Last Updated on April 10, 2022 by Jim Ferri
A winter getaway to Toronto, one of Canada’s great cities…
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
CAPTIONS: / photos: Jim Ferri, unless otherwise noted
By Jim Ferri
Unless they’re avid skiers, most travelers don’t consider winter a great time to travel.
But some cities are great places to visit when the cold creeps in. After all, that’s when they’re both less crowded and less expensive, often with their cultural seasons in full swing.
Last week my wife and I returned from a winter holiday in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, where we visited friends. After a bad case of cabin fever in a year of no travel, it turned out to be the perfect trip, with a bit of snow and all, notwithstanding the airline chaos.
As a matter of fact, it’s such a great winter getaway that BBC just named Toronto “the Canadian City to visit this winter.”
One of the reasons for its allure in these pandemic-weary times is that Torontonians take vaccine mandates very seriously.
In fact, as of January 1, more than 87% of the city’s population 12 years and older have been vaccinated. Moreover, in a town renowned for restaurants, all eateries were locked down almost for one year, the strictest policy in the world.
Many restaurants are now open but the caution continues today. Step out on the street mask-less, and frequently a passerby will remind you to mask up. Go anywhere inside – to a restaurant, museum, etc. – and you’ll be asked for proof of vaccination. Obviously, you’ll find it helpful to keep your vaccination card handy on your cell phone.
Toronto is an exuberant place with an enthusiastic following among foreign travelers and many Canadians. In fact, many people are attracted to the city because of its ethnicity.
Although its population is greater than Chicago’s, half of Toronto’s residents were born in another country, something readily apparent in its numerous ethnic restaurants, festivals, and markets. According to the United Nations, Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities.
The city is also Canada’s financial capital and cultural center. In fact, it’s the third most significant English-speaking theater center in the world, after New York and London. As in those cities, theater comes alive here during the winter season.
But there’s much more to its allure. Toronto also hosts a film festival that nears the prestige of Cannes, supports more than 50 dance companies, and is a center of the North American television and film industry.
It’s also safe and clean. As the Academy Award-winning actor/director/writer Sir Peter Ustinov, a former Toronto resident, once described it, Toronto is “like New York, but governed by the Swiss.
One of the Best Places on A Winter Day: the Royal Ontario Museum
Museums in Toronto are excellent any time of year but are exceptionally comfortable on cold winter days.
The 100-year old Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM as it’s known to Torontonians, is a massive museum of world culture and natural history, one of the largest in North America.
Canada’s largest museum, it is home to more than 6 million artifacts as diverse as Chinese funerary objects, Egyptian mummies, dinosaurs and totem poles, and even a living beehive. It’s one of the best places in Toronto to while away a half-day.
Popular exhibits include the Dinosaur Gallery, Canada’s First People’s exhibit, rare Art Deco furniture and other pieces, the Arms and Armor exhibit, and one of the best exhibits of Greek sculpture in North America, with some pieces dating to circa 325BC.
If You Go:
Open: Wednesday to Sunday: 10:00am – 5:30pm / Closed Monday and Tuesday
Admission (Can$): Adults: $23.00 / 65+: $18.00 / Child 15-19: $18.00 / Child 4-14: $14.00
Note: Prices differ for special exhibitions / complimentary admission to Daphne Cockwell Gallery
If the 58-second elevator ride up this 1815+ feet engineering marvel doesn’t take your breath away, the view over the city and its islands at the top certainly will.
The CN Tower, a popular Toronto attraction, was built by the Canadian National Railway. It is the second-tallest freestanding structure in the world. You can see the U.S.-Canada border from its observation platform on a clear day.
It’s one of those things you just have to do, despite the wait for the elevators being quite long at times. And when you finally get to the top, you can take a walk on the glass floor and look down almost 1/3 mile to the city below.
Or you can take a walk on EdgeWalk, a hands-free walk on a five-foot wide ledge that allows you to encircle the tower while attached to an overhead safety rail by a harness 116 stories above the ground. But, obviously, it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially in Toronto in the winter.
If You Go:
301 Front St West
Tel: (416) 868-6937
Open: daily 10am – 9pm
Admission: Adult: $40 / 65+: $27 / Youth (6-13): $27 / Child (3-5): $14 / additional options are available here
A Popular Place in the City Visited by Few Out-of-Towners: Toronto Islands
The Toronto Islands – also called the Island, or Toronto Island Park – are wonderful car-free islands that are easily accessible by ferry from downtown Toronto. A welcome respite on hot summer days, some of the islands are reachable by bridges, others only by boat.
