Toronto has a lot to offer. And like any dense urban city, prices can appear high — but not if you know where to look. When the bright lights and bustling streets of the Big Smoke call you out of the country’s capital and into that of the province, you might be in need of some cost-saving ideas to compensate for the price of parking. Believe it or not, there are still some free (or nearly free) family fun options in Toronto to take advantage of when the open highway south beckons.
The Riverdale Farm (www.friendsofriverdalefarm.com)
Smack in the middle of a dense residential area is a rural sanctuary. Riverdale is a living farm museum designed to give urbanites big and small the chance to see farm animals being fed, groomed, cared for and sheltered. The smell of rural living is in the air, and it’s remarkably calm and quiet along the paved sidewalk winding between the goat pens, past the butterfly garden and through the pig barn. Plan to spend an hour at the farm if you only want to see the animals, or two hours if you bring a picnic or walk the trails near the wetland habitat preserve at the base of the Don Valley Parkway. Only the distant sound of traffic reminds you where you really are — in the middle of a major city. The farm is open year-round and admission is always free.
Centre Island (www.Toronto.ca/park/franklin)
It’s open year-round, but May to September is the best time to go to Centre Island because the grounds are in bloom and Centreville Amusement Park is open. Admission to the island and park is free, but the rides cost about $1 per ticket or $22.50 per person for a day pass. Nearby is a splash pad and beach, along with the highlight for youngsters: The Franklin Children’s Gardens inspired by Franklin the Turtle children’s books. The park is free and made up of six sections designed to encourage interactive learning, gardening, reading and storytelling. There’s also a pond, tree house, amphitheatre and a spiral walkway that takes you to the highest point on the island. Catch the ferry ($3 for kids, $6.50 for adults) at the docks at 9 Queens’ Quay West.
St. Lawrence Market (www.stlawrencemarket.com)
Like any shopping district, admission to the St. Lawrence Market is free, but unlike most shopping arcades, this one is buzzing with independent small shops, crafty kiosks and
two levels of merchants selling anything from perogies to organic chicken, eggplant sandwiches to fresh seafood, tons of fresh produce and sushi, olives, bagels and artesian cheeses. Locals come here to fill condo-sized fridges with groceries but nearby workers and visitors make it a mandatory lunch stop. The best prices in the King and Front Street area for lunches are here, but you might have to jockey for a picnic or bistro table. And if you’re in town June 11 and 12, 2011, the market area is host to Woofstock, North America’s largest dog festival and, again, admission to that event is free.
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) (www.rom.on.ca)
This is a pricey option for the whole family, unless you show up on the right day. Wednesdays from 3 to 5:30 p.m. admission is free and Fridays from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. it’s half price. This is the building with the modern “crystal” window formation protruding from it, so it’s hard to miss. The architecture might be new, but there’s still looming dino skeletons on the second floor, an updated bat cave that scares as it educates, and a stuffed biodiversity zoo that surprisingly enthrals little ones. The interactive hands-on area is always popular, especially when you can dig for fossils, try on historic costumes, or make crayon rubbings with metal print stamps.
Bata Shoe Museum (www.batashoemuseum.ca)
Down the street from the ROM, the Bata Shoe Museum traces the history of footwear from early civilizations to modern pop culture icons. Human history is archived through the evolution of feet fashion. The elegant two-floor museum intrigues the social anthropologist and curious alike because there’s nothing like seeing the actual size of Donovan Bailey’s feet or Marilyn Munroe’s red pumps. A recent acquisition is flip-flops from the Dalai Lama. Thursday evening from 5 to 8 p.m. is the best time to go, though it might be a bit more crowded, because admission is pay-what-you-can (suggested donation is $5).
Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) (www.ago.net)
If you didn’t get enough culture on Wednesday at the ROM, go to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) from 6 to 8:30 p.m. when the admission is free on that day. The year 2011 also marks the two-year completion of the AGO’s $276 million renovation designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. Intensifying the experience within the walls of this art gallery is the artistic beauty of the building — inside and out. Gehry’s design is a quiet and meandering journey though each gallery space, eliminating the need to retrace steps. The highlight of the Gehry design is a four-storey spiralling Douglas Fir-clad sculptural staircase seemingly bursting through the ceiling.