Things to do in Winnipeg: Covering All Seasons in the ‘Heart of the Continent’
I climbed the 108 steps to the Israel Asper Tower of Hope to take in sweeping urban views from the platform high on Level 8. It’s a fitting space for contemplation after opening my mind to themes of equality, discrimination, atrocities, freedom, and individual power in the museum below.
We were on Treaty One territory in the heart of the Métis homeland. From the tower, I spotted the French Quarter at the end of the Esplanade Riel, an iconic pedestrian bridge over the Red River with a built-in French restaurant. I could just make out the Exchange District’s cache of historical buildings, but not the buzzy restaurants and boutiques at street level. I could see Winnipeggers pouring into the Forks Market, where I get my caffeine fix and wild rice bannock. I gazed in the general direction of South Osborne where a Lebanese-Syrian couple were making artisan ice cream and posted “Put people before payment” and four other core philosophies on the wall of their cafe.
Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum’s media relations manager, pulls it all together when we sit by a wall projection of figures writing the word “welcome” in 36 languages. “The goal that a lot of people in Winnipeg have is for it to become the international hub for human rights education — like the Geneva of the North.”
What a worthy goal. Though for now, the welcome sign at the city limits calls Winnipeg “the heart of the continent.”
Unpack your bags — Where to Stay in Winnipeg
The Inn at the Forks is steps from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Forks Market, Manitoba Children’s Museum, shops and green space. The stylish Alt Hotel Winnipeg is a downtown favourite in the “SHED” (Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District). At the Fort Garry Hotel, ask at reception for the document detailing the hotel’s haunted history. Whenever I have early flights, I book the Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel by Lakeview steps and ask for a room with tarmac views. When my family of four is with me, the Holiday Inn & Suites Winnipeg Downtown has suites and a pool, while the Clarion Hotel & Suites has a waterslide.
Plan your meals — Best Restaurants in Winnipeg
The subterranean Clementine Café’s creative all-day brunch revolves around its signature Braised Bacon Benedict, but the Turkish Eggs with hummus, chilli butter and zhoug (hot sauce), and cashew and banana chia seed pudding speak to the menu’s creativity. Clementine doesn’t take reservations, but you’ll need them for Rae and Jerry’s, an iconic steakhouse with red leather seats that are frozen in time at 1957. Steak dinners start with soup or tomato juice. Pick the juice and add a few drops of the Worcestershire sauce. There’s a lounge if you’d rather just have a martini.
Multicultural Winnipeg scored the first Canadian outpost of Jollibee — the fast food darling of the Philippines — so try its fried chicken, pineapple-topped burgers and spaghetti tossed with a sweet sauce full of hamburger meat, ham and sausage. Alycia’s, a beloved Ukrainian restaurant that moved to Gimli, is now back serving pillowy perogies and a fantastic weekday lunch buffet inside the old Royal Albert Arms Hotel.
For modern Indigenous, try Feast Café Bistro’s bannock pizza, Indian tacos and bison chilli, where owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther strives “to put Indigenous food on the map again.” For Jewish latkes and smoked meat sandwiches, go to Sherbrook Street Deli. Meanwhile, Bernstein’s Deli delivers on potato latke fries with harissa mayo.
On the hipster front, Toronto’s La Carnita has a Winnipeg outpost serving tacos and churros. Chef Mandel Hitzer creates shareable small plates at Deer + Almond but has really made his mark with the pop-up, communal winter restaurant RAW: Almond at the frozen junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. He also takes RAW on the road around the province.
Joseph Chaeban and his wife Zainab Ali opened Chaeban Ice Cream as a thank you to the community for sponsoring 13 family members to come here from war-torn Syria. This Levantine spot draws on Chaeban’s Lebanese cheese and dairy heritage to create stunning flavours like Abir Al Sham from rose water, orange blossom water, toasted pistachios, cashews and ricotta cheese. The tip jar is donated to a new charity each month.
For an altogether different ice cream experience, get soft serve at BDI (Bridge Drive-In) and eat it while strolling over the nearby footbridge. There are vegan options, but I’m partial to classic vanilla soft serve dipped in a peanut butter-flavoured sauce.
At Forks Market, get a couple lattes at Fools + Horses and baked goods at Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. where cinnamon croissants (a cinnamon bun/croissant hybrid) are popular. (I go early for wild rice bannock spread with butter and Manitoba Saskatoon berry jam.)
Try a taste of Winnipeg’s legendary shmoo cake — triple layers of pecan-flecked angel food cake with whipped cream and caramel sauce. Baked Expectations in Osborne Village sells this dessert with mysterious origins by the slice.
