Family Fun in Toronto, Ontario
Toronto City Hall at night
Toronto City Hall at night
University College, University of Toronto

It takes a week for visitors to get to know Toronto in Ontario, Canada, but a what a fun week it will be!

As far as big cities go, Toronto is a bit of an anomaly, albeit a good one. It is Canada’s largest city with a population of 2.4 million. It is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, comprised of over 80 ethnic groups. It has world-class shopping and boasts over 5,000 restaurants. It is home to four professional sports teams and has one of the largest theater districts in North America.

Despite its size, Ontario’s capital city has eluded many big city ills. It is safe, clean, green, and extremely family-friendly. My husband, Michael, and I have lived in the Toronto vicinity for over 10 years and have always enjoyed its many attractions. Since the birth of our son, Alexander, two years ago, we are discovering how fun and easy it is to explore our city with a toddler. Toronto is a perfect place for a family holiday, and has something to satisfy every age and interest. Your biggest dilemma will be pairing down your list of “things to see”. Let me make it easier for you, by taking you on my favorite one-week, family-friendly tour of Toronto.

Day 1: Getting Your Bearings

Toronto can be overwhelming for the first time visitor. What better way to get your bearings than with a visit to the CN Tower (416/86-TOWER), the world’s tallest freestanding structure. (If it happens to be overcast, save this attraction for another day.) Glass-faced elevators whisk you up to the observation decks for fabulous panoramic views of Lake Ontario and the sprawling Toronto metropolis. Taking a walk across a glass floor 113 stories above the ground is sure to thrill. For budding scientists there’s the EcoDek, an environmental tour of the globe with interactive exhibits. When the youngsters catch a glimpse of the arcade and the exciting motion simulator rides your remaining tour may be put on hold!

301 Front St. W. at John St. Open daily (hours varies according to season). Fee: Total Tower Experience (Lookout, glassfloor, skypod, movie, and motion theater ride) C$31.99 – All Ages. Prices varies according to different attractions.

Day 2: Explore the Waterfront

It’s too difficult to provide just one recommendation for enjoying Toronto’s waterfront, so I’ll fill you in on three of the best. If you’re short on time or energy, an easy and very pleasant excursion is to spend a few hours at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen’s Quay West, ( 416/ 973-4000) right at the edge of Lake Ontario and only minutes from downtown. Harbourfront Centre houses a variety of upscale shops, restaurants and venues for music, dance and cultural events.  Many of the events, particularly on summer weekends, are geared to families with kids (outdoor concerts, magic and puppet shows, youth dance troupes). Events are either free, nominal fee or ticketed. It is worthwhile to contact the Centre for information about scheduled events during your visit. Even if you don’t take in any of the events, Harbourfront is a wonderful place to watch the abundant boating activity and to enjoy an ice cream on one of the restaurant patios. Or, take a boat tour (tours of varying length depart regularly from Harbourfront piers).

If you can spare the better part of a day, another great, inexpensive outing is to take the short ferry ride to Centre Island, Toronto’s “island getaway”. Don’t forget your camera as the magnificent view of Toronto alone makes this trip worthwhile. Centre Island is primarily parkland with loads of shady spots to enjoy a picnic (even when Toronto swelters, there’s always a lovely breeze on the island). We particularly like the countless smooth rollerblading and biking trails that we use with Alex in the stroller. Children from about age 3 will love the attractions at Centreville Amusement Area including a ferris wheel, water slide, mini golf and nearby petting zoo. Pack you bathing suits; there’s a wading pool and sandy beaches. If your family tends to get “hot and bothered” waiting in lines, plan this trip for a weekday. However, if a weekend is your only option, don’t let the ferry lineup deter you. It’s amazing how the crowd thins out over the more than 600 acres of parkland.

Take ferry from terminal beside Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. Call (416/869-1600) for info and schedule. 

