Winnipeg sits at the very center of Manitoba, and of Canada for that matter. As the capital and largest city of its province, out in the middle of nowhere far away from the closest city, Winnipeg rises out of the flat plains of the prairies like a mirage. It is situated where the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers converge, more than 550 kilometers (350 miles) east of Regina and 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) west of Toronto, connected only by the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway.
With a population of 650,000 people, Winnipeg is Manitoba’s only major city and home to half the province’s inhabitants. The heart of Winnipeg, Western Canada’s oldest city, is the junction of Portage Avenue and Main Street – two streets that extend out for miles across the prairies in the direction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
This provincial capital is cosmopolitan in character, civilly cultured, and very likeable. Its people are friendly. The city features lovely riverside walks, pleasant parks, wealthy suburbs with old-style mansions, and at the northeastern section of the city, you’ll find a haven of old warehouses and depots that remind visitors of its once important role as a distribution center for Canada. In flat downtown, the buildings testify to a policy of urban development that has respected the city’s older, stately buildings, while remaining undaunted by the necessity for change and innovation.
The most famous spot in town is Portage Avenue and Main Street. Billed as the coldest and windiest spot in Canada, this corner now has an underground mall and link ways to provide a refuge for residents Weather is extreme in Winnipeg, hitting highs in the 80’s in the summer and lows of minus 5ºF in the winter, thanks to blizzards and heaps of snow that freeze every bone in the body. Winnipeggers, though, are used to all this. They boast about their ability to withstand the harshest of conditions and bravely venture out for evening entertainment whatever the weather may be.
The harsh climate of Winnipeg combined with its isolation from any major city for thousands of miles has allowed the city to develop its own rich cultural scene. The critically-acclaimed symphony orchestra, the Manitoba Opera Company, the world-famous Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Theatre Centre are just a few highlights of Winnipeg culture. The city also has a nice share of the country’s finest museums.
Winnipeg’s cultural life is further enriched by the diverse ethnic mix of its residents. First settled by the Indians, Metis, British, and French, the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway brought Chinese laborers to the mix. Then came more Europeans, both Western and Eastern, including Mennonites, Ukrainians, and Icelanders. The influx of different people created ethnic-based communities around the city. Today, these districts still retain some of their original cultural flavors. The downtown area, for example, has a prominent Chinatown. South of the river in the St. Boniface district is the French-speaking part of town, whereas the southern region is more distinctly British. The diverse and multicultural make-up of the city is celebrated every August by Winnipeggers with the Folklorama festival.
The most noticeable aspect of Winnipeg, however, is the self-sufficiency of its residents. Harsh weather and isolation has a way of developing strong character in people. But even the cityscape of Winnipeg seems to mimic this strength and solidity: the buildings are cast iron, the houses are mansion-like, and the stockyards and warehouses are huge. So, if you are as strong, resilient, and brave as Winnipeggers and their city, you’ll probably like this destination.
The Exchange District is a 20-block area that extends from the junction of Portage Avenue and Main Street all the way to the Centennial Centre. It is considered the heart of Winnipeg and includes the famous cold spot at Portage Avenue and Main Street. The buildings in this intersection are connected to each other by an underground shopping mall. Since the beginning, Portage and Main has been the commercial hub of Manitoba. The most important of the buildings is the one at 360 Main, which houses the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange, for which the district is named after. Visitors can watch brokers in action on the trading floor from a gallery above. Trading takes place from 9:30 am to 1:15 pm and guided tours are provided. Many of the old buildings in the district are still standing, thanks to the city’s incentive program aimed at preserving heritage buildings. The ornate Electric Railways Chambers is one of them. This old building is a reminder of how important the railway once was to Winnipeg’s economy.
The Exchange District is more than just a center of commerce and finance, however. Many of the heritage buildings that have been restored are used for restaurants and boutique stores. The most popular strip is the Bannatyne Avenue and King Street area known as Market Square, where you’ll find trendy restaurants, shops, and market stalls. Street entertainers are everywhere here during the summer. At night, lively eateries, clubs, and theatres fill the scene.
