A Toronto winter is frosty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. You can stay warm by visiting some of the city’s top attractions or face it like a fearless Canadian and get outside for some winter excitement. To help you plan your city explorations, here are the top things to do in Toronto in winter, from a warm-blooded local’s point of view.
Things to do in Toronto in winter
I’m probably the worst person to write about winter because I, erm, hate it. Sorry, Mother Nature. But that’s also why I’m the best person to write about what to do in Toronto during winter, because if I can survive it, and even enjoy it (sometimes), then surely you can, too. So bundle up and get outside, or bound from art gallery to shopping mall without the tips of your ears ever going red. It’s all good. Whether you’re in Toronto for one day or you live here year-round, there’s always something going on. However you choose to
slog through celebrate winter, these top Toronto attractions and activities will help you find the best of it.
A Toronto winter means skating
Due to my husband’s obsession with hockey and all things ice, we go skating. A lot. (Maybe one day I’ll even stop looking like the most inept loser on the ice, though it’s doubtful.) The new Bentway Trail, a 1.75 km figure eight skating path under the Gardiner Expressway, is getting all the buzz, and while we hesitated before checking it out (“Who wants to skate under an expressway?” asked my husband) it’s actually really fun. Located right by the Fort York National Historic Site, it runs east of the Fort York Visitor Centre at 250 Fort York Blvd. Don’t have skates? You can rent skates there.
Other Toronto rinks where you can rent skates include Natrel Rink at Harbourfront, a scenic rink overlooking Lake Ontario. Their DJ Skatenights from 8-11 p.m. on Saturday nights are the new way to party. The rink at Nathan Phillips Square, another popular Toronto rink with music and a carnival atmosphere is the most central as it’s right at City Hall on Queen Street.
Visit the Distillery District for the Toronto Light Festival
If you’ve missed the December Distillery Christmas Market, don’t despair. Put a little light into your cold Toronto winter with the Toronto Light Festival, an ambitious display that beams down on the Distillery District in January. The Distillery, if you don’t know it, is a cobblestoned collection of Victorian industrial buildings including a historic distillery, and today, it’s a pedestrian hot spot filled with galleries, artsy boutiques and restaurants.
At the Light Festival you can check out thousands of lights, illuminated sculptures and glowing installations that are spread out over 13 acres and 44 buildings. For 2019 it runs Jan 18 to March 3. While the Distillery District is not right downtown, it’s not hard to get to by public transportation. I usually take the King Street streetcar east from downtown to Parliament, then walk south to Mill Street. Or it’s a twenty minute walk along the Esplanade from Union Station.
Turn up the heat with a spicy hot chocolate at one of these three cafes
Not all of the top things to do in Toronto in winter take place outside. Mayan hot chocolate with cayenne, ginger and orange peel is just one of the drinking chocolate offerings at Soma Chocolate, and a sure way to keep away the winter chills. Soma has two locations, at 443 King Street West and at the Distillery. Prefer a caffeine fix? Go Italian with their Bicerin, a hot drink layered in dark chocolate, espresso and semi-whip cream.
Other artisanal hot chocolate destinations in the city include hipster-happy Sweet Jesus at 106 John Street – try their salted dark hot chocolate – or Black Sesame Hot Cocoa from the chocolate drinking bar at Cacao 70, 485 Queen Street West.
See the Winter Light Exhibition at Ontario Place
Toronto sightseeing should definitely include lights during the long dark days of winter. Another place to check out artsy light shows and sculptural installations you can hug (literally, there is one you can hug) is with the Winter Light Exhibition at Ontario Place, an illuminated festival of lights created by local artists. Running from November through March, this large scale exhibit is enhanced by the other winter activities at Ontario Place such taking a whirl around its new synthetic skating rink, or checking out a movie screening at the space-age looking Cinesphere, which has finally reopened and offers a variety of IMAX films. Cool!
Step into some classic winter landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Get a different perspective on winter in Toronto. See how Canada’s snowy scenes have inspired artists over the years at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Dundas Street. The AGO is one of the top Toronto tourist attractions and their Thomson Collection is a fab collection of Canadian landscapes. Seeing some of its winter-themed artwork will help you (at least it helps me) see winter in a more positive light. And I need as much positive light on winter in TO as I can get, otherwise I wouldn’t leave my apartment until spring.
What winter paintings to see at the AGO? Classics such as Paul Kane’s Scene in the Northwest – A Portrait from 1845 or one of the glacial mountainous scenes by superstar Lawren Harris are just a couple of the gallery’s winter landscapes. For an intimate view of Toronto, scenes such as Lawren Harris’s Winter Afternoon, City Street, Toronto provide a snapshot of the city as it was a century ago.
Just FYI: Lawren Harris is part of the Group of Seven, Canada’s most famous group of landscape painters, and his work is a big favourite with actor Steve Martin, which puts Harris firmly on the celebrity artist hot list.
Check out the dinosaurs at the Royal Ontario Museum
Ah, back before the glaciers covered the earth, tropical forests covered much of the land we now call Canada and dinosaurs roamed. Harken back to those warmer eons with a trip back in time at the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the most popular Toronto points of interest. The ROM has one of the most comprehensive collections of dinosaur skulls in the world, including a triceratops and a helmet-crested Corythosaurus. (And who doesn’t want to see a helmet-crested Corythosaurus?) If you’re looking for things to do in Toronto with kids, this is your place.
