The Cube is among Winnipeg's busiest entertainment venues; the Canadian Museum of Human Rights lies just outside the Exchange District (photos: Dan Harper/Tourism Winnipeg)

What to Do in Winnipeg’s Exchange District

By Lea Currie

Winnipeg has long sat in the shadows of larger Canadian cities, but the Prairie capital now shines in the spotlight—thanks in part to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as the continued evolution of the city’s historic Exchange District. The latter is a National Historic Site of Canada, and boasts the largest and best-preserved collection of heritage buildings in North America. It’s also home to Design Quarter Winnipeg, a collection of 45 design-centric organizations and businesses that, when taken together, solidify the area as a destination for creative minds, innovative retailers and design-conscious consumers.

Daily flights from Calgary and Edmonton mean easy access to Winnipeg’s hottest spots: AMA Travel can help you find great rates, plus accommodations at guaranteed best prices. And don’t forget to purchase travel medical insurance from AMA Travel* when you venture outside Alberta. AMA members save up to 10% on already affordable protection with 24/7 support—in case of a medical emergency that’s not covered by your provincial healthcare plan.

A stroll down Waterfront Drive is the perfect way to begin a visit to Winnipeg as you sip your morning brew. Stephen Juba Park runs alongside the Red River, between downtown and the Exchange District. Take a breather here to admire the garden and wave to passersby in canoes, kayaks and water taxis. You’ll also have a great vantage point from which to appreciate the mingling of historic and modern architecture on the other side of waterfront.

The Exchange District boasts a bevy of well-preserved heritage buildings (photo: Aj Batak/Tourism Winnipeg)

If you continue south—just outside the Exchange District—you’ll soon arrive at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Travelling through the museum takes you from ground to sky, darkness to light—an inspired journey designed by architect Antoine Predock, representing the struggle for rights still being endured by people around the world. Just a stone’s throw away you’ll also find the juncture of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers known as The Forks, which boasts a large market, restaurants and more.

Once you’ve fallen in love with Winnipeg, set your sights north to Flin Flon—Manitoba’s capital of quirk

Further perusal is assured back in the Exchange District proper. Among its many art galleries are the artist-run Martha Street Studio, eclectic Cre8ery, and Gurevich Fine Art, which showcases emerging and established artists—such as Diana Thorneycroft and Buffy Sainte-Marie. (And of course, slightly southwest of the Exchange area is the formidable Winnipeg Art Gallery, with the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art.)

If there’s a festival happening in Winnipeg, it’s likely that some component of it will be at Old Market Square. This urban park and its funky open-air stage, The Cube—in the heart of the Exchange District—feature free performances during the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival (June 18-23) and Winnipeg Fringe Festival (July 17-29), among other events.

Cibo Waterfront Café’s warm potato salad (photo: courtesy Cibo Waterfront Café)

A day or more in the Exchange District can be easily filled with food. To start, Clementine’s all-day menu is bulging with inventive, from-scratch breakfasts, such as the coconut curry mushroom toast, braised bacon benedict or Brussels-style waffle. Its building’s original stone, wood beams and exposed ceilings exist harmoniously with the modern open-concept kitchen, designed by Manitoba native Fiona Sanipelli.

Regional flavours are on order at Era Bistro, which has quickly become a favourite of Winnipeggers. Located at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, it’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner (on Wednesday evenings), so it’s easy to be enticed back for more than one meal. For a Winnipeg perspective on chowder, try the eatery’s potato, leek and goldeye version. The California Club boasts locally raised chicken along with delicious extras like avocado and sprouts. Vegetarians and celiacs will feel welcome with lots to choose from, such as the black bean and lentil sloppy joe or baked falafel board.

Cibo Waterfront Café is a delicious way to cap a walk along the river. Admire the high ceilings, exposed ductwork and brick interior of the industrial-chic location; stay for the scrumptious Mediterranean-inspired dishes, including the likes of pizzas, pastas and a choose-your-own bruschetta platter.

