updated July 2021
In Toronto, we simply call it “The Island.” However, its official name is Toronto Island Park – 15 connected islands just off the shore of the city centre. Here, you’ll find our best hidden beaches, beautiful boardwalks, a kids’ amusement park, and stunning sunset views.
It’s all accessible by a short ride on the Toronto Island ferry, making a visit to The Island the cheapest, easiest way for Torontonians to “get away” on a holiday. It’s also the best tourist attraction this city has to offer the world.
What to do on Toronto Island? What ferry to take? Here’s my dawn-to-dusk visitor’s guide.
The Toronto Island is where I go to escape the city’s heat waves, traffic congestion and overly commercial aspirations. To swim, ride my bike, lay under trees and watch the sun go down behind the CN Tower.
For party and sun lovers, the Island has also become an even hotter spot during Covid. Hanlan’s Point, a clothing optional beach and longstanding safe gathering place for the city’s LGBTQ community, is basically the most popular nightclub in town since actual nightclubs had to close.
Whether you like to be alone, or are looking for action, whether it’s your first time visiting the Island, your first time in a while, or you just want to explore more than Hanlan’s Beach, here is my dawn-to-dusk advice for the perfect Island adventure.
Come early and stay late
Make a day of it. A full day. Not to discount the appeal of a quick after-work Island swim, but arriving well before noon and staying until after sundown is the way to go. If you want a prime waterfront spot or the picnic table of your choice, you will need to beat the competition after all. And rushing to catch the last ferry home is an Island tradition.
Check beach water quality
The waters around Toronto island are some of the cleanest and safest places to swim in the area. Except when heavy storms or other environmental events mess with the ecoli levels in the water. Before you go, check Swimsafe for the latest conditions.
Buy your Toronto island ferry tickets in advance
Ferries to all Toronto Island destinations depart from one terminal at the foot of Bay Street. Tickets must be purchased in advance online. Bring your masks they are mandatory on board. The ticket is for a return trip and you don’t need to show it on the way back – they assume if you got over there, you didn’t swim.
Once you’re inside the terminal, you can choose your boat. There are three arrival points for the Islands: Ward’s to the east, Centre (obv.) and Hanlan’s to the west. The entire Island span is walkable, but for maximum “Time to Fun” pick the the ferry that will drop you off closest to the beach where you plan to hang out. Each beach has its own vibe.
Centre Island is the main drag, popular with families. It has the most facilities (washrooms, splash pads, food, etc), shade, and the biggest beach to spread out on.
Ward’s Island is a residential neighbourhood, and its small beach just a short walk from the ferry is a chill place for quiet groups of friends, especially at night. It makes the ideal spot for discrete bonfires (not exactly legal, but common).
Hanlan’s is where the party’s at, and home to the clothing optional, LGBTQ-friendly beach. If you have ever used “Sun’s out, Guns Out” non-ironically, you enjoy suntanning naked, and/or watching a display of penises of every shape, age and size, this is your spot. (Also good if you don’t care for kids.)
Gibraltar Point is, in the words of my friend Ben, the beach for people who hate people. This is my go-to spot because I’m the opposite of a nudist and prefer to swim where the least amount of people will see me. There are no facilities. The farthest walk from any ferry. Mind the fire ants.
Pack a Picnic
Food options are quite limited to a few corporate fast food chains. Some families haul BBQs and coolers and throw a full cookout; I look at them with envy since I tend to pack light, with wraps or shareable fruit like plums or cherries. In any case, bring lots of water, as our city fountains may or may not be functioning and buying overpriced, single-use plastic bottles of Dasani is gross.
For a sit-down meal or drink there are two nice restaurants on Ward’s Island, The Riviera and The Island Cafe.
Bring your Bike
I would never consider visiting the island without a bicycle. Why not take advantage of one of the biggest car-free urban communities in North America, one that’s flat, well paved, and perfect for riding?
There are bicycle rentals at Centre Island, including tandems. But you’ll walk a while to get there, queue, pay $9/hour and it’s really more for a novelty/date/family experience than for exploring the island on wheels. It’s quite sad that the city’s bike share programme doesn’t operate here, so if you don’t have your own, I recommend renting a bike for the day on the mainland then bringing it over. If you’re planning to stay til late, don’t forget a front light. It gets dark over there.
Upgrade to a Water Taxi
Yes, the Toronto ferries are nostalgic and affordable. But for an extra $13 round trip, you can get to the island much faster on a small water taxi. ($10 each way vs $7 return for ferry.) It’s easier for transporting your bike, and if you select the Tiki Taxi (as I do) you’ll likely get a fun music soundtrack for the ride. It’s also your way back if you miss that last ferry, as they tend to run later. Seriously, I exclusively take water taxis now and every time I feel like a genius. They leave from different docks than the standard ferry, so check locations and schedules here.
Water taxis are first come, first served. Beware that if you show up on a sunny weekend afternoon there will be a wait and it might be very long. See my point #1 about getting their early!
If you’re like me, you may need a break from the sun. So take a nice long ride or walk through the many forested paths. You may discover a lighthouse, a church, a maze, a boardwalk, bridges, or Snake Island.
Turn your phone off
Once you get to the far side of the island, cell signals are sketchy. So don’t count on meeting up with friends that way. Do use this as an excuse to turn everything off. You’re on vacation, remember.
Watch the Sunset
What if you only have a half-day to visit? Come for dusk. Both Hanlan’s beach and Ward’s ferry dock offer gorgeous views of the sun going down. And the boat ride home after dark illuminates Toronto’s waterfront skyline line like nowhere else.
Plan a Return Visit
If leaving the island makes you sad, I get it. The cure is to immediately make a plan for when you’ll come back.