Learn some secrets: I do more than just eat in Winnipeg
Probably the most unique thing to do in Winnipeg is take the Hermetic Code Tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building. “It’s actually a temple in disguise,” guide Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland International Travel and Tours, told me. Dr. Frank Albo, author of a book about discovering occult clues hidden in the building’s architecture (including Freemasonic symbols, numerological codes and hieroglyphic inscriptions) leads select tours. Regardless of who guides you through the Legislative Building, you’ll surely see the Golden Boy statue on the roof with renewed appreciation.
Another worthy outing is the Royal Canadian Mint to see how Canada’s circulation coins are made. An armed guard in the boutique lets you handle a solid gold bar. Guided tours will share the story of how the loonie links to an unsolved crime. Outside you can pose with a golden loon statue, the giant version of the aquatic bird on the beloved coin.
Ô Tours does group and custom tours. Take a private city tour highlighted by the Franco-Manitoban neighbourhood of St. Boniface to see Métis leader Louis Riel’s grave, Saint Boniface Cathedral-Basilica, Chocolatier Constance Popp, and La Belle Baguette. Stop at the controversial monument that portrays Riel, Manitoba’s rebellious founder who was hanged for treason, naked and “as a man in bondage and in anguish who sacrificed himself for his principles and his country.”
I’m still not clear why Winnipeg doesn’t play up its ties to Winnie the Pooh. Lt. Harry Colebourn, a Canadian vet and soldier, bought a black bear cub on his way to the First World War and named her Winnie after Winnipeg. Winnie was left with the London Zoo for safekeeping, where she dazzled the author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher and inspired the children’s storybook. There’s a modest statue of Winnie-the-Bear and Colebourn in the Nature Playground at Assiniboine Park.
Next to the park is Assiniboine Park Zoo, which I like for its rare white bison but is best known for its Journey to Churchill exhibit that boasts underwater viewing tunnels for polar bears and seals. The exhibit invites people to think about climate change and Arctic ecosystems and consider personal action.
Another spot to connect with nature is at FortWhyte Alive, an “urban nature oasis” that boasts seasonal bison safaris to see the 30-head herd. There’s a prairie dog town and they’ll set you up to ice fish in the winter.
Speaking of winter:
It’s best to embrace the cold in a city nicknamed “Winterpeg, Manisnowba.” Go in March to go ice fishing for walleye with Icebound Excursions in its SnoBear mobile ice fishing shack.
Watch the Winnipeg Jets play at Bell MTS Place and join fans in singing “O Canada” with extra emphasis on the words “true north.” It’s a nod to the fact that True North Sports and Entertainment brought the NHL back in 2011. Sports fans who can brave the winter weather can try their hand at croki-curl (crokinole meets curling) at the Forks National Historic Site.
You get bragging rights if, like me, you do the thermal experience at Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature in the dead of winter. Rotate among saunas, baths (hot, cold and temperate) and outdoor/indoor rest areas at the Scandinavian-style spa every day except Christmas.
Winnipeg is the jumping off point for a variety of Manitoba adventures. You’ll likely overnight in the city if you’re flying north to Churchill to see polar bears and beluga whales. Churchill Wild’s polar bear walking safari at a fly-in lodge is something you’ll never forget. You can rent a car and head to Riding Mountain National Park to hear bugling elks, stopping for selfies at the “Happy Rock” roadside attraction in Gladstone and at the Farmery, a family-run estate brewery that grows its own hops in Neepawa.
In the summer, Winnipeg is a great base for a catch-and-release fishing expedition on the Red River in Selkirk, home to the Chuck the Channel Cat statue. Todd Longley of City Cats Guiding Service, the “Rock ’n Roll Fisherman,” took me out for monster channel catfish. I also used the city as a springboard to get to Falcon Beach Ranch for a horseback ride in Whiteshell Provincial Park to the site of Canada’s most well-documented UFO encounter.
On the drive back from the ranch, just before reaching the Winnipeg city limits and the “heart of the continent” sign, we stopped in the new Centre of Canada Park on the Trans-Canada Highway in the Rural Municipality of Taché.
A splashy sign proclaims the spot 96°48’35” (that’s 96 degrees, 48 minutes and 35 seconds) to be the longitudinal centre of the country. There’s no overt “Geneva of the North” talk, but in the spirit of quiet Canadian diplomacy, park officials have one simple wish: That here, where eastern and western Canada meet, people will come together “to ponder the breadth of our country and the meaning of being Canadian.”