Winnipeg really surprised us. It’s a city with a lot going on but still manages to retain that small town friendliness. It’s the kind of place where as a visitor you’re immediately treated like one of the locals, we found ourselves walking past a bakery and before we knew it we were chatting to the farmers that provide the ingredients and the owner who invited us to check out the flour mill (and we hadn’t even said we were bloggers). It makes you feel good even before you’ve actually started checking out the sights.
And on that note you’ll be surprised just how much this small city can pack in. With a world-class museum, incredible food scene (arguably one of the best in Canada), some great green spaces within 30 minutes and the most intriguing tour we’ve ever done, and you get a city that really does tick all the boxes.
So, here’s everything you need to know about the best things to do in Winnipeg.
The significance of Winnipeg
In the south of Manitoba, Winnipeg sits on the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (a place called the Forks) which was a meeting place for First Nations people for thousands of years.
The Europeans arrived in the 1700s as Winnipeg became a place of significance for fur traders. In the late 1800s, Manitoba became a part of Canada and with the construction of the railroad, Winnipeg began to boom, and even became known as “The Chicago of the North”.
Nowadays Winnipeg is a vibrant city with a great dining scene, fascinating history, fun year-round activities and is the capital of one of Lonely Planet’s top regions to visit in 2019 (Manitoba).
Best things to do in Winnipeg
No matter what you like, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Winnipeg. We recommend putting aside at least two days so that you can see some of the best this city has to offer.
The Hermetic Code Tour - uncovering the mysteries of a real life Da Vinci Code
The Hermetic Code Tour continuously comes up as most people’s favourite thing to do in Winnipeg and we’re joining the party. Who could ever have guessed that the Manitoba Legislature Building was hiding a history of masonic symbols, numerological codes and hieroglyphics in plain sight for nearly a century?! It’s like a Dan Brown novel come to life!
After five minutes on our tour with Don Finkbeiner from Heartland Travel, we knew we were in for something special and that this tour would be unlike any we’ve done before. Yes, for tour cynics, this one had us hooked!
The premise of the tour is to unlock the mysteries of the Manitoba Legislature Building and show you things that you would never have noticed yourself. At first glance, it looks like any other government building - a few grand flourishes, statues and columns to give an air of grandiosity. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
However, Don delves deep into the details and takes you through what Dr Frank Albo took 10 years of dedicated research to figure out.
What appears to be a standard building is actually (we won’t give it away) a homage to something you’d never guess with incredible symbolism and meaning in every single measurement, statue and even the floor tiles (the grand finale is truly mind boggling!).
We were glued to every word and started examining all the details to reveal the genius of Frank Simon, the building’s architect.
What makes it even better is that you’ll leave thinking about the stories that lie behind any building you visit and begin to question every little detail of places you thought you knew.
Tours cost $41.80 including taxes.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights - for a world-class museum
You might not expect to find a world class museum in Winnipeg but that’s exactly what the Museum for Human Rights is. You can’t miss the building which dominates the Forks area with its unique shape and size (it is now a Winnipeg icon).
The museum is on seven floors which go from dark to light the higher up you get, representing the content in each level.
It’s the kind of museum everyone should visit in their lifetime and though it is very hard hitting that’s what makes it so important. It’s not your typical museum with walls of text, but is very modern, utilising lots of technology and you are even invited to participate along the way.
We’ve actually never been to a museum like it anywhere in the world.
There are lots of exhibits dedicated to the atrocities suffered by mankind over time, including some you might be very familiar with like the Holocaust as well as lots that we actually weren’t very knowledgeable about such as Holodomor (the man made famine which led to the death of millions of Ukrainians) and the on-going Rohingya genocide in Burma.
Our favourite exhibit was where you listen to real supreme court cases and vote according to what your views are on the issues. You are then shown the results from your group (10 people can participate at a time) and then the results from everyone who has ever voted on that issue, as well as the outcome of the case in real life.
As you reach the upper levels there are many more stories of hope so you don’t leave feeling as dark as you might otherwise. The very top floor is a viewing tower which offers great views of the city and there is seating to sit and reflect.
The museum is open between 10am and 5pm every day but Monday when it is closed all day. Public holidays may affect these times.
Oak Hammock Marsh - to get hands-on with nature
If you’re a nature lover, then Oak Hammock Marsh needs to be high on your list. 40 minutes outside of Winnipeg, the Oak Hammock Marsh is listed as a Wetland of International Importance as it is a vital stopping point for thousands of birds who migrate from Canada down to Mexico (and even beyond) every year.
The wetlands here are a bird-watcher’s paradise, but it is also a great place for families and nature lovers as well. There are lots of ways you can get stuck in at the marsh and it’s very different to other wetlands centres we’ve been to where it is predominantly just exploring on boardwalk.
During the Summer, Oak Hammock has a group of volunteers who capture songbirds to monitor their population numbers - something that is vital in understanding how current conditions may be affecting their habitat and numbers.
Visitors are welcome to get involved with the chance to see many bird species including Warblers, Flycatchers and Wrens whilst the volunteers monitor them and re-release them into the wild.
It’s a great way of learning about these birds and understanding the challenges they are facing. We were thrilled that as volunteers we were actually allowed to release the birds ourselves!
Get in touch ahead of time to book your slot.
Canoeing in the wetlands
Canoeing on Oak Hammock Marsh is a peaceful and tranquil experience and you feel a million miles away from the city. Within seconds you’re surrounding by dense reeds as you drift across this beautiful lake.
We spotted Bald Eagles, a turtle and a lot of ducks, but you can also see pelicans, otters and plenty of other kinds of birds. If you don’t fancy doing all the paddling yourself, you can hop on a guided tour.
Otherwise you can hire a canoe and explore independently. Early in the morning is a good time to spot birdlife.
Getting adventurous in the marsh - wading
We’ve hiked up mountains and across plenty of unique landscapes, but it’s safe to say that we’ve never walked among the reeds in a marsh before! We’d heard this was possible and as soon as we mentioned this to Jacques (our guide for the morning) his eyes lit up like it was Christmas!
Within seconds we all had waders on and were heading to the marsh to explore. It’s not exactly easy as you feel like you’re sinking in the mud and the ground seems to want to swallow you up!
However, within a minute or two, you’ll get into a rhythm and get used to it. The reeds are really strong so you can grab them if you lose balance. We were laughing the whole time and wishing we had longer to do the full route!
You can grab a net to see if you can get some small critters to watch under a microscope, making it a fun activity for the kids (you then pop everything back where it came from).
Getting to Oak Hammock Marsh
Oak Hammock Marsh is a 40 minute drive north of the centre of Winnipeg.
The Forks Market - for great food in a historic building
The Forks Market is set in a building that used to be the stables for the old railroad in the late 19th Century.
This limestone building naturally made a great place to convert into shops and restaurants and nowadays you’ll find a lively dining scene that’s busy every night of the week.
It’s a great place for casual dining and we still reminisce over the award-winning Red Ember - easily the best pizza we had in North America (we’re talking real Italian style pizza here!). It has a great atmosphere in the evening, and you can get fantastic food without having to break the bank.
If you’re looking for desert, we’d recommend the frozen yoghurt stand, they actually pulverise the fresh fruit and mix it in with the yoghurt - not a technique we’ve seen before and totally delish!
For a light brekkie or lunch head to Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company for the freshest pastries and sandwiches. We also love the story behind this place: it’s an ethical bakery that pays well above the odds to farmers and staff as well as tasting delicious!
Read next: Epic hikes in Revelstoke, British Columbia
The Winnipeg Art Gallery - for a chance to see rare Inuit Art
When we found out that the Winnipeg Art Gallery had the largest collection of Inuit carvings in the world, we knew we had to visit.
There is an Inuit Art Centre right next to the WAG building under construction at the moment but currently the art is all located in the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The carvings are a great insight into Inuit life with lots depicting native animals including walrus, polar bear and seals. It was interesting to see that in some pieces the polar bears were attacking humans and in others it was vice versa.
There is a lot of different art in the gallery including a sculpture garden on the top floor, but we were definitely most taken with the Inuit carvings.
WAG is open every day but Monday between 11am and 5pm. There is late night opening until 9pm on Fridays which is when we visited, and it was lovely and quiet.
FortWhyte Alive - for a paddle or a cycle in stunning surroundings
It’s rare that a city has such amazing forest right on its doorstep but FortWhyte Alive is just 15km from the centre of Winnipeg. There’s lots to do here depending on what season you visit from canoeing on the lake in summer to snow shoeing in winter.
We visited in fall when there is too much waterfowl on the lake to canoe - which is what we were originally planning on doing - so we decided to go for a bike ride instead.
There are a number of trails ranging from easy flat rides to slighting more challenging ones around Bison Butte which require mountain bikes.
We took it leisurely with our rented bikes which we thought alarmingly had no brakes until we realised that you back pedal to brake - did you even know that was a thing?!
The trails are nice and wide and well graded so after a wobbly start the cycling was really easy and the trails were gorgeous.
We rode through the forest to the bison lookout (unfortunately they weren’t in that area at the time) and then headed over to the Lake Trail to check out the floating boardwalks along the marsh.
Unfortunately, we only had a couple of hours here but cycling allowed us to see more of the forest than we would have been able to on foot.
FortWhyte Alive also hosts loads of activities so it’s worth checking online to see whether there is something special on that takes your fancy.
We were able to give bannock (a scone-like flat bread) making a go which was something new for us and it tasted pretty good even though I managed to burn it slightly!
Bike hire is $10 per hour for non-members. Opening times vary according to the season.
Getting to FortWhyte Alive
FortWhyte Alive is a 25 minute drive from the centre of Winnipeg. Be careful to note the opening hours as they change depending on the season, and you can’t canoe on the lake during the fall due to the wildfowl migration.
