Why visit Yellowknife?
Nestled deep in Canada's sub-arctic Northwest Territories, you'll find a place called Yellowknife. It's only 400km south of the Arctic Circle, so has an average temperature of 0 degrees, with most days dipping way below zero.
While First Nations people have inhabited the lands around Yellowknife for centuries, the town itself was only really established in the 1930s following the discovery of gold along Yellowknife Bay. A mini metropolis has sprung up around this still-active industry, where colourful houseboats bob in the bay and snowbooted-locals shuffle along snow-fringed streets.
So, you might be thinking, what would bring tourists to a tiny town in the North where your eyelashes freeze, half of the roads are frozen lakes, and you can't leave the house without long johns?
Phil and I have just returned from a week's stay with Days Inn to explore exactly what it is that Yellowknife has to offer. Read on for why I reckon it should make your winter hitlist.
1. The Northern Lights
Yellowknife is one of the best places to see the fabled Aurora Borealis, thanks to it's northern location and lack of view-obscuring mountains and hills. You have the chance of glimpsing them all through the year, but your best chances will be from January to March. There are a few good spots in town to catch them (try Bush Pilot's Monument), or you can go out on any one of a number of tours to seek them in the wilderness. I'm writing a whole post on Aurora hunting in Yellowknife, so keep an eye out for that if this is something you're interested in.
2. Small town charm
Although Yellowknife is home to almost half of the NWT's population, that's still only 20,000 people. As a result, the town has a real community feel - this is a place where everyone knows everyone. During a tour around the city with Kyle from Yellowknife Online, he pointed out the local estalishments and was able to regale us with origin stories and quirky facts about pretty much everybody.
Everywhere we went, people were happy and eager to talk to us; from the friendly couple in the brewery intrigued by our accents to the lovely British owners of Fat Fox cafe. When you come to Yellowknife, you're welcomed with open arms.
This charm seeps into every aspect of the city; from the streets lined with quaint, pastel houses and the fact that cafes and restaurants will simply shut when they run out of food. And don't even think about eating out on a Sunday.
3. Winter fun
In the winter months, Yellowknife is pretty much a winter wonderland. The many lakes freeze over to form ice roads, festivals hit town and there are so many activities to try, from dog sledding to snowmobiling.
We tried the former, along with a snowshoeing tour, during a day out at Aurora Village. In a wild setting scattered with traditional teepees, we roasted marshmallows, played hockey and took a few turns on the giant (and slightly terrifying) ice slide before our tours. Then it was time to climb into the sled and let the huskies pull us through the forest. Lying down and looking up at frost-tipped firs as snow came down, with nothing but the sound of the occasional howl to break the silence, has to be one of the most serene experiences ever.
Visiting in March? Lucky you, because this is when the annual Snow King Festival takes place. The bearded Snow King himself is a bit of a local legend - he began building snow castles with this brother as a child, and every year they've gotten bigger and better. He now constructs an incredible, giant snow castle along with a dedicated team to host a month-long festival of arts and community spirit. Make sure to check out the brunch, and definitely try the ice slide!
4. Cosy accommodation
Trust me; after a whole day outside in -30 degree cold, you're going to want somewhere cosy to hibernate afterward. Yellowknife offers a number of hotels as well as Air BnBs. We stayed with Days Inn, which essentially offers friendly, small town service with all of the facilities and conveniences of a big hotel. It's perfectly positioned between the picturesque Old Town and all of the amenities of downtown. As one of the main places to stay in the city, Days Inn is also super convenient - the airport shuttle will drop you off and pick you up from here, as will all of the tour operators.
Our room was cosy and comfortable - just what you would expect from an established chain like Days Inn. The restaurant, the Mantle, is open for breakfast lunch and dinner (there's nothing like a full English to prepare for a chilly day in the snow!) We always looked forward to fresh tea and coffee, and there's nothing like a giant, comfy hotel bed at the end of the day.
5. Eating and drinking
For such a small city, Yellowknife is teeming with cool places to eat and drink. Ask anyone where to go, and they'll say Bullocks Bistro - an inconspicuous looking shack in Old Town which specialises in no-nonsense service, graffiti-splattered walls and some of the best fish and chips I've ever had (and I'm British, so I know). You'll need to make a reservation as this place is a hit with tourists - and look out for a passport photo of your's truly on the wall!
Other highlights include Zehabesha - the freezing temperatures of Yellowknife might seem like an odd setting for Ethiopian food, but there's really nothing like this delicious and sunny food to warm you up. Try the combination platter with injera and eat with your hands.
We also loved Fat Fox for great coffee and the unlikely addition of amazing curry and scones. Head to the NWT Brewery for a lively atmosphere, craft beer and pub grub (the tacos are delicious and the nachos huge) and Elke's for a Greek/German fusion lunch. Yellowknife institution, the WildCat Cafe, is closed in the Winter so I can't personally recommend it, but i've heard it's a must-do. Also, it's a good idea to order fish when you can - most is locally caught in Great Slave Lake and is so, so delicious.
6. Culture and history
I knew a little about Yellowknife's history before we visited, but I became completely immersed in the local history and culture while during my time there. The town boomed in the 30's along with the discovery of the first gold mine, and while this hype dyed down during the war, the discovery of a new mine in 1946 meant that prospectors came flooding in once more. The gold industry is still profitable today, but the discovery of diamonds in the 90s is what's really fuelling the economy these days. It's also so interesting to learn about the First Nations people who have always lived off the land around these lakes.
If you're interested in learning more about Yellowknife's history, head to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (it has a great cafe, open to 2pm), the Visitor's Centre and the NWT Diamond Centre.
Tips and tricks
- Bring layers. And when you think you've packed enough, bring more. In -40, it's better to have too much. Thermals, woollen socks, a parka, long-johns, multiple pairs of gloves and a Buff are all essential. Most days I wore snowpants and snowboots, too.
- Pack hand and toewarmers. You can pick them up in bulk at outdoor stores, and you'll be so gratfeul you did as you stand around waiting for the aurora.
- Bring a tripod if you have one - you'll need it for those Instagram-worthy Aurora pictures.
- Girls, mascara is pretty much redundant. In cold months, Your eyelashes will freeze and when they thaw, you'll be left looking like a sad panda. Au naturel is best. Just make sure to use a heavy-duty moisturiser - the air is so cold and dry in Yellowknife that it can take it's toll on your skin.
- While Yellowknife is not as expensive as other Canadian cities (looking at you, Vancouver) it's not cheap. Aurora tours tend to be around $120 per person, and you should expect to pay $60+ for a meal out for two people.
- You won't really need a car - the whole city is surprisngly walkable. If you fancy heading out over the iceroad to Dettah, take a taxi.
- If you're feeling brave and fancy a walk, head over to the Back Bay Cemetery. A groomed trail will take you to a series of small ice caves.
It was my first visit to the NWT, but after experiencing all that Yellowknife has to offer, I'm hoping it's not my last.
Have you ever been to Yellowknife or the NWT? I'd love to hear what you thought in the comments!
Many thanks to Days Inn for hosting us during our stay (and providing a cosy place in which to defrost!)
*Full disclosure: we were offered complimentary and reduced rate accommodation at Days Inn in return for an honest review. All opinions my own.