It has been an exceptionally cold winter in Ottawa with temperatures regularly hovering around -20 C. Our family needed a break and an early February weekend trip to Toronto fit the bill perfectly. The forecast for – 1 C seemed positively balmy compared to Ottawa.
Where to Stay
The Chelsea Hotel has become our go-to place in Toronto. Conveniently located in the heart of downtown, the hotel is a four-minute walk to the closest metro station. Our son, David, loves the corkscrew waterslide and the family games room. We first visited the Chelsea when David was six and Thomas the Train was more his speed. At the time, the kid centre which features two pet bunnies, family-friendly movies and crafts were perfect. Now, David takes great pleasure in visiting the teen zone where he beats his father at foosball, air hockey and pool. I can still beat him at old school video games like Pac-Man and Galaga but his day is coming there as well.
One other cool feature of the hotel is that it caters to flights crews from around the world. David, my wife, Sandy and I regularly sit in the lobby trying to guess which country each crew is from.
Where to Play
My test for any great city is if you can frequently visit that city and always find new things to do. Toronto always easily passes the test.
The Bentway has been on my bucket list since I first read about it a year ago. The project took an area underneath the Gardiner Expressway and transformed it into a year-round people place with a market, concerts and most importantly, for us in February, a skating trail. Arriving at the Bentway, I was not sure what to expect with the formidable Expressway acting as a backdrop.
Instead, I found a charming figure eight skating trail winding between the concrete pillars. David and I grabbed our rental skates and hit the trail. It was as if David channelled his inner Wayne Gretzky (or Connor McDavid for the younger generation) and quickly skated past me. I blamed it on the rental skates, but he has been improving with each visit to the rink. There were plenty of post-skating options including a hot chocolate for David and a Kahlua coffee for his Dad. The skating trail is open until mid-February.
A bonus of the Bentway is that it is located right next to Fort York. The historic landmark features Canada’s largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings and the 1813 battle site. It gave our family a chance to learn about an often forgotten chapter in Canada’s history.
The newly-opened Museum of Illusions offers low-tech family fun in the best possible way. The museum does not have one computer or VR headset in the entire space. Instead, mirrors, holograms and optical illusions are the order of the day. Many of the exhibits are incredibly Instagrammable, but I loved the fact that young kids, our son included, were entertained for hours without a screen in sight. There were also short, factual explanations with each illusion adding an element of science to the experience.
Where to Eat
Usually, pub food is not my go-to menu of choice. Located in the historic John Street Roundhouse steps from the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, and Ripley’s Aquarium, the Rec Room takes pub food to a whole other level. I had a delicious salmon while Sandy had a perfectly charred steak. Once done with eating, we checked out the 80+ arcade games that are also a part of the restaurant. After lunch and gaming, we even had time to pop up the CN Tower and enjoy the floor to ceiling panoramic views of Toronto.
For supper, we chose the Mexican restaurant, El Catrin in the Distillery District. Sandy, being from Mexico, is quite particular about her Mexican food and we were happy to see there was not one chimichanga on the menu. We shared a Pacific snapper marinated in chile ancho and three yummy fish tacos, but I made a rookie mistake of trying habanero sauce without first trying a small portion. My mouth is still on fire! Of course, we finished the meal with churros and dipping sauces. Sandy gave the food two hearty and full thumbs up.
One other unique aspect of the restaurant was the interior design. The main wall features an eye-popping mural that displays themes and images from Mexico. It was designed by three Mexican muralists and would not look out of place at any restaurant in Mexico City.
We wrapped up our time in the Distillery District and Toronto checking out the Toronto Light Festival. The event features various art installations with the creative use of light being the main theme. We particularly liked the towering polar bear and the huge 70’s disco ball illuminated by various laser lights.
Stephen Johnson is a travel writer based in Ottawa, Ontario. He loves to chronicle family travels with his son, David and wife, Sandy. Favourite destinations include Mexico City, Washington DC and the Dominican Republic. He does not like zip lining.