This year was a special one for my sisters and me–this is the only year when we are all in college at the same time. We’d wanted to do a spring break trip together, but unfortunately our breaks didn’t match up. So instead we decided to do a winter break trip! We were somewhat low on funds, being broke college kids (Click here for tips on traveling while in college!), but we all had passports so we decided to take the six hour drive up to Winnipeg. And yes, we went in winter (much to the consternation of the Canadian border guard who was hesitant to let us through). We’re from South Dakota–it wasn’t any colder there!
Anyway, below is the record of our little 3-day Canadian adventure! I asked Becky and Rachel to write a bit about their favorite things from the trip, so you can see their perspectives as well! 🙂
Lunch in Fargo
A quick introduction is in order… My traveling companions for this trip were my sisters, Rebecca and Rachel. Rebecca is two years younger than me, and studying art at a university in South Dakota. She hopes to become an art therapist. Rachel is four years younger than me and studying English education at a university in Wisconsin.
We started the trip off strong with lunch at Space Aliens in Fargo en route to Winnipeg. We have a lot of good memories of eating at the Space Aliens in St. Cloud on trips to see family when we were kids, but that one has sadly closed. We thought it would be fun to have lunch and play some arcade games at this one for old time’s sake! The food was pretty good and cheap, and the decor just as 90’s and alien-themed as ever. We were a bit sad when we played the arcade games though; old-fashioned tokens and tickets have been replaced by a credit card-like system, and we thought it took away a bit of the nostalgic charm!
Afterwards we continued our journey north to Winnipeg. The Canadian border guard seemed very confused about our trip and why we were visiting during the winter! Getting to the hotel was a bit tricky, since we didn’t have a GPS and the printed maps from Google weren’t as detailed as we would have liked, but we made it and were able to check in and start getting ready for the ballet!
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Google Maps let us down once again when we headed to the ballet that evening. I’d printed off a map which showed that the ballet was just a short 10-15 minute walk from our hotel in Downtown Winnipeg to the ballet. When we arrived we realized that this was the ballet office, and not where the performance was happening. The woman at the desk was nice enough to give us directions to the concert hall, but they weren’t very specific, and it the walk was going to be about 20 minutes, she thought.
We weren’t too enthusiastic about going for a longer walk through Downtown Winnipeg in the dark and the cold, but we set off and tried to follow her directions the best we could. The downtown area was lovely, at least, because all of the Christmas lights and decorations were out, and there were plenty of people still walking around outside. It was a bit chilly though! We reached the street she told us to turn onto and started watching out for the large lit-up nutcrackers that she had mentioned. Just when we were about to give up and get a cab, we found it! There were, unfortunately, no nutcrackers in sight, but we managed to see the sign and get to the concert hall, where we got our tickets from the box office and warmed up with some delicious hot cocoa!
Lesson learned: it’s a good idea to head to the ballet an hour early, especially if you’re relying on Google Maps to get you there!
The actual ballet was wonderful. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet worked together to create a dazzling show. We had balcony seats and really enjoyed the music, the dancing, everything… I expected the music and ballet to be great, but I was also very impressed with the set design and costumes. No details were overlooked, that’s for sure! Becky, Rachel and I had also planned to dress up for the show, as we wanted to look nice and were eager to experience our first real ballet. We were happy that we dressed nicely (although it didn’t help with warmth on our walk!) but it really wasn’t necessary, based on what other people wore to the performance.
We were sad when the performance was over, but very happy that we made the decision to go while we were in Canada. It was our biggest splurge of the trip, and we really thought it was worth it! The timing worked out perfectly too, because it was the last performance of the Nutcracker for the year.
I liked that they gave the Nutcracker a Canadian twist by styling the costumes so that it really looked like they could be a wealthy Canadian family in the early 1900’s. The sets and costumes had really amazing artistry behind them.
After the ballet, we took a cab back to our hotel (being none too excited about another walk, especially since it was now colder and darker), and decided to head out for dinner and a few drinks (which was fun for Becky and Rachel, since neither were yet of legal drinking age in the US). Our hotel was attached to a branch of the university and several other businesses, one of which was Garbonzo’s Pizza. We had some delicious food and a few drinks (including some maple-flavored ones!) and enjoyed chatting with the waitress before heading back to our hotel for the night.
