Top Five Things To Do in Winnipeg, Manitoba

Winnipeg, Manitoba has a population of 800,000. It makes its home near the geographical centre of North America and Canada. You may have heard of Winnipeg if you watch National Hockey League sports highlights because of the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeggers are very friendly. Our license plates even say “Friendly Manitoba.” 

Winnipeg’s cost of living is one of the lowest in Canada. In particular, the housing cost is below every major Canadian city except Quebec City, so Winnipeg residents can afford to save more for retirement, travel, and owning a cottage. If you can tolerate cold winters, Winnipeg’s a great place to live or retire to. 

During my career, people told me they planned on visiting Winnipeg for business. They wanted ideas about the best things to do in Winnipeg while there. These are the top five things to do in Winnipeg that I would suggest. 

Check out The Forks

Visiting the Forks is one of the best things to do in Winnipeg

The Forks is located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where indigenous people and settlers traded for hundreds of years. Developers converted two former warehouses into exciting markets similar to St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. The Forks Market has a tower that offers great views of downtown and the rivers. Most of the restaurants and stores here are, thankfully, local. 

The Forks Market has many shops, including a gift shop with Manitoba-made products, a local bookstore, a candy store, and a wine and spirits store. The Forks also has a luxurious and convenient boutique hotel called Inn at the Forks with a spa where you can get pampered. The food hall has several interesting restaurants and a beer and wine counter. Taste of Sri Lanka serves my favourite dish in the food hall, deviled chicken with curried eggplant.

The Forks Market is full of culinary surprises

The other building next to The Forks Market is called the Johnson Terminal. This features a large antique market in the basement. There are also gift shops, and, for kids big and small, a gigantic toy store. 

A photo of a massive ice castle

Indigenous art and culture is pervasive, including at a store called Teekca’s Aboriginal Boutique and Oodena Celebration Circle. The Circle is a natural, shallow amphitheatre that celebrates the 6,000 years of Indigenous peoples in the area. You can also take your kids or grandchildren to see a play at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People and visit the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

During the summer, people go to the Forks for concerts at the outdoor CN Stage, to see buskers, watch festivals (such as the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival and Canada Day), and take long walks along the scenic riverwalk. You can commandeer a water taxi to other downtown tourist attractions from the historic port. 

A photo of the Esplanade Riel, one of the great things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Also in summer, you can also dine at Mon Ami Louis, a French restaurant in the middle of the Esplanade Riel bridge overlooking the Red River.  It is the only restaurant in North America that is on a bridge. This restaurant has a famous “million-dollar” toilet because of the cost to get the plumbing to the middle of the bridge, which leads to the French Quarter.  The view is spectacular while you enjoy menu items like escargots, vichyssoise, tartes flambees, and crepes. 

Ice skating is always a favorite of things to do in Winnipeg

During the winter, glide across the world’s longest skating surface along the rivers. Avoid getting yourself frozen by dropping by the fantastic warming huts along the way. Or skate while holding hands on the rink under the canopy with accompanying music.

Visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A photo of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, one of the can't-miss things to do in Winnipeg

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is located next to The Forks and it cost $350 million to build. It’s a brilliant and creative structure of curved lines. The architect used bold geometry to give this building its unique charm, with three‐quarters of the walls sloped at unusual angles.

The inside of the Human Rights Museum

Visitors walk up one kilometer of ramps, which symbolizes the climb from darkness to light. They can view exhibits on each level until winding up at the Israel Asper Tower of Hope for some lovely views. The museum has a powerful and educational exhibit about the Holocaust.

Explore Assiniboine Park

A photo of Assiniboine Park, one of the best things to do in Winnipeg

Assiniboine Park is the 11th-largest urban park in Canada. It has countless tree-lined trails along the river for biking or hiking and big fields for playing cricket, Frisbee, football, and soccer. On certain summer nights, you can bring a blanket or lawn chairs to watch a movie in the park or you can enjoy a free concert or ballet performance on the Lyric Stage. 

A photo of a summer concert at Assiniboine Park

The Assiniboine Park Zoo has more than 200 species of animals spread over 80 acres. The zoo recently opened an exhibit called “Journey to Churchill” featuring polar bears and other animals found in Northern Manitoba. You can go below the water and watch the polar bears swim above you through thick glass like in an aquarium.

A photo of a polar bear swimming behind glass at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, one of the best things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

My favourite place to de-stress is the English Garden at Assiniboine Park. This has several walking paths meandering through gorgeous flower gardens and huge trees. It’s located between the impressive Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and the lovely and tranquil Duck Pond.

