As a vibrant winter city, Edmonton offers a variety of romantic winter activities for couples. Edmonton is the capital of the province of Alberta in Canada. It is situated on the North Saskatchewan River and is North America’s most northern city, as well as the fifth largest city in Canada. The beautiful setting, great access to nature and arts and culture (Edmonton was named the cultural capital of Canada in 2007), abundance of festivals, numerous boutique hotels, and its diverse and expanding culinary scene make it the perfect place for a romantic winter getaway. These activities include:
Visit the Ice Castles
The Ice Castles are ice structures composed of frozen icicles crafted by hand to create a magical winter wonderland with caverns, tunnels, a maze, elevated viewing points, an ice fountain, ice benches, ice slides, thrones, a food court, a fire show, and more. If you are a fan of the Walt Disney movie “Frozen” then this place is a must to visit! They even play the soundtrack to Frozen over the loudspeakers so you can imagine being Elsa if you wish. During the day the icicles are a glacial blue and at night they glow multiple colours due to the thousands of LED lights embedded inside the ice, creating a very different atmosphere. What’s more, at night every half hour there are fireworks above the ice castles.
The ice castles can be found at William Hawrelak Park usually from January to the end of February, depending on the weather. For obvious reasons, it is a popular place for marriage proposals, wedding pictures, and maternity photos. At 0.8 hectares (2 acres), the ice castles attraction in Edmonton is the largest in North America!
Attend a Festival
Edmonton hosts numerous festivals year-round, hence why it’s been nicknamed “Canada’s Festival City.” Throughout the winter months there are many unique winter festivals to attend, such as the Deep Freeze Festival: A Byzantine Winter Festival, Ice on Whyte, Flying Canoë Volant, and the Silver Skate Festival, to name a few.
We had the pleasure of attending the Silver Skate Festival, a free annual 10 day festival rooted in Dutch winter traditions. It is Edmonton’s oldest winter festival, which brings together sport, arts and culture, and recreation. The Silver Skate Festival at William Hawrelak Park showcases the elements of fire and ice with fire sculptures, the folk trail lantern walk with lanterns and lantern displays, snow sculptures, winter triathlon, skating races, snowshoe races, curling, snow luge, broom ball, hockey, and more. Furthermore, there are horse-drawn sleigh rides, live music, and theatrical performances.
Highlights of the festival include ice skating on the city’s largest pond, trying out kick sleds, joining in the folk trail lantern walk and seeing the lantern displays, and seeing the fire sculpture burn (inspired by a folk story, six teams of fire artists build a sculpture during the day that they then burn as a grand finale on six evenings during the festival, with each sculpture being different interpretations of the story). I would recommend
attending the Silver Skate Festival both during daylight hours and at night as there are different activities and experiences offered.
Check Out the Edmonton River Valley
The Edmonton river valley is located along the North Saskatchewan River and is the largest urban park in Canada, as well as the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America. At 7,400 hectares (18,000 acres) in size and 25 km (16 mile) long river valley park system, it is 22 times the size of Central Park in New York! The “ribbon of green” includes 22 major parks in addition to public facilities, sites, 11 lakes, 14 ravines, and more than 150 km (96 miles) of maintained multi-use pathways that connect to other trails through Edmonton and beyond (they are part of both the Waskahegan and Trans Canada trail systems, therefore forming an integrated trail system).
The picturesque river valley provides a unique urban escape that allows people to connect to nature or simply get outside and play. There are various park styles ranging from fully serviced to ones with few amenities. Many animals can be found in the river valley, including porcupines, deer, coyotes, skunks, muskrats, rabbits, and beavers. Popular activities in winter include ice skating, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing, winter picnicking, winter hiking/walks, and down-hill skiing (there are two downhill ski slopes located within the city in the river valley).
Visit the Art Gallery of Alberta
The Art Gallery of Alberta, recently renovated in 2010, is a 7,900 m² (85,000 sq ft) space which houses over 6,000 works of art and showcases original contemporary exhibitions in addition to historical exhibitions from Canada and around the world, including paintings, sculptures, installation works, and photographs. The three-story building is open year round and in addition to the temporary collections there is the Singhmar Centre for Art Education, a 150 seat theatre, gallery shop, the Terrace Café, art rental and sales gallery, and Zinc Restaurant. Tours are available every Saturday and Sunday. Moreover, a variety of public education classes and programming are offered including art classes and workshops, talks, films, yoga, and events such as Vibe, where the third Friday of every month you can listen to live music, enjoy tapas and alcoholic drinks of wine, beer, or cocktails, take in the gallery exhibitions, and take part in art activities.
