Thank god for parks.
As Toronto blooms and people begin to emerge from their homes — the majority partially vaccinated — the city’s public parks have become the premier destination for those in desperate need of human connection and a dose of nature.
Though Ontario remains under a stay-at-home order, experts say socializing with friends and family outdoors at this stage of the pandemic is exceedingly safe. As the city continues to wait for patios and bars to reopen, now is the perfect time to explore some of the city’s hundreds of parks — each with its own personality.
I hopped on my bike to take a tour of my favourite downtown parks, hoping to get a sense of what makes them feel so special. Here are my top six picks, in no particular order.
Riverdale Park East
Location: 550 Broadview Ave
Vibes: Rooftop party
Food/drink access: 9/10
X-factor: Sweeping views of downtown
After a long and cold winter spent mostly inside, visiting Riverdale East for the first time this spring was cathartic. Sitting on the steep grassy slope overlooking the city, a refreshing breeze emanating from the Don Valley, it was impossible not to feel a slight (and unfamiliar) sense of optimism for the year ahead.
I’ve made the trek to Riverdale from the west end several times since then, and as the weather warms and the days grow longer, it keeps getting better.
By the time the sun begins to drop behind the skyline, the park’s ski hill-like slopes are filled with families, groups of young people, and a handful of amateur photographs, all drawn to the stunning panoramic view. During a time marked in many ways by loneliness and isolation, the opportunity to safely gather with hundreds of others to witness a sunset together feels like the simplest and most important of pleasures.
Where can you eat? Though you may be tempted to grab some food from the busy strip between Broadview and Chester on the Danforth, you’re better off heading down to East Chinatown, located on Gerrard Street on the southside of the park.
I’d highly recommend popping into Rose’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, a tiny shop that sells delicious and cheap banh mì to go. If it’s a hot day, do yourself a favour and grab yourself a Vietnamese iced coffee, which is some of the best in town. Cash only.
Note on washrooms: With restaurants and other public indoor spaces closed, washrooms are an important (and frustrating) amenity in public parks. According to the city’s website, public washrooms in the park are open from 9 a.m. to “dusk” (which often means well before sunset). Plan accordingly!
Riverdale East has a good washroom, though there are often lineups. You also have to walk up and down the huge hill.
Christie Pits Park
Location: 750 Bloor Street West
Vibes: Colourful, chaotic, unpretentious
Food/drink access: 10/10
X-factor: The people
From the moment you step into Christie Pits and feel the subway rumbling beneath your feet, you know it’s going to be a lively time. What makes the oddly-shaped, sharply-sloped park so special? It’s hard to say. I think it might have to do with the fact that it has something for everyone.
Space to toss a football around with your friends? Definitely! Splash pad for the kids? Yep! Picnic with the family? Tonnes of space! Live music? Probably! Pickup soccer game? Nice! Hockey rink overrun by teen skateboarders? Usually! Semi-pro baseball on Sundays? Depends on COVID restrictions! Interesting festival or cultural event to observe or take part in? Not always, but surprisingly often! Appropriate place to have some drinks? Extremely! Hipsters? Not that many!
Christie Pits on a summer day feels like a perfect microcosm of Toronto: a chaotic mash-up of different energies and vibes, a not particularly beautiful space that nonetheless feels beautiful because of the people there.
Where can you eat? Anywhere! Located between Bloordale Village and Koreatown, with an LCBO nearby, Christie Pits is pretty much a food-and-drink lovers paradise. Some easy “to-go” spots” minutes from the park: —
Note on washrooms: Christie has a solid facility right in the middle of the park, though it often closes quite early.
Trinity Bellwoods Park
Location: 790 Queen Street West
Vibes: Closest thing to a bar/club right now
Food/drink access: 8/10
X-factor: The possibility of making the news
During the week, Bellwoods is a lovely spot: over 15 hectares of dynamic green space peppered with cherry blossoms and regal, century-old Bitternut Hickory trees, cut through by a lush ravine. There are tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a dog bowl, artwork and a large playground/splash pad section for children. If you catch Bellwoods at a quiet moment, the park can feel peaceful; even serene.
But the moment the workweek ends, Bellwoods transforms into a different beast.
Shirtless bros armed with spikeball sets and slacklines emerge suddenly in large numbers like cicadas. Quiet picnics transform into rowdy parties. Empty cans of White Claw and Pilsner Old Style are piled around the now overflowing trash cans. Music bleeds into other music, creating a disorienting din as the park grows dark. Cops on bicycles typically make an appearance. Hanger-Ons from an earlier anti-mask rally may or may not be gathered near the park’s entrance. Things can get super weird.
If you’re in the appropriate mood, it’s an absolute blast, and about the closest thing you’ll get to the atmosphere of a good bar during this one-dose summer. If you’re not, consider a different option.
Where can you eat? As you head toward Bellwoods Brewery to pick up more beer (because the LCBO closes early now) don’t forget to grab some greasy carbs to soak up some of that alcohol that inevitably entered your bloodstream while you were in the park. Fortunately, there are a solid number of high quality pizza joints on Ossington Avenue, including Superpoint, Blondies, and, if you’re made of money, Pizzeria Libretto.
