Manitoba with Kids
We’ve traveled with our oldest two kids to Canada several times, but my nine-year-old daughter had never been – a major oversight given how easy it is to visit Canada from California. It was time to change that! And given how much she likes animals and animal experiences, Manitoba was the obvious destination.
Travel to Manitoba
There are flights to Winnipeg from all over Canada as well as Minneapolis (Delta), Chicago and Denver (United) and Orlando (Sunwing). We found a great schedule on United leaving Santa Barbara early, connecting in Denver and arriving in Winnipeg at 2pm, after a 2-hour time change. However United got us into Denver late and we missed our connection. Luckily they have two flights a day to Winnipeg, so we hung out in the United lounge for several hours and took the 5:23pm flight, arriving at 8:42pm.
Immigration in Winnipeg is fast – there are machines where you insert your passport and complete your information, and then you show the print-out to a person and are (usually) waived right through. I like that family members can all be included on one entry document. However, luggage took a while to arrive (we had gate-checked a small carry-on, but they insisted on sending all gate-checked bags to baggage claim), and we arrived at Enterprise Rent A Car after their 9pm closing time. We hadn’t thought to call in advance (I assumed that airport rental locations are always open if there are flights coming in), and there didn’t seem to be a way to pick up our rental car, so we took a taxi to our hotel instead. We subsequently cancelled our reservation (more on that below).
A note on traveling solo with one child: I wasn’t asked for a letter from my wife granting me permission to travel with my daughter, but I know a lot of other travelers who have been asked for a notarized consent letter when arriving into Canada with a child and without both parents. I have a blog post here with the text of the letter we always carry with us, just in case.
The Fort Garry Hotel
Travel Manitoba booked us at The Fort Garry Hotel and it was a perfect choice. If I had to prioritize what I look for in a hotel for family travel, it would be: 1) a great location for walking; 2) a good room setup; 3) a historic hotel (I prefer iconic properties to chains); and 4) easy parking. This had it all. During our stay we were able to walk to dinner every night, the Museum for Human Rights, Folklorama (at least some of the pavilions), and The Forks. Parking was generally easy in Winnipeg, but it was even easier to leave the car at the hotel and walk.
We were in connecting rooms 114 (a suite) and 108. It was more space than we needed – a large entry/dining area, an even larger living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Since it was only the two of us, we could have gotten by with either room, but my daughter definitely appreciated having her own room. For a family of four or five this would be an excellent configuration.
Things to Do in Winnipeg with Kids
Even with our delayed arrival, we had three full days to explore Winnipeg and Manitoba. With several activities located outside of Winnipeg we allotted some time to driving and tried to do 2-3 major things each day. The pacing worked out well. This is everything we accomplished:
We needed to be at our first activity by 9am, which on a Sunday was too early to rent a car and too early to have breakfast at the hotel (on Sundays breakfast starts at 8am). So instead we borrowed Travel Manitoba‘s red polar bear & beluga SUV, drove a short distance to Stella’s Café & Bakery for an excellent breakfast, and then hit the road. 45 minutes later we arrived at Oak Hammock Marsh.
At Oak Hammock Marsh we started with bird banding. This was my daughter’s favorite activity of the entire trip. With Kelsey the bird bander we went around to the marsh’s nets, retrieved 14 birds that had just been caught, and watched closely as Kelsey measured, weighed and banded each bird (primarily swallows and sparrows). We weren’t trained volunteers by any means so our participation was peripheral, but my daughter got to carry the birds from the nets to the banding house, and then release them just minutes later once Kelsey was finished. I released a few as well. It was amazing how little stress the birds seemed to be under during their short time in captivity. A very cool experience, especially since my daughter loves birds.
From the bird banding we explored the Interpretive Center for a while and then headed out on canoes to explore the marsh. We loved this as well. Abby took us through the marsh as we looked for, and found, birds, and we even ate cattails (had no idea they were edible). We also retrieved insects from the marsh and viewed them under the microscope at the Interpretive Center. All in all a great place to spend several hours. When you go, definitely book the Bird in the Hand Experience. It includes the canoeing.
