If you're visiting Toronto, you can't help but notice construction cranes, new condos and other signs of gentrification, like restaurants and bars popping up in new hipster 'hoods. But despite the upscale crawl, many of the city's best attractions are tried and true mainstays that can be experienced for free.
Formerly The Gooderham and Worts Distillery, the quaint East End area now known as the Distillery District has been turned into an enclave of art galleries, restaurants and boutiques offering one-of-a-kind fare such as hand-crafted jewelry housed in restored heritage Victorian buildings. Drop in at a gallery, stroll along the cobblestone streets in the warmer months to catch a free concert or check out the Christmas market when the frost sets in. The distillery may no longer be churning out spirits, but the charm of the neighborhood lifts the spirit of this otherwise industrial stretch of the city.
If your tastes are a little more eclectic and organic, make your way through bustling Chinatown to Kensington, where hippies, homegrown fare and hipsters happily coexist for the ultimate in people-watching. The original immigrant inhabitants have left their mark with a bevy of ethnically diverse fare from empanada stands to European cheese shops to Asian fusion restaurants, intermixed with vintage clothing stores, retro furniture shops and just the right amount of fair-trade coffee spots and brooding bars to draw a diverse range of patrons. Pedestrian Sundays are always fun when the streets are filled with bands, buskers, Brazilian drummers, and more, all for free.
Beautiful views and fun freebies abound on Toronto's waterfront. The Harbourfront Centre's 10-acre lakeside site hosts over 4,000 events, many of which are gratis. The arts and culture hub's York Quay Center and The Power Plant have changing arts and photo exhibits year-round for no entry fee. From May to October, take in a different free festival every week ranging from Expressions of Brazil to the Vietnamese Lantern Festival featuring concerts, performances and films. Come November, strap on your skates and glide around the center's rink. On Saturdays, put a little groove in your skate with music from the resident DJ, and all it may cost you is a little embarrassment if you're ability to boogie and balance on blades is off kilter.
The Bruce Trail is the oldest and longest marked hiking trail in Canada at 521 miles (840 kilometers) long and over 273 miles (440 kilometers) of side trails, many of which are in Ontario. (The trail helped put the Niagara Escarpment on UNESCO's World Biosphere Reserve list in 1990.) While it's not smack-dab in downtown Toronto, parts of the Ontario section of the route pass through the Greater Toronto area and are a short-to-moderate drive or transit ride from downtown. While autumn turns the trails into blazing streams of fiery reds, pumpkin orange and honeyed hues, the winter snow makes it perfect for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing.
Until 1999, Guinness recognized Yonge Street as the longest street in the world. That title was up for dispute because by the time it nears the Minnesota and Ontario border, it has turned into Highway 11. But at 1,178 miles (1,896 kilometers), it's still one heck of a stretch of street. Follow it from the start at the bed of Lake Ontario at Queen's Quay, where you can hop on a ferry to head to the Toronto Islands, where bikes and beaches abound. As you move north to Front Street, you'll hit Union Station, the city's transportation hub, as well as the neighboring streets of the former seat of city government at St. Lawrence Market, now a bustling foodie's haven. The street moves up through the financial district to the Eaton Center, Toronto's largest downtown mall, and the Yonge-Dundas Square, a mini-Times Square where you can often catch free films, concerts, performances and festivals. If you keep strolling north, you'll hit Yorkville, where the rich go to shop, nosh and gossip while the rest of us snicker at their poodle-stuffed Louis Vuitton purses. Yonge Street passes through midtown and into the suburbs where you'll eventually reach rural stretches, kettle lakes and the crest of the Oak Ridges Moraine, protected ecological land.