Photograph courtesy Tourism Saskatoon
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The South Saskatchewan River flows through Saskatoon.
Photograph courtesy Tourism Saskatoon

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Surrounded by endless fields of shimmering wheat, today’s Saskatoon is a pocket of Saskatchewan's culture, vitality, and welcoming prairie spirit. These days, city streets are buzzing with an infusion of new restaurants and residents, breweries and bars, making Saskatoon one of Canada’s fastest growing cities. "Downtown has gone from a pretty lazy place most evenings to a place where you can’t find a parking spot," says Chris Kirkland, editor of the city magazine, Planet S. With the South Saskatchewan flowing through the middle of town, river life is "integral to the heart of the city," says Patti McGillivray, vice president of the Saskatoon Heritage Society. "Almost half of the city is on each side of the river, so crossing east and west over the bridges, seeing the river, and walking the riverbank trails all are part of daily life here."

When to Go: With more sunlight per year than any other Canadian city, Saskatoon comes alive in summer, with celebrations like jazz, theater, and folk festivals held June to August. New to town: MoSoFest, which prides itself on being "Saskatoon’s most diverse festival" and this year featured 60 bands in seven venues. During winter, kicksledding and cross-country skiing are popular in Meewasin. The Potash Corp Wintershines festival takes place late January/early February, with an ice park, ice carving competitions, and soup cook-offs. Christmas lights add a festive glow to the outdoor skating rink beside the Delta Bessborough hotel.

How to Get Around: The city is easy to explore by foot, vehicle, or bike. Rent a cruiser, tandem, or longboard at Saskatoon Bicycle Rentals or plan your bus route online. In Meewasin Park, bike or hike trails alongside the water, or rent a kayak to paddle under the seven bridges that connect the east and west sides of the city. Discover 6,000 years of First Nation history at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a regional highlight and a National Heritage site that is a 20-minute drive northeast of downtown. About two hours south, catch a free ride on Saskatchewan’s largest ferry, the Riverhurst, running 24 hours a day across Lake Diefenbaker.

Where to Stay: The Delta Bessborough is the city’s most iconic hotel, a historical landmark opened by the Canadian National Railway in 1932. Overlooking the river, the Bess’s distinctive turrets add credence to a city that has been called the "Paris of the prairies." A block away is the modern James Hotel, a high-end boutique hotel with 59 guest rooms and suites and live music most weekend nights in the casual lobby bar. Travelodge and Sandman are mid-level options.

What to Eat or Drink: Saskatoon is the Cree name for an edible red berry used in pies, jams, and condiments. Pick berries in season or just enjoy eating them at the Berry Barn (830 Valley Road). High-end diners will want to check out the French-inspired Truffles Bistro or the ambience of Calories. Load up on quiche at the Two Gun Quiche House or sample the tapas at Duck Duck Goose. Airy and inviting Weczeria Food & Wine, with simple but tasteful offerings like chicken with brown rice and cabbage and beef with mushrooms, was voted this year’s favorite restaurant in Planet S's latest reader poll. Editor Kirkland’s preferred hangout: Amigos Cantina, a Broadway district nightclub with Tex-Mex on the menu.

What to Buy: A wide range of products from local farmers and artisans can be found at Sask Made Marketplace. It's a one-stop-shop for candles, chocolate, condiments, books, salts, and soaps. Lucky Bastard is a boutique distillery praised for its organic saskatoon and sea buckthorn berry liqueurs.

What to Read Before You Go: Stain of the Berry: A Russell Quant Mystery (Insomniac Press, 2012). Saskatoon-based author Anthony Bidulka chose his adopted hometown as the setting for his popular private-detective book series.

Helpful Link: Tourism Saskatoon

Fun Fact: An hour-and-a-half drive southeast of Saskatoon is Little Manitou Lake. Saltier than the ocean, bathers float effortlessly while enjoying the purported healing benefits of the warm, mineral-rich waters. This rare saline lake has been called "Canada’s Dead Sea."

Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.