It’s finally summer and the options for how to enjoy the lazy, hazy days ahead are boundless.
Globe journalists share their favourite things to do – with and without kids – in this briefest of seasons.
Stars under the stars
On summery Sunday evenings, there’s nothing nicer than grabbing a blanket and watching a movie under the stars at Christie Pits Park (750 Bloor St. W.) A grassy hill in the west-end park serves as a natural amphitheatre so there are good sightlines. And this year, which is the Christie Pits Film Festival’s sixth, there’s a new 40-foot-wide screen to see both lesser-known films and classics, including Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Tom Hanks in Cast Away. There’s also a short film or three before the main attraction, all of which explore the theme of isolation, confinement, escapism and perseverance.
As many as 1,000 people come to share in the urban magic so organizers suggest arriving around 6 p.m. to stake out a spot. Pack a picnic (don’t forget the popcorn!) or grab dinner from food vendors. Screenings start at sunset and run every Sunday night until Aug. 21, with Aug. 28 as a rain date. Films have captions for the hearing impaired. Free, but donations encouraged. – Jill Mahoney
A quick dash for a quiet splash
Dufferin Grove Park and Corktown Common are often overrun by sweaty urbanites seeking a kid-friendly water park, but a shady oasis awaits Toronto families willing to zip 15 minutes west down the Queensway and south on Brown’s Line to Forty Second Street. Marie Curtis Park, a vast green space connected to the lakeshore’s bike trail network, is a perfect hybrid of natural wildlife and unrestrained fun-zone, minus the hordes.
Parking is a snap if you arrive before 10 a.m. (the park is also a quick walk from Long Branch GO station), so unpack and unleash the kids on the giant splash pad installed a few years ago when the children’s portion of the grounds received an overhaul. Spread out a picnic blanket under a mature willow, or plop into one of the multihued Muskoka chairs ringing the playground. Crave a more serene scene? Wander a few hundred metres down a gravel walkway, past towering trees and bobbing ducks to where Etobicoke Creek drains into Lake Ontario. Spend the afternoon skipping stones, counting sailboats or exploring a soon-to-be naturalized conservation area adjacent to the park. Cap things off with a soft cone from an ice-cream truck lurking in the parking lot and hit the road – the kids might even sleep. – Hayley Mick
Trains, planes and picnics
If trains are your kid’s thing, head downtown. The pedestrian bridge at Front and Portland offers safety mesh and two-way viewing of GO, UPX and Via trains (you might want to avoid weekday rush hour). On weekends, tack on a visit to the Toronto Railway Museum at Roundhouse Park (255 Bremner Blvd.), complete with vintage cabooses, museum and miniature railway ride. Alternatively, explore Corktown Common at 155 Bayview Ave. in the West Don Lands – it’s a beautiful new park with a splash pad, play structures and broad views of the tracks.
For plane-spotters, it’s hard to beat Coronation Park, by the Exhibition grounds at 711 Lake Shore Blvd. W. Its shaded lawn is perfect for picnicking – and just metres from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport’s runway. Or try the Cherry Beach Sports Fields at 275 Unwin Ave. in the Port Lands, directly under Porter’s east-end approach path. Even on cloudy days, the pirate-themed playground is a winner. – Guy Nicholson
One of my young son’s favourite books is Just Me and My Mom from Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter collection. The short story details a mother and son’s special trip to the city – an excursion we decided to live out on a quiet Sunday. We read each page and discussed how we would match the experience in Toronto. Their train trip equalled our GO train and subway ride. Their misadventures at a museum, art gallery and aquarium were easy to mimic at some of the city’s top attractions (Royal Ontario Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario), though we opted to limit are our paid visits for the sake of our budget.
If I were to try the trip again, I’d look into the CityPASS, which lets you visit five of Toronto’s most popular tourist destinations over nine days. Popular with tourists, it’s a good deal for residents, too. (Adults $72; Children $46).
