Maybe a family drive up to Toronto in the middle of a blustery winter isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. However, we decided to give it a shot and discovered Toronto, besides being Canada’s largest city, is perfect for a family trip with toddlers. Even when the sun sets or the snow blows, there’s plenty to do around town inside that’s tailor made for kids. Whether its skating out in one of the free public rinks on a sunny day, or discovering the marine animals at the Ripley’s Aquarium, kids will love exploring the Great White North.
Any city good enough for Drake and Justin Bieber has to be good, right? I’m a belieber in Toronto’s great attractions like the Hockey Hall of Fame, breweries where kids can eat while parents enjoy some local brew, and the great cuisine that ranges from local favorites like poutine to some great international food thanks to the diverse population of the town. If it isn’t snowing, which is surprisingly often as Toronto gets a fair amount of winter sun and isn’t as freezing as yo might expect, the harborfront, downtown, and all the shopping districts and markets are great to explore on foot.
On the way up from the US, Niagara Falls is an obvious pit stop. From NJ, this split our drive up and made it more manageable with two kids in the back seat. As a kid, my family visited the falls, staying on the American side. This time, we stayed at Embassy Suites on the Canada side which has incredible views of the falls essentially from right above and easy access down to the walkway overlooking them. In winter, the falls are lit up at night, fireworks are set off daily over them, and the winter Festival of Lights means that there are tons of festive lights up all over town and especially along the main walkway. We strolled along this promenade while stopping for views and photos of the falls at night while stopping over.
The Falls were larger and more impressive than I remembered from my earlier visit or the impression I had of them from TV and movies. The huge width as well as the height make them unique, as well as the other falls all around the area. It’s actually surprising that the area doesn’t get more tourism and play a bigger part in the psyche like the Grand Canyon.
For local food and drink, we stopped in at Taps Brew House, oddly one of the few more traditional restaurants in the area. Most of the Canadian side of the falls seems to feature “American” style food like burgers, pizza, and bbq catered I guess to the Canadian and international tourists who visit but don’t actually venture across the border. We enjoyed some tasty takes on poutine, the cheese curd and gravy covered fries famous throughout Canada, while I tried a few of their beers, brewed on premises.
Where to Stay
Once we arrived in Toronto the next day from Niagara, we checked in to the fantastically convenient Westin Harborfront Hotel. Obviously located right along the water, our view of the Lake was perfect as the boys could watch ferries travel back and forth as well as some planes landing at the city island airport while they settled down at night. It also turned out to be great for us because the lobby bar showed numerous hockey games from the NHL to the juniors tournament which meant there was always something to watch when we wanted to get in from the cold.
What to see and do
1 – Ice Skating at any public park. This was my favorite part of Toronto and the one thing I wish we had found more time for. Numerous public parks in Toronto have big, completely free public skating rinks. You can rent skates too, but we got the boys their first real pair of skates for Christmas, so brought them up and had a great afternoon skating around while enjoying the sights of downtown. There was another rink we discovered later at the waterfront which was massive and had awesome views of the water and islands, but didn’t get a chance to skate there before we left.
2 – The Hockey Hall of Fame. Actually one of our main reasons for visiting, the Hockey Hall of Fame is interesting to both adults who love the game as well as kids just starting to get into it. The exhibits caught their attention for the numerous sticks, pucks, goals, trophies, and other equipment, but they really loved the interactive parts. They got to dress up as goalies in the mock Canadiens dressing room. We all enjoyed a 3D movie of a game together. Then, we discovered their favorite parts. In one game, they were able to take shots at a full size digital goalie from the EA Sports NHL game with a real stick and pucks. In the other, their absolute favorite that they still talk about, they got to don goalie equipment and attempt to stop foam pucks shot at them from digital versions of some of the NHL’s biggest stars. This was even tailored to their size and age, so they got to feel good by actually stopping a few as they bounced off them. They’re still proud now of “the time I was a goalie’. This is the perfect place to explore to get out of the elements. We were surprised to actually spend the better part of a day there.
