Like any big North American city, Toronto can eat up a lot of your travel budget with constant temptations in the form of shopping, fine foods, and other luxury indulgences. But, sometimes free or cheap activities offer visitors an experience that is more authentic than typical tourist activities and can add a nice balance to a travel itinerary.
The Distillery Historic District is a great place to spend a few hours if you're in downtown Toronto and want to get away from the usual downtown attractions. This pedestrian-only village is set amidst historic buildings that comprises the most extensive and best-preserved collection of Victorian industrial architecture. You won't find a franchise or chain operation here, so all the stores and galleries are one of a kind.
One of the most popular ways to tour this unique Toronto neighborhood is by Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing transportation method.
St. Lawrence Market consists of three historic buildings in downtown Toronto that house an antique market, a food market, and public space for more than 120 vendors. Even the Pope has shopped there! Pick up a cheap lunch and enjoy on the outdoor patio.
On Sunday, the antique market draws collectors and browsers from far and wide. And don't miss the gallery upstairs, which offers free exhibitions highlighting Toronto history and culture.
The Toronto Harbourfront Centre is a non-profit, cultural organization that offers a variety of cultural activities to the public free of charge. Located along the shores of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto, visitors can stroll the boardwalk on Harbourfront's 10-acre site, relax in one of the parks or skate in the winter. Inside, take in a lecture, art exhibit or show, shop, or dine.
This posh pocket of downtown Toronto features quaint Victorian architecture that houses dozens of restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. Yorkville dining and shopping is upscale, and the galleries represent some of the finest Canadian and international artists.
Yorkville features the exclusive "Mink Mile" shopping district, which includes such high-end retailers as Burberry, Prada, Gucci, and Canadian department store, Holt Renfrew.
Many celebrities have been spotted strolling the sidewalks of Yorkville, especially during the Toronto International Film Festival (September).
Yonge-Dundas Square is public space in downtown Toronto—much akin to Times Square in New York City—where you'll often find free events, such as movies, concerts, and promotions.
Riverdale Farm is more than seven acres of green space in downtown Toronto, complete with cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, and other docile farm animals. Visitors can meander the grounds and watch staff do their chores free of charge.
The farm is particularly charming in that it recreates early 20th century Ontario farm life—no soda machines or tacky gift shop. A few homemade goodies are available for purchase, but all in keeping with the Riverdale theme.
Parking is available only on the neighboring residential streets, which comprise a fascinating architectural mix of Victorian and modern houses. There are also lots of excellent smaller restaurants and bistros within a kilometer of the farm on Carlton, Broadview and Parliament streets.
Pack a brown bag lunch and attend one of the Canadian Opera Company's free lunch hour performances (from late September to May). Enjoy dance or a variety of musical style concerts in the sunbathed amphitheater of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
The amphitheater offers a unique experience where audience members have a full view onto busy University Avenue through the transparent, all-glass facade that melts away the usual feeling of isolation from the outside world in a concert hall.
Opera performances in the evening are in the R. Fraser Elliott Hall, a traditional European horseshoe-shaped auditorium designed to be an entirely separate and isolated structure within the building, resting on nearly 500 rubber acoustic isolation pads.
The Beaches is an east-end Toronto neighborhood that boasts a long stretch of waterfront. Come down for the day to hang out at the beach, stroll the boardwalk or visit the shops and eateries on Queen Street East.
To get to The Beaches by public transportation, take one of the city's streetcars, such as the 501, which heads straight down Queen Street, giving you a cheap tour of one of Toronto's most famous streets. Toronto's streetcar routes operate in the classic style on street tracks shared with car traffic; they are not heritage streetcars run for tourism or nostalgic purposes.
Entry to the Permanent Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario is free from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Wednesday.
At the Bata Shoe Museum, "pay-what-you-can" admission is held every Thursday evening between 5 to 8 p.m. The suggested donation is $5.
The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) has Free Friday Nights from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and the Market Gallery at St. Lawrence Market, which explores Toronto history and culture, is always free.
Kensington Market is a hip Toronto neighborhood adjacent to Chinatown, not a "market" in the usual fruits and veggies sense, although you will find those there in abundance. The area has a funky, "organic, fair-trade coffee shop" vibe, but not obnoxiously so. You'll find retro furniture, vintage clothing shops and plenty of places to pick up a cheap take-out meal, especially good empanadas and other Latin American foods.
Centre Island is a great trip for anyone wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Getting to Centre Island requires a ferry ride. Ferries leave every 15 to 30 minutes and cost between $4 and $8, and free for children under 2 (as of 2019). The trip takes about 10 minutes.
Centre Island is 820 acres of parkland. Other than the ferry ride, there's no cost, but a small amusement park, restaurants, and other attractions may lure you to open up your wallet. Keep the budget in check by bringing a picnic lunch or take advantage of the fire pits and barbecue.