Toronto is home to a host of free and truly cheap activities, ranging from noshing on classic Canadian sandwiches to catching rays on one of the city’s many beaches. Here’s a budget traveler’s guide to the best things to see and do for free or less than 10 Canadian dollars ($7.50).
So, you’ve got no money. Spending a hefty chunk of your budget on top-line Toronto attractions may not be an option (a trip up the CN Tower will easily set you back 40 Canadian dollars [$30]). However, that doesn’t mean you have to shell out your hard-earned cash to enjoy the city. Skip the sticker shop, and think tours of the city’s oldest market, complimentary nights at the Art Gallery of Ontario and free rock shows at the Harbourfront Centre. All activities here cost less than 10 Canadian dollars ($7.50) or not even a dime.
St Lawrence Market, home to Canada’s best peameal bacon sandwiches
Built in 1803, St Lawrence Market is one of the most historic spots in Toronto, and one of the most important foodie destinations in the city. It also hosts a weekend antique market and weekly farmer’s market. All the stands are worthy of a visit. However, make sure to hit Alex Farm for its array of local cheeses; Carousel Bakery for the city’s signature (and world-famous) peameal bacon sandwich; and Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard, which has dozens of different types of mustard (90 percent of the world’s mustard grows in Canada). Other highlights include St Urbain Bagel for uber-authentic Montreal bagels and Mike’s Fish Market for its indigenous-style cured fish.
Toronto is situated on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and south of the city core lies 15 teeny islands. Only a 15-minute ferry (7.50 Canadian dollars/return [$5.60]) from Downtown, the archipelago is home to a host of recreational activities. Families can enjoy the small amusement park and rental paddle boats and paddleboards, while more active folks can set off on a hike on one of the many different trails. For a more unusual activity, try out the 18-hole frisbee golf course that weaves throughout the islands. Among the largest car-free communities in North America, you’d better skip the car and hop on a rental bike – make sure to bring a picnic with you.
Nathan Phillips Square is the beating heart of Toronto. The sprawling square is right out the doors of City Hall and is host to many of the biggest concerts, art shows and other community events throughout the year. In the winter, the fountain freezes over, making a stellar skating rink. In the summer, a weekly farmer’s market showcases an array of local produce. If you’re peckish, a line-up of food trucks slinging poutine and street meat line the perimeter.
Thinking of Canada probably doesn’t equate to visions of white-sand beaches, but let Woodbine Beach Park change your mind. Located in The Beaches neighborhood, this 37.5-acre (15.2-hectare) park is home to 1.8 miles (three kilometers) of sandy beaches on the shores of Lake Ontario. Picnics, sunbathing and swimming are a given. The park is also home to children’s playgrounds, beach volleyball courts and an Olympic-size pool, as well as necessities such as change rooms, washrooms, snack bars, water stations and beach-side showers. In the winter, the lifeguard stations are transformed into site-specific works of art, making a case to visit Woodbine even when the temperature drops to sub-zero lows.
There’s a reason why Sugar Beach has become a social-media stalwart, with the millennial pink umbrellas, white loungers, candy-striped rocks and pale sand beach creating a dreamy place to spend a day. The city transformed the former parking lot into a transportive getaway right on the downtown strip. Though tiny, it makes for a great escape from the city, sans the effort. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the central hub of Union Station.
Home to works by Yayoi Kusama and the famed Group of Seven, the AGO is one of the most acclaimed galleries on the continent. The design alone is a work of wonder – the undulating glass-and-wood facade and interior, designed by famed Canadian architect Frank Gehry, have dubbed it a “restrained masterpiece.” Inside, you’ll find significant collections of Renaissance, African and Indigenous art, as well as the stand-out Henry Moore Sculpture Centre. While 25 Canadian dollars ($19) will get you into the gallery for a one-time visit, admission is free after 6pm on Wednesdays. If you’re 25 years old and under, it is always free.
There are few dull moments at the Harbourfront Centre. The lakeside cultural center is continuously bringing in musicians, artists and film directors to hold residence. Keep an eye on the schedule – typical events include a literary festival, dance performances and a rotating roster of live music acts. Most events are free, so mark your calendar and arrive early.
Once home to Canada’s largest distillery, the cobblestone streets of the Distillery District are where you’ll find an array of artists’ studios, restaurants and one-of-a-kind stores. Swing by St Lawrence Market for a peameal bacon sandwich, and then wander the few blocks over and scope out the shops. Also, take in one of the weekend musicians who grace the streets. Head into the studio building and watch the glassblowers form magic out of nothing, or check out some of the chic (albeit expensive) furniture stores.
Think of High Park as Toronto’s answer to Central Park. It’s sprawling, with 307.8 acres (161ha) total, and acts as a perfect oasis in the urban core of the city. The west side, home to Grenadier Pond, is ideal for strolling around in the summer. In the winter, makeshift nets turn it into a community game of pick-up hockey. Springtime is when a parade of cherry blossom trees bloom, drawing tens of thousands of tourists just for the occasion. Year-round, enjoy the zoo, dog park and castle-shaped playground, or laze around the grassy knolls.
From September through May, the Canadian Opera Company hosts free concerts during certain weekday lunch hours (check its website for the schedule). The opera’s company will perform, but visitors will also be treated to performances by everyone from acclaimed taiko (Japanese drumming) ensembles to famed pianists and string musicians. Over 70 concerts will take place over the season, so keep an eye on its Facebook page for more information.
Every September, film stars flock to the city to attend the much-lauded Toronto International Film Festival. Tickets to the actual shows are hard to come by and generally expensive, so get in your celebrity sightings on the city streets. Many of the notables stay in Yorkville, also dubbed the city’s Mink Mile for its saturation of designer boutiques and five-star hotels. Grab a seat in the park, and try to spot a star or two. Even if you don’t see anyone, the crowd the neighborhood draws (expect mink coats, flashy cars and catwalk-ready couture) makes people-watching a hoot.
You can easily spend a pretty penny at the Toronto Christmas Market (it was voted one of the best in the world). The Distillery District’s annual holiday festival has an array of shops, food and drink stands and other attractions that command a “special event” price hike. But insiders know to go before 5pm when admission is free. Come early to avoid the lines and skip the crowds. The market is home to cheery carolers, sparkling lights, sky-high Christmas trees and a range of other activities for the whole family. While stands dole out mulled wine and raclette, the popularity of the market commands high prices – perhaps skip over to the nearby St Lawrence Market for a snack, post-merriment?