We rounded out our day with a quick cab ride (just like the book). At each spot, I took photos so we could recreate our own me-and-mom book at home. – Nicole MacIntyre
Culture on a budget
For those with budding thespians in the house, there are a host of ways for teens to get their theatre fix without breaking the bank. Send them to High Park for Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, which is doing Hamlet and All’s Well that Ends Well on alternating evenings until Sept. 4. It’s relaxed and lovely and pay what you can.
Tickets for the Fringe Festival, which runs until July 10, are $12 a pop ($5 for Fringe Kids for the 12-and-under set) or your teen could volunteer for a couple of shifts as an usher and get in free. SummerWorks, a more professional curated festival from Aug. 4 to 14, has a similar volunteer-for-tickets plan. HipTix offers $5 tickets to certain shows for students 14 to 29 and Soulpepper has $5 rush tickets for those 21 and under. And further afield, the Stratford Festival has tickets – starting at $15 for 16- to 29-year-olds. – J. Kelly Nestruck
Bring a book to life
Paddle your way to bliss
Let’s say you want to have a special date this summer. You don’t have time for a weekend getaway, but you do have two hours of babysitting. Grab a TTC token or your bike and head to Old Mill station. There, you’ll find Toronto Adventures, where you can rent kayaks and canoes for two-hour time slots.
Pushing away from the grass, under a subway train rumbling across the graffitied overpass, it will give you a small thrill to do something you don’t normally associate with city life. Then, paddling for mere minutes will lead to the real thrills – bulrushes, lagoons – hey, that’s a beaver dam! And quietude. True, quiet, bliss. You’ll admire a hawk in the sky, watch a blue heron take flight, spot white egrets and wonder why you didn’t bring the kids. Then a few fancy treats will emerge, bites sneaked into your kayak for this special occasion, and you’ll think, Oh, the kids are fine with the sitter.
TorontoAdventures.ca for kayak, canoe, paddle-boarding rentals and lessons, starting at $30 for two hours per kayak. – Hannah Sung
A festival of tasty treats
One of my family’s favourite takeout spots for dinner is on Gerrard Street East, in the heart of Little India. The kids adore the saag paneer with rice and the naans. We love that, too, and the spices infused into the vindaloo and the tandoori chicken.
Once a year, in the summertime, the street is cleared of traffic for a festival that brings some of our favourite foods to curbside stalls. The Festival of South Asia stretches a few blocks on Gerrard, inviting pedestrians to sample samosas, grilled corn on the cob gently massaged with chilli powder or some pani puri, a hollow puri crispbread filled with flavoured water and tamarind sauce. Or you can just wander the stretch of Gerrard while sipping on coconut water.
This year’s festival runs July 16 and 17 from noon to 11 p.m. It’s kid-friendly and has lots of entertainment. My favourite time is in the evening: The crowds thin slightly, the sun is not too hot and you can be entertained while eating dinner. – Caroline Alphonso
A market like no other
Everything tastes better when you eat it outside. Or off a stick. These are principles that many hot-weather Asian cities instinctively understand – as evidenced by the bustling street markets in places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. And, lucky for us, for one weekend a year, Torontonians have a little taste of these markets right here in the GTA, at the Markham Night It Up! market from July 15 to 17.
The event, which takes over the parking lot of the Markham Civic Centre, plays host to dozens of (mostly Asian) food vendors hawking everything from crunchy “tornado potatoes” to doughy Japanese takoyaki to charred lamb skewers. Among last year’s vendors: the hugely-popular “Drink a fruit, from the fruit” (it’s exactly what it sounds like), Ramen Burger and the stinky tofu stand – a street-market staple.
