Stroll down the hill from downtown Yellowknife and you'll find yourself in Old Town, the zany, historic, outdoorsy epicentre of the city. Here, hugging the shores of Great Slave Lake, are a wild array of log-cabins, waterfront mansions, galleries filled with First Nations art, fresh-fish restaurants, kayak-rental shops, and bobbing houseboats. The North's best events (including sled-dog races and floatplane gatherings) and most colourful people (all hail the SnowKing!) can be found here. Discover these 15 reasons to explore Old Town, Canada's wildest neighbourhood.
The North is mostly a roadless wild, accessible only by floatplane. All summer, the skies above Yellowknife Bay buzz with float-equipped Twin Otters and Beavers bound for fishing lodges, mining camps and research stations. You can charter one to take you on a spin over Great Slave’s splendid East Arm. Or, to really put the wind beneath your wings, attend the biennial Float Plane Fly-In, a multiday summer celebration that draws pilots and plane fanatics from across North America.
Nestled beside Joliffe Island, practically within swimming distance of downtown, is the North’s most eclectic expanse of real estate. Yellowknife’s houseboats bob on the cool waves of Great Slave Lake, sheltering a funky population of artists and back-to-the-landers. You can even bunk down for the evening at a houseboat B&B.
Held each March on frozen Great Slave Lake, the SnowKing Winter Festival is the brainchild of Old Town’s reigning monarch. Each winter the SnowKing and his crew build an ornate ice palace, complete with a ice-bar, exhibition galleries, a performance stage and a very slippery slide. Then, for a full month, events ensue – everything from puppet shows to ice-hockey tournaments to the gala Royal Ball.
The structures of Old Town are an architect’s fever-dream. In N’dilo you’ll see the bright “matchbox” homes that earned the area its old name, Rainbow Valley. On Otto Drive are the “bird houses,” balancing high on the outcrops. And clinging to a Latham Island cliffside you’ll find the famous “eraser house,” designed in the style of the area’s gold-mine headframes.
So iconic that there’s a replica of it in Canada’s Museum of History in Ottawa, the Wildcat Café was Yellowknife’s original eatery. Order a bison burger and a brew and kick back on the deck as the floatplanes skim overhead.
As offbeat as its namesake neighbourhood, this early-August street fair fills the laneways of Old Town with performers, craft-vendors, food trucks and more. In the course of an hour you could go for a rickshaw ride, chug fresh-squeezed lemonade, buy Indigenous artwork and clap along to a bluegrass hoedown.
Back when Yellowknife was new, Old Town was a warren of jerry-rigged cabins, cobbled together from jackpine timber and providing barely enough room for a weary miner to lie down. Many of these historic shacks remain – some, even, are still inhabited. Pick up a walking guide from the visitor centre to learn the story of each of these colourful dwellings.
Honouring the flyboys who gave their lives in the effort to open up the Northland, this monument atop Old Town’s highest point, “the Rock,” is both a solemn site and a stunning vantage point. From here you’ll get 360-degree-views of Back Bay, the houseboats, the floatplane aerodrome and the downtown skyline.
Yellowknife’s best-loved lane was named by a couple of drunken prospectors who, despite relentless work, found themselves “ragged ass” poor. Reluctantly, the city adopted the name: It was better than the existing "Privy Road," so-called because of the numerous outhouses. Today Ragged Ass Road is still a dirt track, but its posh homes are far from dirt-poor.
This Old Town eatery is at once upscale (gourmet local game-meats; ultra-fresh catches of the day) and backwoods (patrons have scribbled graffiti on every square inch of the log walls and ceiling). It also holds the prize of having Canada’s best fish & chips. Go early and prepare to queue up: The lines can snake out the door.
Old Town is one with the water. The neighbourhood perches on a sliver of stone jutting several kilometers out into Great Slave Lake. Back Bay is to the west, Houseboat Bay is to the east, and the big basin of the lake sprawls southbound. From here you could paddle, motorboat, or sail for days – even weeks – without ever touching land.
The first microbrewery in the Northwest Territories perches at the entrance to Old Town, welcoming all comers with its Arctic-themed libations, including Honey Bucket Nut Brown, Ragged Pine Pale Ale, and Kick Sled Cream Ale. In winter its not unusual for skiers to glide in off the frozen lake, stacking their skis by the front door.
Canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can all be rented from Old Town outfitters. The area's islands, inlets, outcrops and marshy bays offer easy, safe, delightful paddle excursions. If you want to head farther afield, point your boat up the nearby Yellowknife River, or follow the east shore of Yellowknife Bay to the Indigenous village of Dettah.
Inuit soapstone carvings, moosehide mocassins, luxurious furs – they’re all for sale at the art shops of Old Town.
Yellowknife’s ultimate winter carnival happens at the end of March on icy Houseboat Bay. You can cheer dogsled and snowmobile races, compete in a footrace on the ice-road, watch ice-carving competitions involving teams from around the world, and snack on all manner of Northern treats.