Signs on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba welcome you to the “Heart of the Continent.” Located 70 miles (110km) north of the Canada-United States border and near the longitudinal center of North America, this friendly, unassuming Canadian city provides plenty of things for a visitor to do.
1. A Meeting With History
The Forks National Historic Site in downtown Winnipeg, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, has been a gathering place for thousands of years and continues to be a rendezvous today.
Here you’ll find dining, shopping, accommodations, a world-class skate park, a children’s play area, and tree-lined paths overlooking the river. As you stroll along the paths, you receive a mini-history lesson from signboards along the way, see a prairie garden, and get a great view of the junction of the rivers from the Forks Historic Rail Bridge. Public entertainment venues host performances and festivals throughout the year.
At the bustling Forks Market, a fresh food emporium offers fresh-baked and gourmet treats to take home or eat in the atrium while you sample craft beer and wine from The Common kiosk. Shops in the upper level and the neighboring four-story Johnston Terminal sell specialty items and souvenirs.
Between these two buildings, surrounded by outdoor patios, is the Market Plaza and Canopy, the site of open-air performances in the summer. In the winter, the Plaza Canopy becomes an artificially cooled skating rink. The rivers provide more skating on the Guinness World Record-holding longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world!
2. Be Inspired at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Architecture, interactive displays, and multi-media technology combine to create a potent experience at the award-winning Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum explores the meaning and history of human rights in Canada and around the world. Its thought-provoking stories of human rights challenges and triumphs encourage reflection and discussion. Although some content deals with the darker side of humanity, the overall theme is one of hope. The message is that we can make a difference.
The building design is part of the overall experience: you enter its massive stone roots and proceed through galleries via alabaster-lined ramps in an upward journey of light through darkness. At the top an observation deck inside the Tower of Hope, a glass spire reaching into the sky, you’ll get a 360-degree view of Winnipeg. Elevator access is also available.
3. Explore French-Canadian Culture and History
Winnipeg has one of the largest French-Canadian populations outside of Quebec. The neighborhood of St. Boniface, on the other side of the Red River from The Forks, is known as Winnipeg’s French Quarter. Walking tours of Old St. Boniface run during summer months, starting at St. Boniface City Hall and ending at the St. Boniface Museum.
The museum, open year-round, is housed in the oldest building in Winnipeg, a former Grey Nun’s convent, and profiles Western Canada’s French-Canadian and Métis heritage. Exhibits include displays depicting pioneer life, First Nations artifacts, fine arts, fur trade relics and a section featuring Louis Riel, the controversial Métis leader now known as the father of Manitoba.
Fort Gibraltar, also located in St. Boniface, is a reconstructed fur-trade-era fort. In the summer, costumed actors recreate fort life circa 1815. Each February, re-enactors again bring the past to life when the fort and the surrounding Whittier Park become the center of the 10-day Festival du Voyageur. This celebration of French-Canadian culture and the history of Métis and First Nations People is the largest winter festival in Western Canada.
4. Spend Time in The Exchange
The vibrant Exchange District, a 30-block “Place to Be” area in central Winnipeg, is home to local restaurants, boutique shops, galleries, and artist studios. This National Historic Site features a large collection of heritage buildings dating from 1880 to 1920, when Winnipeg was known as “Gateway to the West” and “Chicago of the North.” Explore the architecture and rich, sometimes quirky, history of the area on one of the Exchange District walking tours. Look for the many ghost signs — fading painted advertisements from days gone by, still visible on the brick and stone buildings.
On the first Friday evening of each month, artists in the area open their studios to the public. Old Market Square, an urban green space in the center of the Exchange, is the heart of many summer festivals and the site of open-air concerts. The Exchange offers world-class dining experiences in some of the city’s best restaurants. Visit on your own or enjoy a guided feast on foot with an Exchange District food tour.
5. Uncover the Secrets of Manitoba’s Legislative Building
On the Hermetic Code Tour of Manitoba’s Beaux-Arts Classical style Legislative Building, Dr. Frank Albo enthusiastically points outs hieroglyphics, freemasonic symbols and numeric codes in what he calls a “temple masquerading as a government building” while providing interesting bits of history about the 1920 building.
See the Grand Staircase of 39 steps — broken up into three flights of 13. Experience the special acoustics at the center of the eight-pointed star on the marble floor under the dome of the Rotunda lit by Roman Standard Lamps, each containing 13 bulbs. Find statues of goddesses and learn about the rooftop Golden Boy statue representing the Greek god Hermes.
6. Watch Polar Bears
The Journey to Churchilll exhibit at Assinboine Park Zoo recreates the northern Manitoba town of Churchill. Amid a landscape of gray tundra rock and low shrubs, visitors find caribou, muskox, snowy owls, and information about the geography and people of the north. Harbor seals spin and dive behind the glass walls of an underwater viewing tunnel, but it is the polar bears, rescued orphans, that are the main attraction. Watch them frolic in the water above you through a glass dome.
7. Take a Bison Safari
Located in a beautiful natural setting of prairie, forest, wetlands, and sheltered lakes, FortWhyte Alive provides all-season outdoor adventures, environmental education, and exhibits interpreting Manitoba’s cultural and natural history. It is also home to a herd of 30 bison.
If you want more than a far-off glimpse, take one of the weekly Bison Safaris for an up-close encounter with North America’s largest land mammals. If you’d like to add powering a voyageur canoe, exploring a tipi, and enjoying tea and bannock over a campfire to your up-close encounter, take the longer Prairie Legacy: The Bison and Its People tour. Don’t forget to visit the rest of the nature preserve before or after your tour.
8. Be Moved By Art
The internationally-respected Winnipeg Art Gallery contains an extensive collection of Canadian and international art. Several galleries within the facility display permanent as well as temporary exhibitions. The Gallery regularly brings in acclaimed touring shows and holds the world’s largest collection of Inuit art. They are currently beginning construction of a new Inuit Art Center.
Thanks to the Winnipeg Arts Council Public Art Program, you’ll find art in many public spaces. The Council runs tours throughout the year focusing on specific areas. You can use the Council’s guide to hunt out pieces throughout the city.
9. Visit the Manitoba Museum
The renowned Manitoba Museum explores the interactions of people with their environment. You may be surprised to discover that Manitoba has several different natural environments. Exhibits and dioramas in the Arctic/Sub-Arctic, Boreal Forest, Parklands, and Grasslands galleries showcase the human and natural history of these areas. Other galleries recreate the 1920 streets of Winnipeg and highlight the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the corporation that made the largest impact on the history of Canada. The Nonsuch Gallery, where you’ll find a full-size replica of a 1600s merchant ship, remains a perennial favorite.
10. Walk Among the Murals
Not only do the colorful collection of outdoor murals in Winnipeg’s West End neighborhood add beauty, they tell stories about the history, culture, and people of Winnipeg’s most diverse area. Murals tell stories of Voyageurs and Vikings, immigrant groups, war heroes, and an iconic roller rink. They recognize people from the area, such as the pastor who advocated for the poor, the man known as the inspiration for James Bond, a former mayor, a Canadian First Nations actor, and a much-loved mentally-challenged man on his bicycle. Walking tours are available in summer months.
11. Tour Craft Breweries
Winnipeg’s craft brewery scene is only a few years old, but it is thriving. There are several craft breweries, many with taprooms, and a couple of brewpubs with restaurants. Winnipeg Tasting Tours will take you to several microbreweries for sampling and a behind-the-scenes look. The Winnipeg Trolley Company also offers an ale trail tour.