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Life Beyond the Patio: Great Outdoor Activities in Toronto



When you live in a city, your version of the outdoors may be limited to that space between Starbucks at your office. Not exactly the inspiring and invigorating space that nature enthusiasts rave about. Toronto is 630.2 square kilometers, which means that there ought to be a green corner or two.

For those starved for a different rhythm, one where the sun is boss rather than your smartphone, you need not go far for the great outdoors in this world-class city. The Humber River is directly connected to the subway line, offering bike trails, fishing spots, hiking trails and maybe some coveted peace of mind.

There is also diverse vegetation, plant life and a long winding network of trails that wind through Toronto's largest public park, High Park. There are several waterfalls in the middle of the Hillside Gardens. There are also Sakura cherry trees that were given to Toronto as a gift from Tokyo in the 1960s. The gorgeous sight of exploding pink blossoms is only for a matter of weeks and on very cold years, it doesn't even happen at all. But if you are lucky to take a stroll through the pink dotted wonderland, breathing in the sweet odor, you are one lucky tourist indeed.

Recent studies have declared that communing with nature makes you healthier. Although Toronto makes it possible to stay inside all the time, it is time to see the great, close outdoors.


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Spadina Museum: Historic House & Gardens


Spadina House is an upper-class historic home, built by businessman James Austin in 1866. An ideal place to visit in the summer, the six-acre grounds have Victorian and Edwardian gardens. From chestnut trees to forget-me-nots, it is an understated place to frolic. Inside, the furnished home had a major renovation in 2010 but still feels like you have entered a time machine. Spadina House provides a great sense of the different marks of different generations, from the 1800s until today. It showcases a different Toronto. This is the next door neighbor of Casa Loma, and it ideal to see the two on the same day.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: 5 acres of tended gardens and orchards. How does YOUR garden grow?

Courtney's expert tip: If you are seeking out a prime space for an outdoor wedding, the Spadina House may be it. It also works as an ideal spot for amateur photographers.

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The Docks


Although you may not be communing with nature in the same way you would by hiking, going to the Docks is a good way to get outdoors without having to log lots of kilometers on your car. Just minutes from the downtown core, you can dust off your golf clubs and golf at any time of day (including late from Monday to Thursday). Heaters are available on chilly winter days, but you can also revel in the sunshine in the warmer months. Stay late in the summer for the opportunity to catch an outdoor movie with two movies for one price, listening to the night's showings through your radio. The drive-in movie theatre provides an air of nostalgia with the chance to soak in the fleeting moments of summer.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Active golf and inactive movie watching in the great outdoors is a pretty sweet way to honor the summer sunshine.

Courtney's expert tip: During the drive-in months, consider going on a Sunday when you can bring a car filled with your nearest and dearest for one low price.

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Sunnyside Beach

On the West End of Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario, is a lakefront district that was the "bee's knees" in the 1950s. Although it no longer has the amusement park that made this area hopping back in the day, it does have a beach and park area around Ontario's Humber Bay. The waters of Humber Bay are popular for boating and dragon boating clubs are a popular past time with Torontonians. The Sunnyside Bike Park opened in 2014 and provides a space for legal dirt biking. There is also a popular public pool for suntanning in the summer months. The water quality of swimming in the lake is improving, passing water quality tests 3 out of 4 days. Sunnyside Cafe offers the opportunity for cold drinks and greasy food, which is what we all crave after a satisfying day outside.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Easy access right on the Lakeshore to view a more innocent period of history. There are enough remnants to keep the good times rolling outside.

Courtney's expert tip: This is accessible by TTC: take the 501 streetcar and get off at Parkside. You could also combine this with a trip to High Park if you wear your walking shoes.

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Toronto Islands


Getting to the Toronto Islands takes just a 10-minute ferry ride, but it transports you to an entirely different world. The small, interconnected Toronto islands provide a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. These islands are North America's largest car-free communities, with some permanent residents and many summer tourists coming to enjoy a different perspective, with a view of Lake Ontario on one end and the city skyline on the other. Centre Island is the most popular and has a small amusement park for little ones to enjoy. Another quieter island is Hanlan's Point which is home to North America's oldest existing lighthouse and once had a baseball stadium where Babe Ruth hit his first home run. There is also a clothing-optional beach on Hanlan's Point (you've been warned). During the summer months, all of the islands are popular places to bike, picnic and frisbee.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Lake Ontario on one side and the city skyline on the other. Heaven, as long as the weather is good.

Courtney's expert tip: You can always skip the ferry and paddle over to the islands on a canoe. With the several islands separated by canals and waterways, you have your pick of where to dock. Just be aware of the "Exclusion Zone" of the Toronto Island Airport. Those big "Keep Out" signs should keep you on track.

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Riverdale Park and Farm


This 18-hectare park near Toronto's Danforth area is a delightful slice of the outdoors with a stunning view of Toronto's looming skyline. Considered a fantastic place to grab a picnic, watch the sunset and declare your undying love, it also works as well for the sports enthusiast to bring their game outside. With a running track, tennis courts, an ice rink and a ball diamond, there is no season that is safe from a little friendly competition. Immediately west of the park is the free Riverdale Farm gives visitors a glimpse of life on a 19th century Ontario farm. There are rare breed farm animals and very scenic environs that can be explored in between watching activities such as milk churned into butter and wool spun into yarn. From May to October, check out the farmer's market just outside of the main entrance.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: A working farm in the middle of the city gives the kids a free summer activity, with nearby tobogganing hills for winter cabin fever.

