19 May Exploring a Tiny Town in the North: Churchill, Manitoba
We weren’t expecting much from the town of Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill is a tiny, isolated town in the north, after all. We visited for the polar bears and beluga whales, but we left with a love for both the town and the people that call it home. Throughout our visit, we had countless conversations with locals, we learned about the history and culture of the town, we checked out art and museums, dined at delicious restaurants, soaked up the fresh air at the bay, and went on so many fun adventure tours. While Churchill is indeed small, its character is anything but, and we now have an even greater desire to return again someday soon!
Churchill is a small town with less than 1,000 residents, and it’s not easy to get to. Summer and fall are the main tourist seasons, and outside of peak season, the town often shrinks in population even more. One of the most unique aspects of Churchill, is that the town is located in the path of the polar bear migration. Hence, it is called the “polar bear capital of the world”.
We spent five days exploring Churchill in partnership with and hosted by Travel Manitoba, and we feel lucky that we were able to fit so many amazing experiences into the trip. Five days gave us a good feel for everything the area has to offer, but in all honesty, we could have stayed even longer! Here’s a rundown of how to get to Churchill, where to stay and eat, our favorite things to do, and even a bit about polar bear safety.
How to Get to Churchill
There are no roads to Churchill. The only way to reach this tiny town in the north is to take a multi-day train journey or fly on a plane. We were lucky enough to give both modes of transportation a try.
Winnipeg is the main travel hub in Manitoba, and the VIA Rail train takes 45+ hours to get from Winnipeg to Churchill. Another option is to drive from Winnipeg to Thompson (roughly 8 hours) and then hop on the train. From Thompson, the train takes around 16+ hours to reach Churchill. Needless to say, you need to have patience when taking the train, especially because the train is prone to delays due to the arctic terrain and permafrost under the train tracks.
Taking the train to Churchill might be the slow way to arrive, but if you can splurge and book yourself into a sleeper cabin, it’s bound to be an experience you won’t forget. We took the train to Churchill from Winnipeg and absolutely loved every minute of it. It felt like we were in a time warp in the back of the train with nightly turndown service in our cabin and meals served in the dining car. It was quite the experience to say the least—read more about it in our post here.
Of course, you can also book economy class tickets to Churchill. These seats don’t include meals or offer as much room as the sleeper class, but they are more budget friendly.
The quickest way to get to and from Churchill is via plane. While we had a blast taking the train to Churchill, we were happy to hop on the 2-hour flight to get back to Winnipeg. We flew on Calm Air and everything was clean, comfortable, and efficient. It was quite the change of pace from our train ride earlier in the week!
When to Go to Churchill
Churchill’s main tourist season is typically from June to November, but it can be a year-round destination depending on what you desire. July and August are prime seasons for beluga whale sightings as around 60,000 beluga whales visit the Churchill River basin and Hudson Bay from roughly June to September.
If you have your heart set on seeing polar bears, visits during the fall (typically October and November) are best. This is when the bears start heading back to the Hudson Bay to hunt for seals. You also have a chance at spotting polar bears in July-September as this is when they are forced on land after the ice melts from the bay in the spring.
In the winter months (typically January-March), Churchill is a prime location for spotting the northern lights. You can also head out on dog sledding adventures during this time.
Polar Bear Safety in Churchill
The town of Churchill sits along the migratory path of the polar bears in the region. Because of the prevalence of polar bears, residents (and hopefully guests alike) take polar bear safety seriously. To learn all about how to stay safe in Churchill and what to do if you encounter a polar bear, talk to tour guides, Parks Canada rangers and locals. Plus, be sure to grab and read through the helpful Polar Bear Safety brochure from Parks Canada.
Remember, even though polar bears are typically very docile animals, they are smart hunters and they are one of the few species that will actively prey on humans. If a polar bear is hungry or agitated enough, they could attack, and your chances of surviving the attack are very slim. A few quick tips to remember when exploring Churchill are to always walk in groups, always keep an eye out for bears and be alert, don’t walk down alleyways or around dimly lit areas, pay attention to posted warning signs, and always have an escape route in mind. We learned that many residents don’t lock their house or car doors so that people have a close escape route from a bear, if necessary—how considerate, right?!
Also, a couple of locals on the train told us about the “polar bear walk” that Churchill residents have become accustomed to. They said that it’s become habit to turn around in a circle every few yards when you are walking so that you can scan the area for polar bears. It’s always a good idea to make sure a bear isn’t following you or hiding nearby!
