12 [budget friendly] things to do in Toronto

All Posts, My 20s

Hello there!

I made it through my first year in Toronto and have successful started been launched into the second year of my Ph.D (aka grade 22). Being back at school is great, it means more routine, better sleeping habits, and hopefully spending less money. As hopeful as I am, this one can be hard because Toronto is an expensive place to live. 

This is problematic for everyone, but particularly problematic for lifetime students like myself. I was fortunate to get a pretty wicked funding and scholarship package at U of T – but the amount of time I’m in school doesn’t leave much time to work, and after I pay for pesky little things like rent and hydro…there’s not much left over.

So what does a borderline broke twenty-something year old lifetime student do in an expensive city for fun? Simple. Find things to do that are free or as close to free as possible…and then compile them into a list for our small gathering of readers.

You’ll find a lot of lists like this one online, (and I encourage you to check them out!) but these are the ones that I have found to be tried and true. Some of these items are more seasonal than other, but if you’re committing yourself to a lifetime of student wages, you’ll want year round budget friendly fun!

Disclaimer: This is a pretty lengthy post, but it’s jam packed with fun…I promise.

1. Gladstone Hotel

Location: 1214 Queen St W

One of the first really neat things I did in Toronto was relive my childhood by getting together with some girlfriends and colouring! Adult colouring seems to be all the rage right now, but it wasn’t until I found myself in the Hotel’s Melody Bar that I caught the colouring bug (note: I now have 4 adult colouring books).

The Melody Bar features different themed and FREE weekly events -such as 90s kid Tuesdays and Karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays! If you’re feeling stressed you can always participate in some early morning Humpday yoga (Wednesday morning, $5) or unwind to live music after work (click here to see who’s playing).

The Melody Bar has a pretty chill vibe and welcomes you to the big city. As a bonus, a full menu and specially priced drinks are always available. Seriously, check this one out for some budget friendly fun!

2. Toronto Island

I moved to Toronto on August 1 and my boyfriend’s birthday was just a few weeks later. He decided to make the trek from Ottawa to Toronto to celebrate in the six with me, so I figured I should try to make it memorable.

Completely new to the city, I asked around for advice on what to do. Almost everyone said the same thing: Go to the Island!

Toronto Island is an island just outside of the city. You get there by ferry, and then hang out and do an array of fun things. There are various beaches [including a clothing optional beach], a petting zoo, multiple food vendors, wading pools, picnic areas, bike and canoe rentals, sporting areas, and much more. If you can’t be entertained at the island, I can’t help you.

The only fee you are required to pay is your ferry ticket. Tickets are only $7.50 and include your trip there and back. Buy your tickets online to skip the crazy line at the ferry. Seriously, you do not want to wait in that line…buy your tickets online and show them on your phone or print them out.

There’s actually three islands: Centre Island, Hanlan’s Point, and Ward’s Island. They’re all connected though, so I’m not entirely certain how they qualify as islands. Anyway…usually the ferry to Centre Island has a huge anxiety-inducing crowd-like line up. However, the ferries to Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island typically have much shorter lines. So, if you don’t mind walking – or especially if you have a bike – try using one of those ferries to have a much less stressful experience!

To have an awesome time I recommend the following:

  • Pack a lunch – picnics are such an undervalued source of fun
  • Bring your bike – it’s easier to get around the island and the views are great
  • Bring cards or board games – the second time I went to the island my friends and I played Anomia in the picnic area…definitely a memorable experience
  • Bring your bathing suit [or don’t] and a towel – beaches, beaches, beaches!
  • Bring a water bottle – don’t pay for water…they have fountains for refills
  • Rent a canoe online before you go so you’re not disappointed!

4. Natrel Skating Rink

Location: 235 Queen’s Quay W (416) 973-4600

Lots of people hate winter. It’s cold, and wet, and dry. Unfortunately, most of you reading this live in CANADA. So suck it up, it’s winter more than half the year!

We all do our best to ‘suck it up’, but Canadian winters are long and treacherous– and without sufficient motivation we all end up going to bed at 6pm with ‘nothing to do’. Cue Seasonal Depression.

My boyfriend, happens to know that I get pretty worked up with the ‘winter blues’ [aka major depressive disorder compounded by the sun going down at 4pm…]. He also happens to be very good at finding things to do. And this is how we found ourselves at the Natrel Skating Rink last winter.

The Natrel Skating Rink is a large outdoor skating rink located at the Harbour Front Centre. It’s set against the shoreline of Lake Ontario and boasts an awesome view – the Toronto skyline! The rink offers heated indoor change rooms, as well as hot food and drinks in their rink-side restaurant. There are various programs and events including DJ Skate Night every Saturday night from 8-11pm. Skating is fun, but skating to the beats of a live DJ is even funner (stay in school, kids).

Oh ya, and the skating is always completely FREE 

1Although, as someone born in Northern Ontario and raised in Ottawa I think Toronto winters are an actual LOL joke.