Courtney's expert tip: The farm is connected to Riverdale Park West. Make sure you go to the right side, as this is a lot of land to cover in one day.

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Evergreen Brickworks


Evergreen Brickworks is a former industrial site that has become a love letter to the green movement. Download a self-guided tour brochure or pick one up at the welcome desk and trod your own path along 40 acres of wilderness. Breathtaking nature is surprisingly accessible from the city center. National Geographic shortlisted this space as one of the world's top 10 geo-tourism hotspots. Evergreen Brickworks shows how we can transform urban spaces with the right intentions. The surrounding buildings uphold the principles of sustainable architecture and design. There are indoor plush gardens and a year-round farmer's market that is delightfully local. Bring a picnic and a bicycle for an amazing summer afternoon.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Hike by beavers, turtles and wildlife and later replace those lost calories with a fantastic farm-to-table dinner.

Courtney's expert tip: Pay-what-you-can guided walks are offered on many weekends. Email the Evergreen Team to let them know your fitness level and hike expectations and they will let you know what trail seems tailor-made for you.

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Etobicoke
Humber River

How often have you been to a heritage river that is also directly connected to a subway line? The Humber River and associated trails are a special point of interest in the Toronto landscape. It travels 100 kilometers through rural and urban landscapes. There is a long history of early settlement by its banks, running back to 10,000 to 7,000 BC. 11% of the watershed area is public land, which might not sound like a lot, but ends up being 9949 hectares. The Humber is a popular location for fishing and canoeing. With 175 kilometers of trails, nature lovers are in heaven with this popular Toronto green space.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Bike trails, fishing spots, hiking trails and significant heritage resources that are just a hop, skip and a TTC ride away.

Courtney's expert tip: The Humber Valley bikeway is directly linked to Old Mill subway station and will give you 55 kilometers of trails without worrying about traffic.

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West Toronto
High Park


High Park is Toronto's version of Central Park in New York. Toronto's largest 161-hectare public park has been the jewel in Toronto's park system with historical buildings, amazing hiking trails, a free zoo and playgrounds. A park highlight is Colborne Lodge, which is one of 10 historic sites operated by the city of Toronto. Colborne Lodge is a monument to John and Jemima Howard, the couple who founded High Park. This house, built in 1837 still has some original paintings of early Toronto. High Park is a walker's or runner's delight with pathways connecting the park's various natural habitats, picnic areas, ponds and landscaped gardens. There are 7 kilometers of asphalt trails, but getting off the beaten track has its advantages too, with rare plant species and the even rarer sound of silence.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Birds, fish, animals and diverse plant species call this giant park home. It is an oasis in the midst of Toronto's urban landscape.

Courtney's expert tip: A walk along High Park's Grenadier pond will make you forget that you are even in the city (if it weren't for that pesky CN Tower looming in the background). Listen to the music of singing frogs and birds and take a hike on one of the trails that branch off from this High Park border.

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The Beaches
Ashbridge's Bay


It is a competition in Toronto to see how early people will get in their shorts. There is usually one hardy Canadian who shows their pasty legs as soon as it goes above zero Celsius. Ashbridge's Bay is a way for Toronto to shake off their winter weariness and remember the good things in life. 35 hectares of waterfront park includes a slow-pitch softball center, a skateboard park, bicycle trails and the Woodbine Beach boardwalk. During the summer months, beach volleyball teams pepper the sand of Woodbine Beach, one of Toronto's eight beaches. Although a major clean-up project has been underway, most locals don't use the water as much for swimming as they do for rock-skipping.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Although the original natural shoreline has disappeared completely, you can't tear people away from a beautiful waterfront.

Courtney's expert tip: If you need an exceptional area to watch some fireworks on Canada Day, Ashbridge's Bay is your place.

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East Toronto
Rouge Park


Part historic site, part protected wilderness, Rouge Park is comprised of 47 square kilometers of historic farms, wetlands, undisturbed meadows and forests. Bordering Lake Ontario, the park even has a great beach. Hiking and camping are popular, and the many trails offer fantastic views. The area has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years - evidence of historic and prehistoric communities dot the park and a number of significant archaeological finds have been made here. A haven for wildlife, the park today is home to vast numbers of birds and insects, plus deer, beavers, snakes and other reptiles. There is an app created by the University of Toronto's Scarborough's students to make sure you enjoy everything there is to offer while staying safe if you haven't exercised your great outdoors muscles in a while.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Changes in the earth's surface are visible in the landforms of Rouge Park. Take a hike through history.

Courtney's expert tip: Reservations are required for camping at the Glen Rouge Campground, Toronto's only official camping spot. Go to www.reservations.trca.on.ca for details.

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Meet Courtney Sunday

Courtney Sunday has lived in England, Switzerland, Canada and the US, finding her way into the professions of freelance writing and yoga teaching in between travel opportunities. She learned...  More About Courtney

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