Travel tales

Waterfront Toronto

Toronto waterfront

It’s a summery Wednesday morning in Ontario. From our boat we can see children splashing in the shallows and building sandcastles on the shore. A canoe rests on the water’s edge and a group of friends picnic under a shady tree. Families carrying ice creams follow the waterside path past a neat line of sailboats. It’s a picture-perfect scene straight from a beach town or lakeshore resort. But if you turn your head then a row of skyscrapers comes into view, and towering above them all is the CN Tower. These are the Toronto Islands, just a few hundred metres offshore from downtown Toronto but a whole different world away.

Toronto was the final stop for my sister and I on our 4500km road trip across central Canada from Calgary to Toronto in a Cruise Canada RV (motorhome). We’d spent the last two weeks travelling across wide open prairie roads and camping in the wilderness of Ontario’s Provincial Parks, so city life was a bit of a change of pace. We only had one day to get a taste of Toronto, but after spending so much time at Ontario’s lakes along our journey, it felt only natural that we’d gravitate straight for the waterfront.

Toronto waterfront

Toronto’s waterfront

Toronto waterfront

Toronto’s waterfront stretches for 28 miles along the shore of Lake Ontario. Forty years ago it was a mess of concrete and derelict industrial buildings from its days as a major shipping port. But in the 1970s the government decided to transform it in one of the largest urban regeneration programmes in North America. The waterfront has traded factories, warehouses and roads for parks, apartments and bike lanes.

Harbourfront Centre, Toronto

The Harbourfront Centre

Our first stop was right at the heart of the regenerated area – the Harbourfront Centre. This 10-acre site is run by a local non-profit group to bring arts and culture to the Toronto waterfront. Warehouses and power plants have been converted into theatres, galleries and studios, and there’s an outdoor stage and public squares to relax in. They host over 4000 events each year so there’s always something going on. We spotted a group of would-be painters trying their hand at capturing the city skyline in a lunchtime art class. And there were posters for morning tai chi and yoga sessions as well as concerts and plays.

Amsterdam Brewhouse, Toronto waterfront

The Amsterdam Brewhouse

We took a break from the sun at the Amsterdam Brewhouse. This brew pub has a prime position on the waterfront, perfect for people-watching. Maybe it’s those long cold winters that make the Torontonians embrace the summer as hard as they can, but the waterfront was packed with walkers, joggers and cyclists. Ready to burn off our lunchtime burgers and beer flights, we joined them on the waterside pathway. Along the way we crossed bridges and skirted a police boat dock and a sandy urban beach covered in sun loungers – there’s plenty to see as you walk, but it was time to get out onto the water ourselves.

Amsterdam Brewhouse, Toronto waterfront

Brewhouse beer flight

The Toronto Islands

Our destination was the Toronto Islands. Ferries run across to the islands from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, or you can take a sightseeing boat trip around the harbour that calls at the islands. As our boat pulled away from the waterfront and headed out into the harbour, we got the perfect panorama of the Toronto skyline. A line of skyscrapers stretched out along the water’s edge, with the CN Tower high above them all. And down below the water was dotted with sailboats, canoes and paddleboarders.

Toronto boat trip

Our ride to the islands

At their closest point the Toronto Islands are only 100 metres from the city. But where the city is always developing and looking to the future, the pace of life on the islands is a lot more relaxed. They’re North America’s largest urban car-free community, and an escape from city life where you don’t even really have to leave the city. Each of the 15 islands is different. Centre Island is the largest and is the holiday island with beaches, gardens and an amusement park. Ward and Algonquin Islands are residential. Then there are the island bases for the local yacht clubs, and finally the islands left as parkland or nature reserves.

Sailing out to the islands

Sailing out to the islands

Things haven’t always been this way though – the islands haven’t even always been islands. They started life as a peninsula connected to the mainland, and it was only after a huge storm in the 1850s that they were separated. The first visitors to the islands were the Ojibwa First Nations people. They used to bring their sick to the peninsula to recover, and it’s still sacred land for them. The first building was a British garrison in the 1790s, followed not long after by the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1808. It’s still standing today which makes it one of Toronto’s oldest buildings. Legend has it that the first lighthouse keeper was murdered by a gang of drunken soldiers in 1815 and his ghost haunts the lighthouse.

The Toronto Islands

Canoes and views

The Toronto Islands became a retreat for wealthy Torontonians who built summer houses away from the city heat and spent the season at the yacht clubs. By the 1940s the islands had developed their own town with an amusement park, baseball stadium, movie theatre, hotels, restaurants and 630 houses. But in the 1950s the government started reclaiming land to turn it back into parkland. It was a controversial plan – especially among the homeowners who fought for years to keep their houses. Leases were eventually granted for 300 homes and people live there year-round with their own schools and church.

The Toronto Islands

Peace and quiet

You can visit Ward and Algonquin Islands to see the original 1920s houses and their gardens. Though amazingly 31 of the cottages were moved by barge when the airport was built in their original location on Hanlan’s Point. The rest of the islands have plenty of space to relax in. There are four sandy beaches – though Hanlan’s Point’s beach is clothing-optional so make sure you know which one you’re visiting! – and plenty of waterfront paths, bridges and boardwalks to explore. Families usually head to Centre Island with its pony rides, swan boats and maze. Or you can hire a bike and cycle through the forests paths. But we just had time to sail through the waterways and around the islands before heading back.

