Back in August, my wife was hired to photograph a wedding in the Kawartha lakes region of Central Ontario, Canada. With the opportunity to visit one of the most diverse cities in North America, we quickly decided to spend five additional days exploring Toronto, prior to the wedding. Toronto, as we know it, was formed in 1998 by the merging of, “Old Toronto” with five surrounding municipalities to form the current city of Toronto.
With a city so drenched in history, we had to plan our visit and make the best use of our time. Here are some of the highlights from our visit:
The city was built along the banks of Lake Ontario. The city’s skyline is newer than most cities of the Eastern United States. Buildings of glass and geometric shapes are dominated by the ever-looming CN Tower. We found a great way to take in the city skyline by walking along the harbour. With views of the city on one side and vistas of Toronto Island on the other, it made for a beautiful walk.
Located just off shore in Toronto Harbour is Toronto Island which is made up several small islands. Together the Islands host: a public park, airport, beaches, houses, school, amusement park, and miles of amazing views and paths. All this in the largest urban car-free community with in North America. The only way onto the island is by ferry and the lines in the summer or peak hours can be LONG. During our time on the Island, we wandered the green paths walking over bridges spanning canals with small boats, ducks, and swans. There are also huge gardens of sunflowers, daisies, and sizable hydrangeas lining the beach and pier walkways. Exploring the shorelines of the Island, we stumbled upon picturesque views of the city skylines.
Originally designed to increase the communication abilities within Toronto, it wasn’t until someone thought people may want to pay to go to the top did they include plans for an observation deck. The CN tower was completed in 1976 and stood as the world’s tallest freestanding structure for 34 years. Our kids loved the bird’s-eye-views of the city and on a clear day your can see 20+ miles into the distance. There are two observation decks, one is enclosed in glass and the other is an open air cage. Once again lines can be long. We arrived closely after opening and missed the masses.
Casa Loma Castle
Casa Loma was completed in 1914 as a private residence of Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. With 98 rooms and covering more than 64,000 square feet, it was the largest private residence in Canada. After World War I and subsequent economic depression, the house fell into the City of Toronto’s control and has been a museum since 1937. Widely considered the only TRUE castle in North America, walking the grounds you can see no expense was spared constructing the building. Even the location of the grounds was well planned with an overlooking view of downtown from the ancient lake bluffs along Davenport Road. If Casa Loma looks familiar it has been featured in many films and TV shows: X-Men, Strange Brew, Chicago, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to name a few.
Toronto has amazing museums for families. We visited two — The Ontario Science Centre and Royal Ontario Museum.
The Ontario Science Centre is outside of the downtown area, but accessible by a subway ride and transfer to a public bus. The museum features kid-friendly, “hands on” types of exhibits with a science background.
The Royal Ontario Museum is located in the downtown area and easily reachable via subway. This is a history museum and of course mostly hands-off, except for the second floor kids space. The exterior building is a mix of a classical earlier 1900’s structure and a 2000’s add-on for flare. The collection is quit amazing — antiquities from the Far East, Middle East and North America. As I told my wife, “It’s amazing what the British give to you when you don’t denounce the crown and kick them out of your country.”
St. Lawrence Market
Voted the best food market in the world by National Geographic, St. Lawrence Market started life as Toronto’s city hall and jail from 1845 – 1899. It was then later repurposed into open air market. Walking the rows of shops and stalls, we found it to be the closest to an old world European market you can find in North America. From cheese, meat, fruits, and vegetables it genuinely has everything.
The Distillery Historic District
Just a short walk away from the St Lawerance Market is the Distillery District. Once home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, it was for a brief time the world’s largest distillery. Now, it’s home to the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America with some of the buildings dating back to the 1830s. Today, you can find café’s, shops, restaurants, and pubs within the grounds.
Toronto at Night
With two small kids and hours of walking each day, we found it hard to stay out late. However, when we did, the city revealed a breathtaking display of colors and sounds. The glass skyline of the city, the sunsets, and lights of the cityscape danced as we wandered aimlessly. Even the CN Tower, with it’s state of the art LED lighting system, bounced colors off the grey concrete as white clouds were cut by the tower. We were truly mesmerized.
How Safe is Toronto?
We often found ourselves commenting on Toronto’s cleanliness and safeness. There are a few homeless people here and there, but they are not pushy or outwardly panhandling like we are used too. Overall, we felt very safe walking with our young children. We also found Toronto’s Underground Walkway, known as PATH, to be very convenient and helpful with a stroller in tow. Connecting most of the downtown area, it’s designed to link building to building, covering blocks without ever stepping outside. And with the TTC Subway and streetcars you can easily get around if walking isn’t your thing. The Subway again was very clean, easy to navigate, and accessible—it was also our son’s favorite part of his Toronto trip.
Insider Tip: Traveling with kids is undoubtedly expensive and we strive to save money, whenever possible. A great savings tip was using the City Pass. Buying the pass gave us admission to five different major Toronto attractions: CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, Casa Loma, Toronto Zoo, and Ontario Science Centre at a discounted price. The passes can be bought online or at the featured attractions.
Located in the Entertainment District of Downtown Toronto, the Residence Inn Toronto featured a full kitchen (a must for our picky eaters), complimentary breakfast and houses laundry facilities. There was an abundance of restaurants, nightlife, and attractions steps away from the hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay—the room was clean, had an incredible view of the CN Tower, and the complimentary breakfast was quite convenient. We did learn that summer is their busy season. The hotel was completely booked during our entire stay— make reservations in advance.
Have you visited Toronto? We love to connect with others, so feel free to leave us a comment and share your experiences! (Disclosure: Burbs2Abroad traveled to the above location as guests and was not compensated for this review. As always, our opinions are our own.)