21 free things to do in Toronto, even in the winter
There are the givens: walk this and that street, visit this landmark and that monument, check out this urban hike and go see the view from that point. Toronto is fast becoming a hip city, full of you-don’t-wanna-miss attractions, restaurants and shopping. Everybody is full of advice on what to do while in town, and often these tips are good but somewhat costly. The list below is packed only with the stuff you can do in “the six” without spending a loonie.
1. Art Gallery of Ontario
A staple of Toronto’s cultural experience is the Art Gallery of Ontario, known as the AGO. If you're under 25, you can go for free anytime. Otherwise, Wednesday evenings are free starting at 6 pm. The gallery closes at 9 pm, so you’ll have time to take in the permanent collections and appreciate the architecture of this stunning building, recently renovated by world-renowned architect, Frank Gehry.
2. Aga Khan Museum
Also free in the middle of the week is the latest addition to the city’s cultural offerings, the very contemporary Aga Khan Museum. You can get in as early as 4 pm, so if you are planning a night of all-you-can-art, start here.
3. Museum of Contemporary Art
Contemporary art is your thing? Pay (no pun intended) a visit to the freshly expanded Museum of Contemporary Art, which is free from 10 am to 2 pm on the last Sunday of every month.
4. Redpath Sugar Museum
Off the beaten path is the Redpath Sugar Museum. That’s right, sugar fans, you can indulge in sweet history. Just be sure to call or email ahead.
5. Ryerson Image Centre
The Ryerson Image Centre defines itself as dedicated to research, teaching and exhibiting photography and related media. Perfect for when your tiny Instagram screen won’t cut it anymore. Admission is free and so are the daily tours at 2:30 pm.
If you’re in Toronto during the winter, see if you’re around in time for Bloor-Yorkville’s annual ice sculpture festival, rightly named Icefest.
7. Harbourfront Centre
When I lived in Toronto, I used to love taking an artsy break with a walk through the studios at the Harbourfront Centre, where you can spot artists working on metal, fabric and glass.
8. Distillery District
The Distillery District is not only hip and gorgeous, but it’s also packed with art galleries, studios and shops.
9. Scarborough Civic Centre
Visual art not so much your thing? Thank you for reading this far down the list. Toronto Public Library's 100th branch at Scarborough Civic Centre might be the option for you. I have yet to visit, but its contemporary disposition is making people talk. More than books, this building offers a digital innovation hub, free wifi, an outdoor garden and a green roof.
10. Graffiti Alley
Toronto has so much of this. Check out Graffiti Alley just south of Queen Street West between Spadina Avenue and Portland Street for about a kilometre of solid art.
11. Bloor and Yorkville area
You can also walk the town to discover architectural staples. My suggestion is to spend a day walking around Bloor and Yorkville area, check out the ROM (free every third Thursday evening, and you cannot miss it, it’s the tilted square protruding onto the street) and get lost in the beautiful University of Toronto campus. On another day, you can start at the famous Eaton Centre, walk along Queen Street West through the now retro Nathan Philip Square and head over to University Avenue, lined with hospitals to your right and taking you down directly to Union Station if you hook left instead.
12. The PATH
Toronto has an expansive underground city called the PATH and Union Station is a great way to start exploring it. Follow signs to the stunning First Canada Place and if you look at the right signage, you could end up right back at the Eaton Centre.
13. St. Lawrence Market
St. Lawrence Market is open year-round and is indoors. Walk around the many aisles, grab lunch or just people-watch.
14. Kensington Market
Kensington Market is not technically a market… but you should visit it nonetheless! The small streets of this neighbourhood explode with yummy treats from all corners of the earth, little vintage clothing paradises, colourful people and great coffee.
15. Lakeshore area
If those words bring running shoes to mind, this is for you. For ice skates, jump to 16. You can always run Toronto (or any town, really). If you like going solo, I would recommend heading to the waterfront area, around Queens Quay and all along the lake. If you’d prefer a park, read on to the section below. But if you’d rather find strength in numbers, I suggest hitting up a Running Room store (like the one in TD Centre, a 10-minute walk from HI Toronto) and joining their group runs, which are usually Wednesday and Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
16. Nathan Phillips Square
During the cold winter months, ice rinks abound in Toronto and are mostly free. Most rinks have scheduled times for different age groups, so if you are planning on doing crazy jumps, check ahead for the times kids won’t be around. Some of the classic rinks include Nathan Phillips Square and the Harbourfront. You can rent skates at both.
17. Toronto Botanical Garden
The Toronto Botanical Garden, apparently termed "the little garden with big ideas", is nearly four acres and features 17 "city-sized" themed gardens. It’s open daily, from dawn until dusk.
18. Toronto Islands
The Toronto Islands are really underrated. Also open in the winter, the islands offer stunning views of the city all year long, and during the colder months, you can snowshoe, cross-country ski or just hike around. It’s the perfect way to spend the day. The only cost catch is the ferry, for which you’ll spend $8.19 (return).
19. High Park
High Park has over one million visitors annually. Over one-third of it remains in its natural state and is home to many species of wildlife. Well, to be more precise… it has a zoo that is open year-round. Although small, the zoo is home to over 45 animals that represent 11 different species of mammals and birds.
Snow in the forecast for your trip? Grab your warm, waterproof clothes (or tough it) and go tobogganing. Locals often head to Christie Pits, Trinity Bellwoods, High Park or Riverdale Park, to name a few.
21. Aga Khan Park
For a shorter green break, the Aga Khan Museum, mentioned above, counts with an immaculately landscaped park complete with trees, shrubs and serene reflecting pools that highlight the architecture of the space.