CITY GUIDE TO CALGARY
With rolling foothills, vast prairies and the dramatic peaks of the Rocky Mountains on its doorstep, the largest city in the Canadian province of Alberta is a place of open spaces and big skies. Visitors to Alberta’s largest city can expect to explore a hub of trendy shopping districts, world-class architecture, wellness offerings like spas and boutique fitness classes, a sprawling park system and high design hotels. Even with all the inner-city offerings, Calgary’s top claim to fame might just be that it’s the gateway to Banff National Park, making it the perfect base for a few days of urban exploration before heading out to discover the majestic Rockies.
This city was once known only as a booming oil town and home of the Calgary Stampede, a raucous 10-day festival, which, every July, transforms Calgary into something out of the Wild West. Kicking off with a three-hour parade (William Shatner and Kevin Costner are among those who’ve served as parade marshals), there’s also a daily rodeo, blocks-long midway, high-profile concerts, beer tents in place of parking lots and a nightly fireworks spectacle, hence its nickname as the “greatest outdoor show on Earth.” While Calgary hasn’t forgotten its Western roots, it’s witnessed a subtle shift over the past couple of decades. Artists are leaving their mark with vibrant murals and sculptures on streets and underpasses, traditional steakhouses that were once a mainstay on the dining scene are giving way to more inventive eateries and breweries are reviving former industrial areas dotted around the city.
Long gone are the days of the stark, brutalist architecture that dominated the skyline for decades. Curved sculptures, futuristic bridges and colorful tapestries of street art have now transformed the core of downtown Calgary. When it comes to the Central Library, more people visit it to photograph the building than to borrow a book — it’s easy to be mesmerized by its multi-story, double-curved timber shell and light streaming through the artfully arranged hexagonal windows. Also in the East Village, Studio Bell is home to the National Music Centre, where interactive, hands-on exhibits highlight nearly 500 years of Canadian music history and innovation. Glazed terracotta tiles cover the exterior of its nine interlocking towers, and the golden glow on them changes depending on the time of day. A 40-foot-tall sculpture of a girl’s head, known as the Wonderland Sculpture, is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks — it’s planted in front of the 52-story Bow Tower. Don’t miss the eye-catching, fire-engine red Peace Bridge that arches over the winding Bow River.
With the world’s longest urban pathway network (the 86-mile Rotary/Mattamy Greenway), two rivers, protected wetlands and one of Canada’s largest urban parks all within city limits, there are plenty of places to get outside in Calgary. Wander along the RiverWalk that links family-friendly St. Patrick’s Island; the historic Simmons Building in the East Village, which has a fantastic bakery, cafe and rooftop restaurant; vibrant Chinatown; and Prince’s Island Park where gardens, fountains and a playground await. Get wet and wild during the summer months by renting an inflatable raft or booking a guided float down the Bow or Elbow rivers; the Bow passes under the Peace Bridge, past the zoo and into the East Village, while the Elbow is best for a more leisurely float.
Back in 1988, the Winter Olympics put Calgary on the global stage, and venues that played host to the world’s top athletes are still in use today. WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park is only a 20-minute drive from downtown, and has a ski hill, snowboarding terrain park and tube park. Summertime in the city brings a mini golf course, mountain bikers tearing down the terrain and rides on western Canada’s fastest zip-line, which launches from the former ski jumping tower. Families will love downhill karting on the Skyline Luge’s nearly 600-foot track, which has 50 twists and turns. Over at the summer bobsled, daredevils can channel their inner Olympian with a high-octane ride down the same track used during the games, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph.
FOOD & DRINK
While Calgary is at the heart of cattle country, the culinary offerings here go well beyond meat and potatoes. Caesar’s Steakhouse has been a mainstay for decades, and its cut-to-order rib-eyes and New York strip loins are aged for a minimum of 28 days to lock in tenderness and flavor. Vintage Chophouse & Tavern and Modern Steak are other top picks for fans of sizzling sirloins. When somebody mentions Caesar in Calgary, chances are they’re not talking about the salad, but the classic cocktail, which was invented by a local bartender back in 1969 at what’s now the downtown Westin Hotel. This concoction is a play on the bloody mary — it’s made by blending Clamato juice and vodka, finished off with a salty rim and Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce to taste. The garnishes are where creativity comes into play: while a classic Caesar simply calls for a stalk of celery or a pickled bean, some Calgary establishments play around by topping them with the likes of juicy shrimp, pepperoni and mini sliders. Sweet and savory come together at popular brunch spot, The Beltliner, which kicks things up a notch by placing a cupcake on its version.
Inspired menus and chic decor are the focus at both Orchard Restaurant and Major Tom. Dazzling chandeliers and live plants drip down from the ceiling at Instagram favorite Orchard, while Major Tom is a downtown hotspot known for its jaw-dropping views from the 40th floor and the hand-crafted peach old-fashioned — which is lit on fire at the table.
One of Calgary’s top draws is its proximity to the mountains, with impressive peaks and world-class ski resorts luring daytrippers out in droves. Kananaskis Country is a 45-minute drive from the city and has picturesque hikes to suit all abilities. Head to Rawson Lake and Chester Lake for pretty vistas of towering summits reflected in the gem-toned water, and West Wind Pass for panoramic views of Spray Lakes, rock scree and thick forests. Afterward, enjoy a soak at the Kananaskis Nordic Spa, which is based on the Scandinavian concept of hydrotherapy. Don one of the plush tartan robes, hit the Finnish sauna or visit the eucalyptus-infused steam room, then take a quick dip in the icy-cold plunge pool before curling up in one of the cozy hammocks.
Just a bit farther down the Trans-Canada Highway is Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Canada’s most popular and scenic destinations. Pre-book a ride on the Parks Canada shuttle to see bright red canoes gliding along the emerald surface of Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake surrounded by the snowcapped Valley of the Ten Peaks. Explore the bustling Banff townsite, enjoy “larch madness” when fall turns the alpine valleys into a rich tapestry of golden and sunshine-yellow hues, and try ice hiking through Johnston Canyon and neighboring Canmore’s Grotto Canyon during winter.
5/24/2023 BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR