The temperature outside is -30 degrees Celsius. Children struggle through the snow as they walk to school with frosted lashes that threaten to keep their eyes shut. The wind howls as the adults unplug their cars and scrape their car windshields free of ice. And what’s that? There’s a blizzard warning. Do you know where your parkas are?
Things to do in Winnipeg in the Winter from River Skating to Spa Treatments
Welcome to 'Winterpeg'
While Torontonians and Vancouverites may joke about their ‘Winterpeg’ brethren, no one denies that Winnipeggers are a creative, good-natured, hearty lot. One of the reasons is that we’ve figured out how to deal with the winter season’s frosty chill by embracing the season and turning the city into a winter wonderland. To find out how winter is done right, here’s the best the city has to offer during those wintry, sunny days and oh-so-crisp nights.
But first, here’s where you can drop your bags.
Inn at the Forks
Inn at the Forks is a locally-owned boutique hotel that has a cool, contemporary Canadiana vibe. Walk into the lobby and you’re faced with the huge double-sided fireplace that will warm your spirit as well as the physical you.
Rooms are modern and simple with tons of space to place your winter gear, some with fireplaces albeit not the real deal. Light wood and a neutral sand-coloured palette are accented with dark blues that reinforce the fact that this hotel is by water. Bathrooms have a large custom-made glass sink and countertop that is stunning and the signature toiletries are locally-made.
If the day is simply too frosty to venture outside, you can spend it in the hotel’s Riverstone Spa. There you can try the unique Riverstone Indigenous Hot Stone Massage that begins with a smudging ceremony and the burning of cleansing sage in a dedicated room for the treatment. Then begins a truly relaxing massage that leaves you cocooned in warmth and scented oil.
When you start to come around again, head to the hotel’s lounge, where you’ll find the craftiest cocktails in the city. The barkeeps make all of their own shrubs, infusions and kinds of vinegar, so originality is de rigueur. Changed seasonally, winter sees cocktails that are complex and dark, such as one made with espresso, Irish whiskey, ancho pepper and finished with a spritz of orange oil. Aside from the cocktails, the lounge is where Canadian hip lives: The benches are covered in Hudson’s Bay blankets, antler chandeliers light the way, and low side tables are made of logs.
Inn at the Forks
Alt Hotel, in downtown Winnipeg, is the little sister brand of Le Germain Hotels in Quebec. Its philosophy is simple: Provide everything that travellers need and nothing that they don’t. This means that the price is exceptional but don’t expect a doorman to open the door for you when you leave. Winnipeg’s version is a modern, muted take on the concept.
The hotel’s lobby consists of a living room-style hangout with snacks and coffee on hand. There are areas to sit and chat and a large table to work at, with high-speed Wi-Fi at the ready. You won’t find a full breakfast right at the hotel, but they do offer a nice continental option.
Rooms come in a one-bed or two-bed configuration, done in cool white and gray. A work table and in-room coffee maker complete the picture. Again, nothing fancy, but the rooms are nice and comfy.
If you’re looking for an excuse to stay inside, Alt Winnipeg has its own happy hour so you can imbibe a glass of wine, a local beer, or a simple Manitoba rite of passage: a rye and 7 (Crown Royal Whisky is made just outside the city and the classic combo pairs it with 7UP).
Alt Hotel Winnipeg
Right across the bridge from Fort Gibraltar, Festival du Voyageur’s main hub, is the Fairmont Winnipeg. Considered by many to be the city’s top hotel, this is a quietly elegant and contemporary home-away-from-home. It doesn’t shout its glamour with sparkly bling saying ‘look at me’; rather, this a black Dior dress that waits for you to recognize its simple sophistication with a nod.
The thoughtful service at Fairmont Winnipeg makes this hotel a treat to visit. If you choose a room on the Gold Floor, you’ll be treated to all-day snacks and hot bevvies, evening hors d’oeuvres, after-dinner desserts and an honour bar. Gold Floor attendants act as personal concierges and take care of anything you might need.
Gold Floor rooms are spacious and contemporary in taupes, creams and grays with a large flat screen TV, plenty of drawer space, a well-appointed desk and large nightstands. The bed and pillows are some of the comfiest you’ll find anywhere. Nespresso machines are found in the Gold Floor rooms (Keurigs in the rest of the hotel) and, as in most Fairmont Hotels, toiletries are the yummy-smelling Le Labo Rose 31.
After lazing about on the dark rattan loungers by the top floor pool, slip into something maybe a bit more socially acceptable and head to the hotel’s VG Restaurant. Dark honey wood-panelled walls and white tablecloths make up the restaurant’s traditional elegant décor, but the menu reflects contemporary taste.
Food served is a combination of proper cuts of meat, accented with herbs and honey that are grown on the hotel’s roof, as well as local produce and products found within 50 kilometres of the property. Dishes like the earthy Ponderosa Mushroom Chowder with truffle crème fraîche are decadently creamy, while the succulent, perfectly-cooked 40-day (aged in-house) rib eye with braised cippolini onions, cabbage puree, oyster mushrooms and potato terrine with red wine sauce is both smoky and rich, with smooth textures that complement each other well. And here’s the kicker: If you give the restaurant enough notice, Chef Daniel might be able to prepare you an off-menu meal of tasty things that include some of his favorites, all nicely done and beautiful to look at.
Mere Hotel is a locally-owned, stylish boutique hotel with only 67 rooms. There’s no restaurant onsite, but a quick skip across the busy pedestrian laneway brings you to the full-service restaurant, Cibo Waterfront Café, serving filling breakfasts and dinners in a former industrial pump house looking out over the Red River.
Rooms are comfortable and sleek with plenty of room and a comfortable bed. If you get one with a view to the back of the hotel, you look out over the stark beauty of the river and trees with their coating of frost.
While there isn’t a large lobby where you can hang out with other like-minded comfort-seeking travellers, you can either go out and have a coffee or cocktail at Cibo or do what I did — sip on a glass of wine from the minbar (quite inexpensive as far as minibar prices go), nibble on the complimentary Cliff bars and spend a well-deserved evening inside your room watching Netflix. It’s the kind of chilling that doesn’t require a coat.
Break a Record by Skating at The Forks
The Forks is the number one tourist spot in the city but it’s also frequented by Winnipeggers throughout the year. A National Historic Site of Canada, this is where Indigenous peoples have met and traded for over 6,000 years at the junction of the mighty Red and the smaller-but-not insignificant Assiniboine Rivers. The renovated railroad warehouses and stables now house a bevy of boutique shops selling everything from locally-made candles to artisanal crafts. There are restaurants that specialize in BBQ or breakfast and food stalls that make the best cinnamon buns in the city (and the tastiest blue cheese-and-fig empanadas).
For families, the Manitoba Children’s Museum can keep you busy around the clock. But why stay inside all day when you can skate along the site’s groomed, naturally-frozen river skating trail? (The longest in the world according to Guinness World Records.)
Approximately six-and-a-half kilometres long — the length fluctuates based on the weather conditions each year — the Red River Mutual Trail meanders along the Assiniboine River, where evergreen trees are placed along the path to break up the blindingly white trail. The trail starts at The Forks and takes you past neighbourhoods full of grand, old mansions and century-old trees.
Beat the Chill in a Warming Hut
For the past 10 years, some of the world’s best architects have competed to get a chance to create a winter warming hut along Winnipeg’s Red River Mutual Trail. The Warming Huts — An Art + Architecture competition — takes place annually at the end of January. Each year, a blind jury chooses from about 100 entries to select the winners.
Some creations are witty, like the yellow Lego-like Golden Bison hut from the 2018 competition, some are reflective of the Canadian landscape using rough-hewn wood and natural materials, and some are downright cutting-edge: For the 2019 competition, Winnipeg’s Stantec Architecture is installing a series of white phosphorescent tubes that harness the sound of the wind, growing ever louder to reach a crescendo of sound experienced in the warming hut itself, the Sonus Loci. Whatever the style, all of these creations are beautiful.
Skate along the trail at dusk to take in the perfect quiet that snow brings and stop in all of the huts for a moment to escape the wintry wind and immerse yourself in life-size art.
Dine on the Ice in a Pop-Up Restaurant
After you’re finished whooshing along the trail, head to the ultimate pop-up on ice: RAW:almond, a unique restaurant that sets up shop every year on the skating trail. Meant to complement the unique architecture of the warming huts nearby, this temporary foodie haven is a design lover’s delight, testing the limits of what can be erected on ice.
