Take in Toronto

By Christine Davis

Playing tourist close to home is a fun take on a staycation that actually lets you leave your house.

Toronto has plenty of family fun to offer – enough to keep you more than busy for at least a few days.

Staying in the waterfront community of Harbourfront is a great location for families. Besides the beautiful setting with lake views, there are great restaurants, plenty of patios and lots of entertainment. The Westin Harbour Castle is a natural choice thanks to its location and family-friendly amenities.

The Harbourfront community has an interesting history – once the location of Toronto’s industry, it was “cleaned up” in the 1970s, with many of the factories relocated to Hamilton. It also has a false shoreline. Lake Ontario used to run right up to Front Street, but an extra kilometre has been created over the last 50 or so years thanks to all the building, with all of the soil placed on the shore, thus creating the new shoreline. You can learn more about this area, and more, on a one-hour cruise with Toronto Harbour Tours.

The narrated sightseeing cruise is a great way to see Toronto’s harbour and islands. They depart every hour (and sometimes on the half-hour) and are long enough for adults to get a nice boat ride and short enough that children will be entertained for the duration.

Casa Loma and its gardens.

Of course when you’re travelling with children, keeping them entertained is always top of mind. There are so many attractions in Toronto and a great way to see the top five is by purchasing a Toronto CityPass. Offered at a savings of 38 per cent over individual tickets, the CityPass provides nine consecutive days of access to the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Casa Loma, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Toronto Zoo or Ontario Science Centre.

Within walking distance from the Harbour Castle, the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium were our first stop. We opted to walk through the Toronto Railway Museum grounds, which are conveniently located beside Steam Whistle Biergarten where we were able to have a quick drink, on our way to the CN Tower where we caught the sunset from the observation level, hung out on the glass floor and even took an extremely windy trip around the Outdoor Sky Terrace, located 342 m (1,122 ft) above the ground.

Having never been to Ripley’s Aquarium we wanted to maximize our time and beat the crowds by arriving for 9 a.m. opening. We weren’t disappointed as we wound our way through the aquarium, revelling in the vast tanks and vibrant colours. The Rainbow Reef is mesmerizing, as is Planet Jellies and the moving floor through the Dangerous Lagoon is genius, giving everyone enough time and space to see everything without causing a human traffic jam – plus it’s fun for the kids, as is play the area where they can climb, slide and even crawl through an aquarium tunnel.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada’s mesmerizing Rainbow Reef.

From the Aquarium we made use of a Family TTC pass, which gave us unlimited access to the subway, bus and streetcar system for an entire day.

Our first stop on the “underground train” as three-year-old Jack called the subway was the ROM where he was most interested in not only the dinosaur casts but also the CIBC Discovery Gallery where he and his big sister Isabelle could get hands-on, spending much of their time digging for dinosaur bones.

A few stops north on the subway and we hopped off at Dupont where we walked the couple of blocks to Casa Loma, another attraction none of us had visited before. Built in 1914 by financier Sir Henry Pellatt the building is now owned by the City of Toronto and regarded as a heritage landmark. Tours of the century-old building will take you through three floors of history on display as well as into the tunnel, which connects the castle to the stables thanks to the road that separated the two on the 25-acre parcel of land. The gardens should not be missed – they’re impeccable and offer lookout points of the downtown core from the midtown location.

Digging for dinosaur bones at the ROM.

We opted to skip the Zoo and Science Centre to stay downtown instead. Both sites offer hours of enjoyment for kids but do require a substantial drive or transit ride to access. Instead, we took the streetcar – another first – west to Toronto’s Little Italy for dinner then walked back to the Westin Harbour Castle via Kensington Market and China Town where we grabbed another streetcar back to Queen’s Quay.

Not wanting to miss out on the amenities the hotel offers for children we spent the evening swimming in the heated pool (and soaking in the hot tub after all the walking we did) and heading to the Westin Kids Club, which was full of board games, puzzles, game consoles and even a small five-pin bowling lane. This was a great place to spend time outside of the hotel room, which was equipped with a fun pop-up tent for the kids to play in while we were in the room.

Eating at the Westin Harbour Castle was convenient with four different dining options to choose from. The family favourite was the substantial buffet breakfast at The Mizzen Restaurant where kids 5 and under eat free.

But there are also a number of great restaurants to choose from along Harbourfront – many of which are located in the old industrial buildings, such as Amsterdam Brewhouse, which offers 14,000 square feet of indoor dining space and four patios where you can enjoy the lake views. The restaurant is family friendly and will certainly appeal to parents, too, offering a wide selection of the brewery’s beers on tap.