City Guide: Toronto with Kids
Diverse, easy to navigate, and full of thoughtfully designed green spaces and world-class institutions (not to mention friendly Canadians), Toronto is a fantastic urban destination for a family trip. Below, we’ve put together a mix of must-see sites with locally loved finds, covering family essentials like kid-friendly restaurants, beautiful parks and playgrounds, and museums with exhibits that keep half pints in mind. Plus, we’ve mapped out all of our recommendations here.
WHERE TO STAY
These hotels go out of their way to make children feel welcome, but they’re not all about the kids. Stellar service, lovely décor, and amenities like spas and gyms ensure adults get special treatment, too. We’ve also selected places with spacious guest quarters, from standards with extra square footage to adjoining rooms to two-room suites. (Average prices are estimated on a $ to $$$$$ scale.)
Hotel X Toronto
With 404 guest rooms, indoor squash and tennis courts, a rooftop swimming pool, and a library, this 30-story building feels like its own little city (not a bad thing if you catch Toronto on an off-weather day). Rooms are spacious, and some categories (Signature Premium with Two Queen Beds) offer extra space, while others (One Bedroom Suites) have separate seating areas with doors and pull out beds. Best of all, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Lake Ontario and city landmarks like the CN Tower, a serious win if you’re stuck in your room during nap time.
For the Half Pints: Cribs and baby bath products are available upon request. Kids also receive a welcome gift upon arrival.
For the Full Pints: Babysitting services available upon request. There’s also a spa, a state of the art gym, and a golf simulator room. And stroller-friendly lakeside jogging paths are just outside of the hotel’s doors.
Insider Tip: Peruse the library shelves for the hotel’s collection of children’s books.
Hotel X Toronto; room options; $$$
The Four Seasons Toronto
The flagship property of this elegant brand won’t disappoint parents—or the half pints. The staff greets family members by name, and in the 259 guestrooms—appointed with custom upholstery, Nespresso machines, and Bose stereos—children will find welcome amenities like robes and slippers and a stuffed moose. You’ll see kiddos at the Daniel Boulud Café downstairs, known among neighborhood families for its delicious weekend brunch, as well as the indoor swimming pool, which provides blow-up toys upon request. Even bedtime is a treat thanks to quintessentially Canadian turndown treats like maple syrup candies and children’s books starring the country’s national animal, the beaver.
For the Half Pints: Cribs, baby bath products, and in-room microwaves are available upon request. Starting at 500 square feet, all rooms are spacious and have separate showers and baths. Yorkville Premier Rooms have sitting areas with pullout beds that can be closed off.
For the Full Pints: The Yabu Pushelberg-designed spa, gym with city views, and D Bar (where the Old Fashioned is a must) are all great excuses to hire a babysitter, which the hotel can arrange.
Insider Tip: Utilize chef concierge Carolina Avaria, president of the Canadian branch of Les Clefs d’Or concierge association, every chance you get. She and her team can do everything from printing off transportation tickets to save you time on the road to booking a kid-friendly guide at a popular museum.
fourseasons.com/Toronto; room types; $$$$$
Located in downtown Toronto, the Chelsea is the largest hotel in Canada, and the most kid-centric of the bunch. Among the 1,590 rooms, you’ll find more spacious options (one- and two-bedroom suites), adjoining rooms, and even family fun suites that have kitchens and toy corners loaded with puzzles, games, and movies. There is also a pool—with an indoor water slide—that guests can use free of charge.
For the Full Pints: The Kids Centre—filled with games and playhouses—offers supervised play for up to two hours for potty trained kiddos for $10 an hour; during that time you can visit the adult pool, whirlpool, and fitness center on the 27th floor, or linger over lunch.
For the Half Pints: Children get a Kid Essentials Kit—filled with games and stuffed animals—upon check-in. The property restaurant also has an affordable kid’s menu ($8.50 CAN) with options like grilled cheese and veggie sticks.
Half Pint Tip: Staying at the Chelsea can save you money on Toronto’s attractions. Using their “Show Your Card and Save” program, you can get perks like 20% off Royal Ontario Museum admission or discounted tickets to Ripley’s Aquarium.
chelseatoronto.com; room categories; $$
Home and Apartment Rentals
Short term rentals from sites like Airbnb and HomeAway are great options for families as they can include conveniences such as kitchens, washer/dryers, and bathtubs. Depending on the homeowner, cribs, high chairs, changing tables, and toys might be available too. If going the home rental route, book in central, family friendly neighborhoods such as Trinity Bellwoods, Queen West/King West, Yorkville, and the Annex. Note that short term rentals are currently in a legal grey area in Toronto: Local rules and regulations have been proposed but the city cannot yet enforce them. In the meantime, the Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) is included in the rental rate. $-$$$$$
THE MUST-SEE SITES
Yes, these places attract hordes of tourists, but they’re also popular for a reason—especially with kids. So how do you avoid the crowds and keep the kids engaged? Read on.
