Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto is one of Canada’s most exciting cities. Shining skyscrapers, diverse neighborhoods, and even some lakeside beaches – there’s plenty to keep you busy in the capital of Ontario.
The best part? Despite Toronto being an expensive city, there is quite a lot you can experience for absolutely nothing. Here’s our list of the top things to do in Toronto for free.
Make your travel budget go a little farther with insider tips from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.
1. Photograph Graffiti Alley
Like many major cities, Toronto has a debate between what is known as street art and what is vandalism. Rush Lane, better known as Graffiti Alley, is meant to be an art space and as such has become a Toronto favorite, especially among photographers, artists, and Instagrammers thanks to all the colorful murals. The alley is about 400m (1312ft) long and is covered in art from some of the city’s most notable street artists. While some pieces have remained over time, many others get regularly painted over so there is always something new to check out.
Planning tip: You’ll want to visit during the daytime, ideally on a nice day since so you can get some great shots of the artwork (and keep your camera dry!). Consider an early start before it gets too busy.
St Lawrence Market is one of the best places to go in Toronto on a rainy day © iStockphoto / Getty Images
2. People watch in the historic St Lawrence Market
St Lawrence Market is an iconic institution in Toronto. It’s been open since 1803 and remains an important part of the city over 220 years later. The market holds a number of different retail businesses, specialty item stores, an exhibition space plus a weekly antique market and farmers market that are always a huge hit. Locals and tourists alike come here to shop and you should too. However, you don’t need to spend money to enjoy the atmosphere of St Lawrence Market. It’s fun to browse, people watch and experience a little bit of Toronto’s history in what is considered to be one of the world’s greatest markets.
Planning tip: St Lawrence market is covered, which makes it a great free indoor thing to do in Toronto on a rainy day. The farmers’ market takes place on Saturday and the antique market takes place on Sunday so plan your visit accordingly based on your interests.
Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Sq hosts events throughout the year © Jessica Lam / Lonely Planet
3. Catch the action at Nathan Phillips Square
Considered to be the heart of Toronto, Nathan Phillips Sq is probably best known by visitors as the home of the Toronto Sign – the big block letters that every visitor (and some locals!) loves to take photos with. As well as the iconic sign, the plaza is also home to a number of special events. From the New Year’s Eve party to Remembrance Day celebrations, concerts and more, there’s often something going on in this part of the city so be sure to stop by and check it out when you visit.
Planning tip: The Toronto sign is best seen at night when it is lit up and colorful.
Get close to nature for free in Toronto’s High Park © Jessica Lam / Lonely Planet
4. Visit the animals at High Park
Visitors looking for free outdoor activities in Toronto should head to High Park. As the largest public park in the city, it’s a great spot to escape the city in search of nature. There are walking trails, play parks for children, a waterfront space, and the High Park Zoo, which is free to visit from 9am–5pm throughout the week. The zoo is home to a variety of animals including bison, capybaras, llamas, peacocks and more.
Planning tip: High Park is considered to be the best place to see cherry blossoms in Toronto, so be sure to stop by if you are visiting in the spring.
Toronto’s beach season runs from June to September © iStockphoto / Getty Images
5. Soak up the sunshine at Toronto’s beaches
Beaches may not be what comes to mind when you think of Toronto, but many of the city’s waterfront parks do have sand and pebble beaches where visitors and locals stretch out and sunbathe, swim, or even pick up a game of beach volleyball. The official beach season runs between June and September, which is the only time there will be lifeguards on duty, but beaches can be visited year-round.
Planning tip: Make it into a day trip at the beach by taking the ferry to one of Toronto’s islands for beautiful views of the city.
6. Browse through Toronto’s free museums and historical sites
As of May 2022, the city of Toronto made general admission to 10 history museums and sites across Toronto free for visitors. The top picks that made the cut are Colborne Lodge, Fort York National Historic Site, Gibson House Museum, Mackenzie House, Market Gallery, Montgomery’s Inn, Scarborough Museum, Spadina Museum, Todmorden Mills, and Zion Schoolhouse. The focus on these sites is part of a city-wide drive to make cultural history available to all, with a specific focus on re-evaluating the exhibits from a position of anti-racism.
Planning tip: Other major museums in Toronto charge an entry fee, but there are times when admission is free. The most popular is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which offers free general admission 5:30–8:30pm on the third Tuesday of every month, making it one of the best free things to do in Toronto at night.
The Distillery District has been redeveloped into a vibrant neighborhood filled with entertainment © iStockphoto / Getty Images
7. Window shop in the Distillery District
Thanks to its Victorian buildings, Toronto’s Distillery District is a national historic site. Originally founded in 1832, what was once a whisky distillery is now considered to be one of the top arts, culture and entertainment destinations not only in Toronto but within all of Canada.
You won’t find any chain businesses in this part of town. The area is filled with one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, restaurants, cafes, theaters, and more. Even if you don’t plan to shop, browsing through the different galleries and businesses located in beautiful old Victorian buildings is a whole lot of fun.
Planning tip: Toronto’s Distillery District is home to the annual Winter Village, which is Toronto’s take on a Christmas market. There are a few specific times and dates that do require ticket purchase (weekends and Dec 27–31 after 4pm), however, outside of those times, admission is free.