I visited Toronto last summer and have been dying to get a guide on the blog. I went there in August and the beautiful (clean) city is filled with a variety of tempting cuisine; music venues and outdoor performances; and an array of enlightening artwork, museums, and historical sites.
But, there's a "but".
While there is no doubt Toronto is a gorgeous city, with over 2.5 million people in its metropolitan area alone, visiting the home of the CN Tower is quite expensive … even before considering its 13% sales tax. LAWD help me.
Yes, you read that correctly: Toronto's prices are an immediate buzzkill for those traveling on a tight budget. With that in mind, I created a list of cheap things to do on a weekend visit to Toronto, so as not to return home broke.
Fran’s Restaurant near Dundas Square
Start your day with a filling breakfast at Fran’s Restaurant if you are arriving by bus. Close to Yonge-Dundas, near the somber Greyhound bus station, this famous family-owned diner is open 24 hours and offers highly acclaimed home-style cooking. As your stomach snarls in search for the eatery amongst lively two-way traffic, your appetite will jump in delight once you spot the glowing red fluorescent sign flickering above a rectangular metallic awning.
Grab one of the all-day breakfast specials and savor their filling pancakes. It is a total no-pressure vibe, so take as long as you want to finish your meal and feel free to bring a Toronto map along with you to study and plot your weekend activities.
While you are still near Dundas Square, be sure to check if there are any activities scheduled. Depending on what day you visit, this lively attraction surrounded by retail stores and welcoming greenery offers free concerts, fairs, or yoga classes. Explore the area and don’t be afraid to ask someone for advice, they often run promotions so you might even get a free gift.
Explore Old Toronto
If you’re interested in history and a bit of old town architecture, kick your tour off in Old Toronto’s Corktown district with a visit to The Distillery. The reemerging neighborhood still holds its Victorian Era character, dressing the town with restored red brick buildings, post clocks, barrel décor, and factory windows painted warm greens and black.
The industrial hot spot has a free distillery gallery and brick-laid pedestrian-only streets surrounded by theatres, boutiques, and cafés for a light lunch.
Walking distance from The Distillery is the St. Lawrence Market. Another historical find, this indoor market has free entry and a plethora of vendors. From farm-fresh organic produce, meats, cheeses, and fresh seafood, to souvenir shops and maple everything, you’ll be sure to find a low-priced gift to bring back home.
If you are looking to satisfy your creative appetite, Toronto’s graffiti may just be right up your … alley. Hop on the quaint Queen Street trolley and head west to Spadina Avenue to discover an array of lively murals along Graffiti Alley. This gem is located in Downtown Toronto’s fashion district and is a treasure for photographers and urban art enthusiasts.
Once a year, the Toronto art community holds the largest two-day graffiti festival in Canada, bringing together over 100 artists to paint back alley buildings and blocked out windows along the Queen Street West alleys. You’ll find tag names and various illustrations ranging from cartooning to political statements to abstract art. The energy from the striking hues alone will have your color wheel spinning.
Oh hello, Ossington
For dinner and some beer near Graffiti Alley, walk west on Queen Street to Ossington, as you head into the hipster ‘hood of Toronto. Right up the block from Queen Street West is the Bellwoods Brewery restaurant and outdoor bottle shop, where you should definitely stop by to taste their craft beer selection. If their unique beer selection and woodsy décor isn’t appealing enough, their creatively designed beer labels will make you want to purchase their entire selection. Stay strong: you’re on a budget and you need to eat.
Right up the block from Bellwoods is a dimly lit restaurant called BQM (an acronym for Beer + Quality Meats), where you can devour mouthwatering burgers, poutine, and all-around fried goodness for reasonable prices ($4-$12). If that sounds too overwhelming, then you can just order a kale salad. I won’t judge.
The Drake Hotel
You can’t leave Toronto without a taste of its nightlife. Waddle your way over to The Drake Hotel after your filling meal at BQM. This “hot bed for culture” is a funky find known for their great cocktails, vintage photo booth, arbitrary art installations, and lyrical wall décor.
If you want to party head downstairs to their dimly lit pit, The Drake Underground, where you’ll enjoy a live DJ and an intimate dance floor. To skip their entry fee, get there an hour early if it’s a performance night, and you won't have to pay. Stick to the beers, cocktails can get pricey.
*Tip: You might work up a tipsy appetite there; if so, The Drake Hotel’s restaurant upstairs serves an affordable late night “snack + share” menu until 1:00 am.
If you need some more historical flavor, leave Downtown Toronto’s center and hop on the subway’s yellow line out to Casa Loma. This grandiose castle features 98 ornate rooms, formerly the home of Sir Henry Pellatt, and is sure to please. It costs $24 to explore the castle, including suites, towers, and secret passageways, but if that is beyond your budget, you are also allowed to just take photos outside of the castle. You can enter the premises for free and hang outside as long as you visit during the castle’s open hours.
Chinatown + Kensington
For an affordable bohemian treat and cultural excursion, make sure you visit Chinatown / Kensington for early lunch and eclectic window-shopping before the late afternoon crowd fills the streets.
There is an abundance of ethnic food options and street fares to choose from for an early lunch, including Vietnamese pho, Chinese dumplings, and street vendor churros! This will also be the perfect time to get a $15 20-minute body massage or $10 15-minute foot massage, or search for unique souvenirs to bring home.
While most people who visit Toronto want to go to the CN Tower because that’s what everyone else does, I recommend you skip the expensive tower walk, take a great photo in front of it, and instead head down to the dock and hop on the ferry to Toronto Island.
The Toronto Island ferry is just $7 round-trip and the 20-minute ride (with snacks available for purchase) is the ideal break from your intense 48-hour tour of the city. The charming island itself has no visiting time limit, as long as the ferry is still running. Though there are food vendors available, they are not the healthiest (or cheapest) options, so pack a lunch to save money. Once on the island, there are a number of activities to participate in: there is a 30-minute history tour of the island grounds via trolley, beaches, parks, picnic areas, bike rentals, a mini amusement park, and free concerts. Unwind here for a few hours, and maybe even take a nap; the last ferry leaves at 23:00.
For one last delicious meal after a long day of sightseeing, hop back on the ferry and head downtown for dinner. There is an enchanting Italian restaurant on Spadina Avenue called Fusaro’s. The aroma alone, sneaking past the front door and onto the road is hypnotizing. The staff is also pleasant and extremely helpful – always a plus! Your waitress may even offer their wi-fi password so you can check email and connect with home. Try their Antipasto Piatto and Bistecca if you want to spend your last few dollars on a substantial, satisfying meal.
What are some of your favorite frugal finds in Downtown Toronto?
Which one will You try first? Let me know what you think about these cheap things to do in Toronto, below.