Hey friends! I’m jumping out of my typical chronologically-based coverage to skip ahead and share my recent trip to Canada. We’ll be back to Thailand soon!
What do you know about Winnipeg? I admit, I haven’t done more exploring of my neighbor to the north. Having only briefly visited Montreal and Toronto in the past, my travel experience in Canada was limited and I didn’t have much to base my expectations on before heading to Manitoba this summer.
What I definitely didn’t anticipate? A Canadian capital bursting with creative people, lively music, delicious food, inspiring art and architecture, and a calendar overflowing with events to attend. For a metropolitan area of just 660,000, there’s a shockingly impressive number of tours attend, attractions to tick off and neighborhoods to explore — the toughest part of a traveler’s trip to Winnipeg will be deciding which to fit into their trip.
In just five days, I managed to see and experience an impressive number of quintessentially Winnipeg wonders. But each day, my wish list got longer — everywhere I turned I saw posters for things I wanted to do and see: Royal Ballet performances at Assiniboine Park, rooftop cocktail lessons with the bartender at Forth, yoga hiking tours through nearby nature… one trip just wasn’t enough.
So if you’re Manitoba bound in the near future — and here’s a list of reasons why you should be — take notes! But don’t be surprised if you get distracted by something else on the way to your intended destination.
1. Soak Away Your Travel Stress
My first stop out of the airport was Thermëa Winnipeg, a Scandinavian-inspired spa 8km from downtown. Grab your swimsuit, a pair of flip flops and a robe (you can rent one onsite if that’s not something that regularly makes its way into your suitcase, but I love that you can bring your own too) and get ready to work out every kink you developed on the flight in. The complex might look like a sprawling playground for the spa set — and it is! — but there’s a method to the madness. And that’s the three step thermal cycle of hot, cold and relaxation.
Step one: warm up for 10-15 minutes in the finlandia dry sauna, vaporo steam rooms, or barik dry sauna to eliminate toxins. Step two: cool down for a few minutes at the iceber cold waterfall, the polarbër cold plunge, or the tempër temperate pool to release adrenaline. Step three: relax at the fläm fire pit, the relaxa pavilion, the ëdena forest beach, or the gëser hot tub to release endorphins. Repeat until your fingers turn to raisins!
I figured I’d spend an hour or two or Thermëa, but found myself reluctant to leave five hours later as they closed up shop. And I didn’t even splurge on any of the extra treatments like massages — just being there felt like an indulgence! Highlights included the Finnish Aufguss ritual, exfoliating with homemade potions in exfoliä, dinner in the excellent onsite restaurant — bathrobes welcome — and sipping herbal teas while zen-ing out on the heated stone beds in the relaxa pavilion.
Winnipeg has a strong spa game — I heard other travelers rave about the hamam treatment at Ten Spa, which I look forward to checking out next time I’m in town. Or I might just head back to Thermëa again for one of their events and specials like Foodie Wednesdays, a weekly four course meal with wine pairings, yoga on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, or Lounge Thursdays, a monthly even featuring a DJ and an upbeat atmosphere. I’m obsessed!
2. Take in a Festival
It’s almost hard not to overlap with a festival when visiting Manitoba. My own trip coincided with the Winnipeg Fringe, the third largest fringe festival in the world after Edinburgh and Edmonton. Other festivals in the province include the Winnipeg Wine Festival (sign me up!), the Gimli Film Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (looks like my kind of glamping fun!), the Hudson Bay Quest, the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba (the largest Icelandic community outside Iceland in the world!), the Soca Festival, the International Jazz Festival, and Folklorama (the largest and longest running multi cultural festival of its kind in the world!). Clearly, this is a province that knows how to party.
It was almost impossible to flip through the Winnipeg Fringe booklet and try to decide which shows to see. Manitoba-focused shows like The Humourists, “a stand up buffet of Winnipeg’s premier female comedians” and Places to Wait, a one man show about a traveler stranded in the Winnipeg airport both caught my eye, though I eventually ended up at Tipped and Tipsy, a fabulous one woman show by San Francisco actress Jill Vice and One Woman Sex and the City, a hilarious one woman show by Kerry Ipema of Brooklyn.
Tipped and Tipsy told the story of a long night at the bar from the perspective of both employees and patrons, and felt familiar to anyone in the audience who has spent a significant time on either side of the bar! One Woman Sex and the City was a brilliant parody that breezed through all six seasons of the show with wit, nostalgia, and style.
Best supporting cast goes to the people of Winnipeg, who so enthusiastically support the Fringe. I loved watching the city come together to support these creative, hard working artists.
3. Learn and Listen at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
There are museums that you head to on a rainy afternoon, or meander into when you find you have a few spare hours in your schedule. And then there are museums that you plan entire trips around them, and return to over and over again. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Canada’s first national museum outside Ottawa, is one of the latter. You might not have it to yourself, though, considering Travel +Leisure called it one of the world’s coolest new attractions in 2015.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the world’s only museum solely dedicated to awareness of human rights, where the world’s oldest forms of storytelling meet some of the most cutting edge technology I’ve ever seen in a gallery. While CMHR is not so much an artifact museum as a dialogue one, there are still amazing objects on display like a red prom dress worn to the first integrated prom in Wilcox, Georgia in 2013, two pages of original draft of the 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and chilling design drawings of Nazi concentration camps.
