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Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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Winnipeg is the capital of the province of Manitoba, located in central Canada. It is found at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, which has had a profound impact at times (see below). There are roughly 600,000 people who live in the city area, and it is widely regarded as one of the more culturally diverse populations in Canada. Large cultural groups include anglophone, francophone, Ukrainian, Icelandic, Italian and Filipino. Winnipeg is located just east of the Hundredth Meridian, where the great expanses of the prairies begin. It is several hours from the nearest large centres (Minneapolis/St Paul's, Regina, Calgary), which has some bearing on the local city. Essentially, Winnipeg has several amenities normally only found in larger cities simply because it's too far away from everywhere else. The city is often abbreviated to 'Peg, the license plate motto is 'Friendly Manitoba' and the city's symbol is the bison.

Getting There

Winnipeg has a major airport, with connections to all the big centres - Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago, and lots of others. You can also get there via the Trans-Canada Highway - which conveniently runs through the middle of the city - by train from the station, which looks like a mini-Grand Central Station; hitchhiking, which is not recommended during the winter months from October to April, or bicycling.

Where to Stay

Winnipeg is used to being a crossroads, so it offers many possibilities to the casual visitor or the dedicated tourist. It hosts many of the major brand-name hotels, including the Sheraton, Lombard, and Days Inn. An outstanding local choice is the Hotel Fort Garry, which features an atmosphere of mid-1920s elegance and a matching ballroom. Also available, if your tastes lean towards the domestically experimental, are many local bed and breakfast establishments. For those on a budget, there is a youth hostel located in the Wolsley area, affectionately known as the 'Granola Belt', which is fun for those who have never left the 1960s, or for those who desperately want to go back. There are also two universities which may offer residence rooms at low rates during the summer months.

Getting Around

Obvious ways include the car, taxis and buses which, incidentally, have some of the best-constructed shelters due largely to the climate. Less obvious modes of transport include bicycles, a 'Downtown Express' bus which only costs 25 cents and which stops at many of the major sites, and skating along the Assiniboine River in winter months. Walking is always possible too, but keep in mind two things: there is always the climate and the 'Peg tends to be built out rather than up - as such, things are farther apart here than in many other parts of the world.

Where To Eat

There are really an awful lot of restaurants in this city. It gets sufficiently cold in the winter months that you have to do something indoors, and you might as well do something that helps maintain those crucial energy stores. Happily, though, this results in a variety of great places to dine. Notable spots include:

  • Pasta La Vista is a modern Italian restaurant with a loud party-type atmosphere.

  • The Medicine Rock Café is about 30 minutes outside of the city, but offers the best Sunday brunch around.

  • The Velvet Glove is for the well-heeled, or those on a generous expense account.

  • Green Gates is a retro-fitted mansion which aspires to using as much local produce as possible. It also has several horses in an arena, but they are not on the menu.

  • VJ's has a local reputation for the best burgers in town.

  • The Rogue's Gallery is an artist's collective situated in a refitted house which serves up good food as well as local art.

  • Kelecki's is a family-owned diner which rivals VJ's for burgers.

  • Elicia's serves great Ukrainian food.

  • Café Dansk is home to good Danish cooking.

  • Stella's Café and Bakery serves an excellent brunch.

  • Baked Expectations is the crown jewel of Winnipeg for dessert maniacs. They offer slices of cakes and pie that could feed a family of four.

  • Corydon Street offers a string of Italian restaurants and cafés, with fantastic patio life in the summer months.

What to Drink

Winnipeggers, as Canadians, enjoy their beer. Happily, many local microbreweries have recently sprung up. Fort Garry is one of the oldest and best - their Dark Ale is worth experiencing, several times if possible. The River City Brewing Company offers a mix of house standards and seasonal variations - happy memories are near inevitable after Hallowe'en Pumpkin ale, or Blueberry Scotian Lager (with real blueberries) or how about a Hemp Ale (the name speaks for itself). The Agassiz Brewing Company is a relative latecomer, but nonetheless welcome for its Catfish Cream Ale. Another prairie microbrew is Big Rock Ale, based out of Calgary. It produces some of the uniformly best brews of the area. And, of course, there's the big names - Molson and Labatt's. Locally, though, they have somewhat fallen out of favour since both of them shut down their facilities and pulled out of the city some years ago.

