If you’ve been a longtime reader of UnrestingSea, you’ve probably read Toronto by Suggestion, when my friend Lara and I stayed in a hostel and rode bikes around the city in the summer. I’ve been eager to return since.
I recently road tripped back, husband in tow, for a Christmas-themed trip to Toronto. This trip was quite different from the last, but just as fun. Toronto knows how to celebrate the holidays. There are plenty of Christmas things to do in Toronto that are fun, romantic, and affordable. Here are some ideas that you could do for a weekend trip to Toronto – Christmas themed!
The largest hotel in Canada, Chelsea Hotel towers as a high-rise building brimming with traditional rooms suitable for any traveler type. The true charm of Chelsea Hotel lies outside its locked rooms, with its chic and sprawling hotel lobby, smartly flanked by by a higher-end restaurant (T|BAR), sports pub (Monarchs Pub), coffee & wine bar, and the on-the-go cafeteria of my university dreams (Market Garden).
Chelsea Hotel’s central location makes it simple to navigate around town on foot or hire a quick taxi ride. Taking up nearly a city block, it’s easy to walk across the lobby (and avoid the cold!) to exit on a different street.
This was a Christmas-themed trip, and Chelsea Hotel would be the envy of any professional holiday decorator. Beautifully adorned for the holidays with poinsettias, trees, lights, and garland, holiday music played on the speakers and Santa sat in the corner waving at all the children. Only a grinch wouldn’t be impressed by Chelsea Hotel’s holiday spirit.
Ideal for couples or families, here’s where you can book a stay at Chelsea Hotel.
Toronto is a multicultural city. We stuffed our bellies with ethnic and traditional foods throughout the weekend and wished we had the capacity to fill up even more.
Located right in Chelsea Hotel’s lobby, we didn’t venture far for fuel after the road trip to Toronto. Modern, neutral, and inviting, the atmosphere is comfortable and the food unexpected. T|BAR’s head chef hails from India and cooks up authentic, homemade Indian cuisine. During lunch hours, you can taste all of India from their Curry Buffet. I ordered the Chicken Biryani Pardanasheen and it was delicious. The Tandoori-Spiced Grilled Cheese also looked tempting…
The Sultan’s Tent & Cafe Moroc
Definitely my favorite dining experience of the weekend.
The original Sultan’s Tent was closed in 2002 to make room for a high-rise. Angela Panigas reincarnated the restaurant by purchasing the name and relocating on Front Street. The Sultan’s Tent is not just a place to eat, it’s a place for a cultural experience. The owners are Canadian, but you wouldn’t know it based on the amount of authenticity and care they poured into the capturing genuine Moroccan details of their restaurant. All the silks and fabrics were purchased in the marketplaces of Morocco and Egypt. Persian beaded lamps and Moroccan palace lamps hang above. Curtains between tables bring privacy to the dining experience for a cozy, rich atmosphere. Angela’s pride and enthusiasm for The Sultan’s Tent is infectious.
Once nestled in, the three-course meal began. The culinary team tries to import as many ingredients as possible from Morocco. It’s this attention to the detail that changes the flavor of the dishes to taste authentic. To start, Harira Soup, a blend of tomato broth, moroccan spices, lentils, and chickpeas for a hearty introduction to Moroccan food. Next, the main attraction, a braised lamb shank that falls off the bones, complemented with caramelized dates, cashews, green zucchini, tomatoes saffron rice. If that’s not enough, closing with traditional baklava, perfectly flakey and honeyed, concludes the dining experience with a sweet finish.
Then, the lights dim and the rhythmic beat of Arabic music echoes. A beautiful belly dancer, as decorated as the restaurant, spins in, contorting and contracting her body in mesmerizing ways. Her moves were captivating, rhythmic, enchanting. The sparkles in my eyes to join her moves must’ve been too obvious, because after a few songs, she invited me to dance too. Made my princess Jasmine dreams come true as I wrapped a jingling scarf around my waist and unabashedly shook my hips in front of everyone else enjoying lunch. I don’t even care — belly dancing was pure bliss. And this is why The Sultan’s Tent is an experience, not simply a restaurant.
It’s a place that’s been used for movie sets and a place that the ambassador from Morocco has visited and praised. The Sultan’s Tent is exotic. It’s inspires. It’s a place that makes you forget that you’re still in Toronto the moment you step inside. With it’s stunning colors and elegant fabrics, it makes me nostalgic for distant lands that I’ve never seen.
Pro Tip: Find Angela and ask for a tour of BerBer. The intricacies and history of this underground establishment below the main restaurant will amaze you.
Known as one of Toronto’s premiere restaurants located in the upscale Yorkville district, Sassafraz pairs elegance with deliciousness. It’s a restaurant where you’ll want to don your fancy pants. Expect a posh atmosphere of white tablecloths and impeccable service, sophisticated diners, and live piano player. We kicked off the dinner with some escargot (Eric’s first!). Eric ordered the bison steak, me, the regular steak. And they were darn good steaks. We sat in those chairs for way too long, enjoying the food, the company, and the atmosphere.