If you’re looking for beautiful waterfront scenery combined with exciting entertainment options, head to Ontario Place.  Please note: the Ontario Place grounds, Cinesphere, waterpark, rides, attractions and restaurants are currently closed.  Ontario Place is host to some fabulous summer events: international fireworks displays, air shows, big-name concerts.  On a daily basis, you can enjoy films at the Cinesphere, a huge domed IMAX theatre. We’ve always enjoyed strolling along the marina and enviously eyeing the lovely yachts. For kids, there’s an expansive wet playground, water slides, children’s village and rides. While toddlers are welcome in most of the play areas, there are minimum height requirements for many of the rides and water activities. After an action packed day, recharge at one of the family-friendly waterfront restaurants serving local and international cuisine. 

Ontario Place is at 955 Lake Shore Boulevard West at Exhibition Place. Call (416/314-9900) for event information; there is easy access by public transit. The vast array of amenities and fairly pricey admission (C$29/ages 6-64, C$17/ 65+, C$15/ages 4-5, free for under 3s) makes this a full-day outing so plan for a sunny day. 

Day 3: Toronto Neighborhoods

The thing I love most about Toronto is its cultural diversity, and hence, interesting neighborhoods and great cuisine. You could easily spend an entire week exploring these neighborhoods. Here are my personal favourites. For a dinner that’s bound to please the entire family, head to “Greektown”. This vibrant community along Danforth Avenue (star of the hit film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) is chock full of wonderful restaurants and grocery stores specializing in Mediterranean delicacies.  We’ve spent many a summer evening lingering over our pita bread and wine on an outdoor patio along the Danforth (with baby in tow).

Another great neighborhood is old Chinatown, nestled in and around Spadina St. between Queen and Dundas Streets. This neighborhood is most interesting on weekends, when it’s at its peak of shopping activity. Elbow your way up Spadina Street (lots of pedestrian traffic) and then turn west into one of the small streets leading into Kensington Market . This neighborhood may be a bit too frenzied if you’re traveling with a stroller or very young children. School age children will be fascinated by the exotic fruit, vegetables and delicacies from the sea. After you’re through sightseeing, try an authentic Chinese meal. The Chinese community is very family oriented so you’ll encounter loads of kids at any restaurant.

Greektown runs along Danforth Ave. between Donlands Ave. and Broadview Ave. (easy access via Bloor St. subway line). For China Town, walk along Queen Street W. (funky neighborhood) or take Queen St. streetcar to Spadina. 

Day 4: Ontario Science Centre

Ever since my first high school field trip to the Ontario Science Centre (a very long time ago), I’ve been a regular visitor to this fascinating place. I think the key is, that the over 800 exhibits are very interactive and there’s tons of things to “play with”: from testing your brake reflexes at a red light, to the “hair-raising” experience of touching an electrical ball (kids love this one). Children from about age 4 will be thrilled by how much fun science can be. Some of the more popular exhibits include Space, Sport and the Information Highway. Try to fit in one of science/nature based films, featured throughout the day at the OMNIMAX Theatre.

770 Don Mills Rd. at Eglinton Ave. Esst, 20 minutes from downtown via car, and accessible via public transit. Call (416/696-1000).  Open Monday-Friday 10am-4pm, and10am-5pm on weekends and holidays. Fee: C$22.00/adult, C$16/ kids 13-17 and seniors 65+, C$13/ kids 3-12, kids <3 free (Omnimax extra).

Day 5: The Toronto Zoo

Alex has been to this wonderful zoo a half a dozen times in his two years, and it’s always a huge hit. While the sheer size of the Toronto Zoo can seem a bit daunting, it is easy to tailor your zoo excursion to your interest and time restrictions.  The animals are grouped into geographic themes with appropriate paw prints marking the smooth, wide paths to each area. Kids enjoy following the bear prints to the star attraction of the North American area: the polar bears. Inquire at the entrance about daily ” talk to the zoo keeper” sessions where kids can watch their favorite animals being fed while learning about their characteristics and behaviors. If you get tired of walking, there’s the “zoomobile”, an open train that takes you through the heart of the zoo. If your kids want to do some pre or post research, the zoo’s great web site that also includes a kid’s page .  Schedule a full day for this trip as it is about a 45-minute drive from downtown (at least one hour using public transit). There are lots of shady spots for picnics, and the kids will be happy to learn that McDonald’s holds the main food franchise.

