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!
“A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one” – Aristotle
Wandering the streets of Winnipeg, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been before. The truth was I’d never stepped foot anywhere in Manitoba prior to my arrival this summer, however, the provincial capital reminded me of Albany, New York, the state capital in which I was born and raised, and for that I liked it instantly.
My impressions of Winnipeg prior to arriving were more neutral – as a pop culture addict, I knew the episode from an episode of The Office poked fun at Winnipeg winters, while a mention on The Simpsons made light of Winnipeg’s reputation for self deprecation, among dozens of other throw away lines in movies and on tv. Neil Young, Nia Vardalos, Anna Paquin, and Winnie the Pooh — plus a bunch of famous winter sports people I’m clueless about – all hail from here. As a traveler, I knew it is as the gateway to the polar bear mecca of Churchill, a bucket-list trip for wanderers around the world. Traditionally, the rest of Manitoba rarely found its way into the destination daydreams of travelers – but that’s starting to change.
Recently, National Geographic named a journey to Winnipeg one of 2016’s Best Trips – how’s that for an endorsement? Affectionately nicknamed “The Peg” by the residents who love it, the city holds around 75% of the population of Manitoba – who despite their penchant for self-deprecating jokes, seem genuinely proud of the place they live, and for good reason. Throughout my visit I asked people over and over again, “what do you love about living in Winnipeg?,” and I always found myself smiling at their answers. Friendly people. Family first. The cultural benefits of a big city balanced with the simplicity of life in a small town, in a simpler time.
So why – other than National Geographic told you to – should you go? I could rattle off a list of the amazing restaurants I ate at, or go on about all the fun and funky things to do (and I plan to do both, in fact, in upcoming posts) but there’s more to Manitoba than its museums, food scene, festivals, and cultural offerings. Here’s a little preview of what made me smile in the city that reminded me so immensely of the one I hail from:
The people are warmer than the winters are cold
Winnipeg works overtime to live up to the reputation boasted on its provincial license plates: Friendly Manitoba. As a cold-hearted New Yorker, I at first reacted with suspicion to the hospitable immigration official who welcomed me at the Winnipeg Airport, to the chatty driver who wrote down his favorite restaurant recommendations for me, and to the random passersby on the street who all seemed to be smiling!
But I quickly caught on. A few days into my trip, when I peered into a café moments after the closed sign was flipped, I was barely shocked when the owner rushed out to apologize that the kitchen was indeed closed, but he’d be happy to make me a coffee if I needed a caffeine fix. And further afield, in Churchill, I just nodded when another traveler expressed shock at the kindness of a bakery owner who’s pie she’d gushed over before vowing to return for another slice. When another customer purchased the full pie off the counter the night before our return, the baker remembered that lady from Georgia who promised to come back for one more slice the next day – and so she woke up before dawn to make sure there was one waiting for her. That’s just Manitobans, I said.
And while they have their kindness and a love of their country in common, Manitobans are an impressively diverse bunch. The province is home to the largest French-speaking community in Western Canada, the largest urban aboriginal population in the country, and the largest Icelandic population outside Iceland in Gimli!
The prices are as friendly as the people
In Winnipeg, trendy, centrally-located boutique hotels and beautiful, trusted brand hotels alike can be had for $100-150 a night. Dinner at hip restaurants can set you back $30 – including a cocktail! Free entertainment options abound, while popular attractions are competitively priced. Many a Winnipeger confessed to me that the province has a reputation for frugality (when you search “are winnipegers…” Google autofills “friendly” and “cheap” as the suggested searches), a trait that translates to fabulous deals for travelers passing through. Add to it the strength of the American dollar, and US travelers hoping to visit their neighbor to the north have an attractive, affordable destination on their hands.
In contrast to the rest of the province, traveling to Churchill is a considerable expense. Offset the splurge of a visit there with a few days in Winnipeg to even out the per-day price of a Canadian vacation. Because after all…
If you’re going to Churchill, you have to…
Many international travelers come to Winnipeg as a stopover en route to the nature-lover’s paradise that is Churchill. Unreachable by road, Churchill can only be accessed via train or plane from Winnipeg. After spending a few days in Winnipeg en route to Churchill, I can only conclude you’d be crazy not to extend your mandatory layover and do the same.
And it’s not just those going north who stop here. Located in the true geographical center of North America (look at a map if you don’t believe me!), Winnipeg is also a frequent stop for those on coast to coast journeys across Canada.
…But it’s also a destination in its own right
This unpretentious city in the prairie better watch out – Winnipeg has plenty to brag about these days. Foodies are abuzz about the city’s culinary status as a hidden gem, architects and activists alike are flocking to the much lauded Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a built-a-trip-around-it kind of museum opened in 2014, and festival addicts are trying to keep the secret of some of Canada’s best and biggest celebrations.
Quite frankly, I arrived in Winnipeg sure that it was a destination I’d be able to tick off my list upon departure. Did I think I’d enjoy myself? Of course! The passion of my many local social media followers who cheered me on as I planned the trip made me sure of it!
But I had no idea that it was somewhere I’d be so eager to return to before I even left. Eventually, I gave in and started a list of all the Winnipeg attractions and restaurants I wanted to hit up on my next visit, which I hope will include side trips to the bison-filled Riding Mountain National Park and the lakeside Gimli.
Winnipeg will probably never have the same name recognition that larger Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver enjoy, just like Albany will never know the fame that New York City does. But I think this mid sized city with the small town smiles is just fine with that. For those that live there and those that pass through, there’s plenty to make the heart swell in the providence nicknamed Canada’s heart beat.
