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Harbourfront and the Islands

The new century has brought renewed interest to Toronto's Harbourfront. Cranes dot the skyline as condominium buildings seemingly appear overnight. Pedestrian traffic increases as temperatures rise in spring and summer. Everyone wants to be overlooking, facing, or playing in Lake Ontario.

The lakefront is appealing for strolls, and myriad recreational and amusement options make it ideal for those craving fresh air and exercise or with kids in tow. Before the drastic decline of trucking due to the 1970s oil crisis reduced the Great Lakes trade, Toronto's waterfront was an important center for shipping and warehousing. It fell into commercial disuse and was neglected for a long time. The Gardiner Expressway, Lake Shore Boulevard, and a network of rusty rail yards stood as hideous barriers to the natural beauty of Lake Ontario; the area overflowed with grain silos, warehouses, and malodorous towers of malt, used by local breweries. In the 1980s the city began to develop the waterfront for people-friendly purposes, and the trend continues today.

Best Time to Go

If it's sun and sand you're looking for, you'll want to aim for a visit in June, July, or August. The cool breeze coming off Lake Ontario can be the perfect antidote to one of Toronto's hot and humid summer days, but in the off-season it can make things a little chilly if you aren't packing an extra layer.

Ways to Explore

Boat

The best way to enjoy the waterfront is to get right onto Lake Ontario. There are many different boat tours—take your pick from the vendors lining the Harbourfront's lakeside boardwalk—but most offer the same deal: a pleasant, hour-long jaunt around the harbor for about C$20. More extravagant packages include dinner and dancing at sunset.

To soak up the sun and skyline views, use the public ferry to head for the Toronto Islands. The best beaches are those on the southeast tip of Ward's Island, Centre Island Beach, and the west side of Hanlan's Point. The most secluded and natural beach on the islands is Hanlan's Beach, backed by a small dunes area, a portion of which is clothing-optional. Most families with kids head for Centre Island Beach.

Bike and Stroll

To get away from busy downtown and stretch your legs, the Toronto Islands are the perfect destination. This car-free open space has paved trails for biking, in-line skating, or strolling; miles and miles of green space to explore; and picture-perfect vistas of the surrounding lake and skyline.

Bicyclists, power-walkers, and Sunday strollers alike enjoy the Martin Goodman Trail, the Toronto portion of the 219-mile Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail. The string of beaches along the eastern waterfront (east of Coxwell Avenue) is connected by a continuous boardwalk that parallels the Martin Goodman Trail. At the western end of this walking and biking trail is Sunnyside Park Beach, once the site of a large amusement park, and now a favorite place for a swim in the "tank" (a huge heated pool) or a snack at the small restaurant inside the handsomely restored 1922 Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion. Between the eastern and western beaches is the downtown stretch of the trail that hugs the waterfront and passes by a sewage treatment plant (no, it's not all pretty), marinas, a waterfowl conservation area, a sugar refinery, the Harbourfront, and the Toronto Islands ferry terminal.

Festivals and Events

The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE, or "the Ex") takes place the last two weeks of August and Labor Day weekend, attracting more than 3 million people each year. It began in 1879 primarily as an agricultural show and today is a collection of carnival workers pushing C$5 balloons, midway rides, bands, horticultural and technological exhibits, parades, dog swims, horse shows, and (sometimes) top-notch performances. Stick around for nightly fireworks at 10.

Throughout the year, the Harbourfront Centre hosts a dizzying array of festivals, covering cultural celebrations such as Kuumba (February) and the Mexican Day of the Dead (November), foodie-friendly fêtes like the Hot & Spicy Festival (August) and Vegetarian Food Fair (September), and literary events such as the International Festival of Authors (October).

Updated: 2014-03-04

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