The Assiniboine Park Pavilion looks like a Bavarian lodge and contains the largest collection of works by famous Manitoba artists including Ivan Eyre. It’s also home to a fascinating exhibit about a small bear that was brought to England by a Winnipeg veterinarian during the First World War. This bear inspired A.A. Milne to create Winnie the Pooh.  

The park has a big, modern natural playground. There’s also a miniature steam train for families with younger children. On winter days, you can slide down a hill on toboggans or sleds and ice skate on the Duck Pond. 

Drop by the Royal Canadian Mint

The Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg is one of only two money-producing facilities in Canada. The sail-shaped, glass-covered building looks like a futuristic work of art. Each year, every one of the billions of Canadian circulation coins is manufactured here. 

The Royal Canadian Mint, one of the most unique things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Inside, you can pay $8 for a guided tour or take a free self-guided tour of how the coins are made. In the gift shop, you can buy rare and collectible Canadian coins. Security is very tight and, unfortunately, they don’t have free samples. 

Stroll around the Exchange District

The Exchange District is downtown, near Winnipeg City Hall and not far from the famous windy intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street. The Exchange is a Canadian national historic site of 150 protected heritage buildings built in the late 1800s. Several big-budget productions have used it as a movie set in the past. 

Old Market Square offers the Cube, one of the most unique things to do in Winnipeg

A centrepiece of the Exchange District is Old Market Square. This has a unique stage called “The Cube.” Old Market Square hosts many concerts and summer festivals, such as Folklorama, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, and the Winnipeg Jazz Festival.

The Exchange District is a hub for a multitude of local businesses and associations. Winnipeg artists and technology companies have set up residence in the Exchange. Furthermore, some interesting and cool cafes are located in the Exchange, including Forth, Parlour, and Across the Board Game Cafe.

For a tasty bite to eat and one of the best things to do in Winnipeg, visit Peasant Cookery

For a great meal in the Exchange, order the mussels and charcuterie board at Peasant Cookery. You can also sample Dutch-inspired gourmet menu items at Amsterdam Tea Room. During events, you will find numerous local food trucks parked beside Old Market Square. 

There are plenty of things to do in Winnipeg, Manitoba!
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Kevin Strong is a Canadian travel and tourism writer based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He specializes in writing about slow travel with the older tourist very much in mind. Kevin is the creative genius behind the Retirestyle Travel website.

Five Reasons to Visit Zanzibar

 

Anyone ever heard of Unguja? How about the island’s more common name, Zanzibar? It’s known as the Spice Island as well as the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. An Indian Ocean archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Africa, it’s also a diving and snorkeling mecca. Here are five reasons to visit Zanzibar. 

Five Reasons to Visit Zanzibar

Reef Diving,  Snorkeling, Surfing

A coral reef runs along most of the ocean side of Zanzibar for about a mile offshore. Levan Bank, off the northern tip, is one of the island’s most famous and impressive dive sites. There, you can see huge kingfish and impressive tuna. Inside the reef, the waters are calm and crystal clear. When the tide goes out, you can actually walk from the beach to the reef. According to many professional divers, Zanzibar offers some of the best dive sites in Africa, and possibly the world. 

The Beach - one of the best reasons to visit Zanzibar

There are official and unofficial guides who can take you diving or snorkeling, depending on what you want to spend or what type of boat you’re looking for. Seeing some of the rickety wooden boats along the beach may send you in the direction of a resort that offers more professional services. If getting up close and personal with scaly fishy friends isn’t your style, Paje, further south, offers pristine beaches and some of the best kite surfing anywhere. 

The Spice Island

Zanzibar has an abundance of spices, and therefore, an abundance of spice tours! They’re not only informative but an interesting distraction from the beach, where you can explore small villages set right in the jungle, and see first hand how exotic spices are grown and harvested for sale. You get to sample cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper that are plucked right from trees and shrubs growing all around you. Local guides encourage you to smell and/or taste the indigenous spices. 

A photo of the tour guide of Ed and his wife's spice tour showing off one of Zanzibar's spices.

Retreating under the thick jungle canopy, the spice tour was a nice escape from the 90°F heat. About halfway through the tour, they offered a cornucopia of fresh local fruit. Local guides receive training at a young age on how to climb trees and harvest spices. They make their village huts out of nothing more than grass and mud. Using hammocks for beds, furnishings remain simple and sparse.

Giant Tortoises

We took a leisurely three-mile boat trip to Prison Island (Changu) from Stone Town, the main port and largest city on Zanzibar. The trip was relaxing. Our arrival at the beach pier offered the most amazing shades of blue I’ve ever seen. The locals have opened the prison, once hell on earth for rebellious slaves incarcerated in the 1860s, for public tours. The island has also functioned as a coral mine in the past. Despite its grim history, Changu remains in the top five reasons to visit Zanzibar.

