It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Really) At Toronto's Holiday Attractions

The festive season. The holiday season. The winter holidays. Whatever language you use, the period of time between late November and early January is a peak season for joy. Whether you celebrate a particular tradition or you just get sentimental when you see people ice skating to classical music in Nathan Phillips Square doesn't matter. This is a time of year when we can all stop being cynical. As Linus Van Pelt of Charlie Brown taught us years ago, we don't need to be led by the commercial side of the holidays.

An evergreen is eagerly anticipated in Nathan Phillips Square every year. Once it is hoisted, the festivities unofficially begin. As we have well seen, it is not just December, but November that becomes drenched in holiday spirit, hoping to spark the holiday warm-and-fuzzies. Other people want the Starbucks red cups and Holt Renfrew Christmas windows to start at a later time, say, closer to the actual holidays that they are marking.

Whenever you are ready for it, the attractions that are designed to get your nostalgia pumping are ready and waiting. Whether you go to the Distillery's beloved Christmas Market in all its cobblestone glory or find the ugliest Christmas sweater at the Seasons Christmas Show, the festive season in Toronto is something special. 


Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art
Photo courtesy of Gardiner Museum

Somehow, delicate art has been maintained through hundreds of years in the Gardiner Museum. Collected by George and Helen Gardiner throughout their travels, this museum is a unique collection that showcases ancient American artifacts, Asian and European pottery and porcelain. During the holiday season, the 12 Trees of Christmas is a special exhibit that showcases one-of-a-kind Christmas trees throughout the galleries. Every year there are new designers that outdo themselves to re-imagine Christmas trees, both aesthetically and conceptually. This year the theme is "Let There Be Light," focusing on the symbol of light that many cultures share. Spoiler: expect to see a disco ball Christmas tree. After the exhibit ends, the trees are delivered to various charities, spreading the holiday spirit throughout the GTA.

Black Creek Pioneer Village is available year-round to remind us that there was a time when Smartphones didn't rule the world. Christmas by lamplight is set for December 9, 16 and 23 from 6pm-9:30pm. The glow of lamplight will set a festive tone to see the village while enjoying music, 19th century treats (including gingerbread) and special activities. The 35 restored buildings from the 1860s are dressed up in their festive glory, and carollers come by in traditional attire to get you feeling warm and holiday fuzzy. Lamps, lanterns, fireplaces and candles cast a beautiful glow over the village while you enjoy those chestnuts roasted over an open fire.

DJ Skate Night
Photo courtesy of Brian Medina

What better way to celebrate winter than in the open air with hundreds of your closest (Facebook) friends? Toronto's top DJs spin tunes for free Saturday nights at Harbourfront's Natrel Rink (from December 16-February 17 in 2017). Set against the beautiful backdrop of Lake Ontario, it offers the romance of winter with a heated indoor locker room for those times when you can't feel your face. There is always a special holiday party edition in December with festive music and hot chocolate. The rink is frequently open during the week for skating lessons if you need to brush up on your skills. Get ready to be seriously cool.


Toronto is not exactly the first place you go when you get the craving for a castle. However, in the middle of an upscale neighbourhood right near downtown Toronto, there is a majestic castle which was built in 1911 by a Canadian industrialist. Casa Loma has been open to the public for years and offers tours of the castle's 98 rooms, 1,800-bottle wine cellar and 800-foot underground passage leading to the home's stables. During the festive season, there is the chance to listen to Christmas carollers, indulge in gingerbread, ice cookies and tell Santa if you really have been good this year. There is also a 25-foot tree that greets visitors in the Great Hall, making for fantastic holiday card (or let's be honest, Instagram) photos.

When you first find your way in between Spadina and Bathurst and then in between College and Dundas in Toronto, you may feel that you haven't found anything special at first. However, as you start your walking journey throughout Kensington Market, you quickly realize you have entered the realm of something unique. Kensington has quite a history, but today it stands as a multicultural community of noncomformists. Many Victorian homes retain their original architecture but have been transformed into shops that range from excellent cheesemongers to local designers. During the holidays, it becomes the ideal place for one-of-a-kind gifts. In addition, there is a Christmas Food Tour where you can enjoy an array of treats, from artisanal cheeses to mulled wine.

The National Ballet of Canada has performed for over 50 years and over 10 million people in the heart of Toronto. The company performs works from both contemporary and classical masters and employs some of Canada's top-notch artists, dancers and musicians. It shares the Four Seasons Centre with the performing arts with the Canadian Opera Company, a venue that is aesthetically and acoustically all class. And every holiday season it breaks out the Nutcracker, a beloved holiday tale that they perform flawlessly with 187 costumes in each performance. It is a spectacle that will make you believe in holiday magic (or at least the Sugar Plum fairy).

No matter what Charlie Brown seems to tell us every holiday season, we can't seem to get it out of our collective skulls that Christmas is, at least a little bit, commercial. We like the shiny wrapping paper. We rejoice over ugly Christmas sweaters. We get reindeer cookie cutters to make the perfect holiday pancakes for our less than perfect holiday families.The Seasons Christmas show runs for three days every November (17-19 in 2017) and it celebrates the part of you that still refuses to believe that there isn't magic behind finding the ideal present. Cue Michael Buble's Christmas album, wrap a scarf around your neck and get prepared to "fa la la" all the way to the cash register.

This 100-year-old tradition (the "original" Santa Claus Parade) still has parents bundling up their kids and loading up mugs of hot chocolate. Most Torontonians have memories of waiting anxiously for Santa Claus to come to town at this non-for-profit parade. In 1913, things were a little different: they even recruited live reindeer to pull the sleigh. The historical charm has been preserved, as some of the floats from nursery rhyme characters date back from the early 1900s while others are more modern, such as the Harry Potter animated float or the one dedicated to Hockey Night in Canada. Over 2,000 costumed volunteers help to spread the holiday joy, while marching bands play carols and classic tunes. It is a big deal to get chosen to participate in the parade. By the time Santa Comes around with his signature "ho ho ho" the crowd has no chance but to be enchanted.

When it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and you are Canadian, you strap on a pair of ice skates and hope for the best. The top place to do this during the holiday season is undeniably Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Located right in front of City Hall and around the corner from the Eaton's Centre and popular restaurants, it is a great activity to sandwich between other downtown pursuits. Bring your own skates for free exercise or rent skates for $10 or less. During the holidays, the rink sparkles with lights and displays a large holiday tree for Toronto's version of New York's Rockefeller Centre. The Holiday Fair begins on December 1 and includes an elegant Christmas market, a Holly Jolly Midway and an ice bar to shiver away in with your nearest and dearest.

Toronto Christmas Market
Photo courtesy of Toronto Christmas Market

If you can't remember the last time you felt the Christmas spirit, then put your bells on and get thee to the Toronto Christmas Market. From life sized gingerbread houses for children to a variety of beer and mulled wine gardens, you will feel warm and cozy in your heart even if the rest of your extremities are a tad chilly. It is ranked as one of the top ten Christmas markets in the world. Stand by roaring fire pits, marvel at the sparkling lights and tap your toes to nostalgic music sung by the Candy Cane Carollers. Now there will be no pressure on your family - you will have already had a very merry Christmas.


Meet Courtney Sunday

Courtney Sunday has lived in England, Switzerland, Canada and the US, finding her way into the professions of freelance writing and yoga teaching in between travel opportunities. She learned...  More About Courtney