The Essential Itinerary: Yellowknife

A few days of adventure in the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories

  • Dec 21, 2020
  • 1,463 words
  • 6 minutes
Photo: J.F. Bergeron/NWT Tourism
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Yellowknife is the capital, only city, and largest community in the Northwest Territories. It is on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, about 400 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, on the west side of Yellowknife Bay near the outlet of the Yellowknife River.

Day 1

Walk down history lane | 9 a.m.

Strung along the shore of Great Slave Lake — North America’s deepest lake and one of the largest in the world — Yellowknife’s Old Town is a hodgepodge of timber cabins, some of which date back to the time of early white settlers, and newer houses, many with a decidedly eclectic architectural style. A stroll through this part of town is a fun way to pick up nuggets of local character, doled out, for instance, in the form of hardware used as façade decorations. You might even spot an old bombardier or two, the roofed predecessor to the modern snowmobile. On the way to the Old Town from the city’s centre and beyond, you’ll pass murals depicting northern lights, schools of fish and bears among fireweed.

Stock up on essential gear | 12 p.m.

If you forgot to pack warm mitts, thermal underwear, wool socks or a balaclava, Weaver & Devore Trading Ltd. has all that and more. Located in a Quonset hut in the Old Town, the general store has been around for some 80 years, making it a city institution. There’s even a small department selling groceries.

Dig into local fish | 6:30 p.m.

Bullock’s Bistro is as well-known for its fish ’n’ chips as it is for its ambiance. The interior walls and ceiling are plastered with stickers and testimonials scribbled in marker by an international cast of past patrons. It’ll take too long to read through their one-line food reviews to find suggestions for what to order, so grab a menu and ask a waiter what’s the catch of the day (options often include whitefish, pickerel, trout and pike, all from Great Slave Lake). The restaurant opens at noon (except on Sundays, when it opens at 4 p.m.), but you’d be wise to arrive up to an hour before that, as people line-up to get a table at Yellowknife’s most famous eatery.

Day 2

Perk up with a caffeine boost | 9 a.m.

Since the sun doesn’t bother getting up until around 8:30 in the winter months, there’s no reason to rush in the morning. When you do get ready to face the weekday, though, Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ makes it easier thanks to its mean yet smooth espresso. Fatten up your coffee fix with a chicken and waffle sandwich, a peanut butter cookie or a vegetarian pizza bagel. 

Tap into a heritage moment | 1 p.m.

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre aims to protect, archive and promote the cultural patrimony of the north through museum exhibits, research, storytelling and education. In addition to the centre’s permanent exhibit, which includes dioramas depicting regional fauna, the temporary shows get visitors up close with Dene arts and crafts, Ice Age paleontology and personal explorations of residential-school experiences.

Wait for the northern lights | 10 p.m.

Once you’ve been to Bullock’s, head out with Raven Tours to chase Yellowknife’s other famous attraction: the aurora borealis. Located at 62° north latitude, the city is within in the northern hemisphere’s auroral zone, the range of latitudes (between 60 and 70 degrees) most likely to see northern lights. There are no guarantees, of course, but at Raven Tours’ cabin in the woods, about an hour’s drive away from light pollution, you can tap into Dene storytelling, music and dance and have a cup of tea with bannock and jam while you wait for the aurora to show. Bill Tait, who started aurora tours as a phenomenon in the late 1980s, still works with the company from time to time. If he happens to be on your tour, ask him how he made aurora viewing a thing and about some of the myths around aurora culture.

The East Arm of Great Slave Lake. (Photo: Ronne Heming/NWT Tourism)
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Day 3

Catch a fish — or 15 | 10 a.m.

Ice fishing is a classic winter pastime in Yellowknife. The most common approach is to hunker down in a small shelter on a frozen lake and fish using a short rod, much like you would in northern B.C., Quebec or Manitoba. But sport fishing has limitations—you may not catch a single fish during a half-day outing. For better success rates, head out net fishing with Great Slave Lake Tours. Shawn Buckley, the owner, is of Dene and Métis heritage and has been net fishing for almost 30 years. With Buckley, you’re pretty much guaranteed not only to catch fish, such as northern pike and lake trout, but you’ll also have a chance to taste it while also getting a view on Indigenous commercial fishing as it is still practiced today.

Sit down for a shore lunch | 1 p.m.

Open for breakfast and lunch, the Dancing Moose Café draws you in with the smell of home-baking. Sure enough, the waterfront spot makes what might be the best cinnamon buns in town; large and gooey, they could make for a meal in themselves. But if you’re hungry like a wolf, you can’t go wrong with the Arctic Char eggs benny (peameal bacon and spinach versions also available).

Cap the day with a brewski | 5 p.m.

You could say that the Woodyard Brewhouse & Eatery is the outward-facing side of the Northwest Territories Brewing Company. Located in the Old Town, this bustling little gastropub pour pints and flights of the beers brewed next door, including Bug Repellent IPA and Kicksled Cream Ale. For those who are not into beer, the full-service bar can shake up a classic cocktail, such as an Old Fashioned or a Gin Fizz, or a beer cocktail that lets you support the on-site production with only a hint of beer flavour. Food pairings include a variety of rice and noodle bowls, different takes on mac ‘n’ cheese, salads, burgers and chicken wings.

An aerial view of Old Town.
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Where to stay

With a polar bear in the lobby, the Explorer Hotel offers something of a bear hug on arrival. The warm welcome continues thanks to the friendly staff, who will help set you up with local tours or suggest places to eat that suit your tastes or cravings. If you prefer to eat in, grab a table by the fire pit at Trader’s Grill, which serves steak dinners as well as northern dishes, including Arctic char and bison ribeye. On Sundays, the restaurant fills with locals and visitors alike for the heaping brunch buffet. For the most northern of rooms, book the Aurora Suite, a one-bedroom plus kitchenette that’s kitted out with a fireplace, a telescope for viewing the aurora borealis, fur cushions and throws and a private terrace (which is perhaps more suited for taking in the midnight sun, should you return in summer).

What to pack

A parka — for yourself and for your phone. If you don’t want to shell our mega money for a coat you may not need at more southerly latitudes, Helly Hansen’s Longyear II down parka, with faux fur trim, stands up to Yellowknife’s winters at almost half the price of a certain Canadian brand. The inside of the coat even has a graph with wind chill factors, so you know how many layers to don before leaving your hotel (the locals might also tell you that -20 calls for two layers under your parka; wear three layers when it’s -30 and four when the mercury drops to -40). And since your phone needs to stay warm, too, to function in the cold, Helly Hansen makes the External Life Pocket, a “parka” for phones.

A neck gaiter or balaclava. While most winter coats have a collar that comes up over your chin, it’s not high enough to cover your face, and when the daytime high is a chilly -20 or colder, you’d be wise to protect every bit of skin from exposure. Buff makes neckwear and balaclavas in soft merino wool ranging from light-, mid- and heavy-weight buffs to fleece neck warmers, in a variety of colours and styles.

A small daypack. Lightweight and easy to stash in your suitcase (unless you use it as your carry-on bag), Arc’teryx’s 15-litre Index backpack is just large enough to bring along an extra fleece shirt, an insulated bottle with a hot drink, a spare pair of warm liner gloves and a few hand warmers. When not in use, the pack folds into its front pocket for minimal stow-away size.


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