One of my favorite family vacations as a kid was my first time out of the U.S. – a trip to Toronto. It was also one of the first trips that I helped my parents plan, weighing in on what to see and do. I’ll never forget crossing the border under the Maple Leaf flag, road signs in French and English, wondering what awaited us in this new country. Turns out, it was pretty similar to the U.S., aside from the currency and metric system, but there were enough differences to start piquing my interest in exploring more of the world.
I’ve been Toronto for work trips a few times over the years, but haven’t been able to really enjoy or explore this wonderfully cosmopolitan city since that first journey 30+ years ago. So, we headed up to visit our neighbors to the North in Toronto for our boys’ fall break.
The things that make Toronto a great city in general, also make it a great city to explore with kids. It’s unpretentious – cool without really knowing how cool it is; hip without being too trendy. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world which adds a uniqueness and interest that draws you in even more. Toronto is somewhat similar to New York City, not in size, but in scope – it has a waterfront, ample public transportation, horrible traffic, great culture and museums, unique neighborhoods and restaurants that wow foodies.
We stayed in a lovely AirBNB home a little outside of downtown proper in an area near Victoria station called Scarborough. It was about 20-minutes from the heart of Toronto, which wasn’t ideal but we were only a mile from the subway. Staying downtown would have been preferable, but we try to keep lodging costs as low as possible in order to take more trips throughout the year.
We drove from place to place quite a bit on the first two days, and then finally learned our lesson. Take the subway; take the subway; take the subway. Traffic is really bad at most hours – both in the downtown area and the surrounding highways.
With just 3 ½ days to explore, we were strategic in choosing our activities and hit some highlights:
Not to miss:
Ontario Science Centre – an interactive and scientifically-oriented mecca. My boys really enjoy science museums, and they are always high on our list for whatever city we’re in. I remember it being really cool when I was a kid, and it didn’t disappoint. There is a kids’ maker space, a planetarium, IMAX theatre and galleries upon galleries of interesting and hands-on exhibits. Even at the best and most fun museums, my kids’ attention spans only last two to three hours, however, at hour four, we had to leave to make our reservation at Medieval Times.
Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – Recently renovated, this museum is incredible, and I call it a “little sister” to the incomparable British Museum. The ROM s a combo of natural history, art, artifacts and other archeological and artisan treasures from all over the world, including some from Canadian First Peoples, Egyptian mummies and one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts outside of China. Another 4-hour stay, there is a dedicated children’s area, but my boys actually preferred the dinosaur, mammal and Chinese galleries.
CN Tower – the icon of the Toronto skyline and utilitarian communications tower, the CN Tower is hard to miss from any vantage point of the city. It was still the highest freestanding structure in the world until 2006 when Asian buildings passed its prominence. Now, the ninth highest in the world, and the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Owing to my fear of heights, and the boys’ lack of enthusiasm for riding the glass elevator to the top, we didn’t venture up, but it was still fun to wander around the downtown area where the CN tower serves as an irresistible beacon.
Walking around Chinatown and Kensington Market – Chinatown was just like strolling through a section of Xian or Beijing – authentic restaurants, shops and Tai Chi being practiced in small parks. In fact, so real to China, had flashbacks to living in Shanghai. Kensington Market area is a little gritty, but it’s almost like an outdoor art museum with vibrant and unique graffiti art covering the sides of buildings. You never know what delectable scene is around the corner. And, oh yeah, and there are cool cafes, fruit and vegetable markets and shops, too.
And be sure to go to City Hall to get a pic in front of the TORONTO sculpture – once it’s cold enough you can even ice skate in front of it.
… If you have time:
Casa Loma – if you’ve been to any castles in Europe or mansions in Newport, RI, this will be a bit of a disappointment. Still, there is something to be said for re-creating the goofy picture that your dad took of you 30+ years ago in the shower, and it’s in a lovely neighborhood.
Grabbing coffee at a local shop, soaking in the atmosphere and vibe of a city is always my favorite part of a trip. Toronto has an incredible international vibe as if you could be in New York, Berlin, Shanghai or Sydney all at the same time.
We just scratched the surface of this captivating cosmopolitan city – it left us not only wanting to explore more Toronto and Ontario, but more of Canada.