During the warmer months, on Centre Island, the popular main Island, you’ll find Centreville, a small amusement park with a late- 19th-century carousel among its other rides. Many people just like to take the ferry over for a picnic or stroll about for a few hours.
However, the islands, however, don’t lose their luster at the end of summer. In Toronto in the winter take the ferry out to them and you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, and some fabulous winter views of the city. While you’ll need to bring your own equipment, you may want to check with your hotel’s concierge regarding rentals.
Be aware, however, that only the Ward’s Island Ferry operates in the winter, bringing you to the islands’ eastern part.
From there you can walk, bike, snowshoe cross-country ski about the island. Be aware however, that the only public restrooms open on the Toronto Islands in the winter months are found near the Ward’s Island ferry dock.
If You Go:
Note: The Wards Island Ferry departs from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in Toronto. See the ferry schedule here: Wards Island Ferry.
Visit Toronto’s Art Heaven: the Art Gallery of Ontario
With a glass and titanium façade designed by native son Frank Gehry, and Henry Moore’s large Two Forms sculpture near the entrance on the exterior, the Art Gallery of Ontario, known locally as the AGO, charms from the exterior as well as the interior.
Inside you’ll discover major works by a number of well-known Canadian artists as well as by such greats as Rembrandt, Renoir, de Kooning, Van Dyck, Picasso, Degas, Matisse, and numerous others.
The Gallery’s permanent collection includes rare Québecois religious statuary, First Nations and Inuit carvings, and a Henry Moore sculpture pavilion.
If You Go:
Art Gallery of Toronto
317 Dundas St West
Toronto, ON M5T 1G4
Tel: (416) 979-6648
Open: Tuesday, Thursday: 10:30am – 5:00pm / Wednesday, Friday: 10:30am – 9pm / Saturday, Sunday 10:30am – 5:30pm / closed Monday
Admission (Can$): Adult $25 / 25 and under free (visitors 18 – 25 years must show valid ID to claim their pass) / complimentary admission to all Indigenous Peoples
Casa Loma, a Top Place to See in Toronto All Year-Round
A European-style castle with castellations, turrets, chimneys, and balconies, Casa Loma is something you don’t expect to find in Toronto. It is as spectacular inside as it is on the outside with many of its rooms copies of those in English, Scottish, Spanish and Austrian castles.
It was completed in 1914 for Sir Henry Pellatt, a soldier and financier who spent a fortune on its construction, only to lose it to the tax collector a decade later.
You’ll wander about the 98-room mansion in awe, viewing its giant pipe organ, the majestic Great Hall, the beautiful bedrooms, the mahogany-and-marble stable reached by an underground passage and its five-acre gardens. Unfortunately, during the winter in Toronto there is little to see on the castle’s grounds.
If You Go:
1 Austin Terrace
Toronto, ON M5R 1X8
Tel: (416) 923-1171
Open: Wednesday – Sunday: 9:30am – 5pm
Admission (Can$): Adults: $30 / 65+: $25 / 14-17 years: $25 / 4-13 years: $20
Don’t Miss the Distillery District
Today the area’s Victorian industrial warehouses have been transformed into a pedestrian area of more than 40 boutiques, as well as numerous galleries, restaurants, artist’s studios and cafes, even a quite good local performing theater.
In addition, old cobblestone lanes link the 45 buildings in the area and year-round the district is the center for live music, exhibitions and foodie events. The district is a perfect place to visit in Toronto during the winter months, especially when the city’s annual Christmas Market takes over the District’s streets.
Whatever season you visit Toronto, don’t miss it.
If You Go:
Open: Monday: 10:00am to 7:00pm / Tuesday – Thursday 10:am – 9:00pm / Friday – Saturday 10am – 10pm / Sunday 10:ooam – 9:00pm
Note: directory of shops, boutiques and restaurants
St. Lawrence Market
In winter, summer, spring, or fall in Toronto head to the St. Lawrence neighborhood in the city’s historic Old Town to visit St. Lawrence Market. Once the city’s City Hall, today it’s an incredible food market where you’ll find just about anything you want from its 200+ vendors. That’s one of the reasons National Geographic once tagged it as the top market in the world.
This market is quite large, and an enjoyable place to walk about, observing the energy of the place as well as the mix of nationalities. At Domenic’s Fish Market I watched a group of French Canadians having their just-purchased oysters shucked.
