A Student’s Guide to Toronto – Exploring the City Beyond University Walls

We come to university with expectations of a picture-perfect university experience: studying at cafés, spending nights in libraries designed of medieval and gothic architecture, and exploring the city with friends. While this poster image of university life leaves out some of the less romanticized ideas of: (i) stress crying over papers and (ii) missing out on parties to complete assignments, it does encompass a crucial part of university life: exploration. Whether that be exploring your likes and dislikes, your options for education, or the city around you, exploration underlies every aspect of these years. So, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things to do while exploring the diverse city of Toronto when you take a well-deserved break from academia. All the locations with free admission (yay!) are marked with an asterisk (*). Note that universities often offer promo codes so that students can avail discounts at certain locations, so be sure to do a bit of research before you visit so that you can get the best deals.

Up front, we have the big stunning tourist destinations. While these locations are popular and can be deemed overrated, I personally love visiting them:

The CN Tower (Front St West): I’ve been in Toronto for 2 years now and still am in awe of this beauty. While going up the tower and viewing the entire city is a majestic experience, I also enjoy viewing the tower from below- especially from the discrete stairway on Lower Simcoe St during the night when the tower is lit up.

Ripley’s Aquarium (288 Bremner Blvd): Right below the CN Tower rests the beautiful aquarium which is home to an enormous amount of aquatic life – it also has a unique underwater viewing tunnel!

Casa Loma (1 Austin Terrace): Located atop Spadina Park, Casa Loma is a breathtaking stone castle in midtown, and is one of Toronto’s heritage landmarks. Visitors can buy tickets to the castle tours, haunted houses (especially near Halloween), and escape rooms.

An unobstructed view of the gorgeous CN Tower from the stairway on Lower Simcoe St.
Casa Loma Halloween haunted house
The Distillery Historic District - Winter Village
View of Toronto from the islands

The Distillery Historic District* (55 Mill St): This is a beautiful residential district that has art galleries, coffee shops, and boutiques – perfect for a walk along cobblestone streets! During the winter, the district is decorated with gleaming lights, and a ginormous Christmas tree takes its place at the heart of the district. The Distillery Winter Village is a remarkable occasion filled with Christmas spirit. Keep your eyes open for busy dates and times because admission – which is usually free – tends to be priced on busy days.

Canada’s Wonderland (Canada’s Wonderland, 1 Canada’s Wonderland Drive, Vaughan): If you love amusement parks, you must visit Wonderland. Open from May to October, this amusement park has many thrilling and daunting rides. It also hosts themed events around Halloween and Christmas. Side note – I am obsessed with the funnel cakes at Wonderland, so if you visit, you should definitely give them a try.

Toronto Islands: The islands are located in Lake Ontario, and have ferries running regularly to and from the mainland. They provide a beautiful view of the city, and there are a lot of open areas to picnic and barbecue. The best time to visit the islands is in the summer when most of the attractions are open and the weather is pleasant!

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)* (317 Dundas St W): Home to various art collections, the AGO often hosts special exhibitions and has free entry for individuals 25 and under.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) (100 Queens Park): located adjacent to the UofT campus, the ROM is built of striking architecture and has various historical exhibits.

Eaton Center (220 Yonge St): The CF Eaton Center is Toronto’s largest mall with several shopping, entertainment, and food options. Located at Yonge Dundas Square, one of Toronto’s vibrant intersections, it paints the picture of city life.

Nathan Philip’s Square* (100 Queen St West): Home to the infamous ‘Toronto’ sign, this location is popular for skating in the winter! You can rent your skates at Nathan Philips Square for a reasonable price of $15.

Toronto Pride: Yonge-Dundas Square
Nathan Phillips Square ice rink

Apart from the main tourist hotspots, Toronto has many other attractions:

Churros from Pancho's Bakery at Kensington Market!

Kensington Market*: This location is well known for thrifting and has many vintage shops, restaurants, and cafes. One of my personal favourite locations in Kensington Market is Pancho’s Bakery – I adore their churros *chef’s kiss*.

