Get Cultured in Toronto

Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Daphne Thompson.

Distillery District

(416) 364-1177; thedistillerydistrict.com; open M-W 10am-7pm, Th-Sa 10am-8pm, Su 11am-6pm

We imagine that old-timey whiskey distillers James Worts and William Gooderham would be rolling in their graves if they knew their old factories were now housing a “holistic wellness clinic” and a sock shop called “Floorplay.” Gentrification has been weird to the Distillery District, a bougie brick pedestrian zone where stiff-brimmed hats are more common than stiff drinks. That doesn’t mean that the area isn’t great for an hour of window-shopping: Blackbird Vintage Finds houses a delightful collection of useless old stuff, while Bergo Designs is good for a quick gift for that birthday you forgot. Splurge on a gelato or hot chocolate from Soma Chocolatemaker, depending on the season, and pose with one of the many inoffensive peace-and-love public art installations.  

Free; establishment prices vary; wheelchair accessible

St. Lawrence Market

93 Front St. E; (416) 392-7219; stlawrencemarket.com; open Tu-Th 8am-6pm, F 8am-7pm, Sa 5am-5pm

That old saying about not grocery shopping when you’re hungry should apply times 100 to the St. Lawrence Market: if you’re not careful, you might walk away with a huge lamb shank, a dozen bagels, and a 30-pound wheel of gouda. A massive, always-busy market in downtown Toronto, St. Lawrence is home to almost any foodstuff you could dream up. We recommend taking a lap (upstairs and downstairs) to work up an appetite, then focusing your visit on a few time-tested favorites. The Peameal Bacon on a Bun sandwich at Carousel Bakery stacks the fatty pork loin on a roll with mustard—sounds simple, but it’s a rare meal that Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain could agree on. Buster’s Sea Cove sells a stellar specimen of a lobster roll, and Portuguese egg tarts from Churrasco of St. Clair are ideal for dessert on the go. Stop by on Saturdays for a sprawling farmer’s market.

Prices vary; wheelchair accessible

CN Tower

301 Front St. W; (416) 868-6937; cntower.ca; open daily 9am-10:30pm

File under “short story ideas:” what was it like at the CN Tower on the day it became the world’s second-tallest free-standing structure? In any case, this icon of the Toronto skyline is still really damn tall, and for the sky-high price of nearly $40 CAD, you can get a visceral sense of what 1,185.3 feet feels like. A 25-mph elevator will get you to the observation deck in less than a minute (bring some gum—your ears will pop). Once there, elbow aside your fellow tourists for the best view, venture out onto the glass floor (they say it supports three orca whales, but what about that kid jumping over there?), and nab another timed ticket to ride up even-higher-up SkyPod deck—be warned, though, that wait times can stretch for hours during busy periods. Snacks and drinks in the sky come at predictably astronomical prices, so pack snacks or come full if you’re in it for the long haul.

Admission $38 CAD; wheelchair accessible

Casa Loma

1 Austin Terr.; (416) 923-1171; casaloma.org; open daily 9am-5:30pm

Pricey, crowded, and 100% haunted, Casa Loma should serve as a warning sign to eccentric millionaires everywhere: pay your property taxes or your Gothic revival mansion will be turned into a grade-A tourist trap. The castle’s original owner, rich Canadian man Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, built the country’s most #extra estate (peep the wine cellar, horse stables, and real-tiger rug) in the early 1900s, but couldn’t afford to stay in it after the Depression hit. Today, it lives on as part shrine to Pellatt, part backdrop to mediocre movies (The Love Guru, anyone?), and a $30 CAD tourist destination. Jostle with hordes of retirees for a view of the lavish, Orientalist rooms or take a “secret tunnel” (it’s not secret if you label it!) to the antique car collection in the garage. To escape the knee-replacement masses, head up the narrow, rickety spiral staircases to the two tall towers—a fine view of the Toronto skyline awaits.