Take a peek inside Winnipeg’s craft brewing boom

For dessert, head back into the heart of the Exchange: At Cakeology, it’s hard to choose from the always-changing menu of fun-flavoured cupcakes, such as s’mores and blueberry pie, alongside the classics. Top choices, though, are the cakettes and imperial cookies. The shop also has ice cream, perfect for those hot Prairie days.

For a quick pick-me-up there’s Parlour Coffee, which pours made-to-order specialty coffee from North American roasters—including the Exchange District’s own Dogwood Coffee—and plus fresh-baked goods from local outfits. Aside from its menu, the establishment fosters a communal vibe by not offering Wi-Fi to its guests. Instead, conversation is encouraged.

And if you’d prefer a different type of brew, head over to Little Brown Jug. People watch while enjoying a pint or two in the renovated century-old heritage building: Floor-to-ceiling windows offer great views of both the brewhouse and the street-side hustle and bustle.

Hip housewares and decor items at Tiny Feast (photo: courtesy Tiny Feast)

It’s an understatement to say that the Exchange District is stuffed with “designer” boutiques. Almost everywhere you turn, you’ll find a shop selling unique and often locally produced wares. Tiny Feast is a cozy spot for small home items that beg to be shown and shared—like art prints, charming stationery and greeting cards, beautiful textiles and giftware—while Toad Hall Toys is filled with the kinds of timeless games, books and playtime pieces that are made to last for years to come.

If it’s baubles you’re after, Hilary Druxman Design specializes in jewellery that eschews flash in favour of letting the wearer’s own spark shine through. From abstract-shaped pendants to classic stud earrings to gemstone rings, there’s something for every jewellery lover. Across the street, Dconstruct offers eco-friendly bling: Recycled resin and other materials are used to produce the likes of concrete bow ties, cement earrings, and rings made of of corian or banana fibres.

Women’s apparel is a work of art at Lennard Taylor Design Studio Inc., which features the namesake owner’s distinctive, clean-lined and memorably accented clothing designs. For something that fits all sizes, the essentials holster is a hot way to carry your wallet and cell phone, and will snag a few jealous looks. Arrive at a fortuitous time and you may even see Taylor at work in his open studio.

And if you can’t seem to decide on a memento of your trip, try Mud+Stone, Commonwealth, Oldhat and Wilder, a group of individual businesses that share a single Exchange District warehouse space. Mud+Stone offers handmade ceramics and “whatnot”; Commonwealth crafts men’s apparel; Oldhat makes, well, hats—from recycled materials; and Wilder specializes in leather and canvas goods.

Winnipeg Exchange District Inn at the Forks Hotel
Contemporary accommodations at the Inn at the Forks

Some of Winnipeg’s top hotels are situated just outside of the Exchange District—and within walking distance of many downtown attractions, restaurants and shops. AMA members save when booking accommodations online with AMA Travel.

The century-old Fort Garry Hotel is a jewel of the Winnipeg skyline, a Victorian gothic chateau that’s among the finest of Canada’s classic railway hotels. Though historic, it boasts all manner of modern amenities, from free Wi-Fi to a magnificent Sunday brunch to complimentary yoga classes at a neighbourhood studio.

More modern, but no less luxe, is the Inn at the Forks, a 117-room establishment with a boutique hotel vibe. When not out exploring, guests can indulge at the recently renovated Riverstone Spa, or celebrate Canadian culinary craftsmanship at Smith Restaurant.

Visitors can also enjoy a reliable mix of comfort and convenience at the Fairmont Winnipeg, centrally located in the city’s vibrant downtown core, as well as the Best Western Plus Downtown Winnipeg. AMA members save 5% to 15% at Best Western hotels.

*AMA Travel Insurance is underwritten by Orion Travel Insurance Company.  Certain exclusions, limitations and restrictions apply. Subject to certain terms, conditions and limitations.