We then drove 45 minutes to FortWhyte Alive, had lunch in the Buffalo Stone Cafe, and went out on a bison safari. We had previously done a safari in Jackson, Wyoming and only spotted a few bison from far away. At FortWhyte Alive it’s far easier to get up close. We really enjoyed our short (<1 hour) safari with Barret, and afterwards explored the rest of the property, including nature trails, an interpretive center with lots of touching allowed, and a tipi. There was canoeing as well, which we would have done if we hadn’t just been canoeing at Oak Hammock.
I should note that Oak Hammock Marsh and FortWhyte Alive offer a Feathers to Fur Wildlife Experience, combining the Bird in the Hand experience with canoeing and the buffalo safari – the exact itinerary that we did.
We drove from FortWhyte Alive back to our hotel, had a little downtime, and then walked over to Winnipeg’s Exchange District for dinner – maybe 20 minutes away. We had an excellent pizza and steak at Cibo Waterfront Cafe followed by a decadent s’mores dessert, and then slowly walked back to our hotel along the Red River. It was a gorgeous evening.
We got a very early start, leaving the Fort Garry Hotel at 6am, stopping by Tim Hortons for a quick breakfast (because Canada) and arriving at Selkirk Park right at 7am. We met up with Todd Longley of City Cats and headed out on his boat for a morning of fishing.
Our previous family fishing experiences were largely disappointing. The kids enjoyed fishing, and they caught just enough to keep them interested, but they mostly felt frustrated that they hadn’t caught more. That definitely was not the case on the Red River! We had booked a four-hour trip with Todd, but after two hours we had caught 12 large catfish and were physically exhausted, so we cut the morning short. For future reference, my 9-year-old was too small to fish on her own – the fish were simply too large and heavy. Todd showed me videos of other kids teaming up to reel in fish and bring them into the boat, so if you bring several kids, that’s the way to go. My daughter instead watched the rods and let us know when the fish started to nibble, and she helped me reel them in. A very fun morning, and given how many fish are in the river, I’m pretty sure your kids won’t leave disappointed! And Todd was very flexible with a shorter day once we told him we were happy stopping once we caught an even dozen. On the way back to the dock we stopped and watched bald eagles for a while, which was amazing.
We then stopped at a mall on the way back to the hotel to shop at Roots, our favorite Canadian store. The US Dollar is strong right now, so it’s a great time to go shopping in Canada.
We took showers at the hotel to smell a little less like fish, then walked over to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We started with lunch at the ERA Bistro (the pesto pasta was my daughter’s top meal of the trip), visited the museum’s extraordinary Nelson Mandela exhibit (closing August 2019 unfortunately), and then started our 90-minute guided museum tour. My daughter was NOT looking forward to this – 90 minutes being led around a “boring museum” on a non-kid-oriented tour. She very quickly changed her mind, and loved the tour. I did as well. The museum is amazing – spectacular architecturally, a sobering look at genocide and the rights that millions don’t have, and a celebration of individuals who have made and are making a difference. We stayed for hours after our tour ended, and I’d return to Winnipeg again just to spend more time there.
I received a lot of questions on social media about the appropriate age for the museum. I think you’re good with any age, and you can decide how much and in what way to talk to your kids about things like the Holocaust, or you can focus on the positive messages of the museum the first time around and delve deeper into human rights on subsequent visits as your kids get older. My daughter was inspired by the stories about kids who have stood up to make a difference, and is already thinking through how to incorporate those ideas into her next school year.
We walked back to the hotel though the train station (a great shortcut that we should have been using all along), had some downtime, and then walked over to The Forks – a “meeting place” at the junction of the Red River and Assiniboine River with parks and a large market building. We had dinner at The Forks Market (we opted for Greek), and then my daughter explored and climbed on parked train cars for over an hour between the market and the hotel. If we lived in Winnipeg we’d be at The Forks all the time.
