies during the summer, alternating between several parks around the neighborhood — so be sure to keep an eye on their calendar. The Beaches is home to the city’s Jazz Festival as well, which takes place every year in July, when the streets come alive with music, vendors, and celebration.
Catch some rays at Toronto Island
Toronto Island is a short ferry ride ($7.87 for an adult round-trip ticket) from the city’s lakeshore, and the ride itself is a rather fun activity. Though the ferry is always crammed with cyclists, stoners, and families — all laden down with beach umbrellas, floaties, and coolers — consider it a people-watching opportunity and the opening scene to your day at the beach.
Note that the island is home to three beaches, each with a very distinct vibe:
- Centre Island comprises the more touristy part of the island. Here, there is a beach, a petting zoo, some kiddie rides, a restaurant, and a pond with rowboats to rent. It’s like a little carnival, all summer long.
- Hanlan’s Point is a very friendly nude beach with a beautiful view of the Toronto skyline. Follow the path and the signs from the ferry drop off, about a 20-minute walk eventually leading through some bushes, to find yourself on a beautiful sandy beach, where you can whip off your suit if you dare. Enjoy the sun and the freedom!
- Ward’s Island is a small, hidden cove of a beach that plays host to lots of young people, music, and lazily drifting boats. On your way from the ferry to the beach, you’ll find a cute little café where you can sit outside (in a garden), sip drinks, and eat fresh summer salads.
Admire the cherry blossoms in High Park
In the spring, visiting High Park is a must — in fact, seeing the famous cherry blossoms is downright Torontonian. Every year in late April or early May, the park comes alive with sweet pink blooms, and the whole city turns out to admire them. It’s a spring awakening, people of all ages buzzing with excitement as they admire the Sakura trees in their splendor. The flowers only last about a week to a week and a half, so they are a fleeting wonder. But whether you catch them or not, the park is also a great place for a relaxing walk, an opportunity to feed the ducks (or search for frogs) at the pond, or the perfect location for a picnic.
Hike the Scarborough Bluffs
The Scarborough Bluffs are a natural wonder: an escarpment in the city’s Scarborough district featuring nine parks and a beach. This a great spot for hiking, exploring, and getting active — all while enjoying the stunning views of Lake Ontario. It’s a surreal experience; the rocky terrain and blue waters below make you feel as if you are in a different country. Bluffer’s Park at the base of the escarpment is the perfect spot to relax on the beach while looking up at the magnificent rocks. It’s even got charcoal BBQs to use if you want to grill something up with your friends! For the view from the top, head to Cathedral Bluffs Lookout. This highest part of the escarpment is 300 feet (90 meters) above the coastline.
Browse the Farmers Market at Wychwood Barns
What was once Toronto’s old streetcar repair facility is now one of the city’s cultural hubs. Every Saturday, Wychwood Barns in the Bracondale Hill area hosts a farmers market from 8 a.m to 12:30 p.m. (1 p.m. in the summer). It’s put on by The Stop, an organization that runs a community kitchen and food bank as well as drop-in cooking classes to increase accessibility to healthy food. The market features vendors selling fish, baked goods, fruit, pasta, and Ontario wines. Here, you can shop local foods and artisanal products from farmers who grow as sustainably as possible. The sellers who are not farmers source their ingredients right from the market! There is also a family-friendly story tent between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., where you can listen to or share oral stories of any kind. Wychwood Barns is also a great spot to take a break to meet a friend at the market café, which serves all sorts of healthy snacks during market hours.
Walk or bike the Leslie Street Spit
The Spit is a secret little park for nature-lovers within the city. This man-made peninsula formed by discarded debris in the east end of Toronto allows visitors to make the most of the area, by way of walking or biking. The trail here stretches for miles and is home to numerous species of plants and birds, so be sure to keep an eye out! Named an “accidental wilderness,” the Spit began as a project for port-related facilities until the 70s, when it was decided that the site wasn’t needed. By this time, flora and fauna had already started to take over. Experience lovely views of the Toronto skyline while walking, biking, or rollerblading in the summer, or brave the cold for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the winter (note that the trail is not maintained during winter months). There are often offerings for guided bird-watching walks for beginners (at a cost), or you can explore independently. Public access is allowed on weekends and holidays, or weekdays from 4-9 p.m.
Toronto is a city with so many eclectic offerings. From the Beaches to the Financial District, from the Distillery to Kensington, each corner of the city boasts its own colorful personality. Even with limited funds, there are countless ways to get up-close-and-personal with Toronto and discover its urban and natural gems.
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