Shopping at Portage Place and Downtown Winnipeg
Just a few blocks from our hotel (and nearly completely accessible via skywalks) was Portage Place shopping mall and a few other downtown stores. We started our second day in Winnipeg by exploring the mall and doing a bit of shopping. The US dollar was very strong during our trip ($0.75 USD being about $1 CAD), so it was almost as if the entire mall was having a 25% off sale! In addition to that, we were traveling during ‘Boxing Week’, so we were able to get some really great deals. The mall had a cool old clock tower and a geyser-like fountain, and was a great place to spend the morning. We ate lunch in the food court as well. Growing up, we all really enjoyed watching the Canadian cartoon 6teen, so we all felt that a Canadian shopping mall was an integral part of the ‘Canada Experience’!
The shopping in Winnipeg was much better than I anticipated. I am always on the prowl for some good, unique shopping, and downtown Winnipeg delivered. We were lucky enough to visit during boxing week, so there were incredible sales. The mall close to our hotel was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and I definitely bought more than I needed, but because of the conversion rate of the US Dollar, cost way less than I anticipated.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery
Besides the ballet, the other thing I was most excited for about our visit was the Winnipeg Art Gallery. We went there after our lunch on the second day, and all absolutely loved it! I didn’t know anything about Inuit art before going, but that section was amazing. The carvings are very skillful, and often completely adorable! The subject matter was really fun too–polar bears, narwhals, sled dogs, igloos, etc.–so I recommend going for that section alone! There were also galleries of European and modern art and work of the famous Group of Seven (Canadian landscape painters from 1920-1933). The icing on the cake, though, had to be the amazing Olympus exhibition that was going on at the time of our visit. It was a stunning collection of ancient Greco-Roman sculpture and pottery from a couple of museums in Berlin. We looked through that area last, and we absolutely loved it. We highly recommend the museum if you’re visiting Winnipeg!
The art museum’s Inuit collection was beautiful, and I liked that the Olympus exhibit had lots of interactive aspects aimed at people of all ages.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery was one of my favorite parts of Winnipeg. The outside architecture was amazing, and the inside was great as well. They had a diverse range of exhibits, but one of my favorites was the Inuit Art exhibit. It showcased dozens of adorable animal sculptures made from bone, wood, etc. It was beautiful and a great look into Native art. The other exhibit there I loved was the classical Greek and Roman art on tour from Berlin. I am very interested in Greek/Roman mythology, and it was incredible for me to be surrounded by so many quintessential masterpieces, including some of my personal hero: Artemis.
Stella’s Cafe & the Skywalks
After our art museum exhibit, we were a bit tired so we took a little break at the hotel and watched some old episodes of 6teen! When we were hungry we headed over to Stella’s Cafe, which was right across from our hotel and is highly recommended on TripAdvisor. We’d passed it on our way to the art museum and thought it was cute, so we had dinner there. The food was fantastic, and the waitress was very nice, giving us recommendations of ways to spend the rest of our evening in Winnipeg. A hockey game was going on that night, so the streets were a bit more crowded than usual with people heading to the game (or to bars to watch the game). We were happy to learn of the game that night, glad that so many Canadians didn’t always dress in hockey jerseys! (We saw tons that day while we were out and about!)
After dinner, we went back to the mall for a bit more shopping and checked out some of the convenient skywalks. They definitely make winter in Winnipeg more bearable!
Manitoba Legislative Building
After dinner, we walked down past the art museum and to the Manitoba Legislative Building. The walk was a bit of an adventure since most of the sidewalks hadn’t been cleared, but it wasn’t anything that we weren’t used to, living in the Midwest. The legislative building is open for touring until 8 or 9pm in the evenings. The two security guards there were very nice, and told us that we could even stay a bit later than that if we wanted to, since they had some things to close up. It was fun to check out the interior of the building, which was decorated for Christmas and had some cool architectural details. The bison is the symbol of Manitoba, so that motif showed up a lot in the decor too! We explored all of the floors of the building before heading back to our hotel for the night. It was also pretty cool because there were only a couple of other visitors at that time, so we could take pictures without trying to work around other people. It was a nice, free thing to do while in Winnipeg!
