Royal Ontario Museum
Photograph by David Bishop, TandemStock
Part of the charm of Toronto’s largest museum (six million artifacts and counting) is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Kids are a major focus with a bat cave, costume dress-up areas, and plenty of hands-on areas to keep the learning going. Most recently they released a selfie guide complete with instructions on making sure you get it right: “When attempting to take a selfie with a dinosaur please ensure the dinosaur is actually in the shot.” You won’t be able to miss the building from the street: It’s the one with the gigantic glass crystal that juts out over Bloor Street and the sky-high dinosaur skeleton in the window.
—Heather Greenwood Davis
Follow Heather on Instagram at @heathergd.
Evergreen Brick Works
Photograph by Susan Seubert
How do you change a city? You create a community of sustainability champions through pizza nights, school field trips, corporate sleepovers, farmers markets, and more. You also lead by example.
Once home to deteriorating heritage buildings and a massive clay quarry, the site of the former Don Valley Brickworks contributed bricks to some of the city’s most impressive historical buildings, including Casa Loma and Osgoode Hall, but once the usable clay was gone it began a downward slide to abandonment. The city of Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) began restoration efforts in the early nineties. A few years later Evergreen, a national not-for-profit led by urban environmentalist Geoff Cape, began plans to transform the abandoned buildings (which had become a popular site for raves and graffiti artists) into an urban environmental center.
Evergreen Brick Works officially opened in September 2010 and continues to be a vibrant social enterprise where city building ideas and strategies are imagined and tested by Evergreen's entrepreneurs and experts, who engage visitors of all ages through their year-round programs. (Evergreen also has an on-site restaurant, Cafe Belong, led by chef Brad Long of Food Network's Restaurant Makeover, and an urban bike shop, Sweet Pete's.)
Today, the ponds and meadows surrounding the recently accredited LEED Platinum-certified headquarters offer city dwellers an oasis to explore, including one of the best views of the iconic Toronto skyline. “Everyone thinks the best view of the city is from the waterfront,” says Terrence Eta. The founder of Toronto Bicycle Tours regularly leads tours of the area and the lush forestland below. “This is the skyline view that best represents what the city truly is.”
Photograph by Mark Blinch, Reuters/Corbis
If riding a glass elevator 1,136 feet straight up what was once the world’s tallest freestanding tower (the tower itself is 1,815 feet high) while standing on glass panels isn’t enough of a thrill for you, EdgeWalk—the world’s highest full circle hands-free walk—should do the trick. With only a few well-placed harnesses you can walk around the outside of the top of the CN Tower on a five-foot ledge, 116 stories above the pavement.
Activities like these continue to draw more than 1.5 million visitors annually to the 39-year-old iconic Toronto landmark. Need a drink when you’re done? The award-winning 360° rotating restaurant boasts the world’s highest wine cellar, according to Guinness World Records. Those with less of a stomach for high-flying adventure can enjoy the tower and surrounds from outside. It’s lit nightly in Canadian colors (and others on special occasions) and is steps from Harbourfront attractions and key sports arenas.
Photograph by Paul Hahn, laif/Redux
Toronto’s version of Times Square sits at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, and locals and tourists alike quickly embraced its creation in 2003. Shifting the location of community events from City Hall farther south, Dundas Square has given movie festival gatherings, cultural group presentations, and even political rallies a more “of the people” urban feel without the watchful ever presence of the city’s political vanguard. These days it’s the go-to stop for free events with flair, from iconic concerts to film showings to sport fan pride. Sit on one of the benches here and you’ll catch a glimpse of the city’s people on parade.
Photograph by Cole Burston, Toronto Star via Getty Images
Seasons don’t seem to matter to High Park lovers. Toronto’s largest public park (400 acres) is as popular with Frisbee throwers in the summer as it is with snowshoers in the winter. The park's small zoo, accessible hiking trails, and playgrounds (including Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, which was designed in part by local kids) make it popular with young families; gardens and a greenhouse appeal to those tired of the concrete jungle city life; and historic sites and summer theater productions keep culture lovers happy.
The park is most popular midday. Come early or late to take advantage of quieter spaces and fewer people on the laneways and benches. For a serene setting don’t miss the Japanese cherry trees in bloom in spring.
The Toronto Islands
Photograph by Tim Thompson, National Geographic Creative
Once a peninsula, this batch of islands off Toronto’s southern shores was created by a severe storm in 1858. A 15-minute ferry ride from the downtown harbor gets you there with the bonus of incredible views of the Toronto skyline and a welcome change of pace when you arrive. The three main islands (approximately three miles long) boast only about 300 homes. Walk, bike, or paddle your way (rentals are available on island) from residential Ward’s Island to the clothing-optional beach of Hanlan’s Point. Pack a picnic and spend the day taking in the cool breezes off Lake Ontario or take younger kids to Centreville Amusement Park, where 14 acres of fun and a petting zoo next door make it a popular warm-weather destination. At certain times of year various island celebrations make for a busier visit and longer ferry lines. Check the schedules online to save yourself time.
St. Lawrence Market
Photograph by Reinhard Schmid, SIME
When the lieutenant governor designated an area as Market Block in 1803, he likely couldn’t have guessed that more than 200 years later Torontonians would be willing to bypass larger chain grocers to get their produce from the source. But they do. No picnic hamper is complete without a visit to the St. Lawrence Market. In addition to a farmers market, there are classes in everything from macaroon-making to French cocktail snacks. The original buildings, which once shared space with Toronto’s first official City Hall, have been renovated and replaced over the years (one as a result of the Great Toronto Fire of 1849) but continue to house more than 120 merchants.
Don Valley Trails
Photograph by Tara Walton, Toronto Star via Getty Images
The Waterfront Trail, part of the Don Valley trail system, starts at Lake Ontario in the south and takes you well past the city limits in the north, if you stick to it. Your reward: a distinctly different view of the city than you’d get from a tour bus. The less athletic will prefer to pick a section. Download a walking guide and explore it on foot or book a guided bike experience with local specialists.
There isn’t a bad season to hit the trail, but you’ll be most rewarded in the fall when the gold and auburn leaves of the maple trees, small trailside museums, and hidden ravines are at their quietest and there’s a breeze to ease your efforts.
The trail system's name comes from the Don River, which was once the main commercial force in 18th-century Toronto. Along its banks you’ll find incredible spaces that are popular with locals but lesser known to tourists. A few to watch for: Todmorden Mills, Riverdale Park, and the Cabbagetown homes.
Photograph by Stuart Dee, Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Even if you aren’t a shopper, the Toronto Eaton Centre—Toronto’s largest shopping mall—is worth a visit. A Toronto downtown staple for almost 40 years, it still draws in 50 million visitors annually. Some come for the shops (a recent massive expansion plan has unveiled new stores regularly) but many come for the building itself. A 900-foot-long vaulted glass ceiling galleria and the 1979 art installation “Flight Stop” by Michael Snow, which showcases geese in flight, remain a trademark tourist snapshot. And though the original flagship Eaton's store went bankrupt in the nineties, recent years have seen the center reimagined with new shops and anchor stores. Architecture lovers will want to take the suspended walkway across Queen Street to the old Simpsons building for a peek. And the current City Hall—complete with iconic giant Toronto sign in front—is only one block over.
Photograph by Susan Seubert
Toronto’s multicultural makeup is legendary. More mosaic than melting pot, the city is a mishmash of international pockets easily explored. Couple that with the natural communities that have arisen around distinct interests and you are left with a city that has something for everyone.
Hipster? Head to Leslieville for bright brunch spots and one-of-a-kind stores. Foodie? Dundas West takes you through Chinatown and the eclectic independents of Kensington Market and Little Portugal, along with restaurants offering up everything from nose-to-tail meals (the Black Hoof) to intimate, artsy pastas (Cafe Bar Pasta).
Fashionista with an eye for the quirky? Queen Street West has long been the go-to spot for those with an eye for the next big fashion trend and an aversion to big box stores. And if you’re looking for wine bars, coffee spots, and chocolate with an artistic touch, the Distillery District—once home to the largest distillery in the world—and its neighbor, the white-sand Sugar Beach, give you a place to grab your snacks and eat them too.
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