Are you going to be in Toronto on a business trip? Do you have a layover when traveling to another destination. A side trip from Niagara Falls, maybe. Whatever the reason for your brief visit, you’ll want to make it the best it can be.
I’ve planned to visit Toronto ever since I sold my first novel to a Toronto based publishing company. Somehow it never happened. So, this fall, since I was spending time only 4 hours away, I vowed to make the trip before I left.
I didn’t expect to sandwich the Toronto trip between a Paul McCartney concert in Detroit and departing for Arizona two days later. But a vow is a vow and 24 hours is better than not visiting at all. Whether you’re on a tight timeline or not when visiting Toronto, check out our list and get a head start on what to see and do in this vibrant city.
TORONTO – 24 Hour Travel Goal
Our goal in Toronto (and always) is to explore and experience, not rush around to complete a travel hit list. We’re a bit obsessed with history, local festivals, music, art of all kinds, ethnic foods, craft beers, good wine, and caffeine in all its forms. With that in mind, we want to see as much as possible, stay within the budget, relax and have fun.
TORONTO – Gotham on Steroids
This bustling capital of Ontario is the fourth largest city in North America. Toronto is a culturally diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis with so much to see and do even a week’s stay couldn’t do it justice. This year is the city’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) so there’s even more going on.
First task – secure a comfortable, budget-friendly hotel within walking distance from as many attractions as possible. According to a friend, downtown Toronto is the city’s nerve center, the place to be. With a little research and help from our TripAdvisor app we scored a discounted room where the action is.
Second task – make a want-to-see list. A challenge because Toronto is alive with possibilities, and we had to be time-conscious when choosing what to see and do. We persevered and here’s the result…19 popular attractions. Plus our narrowed list…and what we actually managed to do in 24 hours.
19 POPULAR TORONTO ATTRACTIONS
CN Tower – The tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere, the CN has simulated motion rides and a movie at ground floor, a glass floor, an outdoor observation deck, a restaurant in the sky and Edgewalk, (gasp) Toronto’s most extreme attraction. Admission $36 adults. Discounts for seniors and children.
Royal Ontario Museum – Canada’s largest museum has extensive World Culture exhibits and Natural History galleries…and six million artifacts! I hear the new eye-popping addition, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, is an awesome sight from the outside. Admission $20 adults and discounted prices for seniors, youths, students and children.
Casa Loma – Built in 1911, Sir Henry Mill Pellantt’s dream home has 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, 2 secret passageways, and an 800 feet (240m) tunnel. My writer’s brain immediately imagined murder and other sinister activities for a whole series of mystery and suspense books. And there’s more…25 fireplaces, 3 bowling alleys, a shooting gallery, a 1,700 bottle wine cellar, a library with space for 10,000 volumes (be still my heart) and 5 acres of cultured gardens. According to some, this is the only real castle in North America.
Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) – Wow! The stunning recent renovation gave the AGO a shiny mirrored face and increased viewing space by nearly 50 percent, making more room for the works of Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and many more. One of the most photographed design elements in Toronto. Under $20 per adult with discounts for seniors and children.
Hockey Hall of Fame – Hockey fans won’t want to miss this one. It’s the home of the Stanley Cup! But it’s much more than the largest collection of hockey memorabilia. The Hockey Hall of Fame also has two theaters and a sprawling simulated rink that hosts state-of-the-art interactive games. Admission $19 with discounts for seniors and children.
St. Lawrence Market — the world’s best market according to National Geographic. Here you’ll find over 50 specialty vendors offering everything from organic produce to exotic seafood flown in fresh daily. All of this under the roof of a heritage building that originally opened as the city’s second City Hall in 1845. All that…and it’s free.
The Distillery – Once the world’s largest distillery, the complex is now a creative, pedestrian-only village with cobblestone streets, great theaters, galleries, restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Free admission. How much you spend is up to you.
Railway Museum – this 9,300 square metre roundhouse once had stalls to repair and maintain up to 32 locomotives. The roundhouse was in use until 1986 when the Canadian Pacific Railway donated the building to the city to become a museum. Admission $5 ages 14 – 65, children $3.
Yonge-Dundas Square – An exciting public square reminiscent of Times Square in NYC. Here you’ll find concerts, fairs, and a variety of events. Toronto’s busiest intersection is surrounded by three shopping centers, a plethora of restaurants, and overlooked by Canada’s tallest media tower. Our hotel is only a few blocks away.
Chinatown – Famous for some of the world’s finest Chinese food. This Toronto neighborhood also offers Vietnamese and Thai meals at great prices. You can find amazing deals on groceries, artwork, clothing and electronics of all kinds. The Chinese New Year celebration is one of the best and includes a colorful parade featuring lion and dragon dancers. Visitors are welcome to join in the festivities.
Kensington Market – not an actual market, but a vibrant, Bohemian neighborhood of narrow streets and alleys with a multitude of sounds and smells. You’ll find everything from fresh fish and produce to vintage clothing, live music…and street art in abundance. A multicultural neighborhood, Kensington Market was proclaimed a National Historic Site of Canada in November 2006.
