In the gift shop of the grand Fort Garry Hotel, a haunted relic of the golden age of rail travel, I found an item that summed up everything I had previously known about the city I was visiting. It was a brown piece of card stock with black letters spelling, simply, “Winnipeg: North of Fargo.”
I had gathered that much about Winnipeg when I’d looked at a map of Minnesota and its surroundings, picking the farthest-flung locale I could reach easily by car for a long-weekend road trip. That the city is across the Canadian border only added to its allure.
But after seven hours on the road blasting the “Hamilton” soundtrack (which felt oddly impertinent once my spouse and I crossed into Canada), it didn’t take long for Winnipeg to reveal itself as an inviting, multicultural city with a sweet tooth and a sense of pride.
Winnipeg’s North Loop
We began our explorations in the Exchange District, a neighborhood on the edge of downtown that’s reminiscent of Minneapolis’ trendy North Loop. This architecturally rich area, once the hub of Winnipeg’s commodities industry, has turned into a district of boutiques and attention-getting restaurants. On the first Friday of every month, the galleries and other businesses stay open late for public art shows. (Next up: May 6; firstfridayswinnipeg.org)
An afternoon of shopping here yielded a number of vintage and new finds, affordable thanks to a weak Canadian dollar. The highlights: Tiny Feast, a twee stationery and gift shop with home accessories for the pastoral farmhouse of my dreams (217 McDermot Av., 201-942-5889, tinyfeast.com), and next door, Lennard Taylor, home to the eponymous fashion designer who handcrafts denim and unpretentious, monochromatic shirtdresses (223 McDermot Av., lennardtaylor.com).
For a snack, grab one of the daily specials at Bronuts, a doughnut cafe with only a handful of flavors (100 King St., bronuts.ca). The grapefruit-and-rosemary version was divine.
Be sure to make a reservation at Across the Board, a cafe that pairs an ornate tin ceiling and chandeliers with a gargantuan board-game library (93 Albert St., 204-691-3422, acrosstheboardcafe.com). If it’s full, nearby Albert Street Cocktail Co. is the place to while away the early evening with experimental cocktails carefully crafted with spirits such as rosebud-infused gin and chili-infused Cointreau (91 Albert St., 204-691-7580, cocktailcompany.ca).
Seeking Canada’s multicultural essence, we crossed the Red River to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French-speaking quarter. The immersion was complete with a visit to Le Croissant, a bakery run by Alsatian expats (276 Tache Av., 204-237-3536). For breakfast: a savory pie made by stuffing pork into a flaky croissant.
We were greeted with a “bonjour” upon entering Chocolatier Constance Popp (180 Provencher Blvd., 204-897-0689, constancepopp.com). Here, find truffles with flavors not often cropping up in American chocolates, like beets and birch syrup, and get a cup of the richest, densest hot chocolate to warm your bones on a walk across the soaring Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge.
The intersection of the Assiniboine and Red rivers is the historic heart of Winnipeg. Called the Forks, this area was the meeting place of fur traders and aboriginal peoples 6,000 years ago, and is now a national historic site. The grounds are home to trails, sculptures and a killer food hall, the Forks Market, where burger joints nestle among wine and cheese vendors (888-942-6302, theforks.com). I filled up on the heaping combo plate from Baba’s Tall Grass Pantry, which healthfully nods to the region’s Ukrainian community with vegan pierogi and nitrate-free kielbasa (tallgrassbakery.ca).
Also in the Forks stands a slick structure of undulating glass panels, home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (85 Israel Asper Way, 204-289-2000, humanrights.ca). Less than two years old, the poignant museum takes visitors through thousands of years of human conflict, with a focus on aboriginal and women’s issues in Canada and 20th-century war atrocities around the world. Current standouts are two temporary exhibits: a “quilt” of artifacts taken from Canada’s residential schools, where indigenous children were forced to shed their cultures; and an exhibition of photos shot by blind photographers. Take the elevator to the top floor, where a view of the Forks drives the museum’s global scope back to Winnipeg.
Being this far north, I didn’t have to look far to find the Scandinavian scene. It’s at Thermëa, an outdoor spa where guests heat up in saunas and tubs before plunging into icy pools in true Nordic fashion (775 Crescent Dr., 855-284-6868, thermea.ca). About 20 minutes from downtown, it’s a grown-up playground of waterfalls, hammocks and a “forest beach” of loungers beneath the trees.
Eats, sweets and spooks
Winnipeg’s restaurant scene is booming with craft cocktails, speakeasy vibes and farm-to-table everything. We had a Winnipeg learning experience at the Sentruhl Project, a pop-up dinner soon to get its own space (204-590-6818, facebook.com/sentruhl). Each course was inspired by a local festival, like an earthy “beatnik” buckwheat and hemp loaf honoring summer’s long-running Winnipeg Folk Festival.
In the candlelit basement of an unmarked building, Sous Sol wins for atmosphere (222 Osborne St., 204-867-5309, soussolosborne.com). The sign says “Vandelay Industries,” a “Seinfeld” joke. From the decadent French menu, don’t skip the giant raviolo stuffed with silky eggplant puree.
Winnipeg loves its sweets, with bakeries seemingly at every corner. On Academy Road, a suburban-ish shopping district, Jenna Rae Cakes is an elegant pastry boutique with a line of Instagrammers snaking out the door (580 Academy Rd., 204-691-4222). I still haven’t forgotten the addictive chew of the neon-bright Cadbury Cream Egg macarons.
One night after dinner, we walked back to our hotel along Osborne Street, south of downtown. It was late, but this stretch of bars and shops was wide-awake — especially Baked Expectations, a cake cafe that’s open till 1 a.m. on weekends (161 Osborne St., 204-452-5176, bakedexpectations.ca). The place was jammed, so we got two giant slices to go. The star? Shmoo, a Winnipeg specialty of angel food cake layered with pecans, whipped cream and gobs of caramel sauce.
I got a late-night sugar high eating my shmoo in the ornate, oval lobby bar of the Fort Garry Hotel (222 Broadway, 204-942-8251, fortgarryhotel.com). It was built in 1913 to house cross-country travelers. Some of them never left. According to a chatty bartender, the ghost — a bride who hanged herself in her closet after her new husband was killed in an accident — visits guests in their beds on the second floor. Our floor.
Maybe it was the shmoo, or my fear of a supernatural encounter, or maybe just the high of getting to know such an unexpected place — but on my last night in town, Winnipeg kept me up all night.