If my visit to Saskatoon took place in pre-pandemic times, I might’ve glossed over the highlights of the city and relegated it to a few paragraphs within my review of the Delta Bessborough, one of the city’s best hotels.
But with most Canadians focused on travelling domestically for the next little while, I want to do everything I can to bring to life the sights and sounds that we have access to here in our own backyard.
In this post, I’ll walk you through the two days I spent in Saskatoon to give you a sense of what to expect should you choose to stop by the Paris of the Prairies yourself.
Downtown Saskatoon is where most of the action happens. Given that Saskatoon is a place of only 280,000 inhabitants, it’s a very approachable and walkable city centre.
Most of Downtown is concentrated on the western banks of the South Saskatchewan River, and you can trace a path of the city’s development through history with a walk from north to south.
Saskatoon was founded by members of the Temperance movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, so most of its original buildings reflect the architectural style from that era. The Delta Bessborough hotel, perched right on the riverbank, is one of the prime examples, having opened in 1935.
If you aren’t staying in the hotel as a guest, it’s well worth a visit to marvel at the gorgeous Châteauesque exteriors, although if you’re a Marriott Bonvoy member, I’d highly recommend redeeming points very cheaply for a free night stay at this Category 3 hotel.
Continuing south, the urban landscape transforms into a more modern look as you arrive at the Central Business District. Like many other smaller Canadian cities, Saskatoon is only seeing its first pocket of glass-and-steel skyscrapers popping up in the last couple of decades, and this part of town contains a few gems of its own.
The prime highlight is Remai Modern, a modern art gallery with a striking visual identity. General admission is $12, and I very much enjoyed wandering through its collections, featuring everything from a permanent collection of Picasso’s works to a temporary installation inspired by Maori mythology all the way from New Zealand.
From the Remai Modern, I continued across the Broadway Bridge south of the river and concluded my walk on Broadway Avenue, the high street of the Nutana district where much of day-to-day life is concentrated for the surrounding residential areas.
Meewasin Valley Trail
Compared to the walk through Downtown, a more scenic walking route is the Meewasin Valley Trail, which brings you along both sides of the South Saskatchewan River with some spectacular views of the city skyline along the way. I found it to be a lovely way to spend a couple of hours to get to know the city from many angles.
If you’re staying at the Bessborough, you’ll find the trail directly on your doorstep. Head north at a leisurely pace, and you’ll soon come across the site of the annual Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival, the Prairie Lily riverboat, and eventually, the Saskatoon Weir on the river.
If you’re like me and love looking at fast-flowing water fixtures, then the Weir is worth spending a few minutes to watch the water do its thing.
Then, double back and head across the river via the University Bridge, and you’ll find yourself on a much greener section of the trail.
You’ll also get to take in some killer views of Saskatoon’s skyline, with the city’s pride and joy – none other than the palatial Bessborough Hotel – taking up centre stage.
If you have time for a detour here, you can also swing by the University of Saskatchewan’s main campus, which is one of the prettier universities I’ve visited in Canada, with palpable collegial vibes that rival Ivy league campuses.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
If Saskatoon is the “Paris of the Prairies”, then Wanuskewin Heritage Park would be its Palace of Versailles, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of town honouring those who played a key role in shaping the history of the land.
Of course, instead of bloodthirsty kings and queens from a few centuries ago, Wanuskewin reaches back much farther through history, showcasing and preserving the history of the migratory First Nations people who first gathered in this part of Canada about 6,000 years ago.
My local friend, Zach, was kind enough to drive me out to the site, about 20 minutes outside of Saskatoon, for an afternoon visit.
The director of the park granted Zach and me access to the park grounds, where we got to walk along the same hills where ancient humans drove their bison down the ridge for harvest. We also had the pleasure of spotting a small pack of 15 or so bison roaming on the plains, who were recently restored to their ancestral homeland after an absence of about 100 years as part of the park’s conservation efforts.
The park has recently renovated its visitor centre, which will be opening to the public very shortly, offering a series of guided tours, informational exhibits, and cultural shows.
They even offer a monthly outdoor fine-dining-and-show event, drawing upon Indigenous gastronomic and cultural elements, at an ancient bison kill site itself – something I’d love to try out for myself the next time I return to the heartland.
A visit to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, which is currently seeking UNESCO World Heritage designation, would really add another dimension to your trip to Saskatoon, giving you the chance to get to know the province’s First Nations history and culture at a deeper level. I’d highly recommend it if you have an afternoon to spare.
A Thriving Food Scene
Saskatoon’s food scene is also an item of renown among savvy Canadian eaters and drinkers, and I had received several dining recommendations when I first wrote about my trip.
One of the city’s top-rated restaurants is Ayden Kitchen & Bar, featuring the work of Chef Dale MacKay, winner of Top Chef Canada. Zach and I dropped by on my second evening in town to give it a try. I enjoyed a delicious serving of grilled salmon with tomatoes and baby capers, although the real highlight was their excellent cocktail menu.
It’s easy to see why Ayden is one of the most popular spots in town for dining and after-work drinks, and it’s well worth a try yourself if you’re in the area.
I also found Saskatoon to be a surprisingly multicultural place for its size, and that’s reflected in the variety of cuisines that its restaurants serve up.
Many people had recommended that I absolutely must try Golden Pagoda, a Burmese restaurant at the corner of 2nd Ave and 25 St E, and I’m certainly glad I decided to take a detour from my walk along the Meewasin Valley Trail to stop by for lunch.
Truth be told, I hadn’t eaten at any Burmese places until now, nor had I given much thought to this particular branch of South East Asian cuisine.
I tried the mohinga, the de facto national dish of Myanmar, and loved every bite of it: soft rice noodles soaked in a thick, hearty broth made from fish, shallots, and banana leaf, reminding me a little bit of fish amok from Cambodia.
The owner’s friendly and conversational attitude also greatly added to the experience of eating here, as he let me know that Golden Pagoda was one of the very few Burmese restaurants here in Canada, with only one or two other spots in Mississauga and Ottawa.
Seeing my camera, he also took great interest in my line of work, and I promised him I’d send many readers his way for some authentic Burmese fare in Saskatoon. 😉
Finally, I checked out OEB Breakfast Co. in the Central Business District for a quick brunch based on a friend’s recommendation.
Having eaten at a few similar breakfast cafes in Toronto, I didn’t see quite as many special elements that set OEB apart, but it certainly looked very popular among locals with a long lineup when I first arrived.
Even though Saskatoon may not necessarily be topping travellers’ bucket lists anytime soon, I firmly believe that every place, big or small, has plenty of its own charms to offer to the curious visitor.
In the case of Saskatoon, it’s a city that punches above its weight in many ways: a scenic skyline in the cradle of the South Saskatchewan River, a thriving food scene drawing upon a wide range of cuisines, and by all accounts, a beautiful place to spend time in an ordinary summer when there are events and festivals going on every weekend.
I’m glad I had a chance to visit, and while I wouldn’t say you should book your next vacation to Saskatoon, I do think it’s worth a stopover for a day or two as part of a larger cross-country trip – perhaps by taking advantage of the soon-to-be-discontinued Aeroplan sweet spot of booking a free stopover within North America.