The two prominent stars of Manitoba are Winnipeg, with its big-city sophistication, and Churchill, with its profusion of natural wonders. But it's what lies between that truly defines this often misunderstood prairie province. Open spaces seem to stretch forever – gently rolling fields of grain punctuated by silos reach all the way north to the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra beyond.
The magnitude of this land can only be fully appreciated while standing on the edge of a vivid yellow canola field, watching a lightning storm on the horizon, or on the edge of Hudson Bay's rugged coastline counting polar bears while belugas play in the water. Drive its empty roads, stop in its evocative little towns, find the subtle dramas in the land and expect surprises, whether it's a moose looming in front of you on the road or a local blues legend performing in a characterful Winnipeg joint.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Manitoba.
For a glimpse of the vanishing past, make the detour to tiny Inglis. A stunning row of five 1920s grain elevators – the sentinels of the Manitoba prairie – are being restored to their original splendor. Inside the creaky interior of the Paterson elevator, exhibits capture the thin lives where success or failure rested upon the whims of commodity brokers. Inglis lies 20km north of the Yellowhead Hwy (Hwy 16) near the Saskatchewan border.
Housed in a stunning contemporary building designed by American architect Antoine Predock, this terrific museum explores human rights issues as they relate to Canada, its culture and the rest of the world through striking interactive displays, videos, art and more. Exhibits don't shy away from sensitive subjects, such as the internment of Canadian-Japanese people during WWII and Indigenous children forced into residential schools as recently as the 1990s, and the Holocaust and Holodomor (Ukrainian famine of 1932–33) are treated sensitively.
This one-room museum showcases an exceptional collection of Inuit carvings made of whalebone, soapstone and caribou antler, as well as millennia-old harpoon heads and bone carvings of shamans and bears left over from the pre-Inuit Thule and Dorset cultures of the Igloolik region. The place really sucks you in and you can spend hours here.
This ship-shaped gallery displays contemporary Manitoban and Canadian artists, and has the world's largest collection of Inuit carvings (at the time of research there were plans to house these in a custom-built Inuit Art Centre, scheduled to open in 2020), alongside a permanent collection of European Renaissance art. Temporary exhibits have included artworks by Eugène Boudin, Canadian artist and potter Robert W Archambeau, and printmaker and painter David Blackwood. There's also a rooftop sculpture garden and a terrific gift shop.
It took 40 years to build and its cannons were never used, but the star-shaped, stone Fort Prince of Wales has been standing prominently on rocky Eskimo Point across the Churchill River since the 1770s. As English-French tensions mounted in the 1720s, the HBC selected the site for strategic purposes, but surrendered during the first French attack in 1782, making it an Anglo Maginot Line forerunner. The fort can only be visited on wildlife-watching boat tours (entry fee included).
Nature trips through the subarctic, history trips into 1920s Winnipeg, cultural journeys covering the past 12,000 years – if it happened in Manitoba, it's here. Amid the superb displays are a planetarium and an engaging science gallery. One exhibit shows what Churchill was like as a tropical jungle, a mere 450 million years ago, while a replica of the Nonsuch, the 17th-century ship that opened up the Canadian west to trade, is another highlight.
In a beautiful riverside setting, modern amenities for performances and interpretive exhibits in this park outline the area's history as the meeting place of First Nations people for centuries. The rivers routinely overflow during spring runoff and flooded pathways are not uncommon, which is as exciting as it is dangerous. Follow the waterways with a canoe from Splash Dash. Kids can go nuts in the heritage-themed playground, the Variety Heritage Adventure Park.
White snow leopards, white Bengal tigers and polar bears are some of the 2000-plus animals seen close-up at Assiniboine Park Zoo, which specializes in species indigenous to harsher climates. The International Polar Bear Conservation Centre has exhibits on its namesake critters and often cares for orphaned cubs. It's part of the zoo's huge, excellent Journey to Churchill, which combines exhibits and live animals, such as muskox and wolves. From bogs to Arctic beaches, the province's ecology is covered.
A mid-19th-century convent is Winnipeg's oldest building and the largest oak-log construction on the continent. The museum inside focuses on the establishment of St Boniface, the birth of the Métis nation, and the 3000km journey of the first Grey Nuns, who arrived here by canoe from Montréal. Artifacts include pioneer furniture and tools, First Nations beadwork and weaponry, Louis Riel's execution hood and the coffin used to transport his body afterward.