If we know each other IRL...then you'll know I love Canada. It seems that most of my friends (and people I've met and connected with over the past few years) are Canadian. I found myself in Toronto recently for the bachelorette extravaganza of one of my Korea-era friends, and booked myself to stay in town for another two nights (with a different Korea friend, while also meeting up with another Korea friend... see a theme emerging?).
My current life situation doesn't have me pulling in as much money as I might prefer, so any and all trips I've made or plan to make have been in extreme budget mode. I was able to stuff a lot of activities into this particular trip, but in the interest of full-disclosure: I've been to T.O. a handful of times in recent years. I've compiled a list of budget-friendly things to see and do. It's possible, it just involves a little extra planning - it's too easy to throw money at the problem of poor-itinerary planning, so keep reading to get some tripspiration and Toronto to-do ideas!
A C C O M M O D A T I O N S
What you should know: Toronto has a variety of different lodging option, but in my opinion, staying in a hostel is the way to go (helllluu cost-effective option). Though the hotel/hostel rates in Toronto are reasonable as compared to, say, Boston or New York; they still have the annoying little surprise element I like to call tax. The accommodation tax in Toronto is 13% - a percentage that seems to be pretty universal to all taxable items/services in this city. This TripAdvisor article about taxation is particularly useful.
I recommend: Taking a look at the accommodation rates and factoring in the 13% tax before you arrive. This will give you a more realistic view of your budget from the get-go.
What I did: The first two times I visited the area, I stayed with a friend Lisa in Markham and took transit into the city. For the bachelorette party I spent two nights at Hostelling International Toronto- which could not have been in a better location. I also had the wonderful experience of staying at a beautiful condo near the waterfront with my friend Kim (after checking-out of the hostel this past trip).
G E T T I N G A R O U N D
What you should know: Toronto is a fairly sprawling city, but the downtown area is laid out in an accessible way. There's a really nice, clean metro system called Toronto Transit Commission - the one-way fare is $3.25cad.
I recommend: The TTC is clean and easy to use, but I will always advocate for seeing a city on foot- cities' distinct charm lives in the details, and Toronto is no different. Walking nearly everywhere had me super exhausted each day, but allowed me to stop and take in interesting architecture, or duck into an interesting alley or coffee shop.
What I did: I did massive amounts of walking. I only used the train once - and that was because the bachelorette party was late getting to the Royal Ontario Museum for an exhibit with a timed ticket. If you're able-bodied plan to stay south of Dundas St., then you can totally plan to walk everywhere. I also learned a pretty massive lesson: if I plan to keep walking cities, I need to invest in better shoes. Learn from my mistake, friends.
F O O D & D R I N K
What you should know: No matter what dietary lifestyle you prescribe to, Toronto has you covered.
I recommend: Honestly, Toronto has everything. I would highly recommend asking you ask your accommodations for recommendations because you'll be more likely to wind up with a local favorite than you would if you consult a tourist guide. If you're from North America (or another country with a similar diet) I might suggest foregoing restaurant meals as much as possible to keep your daily expenses low. With the exception of poutine (which I would absolutely include in your "to do" list whilst in Canada), there are no real culturally significant dishes to hunt out. Save your money for a brewery (or museum) tour!
What I did: I ate in Korea town because Lisa and I had lived in Korea together. I ate at a fancy restaurant for the nights of the bachelorette party. I ate at b.good because Kim and I realized that we (independently of the other knowing) frequent this obscure chain (her in Toronto and me in Boston). Other than those few meals, I tried to keep my food consumption to smartly budgeted snacks (almonds, banans, Larabars --lovelovelove the minis!) to reduce needing to eat out.
I would, however, recommend checking out Amsterdam BrewHouse. Kim recommended this spot because of its varied menu, great beer offerings, and location (on the water) - that pretty little lady nailed it! ABH was awesome - the bartenders were super friendly, the food was really nice, and the beer variety was immense. Even though the "brewpub" type eateries are a dime-a-dozen (especially here in Boston), Amsterdam BrewHouse really seemed to stand out. A+
T H I N G S T O D O
There are a lot of options here. Lots of neighborhoods and lots of nice places to eat. Unless there are major cultural landmarks or UNESCO sites, I tend to struggle with my itinerary planning - I don't like to shell out lots of money for "filler" activities. While Toronto doesn't have any UNESCO sites, there are still ways to take in the city's culture and personality through other activities.
I recommend: Yeah, I know I said it before... but walking. You'll take much greater notice of the sheer volume of Tim Horton's scattered around town. You'll also see an A B U N D A N C E of blue athletic swag - the Jays and the Leafs both have blue uniforms, so if there is a game (...or even ifthere isn't a game) you'll see a lot of team pride. Toronto is awesome, and if you bus/taxi/train everywhere you may miss the unique traits that make this city so cool.
What I did: Strap in y'all.... I'm only going to cover the things that I did that were (a) budget-friendly, (b) really worth my time/money, and (c) could fit into a 2-to-3 day span. Obviously itineraries will vary based on season, but here's a pretty goof spattering of options.
Take in a sporting event.
Yeah, I know- this can be done anywhere and it's not necessarily the most budget-friendly option- b u t - Toronto is one of those places where they have multiple sports teams that have a pretty intense fan base. Baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter, you'll be able to actively participate in a cultural event by attending a sporting event. And you'll be in a large group of locals- great place to socialize, make new friends, and pick the brains of the Torontonians.
Beautiful buildings, cute shops, an interesting plaque depicting the former waterline... The Distillery District seems like a place I would just go to hang. The love locks are cute and totally Insta-worthy.
Fun fact: Yonge (pronounced "Young") Street used to hold the world record for being the longest street in the world. After The Guiness Book took a second look sometime in the 90s, and a small technicality, the record rights were rescinded and Yong went back to being merely.... a street. However, though Yonge may not have the badass title, it IS 86k (53 miles) long - which is nothing to sneeze at.
Queen St. West
Queen Street West is where all the cool kids hang out. Its a fun place to grab a casual coffee and then stroll through shops. I bought a great sweater at a thrift shop called Kind Exchange and loads of both big brand and local shops along the way. The hip and groovy media outlets CTV and Much Digital are on this stretch as well.
Yeah, its as cool as it sounds. The decently sized alley is just south of Queen St. West and sandwiched between Spadina Ave. and Augusta Ave.
Mall on steroids. I love all things Canadian, so being able to browse brands that I don't have access to at home was fun. Also, the Eaton Center is right on Yonge and centrally located, so if you find yourself in need of a snack or a decent public restroom or shelter from the elements, this place has you covered.
Royal Ontario Museum
The ROM is a good option if you need to fill some time and also be inside. The base entry fee is only $17 and its possible to make a substantial day out of your visit.
Nathan Phillips Square & Old City Hall
There's not much to actually do there, but there is a lot to see. The Old City Hall is gorgeous and situated adjacent to the Nathan Phillips Square - which is front of the new City Hall.... that looks like a space ship. Wait... it gets better there is a raised walkway so you can get a fat-pigeon's-eye-view of the square. When I visited, the giant lighted "Toronto" sign was still there, though its fate is currently unknown.
This is a great spot to just wander around if the weather is nice (or at least bearable). There is a nice pathway along the waterfront that becomes really lively in the summer. An important note: there is a, um, "layered" road... so you have the car lanes, and then a streetcar lane, and then a bikepath that has it's own traffic light. Don't walk in front of the bikes when they have the right. Don't get hit by a streetcar. Or a regular car for that matter.
Look at the CN Tower
Unless it's your life dream to go to the top (or you have an unlimited budget) I would skip it. that's a $35 for a 342m tower... I regularly ate a 388m mountain for dinner in Korea- fo' free, so in my opinion, though the tower is cool, not something I would shell out $35 for. Besides, when you're in the pretty tower... you can't see the pretty tower.
St. Lawrence Market
A foodie must. MUST. I was fresh outta bed and had barely gotten two sips into my coffee when my crew dragged me in the door....... love at first sight. There were a good mix of ingredients, prepared foods, and trinkety things. My wallet was in danger.
Royal Bank Plaza
I love reflective things and if you do too you should check out this massive rosy-goldy building by Union Station.
You may be thinking "Katie, why would you ever put a grocery store on this list?" Wonderful question. Well, for one, I love grocery shopping and grocery stores are my happy place; don't judge me. But seriously, I usually hunt out a grocery store to stock up on healthy-ish snacks and I really like Canadian grocery stores. I also have a keen awareness of the additives that are allowed into food in the US- many of which are illegal basically everywhere else... so there's that.
C O F F E E & C L O S I N G T H O U G H T S
After the weird coffee disaster that was my Houston trip, I learned that good coffee is never a given. Conveniently, I had wonderful local guides for each visit who introduced me to Bannock (good, coffee with a side of "too cool" from the counter staff), Balzac's (both were great, though the one on Market had a much more upbeat vibe), and M Square (best coffee, best service, hardest to find).
As far as large cities go, Toronto ranks pretty high on my favorites list (up there with Boston, Seoul, and Singapore), though it's hard to pinpoint exactly why I feel the way I do. The personality and vibe of the city + amenities + waterfront + cleanliness + sports pride + walkable.... Toronto just has a winning combination of all the things I believe make a great city.
Now you have to take all the above recommendations and plug them into a map to work out a game plan.... or do you?! Below is a map of all the spots mentioned above. I suggest opening the map in Google and downloading it, so you'll already have it saved before your trip.
- If you've been to Toronto, did I mention any of your favorite spots?
- Do you have any interesting tips for seeing a major city on a tight budget?
- How do you feel about spending money on typical tourist attractions- even if they're regarded as "worth it"?
Just a heads up that this post contains affiliate links. Affiliate links are great in that you can check out the product at no extra cost to you, but I get a teeny-tiny percentage of that sale (its like getting recognition for advertising products I already love!)