10 Ways to Experience Toronto on a Budget

Learn how to save money on food, hotels, entertainment and more during your next trip to this vibrant city.

August 20, 2019

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: Jesse Milns

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Tourism Toronto

Photo By: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Toronto Downtown

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Toronto on a Budget

Home to nearly three million people, Canada's largest city enjoys prime real estate along Lake Ontario. Toronto easily rivals major U.S. cities in terms of restaraunts, shopping, entertainment, attractions — and cost. Luckily, a favorable exchange rate and plenty of deals make Toronto surprisingly affordable year-round. Here are 10 suggestions of how to enjoy this sophisticated city while sticking to a budget. (Prices are in Canadian dollars.)

Delve Into the Restaurant Scene

Roughly half of Toronto's population is foreign born, greatly benefitting the local food scene. Affordable and tasty eats can be found in an array of ethnic neighborhoods: Messini Authentic Gyros in Greektown (a.k.a. Danforth); Sunrise House in Koreatown; Udupi Palace in Little India. But those staying downtown will still find an overwhelming amount of budget-friendly food from around the world. There’s not enough space to devote to all of the worthy mentions, but there are definite highlights. Make a reservation or expect to wait for northern Thai at trendsetting Pai; for a quieter scene, opt for authentic southern Thai at Koh Lipe in Baldwin Village. (Note that Baldwin Village is an overlooked tree-lined section near Chinatown that offers a variety of reasonable spots.)

Two food halls are also great bets: St. Lawrence Market has been around since the 1800s, and is the best known. Here you’ll find two floors of vendors selling everything from fresh produce to inexpensive take-out. On the main level you’ll also find the iconic peameal bacon sandwich (Canadian bacon rolled in cornmeal) at Carousel Bakery, along with St. Urbain Bagel for the best bagel and lox sandwich. Head downstairs for croissants from Stonemill Bakehouse, chocolate from Eve’s Temptations and Greek food from Yianni’s Kitchen. By contrast, Assembly Chef's Hall is a newer, trendier food hall where you can find rainbow lattes at Bulldog Coffee; jerk chicken banh mi at Mira Mira and even a beer hall and wine bar — best avoided during the happy hour crush.

Grab Your Swimsuit and Hit the Beaches

You’re not alone if you didn’t realize that wide, sandy beaches and a boardwalk can be found within city limits. Called either the Beach or the Beaches, this quiet neighborhood resides along Queen Street East, but don’t call it sleepy. Independent shops and restaurants line this section, attracting the most traffic on summer weekends. (Tip: Take the Queen Street streetcar.) Make a day of it by bringing a towel and picnic to enjoy the free beach areas. Woodbine Beach at the western end is not only good for swimming, but also offers an outdoor pool, bike trails, beach volleyball court and more. Further east, Kew-Balmy Beach tends to be less crowded, but the beach and water are equally attractive, and easily reached via boardwalk or bike trail from Woodbine. It doesn’t lack for activities either, since kayaking and SUP are popular. Before heading back, walk a few minutes to Queen Street East for longtime favorite The Beacher Cafe, a casual spot serving diner fare.

Discover Kensington Market and Chinatown

Kensington Market and Chinatown border each other, with both providing an abundance of affordable shops and food. The former is less a market and more of a neighborhood, a bohemian enclave marked by colorful Victorian homes and lots of graffiti murals. Chinatown is busier, but graffiti murals prominently feature there too. Set aside a day to explore both. Kensington is the place to decide which vintage shop is the best, nosh goat curry patties from Golden Patty and sample beer at Kensington Brewing Company. Don’t leave the area without trying Indian tacos at Pow Wow Cafe, admiring Graffiti Alley and unwinding on FIKA Cafe’s back patio hammock with a cardamom spiced latte.

However, be sure to leave room for all of the tasty eats in Chinatown. It doesn’t get much cheaper than Juicy Dumpling, a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall where you can order six dumplings for $2.99. Rol San is the place to go for all-day dim sum, minus the rolling carts. And if the weather’s chilly, King’s Noodle Restaurant will revive you with cheap bowls of hearty soup.

Save on Entertainment

Toronto’s a great place to catch Broadway shows, but paying full price quickly adds up. Instead, sites like TodayTix offer half-off shows, whether bought same day or a month out. Discounts extend to everything from Cirque du Soleil to Second City, the famed improv group. The TodayTix app makes it even easier to pick a show. The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is a state-of-the-art, glass-enclosed space that’s home to the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company. It’s possible to save money on day-of rush tickets, whereas standing-room only tickets sell for $12. And from the end of September to May, a free concert series featuring newer and established artists is offered during the week. Come summer, Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto’s version of Times Square, screens popular movies; for 2019 the movie series partnered with Second City to show hits from some of its alums, like Ghostbusters.

