Your Guide to Downtown and the Most Amazing Things to Do in Toronto
It’s easy to feel lost amid the dazzling high rises of city’s downtown core, especially once you realize seeing the CN Tower on the horizon doesn’t always mean that way is south… Lucky for you, here’s our complete guide to making heads and tails of things to do in Toronto. Get your feet on the ground and soak in the culture of the city’s top attractions, hottest nightlife, and striking performing arts venues – or, keep your head in the clouds with some elevated dining options. Either way, you’re in for a beautiful experience.
If you want to leave the downtown core and explore off the beaten path, check out Leslieville in the East and Trinity Bellwoods in the West for more alternative ways to get to know the city. These hot summer tips, however, will take you all around town.
1. Catch a movie at the TIFF Bell Lightbox
The Lightbox is the permanent home of the Toronto International Film Festival. Year-round, it’s a movie theatre where you can watch some of the most salient new films from both local and international filmmakers, starring both new faces and familiar actors, instead of big blockbuster movies. They also regularly screen old classics, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is being shown on 70mm film. The building takes up an entire city block and contains the Film Reference Library, the CIBC Canadian Film Gallery, with its innovative movie-related exhibitions, and Luma, a fine dining restaurant serving Canadian fare. When festival season comes around in September though… it’s a whole other ball game. The building becomes ground zero for spotting and rubbing shoulders with some of the hottest celebs in the film industry. website
2. Have dinner at one of the city’s best restaurants
a. Fine Dining
Downtown Toronto is ripe with amazing dinner options and fine dining staples such as Canoe. It’s known for its creative Canadian dishes and, located on the 54th floor of the TD Bank tower, it has one of the best views of the city. If you like being high up, we also recommend Kōst on the 44th floor of the Bisha Hotel for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Then, there’s Alo, which was voted Best Restaurant in the country by Canada’s 100 Best for two years now. However, to really make an educated decision about where to dine, check out our guide to downtown’s finest restaurants.
b. Quicker Bites
If eating isn’t gonna be the main event of your evening and you’re looking for more affordable options, these places blur the line between a takeout counter and a restaurant, just get ready to sit on a stool for the evening. First, Planta Burger is the more casual spin off of trendy vegan restaurant Planta, and makes for a good lunch or early dinner. If you’re staying out later, try WVRST – a beer and cider hall that also has an incredible selection of specialty sausages (including vegan options), the best fries, and even raclette. Wilbur Mexicana, meanwhile, specializes in salsa and has a whole selection, made fresh in house daily, that you can sample with your tacos. Or, for excellent northern Thai fare and cocktails, check out Pai.
3. Take the Kensington Market & Chinatown Toronto Food Tour
Take your experience of Downtown Toronto to a more human scale. Full of immigrant communities, family-owned restaurants and mom & pop shops, there’s life in every corner of these urban cultural hubs. The The Kensington Market & Chinatown Toronto Food Tour is a 3 hour long walking tour led by a knowledgeable and passionate guide who weaves local history with personal anecdotes and recommendations. At 7 different tasting locations you’ll have the chance to try a wide variety unique culinary delights such as dumplings, Dan Dan noodles, fish & chips, a Caribbean specialty and more. Not only will you get a taste of these diverse culinary traditions, but you’ll get to explore the area’s hidden corners and unique architecture, which has been painted, sculpted and otherwise decorated by the area’s creative minds. Learn more about this food tour
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4. Go underwater at Ripley’s Aquarium
It’s one of the city’s newest attractions, having only opened its doors at the end of 2013, but Ripley’s Aquarium has quickly become an impressive classic. It has ten galleries, each portraying a different habitat or theme, 450 species, and over 20,000 animals. You’ll get to travel through the Dangerous Lagoon, the largest tank in the exhibit, as several species of sharks and rays swim over your head. Then, you can also appreciate the elegant jellyfish, lit up with a stunning colour changing display. website
5. Feast on fine foods from the St. Lawrence Market
The St. Lawrence Market is a major farmers’ market with over 100 vendors selling everything such as fresh local produce on the weekends, lots of cheese, meat and inedible things too like artisanally made clothing, jewellery, and even antiques. It’s easy to wander around and see where the sights, smells and sounds take you, but there’s one spot not to miss. While you’re there, you have to try the peameal bacon sandwich from Carousel Bakery. It’s a rule. Not really, of course, but it was even announced by Mayor John Tory that the sandwich is Toronto’s signature dish. website
6. Spend a night at the city’s hottest bars
a. For Beer Lovers
If craft beer calls your name, you’re in luck with these tap-filled spaces. First off, there’s Bar Hop. That’s the name of a bar, but the activity’s not a bad idea either… At Bar Hop you’ll find an impressive 36 craft beers on tap, as well as over 100 bottles that include special and private imports. It’s a cozy, approachable place, and the kitchen’s open until 1am, too! Meanwhile, King Taps is an urban sports bar with elevated food, including amazing pizza, in the heart of the financial district. There, you’ll find over 50 beers on tap and a spectacular patio, all spread out over 2 impressive floors.