Admission $30 CAD; self-guided tours with audio guide included; last entry 4:30pm; limited wheelchair accessibility

Bata Shoe Museum

327 Bloor St. W; (416) 979-7799; batashoemuseum.ca; open M-W 10am-5pm, Th 10am-8pm, F-Sa 10am-5pm, Su noon-5pm

Finally, a museum that haute couturiers and foot fetishists can agree on. Housed in a shoebox-shaped structure, the museum houses over 1,000 of the world’s strangest, sparkliest, and spikiest (check out the chestnut crusher) shoes. If that sounds frivolous, rest assured that the experience can’t be recreated in the Louis Vuitton down the street: the late Sonja Bata had amassed a shoe collection rivalling the nearby Royal Ontario Museum for its anthropological insight. The semi-permanent “Footwear Through the Ages” exhibit will make you grateful for modern advancements in orthopedics (those big rock sandals couldn’t have been comfy), while a current exhibit on footwear in the Arctic is a testament to human ingenuity—look for the fish-skin slippers. If you can, go on a Thursday after 5pm, when the museum is pay-what-you-can.

Admission $14 CAD, students $8 CAD; wheelchair accessible

Royal Ontario Museum

100 Queens Park; (416) 586-8000; www.rom.on.ca; open daily 10am-5:30pm

If the collections at the Royal Ontario Museum came to life à la Night at the Museum and decided to ransack the city, we wouldn’t bet on Toronto’s survival. The Jurassic Park’s worth of dinosaurs alone would do some serious damage, but working in tandem with the the mummies, the bats, the samurais, and the terrifying mannequins from the museum’s current featured exhibition—prognoses are grim. While everything’s still inanimate, though, the Royal Ontario Museum is a compelling one-stop-shop for all things very, very old. With a new shattered-jewel-like facade, the museum has lost a fair number of right angles, so best to ditch the confusing map and wander until something catches your eye. A weighty, minimalistic exhibit on the Holocaust, though, isn’t to be missed. Flash a student ID to get in for a discount, or come on a Friday night to get turnt with a triceratops at the weekly 19+ party.   

Admission $20 CAD, students $16.50 CAD with ID; free tours; wheelchair accessible

Ripley’s Aquarium of Toronto

288 Bremner Blvd.; (647) 351-3474; www.ripleyaquariums.com/toronto; open M-Th 9am-11pm, F 9am-6pm, Sa-Su 9am-11pm

Is it just us, or do all the fish at Ripley’s Aquarium look a little bit sad? We guess we can’t blame that tiger shark flopped limply on top of the underwater tunnel—we’d be tired too if we had to work at this glitzy kid-oriented zoo. Brought to you by the people behind the questionable Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “museums,” the aquarium occupies a prime tourist spot right next to the CN Tower. It’s light on the science but heavy on the dramatic lighting, and definitely targeted towards cargo shorts-wearing families. If you can abandon your live-like-a-local ethos for an hour or two, though, the Dangerous Lagoon—a tunnel where rays and sharks glide above your head—and the color-changing jellyfish exhibit are wholly transfixing. Come by after 7pm for a discounted ticket, and exit quickly through the gift shop.     

Admission $31 CAD; wheelchair accessible

High Park

1873 Bloor St. W; (416) 338-0338; highpark.org; open daily 24hr

If it’s true that you can judge a greatness of a city by its parks—and it may or may not be true, because we just made that up—then Toronto must be pretty great. High Park, the largest green space in the city, may be a little more out of the way than some cities’ (ahem) central parks. But that also means that its many hilly, wooded paths haven’t been stampeded by the tour bus crowd. Calm, clean, and full of way-too-fearless chipmunks, High Park remains a local favorite for hiking and picnicking. Stroll along the Grenadier Pond path at sundown, relax in the sunken gardens along Colborne Lodge Road, and, if you’re around in April or May, don’t miss the cherry tree groves in bloom. The tiny free zoo, though, can be skipped—a pair of giant capybaras escaped in 2016, and we just haven’t trusted those cages since.  

Free; wheelchair accessible

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