Winnipeg: The name means muddy water in the native Cree language, but it is a shining jewel of a city located on the flatlands of southern Manitoba. License plates carry the logo ‘Friendly Manitoba’ and should be taken at their word. Winnipeg, Manitoba is only 60 miles north of the US border, but astonishingly few of the visitors to Winnipeg come from the States – most of the tourists are fellow Canadians.
The most famous tourist attraction in the city is ‘the Forks’ at the town center. The Forks are located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and have been a meeting place for more than 6,000 years. As the area developed, the location became a garbage dump for the city until the railroad took over in the late 1800’s. Winnipeg was the busiest rail hub in North America at one time. As the day of the railroads faded the buildings were redeveloped into a historical attraction.
The remodeled railroad shops sit on 56 acres and are more than just trinket shops for tourists – the market offers fresh and specialty foods. The main terminal building was originally a stable that housed 500 horses used to haul freight around the old rail yards. The first floor consists of the market and restaurants where there are a variety of ethnic foods available. If you want to eat like a Canadian order gravy on your fries. If you want to go native, order poutine – a jack cheese and gravy over fries.
Upstairs are unique craft shops that have wooden bowls, paintings from local artists, woolens, and fur hats. Things you don’t find at Sears or your average tourist trap. The musicians and performing artists have established places to perform called ‘busk’s”. On the weekend there is almost always one performing somewhere in the Forks.
The Riverwalk is nearby and follows the waters edge from the Manitoba Legislature to the Forks and on to downtown Winnipeg. The walk through time along the way chronicles history from glacial Lake Agassiz to the present. On a nice day, you will find the lunch walkers strolling the river walk. Starting at the Forks, you can walk in either direction and take the water taxi, for the return trip. The water taxi runs regular routes along the river carrying passengers from the exchange district on the north side of downtown Winnipeg to the Manitoba legislative building on the south side of town. Always check to confirm that the water taxies are running – water conditions play hob with the schedule.
The Royal Canadian Mint
A tour of the Royal Canadian Mint takes a little less than an hour and is suitable for young children.
The mint in Winnipeg stamps coinage for Canada and many foreign countries. The spectacular building located just east of town includes a landscaped interior courtyard and a glass tower (pictured below). The second-floor viewing gallery allows an excellent view of the coinage production process. There is a lot to see, and the rivers of coins flowing out of the stamping machines fascinate the kids. The technology and efficiency involved stamping out coins are impressive, as is the total recycling of all product and materials. After the mint tour, it is easy to understand why small countries contract out the minting of coins to Canada. The tour fee is only a couple dollars, but unfortunately they do not give samples of the currency.
The Underground Economy of Winnipeg, Manitoba
In the States, the cities of the North have skyways, but in Winnipeg, as in many European cities, some of the downtown shopping is underground. At the intersection of Main and Portage a lower level of shops provide an underground shopping center. It is also another way to get around the city during the cold winter. The free circulator bus makes easy availability for the locals or adventurous visitors.
The underground Winnipeg Square and Lombard Concourse offer shops ranging from boutiques to bookstores. Visit McNeally for a good independent bookstore on Portage Avenue – it’s not a musty, cluttered cubbyhole you would think of as an independent bookstore. Hudson’s Bay, the city’s largest department store, is also in Portage. If you have never been to a Hudson’s Bay Company store, you might want to drop in just to say you have been at “the Bay.” It has been around in Canada since 1670.
The Prairie Dog Central Railway
The Prairie Dog Central Railway gives regularly scheduled weekend excursions on antique railcars. You can ride a railcar built in 1901, pulled by a vintage locomotive. It takes passengers on a two and a half-hour trip, departing from a 1910 station. The train clatters along at 15 MPH, the cozy seating and the scenery seem to encourage complete strangers to talk. Looking out the windows at the canola and hay fields rolling by, planted on literally the flattest land on the face of the earth is a paradigm change. It is trite to say there is a sense of timelessness to the experience, but there is no other way to explain it. Passengers are encouraged to walk through the train when they reach the village of Warren at the end of the line, and the training staff lets the passengers into the locomotive and explains its operation. Adults are squished into the 100-year-old rail car seats as children press their noses against the windows. People were smaller in those days, and the size of the seats prove it.
At Warren Station stop, a local band includes a talented seven-year-old who fiddles away playing such favorites as “Turkey in the Straw” while the passengers dawdle through the country market. The return trip, as most return trips, will go by faster. The high point in the landscape is pointed out, where settlers took refuge from an 1850’s flood. The local “mountain” is about as high as the freeway overpasses in North Dakota, which are the highest points of the landscape in the Red River Valley. Back at the Inkster station passengers take their time de-training. The trip starts with anxious anticipation and ends with everyone smiling as they reluctantly leave the rail cars.
Corydon Avenue is just south of downtown across the Assiniboine River. It’s a local hot spot for dining or an afternoon or evening of people watching at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the Avenue. Many of the eateries are Italian, and though referred to as Little Italy, Corydon Avenue offers diners a wide selection of restaurants – it would take months to sample them all. The summer evenings give long hours of daylight, and the city residents know how to enjoy the good weather when it arrives. Lingering over an Italian dinner and a glass of wine while watching the pedestrians stroll the avenue ranks up there with the greatest moments a visit to another city can give you. Try Nucci’s Gelato to round out the evening. The line from the counter to the front door is a sure sign that it’s the place to stop. It’s a haunt of the locals as well as those who came from out of town to Corydon.
Winnipeg has a lot to offer, but come prepared. They didn’t nickname it “Winterpeg, Manitoba” for anything. Bring your coat, even in the summer; the weather can be cool. Winnipeg’s also don’t believe in freeways the way those do south of the border. The city has a perimeter highway, but freeways have not cut through the center of town to get you from here to there as in many US cities. Rush hour is more than tolerable by American standards, and the lack of demolition and rebuilding has left many of the neighborhoods, French, Ukrainian and others intact, allowing the city neighborhoods to keep an ethnic flavor of their own. Winnipeg is worth a visit.