b. For a Little Adventure
If you’re trying to get away from it all, without straying far, try the recently opened Goldie. It’s a two-story cocktail bar and lounge located in a converted townhouse. It has a menu of refined tapas and draws its inspiration from the 70s and 80s. Touches like wood panelled walls give the whole space an intimate feel. Then, on the other end of the spectrum is the unpretentious yet legendary Horseshoe Tavern. You’ll find a relaxed atmosphere, a pool table, and a back room music venue that features both local and touring musicians, brining the underground right to the heart of the city.
c. For Connoisseurs
Downtown Toronto is home to a couple of bars that have made it onto Canada’s 100 Best list of the 50 Best Bars, so you can count on the fact that they have a stamp of approval from industry experts. First there’s Rush Lane & Co. at #28. They take mixology seriously, making creative and meticulously crafted cocktails. They even test the pH levels of their citrus juice in their lab to ensure the right consistency. Then, rounding the list out at #40 is BarChef just across the street. This dimly lit, intimate space also specializes in lavish cocktails, served in vintage glassware. They have a stunning amount of homemade bitters lining the shelves to make their modernist takes on what drinks can be. The food and even drink plating looks like a Japanese zen garden, serving up both elegance and taste in everything they do.
7. Lose yourself to the theatre
Toronto has a rich, exciting and diverse theatre industry featuring everything from Broadway shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked”, to more funny shows like “Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” a rock opera for the holiday season created by and starring the Twisted Sister lead singer. Mirvish is the big player on the scene – it’s a theatre production company that owns and operates the stunning Royal Alexandra, Princess of Wales, Ed Mirvish and CAA theatres, all in downtown. You’ll also find some hilarious drag at Ross Petty’s family-friendly comedies, such as Peter Pan, which show at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. For complete theatre listings and tickets visit the independently run Toronto Theatre guide.
8. Elevate yourself at the CN Tower
Alright, lets address the elephant on the skyline: the CN Tower, the world’s tallest free standing structure for 32 years from 1975–2007. It towers over the city, defining its skyline and enticing tourists. Check out its glass floor and look down at the city from the 342 metre (1,122 foot) high viewing platform, eat dinner at 360, the tower’s revolving restaurant that gives panoramic Views of the city, or test your fear factor by stepping out into the wind on the EdgeWalk. If you’re not enticed by the attractions, turn your trip to the tower into a charitable one by participating in the stair climb for the WWF or United Way, and mount its 1,776 steps. You’ll get a t-shirt with your time (try and beat mine at 18:52), pride, and a lot of street cred. website
9. Explore the vibrant communities within downtown Toronto
Your experience of downtown Toronto doesn’t need to be all glass and skyscrapers – the district also includes several smaller communities that are closer to the ground and incredibly pedestrian friendly. To soak in a whole lot of culture, spend a day exploring the shops of bustling Kensington Market and Chinatown, travel back in time on a visit to the Distillery District, or discover the residential haven of Cabbagetown. They’re all a decently short walk from even the deepest part of Toronto’s concrete jungle.
