When I knew I was off to Canada, my first thoughts were to plan the coolest things to do in Winnipeg for my week of adventure.
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 Winnipeg I was overwhelmed by the number of attractions, and we could quite easily have made this a list of 101 things to do in Winnipeg, each with their own stories to tell.
Visiting during Canada’s 150th year since its Confederation, here I chart my journey of the main highlights for every visitor which are firmly placed on the Winnipeg map of best attractions. And we also delve into how the city’s history and eclectic culture have shaped the lives of its locals.
I’ve updated this for 2018 to include new guides to the latest events, places to stay, flights to Winnipeg and cool things to do in Winnipeg Canada and beyond.
But first, where is Winnipeg?
Some of you may well ask, ‘Where is Winnipeg?’, it is in Manitoba, the central province and beating heart of Canada which remains surprisingly undiscovered. But that’s part of its magic and appeal – it epitomises the road less travelled.
See some of my favourite Winnipeg attractions
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 excited anticipation.
And this couldn’t be truer than with my adventures in Winnipeg, the city where two rivers meet, the Red and Assiniboine, and past greets the 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 were 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 should be close to the top of 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 represent 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 was 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 chord 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.
Other fabulous things to do in Winnipeg Canada and beyond
Whatever your interest or inclination, there is bound to be something in the Manitoba region to satiate your travel desires. Sports fans can head for a stadium to catch a hockey, baseball or football match, those looking for some rest and relaxation have some of the world’s best spas to choose from, and the art galleries and museums all have their own unique story to reveal.
Here are some other places you should consider for your itinerary:
Winnipeg Art Gallery – The beauty of art is it can reveal so much about a culture and their way of life, as I discovered at this huge art gallery which features the world’s largest collection of Inuit art which is on a rotating display. And if you haven’t had any appreciation for this art form before they may well change, I found the unique myths and legends surrounding some of the works simply fascinating. Plus the mix of contemporary works throughout the gallery help to change the pace and engage visitors.
Churchill – Resting on the edge of Hudson Bay in the northern reaches of Manitoba, Churchill is a nature lover’s paradise with opportunities to spot a variety of birdlife, beluga whales, arctic foxes and polar bears. Walking safaris to encounter polar bears in their natural habitat run from July to November. Churchill is only accessible by air, and certain expedition tour providers include airfares in their rates. At the time of my visit it was off-season, but after visiting Assiniboine Park Zoo to see the polar bears there, Churchill is one place I will definitely be adding to the list when I return.
Assiniboine Park Zoo – If you’re not able to make it as far as Churchill during your visit to Manitoba, spend an afternoon studying the incredible polar bears and their huge paws at Journey to Churchill at the park. You can also discover more about the conservation efforts of the team here, committed to the welfare and preservation of various species.
Manitoba Museum – Winnipeg certainly knows how to make their museums and educational centres interactive and fascinating for all the family, and the Manitoba Museum was no exception. I had a whistlestop guided tour of the exhibits and at the time of my visit, the Canada 150 exhibit gave a comprehensive insight into life in Canada taking you back to the First Nations using incredible recreations of scenes from a settlement as it would have looked to a staged buffalo hunt. But as this museum’s motto goes there’s always more to discover here so it’s best to plan your visit before you travel to make the most of the museum’s programmes, events and exhibitions.
Winnipeg for food lovers
Food can bring us all together, so gathering at a Winnipeg table had a lovely community feel. And I find when I travel that locals are always recommending the best places to eat and the most delectable things to try. Here is a brief selection of places in the city that I ate at and can personally endorse, or had recommended to me during the time I spent there.
Restö – Add an epicurean encounter to your Twilight Spa experience at Thermëa Spa with a three-course menu and wine pairing. The staff are incredibly hospitable here, and the menu is bursting with delectable dishes. Menu varies by season, but the pesto and mint parpadelle with a lamb shank I had the pleasure of dining on was delicious. And ingredients don’t come fresher than my strawberry and walnut salad – I could smell the fruit the moment the plate left the kitchen. Between the head chef and his kitchen team and the front of house staff, they are genuinely passionate about food and providing a stellar dining experience.
Stella’s Cafe and Bakery – I didn’t have enough time to visit, but apparently, they serve up the best brunch menu in the city and the pancakes are pretty special according to a number of locals I had the pleasure of meeting. They have seven different locations so you have plenty of options to fit this one in on your adventures.