The big draw, (I mean, really big), is Gordo, a massive Barosaurus skeleton, one of only three complete Barosaurus skeletons on display in the world. Other dino highlights to give you the Jurassic chills are duck-billed dinosaurs, a flying Quetzalcoatlus and the museum’s most famous fossil skeleton, the tube-crested Parasaurolophus walkeri. Bonus points if you can spell any one of those.
Winter can be beautiful, so head out to these top Toronto nature spots
There are plenty of urban pleasures but getting out in nature is when the beauty of a Toronto winter shines. Where should you go? While the Toronto Islands are a much-loved destination in summer, they’re great for winter excursions, too. Frozen lagoons, waterfront walks and skyline views – what more do you need? The ferries go year round.
Other places to go in Toronto in winter include the Waterfront and High Park. High Park is one of my main go-to nature destinations when the temperature drops. Take a walk along Grenadier Pond – if the ice is frozen you can watch the skaters – or stroll the trails along the pond to marvel at the plucky duck families somehow staying warm.
When the weather is cold steam up at a spa
When the frost gets too much, sometimes you need to soak out the shivers. For this you want one of Toronto’s top spas, a spa that has amenities such as steam rooms, hot tubs and pools. I love the co-ed lounge at the oddly-named Spa My Blend at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto, and plan to make good use of their salt water lap pool (my intensive wellness plan is to do at least one lap this year), the aroma-infused hot tub, sauna and eucalyptus steam room. I plan to do it soon because my Christmas present (thanks, honey!) was a spa gift certificate.
Other top spas I’m waiting to check out are the new spa at the recently-opened St Regis and the new Hotel X, which has an indoor-outdoor heated rooftop pool (for guests only) and is ambitiously aiming to be the top wellness destination in Toronto. A cheaper option where you can use the pool facilities during the week is Elmwood, where my friend Robin just took me for my birthday. (Thanks, Robin!) As you can see, I spend a lot of time in Toronto spas – an excellent winter avoidance maneuver I highly recommend.
Ice Ice Baby – head to Yorkville for Icefest
Year-round, the swanky area of Yorkville is a hot destination for visitors to Toronto. It’s my ‘hood so I’m biased, but it really is a great place to hang out and people watch, with art galleries, a high-end mall, the most urban of urban chic parks and plenty of cafes and restaurants. When it comes to things to do in Toronto in winter, however, the time to head to Yorkville is in February when the two-day Bloor-Yorkville Icefest takes place. The place livens up (not to mention freezes up) with ice sculptures and ice-carving demonstrations. (And by the way, I had to learn how to ice carve for a TV show once, and it truly is an impossible art form – at least for me).
For 2019 the dates of Icefest are Feb 9th and 10th, though you can watch the ice sculptures melt into oblivion for much longer.
Winterlicious – eat well for less
Toronto is not a cheap destination, especially when it comes to restaurants, but one of the most satisfying things to do in Toronto in winter is to eat. After all, without fat stores in our body how would we stay warm? The solution? Winterlicious. Taking place in January and February this long-running food fest gives hungry patrons a chance to fuel up at some of the city’s best restaurants at a reasonable price.
Meals are prix fixe, meaning you pay a set price for a set menu, and many restaurants offer both lunch and dinner. The top restaurants fill up fast, though, so book as early as you can. High on my culinary wish list this year are STK Toronto in Yorkville, La Societe at 131 Bloor Street West and perennial favourite, Lee, at 601 King Street West.
See the Maple Leafs at a hockey game
My husband says I have to include this so I am. For a truly iconic Toronto experience you can check out a Maple Leafs game at the Scotiabank Arena at 40 Bay Street. If you can’t get tickets you can stand around and freeze amidst the lively communal sports spirit at Maple Leaf Square, the outdoor public square where games are broadcast live on the 80 by 50 foot screen.
My husband says I have to include this, too: For a less-crowded more affordable experience you can check out a AHL game with the Toronto Marlies. He started telling me about other leagues as well, but I got tired of writing about hockey.
See the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame
Okay, since we’re on a roll, here’s one more hockey-themed thing to do in Toronto. Why not head down to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Front Street, where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about
my husband’s Canada’s most beloved sport, and see where the Stanley Cup lives when it’s not on tour.
See the winter views from the top of the CN Tower
Sometimes I think that winter is best viewed from a distance, and heading up the 1,815-foot (553-metre) CN Tower, the ninth tallest building in the world, gives you a new perspective on all this cold weather. In addition to sampling fine Canadian cuisine at the revolving 360 Restaurant (maybe a Braised Ontario Lamb Shoulder?), you can ride up a glass-fronted elevator, stand on a glass floor, look out panoramic glass windows and go glassy eyed looking out over our frosty Ontario landscape.
Toronto activities inside – Get lost in the Path
Here’s a confession: I know I should be all stalwart and proud to embrace winter but I really hate being cold. It may be one of the most unsung things to do in Toronto in winter, but when I need exercise and can’t face wind, snow or sleet, I head to Union Station subway station and amuse myself by trying to find my way to the Eaton’s Centre through the extensive underground paths that burrow under the financial district. Along the way are shops, restaurants and even hotels (the Sheraton, for one), and you can always pop up an escalator to see where you are, which is probably nowhere near where you think.
It took me a year to figure out how to make it successfully from Union Station to the Eaton’s Centre, a toasty warm downtown mall, but now I’ve forgotten, so I have that exciting challenge facing me again this year. Do I know how to have fun during winter in Toronto or what?