Whatever you like to call Toronto – the Six, Hogtown or the Big Smoke – this is one of Canada's top stops for families with kids in tow. While older travelers rave about the food, nightlife and arts scene, for families it's all about the museums, the water and the green spaces. Add in Toronto's welcoming nature, its cultural diversity and its safety, and you have a pretty much perfect family city break.
Toronto’s rich multiculturalism is a big factor in its appeal for families. Varied communities have filled the city's diverse neighborhoods with energy, world foods and culture. And of course, there’s the fun factor of top-tier attractions such as the CN Tower and LEGOland that are a guaranteed hit with younger travelers. As an added bonus, the transit system easily transports city dwellers and visitors to all ends of the city.
Parents seeking an interesting, safe and memorable destination for a vacation need look no further than Toronto. Here are our tips for families traveling to the capital of Ontario with kids.
Why Toronto is a great city to visit with kids
The world’s sixth-safest city, Toronto is a top destination for parents who are looking for a welcoming, stress-free family vacation. The wide range of activities on offer only adds to the appeal, from harbor cruises to trips to urban beaches – best experienced in the warm summer. With so much to do in and around the city, each day in Toronto promises to be both eventful and memorable.
The best things to do in Toronto will keep kids mentally stimulated, culturally rewarded and physically active – exactly what you want from a family vacation. Here are our top recommendations.
The CN Tower has Toronto's best views
Towering 1815ft above the city, the CN Tower is Toronto’s most recognizable landmark, and it's a perennially popular draw for tourists. With views to rival an airplane on take-off, the tower promises an unforgettable experience for visitors who are looking for a vertiginous thrill. Once at the top, you can marvel at stellar views from the Observation Deck, or enjoy a 360º panoramic view of the Big Smoke from the revolving 360 Restaurant. Kids will be wowed by the high-speed, glass-fronted elevator ride to the Glass Floor, which offers views straight down to ground level, 1122ft below. The whole family will remember visiting this landmark for years to come.
Toronto Zoo is a must for animal-lovers
A top destination for lovers of furry critters and other nature enthusiasts, the Toronto Zoo promises a memorable day out for parents and children. Located in the northeast corner of the city, covering 710 acres, the zoo has been set up to highlight the regions of the world from which its animal inhabitants hail, so you can take a tour of Australasia, Eurasia and Africa without leaving Ontario. Structured guided tours are big on information for kids, but it's just as much fun to do your own thing and explore at your leisure. It's 34km west of downtown Toronto – bus 86A goes to the zoo from Kennedy station daily in summer, or just on weekdays at other times of the year.
Head to Centre Island to catch your breath after exploring the center
Loved by city-dwellers and tourists alike, Centre Island is a must-see destination for families visiting Toronto. Half the fun of visiting this green island parkland is getting here by ferry – a 15-minute ride across Lake Ontario from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at Queens Quay. As well as spectacular views of the Toronto skyline, the park is a great place for picnics, playing games by the beach or exploring by bike (family-friendly tandems and quadricycles are available for rent). It's perfect for an inexpensive family outing. If the kids are looking for more excitement, the island has a summertime amusement park with rides suitable for everyone from tots all the way up to adults.
LEGOland Discovery Centre is the place to get hands-on with Lego
A 30-minute drive northwest of the center, the LEGOland Discovery Centre is a cathedral to this legendary children's toy. For maximum hands-on appeal, the center has ten LEGO Build and Play Zones, a 4D theater, two LEGO-themed rides for the kids and three million LEGO bricks – enough to keep young hands busy for hours. In case you're struggling to drag the kids away for lunch, there's a LEGO-themed café with family-friendly selections for hungry tots. The center is set inside the large Vaughan Mills shopping center, in case you want to combine a family activity with a bit of retail therapy.
Ontario Science Centre is great inquisitive minds
Open for more than 50 years, the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) is a top cultural attraction and a staple stop for school visitors, families and grown-ups who are fascinated by all things science-related. Visited by approximately one million people annually, the museum is packed with interactive displays and there's an IMAX theater screening immersive nature documentaries. Exhibitions tie into important scientific issues of the day, from future fuels to climate change. The center encourages inquisitiveness and critical thinking, and hosts sporting white lab coats are available to answer all the kids' questions.
