Everything You Need to Know about the Exchange District

Everything You Need to Know about the Exchange District

The Exchange District, known as the “Chicago of the North,” has a wide array of restaurants, galleries, and shops at the heart of downtown Winnipeg. It is known for its vibrant neighborhood and as Winnipeg’s arts and cultural district. 

Not only does it feature pristine heritage buildings, but it also serves as Winnipeg’s business hub for graphic design, architecture firms, photography studios, and tech start-ups.

One of the most popular tech start-ups in the Exchange District is the Innovation Alley, a community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists.

The Exchange District is also famous for its terra cotta skyscrapers, which now house galleries, restaurants, lifestyle stores, and coworking spaces. Its buildings are renowned for their unique interior design, with older floors converted into hip studio apartments.

Now, here’s a quick run-through of the Exchange District’s history. 

The Exchange District as Winnipeg’s Commercial Center

The Exchange District as Winnipeg's Commercial Center

Image from The Exchange District Biz

The 20-block Exchange District National Historic Site is located north of Canada’s famous corner of Portage and Main. It comprises over 100 turn-of-the-century buildings noted for their functional design. 

The District was once the commercial center of Winnipeg and the economic gateway to Western Canada. Its old building floors, brick warehouses, and terra-cotta-clad skyscrapers have withstood time as it is still virtually intact.

In the late 1800s, Winnipeg was known as the “Gateway to the West.” People immigrated to Winnipeg, making it Canada’s agricultural center and the international grain market leader during the 1920s. 

The Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, founded in 1887, was then named the Exchange District and became Winnipeg’s economic hub. Eventually, Winnipeg was known as the “Chicago of the North” and became the fastest-growing city in 1905. 

By 1911, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had 24 rail lines converging in Winnipeg, making it one of the largest rail centers in the world. The CPR serviced more than 200 wholesale and retail businesses in the Exchange District. 

The Exchange District hosted dozens of British and Eastern Canadian financial institutions at Main Street’s Banker’s Row. As more institutions established their Western Canadian headquarters, the District became a symbol of prosperity and cosmopolitan status.

The Exchange District as Winnipeg’s Publishing Core and Entertainment Hub

The Exchange District as Winnipeg's Publishing Core and Entertainment Hub

Image from Manitoba Heritage Society

The Exchange District served as Winnipeg’s commercial center, but it also became its publishing core and entertainment hub. Towards the end of the First World War, it housed three daily newspapers located on McDermot Avenue. 

The latest news is either posted on the walls of Exchange District or shouted through megaphones from the Manitoba Free Press office windows, the Winnipeg Telegram, and the Winnipeg Tribune. 

Aside from becoming Winnipeg’s publishing core, the Exchange District was also famous for its theaters and cabarets, showcasing the legendary Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers. The Pantages Theatre on Market Street, one of Canada’s finest post-1900 vaudeville venues, still stands today. 

However, by the mid-1920s, the city’s economic development started to slow down during the First World War and when the Panama Canal opened. A significant slowdown in the grain industry’s retail and wholesale activity has forced businesses to go bankrupt, ending the glory years of the Exchange District.

The Exchange District Today

The Exchange District Today

Image from The Exchange District Biz

Today, the Exchange District has re-emerged as a vibrant place to work, live, and experience Winnipeg’s cultural and architectural heritage. It was declared a National Historic Site and one of its most significant historic districts on September 27, 1997. 

The Exchange District BIZ established in 1989, is one of the 16 business improvement zones in Winnipeg. In 2021, the Future Exchange District cultural hub received a $4 million federal kickstart to welcome artists and creators at the heart of the District. 

Today, the Exchange District BIZ hosts local shopping destinations and historical attractions. It houses 40 independent and local retailers within the 10-minute cobblestoned walk. 

On top of that, it is also a shared space for artists and creatives, with design studios and art galleries situated around every corner. It also hosts cultural and art events that gather people all over Winnipeg and beyond. 

In 2019, the District hosted Paint the Peg, a wide-reaching street art event gathering internationally renowned graffiti and mural artists. Local and international artists collaborated to paint the District’s alleyway.

Aside from shops and cultural experiences, the Exchange District offers a unique culinary experience. World-class restaurants, bars, and cafes are located within the District’s 30-square-blocks. 

It is also relatively easy to walk around the District and explore historical architectural structures. To get there, you can take a walk, cycle, take public transit, or book with Winnipeg’s best taxi services.

You can visit the Exchange District BIZ’s website for more information and updates. You can also follow them on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

And that concludes our list of everything you need to know about the Exchange District. If you have tried going to any of its shops and attractions, you can share your experience with us!