If you were to pinpoint the middle of North America, it would fall at Winnipeg. This is just one of a list of factoids that many of the 821,000 locals from Manitoba’s capital reel off about their city. Among others? Ian Fleming’s hero, James Bond, was based on a real spy from Winnipeg; it was the world’s first city to adopt the 911 emergency phone number; and it lends its namesake to the beloved Winnie the Pooh (aka Winnipeg Bear).
These days there’s no need for such superlatives to attract attention. Why? This delightful city – nicknamed the ‘Peg – is a fabulous destination in its own right. And, it seems, visitors are finally awake to its charms: cutting-edge museums and architectural marvels, top-notch eateries, fun cultural events… all set within the enticing context of the city’s booming history.
To get your bearings, start at The Forks National Historic Site, located near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (win-nipi is Cree for ‘muddy waters’). For over 6000 years, this was a trading junction for Indigenous peoples and in the 19th century it was the fur trading centre for two competing companies, Hudson Bay Company (London, England) and North West Company (Montréal). Attesting to the city’s incredible wealth at the turn of the century, are the converted stables (housing The Forks Market) that formerly served the adjacent building, the impressive Union Station.
In winter, when the rivers are frozen, rent a pair of skates and join the hardy locals as they skate along the 6km or so long Red River Mutual Trail. Then sit over a craft brew from The Common in The Forks, and choose from any number of fabulous food stalls that feature Manitoban cuisine.
History through architecture
Designed by American architect Antoine Predock, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is more than a building, it is an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. Allow at least half a day to wander its floors and ponder over the recorded footage. Exhibits are arranged by themes, including Indigenous perspectives, Canadian journeys and the Holocaust. The physical journey reflects the psychological one of imprisonment and freedom: you enter dark galleries at times, then exit into natural light. After meandering along the zig-zagging alabaster walkways, take the lift to the Tower of Hope, where you may find yourself pondering life over views across the city.
Don’t leave yet: plan a meal at the museum’s restaurant, ERA Bistro. This sleek, minimalist space has a wonderful ambience and delicious fare that features locally sourced, traditional and sustainable ingredients.
Founded in 1818, this neighbourhood is now home to one of Manitoba’s largest francophone communities and is the heart of the region’s French culture. Be sure to visit the amazing cathedral, St. Boniface Basilica and see the grave of Louis Riel, the Métis leader who was responsible for Manitoba’s creation as a province. Then stroll along Provencher Boulevard and munch on a chocolate croissant from one of the many cafés.
The Exchange District
The city centre’s Exchange District will knock your design (and history) geek socks off. It is named after the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, Canada’s centre of the grain industry in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s Winnipeg was the fastest growing city in North America (before the Panama Canal was constructed in 1914 and Winnipeg was no longer the transport and distribution gateway). Incredibly, during Winnipeg’s heydays there were more millionaires per capita than New York City.
The building boom saw an explosion of construction: wander around to spot some of North America’s first skyscrapers that were designed in the Chicago School style of architecture; then check out the amazing Brutalist architectural gems of the 1960s such as the Canadian Grain Commission building and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The website of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation lists some excellent tours.
These days, the restored Exchange District is known for its great shopping, with fashion designers, hip jewellers, vintage records and unusual finds. Select a groovy toque (Canada-speak for beanie or woollen hat) at retro-themed Haberdashery before adding a touch of tasteful bling from jeweller Hillary Druxman. Don’t miss her individual pieces made for various not-for-profits and their fundraising efforts. Next, Tiny Feast is one of the most attractive stationery stores around. To relive your childhood games from the fifties onwards – and to check out Winnipeg’s own card game – browse Toad Hall Toys.
The ‘Peg’s other ‘don’t miss’ spots
As far as live animal displays, it’s hard to get better than the Assiniboine Park Zoo, where exhibits cover the province’s ecology from bogs to Arctic beaches – and the focus is on rehabilitation of species, including polar bears, Arctic foxes and wolves. You even get to feel like you are in the water with bears and seals thanks to an underwater viewing tunnel.
Then, eyeball some exhibits of another kind at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, home to the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art.
But if anything will grab your attention, it’s the statue of the Greek God Hermes (nicknamed the Golden Boy) that stands atop the Manitoba Legislative Building. Sate your inner nerd on a fascinating tour of the building, the Hermetic Code Tour, with Heartland International Travel & Tours. This eccentric trail reveals the occult clues – numerological codes, inscriptions and Freemasonic symbols – hidden in the building’s architecture. (And – shhh – yes, all gets revealed.)
But Winnipeg is a sum of its parts and indeed, gorgeous communities line the snaking rivers and surround the city centre. The pretty streets are framed by glorious arches of massive elm trees (Winnipeg is said to have the largest number of publicly owned elm trees in the world). Wellington Crescent is the ‘Peg’s millionaires mile, with large mansions that front the river. Be sure to pass through Wolseley, affectionately known as the ‘granola belt’, and enjoy a bite at artsy Osborne Village, whose great eateries Baked Expectations and Segovia make it a magnet for foodies. And grab your camera – the ever-so-slightly grittier West End has some of the best street murals around, a testament to the many characters and ethnic communities who live there.
Festivals and a knack for theatrics
Winnipeg loves a good party. Some of the many festivals held throughout the year include Folklorama, North America’s largest multicultural festival held in August that celebrates around 40 ethnic cultures. Summer brings Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, where performers can present whatever they want. The result is a jaw-dropping, elaborate array of acts. Secure a street side pew in the Exchange District, or buy tickets for theatre venue performances.
Winter’s Festival du Voyageur sees locals relive their fur-trade history in Fort Gibraltar, through food, dances and costumed re-enactments. Built in 1809 as headquarters of the North West Company, the fort was the source of many skirmishes between the competing traders. It was destroyed in 1816, but the current replica was built in 1978. On March 26, 1821 the two rival companies merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Hungry for more?
The ‘Peg is the place for excellent eating opportunities, thanks to its extensive community of top-notch chefs and artisan beverage specialists; check out the best places to eat in Winnipeg.