Picture of two women dancing in Winnipeg, Canada

Winnipeg festivals celebrate arts of all kinds, from ballet to folk art.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow

By Robin Esrock

The 'Peg, Manitoba's capital, holds its own against Canada's bigger cities as a thriving center of arts, dance, and music. It is home of the famed Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, and Winnipeg Folk Festival, preparing to celebrate its 40th year. But this provincial center is also fast becoming a hub for new restaurants with signature twists on traditional fare, an eclectic club scene, and increasingly popular special events rocking a distinctly Winnipeg flavor.

Still, for locals Winnipeg is first and foremost a river city, says mixed-media artist Jo'Anne Kelly, who has lived here most of her life. "Three beautiful rivers—the Red, the Assiniboine, and the Seine—flow through the neighborhoods and have their confluence in the very heart of Winnipeg," she says. "I have a studio that looks out over the riverbanks, providing artistic inspiration all the seasons of the year." Adds local filmmaker Stephan Recksiedler, "Musicians, chefs, dancers, painters, and filmmakers from around the country find their voice and support in Winnipeg."

When to Go: In early July, more than 57,000 people gather in Birds Hill Provincial Park for the five-day Winnipeg Folk Festival. Camp onsite (and join in the late-night campground sing-alongs and drum jam sessions), purchase locally crafted arts and crafts at the Hand-Made Village, and listen to outdoor concerts on eight daytime stages, plus evening headliner shows. Later in the month, pack a picnic and spread a blanket in Assiniboine Park to watch the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's free Ballet in the Park.

How to Get Around: Winnipeg Transit offers a free bus service called the Spirit Bus, with regular stops at major attractions, shopping, and entertainment spots. If the heat (or cold) is too much to bear, a 1.2-mile, indoor walkway system runs through the heart of downtown. The Winnipeg Folk Festival runs its own Festival Express, free for wristband holders.

Where to Stay: Across from Union Station is Winnipeg's most iconic hotel, the Fort Garry. Built in 1913, this national historic site has hosted guests like Liberace, Louis Armstrong, and Laurence Olivier. Fort Garry's grand exterior recalls the city's glory days as one of North America's most important transport hubs. Another option is the Fairmont Winnipeg, an unimpressive Soviet-looking building that nonetheless boasts Fairmont's world-class service and amenities.

What to Eat or Drink: Located in the hip South Osborne Street neighborhood, Bistro 7¼ is a small, busy eatery with an action-packed open kitchen and "French-inspired comfort food," including eight varieties of moules et frites and small plates. Mise serves up "haute prairie cuisine"—such as maple chipotle salmon with watermelon mint and sour cherry yogurt, sourced from local suppliers. Downtown's Peasant Cookery is known for its exceptional tortière (Canadian meat pie).

What to Watch Before You Go: Director Guy Maddin's critically acclaimed iconoclastic, quirky film My Winnipeg (2007) is a tribute to his hometown in the form of a black-and-white self-described "docu-fantasia" featuring actors playing members of his family and Maddin's mother playing herself.

What to Read Before You Go: Ravenscraig by Sandi Krawchenko Altner (Franklin & Gallagher, 2012), an epic family drama set in Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century, won the 2012 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award for "contributing to the appreciation and understanding" of the city.

What to Buy: Head to The Forks, a popular food market and public space, for a fresh-baked beavertail. (Don't worry; no beavers were harmed in the making of this sugarcoated pastry.) The Wayne Arthur Gallery displays and sells paintings, sculptures, pottery, prints, and jewelry from more than 130 Manitoban artists. Or create a custom In Plain View Winnipeg art tour itinerary to visit local artists in their studios, learn about their craft, and purchase original works.

Helpful Links: Tourism Winnipeg, The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ

Fun Facts: Ian Fleming wrote that Winnipegger and World War II superspy William Stephenson, whose code name was Intrepid, was his inspiration for James Bond. And during World War I, a local soldier named Harry Colebourne brought a black bear to London for his regiment's mascot, inspiring yet another fictional legend: Winnie the Pooh.

Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.

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