Winnipeg may not be as famous as those other Canadian cities, but it’s charming, diverse, authentic and surprisingly cool.

Story by Mary WeIch Photos by Grady McGill

In the United States, they’re called the “Flyover States.” In Canada, it’s all about “VTM” or Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Everything else, according to coastal elites, doesn’t matter.

But, as anyone who has ever had a jelly donut or an Oreo knows, the best part is in the middle. And, that is certainly true of Winnipeg, the crown jewel of the Canadian province of Manitoba, and 1,600 miles from Vancouver and 2,300 miles from Montreal. Winnipeg is a city with heart, grit, culture, charm, quirks, authenticity and surprising diversity. There are more than 100 languages spoken, resulting in great ethnic mom-and-pop restaurants.

Come to Winnipeg and you’ll discover what others already know — it’s cool! Winnie-the-Pooh (AKA Winnipeg Bear) is from Winnipeg as was William Stephenson, the martini-swilling, gadget-loving, romancing spy that Ian Fleming used as his model for James Bond. Homer Simpson is an honorary “Pegger” because creator Matt Groening named the character after his father, Homer, who hailed from — you guessed it! South Park even has an Earl of Winnipeg. And, the list goes on and on.

So, a visit to this city and Manitoba should be on every traveler’s list — especially if you’re cool. It’s a unique Canadian adventure and introduction to a city and province that are making a comeback with a vengeance with world-class museums, great shops, scenic beauty, and good old Canadian humorous self depreciation.

Yes, it’s cold!
Even some Peggers questioned our desire to visit the Great White North in March and, after one particularly blustery day, we did too! But, we’re glad we persevered and learned to, as someone said, “lean into the winter.” Embrace it. Make lemonade out of lemons — even if it’s frozen lemonade..

A visit to Winnipeg should start with an informative, comprehensive and entertaining Winnipeg Trolley Company tour that takes you to a chocolate shop in the French section and to an alley where the garages are painted with wildlife — and everything in between.

We were disappointed that we missed ice skating on the River Skating trail where people skate, walk, ride a fat tire bike or kicksled with an occasional stop at a warming station. The trail stretches 3.7 miles on both the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, and yes, a Zamboni grooms it daily. Skating ended the day before we arrived as the temperatures started inching up toward freezing.

Lots of snow also lends itself to creativity and dozens of ice sculptures dotted the city, some heroic in nature, others whimsically creative. Although we looked nightly, we were a little too far south to see the Northern Lights and should have added an extra day to take the train to Churchill, where the lights seem to perform nightly.

Of course, Canadians do love sports and while you’re there enjoy a game of hockey either with the NHL team, the Winnipeg Jets (be sure to order a Jumbo Jet Dog) or the AHL team, the Manitoba Moose.

Outdoor spa
A local favorite is Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature, a wellness spa that eliminates toxics, releases adrenaline and gets the endorphins flowing. All of that happens with a routine of sitting in a sauna or steam room, then plunging into an icy pool followed by two rounds of hot tubs (one lukewarm, the other hot) and then relaxing (heated stone beds). Repeat — twice. The pool and hot tubs are outside, so you are literally in a bathing suit walking from station to station in freezing weather. The ritual is based on a 2,000-year-old Nordic tradition and afterwards you are refreshed, exhilarated, and ready to have a drink and lunch at Restö, the spa’s restaurant, and one of the best meals of our trip.

Museums and a Zoo
The city has world-class museums, notably the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the world’s first museum dedicated to human rights. The 10 galleries offer insights into understanding human rights from a number of perspectives including women, indigenous people, Canadian, and the Holocaust. But it also showcases how to make a difference, speak out and understand the fragility of human rights. It truly was inspiring and we took the call to action to heart.

The locals have taken to heart acknowledging human rights as they frequently pay tribute to the area’s ancestral lands and various tribes including the Ojibway, Inninewak (Cree), Métis, Anishinnewak (Oji-Cree) Dene and Dakota peoples. Many signs on buildings note they were built on ancestral lands.

Another must-see is the Manitoba Museum, a human and natural history museum that tells the province’s story from rare 90-million-year-old fossils to a Cree settlement, to a teepee or Red River house and the Nonsuch Gallery, to viewing the Nonsuch, the ship that helped start the Hudson’s Bay Company. Honestly fascinating and well done.

Winnipeg has been the epicenter of trade and commerce dating back to the Indigenous nations. Get the scoop by visiting the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada with more than 90 historic aircraft and 70,000 artifacts, texts and photographs. Our favorite was the replica of the Avrocar, a joint U.S.-Canadian attempt at a top-secret flying saucer that never got off the ground — literally and figuratively.

The 80-acre Assiniboine Park Zoo is the perfect way to explore the animals of the world, but particularly of the north. Although there are a number of exhibits, it’s the Journey to Churchill exhibit that is the most exciting. It’s the most comprehensive northern species exhibit in the world, and you can view foxes, seals, snowy owls, musk, reindeer and arctic foxes in what is close to their natural habitat. Of course, the two polar bears who stepped out of their cave to say hi made our day.

Continuing our journey into nature, we Ubered to The Leaf, a botanical garden that showcases the plants of four distinct worlds. The tropical biome overflowed with tropical plants and the country’s largest indoor waterfall, while the Mediterranean biome features plants from Greece, Italy as well as South Africa and southwest Australia. You can also interact with butterflies at the magical Shirley Richardson Butterfly Garden as they flutter around you.

Let’s eat!
We stayed at the Fairmont Winnipeg, ideally suited between the downtown area (we walked to the Jets game) and the Forks National Historic Site. The hotel’s luxury was in full view and we loved the hot cider in the evening and breakfast in the Velvet Glove restaurant.

As we mentioned, Winnipeg’s culinary diversity is front and center with an eclectic selection of eateries including Corrientes (Argentina pizza with a Canadian twist featuring toppings such as pickerel cheeks and corn) and Clementine’s, a hipster place with classic brunch dishes. Definitely try the smoked Arctic Char with crispy potato cakes, horseradish, creme fraîche and cured dill cubes. Feast Cafe Bistro is one of the few Indigenous-owned and operated restaurants in Canada that is rooted in First Nations cuisine and prepared in a traditional manner. Chef/owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther oversees a menu featuring Saskatoon berry smoothies, elk stew, braised bison ribs, pickerel and buffalo lasagna.

Have your pick at the Forks Market. The Forks is Manitoba’s top tourist attraction that offers year-round shopping, activities and a slew of dining options, including Sri Lankan specialities and fish and chips (our choices).

Tabula Rasa is a charming tapas restaurant while the pizza is wonderful at Cibo Waterfront Cafe. Nearby is Patent 5 Distillery that distills gin and vodka using Manitoban wheat and barley and serves innovative cocktails based on Zodiac signs. It’s local all the way and worth a try.

While we only stayed in Winnipeg, Manitoba deserves a shoutout. We truly intend to go back and take the train up to Churchill (there are no roads) to spot polar bears and beluga whales (it’s in the migration paths of both). The Northern Lights (bucket list) are visible up to 300 nights of the year.

For those who love nature, Manitoba has it all — from the arctic tundra, Hudson Bay coastline, fresh lakes, prairie and a dense boreal forest — and it’s a world-class place to fish, camp and hike.

Both Winnipeg and Manitoba have new slogans. Winnipeg’s is “Made From What’s Real” that celebrates its what-you-see-is-whatyou-get mentality. Manitoba’s is “Canada’s Heart is Calling”.

Answer that call.

Mary Welch


Editor, award-winning journalist and author

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