If you do happen to see a bear when you are on foot, do not run, make sudden movements, or turn your back on it. Slowly back away and try to get to shelter as quick as possible. Then, once you are out of danger, call the Polar Bear Alert phone number: 204-675-BEAR. If the bear happens to charge you or attack, be prepared to defend yourself.
We don’t share any of this to scare you (because polar bears are amazing!), but we just want to make sure you are aware that you need to be diligent and prepared while you are in Churchill. It’s always a good idea to book a tour or hire a guide or bear guard if you want to explore. They will know how to keep you safe and will likely have some pretty amazing stories and insights into the region, too.
Where to Stay in Churchill
There are several hotels and a few Airbnb’s in Churchill, Manitoba. We stayed put in one hotel for our entire five day visit–it was nice to stay put in one place after a long train ride to town.
Polar Inn and Suites:
During our time in Churchill our basecamp was at the Polar Inn and Suites. We stayed in a room with two double beds and it was both clean and cozy. Every morning we ate a fresh continental breakfast with items such as bagels, breads, hard boiled eggs, waffles, pastries, and more.
The hotel is located right in the center of town, which made it easy walking distance from everything we needed to reach. The farthest we had to walk was to the restaurant at Lazy Bear Lodge, but even that was less than a 10-minute walk away. Another convenience of the Polar Inn and Suites is that the front desk of Sea North Tours is located right in the hotel’s lobby. Most of our adventures throughout the trip were booked with Sea North Tours, so we never had to go far for our tour meeting point.
We loved having the Polar Inn and Suites as our home base during our time in Churchill. It was clean, comfortable, and welcoming throughout our entire stay, and we would definitely stay there again.
The other hotels in Churchill are the Aurora Inn, Churchill Hotel, Iceberg Inn, Lazy Bear Lodge, Seaport Hotel, and Tundra Inn. We can’t vouch for any of the other hotels as we didn’t stay at any of them ourselves, but we did hear from others on our tours that the Lazy Bear Lodge was a great hotel, too.
Where to Eat in Churchill
From what we could tell, there were only five restaurants in town during the time of our visit in 2019: Tundra Pub, Seaport Hotel Restaurant and Coffee Shop, Lazy Bear Café, Dancing Bear Restaurant, and the cafeteria at the hospital (which admittedly sounds a bit strange, but we did hear good reviews). Gypsie’s Bakery was another restaurant we heard a lot about, but unfortunately, this iconic bakery was destroyed by a fire in 2018. Here’s a bit more info about the restaurants we visited.
The Tundra Pub:
The Tundra Pub was our go-to restaurant when we were in Churchill. It was open late, located right around the corner from our hotel, and the food was delicious! We ate at the pub three out of the four nights that we were in town. We tried their famous borealis veggie burger with yam fries, the bison burger, the poutine, the vegetarian curry, the roast beef, and the Friday night pizza. On Tuesday night, we listened to open mic performers, but we were bummed to find out we would be missing trivia night on Saturday as it was after our departure. You could say this place quickly became our home away from home, and every time we visited, we ran into someone we had met previously during the week!
Seaport Restaurant and Coffee Shop:
We went to the Seaport Restaurant and Coffee Shop for our first lunch after getting off the train, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved my chicken sandwich and Micah enjoyed his burger. I’m actually surprised we didn’t make it back to this spot for another meal. We were intending to go back a second time, but it just didn’t work out. Next time we are in town, we’d love to visit again for another meal and listen to their Friday night music.
Lazy Bear Café:
Lazy Bear Café is set inside the Lazy Bear Lodge, and it is a cozy log cabin with a giant stone fireplace. We went here for both lunch and dinner, and enjoyed the arctic char melt, the burger, the salmon, and a pasta dish. While we didn’t end up ordering the hot chocolate, we heard from several different people that it was amazing!
Dancing Bear Restaurant:
We almost didn’t make it to the Dancing Bear Restaurant, but we managed to squeeze it in during the 45 minutes we had between our last tour and our airport transfer. Since we were in a rush, I don’t have much to say about this spot. We ordered a burger and club sandwich and then inhaled our meal before running back to our hotel to catch our airport shuttle. Our food was good, and the atmosphere was ok, but I think we need to go back again to give it a proper try.