The Centennial Centre stands at Main Street on the edge of the Exchange District. It is a complex comprising several buildings, including the Centennial Concert Hall, the Planetarium, and the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. Just as its name suggests, the museum is devoted to the study and exhibition of the province’s culture, geology, and natural history. Sound, sight, and smell are combined to enhance the educational experience. Highlighted are the prairie lands as well as the native way of life and the early pioneer dwellings. The Arctic-Subarctic Gallery showcases the environment and way of life in the Hudson Bay region. The Urban Gallery features a reconstructed 1920’s Winnipeg street with moving displays that depict the challenges faced by the early immigrants. The best part of the museum is the Nonsuch full-scale replica. This sailing craft left London in 1668, discovered the Hudson Bay, and returned to the Old World with a boat full of furs.
Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre
The Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre is at 184 Alexander Avenue East, fairly close to the Centennial Centre. This old building is a museum and art gallery that features archived material as well as temporary exhibitions on the history and culture of the Ukrainian people, the province’s second largest immigrant group. Samples of carvings, ceramics, embroidery, costumes, and painted Easter eggs known as pysankys are on display.
Upper Fort Garry Gate
The Upper Fort Garry Gate can be seen at a tiny park south along Main Street opposite the railway station. The gate is all that is left of the Hudson’s Bay Fort, which dates back to 1822.
Fort Garry Hotel
The Fort Garry Hotel is a Winnipeg landmark east along Broadway, a chateau-like hotel built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1913. The design by Ross and Macdonald aspired to emulate the style and standards of New York’s Plaza Hotel.
The Dalnavert at 61 Carlton Street is located south of Broadway and is the city’s best example of the Victorian, Queen Anne style architecture. The house was built for Sir Hugh John Macdonald, who was not only a premier of Manitoba in the early 20th century, but also the son of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. This red-brick building was ahead of its time, installed with electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and a number of household gadgetry. Today, it is a museum dedicated to educating the public about the Victorian era. It is open everyday throughout the year.
The Legislative Building at the junction of Broadway Street and Osborne is a magnificent piece of architecture and the city’s best example of the neoclassical style. It was designed by English architect Frank Worthington Simon and completed in 1919. Its H-shaped structure employs Tyndall limestone, which has a unique texture to it due to its richness in fossil deposits. The top of the building is capped by a dome with a gold-plated statue known as the Golden Boy. This figure was sculpted by Frenchman Charles Cadet. It shows a boy with a torch in one hand and a wheat sheaf on the other, honoring the importance of this crop in the city’s early development. Today, the figure is somewhat of a symbol of Winnipeg.
The Legislative Building is surrounded by lovely grounds, decorated by statues honoring the province’s different ethnic groups and their distinguished countrymen. Included is a statue of Louis Riel.
The interior of the Legislative Building is impressive. Free tours are conducted during the summer months and visitors are always permitted to sit in at the Legislative Chamber.
Winnipeg Art Gallery
The Winnipeg Art Gallery is housed in a recognizable wedge-shaped building at 300 Memorial Boulevard. It has a varied and superb collection of international art, but is most acclaimed for its collection of Inuit works. The gallery also features other kinds of art in temporary exhibitions. In general, the art gallery serves as the center for cultural events in Winnipeg.
St Boniface District
The St Boniface district sits across the Red River, and is the largest French-speaking community in the west and the oldest one in Canada. French traders first settled the district in 1738 when Pierre Gaultier de la Varendrye and his group arrived. However, a substantive French community did not really exist until 1819 after a church was built. St. Boniface soon became a district of French Canadians and Metis.
Sights in St. Boniface include the St. Boniface Basilica. This modern church stands on the same site as an earlier cathedral that burned down in 1968. The churchyard’s cemetery is the burial site of Louis Riel’s body. He was executed after leading the failed Northwest Rebellion.
An 1846 oak structure stands next to the St. Boniface Basilica. For decades, this served as a convent for Grey Nuns. Today, it houses the St. Boniface Museum with its large collection of Metis artifacts as well as items and memorabilia related to Louis Riel and the early settlers.
The Church of the Precious Blood is another interest structure in the district. It is more modern than the other buildings and is shaped like a teepee.
The Riel House is located at the southern edge of the city at 330 River Road, St. Vital. The name of the house is a bit deceiving. Louis Riel never lived in it, but the Riel family did. The house is near the river and has been restored to its state, as it was in 1885 when the Metis leader was executed.
