Activities

15 best day trips around Toronto for families

Planning a family staycation? From hiking, biking and skiing to fall leaf-gazing, theatre watching and butter tart eating, these jaunts just outside of the city’s borders will turn weekends into mini adventures the whole family will enjoy.

By Today's Parent

15 best day trips around Toronto for families

Photo: © Destination Ontario

Family-friendly day trips around Toronto

Cycle to the Humber Valley

If there were nominees for best cycling day trips out of Toronto, the list would have to include a summer ride up the Humber Valley to Kleinburg for a visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, a picnic on its sculpture-dotted grounds and a leisurely evening spin back down the valley into the city. The valley is gorgeous all the way north, and the trip exemplifies the best of what the region is becoming while avoiding the worst—i.e., the highways. The river route that gave Toronto its purpose centuries ago is once again a pathway, its headwaters a nexus of trails that spread out like green veins throughout central Ontario. In addition to great Canadian art, the area is awash with outdoor opportunities, both tame and on the wilder side.

Photo of a path leading to the McMichael Canadian Art CollectionPhoto: © Destination Ontario

Discover Orillia Arts & Tarts

The town itself is doing its utmost to recover its 19th-century status as a touristic hot spot, using art as the impetus. Local resident and indefatigable Orillia booster Charles Pachter is leading the effort to turn the town into a major destination on the international arts trail. But for many people, the most compelling reason to visit Orillia is to savour its signature cultural achievement—its cuisine. The simple, homegrown butter tart is said to be one of the few delicacies of purely Canadian origin, and in central Ontario it has become a fetish. There are as many butter tart competitions as there are fall fairs. There is a Butter Tart Trail in Wellington City and a Butter Tart Tour in the Kawarthas.

Summer Street Festival in Orillia showing booths and pennant bunting strung across the streetPhoto: © Les Palenik

Splash around Wasaga Beach

Toronto’s long-time favourite summer beach resort presents an interesting inversion of the typical tourist-trap phenomenon, in which tacky development threatens to overwhelm the place’s natural attraction. Here, fortunately, the famous beach is in fine shape—super clean, safe and carefully managed as part of Wasaga Beach Provincial Park (a day-use park). The sunsets are incredible, too.

An aerial view of Wasaga Beach which hugs the sparkling waters of Georgian BayPhoto: © Town of Wasaga Beach

Wasaga Beach (contd.)

Wasaga is the first Ontario provincial park to earn “Blue Flag” status for the cleanliness and environmental integrity of its beaches… And, yes, you can still play minigolf, slurp ice cream and buy cheap souvenirs at Wasaga Beach. The town programs events throughout the summer and stages free concerts.

Festivals and events, like Kite Fest, draw visitors to Wasaga’s beautiful beachesPhoto: © Town of Wasaga Beach

Discover Hamilton: Art & Architecture

You can see all of Hamilton at a glance from the top of the Burlington Skyway, the view famously dominated by a long black wall of smoking, sometimes flaming steel mills. But the centre of interest today is what lies beyond. Like a fine old building scrubbed clean to reveal its original grandeur, Hamilton has emerged as a 21st-century model of recovering urbanism, full of character and interest. The best time to visit the district is during one of its famous Art Crawls, held every second Friday of the month. More than a tour, a Hamilton art crawl is a broadly organized event in which dozens of galleries and community spaces co-ordinate exhibition openings and stage attractions. It has gone on for years and remains remarkably well done.

Every second Friday of the month, the Art Crawl takes over James Street NorthPhoto: © Tourism Hamilton

Ship spot on the Welland Canal

Dedicated ship-spotters (which includes just about all young kids!) will love to spend the day visiting the Welland Canal. The rest of us would be remiss to overlook it during any trip to Niagara. It’s always stupendous to stand a few metres away from huge ocean-going ships as they slide quietly past and begin to climb a 100-metre bluff up a “flight” of locks cut like a giant staircase straight up the escarpment, lifted by gravity alone. The ships fill the locks with mere centimetres of clearance on either side and loom overhead like tall buildings. They are stately and mesmerizing. “At Niagara Falls I need about 20 minutes,” one British tourist commented on TripAdvisor, “but at the Canal I can spend a day.”

A freighter passes under a lift bridge along Welland CanalPhoto: © John Barber

Cycle the Niagara Region Bike Routes

There is no more interesting or congenial region for cycling in Ontario than Niagara. Niagara was early to realize the potential of cycle tourism, and the result is the province’s most developed support system for the activity. This is a place where “bike friendly” is becoming big business.

The Niagara River Recreation Trail is a devoted bike path, making it a safer alternative to the Niagara ParkwayPhoto: © Niagara Parks

Niagara Region (contd.)

Civilization advanced one solid step in the first decade of the 21st century when GO Transit introduced Bike Train service to the Niagara region. As for routes, there are so many possibilities that choosing one can be daunting. The Niagara Freewheelers Bicycle Touring Club has mapped more than 500 options on its website, thefreewheelers.com.

Niagara's White Water Walk showing a boardwalk next to a rushing riverPhoto: © Niagara Parks

Get outdoors in Lake Erie’s deep south

Let others inch north on overburdened highways as the sunny hours slip by, children squirm and tempers rise. Turn south instead, and you’ll be on the beach by the time the crowd clears Barrie. Long overlooked by Torontonians, the north shore of Lake Erie is Canada’s deep south, as distinctive in its own way as cottage country to the north. It has its own gestalt, its own accent, a rich cultural history and the last remnants of a Carolinian ecology that is unique in Canada. You can experience the best of it in a tour along the north shore of Long Point Bay, from Port Dover to Backus Woods in Norfolk County. Don’t forget to bring a swimsuit.

A family sitting and enjoying the sun on Port Dove BeachPhoto: © Norfolk County Tourism

Race to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park

It has been decades since Mosport Park (now the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) regularly broke national sports attendance records with the wheel-to-wheel action of Canadian racing’s Golden Age. It culminated in the wild excess of the Can-Am series, which saw the most powerful sports cars ever built thunder through the green hills north of Oshawa… These days, there are only a few ticketed events available to the general public each season. Most fans come for the weekend and camp on site, another great holdover from Mosport’s heyday. Sunday-only tickets are cheap and promise the best action. You’ll be surprised to find how much fun it can be to watch motor racing in its natural environment.

The scenic view from the sidelines at Canadian Tire Motorsport ParkPhoto: © John R. Walker

Splash around Cobourg

Cobourg is in many ways the lakeside twin to Port Hope, just 10 kilometres west, sharing the same history of quick ascent followed by a long decline and fitful 20th-century gentrification. Although it is less charismatic than its twin, Cobourg has one summer attraction that easily justifies a trip to its shores: one of the finest beaches on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

A lifeguard keeps a watchful eye over Cobourg’s lovely sandy beach.Photo: © JHVE Photo

Time travel to Lang Pioneer Village

On the banks of the bucolic Indian River in southern Peterborough County, heavy glaciation has left a pattern of steep whale-backed hills, called drumlins, that stoutly impede human progress. Here you can spend a whole day visiting the Lang Pioneer Village and Museum, cycling local trails and picnicking amid ancient burial mounds on the shore of Rice Lake—and never leave the 19th century. Our world is not short of pioneer villages, but few are as authentic feeling as the Lang Pioneer Village and Museum, a rustic world apart settled deep into its rural landscape.

