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 alot 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, in any season. There’s just something magical about skating. And this year, with social gatherings on hold and inside activities shuttered, 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. I’m not saying you have to drag your own skates to other countries on holidays like some people I know. (Although if you know a better way to go skating at Paris’ Hôtel de Ville every night for free, by all means.) But 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.
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 for the lacing up outside now that change rooms are closed. 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 or elderly person you’re fine. Brush the ice off your butt and keep going.
Tip: Best skate sharpening I’ve found is at Goalie Heaven, steps from Dundas West Station on Bloor Street West. They’re doing curb-side service so give them a call to arrange.
Toronto’s best skating rinks
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.
Covid note: City rinks now require advance reservations, see bottom of article for how to reserve.
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 all public transit. The rink itself is a large oval surface with its own Zamboni, so it’s generally in great condition. Most years, it’s jam packed with tourists, families, and couples on dates. With new limits on capacity, you can have it almost to yourself and probably get to see some proper figuring skating from more advanced skaters taking advantage of the extra space.
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.) Best accessed with a car although the Queen streetcar will get you there eventually.
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 figure-8 style loop with straightaways that are long enough to get some speed going when it’s not busy. This year, that will be all the time, as their new policies limit skaters to 25 people at once. Six 1-hour timed slots are available per day but must be reserved in advance. Beware they fill up immediately, so get your Radiohead-first-day-concert-ticket sales hands ready. Unlike the city rinks, you can reserve for you plus one other person.
My friend Rebecca and I each managed to score slots on the opening weekend, and found it delightful, with friendly staff, clear signage and safety procedures, lots of space and fun Christmas music. We also did witness some walk-ups get in – so it’s worth trying your luck in case reservation holders don’t show up. Admittedly, I find it difficult to skate while wearing a mask (which is mandatory, even outside) but it was worth it. No skate rentals this year, nor inside change rooms or bar so come prepared with your mask, your own hot chocolate and of course your skates.
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.
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: The skating rink at Harbourfront, which usually hosts popular DJ nights all winter, is closed for repairs this season. And 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.
How make a Skating Reservation in Toronto
The City of Toronto has opened its skating rinks for outdoor exercise solo or with your household during the pandemic. (Hooray!). You just need to reserve one of the 45-minute spots in advance. (OK!) But beware it’s using an outdated website for reservations. (Boo.) So it’s a bit complicated. Let my pain be your gain as I explain how to navigate this…
You will need a “Family/Client Number.” You cannot get this number on-line, you need to call them between 8 and 5 Monday to Friday: 416-396-7378.
If you want to go skating in Toronto with a roommate or family member, register their name as your family at this point on your account so you can book more than 1 spot to skate. You can reserve up to one week in advance (reservations open on Thursday mornings) but skating is so weather dependant that I honestly don’t recommend planning that far ahead.
After logging in, select “Find Programs” from the top menu. Then, in the list of options on the left, DO NOT CHOOSE SKATING, choose “Reservations.” You will see every rink and time slot. If you only want to see the spots for a certain rink on a certain day, do this in this order: Using Advanced Search on the left, select only the day(s) you’re interested in skating. (Hit Search to apply.) Then, using the dropdown menu on the top right, choose a specific rink. Then, click on Leisure/Public Skate (Outdoor Park). Now, you can see the available slots on the day and place you want to reserve.
Remember that you can only reserve for yourself, or members of your family also registered in your account. It’s free so you don’t need to register any credit card or banking info. You will not get an email confirmation, so make a note of your timeslot.
Finally! Before heading to skate, check that your rink is actually open. Warm weather and other changing conditions can put a rink out of service for an hour or a day at the last minute. You can check for updates here.
Your reward for navigating all of this is you get to go skating in Toronto this winter with no crowds, safely, and for free. Please let me know in the comments if you went and how it was, or your favourite rink that I missed.