Welcome to nine cool things to do in and around Toronto. We spent five nearly five months housesitting in Toronto following a trip to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In fact, it was there, with plenty of time on our hands, that we originally created journey-junkies. We looked after a cat in a house next to Lake Ontario in the neighbourhood of Scarborough. It was only a short train ride away from downtown Toronto. Consequently, we were easily able to take advantage of the delights of the city.
Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. It brims with all our favourite things – cool coffee shops, live music venues and great restaurants . We got to know the city pretty well. Here we have chosen nine cool things to do in and around cosmopolitan Toronto.
1) Toronto Royal Ontario Museum
We were very impressed with the Royal Ontario Museum. Not only is the building striking, but the museum is one of the largest in North America. The six-million strong collection consists of everything from ancient Egyptian mummies to First Nation Crest Poles. It is spread out over forty galleries. The exhibits relate to all aspects of world culture and natural history. We spent several hours exploring the museum and still didn’t see everything. Druxy’s, the onsite café, is a great place for a drink, snack or meal. There is also an good gift shop which is brimming with temptations and is worth a visit even if you don’t visit the museum itself.
2) Live Music Scene
Toronto has a reputation for its thriving live music scene. Venues range from dingy bars to concert halls and there’s live music to be heard every night of the week. While we were in Toronto, we went to see Alanis Morrisette at the Sound Academy (now known as Rebel), one of the city’s premier venues. We also enjoyed an evening at Hotel Rex Jazz & Blues Bar, probably the most famous jazz venue in the city. It’s like an old honky-tonk bar and pre-pandemic, up to fifteen bands a week were playing. Horseshoe Tavern was another favourite hotspot. It has hosted some of Canada’s best indie acts as well as such famous bands as the Rolling Stones.
3) The CN Tower
Yes – it’s touristy, but it’s Toronto’s premier landmark and definitely worth a visit. The 553m structure has an entertainment complex and observation decks, not to mention a revolving restaurant. It’s a thrill to ride the glass elevator to the top. The views of Lake Ontario and the city far below are spectacular. There is also a glass viewing floor – not for those who are scared of heights though! Completed in 1976, the CN Tower was the world’s largest free-standing building until 2007. It was overtaken by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
4) St. Lawrence Market
We were regulars at the excellent St. Lawrence Market, and it was there where we stocked up on some tasty speciality cheeses for the festive season. As well as cheeses, there are tempting baked goods, fresh fish, meats and a vast array of other delights. Additionally, the market is home to the local favourite – the peameal bacon sandwich, which was created in the market itself. The bacon is rolled in ground yellow cornmeal and served in a Kaiser roll. These days, there are several variations served throughout the city, many of which have added sauces and accompaniments. Locals, however, insist that the original St Lawrence Market sandwich is the best.
5) Casa Loma
This gothic revival castle can’t really be described as historical when compared to the castles of Europe. However, it is nevertheless worth a visit. As a matter of fact, Casa Loma has been featured in an abundance of Hollywood movies from Cocktail to X-Men. The castle is set on a hill overlooking downtown Toronto. It features a labyrinth of underground tunnels, a secret staircase, towers and attics. There are many impressive rooms including marble bathrooms with original fixtures and landscaped gardens. Unique to Canada, it was constructed between 1911 and 1914 and created by architect, E. J. Lennox. It’s fun to explore and somewhat surprising to find such a castle in the heart of a North American city.
6) The Distillery
We went to the Distillery District, located just east of the downtown area, a few times during our stay. It was particularly lively and atmospheric during the month leading up to festive season. There were elves and carol singers aplenty, a gigantic Christmas tree and a Ferris Wheel. It’s also a great place to pick up unique gifts. Whatever time of the year, there is usually something going on whether it’s live music or innovative art installations. Additionally, there are cool bars and a variety of restaurants, all within the heritage buildings of the former distillery.
7) Kensington Market
This was our favourite neighbourhood of the city and could be described as Toronto’s version of London’s Camden Market. It’s a diverse hotchpotch of indie stores selling funky gifts and vintage clothing, ethnic eateries and street art. It has a fun, alternative vibe and we loved exploring the main drag of Augusta Avenue and the surrounding streets. If you go, don’t miss Big Fat Burrito for the best burritos in town (including veggie and vegan options). With its funky ambience, Kensington Market makes a refreshing change from the mainstream chain stores and restaurants.
8) Toronto Islands
The Toronto Islands consist of a chain of fifteen small islands just offshore from the downtown area. They make a great escape from the city. Although they are just a 13-minute ferry ride away, a trip to the islands feels like a world away. With no traffic and acres of manicured parkland, hiring a bicycle is the perfect way to get around. There’s a choice of beaches (including a clothing-optional one!) and a great view of the Toronto skyline. Another attraction is the haunted lighthouse on Gibraltar Point. For the kids, Faraway Farm offers up-close-and-personal experiences with a wide variety of animals.
9) Niagara Falls and Niagara-by-the-Lake
Although we don’t usually take tours, we decided that it would be our best option for getting to Niagara Falls, which is located a couple of hours drive away. On route, we had a break at the pretty historical town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its quaint shops and colonial style buildings. Additionally, we also stopped at a vineyard, where we sampled Canada’s speciality, ice wine. On arrival, we had time for a boat trip, a wander around town and even a session at Casino Niagara. It was a fun day out and a worthwhile trip from Toronto.