10. Shop ‘till you drop at the Eaton Centre
If you want the ultimate urban shopping experience, this is where to go. It’s clean, modern, and has impressive high arched glass ceilings and several floors of stores spanning everything from common chains to high-end boutiques. The centre stretches the distance between Dundas and Queen subway stations and is a monument in its own right. You could get lost all day going from store to store and not get bored with the incredible variety. Also, the food court is really good. There a lot of options that serve food that is above your average food court nosh. As you walk around, look up and see if you can spot geese flying just under the roof. website
11. Laugh until your stomach hurts with The Second City
This premier comedy club is a Toronto institution that makes for the perfect evening out. Laugh out loud all night at some inventive and engaging comedy sets, that sometimes even push the boundaries of the art, as you enjoy some food and drinks from the bar. They’ve worked with some huge names in the comedy industry such as Tina Fay, Amy Poehler, Bill Murray, Joan Rivers, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, among many others. If you’re from the city, maybe even think about taking their classes, such as their famous improvisation lessons – they have options for all skill levels and, beyond comedy, they’ll even help you in a bunch of different areas of your life. website
12. Get drinks with a view
These bars are the perfect places to look out from as you get your party on. For a coveted view of the water, The Goodman Pub and Kitchen is your go-to. With its huge waterfront patio, mix of contemporary and traditional pub food and extensive list of beers, this place is fun, friendly, accessible and picturesque. Similarly, it isn’t too glamorous, but The Porch is a rooftop classic – the whole bar is just a big patio. You’re sure to find all the trendy young adults in the city taking photos with the skyline as a backdrop along with their drinks, served in fun plastic buckets. But if buckets aren’t your thing they also do weekend brunch!
13. See the masterpieces of the Art Gallery of Ontario
Its facade, among other renovations, is one of renowned architect Frank Gehry’s more restrained designs. Sleek and elegant, The Art Gallery of Ontario is a striking monument committed to celebrating creative ingenuity, sailing like a crystal ship through the city. Over the years, the gallery has been know for outstanding major exhibitions such as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Now’s The Time in 2015, Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters in 2017 and Yayoi Kusama’s stunning Infiniti Mirrors in 2018. The museum also has a striking permanent collection of works from throughout the world, and throughout time, with a particularly impressive collection of 20th century Canadian Art. website
And if you’re more into history, check out the Royal Ontario Museum up at Bloor Street. It also features a striking glass addition to its original architecture and has dinosaur bones on display, among other natural and cultural treasures.
14. Make your way down to the waterfront
This place is a cultural hub on the waterfront. There is always something going on in the summer. With no shortage of programming, when you visit chances are you’ll find some kind of find food, art or music festival in progress, or you can simply dine and have a beer with a view over the water. You can also rent boats or check out The Power Plant contemporary art gallery. In the winter, the artificial pond there becomes one of the best skating rinks in the city. website
b. Relax in the sand of an urban beach
Right next to The Harbourfront Centre (just across some fun, wavy boardwalks) you’ll find little HTO Park with its grassy hills and a sandbox style beach. There’s no swimming allowed, but there are plenty of yellow umbrellas to relax under. It’s the perfect spot for spending an easy summer day by the water. Similarly, there’s Sugar Beach. It’ closer to the east end of things (at Lower Jarvis) and spotted with cotton candy pink umbrellas.
c. Bike along the Martin Goodman Trail
The trail is actually a series of bike paths (or rollerblade paths if that’s your thing) that stretches along the whole waterfront of Toronto, making for some spectacularly scenic cycling. Just look for the distinct green and blue lines down the centre. For a serious ride use Sugar Beach as a starting point – although the path does continue a bit farther east to Cherry Beach, too – and head west for about half an hour. You’ll be able to easily cross downtown. On the way, you’ll also traverse some lush parks and wind up at the scenic Sheldon Lookout, located at the mouth of the Humber River.
