All Articles Navigating Toronto museums like a pro

Navigating Toronto museums like a pro

These hands-on spots celebrate all things science, history, and art.

Caleigh Alleyne
By Caleigh AlleyneApr 11, 2024 4 minutes read
Man viewing contemporary art
Royal Ontario Museum
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Over the years, I’ve racked up visits to Toronto’s many museums, starting with school field trips and later benefitting from the affordable student memberships while attending university—one of my favorite activities was wandering through the Art Gallery of Ontario in between classes. Even as a born-and-raised Torontonian, I still find myself returning to these museums regularly.

Lucky for travelers looking to escape the humid summer heat or biting winter wind, many of Toronto’s best museums are located in the popular tourist neighborhoods of Yorkville, The Annex, and the downtown core. To help plan your visit to the city, I pulled together seven museums in Toronto (ranked on their exhaustion level) to add to your next itinerary.

Royal Ontario Museum

If you want a little bit of everything

Extension of the Royal Ontario Museum showing the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal
Tyrannosaurus rex on display
Left: Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, Right: Age of Dinosaurs gallery
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

As Canada’s largest museum at more than 25,000 square feet, you’ll want to start your day early to see as many of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) art, culture, and natural history exhibits as you can. The dinosaur exhibits on Level 2 are a must-see, with a comprehensive collection of Jurassic and Cretaceous periods grouped by whether they lived in the land or sea. Families can continue on Level 2 to visit the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Family Gallery of Hands-on Biodiversity, which highlights the natural world near Toronto in the Great Lakes Marsh and beyond.

Don’t miss: Located on Level 2, the Bat Cave is a realistic recreation of the St. Clair Cave in Jamaica, where you can learn about more than 20 bat specimens in an immersive gallery space.

Exhaustion level: 9/10

Art Gallery of Ontario

If you want to learn more about Canadian art

Museum visitors viewing gallery
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is located in a creative corridor of downtown Toronto near Kensington Market and the Chinatown neighborhood. As one of the largest art museums in North America, the AGO has more than 120,000 works of art, ranging from cutting-edge contemporary art to work by Indigenous and Canadian artists to European masterpieces. The space itself is a work of art—guests are first enveloped in Walker Court's expansive light before entering the gallery space through a grandiose wooden spiral staircase.

For the best photo op, pop into Galleria Italia, an architectural wonder that blends light wood and glass. And if you have young kids in tow, head to the Dr. Mariano Elia Hands-On Centre where children under six can make their own art and engage in play-based learning centered on the gallery’s current exhibitions.

Tip: The AGO stays open late every Friday until 9:00 p.m. with free programming and live musical performances.

Exhaustion level: 6/10

Gardiner Museum

For pottery lovers

Exterior view of the museum at night
Glass stairwell showcasing Joan Coutois work
Left: Exterior of the Gardiner Museum, Right: Joan Courtois gallery
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

One of the only museums dedicated to ceramics, the Gardiner Museum tells the history of pottery as an art form. Start by learning the different styles of pottery and the role ceramics played throughout time—from the Ancient Americas to European porcelain—with artifacts that have been meticulously preserved. Travel forward in time and technique to learn about contemporary Canadian sculpture. On weekends, the gallery hosts free family-friendly clay activities every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for children visiting with an adult. Make sure your visit includes a meal at Clay Restaurant, which has one of the best views of University Avenue from its floor-to-ceiling windows.

Tip: The museum also hosts weekly drop-in classes every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday for potters of all levels who want to try out different techniques. Tickets are available starting at 10 a.m. the morning of the class, so you’ll want to set an alarm to sign up online.

Exhaustion level: 3/10

Hockey Hall of Fame

For hockey (and Tim Hortons) fans

Hockey uniforms on display
Image: 496kerstinb/Tripadvisor

A visit to Toronto wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame, an interactive museum dedicated to one of Canada’s favorite pastimes. For hockey fans, the museum space features the finest collection of hockey artifacts, a replica NHL dressing room, and trophies—including the coveted Stanley Cup. And for an active experience, there are several immersive games where you can test your goalkeeping skills or practice shooting and play-by-play calling in the model rink.

Tip: The iconic Canadian coffee shop, Tim Hortons, was first opened by a Canadian hockey player who spent the majority of his career as a defenseman on the Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s an outpost here—located adjacent to the museum's gift shop—that serves a special edition Hockey Hall of Fame donut only available at this location.

Exhaustion level: 8/10

Bata Shoe Museum

For the fashion-obsessed

Athletic shoes on display
A walk through footwear fashion history
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

The Bata Shoe Museum is an enthralling spot for fashion historians and sneakerheads to revel in a collection of nearly 15,000 shoes and shoe-related artifacts spanning more than 4,500 years of design. In the space, you can see everything from Ancient Roman sandals and Gothic foot armor to stilettos worn by Marilyn Monroe and futuristic sneakers. The design of the museum allows guests to start from the bottom floor and wind their way upward through the entire exhibition space in under two hours.

Tip: The shoe museum makes for a refreshing and slightly quirky addition to your gallery-filled day, as it’s located just a few blocks from the Royal Ontario Museum and the neighboring Gardiner Museum.

Exhaustion level: 4/10

Ontario Science Centre

For hands-on learning with tiny travelers

Hair static from Van de Graaff generator
Van de Graaff generator
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Bring your energy and sense of wonder to the Ontario Science Centre. Accessible by highway or Toronto public transit from downtown, this expansive museum in the Don Mill neighborhood has more than 500 exhibitions that cover different areas of science through play. Everything here is hands-on, from the human body exhibit’s dance floor that converts energy into magical light displays to the real-life rainforest that teaches all about biodiversity. With over 568,000 square feet to explore, you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes to dive into the interactive exhibits and activities that can keep you busy all day.

Tip: While one of the most photographed spots is the hair-raising Van de Graaff Generator on Level 6 that teaches about static electricity, you’ll want to plan your visit around an IMAX film at the giant domed OMNIMAX Theatre—grab a combo entry ticket that includes a movie.

Exhaustion level: 9/10

Myseum of Toronto

For a free exhibition about Toronto

Play Cupid exhibition with large foam hanging heart shapes
Image: Toronto Life

The Myseum of Toronto’s 401 Richmond St. gallery space, located in a century-old reclaimed factory building, offers a primer into the city’s past, present, and future. It’s a good spot to visit early on in your trip, as it’ll help you create a more vibrant picture of the city around you. Plus, entry to the museum is by donation, making it an affordable stop for immersive and engaging exhibits before continuing your day downtown. Its central location in Toronto’s historic Fashion District next to the lively Queen West strip makes it an easy hour-long stop before wandering through the city itself.

Tip: Myseym of Toronto hosts several exhibitions and events throughout the city—it’s worth checking out their events calendar to see what’s on before you plan your visit.

Exhaustion level: 2/10

Caleigh Alleyne
Caleigh Alleyne is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist based in Toronto, Canada. When she's not traveling, you can find her working on a DIY project at home while listening to romantic comedy audiobooks on 2x speed. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram