Calgary is a young and ever-changing city — even those of us who live here often find it hard to keep up with the city’s changing neighbourhoods and endless parade of new restaurants, attractions and fun things to do. Much more than just the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary is a vibrant and exciting place to visit in and of itself. Here’s a primer to help first-timers best navigate a visit to the city:
When should you visit Calgary?
Calgarians don’t let pesky things like cold weather get in their way of a good time, so really, any time of the year is a good time to visit. Things can get cold and snowy in the winter, but the city tends to see a lot of sunshine in the colder months and winter is also when things like the High Performance Rodeo theatre festival happen. That said, Calgary really shines in the summer months: the weather tends to be warm, but not too hot, and there’s at least one festival happening every week, ranging from the famed Calgary Stampede to a wide range of music festivals. Fall and spring are a bit quieter but offer great opportunities to explore Calgary’s restaurants, museums and galleries, parks and shopping districts.
Neighbourhoods to explore
Any city is just a collection of great neighbourhoods and Calgary is full of interesting communities that each have their own distinct flavour.
Downtown: Calgary’s core is full of big-city high rises (be sure to walk past The Bow and the Wonderland sculpture that sits out front), but its not all business! The Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall is one of Calgary’s busiest stretches, full of great restaurants, shops, and public art.
Beltline: The area just south of Downtown is full of places to see and be seen. This is where most Calgarians turn for their nightlife — the bars and restaurants of 17th Avenue and 4th street are full of hot spots.
East Village/Victoria Park: The east side of Calgary’s inner-city has come a long way in the last decade. What used to be a sparse and often neglected part of town has seen a massive urban redevelopment with new attractions like the spectacular Central Library and the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell. The area also boasts a new crop of restaurants, like those in the East Village’s Simmons Building and an ever-growing grouping of contemporary spots on 1st Street SW.
Inglewood: Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood has also seen a huge rejuvenation in recent years. It’s one of the best places for street shopping and is also the start of Calgary’s Music Mile, a stretch of local music venues. Inglewood is also a destination for restaurants, ranging from high end spots like Deane House and Rouge to more casual joints like Gorilla Whale and Without Papers Pizza.
Kensington: Located on the north side of the Bow River, the intersecting streets of 10th Street NW and Kensington Road have long been home to an eclectic group of shops and restaurants.
Marda Loop: A little further from the core, this southwest neighbourhood offers a great mix of community and upscale shops.
International Avenue: The east part of 17th Avenue is home to a wide range of multi-cultural restaurants and other businesses and regularly hosts inclusive cultural events.
Things to do in Calgary
Even if there isn’t a big event going on in the city, there is always plenty to see and do in Calgary.
-Attractions like the Glenbow Museum, the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell, Fort Calgary and Heritage Park Historical Village offer interactive fun as well as some insight into Calgary’s culture and history.
-Take a walk along the river and visit Prince’s Island Park, St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary’s Chinatown, Bow Habitat Station and the Calgary Zoo
-Ride the elevator up the Calgary Tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city
-Get active at WinSport, either with a winter ski or tube ride or a zipline or summer bobsleigh ride in the summer.
-Rent a bike and explore Calgary’s extensive pathways system
Food and Beverage
While Calgary used to be known as a meat ‘n’ potatoes town, over the last decade the city’s dining options have exploded. The city offers every imaginable kind of cuisine, as well as a growing number of creative chef-driven restaurants. Local celebrity chefs can be found at restaurants like Charcut, Shokunin, Foreign Concept and Pigeonhole, with everything from great wine bars to gourmet pizza lurking in every quadrant of the city.
If you don’t know where to start, try taking a tour with Alberta Food Tours. Staffed by well-informed and enthusiastic Calgarians, the company runs tours in many of the city’s top food areas, letting guests sample their way through top foodie destinations.
For those who are more interested in sampling craft beers and spirits, Calgary has more than its fair share of craft breweries, most of which have tasting rooms where you can grab a bite to eat. For something a bit stronger, visit the Burwood and Confluence distilleries, which are both right in the city, or take a short drive out to Turner Valley to visit the Eau Claire Distillery.
Arts and entertainment
Whether you love theatre, music, art or film, there’s always something going on in Calgary. Calgary is a city of festivals, with the biggest ones all happening in the summer, but there are always shows and exhibits happening throughout the year. The city has several theatre companies, live music venues of all sizes and galleries offering both contemporary and more traditional work.
And don’t forget about the Calgary Stampede. More than just a rodeo, the Stampede is the busiest time of the year for food, music, and other cultural events.
When you arrive at the airport, you’ll see greeters dressed in white hats and you’ll likely encounter people dressed in Western wear elsewhere in the city even if it isn’t Stampede time. That said, Calgary is far more than a Cowtown — it’s a diverse and vibrant city of well over a million people from all kinds of backgrounds. Pack your cowboy boots if you’d like, but they are certainly not required.
Calgary is easiest to get around by car, but the C-Train and bus system is also convenient for anyone travelling between the city’s major neighbourhoods. The downtown is also quite walkable and there are plenty of taxis and Ubers available as well as dockless electric bike rentals.
And finally, yes, Calgary is just a stone’s throw from Banff National Park and all of its natural wonders. Take some time to visit the mountains, but remember that Calgary has an identity of its own that’s worth taking the time to explore.