Drive Your Family to Toronto for Your Next Trip
Why Toronto with Kids?
Before I get into the heap of things to do with your family in Toronto, I want to address the big WHY. Why go to Toronto for the big city experience when Chicago is a little over three hours away and Indianapolis is just over a four hour drive?
My number one reason for taking my kids to Toronto is because it’s in a different country. Travel is a fantastic way to learn about the world, but taking the whole family to a foreign country can be expensive and daunting. Not so with Toronto.
Toronto, like all of Canada’s larger cities, is an international hub. (That’s what I found when I visited Vancouver, and before that, Quebec City – where the official language is French!) And since Toronto is just over five hours away from Grand Rapids, Michigan, you can get all of the benefits of international travel with all of the ease of a short drive.
No need to purchase flights meant a big savings for our family of five. And being able to pack our van full of creature comforts, snacks, and equipment meant we could save on food and rental fees at our destination.
Going to Toronto is like going to Europe, just faster.
And it’s affordable.
Did I mention that the US dollar is strong right now, and that means more buying power in Canada, as well? I love walking around, looking at price tags and doing a little math calculation in my head… today I get 20% off just for paying with US dollars. Ha!
FYI – To drive into Canada as an adult, you need a valid Passport, passport card, or enhanced driver’s license. Children will need birth certificates to complete the border crossing. (Kids do need passports if you are flying or if they are 16 or older.) We crossed at Port Huron and did not have a very long wait at customs entering or exiting Canada.
Toronto with Kids
The only thing I would’ve changed about our trip to Toronto was the length – we could’ve stayed for a whole week! I knew Toronto was a big city before I went, but I had no idea it was the LARGEST city in Canada, and the fourth largest city in North America.
It’s comparable in size to Chicago, and has recently topped the windy city in population. Toronto is comprised of a bunch of lovely neighborhoods connected with a top-notch public transit system. (The subway is clean and safe and my kids could’ve happily spent the first day just hopping on and off of trains.) Since Toronto is so large, it’s best to group your experiences by location. We simply ran out of time during our Friday – Sunday morning stay and couldn’t make it to all of the “want-to” stops on our list. But that just gives us a reason to go back soon…
And more on getting around Toronto later…
Our Travel Planning Strategy
If you’ve traveled with kids before, you know if can be a challenge to get them to buy in to all of the stops you’d like to make.
To help our kids get excited about the trip, and to give them a little skin in the game, I had a computer date with each of my children and showed them the kid-friendly Yo-Toronto.com site and had each kid pick their top three things to do in Toronto. I guaranteed each of them that we’d do their top choice, and the other two choices were there in case we had a tie with the other kids. The kids loved shopping for their events on the easy-to-use site because it had videos and interactive features. My nine year old said it felt like she was playing a video game while picking out her destinations.
For now, I’m going to highlight the places we did get to and what we loved about them.
It’s Worth it to Get a City Pass
If you’re going to be in Toronto for any length of time, you’ll want to get the CityPASS.
CityPASS Admission Includes
- CN Tower
- Casa Loma
- Royal Ontario Museum
- Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada
- Toronto Zoo or Ontario Science Centre
…All places we visited (with exception of the Science Center) and highly recommend.
Not only do you save a ton of money by getting the CityPASS, you also save a ton of time by not having to wait in line to purchase tickets at each location. Can I tell you how nice it is to walk past a big line of people waiting to buy their tickets? That could be you with a CityPASS.
As of late 2016, CityPASS rates are US$55.99 for ages 13+ and US$35.77 for ages 4-12.
Casa Loma was my must-see spot.
I don’t think I need to say much- just look at these pictures!!!
Where else in North America can you crawl through a full-sized European-style castle, explore hidden passages, gawk at the finery and otherwise pretend to be royalty?
- Casa Loma was built by wealthy Canadian Sir Henry Pellatt, who hoped to entertain royalty at his castle.
- The castle boasts elaborate suites, secret passages, an 800-foot tunnel, towers, stables, and beautiful 5-acre estate gardens (open May through October).
- A self-guided digital audio tour in 8 languages (English, French, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean) is available.
Okay, so I admit that I wasn’t very excited about this stop. We popped in because our pass covered it and we were nearby. I thought – we have the GR Public Museum and I’ve visited the Field Museum of National History in Chicago – there’s not much left for me to see.
Well, I was wrong.
This museum is off the hook.
