Perched upon the edge of Lake Ontario, Toronto is a major city that is famous for being richly diverse. The reputation is well deserved. The Canadian city is a melting pot, known for its welcoming culture that has seemingly no boundaries.
Experiencing a Toronto weekend getaway is thrilling. The city offers a dizzying array of things to do, eat, and explore. Without leaving the city, you can travel around the world one dish and attraction at a time. And you will never feel like a foreigner thanks to the friendly locals.
A visit of only a few days is just long enough that you will get not only a taste of the city, especially downtown Toronto, but you will also fall under its spell. I’m still thinking of all the places to eat in Downtown Toronto.
Before the weekend is over, you will be planning a return trip for all the spots you missed. And for all your newfound favorites!
Get to Know Toronto
Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and, notably, the fourth largest in North America. Part of this can be attributed to the late 1990s when the city and six surrounding regions voted to unite and form a single city.
The city is a bold blend of old and new. This is probably best observed up close at the New City Hall and the Old City Hall that sit opposite each other in the heart of the downtown.
Elsewhere, the mix of eras is all around you. Modern-day skyscrapers soar all across Toronto, the shining glass sparkling off the Great Lake. And the CN Tower acts as a landmark that stands out amongst these high rises. But you don’t have to look too far to find the traces of yesteryear. The foundations of the city are still visible in the Historic Distillery District or the St. Lawrence Market.
Fun Things to Do in Downtown Toronto
As with any big city, Toronto is full of a wide range of things to do. But what impresses the most is that although it is a major city, you do not feel swallowed up by the urban landscape. Unless, of course, you want to be.
In terms of must-see attractions, there’s one obvious first stop. You simply can’t miss the CN Tower: literally or figuratively. The world’s tallest free-standing structure for more than three decades is perhaps the landmark of Toronto. It certainly dominates the skyline and the tower offers remarkable 360-degree views from 1,136 feet above the ground.
From the circular Main Observation Level, you can take in the views while doing countless laps or relaxing with something light from their cafe. Tickets to the attraction are on the expensive side but it’s worth experiencing at least once.
Other bright and shiny parts of modern Toronto to see include Yonge-Dundas Square. The comparison to New York City‘s Times Square is a rather unavoidable parallel. A meeting place of people and shops, the square is dominated by large billboards and bright signs. Yonge-Dundas Square is flashy and loud and certain to appeal to many.
Other spots in the city aren’t quite as monumental and world-renowned but no less interesting. Take, for example, the 13-acre Distillery District on the eastern edge of the downtown area.
The site was home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery starting in the early 1830s until it closed in 1990. Over the years, the company added buildings, including a 70-foot tall windmill. Unfortunately, the windmill no longer exists but more than a dozen other buildings still do.
Walking the cobblestone alleys and exploring the site really gives you a taste of history. Luckily, the buildings have been repurposed. Today, it’s a mixture of restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and event spaces. Whether you’re looking to shop or just soak in these gorgeous brick and stone buildings, there’s definitely something of interest for everyone.
A similar rebirth is what makes Roundhouse Park so special. Located in the shadow of the CN Tower, the focal point of the unique train-themed greenspace is the John Street Roundhouse. The renovated rail infrastructure building is home to the Toronto Railway Museum as well as a restaurant and a separate brewery with a Biergarten.
But if you don’t have time to visit the museum, there’s no need to worry. Across the park, retired railcars sit waiting, as though they’re about to head into the roundhouse for service. Kids of all ages can explore the railcars with a visit to the park.
While some spots have been revitalized, some were never abandoned to begin with. The St. Lawrence Market in its current location dates to 1902.
Before it was a public market, the building served the city in a different way. From the mid-19th century served, among other things, as city hall and a jail. Inside the market, you will find a dizzying array of fresh produce, meats, baked goods, and more. There are also a number of restaurants, including Carousel Bakery, home of the city’s famous peameal bacon sandwich.
Art in Toronto
Art lovers will definitely want to make time for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of the largest art museums on the continent. In addition to notable rotating exhibits, the museum has an impressive collection of Canadian art.
But you don’t have to pay an admission fee to enjoy art in Toronto. You can find it all across the city, from large murals to small sculptures.
English street artist Banksy left his mark in a number of spots across Toronto during a visit in 2010. Today, only two of those works remain and are accessible to visitors for free. One, showing two men and a child staring at something in the distance, is behind protective glass on the side of a building on the corner of The Esplanade and Church Street. The other, depicting a guard with a leashed pink balloon dog, has been restored and moved to a more secure location in a common area of the One York Street building.
