Why Winnipeg should be on your radar

When I first visited Winnipeg, in 2005, I did so on the advice of an art world acquaintance in New York who spent a lot of professional time in Canada. I asked him which Canadian city he deemed to be coolest. After a perfunctory nod to Montreal, he zeroed in on Winnipeg. He cited the city’s high culture, its dynamic contemporary creative figures, its prairie sunsets, and its very undiscovered status as reasons to visit.

When I got to Winnipeg I found a city teeming with good cultural, architectural, and culinary stuff. I also found a city that seemed to know itself. There are countless cities in North America obsessed with their relationship to New York or Los Angeles. Winnipeg is not one of these. If Winnipeg has an inferiority complex, it is tempered by the recognition that quality of life is high and opportunities feel boundless here.

There is quite simply something very special about Winnipeg. It’s a bit of a Grand Old Dame, with a genteel spirit at play across charming residential and commercial neighborhoods. It’s not always the prettiest city. The city’s downtown lacks a unified scale, and a clutch of Brutalist buildings make a dramatic claim on the urban landscape. (The latter always strike me as desperately beautiful, though anecdotal evidence suggests that I’m in the minority in this respect.) There are parks and monuments and unexpected corners. There is also The Forks, an enormous multipurpose entertainment area, which organizes a lot of leisure time in the city.Winnipeg’s strong creative scene is partially attributable to its deep winter freeze, which has fostered a creative atmosphere. The city has a deep artistic tradition that has produced a bevy of contemporary filmmakers and artists. Ponder the work of local filmmakers Guy Maddin and Noam Gonick and you gain some real insight into Winnipeg, a city bound to its many idiosyncrasies, the harsh climate, and its varied ethnic diversity.

There’s also the question of the city’s population in relation to the surrounding territory. There are 1.2 million people in Manitoba; around 650,000 of them live in Winnipeg. Winnipeg is the only metropolis of note for a great distance. The prairie is just outside the city, and it is vast. Winnipeg draws the country refugees in magnetically.

Winnipeg has a number of major projects underway; the most notable of these, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is scheduled to be finished in 2012. The museum is is a very ambitious and very heady undertaking. In architectural terms alone, it will be a tour de force. There is already talk in Winnipeg about a future Bilbao Effect.

By the end of my second visit to Winnipeg last week I’d discovered more delightful Manitoban quirks: the phenomenon of the wedding social; the local appetite for Slurpees, even in the dead of winter; the fact that, in early August, I saw leaves that had already turned color; the genuine friendliness of completely random people.

Over the next few days, I’ll post reports on Winnipeg’s Folklorama cultural festival, Winnipeg’s museum scene, the city’s locavore wave, The Forks, and some other dimensions of this exciting city.

See my entire road trip to Winnipeg series here.

Some media support for my stay in Winnipeg was provided by Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba. All opinions expressed are my own.