Canadian Royal Mint
The Canadian Royal Mint is at 520 Lagimodiere Boulevard, housed in a striking glass pyramid structure. This is where coins are produced for other countries. Guided tours are offered. Visitors can to see the high-tech equipment and complex processes involved in coining money.
Assiniboine Park is a large recreation area on the west side of town at 2355 Corydon Avenue. Flower beds, English gardens, and a miniature railway are some of the features of this park. There is also an old pavilion where cricket is sometimes played and a Queen Victoria statue erected in the garden. The highlight of the park is the zoo, which has a population of 1,200 creatures and flower species, from birds, to monkeys, to exotic plants. On the south side of the park lies the Assiniboine River about 7 miles or 11 kilometers away from downtown.
Western Canadian Aviation Museum
The Western Canadian Aviation Museum is the perfect attraction for aircraft and aviation enthusiasts. The museum is actually at the Winnipeg International Airport, which is west of downtown. You’ll get to see various historical aircrafts on display.
A popular activity among tourists is to take a river cruise along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Both daytime and nighttime cruises on the M.S. Lady Rouge, Lord Selkirk II, or M.S. Lady Winnipeg are offered. Paddlewheel cruises are also available on one of two cruises: the M.S. Paddlewheel Princess or the M.S. Paddlewheel Queen.
Another popular trip is the Prairie Dog Central. This early 20th century steam train takes passengers on a two-hour trip Grosse Isle. Along the way, passengers are treated to the golden views of the prairies. Grosse Isle is about 36 miles or 58 kilometers away from Winnipeg. The trip not only offers nice countryside scenery, but also the unique experience of traveling the old fashioned way. The train runs during the summer. It departs from the St. James Street Station, which is located at 1661 Portage Avenue.
Winnipeg celebrates ethnic diversity and multiculturalism in Augusts with the lively Folklorama Festival. It takes place in 40 different pavilions across town. Each venue is devoted to a different ethnicity or culture. The programs typically include parades, music, arts and crafts, traditional dancing, and samplings of ethnic foods. To join in on the festivities, you have to purchase an admission “passport”, which grants entry to the pavilions and on the shuttle buses that transport people from pavilion to pavilion.
The other major festival in Winnipeg is the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a four-day affair in mid-July. It is usually held at Birds hill Park, which is about 20 miles or 32 kilometers outside of the city. This international event features all kinds of music performances, including gospel and bluegrass.
Hockey fans can see the American Hockey League, Manitoba Moose, play at the MTS Centre at 300 Portage Avenue. This team is the minor league affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. The arena sits on the former Eaton’s site and can seat 15,000 spectators. The season runs from October to April.
Football fans can watch Canadian Football League games with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers playing their home games at the Canad Inns Stadium at 1465 Maroons Road.
Thoroughbred racing can be enjoyed throughout the year at the Assiniboia Downs at 3975 Portage Avenue. This venue is about 9 miles or 14 kilometers west of the city.
Hiking paths and cycling trails are found in the city parks. Most of the swimming pools in Winnipeg are indoors, including the large Pan-Am Pool at 25 Poseidon Bay. There are several tennis courts in the city, both private and public. Golfers can choose from seven different public courses.
In the winter, Birds Hill Provincial Park, which is northeast of the city some 20 miles (32 kilometers), becomes a popular place for snowmobiling. Ice skating is favorite activity of Winnipeggers and there are no shortage of rinks.
The province offers excellent fishing. Unfortunately, none of it is in Winnipeg. You’ll have to travel outside of Winnipeg to get your fix. The Tourist Information Centers provide details on where to go, including information about Manitoba’s famous canoe routes.
Winnipeg has a number of shopping malls. The most modern one is Portage Place. This complex features two skybridges that connect it with the Bay department store and the MTS Centre, which is where the city’s ice hockey team plays.
Winnipeg Square is another shopping complex, only it’s underground. This mall is located underneath the junction of Portage Avenue and Main Street.