One of the most joyful works of art I encountered in Toronto is the Berczy Park Dog Fountain. The impossible-to-miss focal point of the urban park is a large water fountain.
The three-tiered fountain features sculptures of various dogs of a variety of breeds (and even a few cats). The pets stand proudly along the perimeter, shooting streams of water from their mouths and into the fountain. Needless to say, the Giant Schnauzer found a special place in my heart. But don’t take my word for it; the fountain and the park seemed quite popular with the city’s four-legged residents, too.
The park is a small but lovely spot amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown. There are plenty of benches beneath mature trees where you can people watch, admire the architecture of the buildings lining the nearby street, or hang out with your dog.
If you need a break from the city, there is one big one that comes to mind. An easy Toronto day trip – less than a two-hour drive from downtown – is Niagara Falls. American visitors to Toronto that are entering Canada via New York State will practically pass by the famous waterfalls, making it an easy side trip or break in your road trip. Niagara Falls is open all year round, ensuring you get a different and unique experience with the change of the seasons.
Places to Eat in Downtown Toronto
Start the day off with breakfast in downtown Toronto at Evviva. The popular and colorful restaurant opens early — 7 am — and offers brunch favorites at the Lower Simcoe location just next to Roundhouse Park. If you aren’t an early riser, they serve lunch, too.
You could easily fill your belly at any of the seemingly dozens of inexpensive dumpling shops all across the city. But spoil yourself and enjoy lunch or dinner at Pearl Harbourfront. Located on the upper level of the Queen’s Quay Terminal along the waterfront, the restaurant offers lovely views of the lake. But you may be more focused on the delicious food, particularly the dim sum.
For a fun night out, try Don Don Izakaya. The friendly staff pound taiko drums in a dramatic fashion as they serve some dishes in the Japanese bar and restaurant while TVs over the bar show local sports.
If you’re looking for less an izakaya with a bit less of a party atmosphere, head to Yuugi Izakaya for a modern take on Japanese cuisine. The menu is delicious and made for sharing. Try the Saba Sushi: torched mackerel pressed sushi with a sesame shiitake mushroom filling. And don’t forget to save room for dessert. You won’t regret it.
With the city’s multiple Chinatowns, you might be surprised that you can get a taste of Germany, too. Try Otto’s Berlin Döner, tucked in the city’s hip Kensington neighborhood. In addition to the promised (and authentic) Döner kebab (served either on a sandwich or a plate), you can also find Currywurst. Be sure to show up with an empty stomach.
Where to Stay for a Toronto Weekend Getaway
Not far from the waterfront there are a number of hotels that are the most convenient for a downtown visit and are very tourist-centric. The central location puts countless restaurants and plenty of attractions right on your doorstep. For a luxury experience, the InterContinental Toronto Centre offers spacious and comfortable rooms with views over the city. The hotel is also connected to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, making it an easy pick for those attending events.
For a stay that is a bit off the tourist path but still embedded in the vibrancy of Toronto life, try the Kimpton Saint George. You will feel like more of a local at the stylish and modern hotel. The hotel is located just down the street from the Royal Ontario Museum and Gardiner Museum making it convenient for culture vultures. It is also near a University of Toronto campus, meaning you’ll find lots of cool, hip restaurants and shops with flexible hours in the vicinity.
Downtown Toronto is easy to see on foot but there are good public transit connections available.
There are a convenient number of subway and streetcar stops. The subway’s Line 1 runs along University Avenue to Union Station, the city’s central train station, before heading up Yonge Street. Streetcars run in both directions: including west and east on Queen and King Streets and north and south on Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street. It’s worth noting that both the 509 and 510 streetcars run down along the waterfront on Queens Quay West.
There are, of course, parking lots and garages across the city in addition to some street parking. Parking and exploring on foot is the easiest option.
Tips for a Toronto Weekend Getaway
- To make your weekend easier, consider making restaurant reservations ahead of time. At some restaurants, reservations will definitely be needed. At others, a reservation will get you a nicer table. Many of the restaurants have online reservation systems to make it even easier.
- If you’re visiting Toronto from abroad, you don’t have to worry too much about converting your home money to local currency. Credit card and debit card payments are widely accepted and extremely common. In fact, some restaurants don’t accept cash. But, with that said, it doesn’t hurt to have some cash on you for emergencies.
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.