7 Fun things to do in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Where to stay, where to eat, and what to do on a visit to Winnipeg (with or without kids).
Visiting all 10 Canadian provinces is on my travel bucket list but as of the beginning of this past summer vacation I hadn’t been to either Manitoba and Saskatchewan so my teenage daughter and I made plans for a mother-daughter getaway to Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. It was a quick visit as we only stayed for two nights and had the equivalent of two full days for sightseeing but it was just enough time to get a sense of the city and the many fun things to do in Winnipeg (with or without kids).
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The Assiniboine Park Zoo
We arrived in Winnipeg early afternoon, dropped our luggage at the hotel, jumped in a cab and headed directly to Assiniboine Park, the large urban park where the Assiniboine Park Zoo is located. The Assiniboine Park Zoo is an 80 acre attraction that provides visitors an opportunity to see over 200 animal species from around the globe but we were planning to visit for one reason alone – the award-winning Journey to Churchill exhibit. This 10 acre exhibit which opened in 2014 is the most comprehensive northern species exhibit in the world introducing visitors to the ecosystems and wildlife of Northern Canada including polar bears, muskoxen, Arctic fox, snowy owls, caribou and wolves.
The exhibit includes the Wapusk Lowlands where wildlife can be viewed without any visible barriers, Gateway to the Arctic which is the primary viewing area for the polar bears and seals, the Aurora Borealis Theatre featuring the film Rhythms of the North, Churchill Coast which has been built to resemble the town of Churchill, and the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre where visitors can learn more about polar bears, the Arctic ecosystem, climate change and how to reduce human impact on the environment. The Polar Bear Conservation Centre is a state-of-the-art facility that focuses on education, research and conservation and is also responsible for housing and transitioning orphaned polar bear cubs and at risk polar bears found in northern Manitoba. You can read more about the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre on the Assiniboine Park Zoo website.
I hope some day to have an opportunity to see polar bears in the wild on a trip to Churchill in Northern Manitoba but until that happens, visiting the Journey to Churchill exhibit was the next best thing. My daughter and I spent more than an hour in Sea Ice Passage, the popular underwater viewing passage where visitors can watch the polar bears swim and play (fight?) with each other, and I honestly could have spent hours watching them. I generally feel conflicted about the existence of zoos but they are attempting to educate the public here about the drastic impact that climate change is having on the northern habitat of polar bears and that education is desperately needed for there to be any chance of saving these majestic bears.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights
The primary reason for our quick visit to Winnipeg was that I had wanted to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (“CMHR”) since it first opened in 2014. The CMHR is the first national museum in Canada to be built outside the National Capital Region and is envisioned as “a national and international destination – a centre of learning where Canadians and people from around the world can engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and oppression”. The museum is located in The Forks area of Winnipeg and an easy walk from our downtown hotel so we headed there mid-morning on our second day in the city.
The museum has 10 core galleries which address human rights stories from Canada and around the world making effective use of interactive presentations and multimedia technology to tell the stories. The galleries are: What Are Human Rights?; Indigenous Perspectives; Canadian Journeys; Protecting Rights in Canada; Examining the Holocaust; Turning Points for Humanity; Breaking the Silence; Actions Count; Rights Today; and Inspiring Change. The Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation is a quiet spot in the museum where visitors can sit and reflect on the exhibitions and the Israel Asper Tower of Hope which can be accessed by elevator or via spiral staircase affords a stunning view over the city of Winnipeg.
There are also temporary exhibitions at the CMHR and we were fortunate to be able to visit while Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is at the museum. This exhibition is a celebration of what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday on July 18, 2018. I was studying politics and then law in university in the late 1980s/early 1990s and remember very well the boycotts and demonstrations in the struggle to end apartheid and free Mandela from prison. My teen daughter, however, knew little about him or his fight against racism and injustice in South Africa. Walking through the thought-provoking exhibition with her and discussing Mandela’s life, his struggle for freedom, and issues of injustice that we still see in the world today was informative, emotional and uplifting. The exhibit is at the CMHR until January 2019.
We spent about 3.5 hours walking the museum and taking our time with each of the exhibits. We could easily have spent more time but were exhausted at that point. The exhibits prompted interesting discussions with my teenage daughter as we walked through the museum and talked about human rights at home and around the world. Each exhibit at the CMHR is so well done that this was honestly one of the best museums that I have ever visited anywhere in the world. Many of the exhibits provoke feelings of despair at the human rights atrocities that have occurred around the world yet overall the message is one of hope – hope that the more we commit to taking action against hate and oppression, the greater the chance that human rights abuses can be eradicated and that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
The Esplanade Riel
The Esplanade Riel is a pedestrian footbridge that spans the Red River connecting The Forks neighbourhood of downtown Winnipeg with St. Boniface symbolically uniting Winnipeg’s English and French communities. The bridge, which opened in 2003, is named for Louis Riel and is the only bridge in North America that has a restaurant on it.