Ontario Science Center
This is a spot that sparks questions, and encourages kids to find the answers. There are over 500 hands-on exhibits across six levels, all of which are interactive, and some totally immersive. There’s the outdoor nature escape, the Van de Graaff generator (a hair-raising experience, literally), and a steamy rainforest home to poison dart frogs, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and Kapok trees. The center also houses an IMAX theater and a planetarium with a special showings for children under five.
Half Pint Tip: Don’t miss a chance to see real rocks from the moon and Mars.
Best for: Kids 4 and up, but there are activities for babies and tots as well.
Time it right: Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be less busy, as are Saturdays after 3 P.M. The center closes at 7 PM or 8 PM in July and August.
How to save: The OSC participates in the Toronto Public Library’s Museum + Arts Pass (MAP) program in which you can “borrow” a pass for up to two adults and two children from 32 select Toronto Public Library branches. Also, if you happen to be in town September 26—the center’s birthday—admission is free.
Ontario Science Center; tickets
Among the tanks holding over 20,000 marine species—including mesmerizing jellyfish, five kinds of rays, and a giant Pacific octopus—Ripley’s Pièce de résistance is Dangerous Lagoon. Here, a 315-foot tunnel cuts through over 766,000 gallons of water, home to sharks, green turtles, and exotic fish. The aquarium is also full of hands-on exhibits: Kiddos can play at a massive water table that mimics the Great Lakes’ lock system; touch horseshoe crabs, white spotted bamboo sharks, and stingrays; and jump on a fish scale to see how much they’d cost as a prized Bluefin tuna.
Half Pint Tip: Plan your trip around one of the daily dive shows (approx. every two hours after 11:15 AM), where aquarists feed sharks, care for jellies, swim with rays, and answer kids’ questions from the tank.
Best for: All ages.
Time it right: The aquarium is especially busy during the summer, but guests that arrive right at 9 AM or after 4 PM will have less human company.
How to save: Save up to $7 per ticket when you visit before 10 AM or after 7 PM (aquarium hours are 9 AM to 11 PM).
Hockey Hall of Fame
Your budding sports enthusiasts might not walk into this sports center knowing much about Canada’s national obsession, but it’s fair to say they’ll walk out requesting a backyard ice rink. Here, kids armed with sticks and pucks can face off against animated versions of the world’s best goalies and shooters, call hockey play-by-plays or host a sports show in simulated broadcasting zones, strut around a replica of a professional locker room, and watch hockey movies, some of which are in 3-D. Needless to say, the gift shop is one of the city’s best pit stops for a nationally approved souvenir.
Half Pint Tip: The staff here makes a point of engaging with kids. Encourage your kids to ask them questions and point them to the activities with the shortest lines.
Best for: Kids three and up (unless you’re Canadian, in which case, at birth).
Time is right: Arrive early in the day and avoid Canada’s winter, March, and summer breaks if possible.
How to save: Regular promotions can be found online. In a current search we found tickets (normally $20CAN) discounted from Groupon ($16 CAN), Costco ($14), and Attractions Ontario ($4 CAN off tickets).
The CN Tower
If your kiddos are interested in engineering and architecture—not to mention an epic elevator ride—a trip to the CN Tower (the tallest freestanding structure in the Western Hemisphere) is worth the potential lines. Fun facts abound: The tower gets struck by lightening an average of 75 times a year, and it’s designed to withstand winds up to 260 miles per hour. (If you visit the uppermost SkyPod, where a pendulum provides a visual demonstration of the sway, you can feel it.) Be sure to snag a spot by the window as you shoot 116 stories in the air to the viewing platform. Here, you’ll overlook Toronto’s islands, the Financial District’s skyscrapers, and on a particularly clear day, Niagara Falls.
Half Pint Tip: Kids comfortable dining in nice restaurants? Make a lunch reservation at 360 Restaurant, a rotating dining room (it comes full circle every 72 minutes) located just below the viewing decks, over 1,100 feet in the air. The menu shows off Canadian fare with dishes like Fogo Island cod and foie gras from Quebec. Best of all, reservations here mean you get priority in the elevator line, and get access to the main observation and outdoor terrace levels at no extra cost. Prefix meals start at $62 CAN per person, not that much more than general admission at $38 CAN per adult ($28 CAN for children 4-12 years old).