Note on washrooms: Trinity has a good facility located by the ice rink on the east side of the park. There is also one in The Dog Bowl (sometimes open, sometimes not.) Also another on the west end near the community centre. Be warned, it can get a bit dirty when the party gets going.
Location: 711 Lake Shore Blvd. W
Vibes: Like the beach without the hassle
Food/drink access: 4/10
X-factor: Proximity to bike lanes and other waterfront activities
Each summer, Torontonians, overwhelmed by the sweltering heat, find themselves cursing whichever urban planner decided to build a freeway in front of the city’s only body of water. Those same Torontonians, too hot or too tired to plan a day at the beach or the Island, might consider heading down to Coronation Park.
As Herman Melville once said, “Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries — stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.” If you feel this quote, this is your spot.
Located just east of Ontario Place along the Martin Goodman Trail, Coronation Park is a sprawling green space tucked right along the lake, with easy access via the city’s waterfront bike lanes. Coronation is surprisingly quiet despite its downtown location, its lush grove of large oak and maple trees providing plenty of shade for visitors lounging in the park’s colourful Adirondack chairs.
Once you’ve been rejuvenated by the lovely views of the lake and the sounds of the water birds, you might be inclined to hop on your bike (or your scooter or whatever) and head west towards Trillium Park, where you’ll find more excellent views of the city as the sun begins to set.
Where can you eat? Due to the aforementioned freeway, Coronation and the other lakefront parks don’t have great access to food or drinks, unless you’re into overpriced Beaver Tails or a Starbucks muffin. Pack smart, or you might find yourself needing to head home early.
Note on washrooms: The washroom facilities on the north side of the park are pristine. Spacious, clean, and well kept. Excellent.
Sorauren Avenue Park
Location: 289 Sorauren Ave
Vibes: Chill weekday hangout spot
Food/drink access: 7/10
X-factor: Roncy puppies
Ah, Sunny Sorauren, the Gem of the City’s West End.
Tucked between Roncesvalles, Parkdale and the up-and-coming Sterling Road, this spacious park has it all if you’re looking for a bit of wholesome fun: basketball and tennis courts, lots of open space, an enclosed dog park, and a paved “town square” that hosts a weekly farmers’ market.
At the edge of downtown, Sorauren is best in the late afternoon or early evening, as the sun slowly drops behind a charming old linseed factory. It’s typically a quiet spot, populated by young families and a sprinkling of west end hipsters, and plenty of fancy Roncy puppies on display. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that nearly every household in Roncesvalles adopted a beautiful new puppy during the pandemic. Very cute.)
Sorauren is also located just down the street from the new Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, which hopefully will reopen some time this summer.
Where can you eat? Providing support to local sustainable farmers and work opportunities for those out of a job due to the pandemic, the Sorauren Farmers’ Market (every Monday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) is your best choice for fresh produce and delicious street food.
If Monday doesn’t work, I’d recommend picking up some snacks or hot treats at the new Pepper’s Food & Drink on Lansdowne and Wallace. In addition to its almost-overwhelming selection of Asian snack foods, Pepper’s also has an incredible fast-food counter serving up Filipino-inspired fast food favourites like fried chicken and rice, spaghetti, and apple pie.
Note on washrooms: When I visited, I couldn’t find an open public facility. There was a lone outhouse at the entry to the park. Not great.
Location: 26 Grange Rd. W
Vibes: Kid-friendly oasis
Food/drink access: 6/10
X-factor: State of the art play area
Citydwellers often head to the park to escape the grind of the city, and are often drawn to green spaces that seek to emulate the natural outdoors. But sometimes it feels just as good to discover a comfortable urban space that lets you bask in the grandeur of the city itself.
Hidden between the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Ontario College of Art & Design University, the Grange can feel like a miracle: a sophisticated oasis that exists naturally among the turmoil of downtown. The park is small, but has an abundance of benches for reading, sculptures for staring, and, if you’re a parent, plenty of safe and interactive activities to distract the kids.
Compared to High Park or Bickford, the Grange Park may feel a touch chaotic — there can be a considerable amount of children and a lot of foot traffic. And yet, if you have a good book and find yourself the right bench, you just might just stumble upon a precious moment of peace, heightened by the dramatic electric-blue backdrop of the AGO.
Where can you eat? The Park is located steps away from The Village by the Grange, a wonderfully unique underground food court with a wide variety of non-mainstream offerings, typically swarming with OCAD students, but currently almost empty, with many of the shops temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions when I visited this week.
In the meantime, I’d suggest heading to nearby Kensington Market to grab lunch on your way to the Grange, the latter of which has far more space to stretch out and enjoy than the former. You will very likely catch me eating the jerk pork special with a side of plantains from Rasta Pasta, my all-time favourite lunch spot.
Note on washrooms: Accessible, family-friendly, unisex washrooms available and designed like artwork. Sophisticated.
Bonus pick: Bickford Park
Location: 400 Grace Street
Vibes: Romantic picnic
Food/drink access: 7/10
X-factor: No crowds
If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, plant yourself in the depths of Bickford Park, a hidden gem located just steps south of Christie Pits. Surrounded by gentle slopes and robust trees, the park feels almost like a secret hideout, away from the masses.