The annual Toronto Christmas Market returns to the Distillery District this week, here's how to best enjoy the one of North America's best holiday markets.
The sixth annual event aims to recreate the magic of traditional European Christmas markets, which date back to the early 1400s. The outdoor market takes over the Distillery District neighborhood with traditional carolers, brass bands and dance groups, food vendors, and a variety of activities.
As well as the setting, the event features family-friendly entertainment, food and merchandise from around the world, outdoor heated beer and mulled wine gardens and a 52-foot white spruce Christmas tree decorated with more than 18,000 lights.
This year, the event runs for a record 28 days, including four weekends, from November 20 to December 20. Organizers decided to extend the market by a full week after seeing how popular it was last year. In many ways 2014 was a peak year for the market, I met tourists from across North America, Europe and Asia that travelled to Toronto to experience the market. The market will officially kick off on Friday November 20th at 6 p.m. with a tree lighting ceremony.
According to organizers, last year over 500,000 attended the festival, creating capacity issues in the district’s corridors. Thousands shuffled shoulder to shoulder, and cars lined up for blocks waiting to get in or out of the neighborhood. As a repeat customer, it was a nightmare attending the festival during the weekend.
Organizers are hoping that an admission fee will help manage the numbers better. This year if you’re attending the festival on Saturday or Sunday, you’ll need to pay $5 per person. The money goes to a variety of charities, and your receipt will double as a coupon for $5 off in January at any of the Distillery District’s vendors.
Best times to go
According to a number of vendors I’ve spoken to, Tuesday and Wednesdays are the best days to experience the distillery if you don’t like crowds. Even in the evenings, the market tends to have a smaller audience. If you can’t avoid weekends, go during the day or after 8 p.m.
Twitter and Instagram are also great ways of telling how busy the market is as there’s a steady flood of photos being posted under the hashtag #TCM15.
Getting there — Parking
Its best to avoid driving to the Distillery, try to use public transit, cabs or Uber. But if you must drive and prefer minimal stress, park a block or two from the district. Two large parking lots are available at the bottom of Parliament street at Queens Quay. There’s also a number of parking lots on King Street by Parliament (one at the southwest corner and northeast corners).
Getting there – Transit
Transit tends to be the smoothest way to get to the market. From the King subway station take the 504 East street car and jump at Parliament street. From there, you’re a comfortable 7 minute walk to the heart of the district. From the Bloor-Danforth line there are several bus routes that run south and will drop you off within an easy walk.
Eating and drinking
Dozens of food vendors will be set up outside throughout the district serving everything from fudge to roast turkey legs and bowls of hot soup. While I like the food offerings, I generally find that my batting average is better when I visit one of the established restaurants or cafes in and around the market. Here’s what’s hot.
If you’re out with a group or family and want a pre-event stress free meal, Tabule is your best bet. The Middle Eastern restaurant is on Queen East in Riverside, about five minutes by car from the distillery. They accommodate small to large groups and the food is great, plenty of meat and vegetarian options. The St. Lawrence market and Market street are about 12 minutes by foot and offer a variety of casual to sit=down options from bacon sandwiches at Carousel, to Spanish tapas at Barsa, and modern Indian at Bindia.
The east side has some of the best coffee in town right now. West to east from King and Church to River: Sam James Coffee, Fahrenheit Coffee, Balzac’s, Neo Espresso bar, Rooster and Odin, to name a few. Impact Kitchen at King and River (about 10 minutes from the distillery) has great coffee and is your best bet for a healthy meal. The menu is a mix of salad bowls, grilled meats, and cold pressed juices.
For sweets, check out the Japanese-style Swiss rolls at Neo Espresso bar, and Modern Asian-French concoctions at Roselle.
We’ve had a warmer than usual fall this year but remember that we’re heading into December. As its close to the lake, the Distillery Distirict can get breezy at night, with unexpected, chilling winds. There are a number of places you can take a break and warm up. In all cases, expect long wait-times if you don’t have reservations. El Catrin has a large heated patio. You can usually grab a table at Mill Street and the beer hall if you’re early enough. Sweet Escape Patisserie and Soma are also great cafes to warm up with mugs of hot chocolate and all sorts of confections.
Cameras are a must. The Distillery District is gorgeous and well lit for prime selfies and group shots.
The Toronto Christmas Market runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 20. There is no admission fee from Tuesdays to Fridays and $5 admission on Saturdays and Sundays. The market is open from noon to 9 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.