We slept in a little, finally had breakfast at our hotel, and then made our way to the Assiniboine Park Zoo roughly 20 minutes away. The zoo’s primary attraction is Journey to Churchill, with its nine rescued polar bears (orphaned polar bears won’t survive on their own). We desperately want to visit Churchill, Manitoba to see polar bears in the wild (along with beluga whales), but Journey to Churchill is the next best thing. So fun seeing the bears up close – both in the polar bear tunnel and in the bears’ huge outdoor area. We spent maybe two hours in Journey to Churchill, including visiting the seals, owls, foxes and muskoxen, and easily could have spent a whole day there.
And don’t ignore the rest of the zoo. My daughter loved the birds and reptiles, the stingrays and the butterflies as well. And there are mini-donuts near the stingrays – always a hit.
From the zoo we walked across the street to the Park Cafe for lunch (we finally had poutine!) and then explored Assiniboine Park, finding the famous Winnie the Bear statue (fun fact: Winnie the Pooh was named after Winnie the Bear which was named after Winnipeg).
The entire park is gorgeous. There’s a great playground, but my daughter actually preferred walking through The English Garden, with all of its trees and flowers.
We drove from Assiniboine Park to the outlet mall, since Roots has a children’s department there. After a very successful shopping expedition (with bubble tea) we returned to our hotel, went online and purchased tickets for Folklorama, the city’s celebration of Canada’s native and immigrant groups that takes place over two weeks every August. We chose the Spirit of Ukraine Pavilion – one of the pavilions with the longest local history.
How we thought it worked: we could look up Folklorama on Google Maps and walk there, arriving just before the 6:45pm start time.
What happened: we walked to where Google Maps took us and…it was Folklorama’s administrative headquarters. We had absolutely no idea where to go, it was now past 6:45, and my data roaming was too slow to look up where we were supposed to be. Whoops.
How the night was saved: we gave up and started walking back to the hotel, making alternate plans for dinner. Passing the Convention Centre, it was obvious that something was taking place inside, so we headed in and found…Folklorama. Success! Except that it wasn’t the Ukraine Pavilion, which apparently was several miles away. The folks at the UK Pavilion felt bad that we were so lost and they honored our Ukraine tickets. So we sat down, got dinner, and watched an hour of British/Scottish/Welsh performances. My daughter, with her UK heritage, loved the music and dance. If we were in Winnipeg longer we would have gone multiple nights to multiple pavilions. Whatever you do, though, don’t use Google Maps to find Folklorama!
The next morning we took a taxi from the hotel to the airport at 5am for our 7am flight. Winnipeg has US Pre-Clearance, so we got boarding passes, checked our bags, headed through security and then used Global Entry to clear immigration/customs. Note: we could have gone to the front of the security line if we had our physical Global Entry cards with us, but I’ve never traveled with them. Apparently there’s a benefit to doing so if you’re in Canada.
We purchased coffee, donuts and scones at Tim Hortons at the airport, flew to Denver, and then connected to Santa Barbara. Our flights were perfect, and we were back at our house before noon.
Summary and Finance
Manitoba and Winnipeg are amazing in the summer. We loved everything about our three days there (other than the Google Maps Folklorama incident). My daughter’s favorite activity was the bird banding. Folklorama was her second favorite. I liked the Canadian Museum for Human Rights best, with the polar bears second. There’s nothing we wouldn’t want to do again when we return. And Manitoba is beautiful!
We were hosted by Travel Manitoba. Rooms at The Fort Garry Hotel start at $98 for a standard Queen room or $188 for a King Suite. Parking is $14/day. If we had kept our rental car, it would have been $219 for four days. Lunches and dinners were $15-40 for the two of us. The Bird in the Hand Experience at Oak Hammock Marsh is $23 per person. Normal Oak Hammock Marsh admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids. FortWhyte Alive is $8 for adults and $6 for kids.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is $12 for adults and half that for kids. The 90-minute tour was only $6 for both of us. Assiniboine Park Zoo is $16 for adults and $9 for kids. Four hours fishing the Red River with Todd Longley & City Cats is $378 (or $454 for the whole day) for a maximum of four people. Taxis between the airport and hotel were $16 each way.
Note: all prices are converted to US$ and rounded.
Have you been to Winnipeg with kids? What did we miss? What should we add to our agenda for next time?