Best for: Kids 5+
Time it right: Crowds are much more manageable during the fall, winter, and spring seasons. If you are visiting during the summer, get there early.
How to save: Also visiting the Ripley’s Aquarium? Check out the Sea and Sky package, which saves you a total of $19 CAN on the combined tickets.
CN Tower; tickets
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)
While the fashion, arts, and culture exhibits at the ROM are stellar, it’s the natural history wing that will attract most families. Here, kids can marvel at dinosaur skeletons, handle animal sculls, and explore a model bat cave. Special exhibits—on spiders, bloodsuckers, archeologist digs, and more—are particularly engaging and interactive. Elsewhere in the museum, you’ll find exhibits on Chinese architecture, European fashion, Egyptian mummies, and Greek antiquities.
Half Pint Tip: Attention dino lovers: Meet Gordo, the dinosaur gallery’s 88.5-foot-long Barosaurus. It’s the largest real fossil dinosaur skeleton mounted in Canada, and is one of only three complete Barosaurus skeletons on display across the globe.
Best for: Any age.
When to go: Afternoons are often less busy. Buying tickets online also lets you skip the admission line.
How to save: The third Monday of every month offers free general admission during extended hours from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm.
Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)
Parents will be impressed by this museum’s massive collection—close to 95,000 works, spanning indigenous Canadian art, sculptures by Henry Moore, and some 300 works by the Group of Seven, Canada’s most famous landscape painters—all housed in a building with a Frank Gehry-designed wing. But along with the highbrow experience there’s a lot for kids thanks to a hands-on center where half pints can dig through bins of supplies for drawing, building, making costumes. Art Carts, filled with exhibit-inspired games, puzzles, and activities, are also scattered throughout the museum.
Half Pint Tip: Kids and adults alike love Yoyoi Husama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room - Let’s Survive Forever.” The exhibit is included in the entry fee, though advanced reservations, made on site, are required. And if you happen to be in town on the first Sunday of the month, don’t miss a family flashlight tour of the Thomson Collection of Ship Models.
Best for: Any age, thanks to the hands-on center.
Time it right: Get there weekday mornings (the gallery opens at 12:30) to avoid the crowds.
How to save: The half pints won’t cost you: Admission is free for people under 25.
PARKS AND PLAYGROUNDS
Green spaces are the backbone of every successful family trip. Kids can run around and get fresh air, and parents get a breather from hours of reigning in their active bodies (and mouths) in more formal spaces. You’re also likely to rub shoulders with local parents, always a great resource for additional kid-friendly activities and restaurants.
If you find yourself in East Toronto, put this park on the Don River on your list. Manicured trails—many of which have beautiful skyline views—run throughout, and you’ll find splash pads, playgrounds, barbecue pits and an eight-acre urban prairie.
Best for: Any age
Trinity Bellswoods Park
This 36-acre green space is located in the Queen West neighborhood, a family favorite thanks to its leafy streets and local shops and bookstores, kid-friendly restaurants, and art galleries. Grassy lawns bordered by pretty gardens are dotted with tennis courts, splash pads, and playgrounds, the most convenient of which is a short walk from the entry gate at Queen West Street and Stratchen Avenue. A regular farmers’ market also sets up every Saturday during the growing season (May through October) in the park’s northwest corner.
Best for: Any age
Thanks to it’s central location, this park can be your go-to stop after sites like the Ontario Gallery of Art or a meal in Chinatown. While kids enjoy the playgrounds, splash pads, and fountains, parents can sneak in some art education thanks to the park’s Henry Moore sculpture, Two Large Forms.
This green space is a real gem—and probably not a place you’d know about without chatting up some Torontonians. The park, located along the western family friendly neighborhood of Roncesvalles Village (see our neighborhood spotlight), is anchored by the fairytale-worthy Jamie Bell Adventure Playground. Along with the usual players of swings, ropes courses, and balance beams, you’ll find a maze of multi-story wooden castles topped with turrets and connected by bridges, ladders, and slides. High Park also has an educational children’s garden, a trackless train that makes stops throughout the near 400 acres, and a small neighborhood zoo, home to animals such bison, peacocks, and shaggy highland cattle.
Best for: Any age
Dufferin Grove Park
Located west of Little Italy, this park has a farmers’ market every Thursday from 3-7 PM all year long. In the winter months, you’ll also find an ice rink that’s open late November to mid-March.
