The Best Things To Do in Toronto with Kids
This is a guest post by Kristi Heath. Her web site is at www.buskerfly.com.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and nearly half of its population was born outside of Canada, so it is ethnically diverse to say the least! Most of Toronto’s major attractions are located in the core or are easily accessible by transit. The city has a ton of events centering around different cultures, so whatever time of year you plan on being in Toronto, it’s good to pick up a local paper and check out the festivities. There are two weekly free newspapers focussing on entertainment, Eye Magazine and the NOW newspaper.
I’ve been a performer for family audiences in Toronto for the past twenty-five years, so I’ve been to just about anywhere in the city that is capable of hosting an event. Here are some of my picks, and the picks of my kids (aged 9 and 12).
The first five attractions on the list are what I’d call the Big Gun attractions. Most people have heard of these places, but I’ll try and give you a little inside info on when it’s a good time to visit. The next five are less widely known, but have lots to offer for kids of all ages and can be done fairly inexpensively.
Hot Tip number one: if you intend to do at least 3 of the first five attractions, get yourself a Toronto City Pass. It allows you to visit all 5 of these attractions within a 9 day period for way less than if you were buying tickets individually. It’s $59 US for adults and $39 US for kids as of April 2010.
1. CN Tower (and Rogers Centre)
O.K., this is the numero uno tourist attraction in Toronto and although it is no longer the world’s tallest tower (thank you Dubai!), it’s still pretty cool. If you’re buying tickets, the Look Out + Glass Floor is all you need. Skip the Sky Pod (takes you a little higher, but in my humble opinion it’s not worth it). All the other ticket packages are ways to wring a few more bucks out of you. If you have lots of disposable cash, go nuts. Anyhoo, you get to take a super fast glass elevator up to the observation level and the brave of heart can walk on the glass floor that allows you to see all the way to the ground. Special tips: going just before sunset is a great time to go up and enjoy the city changing over from day to night. Also, if you happen to be in town during the Canadian National Exhibition, the tower is a great place to watch the air show which happens on Labour day week-end (first weekend in September) in the afternoons. The CN tower is the next door neighbor of the Rogers Centre (formerly the Sky Dome), so if you have a sports fan with you, you can catch a baseball or football game and do the CN tower in the same day. If there’s a ball game on and the Rogers Centre roof is open, you can peek in from the top of the CN tower.
2. Casa Loma
Toronto’s only castle. if you’re from Europe, I’m guessing this wouldn’t be such a big deal for you, but if you’re a north American, it’s kind of fun to explore a castle (albeit a relatively young one). Casa Loma has a couple of good times to visit – December when they host special performances all month and during their Renaissance Festival on the first week-end in July. Buyer beware – this attraction is for people who have the Toronto City Pass, otherwise you might want to give this a miss and head to the Art Gallery of Ontario instead (which has lots of great things for kids).
O.K., I’m particularly biased towards this place, but it is fantastic! And huge! And interactive! The OSC has done a lot in the past few years to make itself appealing to all ages. There’s KidSpark for the younger set (if you have younger kids, trust me, you might just spend the whole day in this area) and for older kids (tweens and teens) there’s the Weston Innovation Centre, also very active and very fun. There’s a challenge zone where you’re given a problem to solve (e.g. how to rescue a cat from a cave without crossing the lava field in front of the cave). You then are set loose on a bunch of shelves containing all kinds of bits and pieces that you then try and build your solution with. Very fun! The OSC has plenty of special exhibits, a rain forest, an OMNIMAX theatre, a tiny planetarium and much more. Lots of additional activities and shows during March break (mid March). If you are attending during March break, avoid the 11 am – 2 pm entry – it’s nuts. Go later, they extend their hours during this nine day period anyway.
This institution just underwent an overhaul. After adding a questionable piece of architecture to the front of the building (the ROM Crystal) they recently redid some of their exhibits. There’s a brand new bat cave (probably the favourite thing of most kids). They also have a great dinosaur exhibit and lots of hands on exhibits for kids. My personal favourite is the stuffed birds (I’m guessing that’s not the proper scientific name, and I know this isn’t about me, it’s about kids, so I’ll go on….)
These birds aren’t stuffed! Get on your walking shoes!! There’s so much to see here that you probably won’t be able to conquer it in a day, so plan your route carefully. The great apes are always fun to watch, but lots of other creatures like naked mole rats and meerkats can keep you amused for a very long time. If you’re visiting in the summer make sure to bring your bathing suits – there’s a wonderful water park called Splash Island and an area called Kids Zoo geared to kids under 9. Lots of special events at the zoo – Boo at the Zoo for Halloween and special New Year’s Eve shows.
Toronto is on a lake, a Great Lake – a fact that escapes many locals due to the fact that there’s been way too much development along the waterfront. There is a bit of beachfront on the east end of the city, so if your kids just want to dig in the sand, or watch beach volleyball, kiteboarders or windsurfers, this is the place to go. Unfortunately, the lake is somewhat polluted, so heed warnings about water safety. There’s a nice boardwalk to stroll, in line skate or bike on and the Beaches area is great for grabbing an ice cream cone or boutique shopping (window or otherwise).
If you’re traveling with kids who like retro shopping, this is the spot! Tons of second-hand clothing stores and a real hippy vibe. The Blue Banana store is fun for everyone, so it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. There is all kinds of food from around the world in the market (jumbo empanadas, anyone?), fishmongers, coffee purveyors, bakeries, health food shops – you name it. It’s also great for meat and cheese, so grab some stuff to take with you to number 8 on the list.
8. High Park
Step off the High Park subway, cross Bloor street and enter a fabulous park. There’s an amazing Adventure Playground filled with wooden castles, ramps and the usual assortment of playground equipment. There’s a tiny “zoo” that is free – a few mountain goats, yaks, peacocks and what not. You can check out the beautiful Grenadier Pond – and if you’re there at the end of April, see the cherry blossoms in bloom. There’s a restaurant in the park and all kinds of running races, soapbox derbies and other special events year round. There’s even a little ride that will take you through the park (I’d call it a train, but it isn’t on tracks) The park is huge, so plan on a picnic and hanging out.
Another great place to picnic and bike ride or inline skate. Take the ferry over to Centre Island and stop in at CentreVille – a little theme park with all kinds of rides and things for kids to enjoy. The Islands are pedestrian traffic only and when you get off the ferry you’ll enjoy a great view of Toronto. You can rent canoes to go through the waterways between the three islands (Centre Island, Ward Island, and Olympic Island). There’s also Franklin’s Children’s Garden – a nice little area for the younger set to explore. There are beach areas, a hedge maze, playgrounds and more – spend the day exploring.
This is a great big category that I will not be able to do justice to in the least. Toronto is pretty much divided into different ethnic areas, and it is a ton of fun just to pick a nationality and go wander through its neighborhood. Large China towns (3!), India town, Greek Town, Little Italy etc. etc. Check out Pacific Mall if you want a blast of Asia or do a tour of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple that cost $40 million to build. Both are fantastic in very different ways. Oh, my youngest son mentioned Tim Hortons – a Canadian donut and sandwich shop chain. Hardly avoidable….
About the Author: Kristi Heath has lived in Toronto for 25 years. She has been performing her own unique style of physical comedy around the world since she was 18, including engagements with Cirque du Soleil and performances in Japan, Korea, Europe, New Zealand, Singapore and coast to coast in Canada and the US. She is the mother of two boys, aged 9 & 12.