Graffiti Alley – a.k.a. Rush Lane, is exactly what the name says. In the Westside next to Old Town and steps from Spadina and Queen St. You’ll find colorful street art depicting lots of socio-political commentary with a humorous twist. Bring your wide-angle lens.
Queen’s Park – where the legislature and the University of Toronto reside. Architecture aficionados will salivate at the edifices lining Queen’s Park Crescent.
Entertainment District – home of the Toronto International Film Festival, the symphony, the ballet, and live performance theaters of all types…within walking distance of each other. If you’re looking for some of the best bars, restaurants, and great hotels, you’ll find them in the Entertainment District. Redevelopment in this former industrial area began in the late 1980s and continues today. Check it out here.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – Toronto’s newest attraction where you can get up close and personal with thousands of marine animals from around the world. Explore Rainbow Reef, Dangerous Lagoon and much more. The aquarium conveniently sits at the base of the CN Tower. General Admission $30-33 with discounts for children and students.
Old Town – celebrate the past in Old Town! Home to the iconic St. Lawrence Market, and where you’ll see homes and businesses dating back to the early 1800s. Old town includes the neighborhoods of Corktown, Historic Queen East, the Distillery District and the King East Design District. Contemporary shops and cafes share the history of this unique area. The Romanesque Revival and French Gothic architecture of the Gooderham Building, also known as the Flatiron Building draws more photographers than any other building in Toronto.
Harbourfront Centre – is a massive indoor/outdoor complex on a 10-acre site on the shore of Lake Ontario. The Harbourfront Centre is a hive of activity in the summer. In the winter it’s less so, but still active with a skating rink, the World Cafe, the International Marketplace, free concerts and a year-round celebration of the arts.
The Beaches – If you crave fun in the sun, there are 12 sandy beaches in Toronto. Those that are tagged as Blue Flag Certified meet high standards for water quality, environmental management, environmental education, and safety.
The Islands – apparently the locals refer to it as The Island, but it’s actually an archipelago of tiny islands where you can ride a log flume and take a fun 10 minute ferry ride to get there. The Island is North America’s largest car-free community. Hanlan’s Point is home to North America’s oldest existing lighthouse and once had a baseball stadium where Babe Ruth hit his first home run. You can bike, hike, picnic, or enjoy the clothing-optional beach on Hanlan’s Point. (don’t say you weren’t warned)
Our TORONTO To-Do List…and why
We narrowed this ginormous list, which is sorely incomplete, to what we could reasonably do during our brief time. We picked the most interesting attractions near our hotel. No reason to waste what little time we have traveling across town.
- The CN Tower – we’ve climbed, or have been elevated, to the top of the NYC Twin Towers and the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the top of the amazing Duomo and its bell tower in Florence, Italy, the bell tower in Siena, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the IDS Building (where Mary Tyler Moore tossed her hat in the air) in Minneapolis, so how could we miss the CN Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
- The Royal Ontario Museum – It’s culture, and if it’s raining and/or cold, this is a good indoor choice.
- The Distillery – food, drink and multiple places to shop. What could be more fun!
- Casa Loma – let’s call it research. Sir Henry’s dream castle with secret passageways, that’s the stuff that stokes my writer’s imagination.
- Kensington Market – because it’s said to be one of the most culturally diverse areas of the city. A crazy busy place with narrow streets, eclectic shops, cafes, and food markets.
- Graffiti Alley – I love the creativity of street art and must take photos for my growing collection.
- Chinatown – already the list is too long with too much to do in such a short time. But we have to pass through Toronto’s Chinatown to get to Kensington Market. It will be fun to see how it compares with Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and New York City.
- St. Lawrence Market – because the energy of open air markets is invigorating…and I like to buy fresh, crusty baguettes and giant blocks of cheese, and to watch a fish monger shuck fresh oysters. St. Lawrence Market is also in Old Town, so this is two-for-one time saver.
What We Actually Did in 24 Hours in TORONTO
THURSDAY EVENING – 4:00 P.M.: We arrived in time to do a walkabout near our hotel…an evening tour of the neighborhood, including Chinatown. The shops were closed, but we had fun window shopping. Afterward, we enjoyed a late Dinner at Joey at Eaton Centre, a trendy upscale/casual restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. Check out the amazing light fixtures.
The food at Joey is described as traditional Canadian/Asian fare. That seemed an accurate description since the menu included everything from burgers to a steak and sushi combo. We picked Sliders Royale (hey, it was late and burgers are one of my comfort foods) and an amazing Pasta Pomodoro with Calabrian chili spiked tomato sauce, whipped ricotta, fresh basil, parmesan and ginormous spicy meatballs. Joey gets a five star recommendation from this tired couple.
FRIDAY MORNING – 8:00 A.M. to NOON: After coffee in our room, and armed with our smaller list and suggestions from a Toronto friend, we’re on our way to Kensington Market. Approximately a one mile walk.
CHINATOWN: Again. It’s on the way to Kensington Market, and we could not miss further exploration of this lively community with enough shops and signs for three neighborhoods. And you’ll find everything from fresh vegetables to T-shirts, three for $11 Canadian. To me, Toronto’s Chinatown is more reminiscent of New York’s Chinatown than San Francisco or others I’ve visited.