The string of islands just off of downtown Toronto includes Centre Island, as much a must-see destination as it is a beautiful collection of parks. The ferry ride over from Jack Layton Ferry Terminal is half of the adventure. From there, you can explore the Centerville Amusement Park—designed for kids ages 3-7, the old fashioned rides include a train, bumper cars, and Ferris wheel. Further in you’ll find gardens and lawns, as well as bike rentals. Wheel your way down to Ward Island Beach, as well as the island’s best restaurants such as the pastel-themed Island Café, where you can snag an outdoor table for dishes like cured rainbow trout and brisket poutine. The island’s northwestern edges also has stunning skyline views.
Half Pint Tip: Buy your ferry tickets in advance—they can be printed or scanned on your phone—to skip the long ticket lines at the ferry terminal. And before you board, stop by St. Lawrence Market for snacks or picnic provisions; the restaurants just beyond Centre Island’s ferry terminal only serve fast food.
Best for: Any age
FAMILY FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS
Dining out with babies and kids can be hard. At the spots below, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and leave with your dignity in tact. The food is delicious, too.
The pasta is freshly made at this warm Italian spot on Queen West Avenue. The menu has fresh, simple dishes—Garganelli Geppetto made with dandelion greens and sausage, bufalina-topped pizza—as well as a handful of booth-style seating (so you can sandwich the kids in there) and back patio dining. Kids can request crayons and a children’s menu. For dessert, walk down the street to sister gelato spot Sud Forno.
Hooky’s Fish and Chips
On warm days, in-the-know residents call ahead for orders of fish n’ chips from this take-away eatery, find a bench in Trinity Bellwoods Park, and feast. Along with classic tartar sauce, try the curry sauce or garlic mayo. Have allergies in the family? There’s a gluten-free batter option, and dishes are free of common allergens like peanuts and sesame.
King's Noodle Restaurant
Toronto’s Chinatown is full of good restaurants, most of which are fast, friendly, and casual enough to be comfortable with families. Barbecued duck or pork, served over rice, are the menu favorites here, though kids also enjoy sampling comforting congee (a rice porridge) and fried dough sticks.
No web; 416-598-1817
Recipes originally hailing from Shenyang, China have been passed down for generations at this casual restaurant, where families can try dumplings stuffed—try chicken and mushrooms, pork and chives, and beef and celery, among other minces—that have been boiled, steamed, or pan-fried. The lengthy menu also has Chinese dishes such as garlicky broccoli, spicy mapu tofu, and sweet sesame balls.
Located in red row house in posh Yorkville, this British gastropub has handsome interiors—fox hunting-themed wallpaper, leather furnishings, and lacquered green finishes—as well as front and backyard patio seating. Here, children get crayons, and parents get ice-cold pints of pilsner—or stouts, IPAs, and ciders, among other brews. Classic dishes include piping hot fish n’ chips, hand chopped sirloin burgers, and duck and potato pie. Also save room for the sticky toffee pudding.
Food Tour: Culinary Adventure Co.
If you have a blooming foodies on your hands, sign up for this walking tour that not only sheds light on Toronto’s food history but also on the cultural diversity today that makes it so tasty. You’ll jump around from Vietnamese restaurants to Cuban dives as well as bakeries that make divine treats with seasonal fruit, like mini pies made with summer’s sour cherries.
Best for: Kids 5+
COFEE COFFEE COFFEE
A cup of joe, we’ve decided, is as essential to a family trip as a passport. When your kids are dragging you out the door at 6 AM, or if you need an afternoon pick-me-up, here’s where to get caffeinated.
White Squirrel Coffee
Whether you need to sit down and take a breather or get a coffee on the go in Trinity Bellwoods, White Squirrel has expertly made flat whites, cappuccinos, lattes and more. There are also breakfast sandwiches, empanadas, and housemade pastries.
Jacked Up Coffee
If you’re downtown—perhaps leaving the ROM or another city landmark—and on your last leg, this hip little coffee truck just might save the day. You can order an expertly crafted cortado or hot chocolate here, and kids can run around a small turf grass area. (Multiple locations.)
A city’s most family friendly place is where families actually live. It’s here that you’re going to find the best kid-tolerant restaurants, parks designed for all ages, independent toyshops, and more. In Toronto, that neighborhood is Roncesvalles: Kids love it—and you’ll be the only tourist you meet.
