Shaped by its dramatic seasonal changes – from snowy streets and underground walkways to lively, outdoor summers – Toronto is a hip, yet unpretentious city known for its dynamic arts scene, great foodie culture and wonderfully diverse neighbourhoods. Alongside its urban virtues, Canada’s largest city is also filled with lush greenery and an abundance of parks, making it an all round child-friendly destination.
We ask local author and freelance journalist David Sax – who has written for Vanity Fair, GQ, New York Magazine, New York Times, Saveur and many others (see also his amazing James Beard Award-winning book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen) – to share his hot tips for hanging with kids (namely his baby, Noa) in Toronto.
What do you love most about Toronto as a place to spend with children?
Toronto’s a very child-friendly city. It’s largely walkable, and there’s a stroller invasion going on right now, so if you have to hit the road with a little one, you aren’t too limited in where you can go. It’s also a city of neighbourhoods, with little parks scattered among coffee shops, restaurants, and other distractions, so you can just walk and stop and find diaper/nappy changing spots pretty much anywhere.
What are your top spots in Toronto to take your little one?
Our daughter’s still a little young, so we’re sticking close to home, but there’s a few great places mixed through the city.
- For big attractions, you still can’t beat the CN Tower. This giant spire dominates the skyline, with 360 degree views of the lake and the city, and a glass floor that kids love to jump on as their parents hold their breath. They just opened a Ripley’s Aquarium at the foot of the CN Tower, and it’s pretty much the bomb for little Cousteaux.
- In the summer (late May-Sept) head over to the Toronto Islands, which are a string of parks outside the harbour on the lake. There’s everything here, from a small amusement park (log rides!), to open fields, big nice beaches, and a hedge maze. Bring a picnic and rent a four person bike.
- We live right by Trinity Bellwoods Park, which is one of the bigger parks downtown, and is kinda a funny mix of hipsters drinking beer and playing Frisbee, dog owners, and parents chasing kids through the playground. High Park, in the West End, is massive, and has a free zoo, a lake, and a huge castle playground that was recently rebuilt. They also have regular organic farmer’s market from May to October.
- On the first Sunday of the month during the summer, go to Kensington Market, a square kilometre of food shops, clothing vendors, and bohemian weird, where they block off the streets to traffic and all sorts of randomness goes down.
- If it’s raining, take the kids to something at the Young People’s Theatre, which has been doing kids’ theatre for decades, and then to the Royal Ontario Museum for the obligatory dinosaur and mummy (Egyptian type) ogling. The ROM also has plenty of great hands-on weekend activities for kids.
- Alternatively there’s a spate of new cafes in the city where kids can get get crafty/do karaoke (actually, it’s called “kideroke”)/play music/make their own short stop-motion films – try Redfish Bluefish Creative Cafe and Smock.
- Finally, there’s a cool little public water playground at the Wychwood Barns, which is a refurbished warehouse turned art organization, that hosts regular farmer’s markets, kids activities, and all sorts of mania.
Where do you guys like to eat with child in tow?
The strength of Toronto is its crazily diverse ethnic eats, which tend to be inexpensive, informal, and perfect for kids.
- Pizzeria Libretto Neapolitan pizza that melts in your mouth, great wines by the glass, fantastic salads, and a perfect kids’ menu, with a staff who knows how to handle tots.
- Caplansky’s Delicatessen A new -but classic – Jewish deli, with killer smoked meat sandwiches, brisket, French fries, and a crayon-crazy environment.
- Dim Sum at either Noble Seafood or Rol San (323 Spadina Ave): Plastic tablecloths and women with food on carts. What else do you need to know?
- Dr. Laffa In a random part of the suburbs, very out of the way, but worth it for the most amazing Israeli fresh baked laffa bread, hummus, kebabs, and other eats.
- Seven Lives California style tacos, including fish tacos, that are messy for everyone who eats them.
- Nadege Patisserie Flaky croissants and French pastries that will just drive you wild. Across from Trinity Bellwoods park (see above).
- Dakota Tavern Hipster country bar by night, but on weekend mornings they do a bluegrass brunch with live bluegrass music, tons of pancakes and eggs, and dancing space for lil’ ones.
Where do you recommend visiting friends and their kids stay?
A recent trip taught us that hotels with our kid is a non-starter. We now rent apartments, on Airbnb or other sites, with two rooms or more. You get a kitchen, you get the space, and you get privacy. Otherwise, find a place with a suite downtown somewhere. The hotels are all the big chains here, and the cute boutiques are great for a couple, but I wouldn’t want to scrape puke out of the ironic bear-skin rug they use to decorate the foyer of a room there. Stick with the apartments.
What’s the best way to get around Toronto with kids?
If you’re downtown, walking is the best way. Cabs are expensive, the transit system is good for certain destinations (those on the subway), and driving is very traffic-choked. Walk.
If you need a quick and easy escape from the city where do you head?
We head to Collingwood, which is two hours northwest of the city, on the shores of Georgian Bay. It’s a ski area (small hills, but fun) and then in the summer there’s great biking, swimming, hiking, and water parks nearby. Lots of places to stay at all price ranges, and tons of activities for everyone.
And finally, you have a lovely babysitter for the evening. What does your perfect date-night consist of in Toronto?
Dinner nearby, at a place like Rhum Corner, a cool Haitian restaurant heavy on the rum and cokes, and Bar Isabel, which is great Spanish tapas. If we want to get drinkin’, we’ll go to this awesome bar called Black Dice Café, which has Japanese drinks and a quarter-operated jukebox filled with oldies.