The 10 best things to do in Toronto in summer

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Toronto isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of North America’s great cities. But in summer it’s a wonderful place, green and lovely and bustling with people enjoying the long-awaited warmth that arrives in June and stays till October. And when the sun’s shining, Torontonians come out in droves to have fun in a thousand different ways.

What’s there to do? Here’s my list of the best 10 things to do in Toronto.

Attend a festival

There are festivals every weekend in summer, right through until September. The list is long, but the highlights include the Toronto Jazz Festival, NXNE music fest, the huge Pride festival,  Shakespeare in High Park, the Beaches International Jazz Festival, the Hot & Spicy Food Festival, Buskerfest and Caribana, the big Caribbean festival and parade.

The summer ends with the Canadian National Exhibition, kind of like a giant state fair. But September brings the world-famous Toronto International Film Festival, followed by Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival that runs all over town. And midwinter brings Winterlicious, a food festival where restaurants around the city offer special menus at attractive prices.

Street fair

Go up the CN Tower

Every city has an iconic building, and this 1,814-foot (553-metre) tower is Toronto’s. You can see it in every picture of the city skyline, and even from the ballpark next door (below).

It’s cool just to look at it, but you can also ride up to the observation gallery at the top in an amazing glass elevator and look over the city and the lake. Or, if you’re an adrenaline junkie, step outside and hang off the top in an orange suit — it’s called the EdgeWalk. People actually do this.

See the aquarium

Right at the base of the CN Tower is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Toronto’s newest major attraction. It doesn’t look that big, but it’s quite extensive inside, and filled with beautiful displays of everything from lobsters to lion fish and stingrays — not to mention the great shark tunnel, where you come face to face with these fierce-looking denizens of the deep. See my post on the aquarium for a full picture — and some video.

Catch a Jays game

Before you leave the neighbourhood, why not take in a baseball game? TheToronto's Rogers Centre with the CN Tower in the background Rogers Centre (once called the SkyDome) is one of the few covered stadiums left in baseball, with a roof that opens and closes — they can even close it in the middle of a game if it starts to rain.

The stadium also has a hotel in the outfield, so you can see the Blue Jays play from the comfort of your own room. If that’s out of your price range, grab a seat in the top deck for less than $20, and you’ll still get a good view.

Visit the Distillery District

A short streetcar ride from downtown is this classic example of history well preserved. Originally the Gooderham & Worts Distillery — the biggest liquor distiller in Canada — the extensive Victorian complex is now a popular entertainment centre.

There are bars, restaurants, shops, an arts centre and performance venues, all set in the original old distillery buildings, built around 1860. There’s a brewpub, too, and a Christmas market in December with outdoor fire pits to have a drink.

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Go to the islands

One of Toronto’s unique features is a string of islands protecting the city’s harbour — perfect for an escape from spring to fall. Hop the island ferry for the 10-minute trip to Centre or Ward’s Island and you’re in a little green paradise of parkland.

For kids, there’s Centreville amusement park, and for the rest of us, beautiful walks on the boardwalk, a paddle through the island waterways, a bite at a restaurant or an afternoon on the beach.

A channel on the Toronto islands

See the ROM 

That’s the Royal Ontario Museum, a major institution with a great collection of mummies, Chinese antiquities, stuffed birds, ancient textiles, dinosaur bones, interpretive displays and everything else you can think of.

Just as interesting is the huge glass “crystal” built onto the side of 100-year-old building a few years ago in order to create more exhibition space. Some love it, some hate it — see what you think.

Dine on the Danforth

Toronto’s Greek district is Danforth Ave., but everyone calls it The Danforth. The street has gotten a bit trendy over the years, but it’s still lined with Greek restaurants bearing names like Omonia and Astoria, and you can still get great souvlaki and moussaka to die for. Come for the Taste of the Danforth festival in August, when they cook food out on the street and you can try a bit of everything.

Quails grilling on the street at Taste of the Danforth, Toronto

See some shows

Toronto has a lot of performance venues, and big acts are in town all year long. The biggest stages are the Molson Amphitheatre, on the waterfront, the Air Canada Centre (where the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors play) and the venerable Massey Hall, which presents some of the world’s greatest performers. There’s also Harbourfront (seen here, great for free shows) and lots of smaller venues that play music non-stop all season: for  full listing, check NOW Magazine.

A concert at Harbourfront centre, Toronto

Tour a world of neighbourhoods

This is one of the world’s most multicultural cities, and it’s full of ethnic neighbourhoods, from Chinatown (there’s one on Dundas St. and another on Spadina Ave.) to the Greek neighbourhood on the Danforth to Little India on Gerrard St. East and the Polish village on Roncesvalles Ave., near beautiful High Park.

A streetcar ride along College Street is like a world tour, with Italian, Portuguese, South American and Asian shops creating a crazy quilt of ethnic flavours. Stop for a meal along the way in one of the dozens of ethnic restaurants.

There’s enough to do in Toronto to keep you busy for a week, but if you really want to get out of town, the famous Niagara Falls is an easy day trip from the city. You can get tours, and during the summer you can even get there on the GO commuter trains from Friday to Sunday.

If you can fit it in, add a visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lovely Victorian town in the middle of Ontario wine country. Then, get back to Toronto: there’s another event starting tomorrow, and you won’t want to miss it. You cab find this year’s dates and events at the City of Toronto website.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

13 Comments

  1. Very comprehensive list – but you should also mention that the restaurant at the top of the CN Tower is excellent (as is their wine list) and if consider that it includes tower admission – the prix fixe lunch or dinner is a bargain.

  2. Paul: Loved this post, just read it again. Another great way to see all of Toronto is the Queen Streetcar – which goes just about from one end of the city to the other, passing through a lot of interesting villages and neighbourhoods. It’s generally regarded as one of the great streetcar trips in the world.

    • Thanks — couldn’t agree more. In fact, there are a lot more experiences I could have put in, including a visit to the St. Lawrence Market, one of the world’s great farmer’s markets and set in Toronto’s most historic neighbourhood. But if I’d put in everything, it would have been the best 20 or 30 things to do in Toronto.
      PJM92 recently posted…Hot summer in Toronto: here’s what to do My Profile

  3. Hey Paul, I have a good friend who lives in Tucson, I’m in NYC – we’re planning a “ladies get-away” but are interested in more than just sitting in a spa. Toronto sounds perfect! It has everything! Might just start with an around-the-world-tour of the ethnic neighborhoods … move on to to a street fair … cool off at the waterfront …

  4. Thanks for the nicely eloqent tips, Paul! I’ll absolutely try to catch Shakespear – I adore the grand old amphitheatre of High Park and the Grenadier Restaurant is worth visiting too. Little hint from me in return, bring yourself a cosy cusion, sitting on the ground for a while might get uncomfortable.
    Elli recently posted…Photo of the week: Street MagicMy Profile

    • Thanks for commenting, Elli — I love the Grenadier as well, though it can be crowded on the weekend in summer. Still, great to sit on the patio and enjoy a meal with the greenery all around. Yes, a cushion (and a blanket) are a good idea if you do the Shakespeare in the park. And don’t forget a walk along Grenadier Pond beforehand to see the swans and ducks.

  5. Thank you for the tips, waow, lots to be plan for our next trip, great post. Loving to know about the islands and tour around neighborhoods.

  6. Yes to all of these — especially the Islands. I returned to Toronto to get married in that little wooden church on Center Island in September 2011 — we all took water taxis.

    I’d add St. Lawrence Market as well. It’s amazing. In summer, I’d suggest a long ravine walk (instead of the pricy ROM — $20!?)…The ravines are such a distinctive part of the city, and — unusual for many places — still usually safe.

    • Wow, that must have been a magical wedding, Caitlin. I’m not sure why I left out the St. Lawrence Market, which is a great place to visit. I live just around the corner, so I guess I didn’t want to be a “homer”. The ravines are a good suggestion too, especially for nature lovers, and they’re so easy to overlook, even for Torontonians — I keep reminding myself to take a ravine walk but never seem to get there.

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