With vaccines rolling out, the warm weather arriving, and we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel it’s time to start thinking about getting out and about again. Ontario is making plans to open up in the coming weeks and when the time does come to choose a tour of Toronto, you are going to want to have a safe and worry-free time in the city. This is a tour we took with our guide Varol of ToursByLocals, that was socially distanced, safe, and didn’t put anyone in “germ’s way.”
Note: Rules and regulations change constantly during COVID, be sure to check with government guidelines to see what is allowed. Things are constantly changing as Ontario moves into different stages of Covid-19 so be sure to check before you go. Check the Toronto Website COVID-19 updates.
A Tour of Toronto in the Age of COVID
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When Dave and I moved an hour outside of Toronto at the end of 2019, we didn’t expect to never return. But that is exactly what happened. Since COVID hit we hadn’t stepped foot in the city. So when Tours by Locals invited us to try their private tour of Toronto last fall to see a city we know so well, we were both nervous and excited to head into town. We had no idea what to expect.
Our Top Hotel Choices in Toronto
- See our full breakdown of the best places to stay in Toronto for all budgets.
- Luxury: Ritz Carlton – Entertainment District: Gorgeous luxury hotel. All the movie stars stay here. Overlooking the CN Tower. Check it out on Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- Mid Range: Yonge and Dundas Square: Chelsea Hotel – Prime location steps from Dundas Square. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
- Budget: Holiday Inn Toronto – When in doubt I go with chain hotels. Great location near Yorkville between Church and Yonge. Mini Fridge in room. Trip Advisor / Booking.com
Our guide Varol arrived at 9:50 for our 10 am tour at the Esplanade in front of the famous Old Spaghetti Factory. This location is normally booming, the Esplanade is a popular tourist and business district of Toronto. But today, the streets were deserted and eerily quiet for a Tuesday morning. We were used to crowds of people flocking coffee shops and rushing to meetings and appointments. Local Toronto tours start at $255 USD for up to 3 people with ToursByLocals They offer tours around the world.
Touring Toronto during COVID
Donning our masks, we got into the back seat of his freshly sanitized car. It was a beautiful sunny day, and with the windows down and the air flowing, we felt safe and comfortable as he drove us to our first Toronto attraction.
Usually, Toronto is jammed with traffic. Dave and I always used to joke that, “it takes exactly one hour to get from Toronto to Toronto.” (meaning, no matter where we were going in the city we could count on an hour in traffic) Today, we were at City Hall in minutes from Front Street. We got out of the car and had the square all to ourselves. There was not a soul in sight.
Besides Varol who was in the front seat while we sat in the back with our masks on and windows down, our day trip to the city had zero contact with other people. All three of us kept our masks on in the car and we all stood a safe distance apart during our tour outside. Plus, all of our stops were outdoors and a we kept a safe distance from people on the streets when walking.
Planning a Trip to Toronto?
Taking a ToursByLocals tour was an amazing way to see Toronto. It is exactly what you think it is, a city tour led by a local host. Having a local who knows the city well, lets you see all the lesser known places as well as the top attractions. The cost is per vehicle, (not per person) so if you want to save some money, you can book 3 people for a tour. Or in Varol’s case, up to 5 people for the cost of one tour!
We whisked from place to place checking off all the top tourist attractions in the city and seeing some sights that even Dave and I hadn’t noticed before. In the age of COVID-19, we had each and every one of them to ourselves. Sure, we didn’t go inside any of the attractions, (as they currently are not open) but during the time of COVID, this was the perfect day tour offering a highlight view of all the top things to see in Toronto from the outside.
We were excited to take this tour because even after moving back to Toronto from 2017 to 2019, we didn’t do a lot in the city. We stayed in our own area of Yonge and Bloor, saw friends, and went to the odd event. We never did see how much Toronto had changed over the years.
During our five-hour tour with Varol, we went from Toronto Harbourfront to Casa Loma and everywhere in between. The trip was outdoors and each time we got to a Toronto landmark, we had it all to ourselves.
The tourism industry is hurting
Very few are talking about the millions of people out of work in the tourism industry. Bus drivers, tour guides, restaurants, hospitality workers and so many more industries are all out of work. The CN Tower was closed. The museums were closed. And restaurants were not allowing indoor dining. There were no street performers or people shopping. The streets were bare.
We were Varol’s first tour in months. He told us that this time last year, he was doing at least 3 tours a week. Having us join his tour made him feel optimistic about the future. Perhaps, things will change soon?
When You are Ready To Travel, This is the Perfect Socially Distanced Toronto Tour
It was interesting being on a tour, and I’m not saying that Toronto is ready to have travelers yet. But it certainly was a great time to see the top Toronto attractions without any crowds. But, we never did go inside a hotel or coffee shop to use a toilet, and during our five-hour tour, we didn’t stop for lunch. Our contact with people outside our party of three, was zero.
Varol, drove us from place to place and told us all the information we needed en route to our next stop. The windows were down and we all kept our masks on. Dave and I then got out of the car to look around while Varol either parked the car or stayed with the car to watch our belongings or keep parking tickets at bay. It was the perfect blend of information with sightseeing.