Things to Do in Churchill
There are many adventurous activities and wildlife viewing opportunities in and around Churchill. But in addition to those, the town of Churchill has plenty of things to do, as well—think small museums, murals, bonfires on the beach, shopping, and more. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Churchill:
Find Murals and Sculptures:
Churchill is home to some pretty fantastic art. Go for a walk around town and look for the wide variety of art displays and Sea Walls Churchill murals. You can find anything from painted polar bear statues to funny art like the Churchill Weather Rock.
The Sea Walls Churchill murals were created by 18 artists from around the world along with several organizations, partners, volunteers, Travel Manitoba, and the Town of Churchill. The aim of the project is to educate and inspire people to protect the oceans, and it turned into something much larger with a documentary about Churchill called, Know I’m Here. You can find the murals around town, many of them are walking distance from all of the hotels. The murals are beautiful, bold, and bright reminders that we need to protect the environment and oceans around the world.
Take a Guided Tour of Churchill:
Going on a guided tour is a great way to get an overview of Churchill and learn more about the town’s history. Our town and nature tour from Nature 1st gave us great insight into life in the north as we explored the area and even got out on foot to look around.
Guided tours will show you sights such as the Churchill Rocket Research Range, the Polar Bear Jail, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the SS Ithaka shipwreck, and the Miss Piggy Plane Wreck. Plus, if you are lucky, you might even spot a polar bear!
Go on a Wildlife Spotting Adventure Tour:
Churchill is a haven for adventure, nature and wildlife lovers. There are so many adventures to take on. You really can’t go wrong no matter which activities you pick. To learn more about all of the following activities, check out our more detailed post on adventures in Churchill, and here’s a quick look at some of our favorites.
Beluga Whales by Boat, Zodiac, Kayak, or SUP:
During the summer months, beluga whales flock to the waters of the Churchill River, and there are many different ways to see the beluga whales. You can go tame with an amazing whale watching boat ride, you can get a closer look at the whales on a zodiac boat, or you can go on a kayak or stand up paddleboard tour and paddle right next to the whales. Better yet, do them all!
Polar Bears by Tundra Buggy:
For a chance at seeing polar bears, hop on a Tundra Buggy to explore the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. We lucked out and spotted a few bears during our summer tour in July, but for more guaranteed sightings, October and November are the best times to go on this adventure. But even if you don’t see a bear, you are bound to spot an array of other wildlife and gorgeous scenery, and the whole Tundra Buggy experience in and of itself is a blast.
Another fun adventure on land is dog carting in the summer or dog sledding in the winter. Although the beautiful pups at Wapusk Adventures aren’t wild, interacting with them is a fantastic experience. During our visit, we learned all about the sled dogs, how they are cared for, and how they are trained. Our summer visit sent us on the ‘Ididamile’ where we rode a mile-long trail on a special dog cart through the beautiful Churchill landscapes.
Wildlife Sightings by Helicopter:
And, last but certainly not least, you can take a helicopter tour to spot a wide range of wildlife. On our helicopter tour, we flew over Wapusk National Park, the town of Churchill, the Hudson Bay, the Churchill River and more.
We spotted beluga whales, polar bears, caribou, birds, and so many beautiful landscapes that we couldn’t have accessed from the ground. It was an experience for the books!
Explore Parks and Historic Sites:
There are several National Historic Sites in the Churchill area and one National Park. We visited two of the historic sights: Prince of Wales Fort and Sloop Cove. And, we also flew over Wapusk National Park. These spots really make history come alive and visiting them was like traveling back in time.
Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site:
The Prince of Wales Fort is accessible via several different tours that are offered. We ended up visiting the site twice—once as a stop on the Beluga Boat Whale tour and once as part of the hike at Sloop Cove. We enjoyed seeing the restored fortress that was built in the 1700’s. As we wandered around the fort, we learned about the history of both the fort and the town of Churchill.
Cape Merry National Historic Site:
Today, this site is home to a lone cannon, but it was once a stone battery that was designed to provide additional protection to the region. Sign up for a tour with the Parks Canada office and you will learn all about the history of this significant spot in addition to a range of other topics. The site is also a great spot to watch beluga whales enter the Churchill River.
Sloop Cove National Historic Site:
Back in the day, Sloop Cove provided a safe place and winter refuge for the men of the Hudson Bay Company. We went on a 2.5 mile guided hike at Sloop Cove and learned about the lands surrounding us.
At the beginning of the hike, we were able to spot carvings from the Hudson Bay Company men that date back to the 18th Century. Then the hike took us along the shoreline and through the meadows before ending at the Prince of Wales Fort.
Wapusk National Park:
Wapusk National Park is located southeast of Churchill, and it is home to one of the largest polar bear denning areas in the world. Access to the park is very limited—it can be visited through select tour operators on the ground or via the air on a helicopter tour. Helicopters can’t land in the park, but you will get a fantastic view of the remote nature in the park.
Learn About Churchill at Museums and Churches:
Churchill is home to a couple of small museums, as well as a historic church. You can visit all three sights to learn more about the history of Churchill.
Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre:
This is the first sight you will see if you arrive in Churchill on the train. The Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre is located inside Churchill’s VIA Rail Station. There are a couple of exhibits to peruse—the displays show the history of humans and nature in Churchill. You can also chat with the Parks Canada staff about recommendations for things to do in the area.
The Itsanitaq Museum features an array Inuit artifact. Some of the items on display date back to around 1700 B.C., which makes them some of the oldest Inuit artifacts and carvings in the world. The one-room museum is small, but it is filled with displays such as a stuffed polar bear and musk ox, photographs, artwork, carvings, and so much more.
St Paul’s Anglican Church:
St. Paul’s Anglican Church is designated as a heritage site, and it was the first prefabricated building located in North America. The church started out as a kit made in England and was put together along the edge of the Churchill River. Then, the church was moved twice until it reached its current and permanent location. Services are still held in the church, and even though it was closed during our visit, we enjoyed looking at such a wonderful piece of history from the outside.
See the Town Center Complex:
The Town Center Complex is an essential part of life in Churchill. The complex is home to a health center, library, pool, school, fitness center/gym, playground, movie theater, and more. We walked around the building during some downtime one afternoon. While we didn’t engage in anything the complex offered, it was interesting to take a peek inside, and it is something we were glad to see while we were in town.
Stamp Your Passport at the Post Office:
If you are looking for a way to commemorate your visit to Churchill, the post office offers a unique Churchill, Manitoba, stamp to add to your passport. The stamp is free and available any time the post office is open. All you have to do is bring your passport in and ask for the stamp. A Churchill stamp is a fun way to remember what is sure to be a wonderful trip.
One caveat to note—we have heard that “souvenir stamps” like this could possibly cause an issue at select border crossings. We have yet to have an issue with ours, but it’s good to be aware of before you commit to a stamp. Also, if you are short on empty passport pages it might be wise to skip getting a stamp in your passport. Instead, try asking for a stamp on a different piece of paper. That way you can still get the stamp, even if it’s not in your actual passport.
Soak up the Beach Views:
If you make your way towards the Town Centre Complex, you will find a beach nearby that overlooks the Hudson Bay. On our first day in town, we lucked out and spotted hundreds of beluga whales right off the shore from the beach. You needed binoculars to see them, but it made us extremely excited for our upcoming close encounters with the whales. We also spotted plenty of birds in the area and luckily our polar bear sightings came at a later time.
Walking around the beach is safe but be sure to stay between the rocks and always have an exit plan in case you have a run in with a polar bear. Don’t go up onto the rocks to explore, as polar bears are good at hiding and could be waiting for unsuspecting visitors to come by.
The beach is home to giant bon fire pits, rock sculptures, pretty views of the bay, and a beached boat that you can climb on and around. Also, if you do see a polar bear, the boat is a safe space to be, so keep that in mind!
Browse the Shops for Locally Made Goods:
Don’t forget to shop for some souvenirs while you are in town. Churchill has a bunch of adorable shops, and we loved browsing them all. Some of my favorites were Fifty Eight North, Arctic Trading Company, Wapusk General Store, and the gift shop in our hotel, The Polar Inn and Suites.
And of course, you can’t forget the Northern Store—this place literally has everything from groceries, to self-care items, to snowmobiles.
Churchill is indeed a very special place, to us, to locals, and to many around the world. We thought we would be satisfied after one visit, and we couldn’t have been more wrong. Our goal was to spot beluga whales and we crossed our fingers (and toes!) for a polar bear sighting—we figured these sightings would tame our curiosity for this small town in northern Manitoba. Well, after five days of exploring Churchill, we found way more than we initially had hoped. We spotted 12 polar bears, saw what felt like thousands of beluga whales, met adorable sled dogs, interacted with friendly locals, explored art, ate at delicious restaurants, and soaked up the fresh northern air of a tiny, quirky town. In turn, we left Churchill with an even deeper desire to return. Churchill tied a string around our hearts, and you can bet it will pull us back again one day…hopefully soon.
Special thanks to Travel Manitoba and their partners for hosting us on these adventures. As always, all opinions are our own.
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