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Ten Free Things to do in Toronto

Toronto can be a pricey place: cool bars generally mean expensive drinks, the museums and main attractions charge a day’s backpacker budget just to enter and cheap accommodation is tough to come by. But there are a few free ways to enjoy the city if you know where to look. Here’s a list of ten things to do in Toronto when you’re broke:

1. The Harbourfront
It’s easy to forget that Toronto lies on the shores of one of the Great Lakes; poor city planning means you can’t see the water from most points in the city. Of course, that means it’s a nice surprise when you do venture down to the waterfront. Head for the Harbourfront area, a pretty stretch of boats moored near the Toronto Music Garden. Apparently the garden’s design was inspired by Bach’s music, which is tough to spot, but it is a nice place to hang out and in a great location, right in the harbour. Adjacent is the Spadina Key Wetlands, once a car park and now home to an ever-growing number of fish, water birds and amphibians.

2. St Lawrence Market
OK, so if you plan to actually buy stuff then the St Lawrence market isn’t a freebie but while it’s tough to browse the gourmet food stalls without buying, it’s not impossible. Head upstairs in the South Market to view some local art or visit on a Sunday for the antique market, which is basically just a museum when you think about it. Guided tours around the market include some tasty samples, but they don’t come cheaply. If you’re feeling cheeky, you could try your luck at scoring a few gratis snacks without paying for a guide.

3. Distillery District
Some will be relieved, others disappointed that the Distillery District does not harbour a boozy building at every turn. What it does have is some fabulous architecture, enviable apartments, free art galleries and divine (if pricey) restaurants and cafes. Once you’ve finished your free wander, treat yourself to a pint of micro-brewed loveliness at the Mill Street Brew Pub.

4. The Beaches
Toronto has a beach? Well no actually, it has a string of beaches hugging the northern shore of Lake Ontario. And what’s more, they’re surprisingly good. In summer it seems that half the province descends on Toronto’s sand but it’s still worth a visit. And in winter you can see the cool sight of snow on the beach.

5. The AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario)
It normally costs an outlandish $18 ($10 for students) to get into Canada’s oldest (and some claim largest) art museum. However, visit on a Wednesday evening between 6 and 8.30pm and you can view the vast collection without paying a single cent (unless you fancy giving a donation). Among the highlights are some fabulous First Nations carvings.

6. The ROM (Royal Ontario Museum)
This is probably one of the most ridiculously priced museums in the world, demanding $22 a ticket ($19 for students), but if you want to have a look around and are content with a fleeting glimpse of the massive collection, entrance is free for an hour a week (Wednesdays 4.30-5.30pm). Considering it’s Canada’s largest museum, you’ll barely scratch the surface in 60 minutes, but at least you won’t have spend a night’s accommodation budget looking around. It’s basically a natural history museum, with other exhibits looking at ancient civilisations, dinosaurs and lots of info on Canada’s original inhabitants. Entrance is half price on Friday evenings (4.30 -9.30pm).

7. Riverdale Farm
The last thing you’d expect to find in a funky, bustling city like Toronto is a farm. OK, so it’s not as cool as designer shopping or fine dining, but Riverdale Farm is relaxing, unusual and most importantly of all: free! It has all the usual farm animals: cows, pigs, sheep, goats and the like; and on Tuesday afternoons there’s a farmers’ market where you can stock up of self-catering supplies. Bring a picnic and enjoy a cheap lunch, a free walk and some respite from the downtown hubbub.

8. The City Halls
Back in the downtown core, architecture fans will enjoy the striking contrast of Toronto’s old and new city halls. The futuristic City Hall is not as new as it seems, built back in 1965, but the designer was way ahead of his time. Some think that the building is still a bit space age for Toronto today! From the air it’s supposed to resemble a giant eye, though it’s also been described as “an ice cream cone with a tumor in between”. Make your own mind up as to whether you love or loathe it. The old city hall dates back to 1899 and draws far less criticism. You can admire the buildings from outside or wander the lobbies for free. The new City Hall has a self-guided tour pamphlet available from the info desk as you enter.

9. Funky Festivals
Toronto is known for its fabulous festivals and the best thing is that many of them are free. You can choose from high brow art events like Nuit Blanche, two-week carnivals like Caribana , quirky outdoor parties such as the Toronto Fringe and Buskerfest or smaller, impromptu events staged when the sun shines.

10. Walking
It seems like an obvious thing to suggest as a free activity, but walking is actually one of Toronto’s greatest pleasures. Whether you opt for a stroll along the lakefront, a walk through the vibrant China Town district or a wander between Toronto’s oldest buildings, making time for a walk should certainly be near the top of your list of things to do in Toronto. In the summer months, staff from the ROM lead free guided walks with an architecture/history bent.

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