When I knew I was off to Canada, my first thoughts were to plan the places to visit in Winnipeg for my week of adventure.
To anyone living outside of Manitoba, the central province and beating heart of Canada remains surprisingly undiscovered. But that’s part of its magic and appeal – it epitomises the road less frequented.
Manitoba isn’t flocked to by the tourist hordes or even by many first time visitors to Canada. It is more favoured by those who seek authenticity in their travel destinations, by those who know Canada a little more intimately and want to branch out to see something more rugged, unusual and new.
When researching places to go in Winnipeg I was overwhelmed by the number of Winnipeg attractions, each with their own stories to tell and preserved for people to enjoy today.
Visiting during Canada’s 150th year since its Confederation, here I chart my journey, highlighting the what to do in Winnipeg for every visitor and how the city’s history and eclectic culture have shaped the lives of its locals.
See some of my favourite places to visit in Winnipeg
A brief history of Manitoba
As with any celebration or anniversary, it often provides a time to reflect on the proud moments of the past, revelling in the joys of the present and looking forward to the future with anticipation.
And this couldn’t be truer than with my adventures in Winnipeg, the city where two rivers meet and past meets present.
Native groups (known as Canada’s First Nations) have inhabited Manitoba for thousands of years. There are more than 600 recognised First Nations groups in Canada. In Manitoba’s south, these include the Assiniboin and Ojibwa, while the north is occupied by the Cree and the Chipewyan, as well as Inuits from the Arctic of the Hudson Bay coast.
In the late 17th century the fur trade arrived changing the way of life in regions such as The Forks, which became places to socialise, trade, camp and fish for generations.
From the 1870s migration of Europeans into Manitoba was unprecedented, fuelled by the Canadian government’s drive for economic growth from farming and industry. In the early 19th century, the Metis – of mixed Indian and European ancestry – began a plains culture, hunting buffalo and trading with other tribes.
The co-existence of these cultures defines the ethnic diversity and harmony of the region today, and in Winnipeg alone, there is a host of annual events that celebrate this.
Stepping out in Winnipeg: history and culture in 150 steps
Start out with a tour with Parks Canada at The Forks in Downtown Winnipeg, the central meeting point in the city.
The Forks was so named as it’s where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet. Excavations here have revealed more than 6,000 years of history from when the Assiniboins, Cree, Ojibwe and Dakota First Nations groups occupied the area.
In 1738, the French explorer and fur trader La Vérendrye settled here and constructed Fort Rouge on the fork of the two rivers.
European settlers began to arrive at the Forks, forming the Red River Colony which thrived for more than 140 years, due to its rich food sources and the fact that it was an important transport route for trading goods.
In the late 1800s, the government began promoting immigration and railway development across the prairies of Manitoba as a ‘Gateway to the Canadian West’. As immigrants began to arrive at The Forks, it fast began to change the physical and cultural landscape of western Canada.
The Forks is also home to the Oodena Celebration Circle which pays homage to 6,000 years of First Nations groups, namely the Oodena and Ojibwe communities. It represents the heart of the community, with an unusual star observatory and a ceremonial fire pit for cultural celebrations.
As you wander Winnipeg, you feel the sense of community and pride in the city and even just glancing through the Where Winnipeg guide in my hotel room to see what’s on in Winnipeg, revealed an action-packed calendar of festivals and events.
I visited The Forks during Winnipeg’s Pride Weekend and the upbeat vibes, colourful outfits and party atmosphere made for a fun evening in the city.
The Forks is a vibrant Winnipeg attraction on the riverside, with beautiful prairie gardens, an eclectic market, a range of dining venues and a full entertainment programme attracting more than four million visitors every year.
The Common is the central meeting point selling a variety of craft beers and wines. Ordering a flight of ales, gave me the opportunity for vigorous testing before deciding the weekend special ale, Queer Beer was a real sweet hit for me.
Immerse yourself in the diversity of the city and time your visit for Folklarama in August. It’s the world’s largest and longest-running multicultural festival, featuring two weeks of vibrant arts and culture and is reportedly one of the main events at which scouts from Walt Disney World Epcot search for the latest talent.
