Originally published in 2020. Updated for 2021 with the exciting news that city rinks no longer require advance reservations and Harbourfront has a new rink.
Toronto is a winter city. We are blanketed in snow for a third of the year, at least. It gets freezing cold here. But we are in denial.
Just look at how many of our citizens cocoon inside for months. I can’t totally blame them. We’re missing a lot of the things that can make the season pleasurable. You know, like public bonfires, backyard saunas and all-you-can-eat fondue. And the umpteenth time you’ve had to squeeze your wet winter coat into your chair at a restaurant because our establishments don’t think we need coat hooks or cloak rooms, well, you’d be forgiven for fleeing for beaches far away or even ski towns where they actually know how to do winter.
Where to go skating in Toronto
But don’t despair. One thing this city does have that makes winter wonderful is skating. Lacing up and hitting the ice at one of the many outdoor skating rinks in Toronto is one of my favourite things to do here. There’s just something magical about skating. In the cold, dark winter months, it’s the best way I know to get outside your place (and your own head), for fresh air and exercise. So here’s my best advice on where to go skating in Toronto this winter and how to enjoy it when you get there!
Know Before You Go: What to Bring Skating
Your own skates. Seriously, if you can afford it and think you’ll do this more than once, ditch the rental line-up scene and purchase a pair, new or used. Because if you don’t have a good fit, you won’t have a good time. And not every rink offers rentals at all. There’s such freedom in looking outside on a snowy day, thinking “I’d like to skate right now,” and being able to grab and go. Think of it as the difference between a City Bike rental and your own bike. Oh, and it’s the only way to get out on a lake or other unofficial rink, or take an after-hours night skate.
Warm clothes. But not too warm. As with skiing or other winter sports you will heat up once moving. I’ve enjoyed skating in Toronto in -20 weather, but if it’s below zero you’ll want hat and gloves and maybe some handwarmers. Do not wear thick socks though! Your feet will get sweaty and then wet. (I like to wear just tights and then put my socks in my pockets to keep warm for when I change back into my boots.)
A willingness to fall. You will fall down. As long as you don’t crash into a kid you’re fine. Brush the ice off of your butt and keep going.
Where to go skating in Toronto depends on the vibe you’re after. Romantic setting? Raising your heart rate? A safe place to practise on your Bambi legs? There are more than 50 outdoor rinks run by the city for free, plus some private rinks.
I recommend picking the one closest to wherever you live and making yourself a regular. But here are my favourites I feel are worth travelling for.
Best places to skate in Toronto
Skating at Nathan Phillips Square
The City Hall skating rink is the quintessential Toronto experience. You get views of our landmark Star Trek-approved towers, the Instagram-famous Toronto sign, and, through the holiday season, a giant Christmas tree and many pretty lights, all smack in the city centre accessible by public transit.
The rink itself is a large oval surface with its own Zamboni, so it’s generally in great condition. They have skate rentals, skate sharpening, washrooms, and hot chocolate nearby. Expect alot of beginner skaters on dates, tourists, and if you’re lucky, a few advanced figuring skaters practising their spins in the centre. It’s big enough to accommodate all and is especially lovely at night.
Skating at Colonel Samuel Smith Park
This figure 8-shaped skating trail is a West End favourite. Colonel Samuel Smith Park Skating Trail is not as big as its reputation might suggest, but skating amongst the trees near the lake makes you feel like you’ve left the city. It’s quite popular with families, so expect many little people to swerve around. (And lots of hot dads, just saying.) From downtown, best accessed with a car although the Queen 501 streetcar will get you there eventually.
Skating at Harboufront
New for 2021 – the return of skating at Harbourfront Centre! This waterfront rink is popular for families during the day, and its DJ parties at night. But it was closed last year because its infrastructure needs an upgrade. They are still working on that, so for 2021 they’ve created a new ice trail that winds around the space including the concert stage. It’s real ice and you’ll still get those Lake Ontario and CN Tower views. Rentals on site and food nearby, but no change rooms or lockers available.
Skating at The Bentway
My go-to skating spot for the past few years is under a highway. The Bentway Skate Trail is a fantastic use of an otherwise empty urban space near Fort York, with a 220-metre figure-8 style loop with straightaways that are long enough to get some speed going when it’s not too busy. They have a shorter operating season than the city rinks so get in there while you can!
The Bentway skating trail opens December 18 and no advance bookings are required. Skate rentals and skate sharpening on site and Thursdays from 5pm to 9pm skate rentals are free! Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks available, and they have washrooms. Check their site for updates on hours, and registering for skating lessons that start in January. See you there!
Skating on Grenadier Pond in High Park
OK so skating is not technically allowed here. But skating in High Park is a community tradition, with locals volunteering to clear the snow and check the ice for safety. If you happen to be here when conditions are right and someone has made a rink, you’ll want to have those skates because it’s a real Toronto winter experience.
Skating on Toronto Island
Another natural space you can skate at your own risk if conditions are right. Taking the ferry over to the Toronto Island in the off season always feels like a real adventure, even more so in deep winter. On a crisp freezing February day, you can find Island residents and intrepid mainlanders skating there, with gorgeous city views and zero crowds. I don’t recommend this for beginner skaters or solo activity. I do recommend talking to a local before stepping out onto any ice to get intel on conditions and taking proper safety precautions.
More rinks! On the East Side, I hear good things about the small but picturesque Evergreen Brickworks Skating Rink and the Paul Quarrington rink at Sherbourne Commons. As for the North, it’s not Toronto but I’ve taken the Go bus to Chinguacousy Park Skate Recreational Trail in Brampton and felt it was worth the day trip. (Check these locations for opening dates.)
Words of warning: Beware the synthetic rink! Any rinks which are not operated by the city, or on a body of water, may not be actual ice. (Like if one pops up on a roof, you should probably check.) Owners will tout it’s just like ice but it’s definitely not.
Also don’t make the same mistake I did: always check the City’s skating rinks page before heading out to confirm the rink you want is actually open. They can close due to weather or equipment issues.
Happy skating and if you have your own favourites I missed let me know in the comments. (It’s fun to read things that aren’t Russian porn spam!)