The Best Places to Be Outside in Toronto
Yes, Toronto is a beach city.
When people talk about Canadian cities like Vancouver or Montreal, they inevitably wax poetic about their greenspaces. Not so much Toronto. In fact, it's a common refrain that Canada’s largest metropolis doesn't have much nature at all. Heck, I even used to say it myself. But then I moved to the big city. Turns out, Torontonians know how to keep a secret -- especially when it comes to the city's incredible outdoors scene.
While tourists are held up in line at the CN Tower or getting bounced around in the crowds ofDundas Square (pre-pandemic, of course), Torontonians are biking along hidden urban trails and partying on the beach. Here, there are ample urban parks and expansive wildernesses on the perimeters. Island adventures are a short ferry away. Turn the right corner, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you wandered over to the Mediterranean.
So while it pains me to let the cat out of the proverbial bag, here are some of the best places to get oot and enjoy nature in Toronto. In the words of Stratford, Ontario’s own: “Is it too late now to say sorry?”
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One of Toronto's biggest outdoor advantages is its positioning on Lake Ontario, meaning you can kick back on urban beaches like Sugar and HTO while the city hums right behind you. But that same inland sea also makes it exceedingly easy to leave the city without actually leaving it: Hop on a 13-minute ferry south from the Harbourfront and you’ll hit a set of 15 islands that are easily one of the best day trips from a downtown core anywhere.
Toronto Island Park is an interconnected network of pathways and bridges that stretch five kilometers end-to-end -- perfect for a stroll or bike ride (solo, tandem, and four-seaters are available for rent). Centre Island is the hotspot, with an amusement park, William Meany Maze, restaurants, and two beaches; the popular Centre Island Beach and more peaceful Ward’s Island Beach. Hanlan’s Point, with its stone lighthouse built in 1808 is a tad more off the beaten path, but if you do stop here for a dip, keep in mind that the beach is clothes-optional.
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Even before Canada legalized cannabis and Toronto became one of the best places in the world to experience cannabis culture, High Park was a great place to hang out with a joint. About half the size of Central Park, the huge city park is great for a nature walk around the ponds or a dip in the outdoor pool on a hot day, and there’s even a zoo for those inclined. In springtime, High Park’s cherry blossoms are a major attraction -- so much so they were blocked off and live-streamed during the early days of the pandemic. In the wintertime, you can skate circles around High Park’s outdoor rink or join in a game of shinny on the ODR (Canada-speak for a game of outdoor ice hockey).
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Twelve-thousand years ago, a glacier retreated from what’s now Scarborough in the east end of Toronto, leaving clay cliffs and white sandy beaches that face turquoise water. The Bluffs are like nothing else in the greater Toronto area, giving off tremendous Mediterranean vibes. Aside from the beach, the Bluffs include terrific walking paths, just be careful of routes that are blocked off and be sure to stay away from the base of the cliffs as they’ve been known to collapse.
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While not technically outdoors, the Allan Gardens Conservatory delivers a whiff of nature any time of year: even if it's 10 degrees below freezing. Founded in 1858, the 16,000-square-foot greenhouse inside Allan Gardens park is home to hundreds of plants from around the globe, including tropical orchids, palms, banana trees, and jade vine. There are benches where you can pass an afternoon with a book, or you can opt for a paid tour to learn more about flora you likely won’t find in the wild anywhere in Canada. Keep an eye out for the conservatory’s resident turtles while you're there.
On any given warm day in Toronto, hundreds of beautiful people lay out blankets for a picnic and a beer in view of the CN Tower at this east-side park (technically drinking in parks is illegal, but nobody seems to care as long as you’re discreet). Besides the big open space -- ideal for tossing around the frisbee, working out in its outdoor gym, or watching a game of cricket -- Riverdale Park is home to some quality shaded trails. If you follow the trail northbound, you’ll eventually get to Riverdale Farm, where you can hang out with chickens, piggies, and horsies.
The Don River and Evergreen Brick Works
Seven-thousand years ago, Indigenous groups settled around the Don River to catch wild salmon. A lot has changed since then (including Canada paying $145 million reparations to the Mississauga for stealing their land), but you can still see salmon jumping in the Don River while walking or biking along a nearly 10-kilometer trail beside the riverbanks. When you get to the Don River Valley Park, keep an eye out for temporary and permanent public art, including huge murals, gargoyles sculpted out of concrete blocks, and pop-up dance performances.
This is also the home of the former Don Valley Brick Works, which operated for over a century, supplying the bricks for some of Toronto’s most famous buildings. Now called the Evergreen Brick Works, the once- abandoned has been transformed into a place to promote sustainability. You can roam the quarry and wooded trails behind the compound, taste local fruit and veggies at its year-round markets, go for a skate at the rink in the water, and check out indoor and outdoor gardens meant to inspire city dwellers to grow their own produce at home.
Leslie Street Spit
Builders used to drop brick and rubble from old construction sites at the banks of Lake Ontario, forming an oddly-shaped landform that stretches five kilometers off the coast. The site is strangely known as The Spit, but don’t let the name or the fact that this park is technically a dump deter you. Aside from being one of the best places to see the skyline, the Spit is terrific for bird watching -- you can spot hundreds of species that stop for a rest before or after their journey over Lake Ontario to New York state.
Along with being a highly sought after neighborhood with a quaint village vibe, The Beaches is -- yup -- a set of beaches that Torontonians flock to on warm days. The neighborhood also known as The Beach has four stretches of sand where you’ll find handsome Torontonians tossing around frisbees, playing beach volleyball, and sunbathing with a bottle of wine or beer on their blanket next to them (again, drinking in parks is technically illegal, but no one seems to care). At the end of the beaches there’s an off-leash dog beach if you’ve got a pup that likes to flex. During summers not tarnished by a deadly pandemic, The Beaches plays host to a bunch of festivals including an international jazz fest in July.
Rouge National Urban Park
The first park in Canada of its kind, Rouge National Urban Park is 79-square-kilometers of pure Canadian natural bliss, split between the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and neighboring cities Markham and Pickering. Rouge is home to 1,700 species of plants and animals, including snakes, river otters, coyotes, and deer. There's even a beach from which you can launch a canoe or take a kayak out for a rip. Since farms are allowed in the park, there are some tasty produce markets to try, too. Want to spend the night under the stars? Rouge also has the only official campground within Toronto city limits.
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Trinity Bellwoods Park
If there is a place to see and be seen in Toronto, it’s the west side's Trinity Bellwoods. This extremely popular park gets packed during summer with barely any space between groups of picnic blankets (photos during the pandemic of young’uns close to one another caused a lot of angry fist shaking, but it didn’t prove to cause a further outbreak). Trinity Bellwoods also has a quality dog park and often hosts food and art fairs. And in the spring, it's pops with color with the emergence of cherry blossoms, which contrast beautifully with the skyline in the distance.
Christie Pits Park
Christie Pits' baseball diamonds gained notoriety when Nazi sympathizers attacked a Jewish baseball team in 1933. But the park has risen above this historical stain to become a summer scene unto itself, one thrumming with life and embracing a local community vibe. The park has plenty of benches for a picnic and a craft beer (I think you get Toronto’s park vibe at this point), and if you can manage it, checking out a free movie in Christie Pits is a quintessential Toronto summer experience. And in the winter, it takes on a second life with its rink and toboggan hill.