Hit High Park for a summer picnic
Inland from Sunnyside Beach and easily accessed from the Bloor West Village shopping strip, High Park is a 399-acre natural respite from the city crush. Families flock there year-round to get a taste of the outdoors, enjoying numerous hiking trails, a zoo, a large pond, various playgrounds, picnic areas, eateries and more. In the spring each year, the park is famous for its blooming cherry trees, which attract blossom-spotters from all over the world (it's a little like the Japanese sakura experience). For a fun, inexpensive day out with the kids, you can't do better, and it's easy to get here via the High Park subway station.
Take a harbor cruise
A cruise on Lake Ontario in front of the city skyline is a great way to inject a little adventure into a family trip. Between May and September cruise operators sail from the waterfront beside Queens Quay Terminal or York Quay Centre, with most packages including a buffet lunch. Trips on the vintage sailing ship Kajama are particularly memorable. For a much cheaper alternative, take the public Toronto Island Ferry from Jack Layton Ferry Terminal to Centre Island, Hanlan's Point or Ward's Island.
Hit the beach
Beaches might not be the first thing that leaps to mind when you think of Toronto, but the capital of Ontario is blessed with some surprisingly lovely strips of sand, both manmade and natural. In summer, make a beeline for Sugar Beach on Queens Quay East, or Bluffer’s Park Beach, a lively, shallow-water lake beach just east of downtown at the foot of the rocky Scarborough Bluffs. Alternatively, make a day of it at the beaches on the Toronto Islands.
Recommended neighborhoods for families
Toronto is known for its cultural diversity, which is reflected in its broad sweep of neighborhoods, settled by communities from as far afield as China, India, Cambodia, Greece, Italy and the Caribbean. Exploring beyond the busy center will serve up a free dose of cultural immersion as well as colorful, economically-priced cuisine.
As well as the attractions downtown, of particular interest to parents and kids are the areas of Chinatown, Kensington Market, Danforth Village and West End. Chinatown is a feast for the eyes, ears and palate, with colorful stores, authentic Chinese restaurants and street vendors hawking Chinese nicknacks adding to its appeal.
Kensington Market is known for its eclectic mix of people, and it's a great place for teens to shop for vintage and reclaimed fashions and artifacts. Just around the corner (literally) from Chinatown, “the Market” as it's colloquially known, provides an interesting mix of arts-related stores, thrift shops, globe-trotting eateries and hip coffee shops. All are family-friendly and kids are welcome everywhere.
When it comes to accommodation, staying downtown puts you close to the sights, but you'll pay a big premium for a central location, particularly if you have to accommodate a large family. As an alternative, consider Airbnb stays around Bloor West Village (with great shopping on tap), Danforth Village, and the Beaches, with a small-town vibe and a string of parks and beaches to enjoy.
How to Get Around
Toronto is built on a grid, and the inexpensive and efficient Toronto transit system – locally known as the “TTC” (Toronto Transit Commission) – makes it easy to explore. The subway has two main lines providing easy access to northern and southern parts of the city, as well as suburbs to the east and west. Subway stations are conveniently located close to major intersections and heavily-trafficked corners. For those who wish to remain above ground, the TTC has a robust bus and streetcar fleet, the latter offering a fun sightseeing tour for families who prefer to enjoy a slower, more leisurely way to explore the city.
Tips for the Toronto weather
Technically, Toronto is located at a similar latitude to Florence in Italy, but with the North American continental climate, don’t be surprised if it gets a tad chilly when visiting during the non-summer months. Temperatures between May and September range from balmy summertime highs of 88℉ (31℃) to an undeniably cool 37℉ (3℃) in spring and fall. During the icy winter months, the temperature rarely exceeds 41℉ (5℃) – steel yourself for lows of 3℉ (-16℃), not including the wind chill factor. If that doesn't put you off, book in some time at the public outdoor ice-skating rink that sets up at the Harbourfront Centre.
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