Wrapped up in winter gear and the occasional blanket, diners feast on multi-course gourmet grub created by some of the city’s and the country’s top chefs who come to congregate at this restaurant on ice. Make sure you make a reservation well in advance: Even though RAW:almond runs for over three weeks, with multiple meals served per day, it usually sells out. You can choose which meal you want to partake in by the day, time and/or chef.
Visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Perfect for a winter warm-up, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks is an architectural stunner that rises from the prairie landscape as if it is part of it. Made out of 400-year-old limestone rock and glass, it’s seemingly tethered to the earth by strong, tendril-like roots.
The first museum in the world dedicated to human rights, it has 12 galleries in total as well as special exhibitions that take place throughout the year (the moving and enlightening installation, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, runs until September 2019). Along with the Indigenous Perspectives and Examining the Holocaust galleries, there are others that focus on human rights in Canada and around the world, and how choosing to break the silence is the only path forward.
While the subject may be challenging, you leave the museum feeling as if you’ve taken a journey from darkness to light as you end at the museum’s pinnacle, the Tower of Hope, looking out over Winnipeg’s skyline.
Go For a Dip in Thermal Waters
To approach Thermëa Nordik Spa, you turn off of one of Winnipeg’s busiest streets onto a quiet drive that even some locals don’t know about. The outside of the main building is pretty unspectacular and belies what awaits you: a hedonistic healing ritual.
The spa is made up of one temperate pool, two Finnish saunas, two steam rooms, and three cold plunge baths that include an icy waterfall. There’s also a spa and restaurant, all nestled cozily amongst leftover pines that predate the spa.
Thermotherapy has been used for centuries in Nordic countries, purported to improve circulation, aid in digestion, eliminate toxins and even slow ageing. But to receive these bona fide benefits, you must follow the thermal cycle to a T. This involves a retreat into one of the hot saunas or steam rooms, scented with either eucalyptus and mint or orange oils, and then — here comes the hard part — you need to take a dip in the -15-degree Celsius cold plunge pool or get up the nerve for an adrenaline-jolting cold-water bucket splash before heading into one of the relaxation areas to recover. This is to get a rush of adrenaline so that you can release endorphins.
But one of the best things about going to Thermëa in winter is that your cold dip can be replaced by a quick dart to the relaxation cabin. Speaking from experience, this is easier to do than that cold-water-bucket business. Finish with a dip in the temperate pool as steam rises up around you while you remain snuggled in the warm water.
Before you head back to your hotel, try one of the items on the spa menu at Thermëa, like the Himalayan Salt Treatment to prep your skin before taking in the waters. You can also have a hot toddy in the bar or a meal in the restaurant, serving tasty (but good-for-you) treats.
Discover Your Joie de Vivre at Festival du Voyageur
Winnipeg has one of the largest French populations in Canada—Quebec excluded, of course—and the Festival du Voyageur is where everything àla française is celebrated.
The 10-day family-friendly February festival takes place predominantly in the city’s French Quarter, Saint-Boniface, with things like traditional sleigh rides and ice slides. But there are plenty of activities for the adults that take place, too. More than anything, this festival is about music and includes toe-tapping fiddling contests, DJ nights where French performers shine as well as live music that ranges from folk to punk, all with a French-Canadian and Métis twist.
When you’re roaming around the city, look out for the ice sculptures put up during the festival’s International Snow Sculpture Symposium, with contributors selected from all over the world. And, with this much warning, you can start planning now to enter the beard growing contest, should you hope to exhibit this pinnacle of voyageur manliness.
Exchange the present for the past in The Exchange District
Winnipeg’s Exchange District is a hip neighbourhood full of former offices and warehouses from the glory days of Winnipeg’s grain-trading past. Right next to the downtown, it’s a National Historic Site of Canada thanks to the collection of turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, purported to be the best collection of its kind in North America. Today, these buildings–many of which are made out of pale Tyndall stone, a fossil-rich limestone found only in Tyndall, Manitoba–house local design shops and independent galleries.
This is also the city’s coffee and café district, so slip into one to warm up after a trek touring the streets or at the end of a successful shopping haul. Ones to look out for are Forth, which goes from coffee joint to bar at night, serving live music with that latté, Miss Browns Hot Pressed Sandwich & Coffee Co. if you want something a bit more substantial to go with that cup ‘o Joe, or Amsterdam Tea Room and Bar if you’re more in the mood for a good cuppa or, better still, try one of the Hot Boozy Teas on offer, just in time for these brisker months.
Feature image courtesy of Tourism Winnipeg