5. Royal Ontario Museum [ROM]

Location: 100 Queen’s Park (416) 586-8000416

The Royal Ontario Museum is a must in Toronto. This beautiful museum features numerous special exhibitions and permanent galleries, as well as guided tours and events for kids, adults, and families.

The ROM also has a bunch of opportunities that make it accessible to all. For starters, admission to the ROM is FREE for full time Canadian post-secondary students on Tuesdays! The museum is open late on Friday evenings, with discounted admission for all starting at 4:30pm. If you love the ROM, become a ROM Member to get free or discounted admission to various ROM events.

Looking for some good adult only fun? Friday Night Live is a 19+ event that occurs every Friday night starting at 8pm from September 30 to November 25. Tickets are a bit more expensive ($15 adults/ $13 students), but with a live DJ, dance floor, and food vendors, it’s totally worth it!

Plus, getting dressed up and checking out a museum’s exhibits at night has a certain glamorous allure to it.

6. Nike Training Club & Nike Running Club

Gym memberships are expensive. Gym memberships in Toronto provide a compounded expense. Of course, you can always hit the pavement or check out gyms in your (or your friend’s) apartment. You can also frequent the school gym, if you’re a student. But lots of times, we don’t want to run unless we’re being chased, we don’t have condo gyms or friends, or we’re not burdened by paying exorbitant tuition fees students [or all of the above].

That’s okay, Nike’s got your back! 

Nike+ Training Club offers FREE High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.) sessions and  Studio Sessions. Because they’re free, you’ll want to register in advance. However, I have definitely dropped into sessions before and they’ve accommodated me. The NTC studio is gorgeous, with women’s and men’s change rooms, as well as separate bathrooms. The bathrooms are stocked with goodies to meet all of your needs – such as hair elastics and bobby pins, face wipes, shampoo & conditioner, deodorant and more! [Sorry guys, I’m not sure what’s in your washroom!]

They usually have free NTC water bottles that are available for keeps, and if you work out hard enough you may be the lucky one rewarded at the end of the class with some Nike swag! [Two of the girls in a class I attended won Nike sports bras!! Another friend got a pair of running shoes for attending a special event!]

If you do like running, or if you want to like running and are working on running to places other than your bed after a long day at work, check out the Nike+ Run Club. NRC has various classes that are geared towards making you a better and more confident runner. They have indoor treadmill workouts, outdoor group running sessions, long runs, short runs, and high interval training. Whatever the motivation you need to get those KMs in…you’ll find it with NRC!

Currently, both NTC and NRC are on a seasonal break. But you can keep training and running using the NTC and NRC apps. I’ve used both…and they’re awesome!

7. El Furniture Warehouse

Locations: 140 Bloor St. W (647) 350-7326/ 232 Queen St. W (647) 344-7326

I’m going to just get right to the point with this one. El Furniture Warehouse is a chain of restaurants where every single item on the menu is just $4.95.

Alright, now let’s back up. When my friend first told me that there was a place that served $5 food, I figured it would be weird mini sized appetizers that you munched on while drinking $18 beer. This was motivated partly by the fact that everything is $5, but also by the fact that the word ‘warehouse‘ is in the title. I also thought it was a furniture store. But let’s just move right along past that…

Either way, I was completely wrong. El Furniture Warehouse is a hip “dive-bar” style restaurant, with pub fare and full sized portions. Also, Google feels the need to mention that it has ‘a lot of exposed wood‘. So, apparently that’s a selling feature. They also have two Toronto locations, one on Bloor St W. and the other on Queen St W.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a website, so you’ll need to do some Googling of your own.

 If you’re looking for a fine-dining or ambient experience [or if you’re afraid of ‘hipsters’], you should probably skip this stop. But if you’re in the mood for some beats, beers, and inexpensive food with friends, come on down.

8. Snakes and Lattes

Locations: 489 College st/ 600 Bloor St W

love board games. I love board games so much that they have effectively overtaken the bookshelves in my apartment. But if, unlike me, you like to actually leave your apartment then you can go to Snakes & Lattes. Snakes & Lattes is a coffee shop style hang out that has thousands [literally] of games you can play. If coffee isn’t quite strong enough for you, they also have a full liquor license to serve alcoholic beverages!

For only $5 you can sit and play any of these games for as long as you want! Snakes & Lattes also has a menu of various snacks and treats [available at a cost] to satisfy your munchy cravings while you have the most fun playing all sorts of games you’ve never even heard of.  They also have game experts who can help you choose a game, as well as teach you how to play it (super helpful for those out there who can’t learn anything new without fighting with each other…I know you’re out there).

Snakes & Lattes has two locations to serve your entertainment needs. For all you 20-something students reading my blog, check out the Annex location. And for all you Italians and foodies living it up in Little Italy, check out the College location. If you’re in the mood to splurge a bit, check out their events page to purchase tickets for upcoming activities.