Things to See with Tours by Locals
We saw all the top sites in Toronto. What we loved about this trip, is that it was tailor made. Since we were on a private tour, we could stay as long or as little as we want in one place. We started off at Nathan Phillips Square strictly because Dave and I had to go to the bathroom. Varol had our first stop originally planned for the Harbourfront, but since we just drove in from an hour out of town and all coffee shops restrooms were closed, Varol knew of a place at City Hall.
With our bladders empty, we had a chance to explore the famous Toronto Sign in front of the mid-century new city hall. (1965) City Hall building Designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell and opened in 1965, this is almost as much of an icon of Toronto as the CN Tower. With another glance at Old City Hall, we were back in the car and whisking away to the next stop.
Iconic Toronto Skyline View
We made our way back to the waterfront in record speed where we drove to Polson Street for that iconic view of the Toronto Skyline. Located beside the nightclub Rebel, this is the best view of the Toronto Skyline without having to hop on a ferry to the islands. Having Varol look after the parking and driving allowed us to quickly see this view before moving on. It’s not easy getting to Cherry Street if you are not a local. The only way out there is by taxi, a convoluted bus trip or cycling. Having a private driver got us there, lickety split.
CN Tower and Railway
It was then off to Bremner & York area where the CN Tower, Rogers Centre and the Railways Museum are located. This is a little slice of history in Toronto. Usually overrun with tourists, having a tour in the age of COVID let us explore the railway museum and the incredible views of the CN Tower free from crowds. Originally a large railway switching yard, it now showcases old locomotives and boxcars, the Steam Whistle Brewing Company and open walkways and parks for outdoor lounging. With the Roger’s Center (home of the Toronto Blue Jays), CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium across the street, it’s a spot for great views. I think we spent the longest amount of time here. It was outdoors, sunny and gorgeous!
It was then on to Gooderham and Worts in the Distillery District. This is one of the hottest spots in Toronto. With coffee shops, artists workshops, brew pubs and shopping, this outdoor pedestrian area is an amazing place to hang out. There is plenty of historic memorabilia from its days as one of the largest distillery of spirits in Canada. Varol took us on a walking tour telling us all about its history. With parking taken care of, we enjoyed strolling around and having it all to ourselves.
It was then on to other iconic sites in Toronto along Front Street as we made our way back to the city. Front Street has some of the best places to visit in Toronto. With stops at the St. Lawrence Market and The Old Flatiron Building, this part of the city feels almost as if time has stood still. Save for the towering skyscrapers looming overhead from Yonge Street.
It was then on to the front of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Union Station, and the Royal York. The east side of Front Street is finally a lovely pedestrian-friendly street that has wide sidewalks and is the perfect introduction to the city when arriving from Union Station. The Royal York Hotel is located along this street and the Scotia Bank Theater (home of the Raptors and Leafs is just around the corner.
Oh, and did I tell you there’s fantastic views of the CN Tower located right on Front Street as well? This is the perfect place to start any Toronto tour.
We moved through the top things to do see in Toronto quickly. After all, Dave and I were Toronto residents and with indoor attractions closed, we could see a lot in a short time. Sometimes my favourite thing to do in a city is to see it all from the outside. It took us four visits to Paris, France before we finally went inside the Louvre. So, we moved on to see more great outdoor attractions.
Outdoor Toronto Attractions
We drove through Graffiti Alley which has grown from one small alley to a passageway of back alleys filled with graffiti art. It runs just south of Queen Street and no visit to Toronto would be complete without it.
We took a drive through Kensington Market and felt depressed seeing it empty and void of people. I’m not going to lie, driving through the streets showed us just how many establishments shuddered their windows over the past year.
U of T
It was then on to the University of Toronto Campus. We used to live near U of T and for anyone visiting Toronto we can honestly say it is a little oasis in the city.
Popping into our old haunts, Yorkville is one of the coolest neighbourhoods in Toronto. It’s also one of the wealthiest. Home to the Four Seasons Toronto, it’s a place with high end boutique shopping, fine dining and great outdoor patios. It’s also home to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) which is an excellent photo op in Toronto at the corner of University and Bloor. You can spend an entire day hanging out here when things are open. We drove through enjoying the novelty of being tourists in our old neighbourhood.
Heading even further uptown we stopped by Casa Loma and the old stables. This is Toronto’s castle. Even though we lived close by for years, it had been a while since we stepped foot on the Casa Loma grounds. Varol dropped us off while he circled the block and we took in the Edwardian-style architecture of this majestic landmark. Built by Sir Henry Pellat between 1905 and 1915, Casa Loma as a residence, it is now one of Toronto’s top tourist attractions. There are events, live music, tours, and dining. (when it’s open).
We ended up seeing everything you could think of seeing in Toronto, plus some hidden gems that we will keep to ourselves and Varol. We don’t want to give it all away! You’ll have to book a local tour guide to check out some of the lesser known attractions.
Toronto Tours by Locals
This was a great way to get back into traveling our own backyard. It was so much fun to feel normal again taking a tour of a city. People are having a bit of anxiety here in Ontario as things begin to open up, and this is a good introduction to getting back to normal. While a group tour might not be on the books yet, a private sightseeing tour just might be the ticket to getting back in action. Tours by Locals offers private city tours around the world, check them out for a tour near you.