Explore Queen Street by Streetcar

Queen Street is one of Toronto's main arteries; the eastern end runs through the aforementioned Beaches, plus hip Leslieville. The western end is busiest around Queen Street West, more hipster around West Queen West, and quieter, but no less interesting, around Parkdale. Since there are so many businesses along this corridor, it’s best to focus on two neighborhoods at a time for maximum appreciation. On the east side, Leslieville is less touristy than Queen Street West, but offers an attractive number of independent businesses like Leslieville Pumps — don't let its gas station exterior deter you from the cheap and filling eats inside.

By comparison, Queen Street West is packed with visitors and some of the city’s trendiest businesses. Tourists start to thin out around West Queen West, but this section is still a popular draw, packed with more independent spots and an artsy vibe. Here, Soufi’s offers a great introduction to Syrian street food, while Drake General Store is the spot for cool, local souvenirs. Continuing west, Parkdale is more residential, yet still offers enough (non-chain) businesses to fill an afternoon. A major vegan trend is happening here at the moment, earning the area its Vegandale moniker. Check out Doomie's Toronto located in Vegandale Brewery; Copenhagen Vegan Cafe & Bakery; and Imperative for stylish vegan shoes, bags and more.

Wander the Distillery District

The car-free Distillery District is a section of restored 19th-century buildings, once home to the world’s largest distillery. Today it’s home to more than 50 mostly independent businesses, encompassing galleries, boutiques, cafes and more, with a decidedly creative bent. There’s even a modern distillery, Spirit of York, offering a 2,500-square-foot tasting room, plus guided and self-guided tours. Among the District’s dining options, Wildly Delicious is a well-curated and picture-worthy food market that doubles as one of the best area bets for affordable and healthy meals. Visitors can also enjoy year-round events, from free concerts and yoga classes in the summer to a traditional Christmas market come winter.

Take Advantage of Free Museum Nights

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) rivals the Royal Ontario Museum for the city’s best museum title. Not only is AGO home to an impressive collection of Canadian art, including Indigenous Canadian artists, but it’s now home to a permanent Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror room. Visitors can experience both, along with the rest of the permanent collection, for free on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Though smaller, the Bata Shoe Museum is a must for shoe fans. A permanent exhibit showcases shoes throughout the ages, while three galleries feature rotating exhibits. Currently on display through 2019 are well-curated collections exploring the history of gold shoes; how the Depression affected footwear (did you know Salvatore Ferragamo introduced platform shoes in the '30s?); and traditional Arctic footwear from Siberia to Norway. Every Thursday night you can pay a $5 suggestion donation between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Also take note that the new-and-improved Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada is always donation-based, while the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery along the popular Harbourfront Centre waterfront is always free, and offers rotating visual art exhibits.

Ferry to the Toronto Islands

Speaking of Harbourfront Centre, this cultural attraction is where you'll find a boardwalk, pond/skating rink (depending on the season), festivals, free concerts and more. It’s also a short walk to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal that serves the Toronto Islands, a small car-free island chain. For less than $10 round-trip you can ferry to Ward’s, Centre or Hanlan's Point in about 10 minutes. The islands are connected by bridges or paths, making it easy to walk or bike between them. (Bike rentals are available.) Families favor Centre Island due to its offerings, which include a beach, maze, picnic areas, paddleboats and Centreville Amusement Park. The last is a summer hotspot for kids with about 30 rides and attractions, food options and a petting zoo. Of course, the most affordable way to enjoy the islands is to pack a picnic, choose a sandy stretch (like the quieter Gibraltar Point Beach on Hanlan's) and decompress.

Enjoy Lodging Deals

Some of the best deals can be found on Airbnb, where it’s possible to rent entire apartments downtown for under $100 a night. Another option for less than a $100 night is Planet Traveler Hostel, a popular option conveniently located in budget-friendly Kensington Market. The eco-friendly hostel offers both bunk-bed style dorms (single sex and mixed gender) and private rooms. But if you don’t mind sharing, it’s hard to beat dorm pricing, starting at $38 a night — including breakfast. The hostel also facilitates meeting fellow travelers as it arranges pub crawls, bingo nights and karaoke parties.

For less than $200 a night, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Toronto Downtown provides a comfortable night’s sleep and is located within walking distance of many downtown attractions and public transportation. Other draws? The hotel’s indoor pool and the warm chocolate chip cookies provided upon check-in. (If you ask nicely, the front desk will give you cookies throughout your stay.)

Use Local Transportation

Navigating Toronto’s attractions and neighborhoods is easy thanks to an extensive network of subways, streetcars and buses. Known as the Toronto Transit Commission, or TTC, the system is fast, clean, safe and easy to use. An adult single ride costs $3.25; single day passes for $13 can be bought at train stations and used on all modes. For the best deal, groups or families of six or less can all use the one-day pass for $13 on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Note that streetcar tickets can also be purchased from machines onboard.

Another option is to buy a Presto card, an all-access transit pass that allows you to reload as needed — you can even do so via the Presto app. Buy the card online, at Presto vending machines in the subway or at participating outlets like Shoppers Drug Mart.

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