First of all, it is gigantic. Secondly, the artifacts housed in the ROM blow your mind.
Actual ancient Chinese tablets – not replicas – were right under my nose. A sculpture that sat in a cave for over a 1,000 years was at my fingertips. Everything on display was artfully presented and engaging. Even my kids, who weren’t thrilled about a museum stop, were tuned in and ready to explore. We could’ve spent the whole day at the ROM if time allowed. There is something amazing from across an ocean or a different part of the world around every corner.
The hands-on exploration CIBC Discovery Gallery was a big hit with the younger kids.
A massive canoe built by Canada’s First Peoples made us pause and think.
RELATED: Spring Break in St. Louis
Let me pause a minute to talk about where we slept at night. And swam before bed.
- The Chelsea Hotel is Canada’s largest hotel.
- They have bunnies.
- They have a babysitting service and children’s activity room.
- They have a corkscrew waterslide and pool.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hotel in the heart of Toronto, you’ll find it at the Chelsea Hotel. And we loved that it was only a few blocks away from the subway, so once we parked our van, we left it there for the whole weekend in favor of public transit.
City Tour Bus & Subway
As I mentioned, we didn’t drive during our stay in Toronto. The transit system is amazing, and almost free on the weekends. You can get a day pass that covers your whole family on weekend days valid for buses, streetcars and the subway. The subway is easy to use and there are frequent trains.
We also chose to supplement our travel with the CitySightSeeing Toronto Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.
My husband and I are very much DIY kind of people, so paying someone to drive us around and tell us about a city isn’t the first thing to come to mind when we go on a trip. But we’ve learned over the years that we appreciate knowing the hidden facts that tour guides offer and it’s a much more relaxing experience when you let someone else do the driving.
Your ticket for the Hop-On Hop-Off bus is valid for 2 days (and in the summer, it includes a boat ride) so you can get off and explore and then hop back on at your leisure.
As you can tell, my kids had a blast sitting on top of the open-air double-decker bus. (They also have enclosed areas for colder days.)
The CN Tower was my nine year old’s top pick.
We first tried to visit on the Saturday night of our visit. I thought we’d be able to walk right in, ride the elevator to the top, and watch a gorgeous sunset. Well, lots of other people had the same idea and the line to go up to the top was over an hour’s wait. And that was after waiting for 35 minutes to get through security and get to the ticket desk. (This is where a CityPASS comes in handy!)
We decided to return the following morning and get there early to avoid the lines. That was a great decision – we walked right in. Another perk of going to the CN tower near the end of our trip was pointing out all of the places we’d been. You get a 360 view of Toronto from the CN tower – a fun way to recap all of the fun you’ve had so far.
Another neat feature of the CN tower is the glass floor section. It’s disconcerting at first to stand on it, but a whole lot of fun once you realize you’re not going to fall through. If you want to add to your CN Tower experience, you can make reservations for dinner or test your bravery with EdgeWalk.
Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto was my son’s top pick and wow, did he pick a winner!
Around every corner, there is something new to discover, and the aquarium does a great job taking you from one level of discovery to an even more enthralling experience.
Probably my favorite at the Toronto aquarium was the people mover belt running through the glass tunnel. “Oohs,” “ahhs,” “look at this!” “wow did you see that??!” These were the expressions coming from me, my family and the people around us as we traveled under the sea.
Other highlights of the aquarium:
- It’s very hands on. Kids are encouraged to touch and interact with the exhibits throughout.
- It’s open late. Whereas most museums close around 5pm, the aquarium is open til 11pm most days and is open 365 days of the year. This makes it a great post-dinner excursion and can really help you make the most of your time in Toronto.
Legoland Toronto is located in a large mall (Vaughan Mills) outside of downtown Toronto.
Geared toward kids ages 3-12, our whole family had fun building and experimenting with LEGO bricks. The Kingdom Quest Laser ride was a hit with everyone, and the younger girls rode it over and over again trying to beat previous scores.
I thought the 4D movie experience was neat- it’s not very often that you get “snowed on” in a movie theatre.
The guys spent a lot of time building and racing cars on the test track, and the earthquake tables led to a lot of trial and error. STEM anyone?
Be sure to plan a few hours into your trip for Legoland Discovery Center – your kids won’t want to leave.
What a zoo! We’ve been to quite a few over the years, and the Toronto Zoo is one of our favorites.