The main attraction of Prison Island is the gigantic tortoises. Some weigh up to 500 pounds, live until 150 years of age, and are about the size of a Smart Car. At one time, there were as many as 200 of the unique creatures, but now there are about 50. Since Zanzibar has become a world heritage site, the tortoises have been offered protection from theft and poaching. 

The Masai and Freddy Mercury

Whether it’s on the beach or in Stone Town, you’ll surely notice the people of Zanzibar come from a variety of backgrounds. We saw Muslims in robes and hijabs, native Swahili, and Masai in their traditional red Shuka. No matter their religion or heritage, the people were welcoming and friendly. Many of the tourists are European, with some flocking to the upscale Italian-focused resorts. 

Zanzibar is like any other exotic tourist destination, with people trying to sell their wares on the street or beach. Fortunately, street sellers were nowhere as bothersome or persistent as some we’ve encountered elsewhere. There is a colorful market in Stone Town, offering all kinds of fresh produce and seafood. If that’s not good enough, you can buy fresh fish and octopus right on the beach from the fishermen who caught it. 

Stone Town

We stayed in Stone Town for a night, hoping to explore as much as we could. Unfortunately, even with a city map, we found the narrow and winding streets confusing. The personal tour we booked was the way to go. We saw and experienced so much more, and our guide explained things that we had no idea about. For dinner, we sought out Mercury’s, a beachfront restaurant with an awesome sunset view. The kitchen is an open-pit barbeque, and there are autographed photos from Freddy Mercury and Queen on the walls. 

A photo of Stone Town

The stone architecture pays tribute to the town’s name, and buildings have taken on a lichen-stained patina that shows how gracefully they’ve aged. There is no room for cars on the inner-city streets. They are more like alleys or sidewalks, where everything has to be carried in or on wooden carts. Beware of some locals who buzz through the cobbled maze on motor scooters. 

The Beaches

Try to imagine what your favorite beach looked like before it was invaded by massive resorts and the throngs of tourists that come with them. That is what the deserted beaches of Zanzibar offer. Miles of white sand with swaying palm trees on one side and turquoise water on the other. The northeast beaches of Nungwi, Kendwa, Pwani, Waikiki, and Kiwengwa were some of the prettiest that we’ve visited anywhere. 

There are a handful of resorts on the island that exist mostly on the north end. Nonetheless, you’ll find more fishermen and wayward cows on the beach than noisy jet skis or other pleasure craft. Small sailboats are more the norm. We stayed in an AirBnB and ate most of our meals in, but found plenty to eat and drink by visiting the mom-and-pop restaurants scattered along the beach. 

When not cooking at home, we found ourselves strolling down the beach for fresh homemade dinners, rather than taking a taxi down the road. Outdoor restaurants and patios can be nice, but they can’t compare to sipping cocktails in a shaded beach restaurant, listening to the waves roll in, and watching the moon rise over the ocean. 

Friendly Locals, Beautiful Locale

In conclusion, we found Zanzibar to be one of the most interesting places we’ve ever visited. We consider it quite safe and Cathryn walked to the beach and local village for groceries by herself. She worried when one local man followed her around the village, but it turned out he was only there to protect her and help carry things. 

The man even helped me carry a five-gallon jug of water all the way home. You’d think I gave him 100 dollars when I tipped him a buck. Not being resort people, we stayed in the Kamili View Apartments in Kiwengwa, a gated complex with a beautiful swimming pool. Our second-floor unit offered ocean views and breezes.

The Gagnon's AirBnb Pool

I don’t pick favorites and rarely return to places I’ve visited, but Zanzibar is one destination that both Cathryn and I agree we’d definitely return to. These five reasons to visit Zanzibar represent a short summary that doesn’t give this beautiful island justice. Book the trip and see for yourself.

If you enjoyed this article and wish to read more of Ed’s adventures check out my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Christmas in Madrid, Spain

 

Christmas tree Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Christmas tree at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.

It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s. 

But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January! 

Christmas Traditions Abroad

For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrates several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000. 

christmas spain iluminadas valence-Christmas in Madrid Spain

Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Madrid Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market. 

Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain

There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds. 

The Twelve Days of Epiphany

christmas parade madrid

Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!

The Celebration of Epiphany

As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd. 

Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry. 

madrid spain parade

Christmas Controversy

In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead. 

Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next Spanish holiday, check out Madrid during Christmas. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss. Not to mention, the Madrid’s weather in December and January is milder than other places, so you can enjoy the festivities without a ton of snow or bitter cold. 

madrid spain