By Eva Voinigescu
Toronto may not be most expensive city in the world, but with so many fantastic attractions, foodie-friendly restaurants and top-grade shops, a visit here can burn a hole in your pocket if you’re not careful. Thankfully, there are also many ways to spend your time that won’t cost you a dime. Here, our picks for amazing free stuff to do in Toronto.
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: MUSEUMS & GALLERIES
Many of Toronto’s world-class museums offer free admission during certain hours. The Art Gallery of Ontario, featuring centuries-spanning works housed within a beautiful Frank Gehry-designed building, makes its permanent collection accessible for no charge every Wednesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Smaller, but no less worthwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art offers pay-what-you-can admission every day of the week. For more specialized experiences, the Bata Shoe Museum and Textile Museum of Canada both offer pay-what-you-can hours—Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m., respectively. Art lovers will should note that there’s plenty of other free stuff for them to do in Toronto, as most commercial galleries welcome drop-in viewers and are free to visit.
• Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W., 416-979-6648, ago.net, map and reviews
• Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. W., 416-395-0067, mocca.ca, map and reviews
• Bata Shoe Museum, 327 Bloor St. W., 416-979-7799, batashoemuseum.ca, map and reviews
• Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre Ave., 416-599-5321, textilemuseum.ca, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: MARKETS
Nowhere is Toronto’s diversity on display than at St. Lawrence Market and Kensington Market. The former is housed in a historic building featuring dozens of unique vendors—butchers, fishmongers, bakers and more—as part of one of the world’s best culinary shopping experiences. Kensington Market is actually an entire neighbourhood of eclectic food shops, vintage stores and funky little restaurants, all born from its heritage as an immigrant enclave. Shopping at either of these two destinations will cost you money, of course, but there is still plenty of free stuff to do at both Toronto attractions: browsing the wares, scoring free samples and people watching—particularly exciting in Kensington Market, which attracts its share of colorful characters.
• St. Lawrence Market, 92 Front St. E., 416-392-7219, stlawrencemarket.com, map and reviews
• Kensington Market, west of Spadina Ave. between College St. and Dundas St. W., kensington-market.ca, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: GREEN SPACES
Toronto is the largest city in Canada, but it still offers splendid options for getting back to nature. High Park, in the west end, is the city’s largest public space, with a lake, a small zoo, and plenty of walking paths and places to picnic. Closer to downtown, Trinity Bellwoods Park is a hugely popular destination for Toronto’s younger creative class. When the sun is out, you’ll find the grass covered with people reading, chatting, listening to music and even playing board games. Public tennis courts are also available. For a more active outdoor experience, the Ravines of the Don Valley [PDF] beckon. This urban forest network runs along the Don River and offers numerous trails for hiking and cycling in summer, and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter.
• High Park, 1873 Bloor St. W., website, map and reviews
• Trinity Bellwoods Park, 790 Queen St. W., website, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: SUSTAINABILE ATTRACTIONS
The Evergreen Brick Works, a formerly derelict industrial site, is one of Toronto’s great “adaptive reuse” success stories. Repurposed as a community environmental centre that showcases sustainable design, the Brick Works now hosts many local events and workshops, and even has its own weekly farmers’ market. Free to explore, the historic site is also notable for its children’s discovery area, art exhibitions (including graffiti preserved from its less auspicious days), recreational paths and winter skating trails.
• Evergreen Brick Works, 550 Bayview Ave., 416-596-1495, etw.evergreen.ca, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: EXPERIENCE HISTORY
Canada’s largest collection of Victorian-era industrial buildings, the Distillery Historic District is an impeccably restored section of original Toronto. It is now home to superlative art galleries, unique boutiques and worthy restaurants. The district’s cobblestone streets also comprise ample public space that’s free to wander, and which plays host to many events throughout the year—from a bustling Christmas Market to performances for the Toronto Jazz Festival.
• Distillery Historic District, 55 Mill St., 416-364-1177, thedistillerydistrict.com, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: PARADES
Each year, hundreds of thousands of revellers line Toronto’s streets for processions and pageantry that are unmatched by any other city in Canada. Summer brings the annual LGBT Pride Week celebrations, which are capped by the massive Pride Parade, while the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto Parade is world famous for its extravaganza of colourful costumes and calypso music. Cooler temperatures see the arrival of the Santa Claus Parade, which has brought joy to young and old alike for more than 100 years.
• Pride Parade, late June, Church and Wellesley Village, pridetoronto.com, map and reviews
• Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto, mid-July to mid-August, Exhibition Place, 416-391-5608, torontocaribbeancarnival.com, map and reviews
• Santa Claus Parade, mid-November, downtown, 416-249-7833, thesantaclausparade.com, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: SUN AND SAND
The Beach community in Toronto’s east end offers a small-town experience just minutes from downtown. More than three kilometres of sandy shore along Lake Ontario beckon during the balmy summer months—visitors can swim, play volleyball, stroll the boardwalk or indulge in the simple pleasure of doing absolutely nothing. Just north of the water’s edge lies a stretch of Queen Street East that’s crammed with welcoming cafés, local restaurants, ice cream parlors and charming boutiques. For those feeling less wholesome, there is also an incredibly popular and sandy beach at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands—but beware: this one is clothing optional!
• The Beach, Queen St. E. to Lake Ontario, east of Woodbine Ave., beachestoronto.com, map and reviews
• Hanlan’s Point, catch the ferry at Bay St. and Queens Quay, website, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: CONCERTS
The Canadian Opera Company’s free concert series, running from September to June, features performances by talented local and international artists in six difference areas: vocal, piano, jazz, chamber and world music, as well as dance. Taking place at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and occasional Wednesdays), the recitals in the Four Seasons Centre’s luminous Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre are a perfect way to spend an afternoon. (See the current schedule here.) In the summer, you’ll also want to keep an eye on public spaces in Toronto that offer free stuff. Yonge-Dundas Square, Nathan Phillips Square and David Pecaut Square, for example, frequently play host to free Toronto shows by top musicians, often as part of programming for such festivals as NXNE, Luminato and the Toronto Jazz Festival.
• Canadian Opera Company, 145 Queen St. W., 416-363-8231, coc.ca, map and reviews
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: MOVIES
Spend a summer evening under the stars with a few friends and a favourite film. Venues across the city host free outdoor movie screenings when the weather is pleasant. Check out the lineups of classic and contemporary cinema at Yonge-Dundas Square, David Pecaut Square (hosted by the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Downsview Park and Harbourfront Centre.
• See the schedule for Harbourfront Centre’s Free Flicks program here.
• See the schedule for Yonge-Dundas Square’s free movies program here.
• See the schedule for TIFF Bell Lightbox screenings here.
• See the schedule for Downsview Park’s Movies Under the Stars program here.
FREE STUFF TO DO IN TORONTO: CULTURE
Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre has long been a hotbed for all sorts of activity. Year-round, the venue presents a variety of cultural productions as well as free-to-see contemporary art exhibitions at its York Quay gallery space. But it’s in summer where the space really shines; hugely popular festivals every weekend from June to September showcase music, dance, theatre, food and more from myriad world cultures.
• Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W., 416-973-4000, harbourfrontcentre.com, map and reviews