This huge zoo (710 acres, 1.3 millions visitors a year, over 5,000 animals) is broken into seven regional zones. Bring your walking shoes and a stroller for the kids- the animals are spread out to give the animals plenty of room in exhibits that reflect their native environments. Plan a half to whole day for the Toronto Zoo.
While you’re at the Toronto Zoo, be sure to visit the year-old giant panda cubs! The panda exhibit is well done and quite educational, and the bears are a treat to see. You do need to budget time to stand in line to see the cubs, so plan accordingly.
The Toronto Zoo is open every day of the year except Christmas.
If you go in the summer, be sure to check out The Discovery Zone…
The Discovery Zone is a SEASONAL and FREE interactive area for kids that includes a waterplay area, a theatre, and a children’s zoo.
More about The Discovery Zone:
- Splash Island: Two acres of waterslides, bigger than life water-spouting animals, a waterfall, lots of misters, and tipping buckets.
- Kids Zoo: Wind down the two-story treehouse slide or bird watch in the giant aviary. This is a special place for kids where they can have fun and learn about Canadian habitats.
- Waterside Theatre: On warm days, kids and families can visit the outdoor Waterside Theatre for the Amazing Animal Show. This interactive show will highlight natural animal skills that they show off around, over and within the audience.
If you fancy yourself a foodie, St. Lawrence Market is a must-stop when in Toronto. We hopped off the hop-on-hop-off tour bus right at the market’s door. This award-winning hot spot is a great place to eat, shop and test food and fare served by over 120 merchants and farmers. The kids had a great time scouting out special treats from all corners of the market.
Where and what you eat in Toronto is almost as important as the attractions you visit while in the city. We found ourselves with a list of restaurants to try that outnumbered our meals, but that didn’t stop us from trying to fit in great tasting morsels at every turn.
The Queen and Beaver Public House is a very nice traditional British pub with great food and brunch. They do a brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. We ate the fish and chips and mushroom pie family style and enjoyed it very much.
On one of our jaunts, we stopped by Beaver Tails Pastry. These things are amazing. Think elephant ears meet the toppings of your dreams. My son thoroughly enjoyed his Triple Trip Beaver Tail topped with Nutella, peanut butter and Reese’s Pieces.
While we waited to get into Fran’s Restaurant on Younge St, we had the loveliest chat with a couple from north of Toronto. They thought it was fantastic that we Americans were visiting Cananda and had such a love for their country.
Once in the diner, the grilled cheese was served up just like the kids like and my omelet with fresh avocado hit the spot.
Next Time in Toronto
As I mentioned, we needed more time in Toronto. I’d love to go back for a week at Spring Break or spend time in the city in the summer when a trip out to the Islands via Toronto Harbor Tours makes more sense.
I’m keeping the following list in my pocket for our next vistit – which will come sooner than later, now that I know how accessible this inspiring city is!
Evergreen Brick Works and Don Valley – This is an industrial area that is being reclaimed. Built on a former clay quarry, brick-making demonstrations are held here. Walking trails, a farmers market, open-air ice rink, food stops and more are set to an amazing naturalized space in the middle of Toronto. Great stop for the whole family!
Ontario Science Center – An iconic cultural attraction, the Ontario Science Centre is home to interactive experiences with science and technology geared toward all ages.
High Park – If you’re looking for food, there are LOADS of family friendly places on Roncesvalles: Barque for BBQ, la Cubana for delicious Cuban sandwiches, casual diners, etc. This area is basically family and kid central. High Park is also known for its many beautiful gardens, hiking trails, free zoo, lakefront and great playgrounds.
Kensington Market & China Town – This would be fun as a little walking tour. Kensington Market is one of Toronto’s most famous and eclectic neighborhoods. While you’re there, hit up the awesome tacos (7 lives), Berlin donair (ottos), and basically an infinite number of awesome places for cheap treats of all kinds (empanadas, roti, Mexican icecream…)
Junked Food – My kids were all sorts of sad when they learned Junked Food wasn’t open on Sundays. Because junk food is one of their favorite things, and after looking at this place’s Instagram, we all wanted to go. Next time, Toronto, next time!
Poutini’s House of Poutine – How we managed to NOT eat any poutine on our trip is beyond me, but it’s at the top of our list for our next visit!
Share Your Toronto Tips
Together, we make travel even better. If you’ve been to Toronto with kids or have heard of any must-do itineraries for this great Canadian city, please leave a comment below!
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