Twenty feet away was Di Liso’s Fine Meats, doing a brisk business beneath its signs advertising Poultry Lane, BBQ Street, Pork Place, and Beef Boulevard.
We had visited the market with our friends Bill and Judith, and Judith urged us to try a peameal sandwich. Toronto’s signature dish and an acquired taste, a peameal is simply a Kaiser roll stuffed with Canadian back bacon. It’s quite popular, and thousands are served at St. Lawrence every Saturday.
If You Go:
St. Lawrence Market
93-95 Front St East
Toronto, ON M5E 1C3
Tel: (416) 392-7219
Open: Tuesday – Saturday 9am–5pm/ Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays.
Shopper’s Heaven: the Eaton Centre
Boasting more than 300 stores and restaurants, the 3-million-square-foot Eaton Centre shopping mall is downtown Toronto’s largest shopping complex. It contains branches of most large North American retailers as well as local merchants.
As might be expected, it’s a busy and popular place almost always filled with shoppers who find it a haven on cold winter days in Toronto. If you want something, you’ll likely find it here.
If You Go:
220 Yonge St.
Toronto, ON M5B 2H1
Tel: (416) 598-8560
Open: daily 10:00am – 8:00pm / Sunday 11:00am – 7:00pm
Toronto’s Famous Shrine: the Hockey Hall of Fame
You don’t need to be a hockey fan to enjoy a visit to the shrine of Canada’s favorite sport, the Hockey Hall of Fame. Another popular Toronto attraction, the exhibit contains the largest collection of hockey memorabilia in the world including the original 1893 Stanley Cup, one of the most well-known trophies in any sport.
You’ll also find, as expected, displays of goalie masks, skate collections, players’ jerseys and even a replica of the Montréal Canadiens’ locker room.
There are video games as well, that let you test your skill against Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and some of the other greats of the sport. Also notable is the building itself, a former 1885 Bank of Montréal branch covered with ornamental details.
Hockey Hall of Fame
30 Yonge St.
Toronto, ON, M5E 1XB
Tel: (416) 360–7765
Open: daily 10:00am to 4:00pm
Admission (Can$): 14-64yrs $25 / 65+ $20 / 4-13 yrs $15 / 3yrs and under free
Note: closed Induction Day, Christmas and New Year days
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
The McMichael is a major public art gallery owned by the Government of Ontario, Canada. It is uniquely devoted to collecting The Art of Canada.
Located on 100 acres of forested land along the Humber River, about a half-hour drive from Toronto, the museum itself is unlike any other you’ve likely visited.
The modern building resembles a large log cabin inside and out and contains large windows that visually bring the surrounding forest into the exhibits. It makes for a spectacular Toronto art experience, especially in the winter when the forest is covered with snow.
During our visit last week, we enjoyed the special exhibit Univited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment. It’s a spectacular and innovative exhibit, 200 pieces of art by a generation of extraordinary women painters, photographers, weavers, bead workers, and sculptors from a century ago who have opened new frontiers for women artists in Canada.
The museum’s permanent collection consists of 6,500+ artworks by artists who have contributed to the development of the art of Canada.
If you can, go see it any time of year. It’s well worth a half-day trip from downtown.
If You Go:
Open: Tuesday – Sunday and holiday Mondays / 10 am – 5 pm
Admission: Adults: $18 / 65+: $15 / 5 – 25 years: $5 / children 5 years and under: free
Note: parking $7
Winter Sports During a Toronto Holiday
Canada is well known for its winter sports and Toronto is no exception. In fact, you’ll find an abundance of winter sports all over the city from downtown to the city limits and beyond.
Many Canadians love to ice skate and you’ll find them skating everywhere. One very popular rink is the Nathan Phillips Square Skating Rink in downtown Toronto by City Hall. Another is the Colonel Sam Smith Skating Trail, about 20 minutes west of downtown, a trail through the woods for skaters. There is no skate rental facility at the latter, however.
Although you might not expect it in a major city, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are also popular in Toronto. You’ll find trails in Hyde Park, Tommy Thompson Park, Don Valley Ravine Trails, the Beltline trail and on the Toronto Islands (see above).
Read further to see the scope of winter sports facilities about the city.
If You Go:
Nathan Phillips Square Skating Rink
100 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON M5H 2N1
Tel: (647) 380-1921
Open: every day November 27th – March 20th 10am-9:45pm (New Years Eve the rink closes at 6pm). Last rental is at 5:15pm. All skates must be returned by 9:45pm.
Skate Rentals: City Skate Rentals