Toronto -- on Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes-- is Canada's largest city and business center, and has the upscale shops and restaurants to prove it; the city's also proud of its neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, Little Italy, Little India, and Queen Street.
Below are some top things for traveling families to do and visit, plus suggestions for where to stay and best times to visit.
Toronto's most recognizable landmark stands 1815 feet high; you can vew the city, harbor, and lake from two observation levels and from the revolving 360 Restaurant. Kids will like the Glass Floor section on one observation deck, with a vertiginous clear view 148 stories down. Add some ground-level fun with the Himalamazon motion theatre ride.
Tip: dine at the 360 Restaurant,and your "elevation" (i.e. your ride up the high-speed elevator) is free. See more about Visiting the CN Tower.
A great day outing: Toronto's harbor is right downtown, and ferries make the 10-minute ride to three different points on the island (-- three small connected islands, actually). Summer fun includes bike rentals, wading pools, tennis, volleyball, supervised beaches, and the Centreville Amusement Park geared for kids under 12, with over 30 rides and games. Off-season, the island is quiet but kids can still enjoy the ferry ride, a nice walk, a playground, and a little restaurant for treats. (Bring a stroller for little kids, and check distances before you set off walking: there's no public transit! Watch out for reduced ferry sailings during off-season, too.)
Families love skating in winter on the Natrel outdoor ice skating rink, right by Lake Ontario. Harbourfront Centre is a multifaceted public space with arts exhibitions, Music Garden (themed to a piece by Bach), cultural and learniing programs, dance performances, and festivals such as an Annual Swedish Christmas Festival and several festivals in summer months. Also in summer, the ice-rink becomes Natrel Pond. Several times a year HarbourKIDS weekends offer free fun for families.
Left, the ROM's "new look" entrance, called the "Crystal",is a new Toronto landmark. Some areas in the museum are extra kid-friendly: a dinosaur collection; Discovery Gallery hands-on play zone (costume area, dinosaur dig); a walk-through interactive bat-cave. Look for ROMkids weekends and ROM Sleepovers.
What kid wouldn't want to bounce around in shoes that have six-inch springs on the bottom? This museum is a family-friendly place, where kids can see what knights or astronauts or ancient Egyptians wore on their feet; with hands-on demonstrations and special areas and events for children, too, plus Saturday Shenanigans for parents and kids.* (The Bata Shoe Company is a long-established worldwide shoe company owned by the Bata family.)
For many visitors "seeing a show" is a must-do when visiting Toronto; the city always has some major Broadway-style productions playing, and often the shows suit families -- The Sound of Music, for example.
This unique amusement park (owned by the Province of Ontario) has summer fun on interconnected artificial islands: a giant "outdoor soft play climbing structure"; foam-ball play zone; drop tower, super slide, and other rides; pedal boats; mini-golf; IMAX; outdoor concerts; even helicopter rides. Lots of pricing options: grounds admission only, Pay-As-You-Play; Play all Day; family price... Ontario Place has also been the venue of a Chinese Lantern Festival, in fall; check for updates.
Science centers are all about hands-on -- and oh yeah, educational-- fun for kids. The Ontario Science Center has year-round exhibits, IMAX theater, special exhibits, and shows. The web site helps you zero in on stuff for kids and stuff for teens.
With 710 acres and 6 miles of walking trails, this is one of the world's largest zoos and draws over 1M visitors a year. The Zoo is a half-hour drive from the city and can be reached by public transit. Some highlights: award-winning African Savanna and Gorilla Rainforest; Great Barrier Reef; Kids Zoo; Splash Island 2-acre water play zone, in summer; Waterslide Theatre, with family entertainment. Tip: Christmas Treats Walk happens once a year (-animals get goodies; kids get hot choc), as does a Family Countdown on New Year's Eve.
Historic Main Street in Unionville is picture-perfect: take a horse-drawn carriage ride in summer, or stroll along and sample the ice cream shops. Unionville is easily reached by a 20-minute train or bus ride from Toronto or an even quicker drive; some families visiting Toronto stay in Unionville-area hotels, saving money and accessing the city by train, bus or car. Seasonal fun in Unionville includes Halloween and Christmas trains.
Families may want to head for the Hockey Hall of Fame, or Riverdale Farm, or the Paramount Canada's Wonderland theme park north of Toronto, with thrill rides, live shows, water park.
Choice Times to Visit
- Toronto's giant Santa Claus Parade happens mid-November (and in some years coincides with American Thanksgiving Weekend.)
- During Holiday Season, Cavalade of Lights opens with a free concert and fireworks, and holiday lights downtown and in neighborhoods.
- WinterCity Festival in early February has free entertainment -(lots for grownups), and kids events at major Toronto attractions, such as Dora the Explorer at CN Tower.*
- During summer, enjoy attractions such as Wonderland and Ontario Place; for extra fun, time your visit with the CNE giant fair (aka "The Ex".)
Places to Stay
Left: the Fairmont Royal York Hotel-- one of Canada's classic railroad hotels, now owned by the luxury Fairmont chain -- has a prime location downtown; at the right time of year, kids might take a tour to see bee-keeping on the Fairmont's roof.
The Delta hotel chain, meanwhile, is known for family features, such as pool with four-story waterslide, Family Fun Suites, babysitting, kids' meal discounts, play center, and kids' camp at certain times of year.
A good family eatery downtown is Richtree Market Restaurant, where guests choose what they like from colorful food stations. A special card keeps track of selections; pay for everything conveniently at a cashier.
And of course, any family not already familiar with Tim Hortons has to try at least one meal at this Canadian institution (and marvel at the low cost.)
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation for the purpose of review.
*Always check web sites for updates!