361A Old Finch Avenue, north of Highway 401 on Meadowvale Road in Scarborough, (416/392-5900).  Open daily year-round with varying hours depending on season – Summer, 2014 hours 9am to 7:00pm. Fees: C$23.00/adults and children over 13, C$18.00/seniors 65+, C$14.00/children 3-12, children <3 free. Additional fee for parking, zoomobile and stroller/wagon rental.

Day 6: A Taste of Canadian Art

There is a very special group of Canadian artists that have captured the essence of Canada’s landscapes in spectacular paintings. They are called “The Group of Seven” and the majority of their work is housed at the McMichael Gallery, about 45 minutes north west of Toronto.

Anyone who loves the outdoors and appreciates Canada’s rugged beauty will be enthralled by these stunning, often haunting works of art. The gallery, which resembles an elegant northern lodge and is surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest, also contains other Canadian work, including native and Inuit art. The gallery is quite a manageable size, so children who have some appreciation for art will enjoy spending an hour or so in this beautiful environment.

If they do get bored, take a nature walk along the approximately one-mile McMichael Trail, adjacent to the gallery. Here they have the opportunity to spot all kinds of wildlife: fox, beavers, toads, jack rabbits, deer and a multitude of interesting birds. While at McMichael, you should visit the historic village of Kleinburg and have a refreshment at one of the pretty cafes. 

The complex is at 10365 Islington Avenue in the village of Kleinberg. Call (905/893-1121) or (888/213-1121) for information and directions.  The gallery is open daily 10am to 4pm.  Admission: C$15/adults, C$12/students and seniors, <5 free, family $30.

If time does not permit you to travel to McMichael, the large and impressive Art Gallery Of Ontario (AGO) in downtown Toronto has a good sampling of “Group of Seven” work.  For broader interests, the centrally located Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) features galleries in Art, Archaeology and Science. This excellent museum also has many exhibits sure to please the younger members of your family: dinosaurs, mummies, fossils to name a few.

Day 7: Sports Day (Or Shopping)

Q. What fuels Canadian passion above all else?
A. The good old hockey game.

You’ll need a miracle to get Maple Leaf tickets, but you can easily do the next best thing by visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame (416/360-7765). A must for hockey fans of all ages, this facility provides an exciting look at the game and its players. You can browse through the world’s finest collection of hockey memorabilia and test your knowledge and reflexes at the many interactive exhibits. Truth be told, even I (not a huge sports fan) was quite entertained when my husband dragged me down there. In keeping with the hockey theme, your little (and big) fans will be thrilled to dine at Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant, a short walk away – decent food and more memorabilia!

Hockey Hall of Fame: 30 Yonge St. (BCE Place). Open M-S 9:30am-6pm, Sun. 10am-6pm. Fee: C$13/adults, $9/ youth 4-13 and seniors, free/ kids <4.

If you want to make this a complete sports day, it’s always fun to catch a ball game at Toronto’s SkyDome Stadium. This facility, home to the Toronto Blue Jays, is famous for its huge retractable roof. You can usually get tickets if you go to the stadium on game day.

SkyDome Information Line: (416/341-1000)

Note from FTF: SkyDome is now known as Rogers Centre after Rogers Communications bought the facility in 2005.  It is still the home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

OK, so I haven’t managed to make your heart skip a beat at the mention of sports. Why not split up and head for some power shopping at the Eaton Centre (Toronto’s huge, landmark shopping complex). Or, visit the exclusive boutiques and international design houses in the BloorSt./Yorkville district, Toronto’s most upscale shopping area.


Caroline Helbig, part-time marketer and teacher based in West Vancouver, BC, is happiest exploring the undersea world, racing down ski slopes, and discovering the world with husband Michael and son Alex.

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