Toronto City Guide for Budget-Minded Travelers

If you’re looking for a fun, hip and vibrant city to visit, consider a trip to Toronto, Canada. Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America, is the capital of Ontario and Canada’s largest city, but don’t let its size deter you. Toronto is set over a grid of streets, and its extensive and easy-to-maneuver metro system makes getting around a breeze. Plus, most of the main attractions are located in the downtown area.
Toronto is known for many things, from a crack-smoking past Mayor to being home to the tallest tower in the West, but its biggest claim to fame is that it is the most multicultural city in the world. Home to over 200 distinct ethnic groups, with over 140 languages spoken, half of Toronto’s population was actually born outside of Canada. With a wide array of cultural neighbourhoods, from Little Italy to Chinatown and Koreatown to Little Malta, Toronto is a one stop fix for a dose of culture. It truly is a world within a city.
With over 300 festivals held annually, over 1,500 parks, a plethora of museums and theatres, and a spectacular waterfront with islands, Toronto has something for everyone, and there is always something going on, especially during the summer.

Toronto city guide
© Stephanie Mayo

Getting To & Around Toronto

Toronto has a few small airports scattered across the city, mostly for short-haul flights. The main airport is Toronto Pearson International Airport, located about half an hour outside the city, depending on traffic. Taxis cost on average $60 CAD. The quickest and easiest way to get downtown is by hopping on the new Union Pearson Express Train (UP) that departs every 15 minutes, takes 25 minutes and takes you to Union Station, in the heart of downtown. Here you can easily jump on the subway. Tickets cost $12 CAD, one way. You can also take the 192 Airport Rocket bus into the city for a fraction of the UP train. Toronto’s Union Station also serves Amtrak, Via Rail, and Go Transit trains.
Toronto’s metro system may be easy-to-navigate, but it is also a bit expensive. It includes subway lines, buses and streetcars. There are also extensive Bike Share sites where you can rent a bike for a day or longer. It’s also a very walkable city, since many sights are centrally located.

Tips for Toronto

1. TTC
The TTC, or Toronto Transit Commission, has pretty steep fares compared to other big cities. So, consider purchasing a day pass for $12 CAD, if you plan on using the metro more than three times in a day. Also note that these passes are good from start of service until 5:30am the following morning. This can be a considerable saving when you consider the single fare is $3.25 CAD.
Note: Drivers on buses and streetcars do not offer change. Make sure you have a pass, tokens, or exact change.
2. Stay Central
Toronto is a massive city and when considering where to stay you’ll want to be centrally located. Check your accommodation’s location before booking. Make sure it is in the downtown core, or at least on a subway line, which will save you time and energy.
3. Get a City Pass
When visiting Toronto, if you plan on checking out the top attractions, consider purchasing a City Pass. For $72 CAD ($59 USD) the pass offers free entry into CN Tower, Casa Loma, Royal Ontario Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium and a choice of either the Toronto Zoo or the Ontario Science Centre. The pass is valid for nine days and could save you over $50 CAD.

Things to do in Toronto

1. Graffiti Alley
Toronto is known for its creative edge, perhaps in Graffiti Alley more than anywhere else. Located just south of Queen St. West, and running from Portland St. to Spadina Ave., Graffiti Alley is actually called Rush Lane. This kilometre-long stretch of back alley is home to garbage bins, the occasional piece of forgotten furniture, and is the true sense of alley life. But it is also chalked full of awesome street art, from classic cartoon characters to darker, more ghoulish pieces. There’s even an entire building covered in vivid colours and is home to a virtual aquarium of art.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about Toronto’s street art, its artists and the stories behind their pieces than consider a guided tour with Tour Guys.

