I asked guest writer Meera Dattani to share some of her favorite things to do in Winnipeg, an exciting, culturally diverse city in Manitoba, Canada you rarely read about. Winnipeg is best known as the gateway for travelers visiting the Province’s famous polar bears in the north. Meera explains why it’s worth your time all on its own. (Meera was a guest of Travel Manitoba)
“Sorry Winnipeg is your first stop.” My cousin from Ottawa is WhatsApping me when I check in to my room. “I call it the ‘armpit’ of Canada! But Churchill will be amazing.”
It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction to Manitoba’s capital city, the first stop en route to the sub-Arctic town of Churchill where tundra, ocean, beluga whales and polar bears awaited. Then a friend sends me this from the take-with-a-pinch-of-salt Urban Dictionary: “Winnipeg: The only place to have the following seasons—almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction. Also called winterpeg.” My guidebook then informs me it’s called Winnipeg after the Cree (indigenous people) word for ‘murky water’ (win-nipuy) …
On the other hand, there’s nothing better for a determined city lover and born traveler than to prove someone, and the internet, wrong.
But the challenge was short-lived: Winnipeg may not have Montreal’s architecture, Ottawa’s elegance or Vancouver’s ocean-mountain backdrop, but this city has creativity, culture, and personality by the sackload.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights
I’d passed one of the city’s most striking structures, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, on the taxi ride in, and couldn’t wait to visit it. This is the world’s first museum dedicated to human rights and every part has been carefully designed.
The lobby floor resembles cracked earth and its glass top represents light and truth. It’s a place where no amount of time is enough to absorb the engaging exhibits, hear the stories and read the panels, reminding you just how many people around the world have fought, suffered, and died—all because of race, religion, color, language or just being ‘different’.
Allow at least three hours for a half-decent taster and be prepared for wet eyes and to feel indignant. For anyone new to Canada’s own record on human rights, like me, stories of its Indigenous peoples (Inuit, First Nations, and Métis) may well have you sniffing into a tissue.
I wander soberly from floor to floor, hearing tales of land-grabbing and learning about the residential schools which separated children from parents with the sole aim of stripping their language, ties, and culture. I leave thinking every country should have a museum like this, one which owns its narrative, even a terrible one.
The museum sits within one Winnipeg’s most popular neighborhoods: The Forks, where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet (there’s ice-skating in winter). It’s home to the Forks National Heritage Site, a beautiful riverside park which was once a meeting point for Indigenous people, and now has interpretative exhibits and performance space, as well as interesting shops, the Winnipeg Railway Museum and boutique Inn at the Forks hotel.
It’s also where I eat and drink my way around Forks Market, where railway shops have been converted into restaurants, food court kiosks, bars, and shops. There’s too much to recommend (translation: I ate too much good food), but Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company’s cinnamon buns are unmissable, and Italian restaurant Passero is a tasty choice for a sit-down dinner.
Across the river is the French district St-Boniface, home to Canada’s oldest French community outside of Québec, worth visiting for its cathedral and museum.
Winnipeg’s West End Murals
As a city-lover, what makes Winnipeg interesting are the many neighborhoods around the center—referred to as Portage and Main—and their growing cultural scene. You’ll see giant street murals (over 70) across districts like the West End and North End. (The West End Business improvement zone hosts Mural walking tours Monday-Saturday, year-round.)
Back Alley Arctic
At Back Alley Arctic in the Wolseley area, local artist Kal Barteski has painted murals of Artic animals on garages in the back lanes where she lives.
Where to Eat in Winnipeg
As a café-lover, I realize Winnipeg is good at this too. In the Exchange District, where the 1900s limestone architecture and warehouses are being spruced-up, is Clementine Café, considered one of the city’s best brunch spots. It is, and the coffee is superb too.
Also in this district is Peasant Cookery, well-known for its farm-to-table eating concept and legendary charcuterie boards. The Exchange District is also home to art galleries, boutique shops, Manitoba Museum, and the weekend market at Old Market Square. It’s an urban explorer’s paradise.
I discover Winnipeg is home to Canada’s largest urban indigenous population and slowly but surely, their culture is featuring more prominently in different ways.
Feast Café and Bistro
In the West End is Feast Café and Bistro, the city’s renowned Indigenous restaurant with dishes rooted in First Nations ingredients from the land, such as Manitoba grass-fed bison, and bannock, a flat quick bread of grains, once, widely consumed by Indigenous peoples to stave off starvation.
Founded by Peguis First Nation member Christa Bruneau-Guenther, Feast began as a community project and has since become of Winnipeg’s best-known restaurants.
Indigenous Art and History
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Winnipeg is yet to come. I head into the downtown area to Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), and it’s in this ship-design building that things get very interesting. WAG, like many public institutions, acknowledges the land it sits on, declaring it’s on “Treaty No. 1, the original lands of Anishinaabe, Ininiwak, Anishininiwak, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation.” I find Canada’s increasingly open acknowledgment of past wrongs refreshing and moving, even if there is still a very long way to go.
Inuit Art Center
As well as Canadian and Manitoban art, WAG has the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art—and that’s why they’re building the Inuit Art Center. When it opens in fall 2020, it will be the world’s only Inuit Art Center—a three-story glass vault structure that you can see into from the street.
During my visit, I glimpsed a tiny percentage of this vast collection. WAG has been collecting Inuit art since the 1950s—when Northern art was less well-known—such as intricate sculptures and carvings that show everyday life in the Arctic North. I know I’m soon heading to Churchill, but here’s another notable stat: While the North covers one-third of Canada, less than two percent of Canadians will make it there. And this makes the Inuit Art Center, in an urban setting, even more essential.
The Hermetic Code Mystery – Manitoba Legislative Building
Before leaving the city, I pay a visit to the somewhat dry-sounding Manitoba Legislative Building where there’s more than meets the eye. Dating back to the 1920s, when Winnipeg’s prospects were shinier, this is one of Canada’s most unusual architectural landmarks. It’s also where one Frank Albo, author of The Hermetic Code: Unlocking One of Manitoba’s Greatest Secrets, takes visitors on a code-cracking tour full of mystery and intrigue, as he unpicks the architecture and design to show the hidden occult clues, hieroglyphics, and Freemasonic symbols. I don’t know what to think by the end, but leave fascinated and in awe by his knowledge and years of research.
Manitoba’s 150th Anniversary
It’s all of this that gives Winnipeg an edge: This sense of innovation and things’ happening’. 2020 also marks Manitoba’s 150th anniversary into the confederation and there’s a packed calendar, including the Illuminate 150 display. Winnipeg is already a ‘festival’ city with events such as Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, Pride Winnipeg, Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, and Folkorama, the world’s longest-running multicultural event. Meanwhile, its food scene continues to evolve with the likes of new luxury food hall Hargrave St. Market with cocktail bar and on-site brewery.
I always love destinations on the cusp of change. Winnipeg is a city that’s remained relatively under the radar that’s coming into its own, where neighborhoods are forging their own identity and new businesses springing up as a result. And surely the Inuit Art Center will place Manitoba’s capital firmly on the Canadian cultural map. It may not be everyone’s favorite Canadian city, but Winnipeg has a distinct energy and personality. It’s certainly no armpit.
Meera Dattani is a freelance travel journalist, co-editor of Adventure.com and co-author of the Rough Guide to Cambodia. She has written travel features for The Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent and Evening Standard. A second-generation immigrant born in London, her parents were born and raised in Uganda, and her family roots lie in Gujarat, northwest India.
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