The Exchange District
As I made my way from my hotel in downtown Winnipeg over to the Exchange District for a Historic Walking Tour, I knew I was in for a treat. I felt like I was on a film set, unsurprisingly given that the area has been used as a film location on numerous occasions.
The 30-block district is a National Historic Site of Canada, with buildings carefully preserved and restored from the 1800s. Make a beeline for Princes Street to stop for pictures of the vibrant street lined with industrial brick warehouses and elaborate terracotta structures, restored to allow you to picture life as it once was.
Next up was the Pantages Playhouse Theatre and I felt like I’d stepped back to 1914, during the heydey of vaudeville. The neo-classical rich gold interiors and red velvet draping provided a lavish setting for theatregoers who would attend one of three daily shows.
Alexander Pantages was the Greek American vaudeville actor responsible for creating a network of 84 theatres across Canada and the Western US. After heading to Canada in search of gold, his idea and love of performance was born from reading newspapers to miners. He used the money he made from this to open his first theatre.
A ruthless businessman, it is reported that ghosts used to plague and play tricks on him.
The playhouse meanwhile was the starting point for entertainers on the nation’s performance circuit – patrons judging their fate for the rest of the tour.
I could at once imagine in the eerie silence and loft-like mustiness of a bygone era the once-packed theatre echoing with rapturous applause and laughter.
World-famous acts including Laurel and Hardy, and Houdini have performed here and today the grandiose theatre still plays host to ballet, music and other theatrical performances.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights
If you’re planning what to see in Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has to top the list.
The thoughtfully designed, sleek and modern exterior is unmissable, rising high into the city sky. The prairie grasslands, deeply rooted trees and iceberg-shaped structure represents Canada’s diverse landscapes, while the inside transports you from darkness into light while illustrating the struggle for human rights around the world.
No detail has been missed here.
If you think it’s like museums of old, packed with dust-laden artefacts with more information than you care for, you’d be very wrong.
The eight floors of the museum curate themes around human rights culminating in the Tower of Hope, offering panoramic views of the city. Interestingly the art, sculptures and digital exhibits are grouped by subject, not chronologically which was a refreshing and easy way to consume information.
“What are human rights?”
That’s the first question our guide Skylar asked us. My thought was freedom of expression and beliefs. After a number of responses, she answered, ‘There’s no right or wrong. It’s intrinsic – human rights are individual to everyone.’
And that is the premise I felt my experience was built on. It was how I chose to interpret and consume the exhibits that counted, making no two visitor encounters the same, which felt deeply liberating.
I lingered in the Points of View exhibit – a crowd-sourced photography exhibition to mark Canada 150. The subjects here are visually powerful and built on four pillars: freedom of expression, reconciliation, human rights and the environment, and inclusion and diversity.
Discovering people’s real experiences were powerful, including the story of Viola Desmond, a Black Canadian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in Nova Scotia in 1946.
Physically removed from a cinema for sitting in the wrong seat, and injured in the process, Desmond was subsequently charged with tax evasion. She was granted a posthumous pardon from the government for the discrimination.
Her story received worldwide attention, and she will be featured on next year’s new Canadian $10 note – marking the first Canadian woman to be featured on a banknote.
These stories struck a cord with me, but some were also uplifting. It opened my eyes to the strength of the human spirit and the power of love, empowerment and endurance that can exist, despite the adversities and injustices we may face.
I visited Winnipeg with no concrete expectations and left feeling enriched by my encounters with the history, the people and the stories that have shaped the city into what it is today.
My heart longs to return to experience other Winnipeg tourist attractions and learn more about the events that have helped shape its colourful backstory.
The city is not just the beating heart of Canada, it also captured my heart and mind.
If you’re visiting Canada in 2017, admission to Parks Canada attractions is free as part of the Canada 150 celebrations. Pick up your free pass to help you plan places to visit in Winnipeg.
Where to stay in Winnipeg
Alt Hotel Winnipeg is a modern four-star hotel befitting this cool city, with a gym and year-round flat rate per room.
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