If you don’t like board games, then you don’t like fun…

…and you probably shouldn’t read my blog.

9. Bata Shoe Museum

Location: 327 Bloor St W (416) 979-7799

Shoes. We have all looked at someone’s shoes and thought: Wow, I like those! or Why? Just why? And now, you have the opportunity to visit a whole museum of shoes and let those thoughts run rampant. The Bata Shoe Museum has multiple exhibits where you can explore shoes from different eras, cultures, and countries. You can also learn the history of various shoes, as well as the trends that were popular across time. The BSM has different exhibits on display at various times, so be sure to check out their website to see what’s in store – or just show up to be pleasantly surprised!

Admission is reasonable ($18 for adult tickets). However, if you’re a student with valid ID you can save $10! For an even better deal, The BSM offers ‘pay what you can’ admission for everyone Thursday evenings, with a suggested donation of $5. If you end up falling in love with the museum and would like to go back often, you can join their Friends of BSM program (for a fee) and then enjoy FREE admission to the museum!

To make this venue even more awesome, they offer online exhibitions! If you can’t make it down to Bloor St W, want to share some exhibits with your long-distance relatives, or just like being on the internet, BSM’s technology makes it all possible!

You can enjoy the BSM literally every day of the year, unless it’s Christmas or Good Friday. They’re closed on those days.
Don’t go on those days.

10. Hip Hop at Lululemon [ft. Culture Shock]

Location: 318 Queen St. W (416) 703-1399

One night, my roomie said: “Wanna do a free hip hop class at Lululemon?”
And I said: “Yep.”

And so we did. Now for the details.

Culture Shock Toronto  is hosting ‘pay what you can’ (minimum $5) beginner hip hop classes every Wednesday night from 7-8pm. These classes happen in the attic studio of Lululemon’s brand new Queen St. W location, and the only thing serious about them is how much fun you’ll have!

The classes are taught by fun and energetic members of Culture Shock Toronto. They are easy to follow, appropriate for all levels, and so so much fun. The hour flies by and you won’t be able to wait for the next week. The best part? The classes are drop in style, so you don’t have to worry about registration if you have serious commitment issues like me have a busy schedule!

Be sure to be armed with comfortable clothes you can move in, proper shoes you can throw down with, and a bottle you can crush H2O with.

[As an added bonus, check out Lululemon’s other FREE or budget friendly events happening at their Queen St. W location]

11. High Park Zoo

If you’re an animal lover you either love or hate zoos. There actually is an in-between, but it results in a very confusing state of simultaneous excitement and guilt…

Anyway, if you love zoos or have an anxious-ambivalence towards them check out the High Park Toronto Zoo. If you hate zoos, move along…nothing to see here [but still check out High Park, because it’s pretty sweet].

The High Park Toronto Zoo has been around since the early 1900s and is completely FREE! Check out bison, llamas, deer, peacocks, kangaroos (!!!!) and other fun animals. When you first enter there is an area where you can feed the llamas…please do it. It is a totally hilarious experience. Even if you don’t find it directly funny, there is a little child laughing his/her butt off somewhere in the area – guaranteed!

All of the animal areas have various wooden information signs on them, making the zoo a great learning experience as well. For example, did you know that a male peacock’s tail feathers are actually not a tail, but a train of feathers starting from the back of their neck? Or that kangaroos generally sleep all day but become active early in the morning or once the sun goes down? Now you do! And you can know lots of other cool things by checking out the zoo.

For an added bonus, High Park is a massive and awesome area. It has lots of picnic areas and is generally just a great place to be.

12. Canadian National Exhibition [CNE]

Location: 210 Princes’ Blvd

Every year, at the end of summer, Toronto hosts the Canadian National Exhibition (aka the CNE/the ex). Now, I know what you’re thinking – that place is expensive! Entrance fee, tickets for rides and games, fun foods, and your entire pay check at the Arts, Crafts, and Hobbies building hand crafted goods for purchase. So, yea. The CNE can be pretty pricey.

But the good news is that if you’re a 20-something year old student you probably don’t have a bushel of kids that want copious amounts of treats and lots of random weird textured prizes from games that are rigged to steal your money.

Also, that pesky entrance fee drops down to just $6 every night after 5pm! Tickets are usually $20, so this is a great break. Want an extra tip? Buy your tickets online and skip the ticket line. There is a $1.99 charge to buy online…but skipping that mess of a line is worth it. I promise.

The best part? You can take that money you saved and spend it all at the Arts, Crafts, and Hobbies building…

You have to try to check this one out at least once…it’s a national Canadian treasure!

Okay! So there you have it  🙂

There are tons of other awesome things going on in Toronto, especially in the summer, that I haven’t mentioned here. If you’re new to the city, or are just bored – start with this list and then check out discounted comedy shows, free outdoor movie screenings, other museums promotions, and much more!


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