10 cheap and free things to do in Toronto with kids

Family vacations can be expensive, but with a little insider info and clever planning you can have a lot of fun with your kids on little or no cash in Toronto. Here are 12 awesome ideas.

 

Photo: Ontario Library Association via Flickr
Photo: Ontario Library Association via Flickr

1. Party on at the Harbourfront Centre
Located on the shore on Lake Ontario, Harbourfront Centre offers exciting free programming year round, and boasts plenty of open space and fun spots to let the kids run around and play, such as the Wavedecks—long wooden structures designed to mimic the waves of the lake they face. All sorts of creative performances and workshops take place at Harbourfront Centre throughout the year, including dance theatre, jewellery and silkscreen printing courses, and various March Break camps.

Where: 235 Queens Quay West
More info: harbourfrontcentre.com

 

Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr
Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr

2. Explore Graffiti Alley
One of the coolest things you’ll find along Queen Street West is tucked behind the shops and eateries. If your kids are budding artists, they’ll get a kick out of the kilometer or so of totally rad street art and murals spanning entire buildings. The alley is located between Queen Street West and Richmond Street, and runs from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. (And if you’re a fan of The Mercer Report, you’ll no doubt recognize Graffiti Alley as the backdrop for Rick Mercer’s rants.)

Where: A half-block south of the south-west corner of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue

Photo: Courtesy of Evergreen
Photo: Courtesy of Evergreen

3. Play your hearts out at Evergreen Brick Works
Home to the Don Valley Brick Works from 1889 to 1984—which made bricks for some of the city’s most famous buildings—the Evergreen Brick Works is now a vibrant environmental centre where family programming is top of mind. The Children’s Garden in Chimney Court, part of the fantastic urban regeneration project, helps connect kids with the environment and their natural curiosity and creativity. You’re encouraged to help your kids build and play, and take part in seasonal themed activities involving song, art and storytelling. The Children’s Garden is open on weekends and holidays, and there’s a suggested donation of $5.

Where: 550 Bayview Avenue
More info: evergreen.ca

Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario
Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

4. Soak up some culture at the Art Gallery of Ontario
If you’re in Toronto on a Wednesday, entry to the brilliant AGO is free from 6 p.m. until closing at 9 p.m. (Normal cost of entry for a family of two adults and up to five youths is $49.) There are fun family activities throughout the galleries to keep little ones interested while you study the art, including drawing stations, and a dedicated kids gallery with exhibits that they’ll really dig. If you decide to visit in the daytime, a hands-on activity centre is open from mid-morning into the afternoon (see hours here).

Where: 317 Dundas Street West
More info: ago.net

 

Photo: Robert Taylor
Photo: Robert Taylor via Flickr

6. Ride the 501 streetcar
The longest streetcar route in North America is right here in Toronto, and is so interesting that it was voted the #1 trolley ride in the world by National Geographic. The 24.8-kilometer route starts on Lakeshore Boulevard and takes you through hipster neighborhoods, past parks and major attractions, and terminates at the Beaches, a really sweet ’hood with three kilometers of sandy beach to play on. You’ll get a lot of sightseeing in for just $3.25 per adult fare (kids under 12 are free, and its $2 for teens). Bonus: If your kids have fun riding the 501, and you’re in the city on a Sunday this summer, make your way down to Union Station between noon and 5 p.m. and hop on a vintage PCC streetcar for a free ride on the 509 Harbourfront route, which runs along the lake.

More info: ttc.ca

Photo: Wanda Gould via Flickr
Photo: Wanda Gould via Flickr

7. Go back in time at Fort York
Immerse yourselves in life in 1800s Toronto at Fort York, which houses Canada’s largest collection of War of 1812 buildings, and a historic battleground right there in the city. At Fort York you can explore soldiers barracks, watch the Fort York Guard shoot period rifles and listen to them play the fife and drums, and take part in a variety of other fun and educational activities. While admission isn’t free, it’s a bargain compared to many other major attractions at $14 for adults, $8 for ages 13 – 18, $6 for 6 – 12 years, and free for kids under five, with a family rate of $35 for 2 parents and 3 kids. Open weekdays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and weekends 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Where: 250 Fort York Boulevard
More info: fortyork.ca/

Photo: Jason Baker via Flickr
Photo: Jason Baker via Flickr

8. Eat on the cheap in Kensington Market
Touring eclectic Kensington Market is loads of fun, and has lots of neat (and cheap) places to grab some interesting food. You can pick up tasty jerk chicken and rice at Rasta Pasta for six bucks, and a $10 sandwich easily feeds two at the neighbourhood’s Mexican sandwich shop, Torteria San Cosme. Got a picky eater? There are dozens of places selling wonderful food from a variety of cultures for you to enjoy (Pupusas! Tacos! Grilled cheese!).

Where: West of Spadina Avenue between College Street and Dundas Street

Photo: margonaut via Flickr
Photo: margonaut via Flickr

9. Admire the tropical plants at Allan Gardens Conservatory
This gorgeous 100-year-old greenhouse is filled with showy tropical plants and blooms that will interest tots and parents alike. If the timing’s right you may see ripe bananas amongst the tropical vines and palms in the Palm House (built in 1910), and the Arid House has a large selection of cacti that are pretty awesome looking. This beautiful, calm spot is a lovely way to spend a few hours. Entry is free.

Where: 19 Horticulture Ave. (off Gerrard Street East)
More info: toronto.ca

Photo: Alex Guibord via Flickr
Photo: Alex Guibord via Flickr

10. Wow your kids with the flatiron building
Formally known as the Gooderham Building, Toronto’s flatiron building—built 20 years before the renowned flatiron in New York City—is an iconic stop in the city, and well worth checking out. This small but seriously cool piece of architecture is famous not only for its quirky shape, but also for the trompe l’oeil effect mural on its rear that looks like a picture of the building directly opposite, tacked down but with the edges fluttering away from the red brick façade. Be sure to approach from the west, walking along Front Street or Wellington Street, to surprise your kids with the full effect of this optical illusion.

Where: 49 Wellington Street East

 

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

12. Visit City Hall for a photo with the 3D Toronto sign
It’s hard to miss the massive 3D illuminated sign that spells out “TORONTO” at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall. Built for the 2015 Pan Am Games, the 22-metre-long sign was an instant hit, with kids and adults alike posing for photos between letters and sitting inside the Os. It’s the perfect place for a fun family snapshot, or for your social-media-savvy tween or teen to take a selfie.

Where: Nathan Phillips Square, at the corner of Queen and Bay streets

Updated on February 27, 2019


 

Starting March 9, kids 12 and under can ride free on all GO trains and GO buses. That means more adventures for you and your family!

Plan your trip at gotransit.com/KidsGOFree

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