St. Boniface Cathedral
The next morning, we did our first driving since getting into Winnipeg the first evening. The map situation still hadn’t improved much, but we managed to make our way over to St. Boniface Cathedral in the French Quarter without having to turn around too many times!
St. Boniface is actually a ruin, with a new church built behind it. We entered the new church first, but it was pretty disappointing. They didn’t keep any of the character of the original cathedral, and it was very obviously built in the 1970s.
But then we headed out the back door of the new church and to the inside of the old St. Boniface facade, which was much more impressive. There’s really only the front and parts of the sides of the cathedral left. It was burnt down when a careless construction worker had a mishap with a lit cigarette in 1968. The rose window and most of the church was destroyed, but the stone facade remains, and there’s also the old cemetery and a few sculptures on either side of the old church.
It was softly snowing while we were there, giving the whole place a sort of tranquil feeling. We had it to ourselves for most of the time we were there, and enjoyed watching the snow fall in front of the ruined church and looking at some of the old tombstones. It was another great, free thing to do while in Winnipeg!
St. Boniface was so peaceful and beautiful on that silent, snowy morning.
Promenade Cafe & Wine
After our time at St. Boniface Cathedral, we headed to a cute little cafe we’d seen a few blocks away in the shopping area of the French Quarter. The place was called Promenade Cafe & Wine, and it had a cute French bistro feel, as well as great views of the Esplanade Riel and futuristic Human Rights museum building across the river. We had a brief wait for a table and then ordered a delicious $8 CAD breakfast that was delicious and filling. We each had our own individually-brewed tea, hash browns, toast with Saskatoon jam, bacon, and eggs to order. It was one of the best (and best value) meals we had in Canada!
The French Quarter
After our wonderful breakfast, we walked around the French Quarter and did a bit of shopping. There are some really pretty murals around the place that we photographed, as well as lots of cute cafes and boutique stores. One of the best had to be the chocolate shop, which was called Chocolatier Constance Popp. I bought souvenirs for people there, enjoyed their samples, admired their Bathing Venus made from white chocolate, and bought some birch syrup to take home. My favorite boutique store was one which was raising funds to help underprivileged women (similar, I believe, to the Dress for Success organization that I’ve worked with in the US). The shopkeeper was really nice, giving us directions to Assiniboine Park in case we wanted to stop there on our way out of town (she used to be a cab driver, so she had a pretty good idea!). She was also the first Canadian we met who noticeably said “aye” at the end of her sentences!
I loved the French Quarter especially. Although we traveled there in Winter and it was bitterly cold, there were many cute shops to step into to warm up. We stopped for breakfast in an adorable French cafe, where the waiter had a french accent and was very attentive. The breakfast we got was massive, and delicious. Then we went on our way to shop, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many magic/pagan shops there were. It was definitely interesting! My favorite shop though, was the Chocolate shop. They offered samples, and it was absolutely heavenly.
The Journey Home
Getting out of Winnipeg was a bit tricky with our precarious map situation, but we made it and, on the bright side, got to see a whole lot of Winnipeg! 😉 We listened to some Canadian radio on our way to the border, which was pretty fun. We found some French stations, heard some Avril Lavigne that we’d never heard in the US, as well as a few songs from the US charts too.
Across the border, I figured out how to get my car back into miles instead of kilometers (and mpg instead of liters/100km) again and we headed onto Fargo, where we dropped Becky off. Rachel and I got back home in time to go see Star Wars at the local theatre, which was fun.
Overall we really loved our trip. We experienced a lot more “cultured” activities than we could have if we stayed home–the ballet, the wonderful art gallery, and even the swanky cafe in the French Quarter–and didn’t find the winter weather to be a hindrance to us. In fact, it meant we got a lot of places to ourselves, had some great conversations with some of the Canadians we met, and we’re able to experience Winnipeg more like a local. The snow even added a bit to the fun! We thought the city was really fun. It was very clean for a city of that size, and the people were all very friendly (I guess some stereotypes are true!). The best part was that we were able to take this trip together while we were all in college. It was very affordable since we drove there, only spent a few days, and did mostly-free activities. If you get the chance, you should definitely visit Winnipeg, even if you can only go in the winter months!