Toronto street art
© Stephanie Mayo
2. Distillery District
Located in Toronto’s Old Town neighbourhood, the Distillery District is a trendy place to explore. This complex, which was once the largest distillery in the world, is now home to cool cafes, lively restaurants and pubs, vintage shops, and galleries. It feels like a village within a city, with pedestrian traffic only, cobblestone streets, and historic red brick buildings. The Distillery District is also a venue for varying events throughout the year from music to art and summer markets to Toronto’s beloved Christmas Market.
3. Royal Ontario Museum
The Royal Ontario Museum, or the R.O.M., is over 100 years old and is Canada’s largest museum. The façade is old-meets-modern with the extension of the crystal addition on Bloor Street. Torontonians have mixed feelings about this addition, similar to Parisians’ thoughts on the pyramid addition to the Louvre. But, beyond its exterior, the museum houses over 6 million objects in 40 galleries and has a diverse collection, from dinosaurs to meteorites and Canadian to Chinese architecture, which also happens to be the largest collection outside of China. A few must see exhibits are the Bat Cave, the Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art, and the Gallery of Africa: Egypt.
Royal Ontario Museum
© Stephanie Mayo
4. CN Tower
Toronto’s CN Tower is the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere. The tower offers an assortment of experiences, from extreme adventure to fine dining. You can dine in the 360Restaurant with revolving views of the city or choose to walk along the world-famous glass floor. There are also two observation decks. The first is at over 1,000 feet and the second, called the SkyPod, is one of the highest observation platforms in the world at 1,465 feet. The SkyPod offers epic views over Toronto, Lake Ontario and even to New York in ideal conditions. If extreme adventure is your game then EdgeWalk is for you. At over 1,000 feet it is the world’s highest hands-free full-circle walk that takes you around the tower on a five foot ledge, harnessed and encouraged to push your limits. The price may be steep, at $195 CAD, but offers access to the other decks, a keepsake video, and photos of your adventure.
5. Stroll down Queen Street West
If shopping is your thing, Toronto is your city. But even if it’s not, simply browsing the hip and indie shops along Queen Street West will pique your interest. Vogue Magazine even ranked it the second hippest district in the world. Home to vintage shops, independent cafes and restaurants, Queen Street West is all a buzz with creative and strange folk alike. And the further west of Yonge Street you go, the less chain shops you find, and the more unique and interesting shops and eateries you’ll discover.
6. Explore Queen’s Park
Queen’s Park opened back in 1860, and it is older than Canada itself. This beautiful oval park is home to majestic old trees, various statues, the Ontario’s Legislative Building, and plenty of shade on summer days. Just south of the park is where you’ll find Ontario’s Legislative Building. This grand old building, from 1892, houses the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. A wander through the building is a must, as it showcases various building styles, beautiful stained glass, and historic pieces of Canada’s past. But, you can’t wander on your own. There are a handful of tours offered, some take you around the inside of the building, while some take you on a tour of the grounds, including the park, and one combines both inside and out.
7. Casa Loma
Set on a hill in Toronto’s downtown, Casa Loma sits on five acres and was the dream of Sir Henry Pellatt. Built for his beloved wife, and designed by E.J. Lennox in Sir Henry’s grand dream of a castle that fused a mix of many architectural designs of European castles. Completed in 1914, Casa Loma is home to nearly 100 rooms, 30 bathrooms, 2 secret passageways, and so much more – including a library that houses 10,000 books. Though sadly Sir Henry and his family didn’t get to enjoy the castle for very long due to debt, the city took it over and turned it into a museum. This grand castle is wonderful to explore, full of period pieces, secret hallways, a turret to walk up through, and gorgeous gardens.
Casa Loma Toronto
© Stephanie Mayo
8. Allan Gardens
Allan Gardens is one of Toronto’s oldest parks, at over 100 years old. The iconic Palm House, constructed out of cast iron, was built in 1910. The park’s grounds have a dog park, a playground and the conservatory. Within are 6 greenhouses covering 16,000 square feet, ranging from tropical to desert plants. A wander through Allan Gardens is a nice reprieve from the hustle of the city. You’ll discover beautiful orchids, cool cacti, giant banana leaves, and even tranquil ponds with koi. To top it all off, it’s free!
9. The Toronto Islands
Another great place to relax and unwind is the Toronto Islands. A short 15-minute ferry ride will transport you to the amazing Toronto Islands. The Toronto Islands are a group of islands connected by pathways and bridges. It is home to Centreville, an amusement park, one of Canada’s oldest lighthouses, and expansive parkland and beaches. There are also cafes and restaurants or you can pack a picnic. With the wealth of wild space, the islands are also great for wildlife and bird enthusiasts. You can even take a stand up paddle board tour, rent a bike, canoe, kayak, or paddle boat to explore the islands. Click here to view tours and activities on Trip Advisor.
Note: Ferries are a short, less than 10-minute walk from Union Station, down to the foot of Bay Street on Queens Quay. Ferries depart every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on time of day. A return trip costs $7.50 CAD.
10. Dundas Square
At the crossroads of Yonge Street and Dundas, you’ll find Dundas Square. Looking around, you may think you’re in London’s Piccadilly Circus or New York’s Times Square, with all the shops, restaurants and jumbo billboards. There is always something going on. From live performances, to free concerts, or festivals, Dundas Square is always a hotspot for locals and tourists alike. It’s also home to three shopping centres, including the Eaton’s Centre, tons of restaurants, and even theatres nearby.
Note: There is also free Wi-Fi within the Square.
Dundas Square
© Stephanie Mayo

Where to Stay in Toronto

Budget – Planet Traveler Hostel
Planet Traveler is an eco-friendly hostel in downtown Toronto that is much loved by those who stay. It is set in a century-old building that has been completely overhauled with its high-tech, environmentally friendly features including geothermal temperature control, solar panels, water reclamation, and so much more. Beyond its green features, Planet Traveler has some great amenities including modern, clean rooms, free breakfast, lounge, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour keycard access, and self-serve kitchen and laundry facilities. It also has an awesome rooftop patio with fantastic views over the city. It’s in a great location, near trendy and urban restaurants and cafes, and fun neighbourhoods to explore like Kensington, Little Italy and Chinatown.
Dorms start at $38 CAD ($29 USD)
Mid-Range – Victoria’s Mansion Guest House
If you’re looking for a little more privacy, but still want to stay on budget, Victoria’s Mansion Guest House is a good option. Located in a safe neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, near Yorkville, this guest house is full of charm and warmth. Set in a 19th century Victorian home, Victoria’s Mansion Guest House offers free Wi-Fi, private bath, and garden.
Rooms start at $79 CAD ($60 USD)
By Stephanie Mayo