4 – Steam Whistle Brewing and Roundhouse Park. Right across the street from the tower and aquarium is Roundhouse Park, now a green space that covers the area that used to be a major roundhouse for cargo trains and still has several engines and train cars decorating the park. Inside is Steam Whistle Brewing, a large production brewery with a small tap room, but some good beer. The selection isn’t extensive; only three or four styles, but each one I tried was quite good. Their food was excellent as well and made a great snack after a long afternoon in the aquarium.
5 – Amsterdam Brew House. For a proper meal, we set out to Amsterdam Brew House, which is also right along the water. Chosen for the combination of well reviewed elevated pub food, an extensive beer menu, and the option to catch more hockey on the numerous TVs, it lived up to the reputation. I discovered a huge variety of beer styles brewed on site from a juicy double IPA to a malty kolsch. The food was excellent and perfect with kids. We split some pizzas and of course the poutine and were very satisfied. It was the perfect spot to warm up and dry of with some comfort food and coziness thanks to the gas fireplace adorning the wall nearby.
6 – Smoke’s Poutine. For the best poutine in Toronto, we were told we had to seek out Smoke’s. Actually part of a small local chain of poutineries, it’s a unique experience for sure. With something around three dozen or so various styles of poutine on the menu including several seasonal and rotating types, it took a while to figure out our order. We decided upon a mix of traditional style augmented with some Canadian Maple Syrup and a less traditional curry chicken one. They were quite different but both incredible. It made for the perfect lunch and the boys loved squeaking the cheese curd. For once we actually left full thanks to the generous servings and filling nature of the food.
7 – Tim Horton’s. A Canadian staple, it’s sort of like the Canadian Dunkin Donuts, but so much better. The coffee is actually palatable and the donuts are amazing. Timbits are a gift to humanity that have to be purchased whenever the opportunity arises. The best location, or at least perhaps the most unique in Toronto is the one right next to the Hockey Hall of Fame which features legendary memorabilia and displays from each Canadian NHL team. This was my first time trying something other than just the Timbits and I found the jalapeño sausage breakfast sandwich pretty great too. Great food doesn’t always have to be fancy.
8 – Roots. This Canadian clothing store is a must visit whenever venturing over the border. With a unique style that perfectly blends utility and warm with a cozy style featuring plenty of flannels and wools, you’re guaranteed to find something unique on each visit. After discovering the most amazingly comfortable hoodie on a trip to Whistler last year, I had to get the warm and cozy sweat pants they had on sale here and they have become a mainstay in my home collection ever since.
9 – Rosewood Asian Cuisine. Toronto is Canada’s largest and most diverse city. With a large population from all around the globe, there are numerous international districts and fantastic authentic restaurants, especially Indian, Thai, and Chinese. Rosewood exemplifies the awesome Chinese restaurants and also showcases just how different they are from the normal takeout joint. Specializing in Dim Sum, it’s also a great place to try out and experience a wide variety of dishes without having to invest too much in a single one. We went crazy and tried pork, shrimp, and soup dumplings, noodles, garlic beef, and egg rolls. This approach worked great with the boys since they could try a few flavors and if they didn’t like one thing, had plenty of other choices. They devoured a huge portion of the meal after working up their appetites exploring the city.
I’m not completely sure how Toronto got on our list for a place to visit on a quick trip over the holidays, but I’m sure glad it did. Beyond being a city just for hockey and being cold, we discovered a multifaceted and diverse city with tons to see, do, and eat. We were surprised with the number of great options to experience with our young children and made tons of great memories with them. From sparking their careers as professional hockey goalies to developing a taste for new cuisines, we had a fantastic time in Toronto. Adding in the great little stop to take in Niagara Falls, it was a perfect family trip and chance to get to spend quality time with each other having fun and doing new things together.