Understandably, the museum has a distinct focus on Canadian stories and struggles, though makes an impressive effort to be inclusive of human rights efforts and failings from throughout time and the world. Twelve galleries, rotating exhibition spaces, a café and an ethically sourced gift shop make up the base of the building, while the Tower of Hope, which provides amazing views of the city, just up into the sky. Changing exhibits while I visited included Sight Unseen, an international photography exhibit featuring blind artists and Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities. I challenge you not to be touched – or even tear up – at the visitor submitted sentiments in the “Inspiring Change” gallery.
History buffs won’t be the only ones impressed here. One glance is enough to understand why so many architecture aficionados are flocking here. The museum’s inclusive design surpasses all current standards and blew me away with its thoughtfulness — even the business cards handed out by museum staff are translated into braille.
Set aside ample time for this — the average visit is three hours. Guided tours are available (and excellent), while a free mobile app allows for self exploration as well.
4. Explore the Exchange District
One of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Winnipeg, the Exchange District is twenty-square blocks of sweetness. The warehouses that originally filled the area have been given new life as independent restaurants, shops, and galleries — in fact, the Exchange District is home to the city’s highest concentration of artists. Boutiques like Tiny Feast left me swooning while eateries like Bronuts and News Café — a practitioner of “live journalism” — left me wanting seconds.
Tempted to explore? The non-profit Exchange District BIZ offers an amazing array of tours focused on history, biking, food and photography. With many of the tour guests being locals who want to get to know their own city a bit better, it’s a great way to meet some lovely Manitobans! Also check the overflowing event calendar, filled with festivals, concerts, and events like First Fridays.
Personally, this was my favorite piece of the Winnipeg puzzle.
5. Stroll Over to St. Boniface
Across the Provencher Bridge from Downtown and The Exchange District sits St. Boniface, the largest concentrated community of Canadian French speakers outside Quebec – a full 10% of Manitobans parle francais. The French were the first to make contact with indigenous peoples in southern Manitoba, and Metis leader Louis Riel was buried in the St. Boniface Cathedral Cemetery.
If you want to explore the history and highlights of St. Bonifice, consider a bilingual walking tour with Tourism Riel. Admittedly, I didn’t know who several of the historical figures that were brought up on the ninety minute tour were, though I could guess from the reverence expressed by my Quebecois fellow tourists that they were tres a big deal. Otherwise, stroll over on your own and enjoy a coffee at Café Postal (rumored to be the best in the city), ogle a chocolate map of Canada at Constance Popp confectionery, and soak up the distinctly Francophone flavor of the neighborhood.
6. Take a Bike Tour from The Forks
The Forks, a fifty four acre entertainment complex containing a central market, several dining options, accommodation, walkways and bike paths, is Winnipeg’s number one tourist destination. Rising from the intersection of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, The Forks have been an important meeting place in Manitoba’s history for over 6,000 years. Today, it continues to be a bustling area all year. In the summer, outdoor yoga classes, a farmer’s market, and Salsa Sundays all grace the schedule, while in the winter, the waters freeze over and become the Guinness Record-holding longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world. Skaters can check out the winners of the creative warming huts competition, or dine at the much buzzed about RAW: almond pop up restaurant on the ice.
Ice seemed a million miles away on the hot summer day I visited to take a bike tour with White Pine Bicycle Co. As I’d already seen several areas of the city, our guide created a custom itinerary that took in the ritzy houses of Wellington Crescent, the charming “granola belt” of Wolseley, the university vibe of West End, and a peek at the River Walk after passing through the Exchange District. Rides last 2-4 hours and with offerings like a mural tour and an extensive prairie tour, I have a feeling I’ll be back for another someday. Prefer to play tour guide to yourself? Rentals are also available.
7. Take a “Journey to Churchill”
No train or plane ticket required! At least not the Assiniboine Park and Zoo’s version. Open year-round and home to over two hundred species, the star attraction at this Winnipeg institution is undoubtedly its Journey to Churchill exhibit, which highlights the province’s special northern species as well as the town where many travel to see them in the wild. Seven polar bears call the exhibit home, as do muskoxen, snow owls, arctic fox, wolves and beyond. You can read about how each of the bears came to call the zoo home here; most were orphaned early in life and would not have survived in the wild without their mothers.
Other crowd-pleasers at the zoo include the McFeetors Heavy Horse Center, which takes a peek at Manitoba’s pioneer past, and the Leatherdale International Polar Beach Conservation Centre, a hub for environmental education, research and conservation. The zoo is just one of many features in the extensive Assiniboine Park complex which boasts free movies in the park, a summer concert series, and an extensive array of gardens and fields. Remember how I said Winnipeg is a great value destination? Guests are welcome to bring their own food and drink into the zoo — a policy I’ve never heard of anywhere in the world! — so feel free to pack a picnic and make a day of it.
8. Eat Everything!
Talk about a hidden gem — Air Canada recently called Winnipeg the country’s “most overlooked food destination.” I was so enamored with the eateries I sampled in my short visit that I’m putting together a guide of my own in an upcoming post! But if you’re chomping at the bit for a preview, check out local food blog Peg City Grub for a taste of what’s on offer in Winnipeg.
Okay, Manitobans! What do I need to add to my list for next time?
This post was produced by me, brought to you by Travel Manitoba.