I confess that I didn’t know that much about Winnipeg, despite having grown up along the northern border and having even lived in Canada.
Canada’s seventh-largest city (population 705,244) has more than the Jets, the reincarnated professional hockey team. Also, Winnipeg really isn’t that far north, which makes it a doable winter destination.
You could say it has the same bland or generic stereotype of many Midwestern cities. This is true even among Canadians.
Fairly or not, most people would think of visiting Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal before Winnipeg. But their loss is the discerning traveler’s gain, as I found out during a 24-hour layover on my way home from Hudson Bay.
What to do in Winnipeg
Winnipeg punches beyond its weight with more museums than anyone could possibly visit over a couple of days, let alone on a whirlwind layover.
The Manitoba Museum, which as its name suggests is about all things Manitoba, is by far the best. Not to be missed is the full-size recreation of the Nonsuch, a 17th century ship that sailed from the River Thames in London to Hudson Bay.
Another museum that has received considerable buzz since its 2014 opening is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Many visitors come just to explore the eccentric contemporary architecture, which isn’t to say the galleries aren’t worth visiting. Yes, some exhibits are a little too politically or ideologically charged, but, overall, it makes you think — and that’s always a good thing.
Nearby is The Forks, which years ago was a dilapidated railyard that had seen better days. Today, it bustles with year-round activity as locals and visitors alike converge upon shops, eateries and bars overlooking the point where Winnipeg’s Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. In the winter the frozen rivers turn into the world’s longest skating rink.
Just across the Red River is St. Boniface, formerly a city in its own right until the early 1970s, and Winnipeg’s French Quarter.
It is home to one of Canada’s largest Francophone communities outside Quebec. At the heart of St. Boniface is its namesake, St. Boniface Cathedral (Roman Catholic).
You immediately notice the ruined shell and imposing west façade — destroyed by fire in 1968. What remains is how its more famous Parisian counterpart would have looked like had Notre Dame Cathedral been lost. Beyond the old walls is a modern replacement not dissimilar from other post-Vatican II churches, though the decidedly minimalist interior does feature a striking resurrected Christ suspended from east wall in the apse.
Just beyond the cathedral precincts is the aptly named St. Boniface Museum. Housed in a former convent — Winnipeg’s oldest extant building — it tells the important story of the French-speaking community, including the Métis as those with mixed French fur trader and indigenous ancestry are called. This includes Louis Riel, whose legacy can be described as both complicated and controversial. (Riel is buried in the cathedral’s churchyard.)
Where to stay and eat
I stayed in downtown Winnipeg at The Fort Garry Hotel, which sits across from Union Station, the city’s landmark train station.
The châteauesque-style architecture reminded me of The Plaza at Central Park in New York City and other grand hotels of the early 20th century. While I really wanted to like it, I couldn’t overlook significant service failures and a general feeling of tiredness. Perhaps my expectations were too high given its history and architecture, but The Fort Garry should be better than a limited-service hotel at the airport. It wasn’t.
For dinner, try Passero inside The Forks. The modern Italian fayre is served sharable with a presentation that is both casual and elegant.
How to get to Winnipeg
I flew into Winnipeg’s excellent airport, which Delta services nonstop from its Minneapolis–St. Paul hub. Alternatively, Via Rail’s train from either Toronto or Vancouver would be a fun adventure, if you have the time.
Getting around was easy, thanks to Unicity Taxi and its Uber-like mobile application. Uber itself doesn’t operate in Winnipeg.