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A prairie exploration

The Prairies are typically a place we pass through on the way to our destination of choice; an incredibly flat stretch of road we're keen to put in our rearview mirrors in our rush to arrive.

The Prairies are typically a place we pass through on the way to our destination of choice; an incredibly flat stretch of road we're keen to put in our rearview mirrors in our rush to arrive. But one of these quiet, unassuming provinces is worth a closer look, and some additional exploration.

Winnipeg, Manitoba (AKA Winterpeg, Manisnowba), is home to almost 700,000 people. A mid-size city, it boasts a rich cultural scene (home of indie rockers The Weakerthans, The Guess Who and Neil Young, as well as the acclaimed Royal Winnipeg Ballet), amazing architecture and in case you missed the news, its very own NHL team (go Jets go!).

People talk a lot of smack about Manitoba. Truth be told, I'd never really given much thought to the province that bills itself as the "heart of the continent" before moving there for work. In the few months I've lived in the city, I've found most of the stereotypes are rooted in truth: it is, in fact, very cold here in the winter; it does flood every spring; and the mosquitoes can be a real pain.

Still, this is part of our country, and a spot that is worth experiencing for yourself (though I'd recommend skipping the winter months, when temperatures dip to -40 degrees). The summer is beautiful in the 'Peg. It gets quite hot, and residents take full advantage of the nice weather while they can, checking out free outdoor concerts, lounging at parks and generally clocking as much patio time as possible.

Here are just a few examples of what's on offer in Winnipeg in the summer season:

The Forks

A bit of a geography lesson, folks. The Red River runs right through the city (it actually flows north, into Lake Winnipeg) and intersects with the Assiniboine River. Hence, the name "The Forks" for Winnipeg's most popular gathering place, located at the junction of the two mighty rivers. While we're in the midst of this lesson, I should also mention that there's a great deal of history associated with this spot. The Forks has actually been a meeting place for thousands of years: European fur traders, Métis buffalo hunters, Scottish settlers, riverboat workers, railway pioneers and immigrants all met here.

Today, The Forks < > are the city's premier year-round tourist destination, receiving visits from over four million people per year. The 56-acre site features restaurants and shops, a hotel,  theatre, newly renovated Children's Museum, promenade, park and stage, as well as a "Prairie Garden" featuring 150 native plant species. Also on-site are railway exhibits, a tranquil riverside walk, bike rental and tour boat companies. The Forks will also be the future home of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights < >, which is under construction and expected to be finished by 2012.

Get cultured...

While The Forks are fantastic, you really should venture away from the tourist destination and take in some of the cultural activities on offer in the city (and just outside.)

Winnipeg is a great place for music lovers. The city is large enough that it attracts big-name touring artists (this summer alone, U2, Supertramp, Rhianna, The Black Keys, Britney Spears, and The Tragically Hip have shows in Winnipeg), but small enough that it has it's own burgeoning indie scene to cultivate local talent. Really, it's the best of both worlds.

Beyond one-off club shows and concerts, there's also an impressive summer festival scene. The most well known, the Winnipeg Folk Festival < > , takes place in early July (this year, July 6 to 10), and features artists like Blue Rodeo, Dan Mangan, k.d. lang and Tegan and Sara.

But the Folk Fest isn't the only game in town: TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, < >  takes place from June 16 to 25 this year, and features artists like Shad, Robert Plant and The Band of Joy and the New Gary Burton Quartet.

Looking beyond music, Winnipeg also plays host to the ever-popular Folklorama < >  festival - the largest and longest-running multicultural festival in the world - every summer (this year, from July 31 to August 13). A celebration of multicultural communities, Folklorama features music, dance, visual arts and storytelling from around the world, with countries representing their culture and heritage at their respective pavilions.

Explore the city

It might sound obvious, but visitors really should take a meander around certain neighbourhoods. The Exchange District < > , a 30-block area located in the heart of downtown, features North America's most extensive collection of turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture, great dining and shops, and is also the hub of Winnipeg's artistic community, featuring great art galleries and the very cool, modern "Cube" stage in Old Market Square.

Anyone interested in history should really consider taking a guided walking tour with the Exchange District BIZ, which offers two tours: the East and West Exchange tours. They'll fill you in on the rich history of the area, taking you through "Newspaper Row," hotels and banks, the area's notorious "Hell's Alley" and much more.

There are also some great stories behind the Manitoba Legislature Building < > , an impressive structure topped with the city's iconic "Golden Boy" statue (a little bit of random trivia: the figure is actually 17.2-feet tall, weighs 3,640 pounds and is covered in 24-carat gold).

Within the building, there are also two life-size bison statues guarding the grand staircase, each weighing two-and-a-half tonnes. Legend has it that in order to prevent the marble floors from being scratched during installation, the main floor was flooded with water and frozen, then both statues were slid in on slabs of ice cut from the Assiniboine River.

When you've had your fill of architecture and history, head south, towards Osborne Village and Corydon Avenue, two of the city's hippest 'hoods, for a bite to eat and shopping. These areas have happening restaurants, like Wasabi Sushi Bistro (their Prairie Fire roll, with spicy tuna, grilled red peppers, zucchini and tempura crumbs is fabulous) and some great boutiques like Silver Lotus < > .

If you'd rather get a breath of fresh air, pack a picnic and rent a bike from Bee2gether Bikes < > (they offer cruisers, tandems, buggies and other creative contraptions to get you from point A to point B) at the Assiniboine Park < , an 1,100 acre lush, urban oasis. The park features a forest, zoo, pavilion, English gardens, miniature railway and an outdoor theatre for the performing arts.

Catch a game

While the hottest tickets in town will clearly be those for the as-yet-unnamed NHL team (let's just call them The Jets, okay?), there are a few other games worth checking out. The Goldeyes < > baseball games always draw a crowd (beer + sun = fun, as long as you remember the bug spray!), and they play at the Shaw Stadium, which is just downtown. Football fans can also get their fill of their favourite sport and watch the CFL team, the Blue Bombers < >, toss the pigskin around.

While Winnipeg does have to deal with cold weather, flooding, and mosquitoes, there's much more to this prairie province than first meets the eye, and plenty of reasons to pull over the next time you're just passing through!