Winnipeg surprises. It's a large and cosmopolitan city rising from the vast plains of southern Manitoba, not the regional town some may expect. Winnipeg is home to the world-class Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Blue Bombers football team and many other treasures. Fine museums, good local transit and a stimulating, multicultural atmosphere contribute to the sophistication.
Settlers in Winnipeg have included indigenous aboriginal people, French- and English-speaking Canadians, Germans, Ukrainians, Chinese, Filipinos and others. This mix gives the town its international flavor, which manifests in a wonderful variety of markets, restaurants and cultural centers.
This sophistication is nicely balanced by the town's wide-open, Western feel, its proximity to the surrounding farmlands and by the fact that it's relatively small, as big cities go. Winnipeg is easy to get to know and yet complex enough for an interesting visit.
Winnipeg sits halfway between the east and west coasts of Canada in the province of Manitoba. It is centered on the junction of the Red River, which flows north into the massive Lake Winnipeg, and the Assiniboine River, which empties into the Red River. The rivers' confluence served for thousands of years as a gathering and trading spot for North American aboriginal people who arrived from the vast lakes region to the north and east and from the wide, wild prairies to the west. The city sits at the eastern fringe of the northern Great Plains. The rugged wilderness of the Canadian Shield is situated to the east and northeast of Winnipeg, and three large lakes, the remnants of glacial-era Lake Agassiz, are to the north: Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Winnipeg (the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world).
Winnipeg takes its name from the Cree word winnipee
, or "muddy water." The area gained its first permanent colonial occupants in 1812 with the Red River Settlement, when Scottish Lord Selkirk began taking Scottish and Irish immigrants to the area where French-speaking fur traders and Metis people had been living since the late 1700s. (The Metis are those descended from unions between the Scots or French and the Native Americans.) Metis native son Louis Riel (after whom a provincial holiday in mid-February has been named) became a prominent local leader, heading a provisional government 1869-70 that eventually negotiated an act with the Canadian government to establish Manitoba as a province and to protect French-language rights. Riel, however, also led civil insurrections against a fledgling Canadian government in both southern Manitoba and neighboring Saskatchewan. Although hanged as a rebel in 1885, Riel later came to be recognized as the father of Manitoba.
Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873, and the arrival of the railway in 1881 formalized the city's role as Canada's "Gateway to the West." Once called "Chicago of the North" for its early rail yards and meat-packing industry, Winnipeg today is Manitoba's largest city and its capital. It is also home to a growing biotechnology sector, with the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (Canada's version of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control) and the National Research Council Institute for Biodiagnostics. Now one of Canada's largest cities, Winnipeg covers more than 145 sq mi/375 sq km.
There's plenty of history to be found in Winnipeg, since this city is where Canada's west truly began. Replicas of the earliest settlements—wood-stake construction from those days didn't last long—can still be seen at the former center for fur-trading, Lower Fort Garry and at Fort Gibraltar, once a favorite place of the voyagers. Visitors can chat with role-playing, costumed employees to learn a bit of history.
The Exchange District presents a more modern and different kind of living history, where contemporary businesses, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants occupy a carefully preserved, late-19th-century district. The Exchange District Biz operates a historic walking tour well-worth taking.
The city's much more modern downtown is characterized by the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street, each with eight-lane traffic. Said to be the windiest intersection in Canada, pedestrian traffic is prohibited at Portage and Main. Underground corridors and shopping facilitate a year-round safe and climate-comfortable crossing.
Winnipeg's vast green spaces should be seen to be appreciated. Early-20th-century city fathers showed remarkable prescience when setting aside large tracts as parks for the use of future residents. Neatly manicured Kildonan Park, Assiniboine Park and the neighboring, purely wild Assiniboine Forest are all worth leisurely strolls.
The city's primary nightlife areas are in Osborne Village, along a section of Portage Avenue just west of the city center, and around the busy East Exchange District, where many clubbing hot spots reside in historic old buildings. Some of the names may change frequently, but they remain clubs of one sort or another, and there are plenty of after-hours bars and restaurants to sustain party-hearty sorts into the wee hours of the morning.
For more rough-and-tumble bar-hopping, some watering-hole bars in local hotel chains are not tricked out for tourists and can get rowdy. They can be recognized by the nicknames locals use for them: A bar with an informal moniker like "the Jimmy" or "the Pemby" usually means a neighborhood pub frequented by testosterone-laden young males out to prove their masculinity by picking a fight or two. Be mindful that there have been several occurrences of violence at nightclubs in The Exchange District.
More sedate but equally adrenalin-charged forms of entertainment can be found at the city's two casinos, Club Regent and McPhillips Street, where lounge shows range from Abba or Elvis tribute singers to touring jazz combos.
Winnipeg claims to have the most restaurants in Canada on a per-capita basis, so newcomers to Manitoba and Winnipeg will be pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of restaurants and the wide variety of ethnic cuisines available. More than 40 nationalities are represented in Winnipeg's various restaurants, including Chinese, Italian, Greek, Polish, Japanese, Mexican, Caribbean, Ethiopian, East Indian and Thai.
One of the best places to shop for gourmet food items is The Forks Market. We found a big variety of sophisticated and exotic delicacies there. If you're looking for organic, gluten-free or vegan options, try the Organza Natural and Organic Market located next to the Dandelion Eatery at 230 Osborne St,, Winnipeg's "Crazy Corner" (where Pembina Highway, Osborne Street and Corydon Avenue converge). Phone 204-453-6266 or visit http://organzamarket.com.
For a choice of several good international restaurants and cutting-edge eateries, try Osborne Street in Osborne Village, Corydon Avenue's Little Italy, Academy Road or the eastern Exchange District.
Here is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding taxes, drinks and tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$30; $$$ = Can$31-$40; $$$$ = more than Can$40.
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