Winnipeg generates buzz well beyond Portage and Main

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Let’s start at Portage and Main. Probably no Canadian intersection is better known or more immortalized than the wind-lashed junction at the heart of the city that lies, depending on how pedantic you want to be, at the geographical centre of North America.

Randy Bachman and Neil Young, in their ditty Prairie Town, lyricized about “Portage and Main, 50 below” and cemented “Winterpeg’s” reputation as one of the world’s coldest urban settlements. It is darned cold here, with average winter temperatures of -13C.

But Portage and Main is also the “crossroads of Canada,” the “gateway to the West” between the Canadian Shield and the prairie — and a continuing source of angst over the city’s decision in the 1970s to give free rein to the automobile and force pedestrians underground.

It is also the backdrop for renewed interest in Winnipeg’s charms, with the travel site Expedia declaring it Canada’s “fastest-growing destination” and recommending it in its annual trend tracker report as a must-see.


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Mythologized though it may be, the maligned thoroughfare is best left to the spawning cars, trucks and buses of its natural habitat. As planning expert Richard Milgrom, of the University of Manitoba, described it to the CBC: “At this point, all of the (thriving areas), in downtown are not at Portage and Main. It’s in the Exchange District or along the Waterfront and what was the symbolic heart of the city has just become a traffic conduit.”

The highly walkable Exchange District, where Winnipeg’s post-Depression stagnation left a legacy of terracotta skyscrapers and ornate warehouses in the “Chicago of the north,” is just a short stroll away. Compactly spread over 20 blocks, its 150 preserved buildings, mostly built between 1880 and 1913, were designated a National Historic Site in 1997 after narrowly dodging bulldozers in the mid-’70s.

A fountain in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg.
A fountain in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg. Photo by Getty

Guided foot tours tap into the city’s boom years when the city’s ‘original downtown’ forged its place as a leading railway and grain hub, vying in 1905 for the title of fastest-growing metropolis in North America. It was also for a time Canada’s third biggest burg. Themed expeditions delve into the history of the 1919 General Strike that reshaped the Canadian labour movement, and herald the stories of Newspaper Row on which some of the West’s most influential journals battled for readers and headlines.

Pub patios, cafés and food stalls amid tree-lined streets tempt weary sightseers.


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While the Exchange is emblematic of Winnipeg’s turn-of-the-century heyday, The Forks district is where its development was first seeded. Across 54 acres (22 hectares), where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, it has been a gathering place for 6,000 years and is the city’s biggest attraction, drawing Winnipeggers and visitors alike to its buzzing central market, waterfront pathways and diverse eateries and accommodations.

From the Market Plaza, step out on the 9.5-km self-guided Winnipeg Loop walking tour, taking in the Exchange District, the Saint-Boniface Cathedral, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the esoteric Manitoba Legislature and an array of striking bridges.

Hungry for hometown eats? Try the Wienerpeg, a signature hotdog created by Steffan Zinn at her newly opened stall of the same name in The Forks. Based on frankfurters enjoyed by her German ancestors, the wieners are made with locally sourced ingredients and served in a selection of “regional classics.” If you’re stumped for choice, plump for a flight of mini hotdogs served with beers or wines.

Fed and watered, head across the Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge to the Saint Boniface neighbourhood, home to one of the largest francophone communities west of the Great Lakes and the birthplace of Louis Riel, Métis leader and father of Manitoba. Pay respects at his grave site at the St. Boniface Cathedral.

A unique walkway bridge over the Red River in Winnipeg.
A unique walkway bridge over the Red River in Winnipeg. Photo by Getty

Meanwhile, give yourself at least half a day to appreciate the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The first national gallery to be built outside the Ottawa region, it’s dedicated exclusively to the evolution and celebration of human rights and is set in a landmark steel-and-glass structure whose Tower of Hope dominates the skyline. Indigenous rights, the repercussions of the Holocaust and other genocides, and ways to inspire change through a Canadian lens are explored.


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For a more whimsical journey, sign up for the Hermetic Code Tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, an intrigue-filled romp through the hidden Masonic symbols, numeric codes and hieroglyphics of the provincial seat of power. Free tours are also available of the building, one of the finest in Canada, which boasts a grand staircase guarded by two massive bison sculptures and whose grounds are overseen from atop its dome by the Golden Boy, a gleaming tribute to Manitoba’s grain-growing heritage and eternal youth — and “Winnipeg’s most beloved citizen.”

Despite its reputation for mosquitoes and mercury-defying frigidity, Winnipeg has plenty more to offer, including the overhead swimming polar bears of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the Winnipeg Art Gallery — with the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art — and the Royal Canadian Mint, where money lovers (and who isn’t?), can hold a $600,000 gold bar and learn how Winnipeg “coins it” for Canada and more than 70 other countries.

With Expedia, not to mention the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet, all singing the Peg’s praises in recent years, the oft-overlooked Manitoban capital is poised to enjoy even more approving glances as staycations become the post-pandemic norm.

Portage and Main, too, looks set for rejuvenation with plans to turn the historic Bank of Montreal building into a Métis nation heritage centre and debate continuing to rage over returning pedestrians to their rightful place amid the elements. Even that “50 below” slight needs some qualifying. While it’s undoubtedly cold, keep in mind that Winnipeg enjoys a yearly average of 2,370 hours of sunshine over 315 days, with summer temperatures in the mid-20s, making it one of the brightest places in Canada.

Golden boy, indeed.

— Andre Ramshaw

If you go:
• For all tourism-related info and links to major attractions, visit
• More info on the Exchange District is at
• Food and drink offerings at The Forks are online at
• For a downloadable map of The Loop walking tour:

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