The storefronts are conventional rather than Chinese architecture, but you’ll still find all the Chinese shops, and markets filled with exotic fruits and vegetables. There’s a mix of Thai, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants along with with the traditional Chinese, giving Toronto’s Chinatown a distinct Asian feel.
KENSINGTON MARKET — For what it’s worth, Kensington Market looked a lot closer on the map than it felt, but my Fitbit was happy to see me getting a good start on my 10K daily steps. It’s still early and most shops and cafes are just opening, but soon, this Bohemian neighborhood is a hive of activity. Here, street art defines this diverse community in alleys and on the walls of its ethnic shops, markets and tiny cafes boasting some kind of organic fare. I love the rooftop garden below.
We ate a late breakfast at the Film Café where old photos and movie cameras make up the decor. With food in our bellies and fueled by caffeine, we headed out and onward to the next Toronto experience.
GRAFFITI ALLEY: This creative explosion of street art runs west from Spadina Ave. to Portland St., and was everything and more than I hoped it would be. Also known as Rush Lane or Rick Mercer’s Alley, you can find back alley access between Queen St. and Richmond St.
The popularity of street art in Toronto springs from a program called StreetARToronto, or START, which encourages art around town. Apparently successful, you will find street art in abundance as it bleeds over into multiple neighborhoods. The high caliber of the art in Graffiti Alley draws artists from all over the world including the well-known Banksy. Banksy is the subject of a documentary titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and whose work I’ve photographed in several European countries.
I’m fascinated by art of all types, and especially street art, but even if you’re not, Graffiti Alley is a novel change from the ordinary tourist attractions.
ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO: Not on our final list, but the AGO is on the way back to our hotel from Kensington Market. The architecture, high ceilings and wood sculptured spiral staircase are art in and of themselves. I’m drawn by the mirrored façade that captures the reflections of the turn of the century row homes on the opposite side of the street.
The AGO opens at 10:30 a.m., and with the afternoon planned, we narrowed our viewing to two exhibits; Guillermo del Toroi’s At Home With Monsters, and the AGO photography prize 2017 exhibition. Had we known and come a week later, we could have attended the AGO’s First Thursday event, a party that begins after the museum closes. Something to consider for the next trip.
KOREA TOWN: Since it was close by, we walked through, marveling at the diversity of shops, restaurants and street vendors.
FRIDAY NOON to 4:00 p.m.: We checked out of our hotel at noon and drove to Old Town. The traffic is crazy here and parking is not fun.
ST. LAWRENCE MARKET: Located in Old Town. First we sucked up the atmosphere of the turn of the century neighborhood and then ventured through the sprawling market that takes up a whole city block. With over 50 vendors inside, the iconic St. Lawrence Market could easily consume the whole day.
We strolled from fish market to artisan bakery, meat market to gourmet cheese shop, making purchases and sampling everything from tacos to oysters. We smelled the myriad rows of fragrant flowers, and then relaxed at an outdoor cafe, where we taste-tested Canadian beer. A must-do no matter how much time you have.
SUGAR BEACH: It’s not on our list, and can be only a brief stop on our way out of town. I was overdressed among the sunbathers on this whimsical beach, but took off my shoes to sink my feet in the warm sugar sand. We found a spot under a pink umbrella, watched the sailboats in the harbor, and munched on our still warm lemon, poppyseed shortbread from the market. A relaxing break from the lively St. Lawrence Market…and a perfect end to a perfect mini-trip.
How could we miss touring the CN Tower, one of the attractions I was sure we’d fit in…or Casa Loma, another must-do for me. Well, we did, because in the end, doing either one would have taken up several hours, so choices had to be made. And remember, part of our initial goal on this mini-trip is to relax.
A culturally rich and diverse city like Toronto truly requires a much longer stay, but we did our brief time justice. We experienced six of the eight awesome things on our hope-to-do list and two that weren’t listed. We easily kept within our budget since everything we did (other than the AGO, meals and our hotel) was free.
In the end, 24 hours is just enough time to enjoy a small taste of Toronto, a mere appetizer. And now, with our appetites whetted, we’re primed to return and savor the full-course meal.
10 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT TORONTO YOU MAY NOT KNOW
- Toronto has a hidden subway system under the Queen Station. (I must use this in a book)
- Toronto is the second most ethnically diversified city in the world with almost half (45%) from different countries
- Toronto boasts 8,100 restaurants and bars
- Babe Ruth cracked his first professional home run in Hanlan’s Point Stadium on Centre Island.
- 40 million annual visitors to Toronto spend $7.2 billion during visits
- There are over 10 million trees in Toronto and 9,520 streets
- The Toronto Zoo is the third largest zoo in the world
- Toronto has the second longest public transit system in North America
- The PATA is the largest continuous underground shopping mall in North America with over 1,200 shops
- In the 1850s, the Toronto Islands were home to brothels, dingy bars and places to gamble. Not exactly the family friendly place it is today.