15. Catch a ferry to the Toronto Islands
If you’re looking for things to do in Toronto, maybe expand your horizons and travel offshore while you’re already by the water. Bring your bike over to Ward’s Island for some more scenic bike paths. You can also rent bikes on Centre Island, including tandem bikes and 2 or 4 seater quadricicles. Otherwise, you’ll find Centreville – an amusement park for kids, a petting zoo, a haunted and historic lighthouse, a hedge maze, a splash park and a clothing optional beach – as well as one where it’s mandatory! The islands are the perfect place to spend a whole day with the family or get away from the city for an exciting date. website
16. Hear the music at a legendary concert hall
The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall is a not-for-profit charity that runs two spectacular concert halls in Downtown Toronto. While the more historic Massey Hall is about to undergo an extensive 2 year long revitalization, they’ve still got some amazing shows lined up with internationally renowned musicians. The more contemporary Roy Thomson Hall meanwhile, is home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and an impressively large electric organ, which makes a powerful, sweeping musical experience. The venue also hosting free shows by amazing international artists all summer long on its patio. website
17. Class it up with high tea at the Shangri-La Hotel
You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the refined elegance of the Shangri-La’s lobby lounge. While it’s just as comfy as any living room, you won’t find any Cheeto stains here. Instead, you’ll find a business casual atmosphere with an Asian-inspired menu, a selection of 68 teas, and a five-volume compendium of drinks including wines, cocktails and spirits. If you make reservations for high tea, between 2 and 6pm, you’ll get your choice of tea from their library, as well as a stunning 3 tier array of bite-size treats, finger sandwiches and amazing scones, all accompanied by live music on the piano. website
18. Hit the clubs around King St. West
On the other hand, if you’re gonna want to dance or really let loose on a night out, the King Street West area is the place for you. It’s the main avenue for the club scene in Toronto, as it passes through both the Fashion and Entertainment Districts. The stretch is home to local party favourites such as Uniun Nightclub on Adelaide, which is practically a Toronto institution with its stylish industrial decor and state-of-the-art sound and LED lighting systems. You’ll also find hot spots like sophisticated Orchid Nightclub, or art-based club/lounge Everleigh.
19. Catch a game with your favourite Toronto team
Toronto’s home to some pretty cool sports teams. First off there’s the Raptors. They have the tall order of representing the whole in the NBA since they’re the only Canadian team, but they do pretty will with their iconic slogan “We The North,” which has recently been usurped by “North Over Everything.” When they’re in the off season for winter, the Maple Leafs take over their Air Canada Centre home (soon to be called the Scotiabank Arena) and turn it into an ice rink. Now, the Leafs are not exactly known for winning… but we love them anyway. Meanwhile, over at the Rogers Centre, originally named the SkyDome for its retractable roof, you’ll find the Blue Jays pitching some real competition in the world of baseball.
20. Get coffee at Dineen like a real Torontonian
Dineen is definitely downtown’s most prominent coffee shop. It occupies the corner of a historic building from which it draws inspiration. At its prime Yonge and Temperance location, you’ll find everyone from businessmen in suits, to freelancers, to tourists enjoying their unique coffee roasts. With a spacious interior and floor to ceiling windows, it’s a good thing there’s a lot of light. The interior decoration is stunning from the hand painted tile floors to the red leather banquet and the ornamental flourishes. Check out Dineen for sandwiches, pastries and Toronto coffee culture at its finest. website
21. Be dazzled by a ballet or opera performance
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was specifically designed to be the home of the Canadian Opera Company and the performance venue for The National Ballet of Canada. It integrates these traditional performing arts into the fabric of the city with its stunning glass facade. While opera may sound like it’s for old people, the COC puts on contemporary and engaging performances such as La Bohème, a story that’s sure to tug at your heart strings about young free spirits in 19th century Paris navigating love, poverty and loss. For ballet, you’ll find a range of work including Physical Thinking, which shows examples from William Forsythe’s provocative ‘anti-ballet’ oeuvre, as well as beautifully done renditions of classic stories from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Alice in Wonderland and the annual holiday classic, The Nutcracker.