This neighborhood, located west of downtown, has deep Polish roots, still evident in the Pole-owned delicatessens, restaurants where perogis make the menu, and Catholic churches that hold Sunday Mass in Polskie. Today, it’s one of the most desirable spots for families to live thanks to its stately redbrick houses with private gardens and easy access to High Park. Along with exploring this city gem (see parks and playgrounds for my full review), make your way up and down Roncesvalles Avenue. Here, you can pop into shops such as Hey Kiddo—a spot for classic toys (Marble Run) and contemporary finds (Mindful Activities)—and Early Bird & Worm, where youngsters will leave looking Coachella-ready thanks to racks of clothes by Mila and Rylee and Cru. Between stops, refuel with a cortado made with beans roasted in-house at Reunion Island Coffee Bar. As for lunch, dine in one of the many traditional Polish restaurants along the street. We loved Café Polonez for its friendly owners and satisfying comfort foods such as minced pork or cheddar and potato perogis (dumplings served with sour cream and fried onions) or the hearty Hungarian pancake folded and stuffed with goulash. Kids, armed with crayons and activity sheets, can sip homemade fruit-filled kompot juice, while mom and dad can suck down pints of Zywiec pale ale.
If you know anything about Half Pint Travel, you know we advocate for #childcarewhiletraveling. In other words, hire a babysitter (see the tool box for a babysitter service recommendation), and—freedom secured—have a vacation from your family vacation. Here’s a progressive dinner date idea, with plenty of drinks involved.
Start the night at Oyster Boy, a casual spot for plump, silky mollusks from Canada’s east and west coasts, all of which are flown in daily and pair well with a glass of bubbly. Then stroll through Trinity Bellwoods Park (sans kids, you might even have time to take in the sunset) to Ossington Street, lined with some of Toronto’s best restaurants and bars. Snag a stool at Cocktail Bar for a front row seat to some serious shaking and stirring. Along with a list of seasonal drinks—the Big Unit, made with earl grey rye, amaro, and limoncello currently catches our eye—you’ll find twist on classics like a Moscow Mule made with gentian, or a lavender-infused gin hound. Just east you’ll find Foxley restaurant, which serves inspired Pan-Asian plates (arctic char ceviche made with green apple and ginger; lamb and duck prosciutto dumplings) in a small and friendly dining room. The outdoor tables, in a leafy courtyard under twinkling lights, are sweet and romantic.
Click here for our Half Pint Travel city map.
Toronto Pearson International Airport: Half pint-friendly amenities include Mamava nursing pods, family bathrooms with changing tables, and a play area in Terminal 1 close to gate D24. Also note that the easy ride on the UP Express from the airport to central Union Station costs about $40-$50 less than a cab.
Central Toronto is well linked by the TTC Subway, as well as the extensive TTC Bus system. Children under 12 ride both systems for free. (The same is true for Go Transit’s trains and buses, which service the Greater Toronto Area.) Note that less than half of the subway stations have elevators, so consider borrowing or buying a travel friendly stroller. (All buses, on the other hand, are wheelchair and stroller accessible.) Taxis, Uber, and Lyft are also all available, though none provide car seats. (Looking for a travel-friendly car seat? Click here.)
Toronto moms and top hotels alike use Nannies on Call for regular and last minute sitters. Among other qualifications, all nannies must have at least two years of experience, clear background checks, and be CPR certified. Rates—from $17 CAN an hour—are also quite reasonable. (On a personal note, we had a fantastic experience with our nanny.)
Need a car seat, travel crib, or high chair? Popular American gear rental site BabyQuip also has providers in Toronto.
Bring it Back
Yak and Dove and The Fog are two beautiful children’s books by Toronto-based writer Kyo Maclear. You’ll find them both, as well as more children’s literature by Canadian authors, at Type Books on Queen Street.
Kids are Expensive. Here’s How to Save. If you’re traveling from the U.S., UK, or Australia, you’re already saving thanks to the exchange rate (currently about 75¢ to the U.S. dollar). Traveling to Toronto outside of peak season helps enormously, as hotel prices drop an average of 9% in the shoulder season months (and 22% December through February), according to travel research firm STR. Still, you don’t have to freeze your buns to save. Some hotels—such as the Chelsea (see review)—provide complimentary discounts on major family friendly attractions. You can also stop by the Tourism Toronto info desks inside Union Station and ask if any relevant coupons are available. There’s always a but…And in this case it applies to adults. Thanks to an Ontario Spirits Tax of 13%, even casual drinking in the Great White North can be expensive. Then again, there’s the favorable exchange rate, so things even out. (At least they feel like they do after a couple of glasses of wine.)
When to Go
Summer is peak season here—and for good reason. Temperatures hover in the mid-70s to low-80s during the day in June, July, August, and September. May and October are the shoulder seasons: Airline and hotel ticket prices are less expensive, and the weather (Highs in the mid-60s) is crisp. You’ll save serious money if you travel here in the winter. You’ll also be really, really cold.
Overall Kid-friendly Rating: A
Toronto is a wonderful city for families. While big city rules apply—there’s plenty of traffic, noise, and the pace on sidewalks is brisk—Canadians are famously warm, friendly, and respectful towards travelers, especially children.