Where to stay: The Fairmont Winnipeg is perfectly located for access to both the Downtown and the Exchange District, boasts a gorgeous indoor rooftop pool and gym, amazing customer service, and fabulous food options. The Four Points is located within a five minute walk of the airport and is perfect for catching early morning flights. I give a huge thumbs up to both. Other options that caught my eye include the cute The Inn at The Forks, the modern Mere Hotel, and the uber-stylish ALT Hotel.
Where to eat: Stay tuned for a whole post of favorites!
How to get around: Much of the city is walkable. For the bits that aren’t, Uber and Lyft are sadly not available, though Unicity Taxis can be ordered by phone or by app and found at some hotels. Though I didn’t use it, there is an efficient Winnipeg Transit public bus system that can be navigated with the help of the Navigo tool.
Bonus tip: Follow Travel Manitoba and Tourism Winnipeg on Instagram for plenty of pre-trip inspiration!
This post was produced by me, brought to you by Travel Manitoba.
I am so excited to be hearing about your Canadian adventures! Canada has long been on my list as well, and I can’t wait to add Winnipeg to that
You’ll have plenty of ideas by the time this series is done 🙂
What a cute town, I’ll make sure I’ll avoid it!
I visited Edinburgh years ago and I fell in love with exactly the same reason you describe above: how friendly and helpful the people are. A few years later I moved there. I just bought a house in the Netherlands, so I can’t afford to move to Winnipeg 😉
Ha, well considering how affordable Winnipeg is, you really might have to avoid it… might be too tempting to resist!
I am so pumped to read about you coming to Canada, and I can find more inspiration to travel my own country!
It’s fun exploring your own backyard, isn’t it?
that is a great post, loved it!!
Thank you! Lots more Canada headed your way soon!
I love that you went to Winnipeg!! I was born there! Can’t wait to read more about your Canadian adventures 🙂
Yay for Winnipeg 🙂 What a great place to call home.
Alright, we’ll go to Winnipeg first before we train it up to the belugas with our tanks, cool?
Absotootly! I propose we schedule said visit around Folklorama or one of the other big festivals… and maybe tack on a side trip to Gimli to hang with the Icelanders 🙂
Winnipeg is my home city. I think it is a great city to live and to visit. I have written about its many attractions (the Human Right Museum, the Forks, the hermetic secrets tour of the Legislative Building, Museum of Man and Nature, the French heritage in St. Boniface, the Forks, the historic Exchange District, its festivals and more). The rest of Manitoba has lots to offer too. Lots of lakes in the province. Sadly, very few Winnipeggers have made it to Churchill because that trip is so expensive. I glad you enjoyed both Winnipeg and Churchill.
You have a wonderful place to call home! I hope you’ll check out my latest post, where I detail some of the attractions you mention as well.
Thank you I enjoyed this post, I would love to visit Canada one day there are many places in the world I would like to visit if I ever get to them it would be great.
Canada has definitely caught my attention as a traveler in recent years! Hope you get the chance to head there soon 🙂
I have yet to meet a Canadian town that I didn’t love! That country’s got it goin’ on!
Which begs the question… which is your favorite? 😛
I grew up just south of Winnipeg in North Dakota and have visited the city many times, including a weekend trip at age 18 to take advantage of the lower drinking age. Great post and city. 🙂
However, I have to correct you on the “geographical center of North America” claim. Winnipeg is on the longitudinal center, but Rugby, North Dakota is the actual center!
Ha, I did the same with Montreal, growing up in Albany 😉 And I’ll have to break the geography news to several people in Winnipeg — I heard that fact touted many times! Perhaps they mean it in a more general way? 😉
As a Winnipeger myself, I had a big smile across my face as I read this post! So glad you enjoyed your visit!
I did, and I loved the suggestions from so many Winnipegers on social media throughout my trip! Such a helpful, friendly bunch!
As a travel blogger myself who grew up in Winnipeg, I’m excited to see this fresh look at my home town. Great writing, Alex!
Fun! I would love to read some travel bloggers’ takes on my hometown. Anyone want to come to Albany? 🙂
I’m a Winnipegger, and have spent the summer working in the tourism industry- can I also recommend some of the many tours in the West End/downtown/exchange district areas? Some highlights include the Exchange District’s Death and Debauchery tour, the West End BIZ mural tours (for which I am the tour guide!), and a whole host of restaurant tours, including a patio crawl. Winnipeg has been getting more attention than usual lately and I love it!! We’d love to have you back!
Hey Cailey! I took one of those tours and wrote about it in this post. I’d love to come back too!
I was pleased to read about your visit to my home town!! I no longer live there however it will always be my home! Thank you for the beautiful write up. Winnipeg is often missed in the travels of Canada and it has a lot to offer all year round!
I agree! I met a family from Luxembourg that were traveling in Manitoba for three weeks and they said they had gotten a LOT of questions as to how they ended up there, ha. But they were loving their trip! They couldn’t understand why everyone was so mystified that they chose Manitoba 🙂
Have you tried the restaurant called ‘Dwarf no Cachette’ on Provencher? It’s amazing if you love Japanese cuisine!
Unfortunately I didn’t! Stay tuned for my next post on where I did eat though 🙂
I’m not from Manitoba, and I’ve yet to go to Winnipeg (even just in passing), but it made me feel proud of my country to read about your wonderful experience there! Manitoba has always seemed to be overlooked as a “boring, flat province”, yet it has a lot to offer and is actually quite lovely. I can’t wait to read more about your experience there!
I love to fall in love with places other travelers are unimpressed by 🙂 But I think Canadians are too hard on Manitoba. It’s beautiful!