Because the market only runs one weekend every year, it gets very, very crowded. So either go early, or go late. And be prepared to brave crowds. If you can’t make it out to Markham, T&T Supermarket holds its own night market in the Port Lands the following weekend (July 22 to 24). – Ann Hui
Take a trip down memory lane
At the end of my street sits an untidy assemblage of properties. Rather than neatly arranged in a straight row, two or three houses jostle against one another, sharing a backyard that’s been divided, and subdivided again. The mystery of how they came to be was solved on a rainy-day trip to the City of Toronto Archives. That’s where my 10-year-old son and I did a bit of micro-history research into our home’s past, spooling microfilm rolls containing photos of old assessment records. A friendly librarian is available to help and the Archives, at 255 Spadina Rd., also publishes a pamphlet on how to research the history of your house.
We discovered that the first owner of our house lived there for more than two decades. Arthur was a “machinist,” with a job at a factory on Dupont. He and his wife, Mabel, raised two children in the house, and sold it in the middle of the Depression. (I like to think it was not under duress.) But the assessment records also contain information about neighbouring properties. That blighted corner? It used to be a soccer field. In fact, a search of newspaper archives revealed that on May 24, 1924, Toronto played Montreal in a Victoria Day game right on that pitch. If I squint when walking by, I can almost see Arthur and his kids watching the game. – Simona Chiose
Go jump in the lake
Yes. You really can swim.
And you don’t have to endure traffic snarls on the 400, nor pricey remote retreats to take a plunge. It’s an instant mood-improver during those sweltering heat waves.
Eight of the city’s supervised beaches qualify for the Blue Flag program, a globally recognized label given to beaches that meet standards that include water quality. Every day, from June to August, water quality is tested to determine E. coli counts. So far this year, testing from the beaches shows a near perfect record for safe swimming; last year, the beaches met or were cleaner than the threshold for 91 per cent of the season.
The Toronto Islands and east-end beaches in particular are glorious, after work or on weekends. By early evening, it becomes downright magical. People shouldn’t swim during and after storms, floods or heavy rainfall, events that can increase bacteria levels. To check in on test results, there’s an app and website, updated daily (app.toronto.ca/tpha/beaches.html) or a recorded message at 416-392-7161. – Tavia Grant
Get lost on purpose
In the age of GPS, we rarely have an opportunity to enjoy the brain-bending sensation of getting deliberately lost. The William Meany Maze on Centre Island, which officially opened last year, offers an antidote for the overly oriented. The roughly 100-by-100-foot maze consists of some 1,200 cedar trees planted in a pattern that is designed to scramble your internal compass as you make your way to the centre and back again. Children find it hard to resist the beckoning green corridors. Adults may find the challenge a bit trickier than it looks.
Named after the Calgary-based businessman who funded the project, the hedge maze recreates an earlier installation that was enjoyed for years until it fell into disrepair. It costs visitors nothing but their time and makes a welcome diversion from picnicking and other summer island fun. My daughters did it twice: once as explorers, once as competitors. They refused a third chance, preferring instead to let their memories of the maze remain murky, thereby extending the pleasure of not knowing which way to turn to a future visit. – Ivan Semeniuk
A lesson in science and fun
There are people who love the Ontario Science Centre because of the planetarium, which in addition to showing the night sky also plays host to awesome IMAX movies ($9 tickets after July 1) on its enormous domed screen. But my kids (ages 6 and 3) don’t like to sit still that long, so I’ve come to love the rest of the OSC’s many weird and cool attractions. Where else can you find a climbing wall, bubble station, demonstrations of mechanical and electrical power, creepy crawly bugs and animals, a mini-rainforest, a woodland playground, interactive projections, hands-on experiments in friction and wind power, a perpetual motion machine, a hovering “bike” and this summer’s special exhibit: The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Plus it’s air conditioned for those hot and sticky days for parents with little kids. (Pro tip: the mad rush is usually over by 2 p.m.)
Tickets for kids are $13, for adults $22, youth and seniors $16. If you have a big family, you may want to consider an annual pass (they start at $130 for unlimited visits for two adults and four kids, and you get a 50-per-cent break on parking). Extended summer hours start on July 1 and run until Sept. 5: Sunday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (10 to 4 normally) and on Saturdays extend to 8 p.m. – Shane Dingman