The Northern Prairie City of Winnipeg
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
On the vast (and I mean vast) prairies of Manitoba lies the surprisingly fantastic Winnipeg. It’s a city of around 800,000 people that find themselves absolutely nowhere near anything else.
I’ve been to Winnipeg a couple of times. Being from just south of the border in Minnesota, it’s the closest Canadian city to visit from home. The first time I went, I was 17 on the starting leg of what ended up being the most boring vacation I have ever taken – seriously parents, don’t take your teenager on a trip to North Dakota. It's the least visited American state for a reason. But Winnipeg came first, and that bit was fun. I won’t spend an extensive amount of time discussing that trip (it was 12 years ago, after all) BUT I will say that we spent a lot of time watching skaters and bikers do their tricks at Plaza at the Forks Skatepark. It is Canada’s largest skate park and has attracted the likes of many famous skaters including Tony Hawk (the only skateboarder I can name, apologies. But I know others have gone as well). In particular, my mom and I both distinctly remember watching with dropped jaws at a biker was practically going upside down with his loops. It was incredible. Also, hope you enjoy that picture of 17 year me.
The second time in Winnipeg was a bit more memorable. It came a few years later, when Mom’s favorite band, Roxette, was on tour and that was the closest they were coming to Minnesota. She planned to head up, and I – never one to let a travel opportunity go to waste – invited myself along. Not that I had to do much convincing, my mom likes me after all (pic snapped at the show). We both secured a Friday off from work, and then began the long drive north after work on Thursday.
It’s about 480 miles between Winnipeg and my hometown (770 km), which equates to a seven-hour drive through the flat, flat lands of northwestern Minnesota and southern Manitoba. There is a lot of beautiful scenery in Minnesota (see my page for more on that), but the northwest quadrant is certainly not amongst them. Or, to rephrase: there is beauty everywhere. But some places require you to squint a bit to find it, and that’s very much the case for the seven hours between Minneapolis and Winnipeg. Of course, there are flights between the two, which was the route Mom very much preferred, but when one is scared of flying, one sees no need to get in a plane when a seven-hour drive is perfectly doable. Sorry, ma.
We split the drive up over two days – after work on Thursday, we stopped halfway, in Fargo, North Dakota. And then the next morning, it was onwards to Winnipeg. Now: the rest of this paragraph isn’t a travel story, but rather a PSA – at work on Thursday, we were eating a communal lunch when one of my colleagues started to choke on a piece of watermelon. Another co-worker performed the Heimlich Maneuver and she was ok, but it was really scary. On our drive up, Mom and I stopped at the Midwestern staple Perkins (they've got the best pancakes) for dinner. It was my first meal since lunch, and I still remember how anxious I was while we ate. So please be careful when you’re eating! Ok, back to travel ramblings.
It’s a treat rolling into Winnipeg. As I think I’ve managed to get across, the surrounding area is quite flat and dull. And unlike, well, any other city on the planet (at least that I’ve been to), there are no suburbs. You’re just cruising along the prairie and suddenly BAM, there are skyscrapers. There is no warning. The city just sneaks up on you, and it’s honestly a delight. Especially after such a long time staring at road and grass.
We arrived at our 25th floor hotel room at the Radisson (we’re not normally "fancy" travelers, but my stepdad had a lot of hotel points racked up from his business trips and he kindly gifted us this stay in Canada) around noon. Better still, the hotel was right next to the Bell MTS Place, the arena for Winnipeg’s professional hockey team and the location of the concert that evening. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, watching tv, and getting ready for the show.
The show itself was fun, and we – ever the party animals – were in bed and asleep by 11.
The next day was our “explore Winnipeg” day. First, we headed to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter. This is one of Canada’s larger French communities outside of Quebec. As it was a Saturday morning, most things were closed. So we simply enjoyed driving up and down the streets. It was an interesting exploration, as we simply crossed into the neighborhood and were suddenly in a Francophone area. The stop signs turned into panneaux d'arrêt (this is actually an interesting Canadian cultural tidbit – in France, the word “stop” is on their signs, but in Canada they use “arrêt”, the French word for stop). We did stop into a cemetery (as I’ve discussed and will continue to discuss in blogs to come, I and my mother love cemeteries), admired the 19th century tombstones, and then decided we were hungry.
On our way back to downtown for lunch, we passed the Esplane Riel pedestrian bridge. We parked, walked under the white cables to admire the view of the Red River (which is also in the US – it forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, and it flows north!), snapped some pictures, and then realized that there is a restaurant halfway across. As I assume you can tell, the restaurant is housed in the bit jutting out over the river. At the time, this restaurant was Salisbury House, though it has since changed to Mon Ami Louis, which serves French-inspired cuisine. However, there are still 18 locations of Salisbury House across Manitoba. I mention this not because I usually recommend chains to my readers, but because it was here, overlooking the lovely river (if French food is your thing, I recommend trying Mon Ami Louis. The views while eating are well worth a visit), that Mom and I discovered the glorious national dish of Canada – poutine. It was basically a life-changing experience. If you find yourself in Winnipeg, or anywhere in Canada, make sure that you try this gravy-smothered, cheese curdy, potato delight.
After this snack, we headed back to our hotel for another lazy afternoon of wedding dress reality shows and naps (I like Winnipeg, but let’s face it, it’s not the world’s most exciting place. Afternoon naps on a trip like this are acceptable).
As all we had eaten that day was a small hotel breakfast and then half a plate of poutine each, we decided an early dinner was acceptable. At 5, we headed next door, back to the Bell MTS Place, as there was a Moxie Bar and Grill inside. It was slightly early for a dinner rush, so we were the only customers at first. This meant that we got the very handsome waiter all to ourselves.
It being a Saturday, and a mini-vacation on top of it, we decided to treat ourselves to cocktails. I ordered a small strawberry daiquiri. It was delicious (of course it was, it’s hard to mess up strawberry daiquiris), and when our waiter and his pretty face asked if I wanted to upgrade to a “Moxie” sized one for my second, I smiled and said, “sure!” And then the second drink came, and both Mom and I burst out laughing. The difference between a small and a large was only .50 cents, but the actual difference in size was impressive – just look at the picture!
Once dinner was over, we decided to just walk around the neighborhood and enjoy the early September evening. At one point, we stumbled across an outdoor food market. This was a treat, as the stalls were not of the usual farmer’s market variety but rather of homemade salsas, sauces, mixes, spices, and the like. For the life of me, I could not find the existence of this market on Google. But in my hour-long attempt to do so, I stumbled across the existence of several other outdoor markets in the area. So while I can’t promise you that you’ll find the delicious homemade dips I brought back to America with me, there are plenty of other options to pick from (including a place called The Forks Market, which looks really interesting and will definitely be on my “must do” list if I ever make it back to Winnipeg).
We did not stay out late, as that same flat seven-hour drive was facing us yet again the next morning. The next morning, we rolled out at 9 am, and headed back to America. Our next stop (not counting gas and rest areas) was a Subway in Alexandria, Minnesota (where we had also stopped for Perkins three days earlier). 90 minutes after leaving there, I realized I had left my purse under our table. 90 more minutes and one very pissed off mother later, I had my purse (kudos to the Subway staff for keeping it safe behind the counter), and we were back to where we had started three hours earlier. But at least the added time passed somewhat quickly, as we kept ourselves occupied by planning our trip to Orlando a few months later. Because what is one trip if you’re not busy planning your next one while on it?