Because nothing says “We’re in Canada” like a Chinese carry out container of gravy-soaked fried smothered with cheese curds and meat. #dietgoals
Arrive with an empty belly and a full wallet if you plan to eat at the Toronto Christmas Market. The food and drink are pricey, but the options are endless. There are steaming turkey legs, a grilled cheese stall, and plenty of people strolling around eating poutine and Oktoberfest sausage. The ‘potato tornado’ and weinerschnitzel stall inspire a laugh. You’ll go weak at the knees every time you pass a vendor that sells drinking chocolate, Japanese sake, or Mill Street Brewery beer.
Nerd alert! If you know nothing of the gloriousness of JK Rowling’s books (cough, Eric, cough), you probably wouldn’t get it. The subtle hints of the wizarding world make The Lockhart more like an easter egg hunt for the average Potterhead. Cozy, dark, and narrow, this bar felt less Harry Potter “themed” and more like it belonged in Hogsmeade; I think that’s the magic of The Lockhart — that it seemed to be built for wizards, not muggles. We enjoyed a “Befuddlement” brew… a massive drink to be shared with friends served on fire and in a cauldron. The best part is that we were joined by a lad from the UK. With his awesome accent and atmosphere of the bar, I was convinced I stepped out of the muggle world.
The Toronto Christmas Market
It’s our first married Christmas together. If there were any way to make it special, it was going on a weekend adventure to Toronto, kicking off the weekend with a romantic stroll through the Toronto Christmas Market. It was lovely and I wrote a story about it to inspire you to check it out too.
Unwrapping Christmas Holiday Tour
Jason, our guide and founder of Tour Guys, engaged the tour group with fascinating dialogue, old histories, and personal anecdotes. His genuine demeanor captured our attention and led us to appreciate the holidays even more. Some say ignorance is bliss, others, that knowledge is power. Slightly embarrassed about how little I know of the history of one of our most loved and cherished holidays, the Unwrapping Christmas tour taught us more about the history of Christmas than I’ve known for all my years celebrating it. Why is Christmas in December? What is the only original Christian aspect of the holiday? What does KFC have to do with Christmas in Japan? Where does the nativity scene originate? How did the shopping and commercialism of Christmas come to be? How about carolers? I sure know how to celebrate, but the deep why is missing. And why is my favorite question. I can answer all of those questions now, by the way. And even more because of this tour.
Even with the ambiance of the city all dressed up, nothing put us more in the Christmas spirit than this tour.
Ice Skating at Nathan Phillips Square
Glide in loops with the backdrop of the cityscape and canopy of lights at Nathan Phillips Square. An ice skating rink from late November until mid-March, this attraction is completely free unless you need a skate rental. Don’t worry if you work up an appetite from too many double-axels (or falling on your butt); there are plenty of food trucks parked close by.
Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show
When George Allan gave his land to the Toronto Horticulture Society, it was under the stipulation that it would always be free to the public. This still holds true today, and the beautiful Allan Gardens Conservatory is home to a lovely, permanent botanical collection in the middle of the city. While the plants are outside hibernating from the cold, the Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show is the ideal escape to breathe some nature into what often feels like a barren winter. During this seasonal show which runs for about a month from December – January, visitors can see over 40 varieties of Poinsettias (who even know there were that many?!) and enjoy holiday-themed topiaries and artful decorations. If you time it right, visit during the grand opening when the conservatory is transformed into a Christmas wonderland with Victorian carolers, hot cider, carriage rides and Santa.
Holiday Shopping at the Eaton Centre
If you have time, indulge in a little Christmas shopping for your loved ones back home. If you’re from the US, take advantage of the strength of the US dollar. One of the top attractions in Toronto, the Eaton Centre is uniquely decorated for the holidays that no other places in the world can imitate.
Hockey Hall of Fame
To appease the Y chromosome in your relationship, take him to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Though I’m not a sports fan, hockey is the only sport I actually enjoy watching. To my surprise, I genuinely enjoyed the hall of fame. There’s a good vibe and childish energy that inspired me to be playful. Perhaps it was the throes of young children squealing to play air hockey and practice their shooting and goalie skills. Maybe it was the delight of seeing red splashed around the exhibit that convinced me that yes, the Detroit Red Wings are the greatest team in the league. Either way, it made me appreciate this winter sport.
Don’t forget to take your photo with the famed Stanley Cup. When you do, be sure to whisper come home to Hockeytown.
CN Tower/Ripley’s Aquarium
Not Christmas-y in the slightest, but a stroll through the city led us in this direction, which led us to visit the conveniently adjacent CN Tower and Aquarium. I’ve developed this ridiculous fear of height over the past couple years, so naturally I really wanted to go up in the CN Tower to face my fears. Unfortunately for us (but perhaps fortunately for me), the top of the tower was enshrouded in fog. We couldn’t see a thing, yet when we were above, I was still dizzy with the excitement of the height. It was almost like not being able to see a thing tripped me out even more.
I’m normally not one for aquariums (I’d rather support nature in the wild), but Eric’s excitement to check out the aquarium was too much to decline. There’s a special magic in the underwater world, and if we couldn’t get to it the natural way, at least we had this as an option.
It was a lovely Christmas-themed weekend in Toronto! There’s so much more we wish we could have done, but alas, there are only so many hours in a weekend. We’ll be back, Toronto. You’re only 4 hours away for these weekend warriors!
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Three Christmas cheers to Tourism Toronto for inviting me and Eric to explore the city for their holiday festivities! Even with the sparkling lights and mulled wine, all opinions are genuinely and authentically mine. xo.