Besides the interior art, the art gallery building itself is extraordinary! It was designed by Randall Stout, a Los-Angeles architect, and inspired by Edmonton’s unique northern environment and urban grid. The exterior is composed of zinc, glass, and steel, with juxtaposed angular windows set against a winding steel ribbon 190 metres in length (623 feet), which represents the North Saskatchewan River and the northern lights (aurora borealis).
We visited during the “Season to Season, Coast to Coast: A Celebration of the Canadian Landscape” which was an exhibition to kick off Canada’s 150th year. We enjoyed the paintings of Canada in different seasons by Canadian artists very much. There are many different exhibitions scheduled throughout the year, some others also for the celebration of Canada 150. It is important to note that art is objective though and based on personal tastes, so check the schedule to find one that may be of more interest to you personally, although some may pleasantly surprise you.
One of our favourite parts of the Art Gallery of Alberta was the public space where art is showcased to be sold because there was a wide variety of interesting art and it supports local artists. This art gallery is a wonderful place to connect with your partner through art.
Tip: As of March 28, 2017 admission is free for children and youth under 18 and anyone registered as a student at an Alberta post-secondary institution.
Explore Elk Island National Park
About 35 km (20 miles) east of Edmonton, less than an hour’s drive, is a park with a mixture of native fescue grassland, aspen parkland, boreal forest, lakes, and wetlands, where you can escape the city year-round and reconnect with yourselves and each other. This place is Elk Island National Park. It is the largest fully enclosed national park in Canada at 194 km² (75 sq mi), although 8th smallest in area. In winter you can go ice skating, winter kite boarding, picnicking, geocaching, bird watching, or explore by taking a winter walk or hike, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing on the multi-use trails. Alternatively, you can take a scenic drive along the 20 km (12.4 mile) long Elk Island Parkway or in a specific area of the park. There is also ample opportunity for wildlife viewing and birding as wood bison, plains bison, elk, moose, white tail deer, mule deer, the Canadian lynx, coyotes, beavers, porcupines, 250 bird species (including the endangered trumpeter swan), small mammals, and more can be found in the park. Moreover, there are over 200 known archaeological remains of campsites and stone making sites where First Nations temporarily settled thousands of years prior.
What is extra special about Elk Island National Park is that conservation efforts in the park have helped bring the bison back from near extinction. The wood bison can be found free-roaming on the south side of the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) while the plains bison are free-roaming on the north side (the two species live in different fenced areas of Elk Island National Park to ensure that they don’t interbreed). If you’re very interested in the bison, take a bison handling tour or drive the bison loop where you may see some bison, but be sure to follow safety tips as outlined by Parks Canada.
If you would like to relax or rest there are five sets of red Adirondack chairs placed in quiet and scenic locations throughout the park to help people slow down and discover. In Elk Island National Park you can find the red chairs at the visitor centre, on the bison loop road, two different locations at the Astotin Lake day use area, and on the Shoreline Trail.
One place you should be sure to visit at Elk Island National Park is Astotin Lake. There you will find some trails, a boardwalk (although the boardwalk may not be visible in winter), and some pull off sites that are supposed to be prime spots to view birds. It is also recommended to see the sunrise or sunset at Astotin Lake. What’s more, it is a popular spot for picnicking. There are several picnic tables and firepits where you can have a winter cookout or just warm up next to the fire. Wood is provided in the wood boxes but you need to bring your own matches. Alternatively, there are picnic shelters, some of which offer wood stoves for cooking, as well as the historic Pavilion picnic shelter which is a larger rustic shelter with a group campfire, chimney, and windows. Other areas with picnic tables are Beaver Bay Picnic Area (along Shoreline Trail), Tawayik Lake Picnic Area (which also has picnic shelters), and Moss Lake Trail Head.
Elk Island National Park is a wonderful place to visit in winter and offers a different kind of experience than during other seasons. The serene winter landscapes are simply beautiful!
Experience the Northern Lights or Go Stargazing
Since Edmonton is the most northern city in Canada and often has clear winter skies, it is said to be a great place to view the northern lights or aurora borealis, usually from September through mid-May in northern Alberta. When in Edmonton, the best place to view this natural phenomena is Beaver Hills Dark-Sky Preserve since dark-sky preserves reduce artificial light, thereby increasing the visibility of the night sky. The Beaver Hills Dark-Sky Preserve is 300 km² (116 sq mi) and encompasses Elk Island National Park, Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, and the Cooking Lake/Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. A dark-sky preserve is also an excellent place to go stargazing. Unfortunately it was cloudy when we visited Edmonton so we were not able to see the northern lights nor the stars. I recommend signing up for Aurora Watch if you wish to go aurora hunting, so you will get notifications if there is a good probability of seeing the aurora borealis.