Graffiti Alley* (Graffiti Alley, M5V2W1): These are a striking series of alleyways in downtown Toronto decorated with street art. While these alleyways may be a tad bit sketchy, I think they are worth the visit for their vibrance (and their potential to generate aesthetic Instagram posts).

Gardens and Parks*: Toronto has many beautiful parks to relax and picnic in when the weather permits. Some of my favourites are listed here: (the locations with hiking trails are underlined) 

  • Queen’s Park (110 Wellesley St West)– Located beside UofT, this park houses the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
  • Grange Park (Beverley St & McCaul Street)– This park is located beside the AGO and is a great spot for a picnic.
  • Spadina Park (486 Davenport Rd)– Located beside Casa Loma, Spadina Park offers a wonderful view of the city. I love walking up the Baldwin Steps, which lead to the park, and plopping down on the grass.
  • St. James Park (120 King St East)- This is a scenic park in the downtown core located beside the majestic Cathedral Church of St. James.
  • Allan Gardens (160 Gerrard St East)– This is a botanical garden that is open year-long. It is one of the most beautiful displays of flora I have seen and is home to a couple of adorable turtles!
  • High Park (1873 Bloor St West)– Cherry Blossoms are one of Toronto’s most awaited events, and High Park is home to the Sakura trees that bloom in Spring to produce the cherry blossoms. Apart from being famous for cherry blossoms, High Park is one of Toronto’s largest parks with many trails and a zoo.
  • Music Gardens (479 Queens Quay West)– Inspired by Bach, these gardens are a scenic location located beside the lake. They have a variety of flora and are the perfect place to enjoy nature and serenity. Additionally, they prove to be a great source of Instagrammable pictures!
  • Tommy Thompson Park, Humber River Trail, Don Valley The thing I love most about Toronto is how the green spaces are interspersed throughout the city, providing a good mix of both environments. These locations are my favourite hiking trails scattered throughout the city.
Allan Gardens
The view from Spadina Park

Harbourfront*: The Toronto harbourfront is beautiful and has many attractions along the way. It is perfect for walking, bicycling, or simply sitting down and viewing the lake. Attractions along the harbour include:

  • The Harbourfront Center (235 Queens Quay West) – This cultural organization is home to many festivals and performances portraying various art forms including music, dance, and literature. It also has an art gallery called The PowerPlant which has free admission all year long.
  • Sugar Beach (11 Dockside Dr) – Located beside the Redpath Sugar Plant, Sugar Beach is a picturesque artificial beach with many beach umbrellas and chairs to relax in.
  • HTO Park (339 Queens Quay West) – HTO Park is another picturesque artificial beach with many beach umbrellas and chairs to relax in. It has many willow trees and provides a view of the CN tower and the lake. I love plopping down under a willow tree and reading a book to hide from the city! 
Sugar Beach at night

Saint Lawrence Market (St. Lawrence Market, M5E1C3): Established in 1803, this is one of Toronto’s busy marketplaces. It also provides a view of the famous Gooderham Flatiron Building and the quirky Berczy Park Dog Fountain.

Board Game Cafés: These are great locations with a wide range of board games and card games to choose from. Perfect to unwind with friends and enjoy some coffee while you’re at it!

College Street: This street has a plethora of cafes, used bookstores (including horror-themed bookstores), and restaurants. Perfect for a mid-day stroll – you never know what you’ll find!

Bonus!: Koreatown (take a trip to one of my favourite waffle places – Grandmama’s Waffles), Chinatown, Little Italy, Comedy Clubs, Jazz Bars, and Escape Rooms.

Berczy Park Dog Fountain in the winter

Apart from these suggestions, I highly encourage you to wander through the city and find your own special locations – Toronto is a majestic and diverse city with so much to offer, and the TTC provides easy access to most areas in the city. Additionally, once you run through this list, @todotoronto and @BlogTO on Instagram have endless suggestions for things to do in the city.

Happy Exploring!

 -Sharanya

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Author: Sharanya Shankar
Celina MacLeod
Editor: Celina MacLeod

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