Travel Tip: Cross the bridge from the museum side and walk along the east bank on the opposite side to get great photos of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The Forks Market
The Forks area at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in Winnipeg has been a meeting place for over 6,000 years and the area has been named a National Historic Site of Canada. Early in the 20th century the original Forks Market was just two stables joined by a courtyard to create a market and today it has become one of the city’s most popular destinations. The Forks Market was definitely a highlight of our trip to Winnipeg and I can guarantee that if you like to shop and/or eat then it will be a highlight for you as well!
We walked to The Forks Market from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and spent a relaxing couple of hours browsing the shops and eating our way through the market’s newly renovated food hall. We highly recommend Nuburger for the gourmet healthy burgers, Tall Grass Prairie Bakery for delicious baked goods (especially the cinnamon buns!) and Jenna Rae Cakes for the exquisite macarons and cookie dough cups.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery
The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) is an internationally acclaimed gallery located in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. Founded in 1912, the gallery has amassed a collection of 25,000 works of art which includes a substantial number of Canadian works of art as well as the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art. Construction is also underway on the new Inuit Art Centre which will open its doors in 2020, Manitoba’s 100th birthday.
The art on display at the WAG is always changing depending on the current exhibitions. Those which we saw during our visit included: Defying Convention: Women Artists in Canada, 1900-1960 showcasing work by groundbreaking female artists in Canada; Shaman Stories: Norval Morrisseau and Abraham Anghik Ruben featuring two highly influential aboriginal artists “for whom the human and spirit worlds loom large”; and Organic featuring Tess Michalik’s oil floral paintings and Chantal Dupas’ botanical illustrations.
In addition to exhibitions showcasing the WAG collections, the gallery also regularly features travelling exhibitions and we were fortunate that our visit coincided with Summer with the Impressionists. This exhibit featured paintings from some of my favourite artists including Monet, Degas, and Renoir in Manitoba’s first major display of French Impressionist paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
The Manitoba Museum
The Manitoba Museum is a heritage and science museum with nine permanent museum galleries that tell the story of Manitoba’s history, hands-on exhibits and activities in the Science Gallery, and a Planetarium featuring interactive multimedia shows. We arrived at the museum mid-afternoon on our last day in Winnipeg with limited time before needing to leave for the airport so we opted to visit just the museum galleries as there wasn’t time for the Science Gallery or the Planetarium.
Our favourite galleries were the Nonsuch Gallery which displays a replica of the 17th century merchant ship that sailed from England to trade in furs and led to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Urban Gallery which displays a Winnipeg streetscape from 1920. The museum also has temporary exhibitions and we quite enjoyed the Franklin Exploration exhibit which examines the search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition that went missing in the Arctic while trying to find the Northwest Passage 170 years ago. The exhibition is at the museum until January 7, 2019.
Eat at Stella’s
Stella’s is an institution in Winnipeg and had been recommended to me prior to our short visit. It all began when the first Stella’s Cafe & Bakery opened in 1999 and Stella’s has now expanded to 9 locations in Winnipeg. On our first night, we headed to Stella’s at Plug-In on Portage Avenue which seemed to be the location closest to our hotel. The extensive menu includes all manner of comfort foods – Breakfast All Day, omelettes, soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches and more – and everything on the menu is prepared from scratch using healthy local ingredients. I had a delicious salmon filet burger and my daughter had a smoked salmon sandwich which she enjoyed so much that she insisted on returning for lunch the next day to have it again! We returned to the same location as it was quite close to the Winnipeg Art Gallery which we had been visiting that morning. We were enjoying our meals so much both times that I forgot to take any photos so you will have to trust me that our meals both looked and tasted great!
Additional Things To Do in Winnipeg
Since our visit to Winnipeg was brief, we didn’t have time to do everything that we would have liked. These are the activities that have been added to our “next time” list:
- FortWhyte Alive – an outdoor recreation area that is popular year-round – features weekly bison safaris
- A guided walking tour of the Exchange District to explore the history and architecture of this historic district with a collection of heritage buildings built between 1880 and 1920
- Royal Canadian Mint Tour
- Tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building
Where to Stay in Winnipeg
We stayed two nights at the Fairmont Winnipeg, a luxury hotel located in downtown Winnipeg on Lombard Place near the intersection of Portage and Main. Rooms at the Fairmont are elegant and comfortable, the service was excellent as we have come to expect from the Fairmont chain, and we were pleased with the location as we were able to walk to all the attractions that we visited with the exception of the Assiniboine Zoo.
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The Tourism Winnipeg website is a great source for information on what is happening in and around Winnipeg at all times of the year.