The Exchange District has most of the city’s trendy shops and specialty boutiques. Arts, crafts, and food stalls are found at the Old Market Square, which is located at King Street and Bannatyne Avenue. Another place to purchase local and imported arts and crafts is Osborne Village along Osborne Street. The district is near the Legislative Building. You’ll find a busy area full of odd shops, including antique stores. The gift shop at the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre (184 Alexander Avenue East) has some unusual gifts.
The nightlife in Winnipeg is lively. The hub of the city’s sophisticated cultural scene is the Manitoba Centennial Centre (555 Main Street). This complex features the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Warehouse Theatre, Centennial Concert Hall, and the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.
Winnipeg’s theatre season doesn’t really begin until September and lasts until early May. The main venue is the Manitoba Theatre Center at 174 Market Avenue. You’ll find serious drama productions, comedies, and other staged genres. The smaller Warehouse Theatre usually presents more experimental productions. Several other theatres are found around the city, including the Gas Station Theatre at 445 River Avenue. It is known for its innovative shows.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is the city’s most famous and beloved cultural institutions. The company performs both modern and classical works at the Centennial Concert Hall (555 Main Street). Every summer, it also gives a free outdoor performance at Assiniboine Park. It shares the Centennial Concert Hall with the Manitoba Opera Association and the critically-acclaimed Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
The Art Gallery at 300 Memorial Boulevard has performances a variety of music, including classical, folk, and jazz. The Blue Note Café at 220 Main Street is an after-hours club that seats about 50 people. It features mostly blues and jazz performances.
For rock and other live music, the hotel lounges are the best bets. Pubs and bars are found everywhere throughout town and the nightclub scene is quite lively in Winnipeg.
Dining in Winnipeg is exciting. The diverse ethnic mix means there are many types of cuisines to choose from. For a city of its size, Winnipeg has a lot of restaurants, but most of them are closed, unfortunately, on Sundays.
Winnipeg was once a land roamed by the Cree and Assiniboine Indians. French explorer and fur trapper Pierre Gaultier de la Verendrye was the first white man to discover the area. He came in 1738 and established a fort at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The fur trade blossomed in Winnipeg despite the heated conflicts that arose between rival factions. In 1812, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave some land in the Red River valley to Lord Selkirk, who founded a Scottish settlement that served as a supply center for the company.
Selkirk and his Scottish Highlanders came to Winnipeg to seek a more prosperous life. They farmed the area. The settlement, however, suffered a number of challenges. Regular flooding and pestilence made farming difficult. Moreover, the Metis people hunted the buffalo in the area and saw the farming as a threat to their livelihood. They attacked the settlement in 1816 and killed 20 Scots in the “Seven Oaks Massacre”. Despite the setbacks, the colony grew, albeit slowly. A town began developing around the confluence of the two rivers, which were used as a valuable sea link to the U.S. and to the west.
In 1870, Manitoba joined Canada as a newly-formed province. Three years later, Winnipeg was incorporated as a city and made the provincial capital. The city expanded rapidly after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886 linked Winnipeg to the rest of Canada. The influx of immigrants helped the city develop its agricultural and manufacturing industry. Winnipeg quickly became the financial capital and distribution center of the region, and remains so today with its large Commodity Exchange. Today, the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street remains the center of Winnipeg’s financial district and its downtown area.
How to Get There
The Winnipeg International Airport is about 4 miles or 6 kilometers from downtown, which is about a 20-minute drive. Give more time during rush hour. The airport has flights coming in from all over Canada and the U.S. A city bus service runs from the airport to downtown and back, while an airport limo service transports people from the airport to downtown hotels.
Via Rail provides train services to Vancouver, Toronto, Jasper, Edmonton, and Saskatoon. The station is located in downtown at 101-123 Main Street.
Greyhound bus operates routes to almost every town in Manitoba. The bus station is located in downtown at 487 Portage Place.
Because Winnipeg is so far away from any other major city, chances are your drive will be long whether you are driving into or out of the city. Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) runs in and out of the city to Toronto (1,300 miles or 2,093 kilometers) and Calgary (844 miles or 1359 kilometers). To reach Winnipeg from Minnesota, take I-94 and I-29 in the U.S before merging with Highway 75 in Manitoba.
“Canad Inns Stadium.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canad_Inns_Stadium>
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Dalnavert.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalnavert>
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