Garbage Hill - for Winnipeg’s favourite sunset spot
As soon as we heard about Garbage Hill, we knew it was a spot we couldn’t miss on our trip to Winnipeg.
If you’re like us and wondering about the name it’s actually exactly what might spring to mind, a hill formed by mountains of trash (it was the old landfill site) but is now completely grassed over and a local’s favourite spot to sit and watch the sunset.
We loved it, and the vibe up there is great, full of friendly locals always up for a chat. If you’re around in winter we’ve also heard it’s great for tobogganning!
Sunset at the Royal Canadian Mint
If you have time for another sunset on your trip, then the lake in front of the Royal Canadian Mint building was also a very pretty spot.
Just watch your feet around the lake as there are a lot of Canada geese and we all know what that means!
Getting to the Royal Canadian Mint Building
The Royal Canadian Mint Building is a 20 minute drive South-East of the centre of Winnipeg. You’ll see the picturesque lake right in front of the car park.
Assiniboine Park & Forest - for a leisurely stroll
Whilst most people visit Assiniboine Park to see the polar bears at the Journey to Churchill exhibit, we were there to go hiking.
There are a number of short trails, most of which can also be cycled, and all are well signposted and as you might expect in Manitoba - nice and flat.
You could do all of the trails in an afternoon but if you don’t have much time, we’d recommend trying the Sagimay trail which takes you to an observation point where you can look for birdlife.
Saint Boniface Cathedral - for a local twist on a traditional church
Having burnt down twice in 100 years, Saint Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg’s French Quarter didn’t decide to rebuild to its original specification after the fire of 1968.
Instead the architect decided to put his own stamp on a smaller cathedral that was built within the grounds of Saint Boniface.
The original striking facade is still there, however the new cathedral has little touches of first nations design from the stain glassed windows to the unique depiction of Christ and the cross.
It’s unlike any cathedral we’ve ever seen and in the early afternoon you’ll find the orange stain glassed windows project light onto the walls by the alter giving an atmospheric effect.
Indulge in Winnipeg’s amazing dining scene
We had no idea that Winnipeg had so many amazing restaurants and if you’re a foodie you’re going to be in for a treat.
Our absolute favourite was Deer+ Almond which wouldn’t be out of place in the trendiest parts of London or New York. The food was incredible and whilst we had to use google a lot to understand the dishes on the menu, we left thinking it was absolute genius.
Trust us, we don’t often recommend restaurants (we’re not food bloggers after all!) but Deer + Almond is definitely worthy of inclusion on our list of the best things to do in Winnipeg.
The restaurant was packed and its pop-up winter stall (Raw Almond) on the frozen river by the Forks sells out for a whole season almost as soon as it goes on sale, so we recommend making a reservation in advance.
Other notable mentions include Enoteca for modern Italian (which is very slightly out of the city centre but well worth travelling for) and Clementine which does a fantastic brunch (don’t miss the Turkish breakfast!).
Thermea Spa - for the deepest relaxation Nordic style
We’d never been to a Nordic spa before, but after Thermea we’re hooked. After exploring the city, a visit to Thermea is the perfect way to relax and rejuvenate. The principle here is to warm up (through a steaming hot sauna), cool down (through a seriously cold plunge pool), relax and repeat.
This cycle leaves your body feeling alive and whilst you may wince at that freezing cold water, it made us feel incredible.
After the cold you can relax in the warm pool, hot stone beds or just on a lounger in the open air.
Thermea has several different saunas and steam rooms, so you can change it up with each cycle you do.
One thing you can’t miss are the aufguss or infusion rituals in the Finnish Sauna every hour on the hour. During this ritual someone will put on balls of ice infused with essential oils and then perform a ceremony to circulate the fragrant and red-hot air.
The aufguss lasts for three songs and it gets hotter with each one - who knew it could feel so good to sweat so much?! The infusion is a much shorter ceremony with just one song so this one is better if you can’t handle too much heat.
We loved it so much we went to both and wonder why it doesn’t happen in every spa!
We loved Thermea when we visited in the fall but can imagine it is simply magical in winter. You can’t miss it on your trip to Winnipeg and because it’s open late you could also visit after sunset for a soak under the stars. Here’s more detail on a trip to Thermea in winter.
Entry to Thermea costs $58 excluding bathrobe rental ($12). The spa is open every day but Christmas day from 9am to 10pm.
Where to stay in Winnipeg
The Inn at The Forks
When it comes to location, location, location you can’t beat The Inn at The Forks, it’s right next to the Forks Market and opposite the Canadian Museum for Human Rights - we could see it from our window!
The rooms are really modern and spacious, and the beds were really comfy. It also has a great onsite restaurant, Smith, watch out for the huge portions at breakfast - you probably won’t need lunch!
Our trip to Winnipeg was in partnership with Travel Manitoba, Tourism Winnipeg and Destination Canada. All opinions are - as always - our own.
This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, that we will earn a small commission if you click through and decide to make a purchase.
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Are you planning a trip to Manitoba? What would be your must do list in Winnipeg? Let us know in the comments!