I thought I knew the Wheat City. With family roots in the fields of southwest Manitoba, I spent a fair amount of time in Brandon growing up: holiday breaks visiting cousins, an annual outing to the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, and a handful of high school sporting events all framed my experience of the city.
The past few years, I’ve been itching to go back. It may be an age thing; the older I get the more nostalgic I’ve become. But just as I have grown up, I’ve been curious how Manitoba’s second largest city has come of age, too.
I wanted to go beyond the city’s agricultural heritage, and I discovered exactly what I suspected: an under-the-radar arts and culture scene that’s totally worth planning a weekend getaway to explore.
An emerging downtown
Brandon’s historic downtown is like a shy cousin to Winnipeg’s Exchange District. A handsome collection of heritage architecture – centred around Rosser Avenue and 10th Street – is a testament to the Wheat City’s significant role in settling the Canadian Prairies at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to ornate façades, vivid ghost signs – advertisements painted on the sides of buildings that have faded with time – are everywhere you turn.
The vacant McKenzie Seeds tower keeps a watchful eye over the city – a nod to its agriculture roots, but also a contrast to what’s happening at street level, 100 years later. Young entrepreneurs – many of whom have travelled the world and are choosing to return to their hometown – have caught on to downtown’s charm and are setting up shop. Affordability, combined with a steady population (with increasingly cultured tastes) means a palpable energy has returned to the Wheat City’s centre.
Sweet smell of success
I knew I had to check out Chez Angela, a rustic bakery that just opened in the restored Bass Building on 10th Street. Fifteen minutes before opening, I found myself at the end of a long lineup of eager locals. When the doors opened, we were embraced by the sweet smell rising from the baking racks, a cheerful brick-and-beam interior, and relaxing live cello music.
Locals-in-the-know snatched up loaves of Angela’s signature Wheat City sourdough and baguettes (prepared in traditional French method using flax linen, I’m told). While my husband and I started our morning modestly with a slice of house-made quiche, we soon gorged on an almond croissant, a pecan danish, a cinnamon pull-apart roll and the most robust chocolate chip cookie in Manitoba: made with buckwheat and toasted walnuts. Wife-and-husband team Angie and James Chambers (she is the baker, while he is the host) have a from-scratch, local-first philosophy and the results, judging by the steady stream of visitors, fulfill a craving in the city.
While we might have lingered all morning at Chez Angela, we were also intrigued by their next door neighbour with the alluring pink façade. It’s Charlow, darling! is a curated gift shop owned by the enterprising Millennial couple behind local-fav Charleston & Harlow candle company. The store features their line of wellness products plus other funky lifestyle wares from artisans across Canada.
With its Old Hollywood, vintage décor, It’s Charlow, darling! is destined to be one of those shopping experiences that visitors will make a specific detour for. I snagged a tin of their quirky-titled candle Wasagamazing, a smoky pine scent in homage to nearby lake life in Riding Mountain National Park, and a bottle of For Fig’s Sake room spray.
Brandon’s creative side
Wandering through creative businesses within the multi-level historic Bass Building, we stumbled upon Studio 78, a bright and airy gallery space that’s fast becoming a hub for Brandon’s creative community. It was hosting a contemporary art installation Yes, I’m Here a witty, multimedia comment about the rising use of voice-activated artificial intelligence (such as Amazon’s Alexa) in our homes. This exhibition – on par with any independent art show in a larger Canadian city – left us craving more of Brandon's artistic side.
We headed down Rosser Avenue to check out the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, the city’s well-reputed community arts organization that we had heard so much about over the years. Here we spent the rest of the morning at the main gallery’s exhibit, Between IV, a poignant and personal collection of work by Brandon University’s Department of Visual and Aboriginal Art Students.
With our right brains satiated from gallery touring, we embarked on a different kind of creative adventure downtown: we booked ourselves into a room at Escape: The Final Countdown. Escape rooms are super-popular in Winnipeg right now, and its fitting that this form of entertainment (and teamwork therapy) has trickled into Brandon. Escape: The Final Countdown is a small studio with four themed rooms – we opted to try our luck in the Green Isle room – each riddled with trickery that my husband and I desperately tried to solve within 60 minutes.
From the entrepreneurs and artists we met downtown, combined with the young patrons I was rubbing shoulders with, I couldn't help but notice that Brandon has a college-town vibe more than any other Manitoba city. To suss this out more, I decided to step foot on the campuses of the two post-secondary institutions that are the city's pride and joy.
Assiniboine Community College boasts the thriving Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts Institute, located in the grandeur of a Manitoba heritage building perched on the city’s north hill. This romantic and rich setting is host to Westman’s most sophisticated dining events, thanks to the work put on by the students and instructors in the program.
I secured tickets to Harvest on the Hill, an annual autumnal feast that – for $75 per person (!) – was a limitless tasting competition of food and beer pairings. The MICA, with its field-to-fork philosophy, puts on a handful of other culinary events throughout the year, mostly notably the multi-week Grey Owl pop-up supper that happens in January. Anchoring a weekend getaway around one of MICA’s nosh fests, is the perfect excuse to go to Brandon.
After dark, we headed to the venerable Brandon University, with its little campus of distinguished limestone buildings right in the heart town. We heard buzz about a free public event 'Saturday under the Stars' at the astronomical observatory. Cross your fingers for a clear night while attending this student-led teaching of telescopes and galaxies. If clouds obstruct your view of space, at the very least you get an awesome bird’s eye view of Brandon while on the rooftop.
Retreat to Nature
Finally, we retreated to bed, our hearts full from a day of discovering Wheat City secrets. While there is no shortage of hotels in Brandon, we opted to stay off the beaten path to where a Jacuzzi and bottle of bubbly were awaiting us at a tiny cabin in the Brandon Hills. Nature’s Hideaway is a couple’s getaway: masterfully crafted wood cabins, hand-built by the owners, and tucked away on the family acreage that overlooks kilometres of rolling farmland.
The solitude is welcoming. Nature’s Getaway is the perfect home base when weekending in Brandon. Guests can opt to veg at the cabin, spying on pond life from the balcony with binoculars; hike and mountain bike the network of trails at the nearby Brandon Hills Wildlife Management Area, or head into the city, as we did, to check out its downtown Renaissance.
Brandon has grown up. And if it has been years since you returned to the Wheat City, now's the time.
Psst! Here are some more insider tips to Brandon:
Where to eat: Brandon's restaurant scene has exploded. Be sure to check out The Chilli Chutney for authentic Indian cuisine, Lady of the Lake for fresh fare in a funky space, and Komfort Kitchen for an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet.
Events: Brandon has a vibrant social scene. There’s always an event going on, whether it’s a small vintage toy and collectible sale, or a large agricultural expo. Consult the Brandon Tourism’s event calendar before you go.
Where to go: Crow’s General Store is a hidden photo opp in the woods at the far east end of Rosser Avenue along the Assiniboine River. While there, be sure to go on a walk through the Assiniboine Food Forest, a burgeoning urban nature preserve maintained by a passionate group of locals.