Toronto Islands boats

Island harbour

The waterfront from above

Back on the mainland, we couldn’t leave Toronto without paying a visit to its most famous building. So our final city stop was the CN Tower, giving us a view of the waterfront from a totally different perspective. It was built in the 1970s as a communications tower and was the world’s tallest tower for the next 30 years. From the observation deck 338 metres up we got a prime view over the harbour. Along the waterfront you could see docks full of tiny white boats and beyond them were the islands. From above it’s much easier to see their layout and how they connect together. Compared to the city on the other side they look so small, but it was their position that sheltered the mainland and made this a good location for a city. The waterfront might be constantly changing but it’ll always be the heart of Toronto.

Views from the CN Tower

The islands and city from the CN Tower

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Waterfront Toronto

I visited Toronto as a guest of Destination Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign.

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    garybembridge
    September 27, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    I love Toronto. Great too see you did too and for these tips and ideas.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 27, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      Thanks Gary, we had such a good day – I’d love to go back and see more!

  • Reply
    Heyjude
    September 27, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    You had lovely summery weather on your visit. Such clear and beautiful images Lucy. I must catch up on the road trip itself as I appear to have missed it. I’m sure it was a wonderful adventure – lots of driving though!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 27, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      We had such a lovely day, just wished it was longer. This is actually the first post from the trip so I’m doing it a bit in reverse! Up at the end of next month I’ll be posting about the road trip part though.

  • Reply
    Sara
    September 27, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Those islands sound fascinating – I love learning about those little nooks that often slip under the radar! As much as I loved my part of the trip in British Columbia, I am determined to see other parts of this amazing country as soon as possible 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 28, 2016 at 11:39 am

      My Canada wishlist is getting longer and longer too! I’d love to go back to Toronto and see Niagara and the wine regions, and then there’s the Rockies and the Yukon. Too hard to narrow it down!

  • Reply
    Kathryn Burrington
    September 28, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    Toronto sounds wonderful! I’d love to visit one day. Sounds similar to downtown Vancouver and Granville Island (and I do so enjoy a beer flight!)

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 7, 2016 at 3:45 pm

      I loved Vancouver too and would love to go back and explore then both properly!

  • Reply
    Shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    September 28, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    I’d rececntly been considering cities that I could visit for under a week that weren’t in Europe when Toronto came to mind but in truth, I really wasn’t sure what to get up to there apart from see the tower, as it’s not a city I knew anything about but this is really helpful in giving me some ideas of what else is going on there, like the islands, which I had no idea were there.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

      I don’t think you’d have any trouble finding things to do – there’s a lot in the city as well as the islands and there are some amazing Provincial Parks nearby plus of course the Niagara Falls area!

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    September 30, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    I loved Toronto’s islands when I visited – so peaceful and cool during August sunshine. It was like stepping into a different unhurried world despite the city being so close.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 1, 2016 at 8:19 pm

      It really did feel like being in a completely different place well away from the city!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    October 3, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I had similar weather on my trip there about 12 years ago. We spent a lovely afternoon on the islands – I’ll have to dig out my photographs and compare with yours to see how the skyline has changed over the years.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 3, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      I bet it has – if it’s anything like London then the skyline’s constantly changing!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    October 3, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    I´ve spent some great times in Toronto and danced the night away at the top of the CN Tower. Great pictures!!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 4, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      What a great place for a party, I’d have loved to have seen it all lit up at night too.

  • Reply
    Mai Nomura
    October 6, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Whenever I go to Toronto, it always reminds me of Sydney and the feeling of going back home becomes strong in me. But still travelling is so much fun I just can’t give it up!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 7, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      I can definitely see what you mean about Toronto and Sydney being similar, there’s something really special about harbourside cities!

  • Reply
    abitofculture
    October 9, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Looks like my kind of city. I love those observation towers – is there a bar at the top of the CN Tower?

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 11, 2016 at 11:14 am

      There is indeed. There are a couple of restaurants including a revolving one (always wondered if they make you dizzy but one to try one day!).

  • Reply
    Tiffany
    October 9, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    I live in Toronto and really enjoyed this post! I always love seeing my city from someone else’s eyes. I hope you enjoyed your time in Canada..that sounds like a wonderful trip. The harbourfront is my favourite area here..I live quite close and go there often 😀

    http://www.leftbanked.com

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 11, 2016 at 11:14 am

      What a great place to live! Really enjoyed my visit and would love to come back and see more someday.

  • Reply
    theresa leifert
    May 18, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    We are taking a trip there this Summer. Your post has been more informative then most of their own websites! You are making me more excited to go! Thanks 🙂 Chicago gal!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 21, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      Have an amazing time! It’s a really fantastic city and the islands are lovely in the summer.

  • Reply
    Shila
    August 13, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Hi Lucy, this post is amazing, the photo looks really beautiful and professional. Thanks for sharing. My friend and I are planning to travel to Toronto, and just wonder how you think this itinerary, if it is good, we’d like to follow its route. Thanks.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 14, 2017 at 11:05 pm

      Hi Shila, it looks pretty comprehensive to me – in three or four days you should have chance to see a lot of the city sights.

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