Where To Drink

The River City Brewing Company has its own establishment; the beer is phenomenal, the food is occasionally great, often good, sometimes average but usually pricey. There are a number of bars in the downtown Exchange District, some of which change names as often as you change socks - at the time of writing, Die Maschine, Ice Works, and The Opium were pretty good. For the seamier side of life, try the Hotel Windsor for great blues. The Pembina Hotel is a favourite with students. A word of warning, there are several hotel/bars on north Main street which are not for the timid, although you should be fine with a few precautions.

Climate And Other Natural Disasters

Ahh, where to start. As you may have gathered from reading the above, the climate is responsible for shaping much of the local psyche. This includes:

  • A perverse pride in being able to survive adverse conditions.

  • A remarkably friendly attitude which could also be a survival mechanism, since those who didn't help others would be removed from the gene pool by the natural selection caused by frostbite.

  • A paradoxical love of cold things. Winnipeg has the highest per-capita consumption of Slurpees in Canada. It also claims to be Canada's Christmas Capital, under the logic that you are pretty much guaranteed a white Christmas there.

Here's the lowdown - winters are long and brutally cold. Expect temperatures in January to hover around -25 to -30°C, keeping in mind that a few winters ago a record was set for having over 30 consecutive days where the temperature never got above -35°C. There is also lots of wind year round, which can make things even nippier; the local forecasts will go into detail about the wind chill factor, which frequently gets to the point where exposed flesh will freeze in under one minute.

The remaining seasons of the year are much better: short but pleasant spring, hot and humid summers (up to 35°C in August) and brief but temperate autumns. To re-emphasize, Winnipeg goes through a range of over 70°C from -35 to +35 °C, so keep that in mind when packing a wardrobe.

Interestingly, Winnipeggers zealously guard their summer weekends and holidays which is highly understandable and necessary to counterbalance the long months of winter. Winnipeg tends to get flooding of the rivers, with severe floods every 40 years - the last was in the spring of 1997.

What to Do

Winnipeg has an incredible variety of events, conferences and celebrations. Chief among those are:

  • Folklorama which celebrates the city's remarkable diversity for two weeks in July and August.

  • Le Festival Du Voyageur is a francophone festival held in February.

  • The Winnipeg Folk Festival which has some great folk music acts and more love beads than you can shake a stick at.

  • The Fringe Festival offers a huge variety of fringe and alternative theatre. One recent success was MacHomer which featured one talented actor performing Macbeth using dozens of characters from The Simpsons.

  • Days Of Wine And Roses which is a weekend celebration in the Italian district of Corydon Street.

This only scratches the surface of the huge number of events there are. Basically, if you want to celebrate, there will be a good excuse almost any weekend of the year to do so. Other popular local activities include golfing, curling, hockey (but don't get a true Winnipegger started on the demise of the Winnipeg Jets unless you have a few hours, a box of Kleenex and a couple of beers on hand).

Culturally, the city is also very fortunate to have the Winnipeg Symphony and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company, which offers performances throughout the years, with great concessions for students.

Where To Go

Significant places include:

  • The Forks is a marketplace at the junction of the two rivers. It's very touristy, but also has some of the best and cheapest fruits and vegetables around.

  • Assiniboine Park is the largest Canadian park within city limits and is great for skating, touring the English gardens or just watching the world go by.

  • The Exchange District comprises blocks of gorgeous circa 1910 - 1920 buildings and was recently named a UN World Heritage site for its unique architecture.

  • The Trappist Monastery ruins are beautiful and haunting and also make a great setting for 'Shakespeare in the Ruins' each summer.

Finally, do not forget that Winnipeg is in the prairies. It's worth it to get outside of the city just to see what they mean by 'Big Sky' or that 'Winnipeg is the only place where you can see your dog running away from you for three days'.

All in all, Winnipeg is worth a visit. If visiting in the summer months, bring some mosquito repellent and prepare to see lots of festivals. If visiting in the winter months, bring lots of warm clothes and have fun touring the restaurants.

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