The Lang Hope MillPhoto: © John Barber

Ride the Prince Edward County Cycling routes

Clocking in at over two hours, the drive to Prince Edward County (PEC) is an ambitious one for day trippers, and you have to drive through a lot of prime cycling terrain to reach your destination, but the effort is worth making. There’s nowhere else in the province that has the same combination of scenic back roads with a deep rural feel and ultra-modern roadside attractions—wineries with their tasting bars, restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Then, of course, there are the best beaches on Lake Ontario. Because the county’s road network was originally laid out in the late 18th century, before the Imperial gridiron descended upon the Upper Canadian landscape, roads here meander in response to geography rather than opposed to it, and there’s a lot of geography here: jagged points and deep bays, lakes, spits, beaches and coves, but not much in the way of hills. It’s perfect for cycling.

Cyclists in Prince Edward County should expect routes through a lot of serene countrysidePhoto: © Alastair Wallace

Jet off to the Great War Flying Museum

What drives grown men to devote countless hours to the painstaking reconstruction and maintenance of ancient aeroplanes (as they are known to members of the Great War Flying Museum) made of fabric, wood and chewing gum? “We don’t know exactly why,” they say on their website. “It’s a very regulated, demanding and expensive hobby. But we love it.” The museum maintains a fully flight-worthy fleet of six World War I aircraft, including replicas of fighters flown by the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen; leading U.S. ace Eddie Rickenbacker; and Canadians Billy Bishop and George Barker, both recipients of the Victoria Cross for their airborne heroics.

The Great War Flying Museum’s replica of Eddie Rickenbacker’s Nieuport 28Photo: © Eric Dumigan

Explore Guelph

Guelph has the distinction of being one of the only cities in Canada (or anywhere, probably) founded by a novelist. And the influence of John Galt, a Scottish writer famous in his day, is immediately apparent the moment you descend into the Speed River Valley and enter the town… The domineering presence of the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate at the head of Macdonell Street, Guelph’s own Notre Dame, heightens the hidden romance… You can take it all in from the steps of the basilica, Guelph’s one claim to a “must-see” attraction. While you’re exploring the basilica, it only makes sense to pop into the Guelph Civic Museum, located in a former monastery on the church grounds.

The Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate in GuelphPhoto: © AnjelikaGr

Guelph (contd.)

Beginning in a casual fashion with the launch of a new novel by local resident Leon Rooke in 1989, the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival is now one of the most established literary events in the province, holding a coveted calendar spot—the first Sunday after Labour Day—in the heart of the publishing season.

Hillside Festival revellers enjoy the musical acts./Photo: © Destination Ontario

Visit Six Nations of the Grand River

The Six Nations of the Grand River is the most historic of the old “Indian reserves” in Ontario—indeed the very first—ceded by the British to followers of war chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) after the loss of the original Haudenosaunee homeland during the Revolutionary War. Today it’s an inspiring example of cultural continuity despite every challenge and a fascinating place to visit. “We’re still here,” the Six Nations tourist office reminds us. “And we invite you to come and find us.” The six nations that make up the people of Six Nations are Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora and Seneca.

Dancers in full regalia at the annual Grand River PowwowPhoto: © Destination Ontario

Shop in St. Jacobs

The village of St. Jacobs was just a dot on the map until 1975, when an enterprising group of local farmers erected tents on a former stockyard outside the village and called it the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. It was one of the first of its kind, and today it is the largest farmers’ market in the country, drawing one million visitors every year. Fresh food from local fields is barely half the story in this sprawling emporium, where hundreds of vendors offer every kind of art, craft and knickknack, from tin ceiling tiles to heraldic coasters. The market fills several buildings and straggles over the pavements, like a feral Walmart. The opening of an actual Walmart next door, along with the expansion of prosperous Waterloo to the south, has transformed the scene from rural to suburban over the years, but it’s still a phenomenon.

The St. Jacob's farmers’ market is a bustling destination during the summerPhoto: © JHVE Photo

Excerpted from Day Trips Around Toronto by John Barber, published by Firefly Books Ltd. 

Read more: 25 places every Canadian kid should see 48 things to do in Toronto with kids this summer 12 ways to save money on your next family vacation

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