Stay at a Boutique Hotel
There are several boutique hotels in Edmonton (a hotel that is intimate in size and setting, usually between 10-100 rooms, is unique, and offers upscale accommodations). We stayed at the Varscona Hotel on Whyte, a charming boutique hotel located on Whyte Avenue in the heart of the historic district of Old Strathcona. It is one of the trendiest areas of Edmonton with numerous restored historical buildings, restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs, shops, theatres, and music and comedy venues nearby.
The Varscona Hotel on Whyte has a traditional, old-world style with rooms decorated and furnished in tones of rich and bright greens as well as earthy browns, but with the comfort of modern amenities. There is free wifi, a free buffet breakfast, complimentary nightly wine tastings with a variety of cheese and crackers, complimentary valet parking, a 24 hour fitness centre, a 24 hour business centre, in-room dining, complimentary bike rentals, and event space for meetings and functions.
This boutique hotel is in a very convenient location as it is centrally located in the city with the river valley in close proximity, it has friendly and helpful staff, good size rooms with comfy beds, and offers a relaxing and comfortable stay.
Discover Edmonton’s Culinary Scene
Edmonton has a burgeoning food scene. It is where Boston Pizza first started and since then the city’s restaurant scene has expanded with many kinds of food establishments, diverse types of cuisine, and increased selection of food and drink offerings.
While in Edmonton we decided to check out &27 (Ampersand 27), located in Old Strathcona next to Varscona Hotel on Whyte. The restaurant says that they are “crafted to be different” by serving beautiful looking dishes with both familiar and faraway flavours. In other words, familiar dishes that have been re-imagined, with many of their ingredients sourced from local producers. They also strive to be locally immersed with many of the paintings and prints on their walls from local artists. The restaurant had a contemporary style with a lot of wood and metals, as well as a large fish tank in the back. The ambience seemed warm and inviting with the fireplace lit nearby and many small lights hanging down in the centre area.
We started our intimate dinner with &27’s House Charcuterie Board, which consisted of a variety of meats (including rabbit rillette with mustard seed and foie gras torchon paired with a red pepper jelly), cheeses, pickled items (carrots in beet juice, curry cauliflower, spicy green beans, white beans, pickles), and slices of bread. This provided many diverse flavours and textures, including peppery, tart, salty, spicy, sharp, smokey, creamy, and crunchy. The charcuterie board was paired with a white wine which was light in colour, had a pear flavor with some apple notes, was really fragrant but not overpowering, easy to drink, had a touch of sweetness, and no tartness.
Next, we shared a Smoked Trout Salad which had cured trout, horseradish cream, watercress, cucumbers, pickled daikon (radish), pickled onion, fennel, a little bit of trout roe all around, and finished off with freshly shaved horseradish. The salad was a combination of flavours; the trout was smokey, the herbs provided freshness, plus there was some crunch, peppery notes, tartness, and sweetness. The salad was paired nicely with a rosé, which was light and easy to drink, had no dryness, and you could taste a bit of tannins.
For our entrée we shared a 30-day Dry-Aged Ribeye Steak with beech mushrooms and roasted rosemary, and on top was a little bit of peppercorn red wine demi-glace. The steak was served with Duck Fat Potato Salad and Brussel Sprouts. The meat was tender, juicy, and flavourful, while the sauce provided some richness and sweetness. The mushrooms were meaty, bold, rich, and provided some heartiness and a texture contrast. The potato salad was a warm potato salad. It was rich with some citrus flavour and the chives provided freshness. The brussel sprouts were roasted in garlic and caramelized so there was a little bit of sweetness, likewise they were tender but crunchy, and fresh but rich. Accompanying this course was a red wine which was bold and bright, had black peppery notes, was easy drinking and not overpowering, and went well with the dish.
There are many romantic winter activities for couples in Edmonton, including visiting the ice castles, attending a festival such as the Silver Skate Festival, checking out Edmonton’s river valley, visiting the Art Gallery of Alberta, exploring Elk Island National Park, experiencing the northern lights or going stargazing, staying at a boutique hotel, discovering Edmonton’s culinary scene, and more. If you would like to take a romantic winter getaway you should definitely consider Edmonton, especially if you live in Alberta. With so many diverse activities to partake in, it is the perfect place to reconnect with your partner in a multitude of ways, for a weekend or even an extended stay!
Map of Edmonton
What is your favourite place for a romantic winter getaway? Why?