The Forks Market – For laidback or on the hop dining after a long day, head over to The Forks for an eclectic range of eateries. There’s everything from sushi to pierogies here so everyone in your party can choose exactly what they like from one of several quick service vendors. Then finish up with a flight of beers at The Common with its rotating menu of seasonal beers.
Unmissable events in Winnipeg
Looking for what’s on or some free things to do in Winnipeg? There’s always something going on in the city. Here are some of the most popular, unique and diverse events you won’t want to miss.
Big Fun Festival – Big Fun is an annual music festival held over five days in January in venues around the city centre. An eclectic mix of music genres come together to highlight the wealth of musical talent in the city. The festival includes multiple shows and parties and finishes up with a matinee breakfast show.
Festival Du Voyager – This is the ideal event for embracing winter, where you can marvel at giant snow sculptures, enjoy live music and concerts, sample traditional French Canadian foods and meet the historical characters who were influential in creating the Franco-Manitoban community which is alive and well today.
Doors Open Winnipeg – For the last weekend in May every year, key buildings attractions throw open their doors for one weekend in Winnipeg for visitors to discover the stories behind the buildings with free indoor and outdoor events and tours.
Pride Winnipeg – This major event celebrates the diverse community of LGBTQ and two-spirit people. The celebration includes a rally, parade, tournaments, barbecues, live entertainment and a huge dance party.
Indigenous Day Live – To celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, visitors descend on The Forks in Winnipeg for a family fun day of traditional storytelling, games and competitions, as well as performances which end on a high note with a live evening concert – which this year (26 June 2018) will be broadcast from three cities: Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa.
Hockey: The Stories Behind our Passion – Ice hockey is very much ingrained in the Canadian identity and history. This interactive exhibition at the Manitoba Museum looks back at over 100 years of the sport and its evolution. The exhibition opens from 6 July 2018 until 13 January 2019. And while in the city, you should also check out if the Winnipeg Jets are playing.
Folklorama – From 5 to 18 August, the world’s largest and longest-running multicultural event takes place in Winnipeg. A world of different cultures are presented in more than 40 pavilions, with energetic performances and traditional meals to sample as you join in two weeks of celebration of life and culture.
Wall to Wall Mural & Culture Festival – This art and cultural festival which takes place for the whole month of September, will see the city transformed in colour. Works of art will be featured on the original lands of Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation and Treaty 1 Territory with a unique celebration planned for each artwork launch throughout the month.
Canad Inn’s Winter Wonderland – Manitoba’s largest drive-through light show is a unique winter celebration featuring 25 areas of huge displays lit up with millions of lights to get you in the winter spirit – Canadian style. Event held from 30 November 2018 until 5 January 2019.
Highlights of Inuit Sculpture – The Winnipeg Art Gallery is home to the world’s largest collection of Inuit art. Pay a visit to experience this exciting collection of inspiring artworks, and the legends and beliefs behind them. This ongoing exhibition will be held until 15 March 2019.
Flights to Winnipeg – getting there and getting around
I flew from London Gatwick to Calgary with Air Transat and onwards to Winnipeg with WestJet, with a total in air flight time of approximately 11.5 hours, so the stop in between is a welcome break to stretch your legs.
Winnipeg is really easy to get around, most places were walkable, but for getting out to places like Assiniboine Park Zoo and Thermea Spa, I used Unicity Taxi and you can track your cab on the app which is really handy.
There are also bus services to get around the city if you need to use them, but the best way to explore is to get out on foot so you don’t miss out on any of the sights.
Where to stay in Winnipeg
Alt Hotel Winnipeg – a modern four-star hotel befitting this cool city, with a gym and year-round flat rate per room.
The Fort Garry – a central and historic 5-star hotel featuring a full-service spa for uber-relaxation plus huge, plush beds for the perfect night’s sleep
The Fairmont Winnipeg – this affordable downtown hotel is a great base for sightseeing, with a saltwater pool, 4-star restaurant and it’s directly connected to the underground shopping area.
Delta Hotels by Marriott Winnipeg – as well as enjoying a prime location in the city, this contemporary hotel offers stylish rooms, a rooftop pool and even a coffee shop for all too important refuelling.
Inn at the Forks – if you like to be in the centre of the action, this hotel ticks all the boxes. Packed with all the mod cons for an enjoyable stay, there’s also a restaurant and spa to feel content both on the inside and out.
Mere Hotel – this boutique stay option oozes understated glamour and minimalism with striking furniture, unique art and glorious waterfront views.
If you are considering this fabulous city for your next adventure and want some more information to plan your trip you can read more about Canada here.