I love Calgary because it’s the doorway to the Rocky Mountains – but no worries: it’s a happening city in its own right. What’s not to miss? Check out my top picks – then come and discover more on your own.
From outdoorsy activities to shopping, here are my top 10 best things to do in Calgary, Alberta.
1- Calgary Tower
Best way to orient yourself? Ascend the Calgary Tower – and yes, it revolves. It completes one full 360-degree rotation every 45 minutes (at lunch) and 60 minutes (at dinner). Dine at the Sky360, the up-aloft restaurant, and watch the sunset as the lights of the city start to twinkle.
From aloft you’ll be able to spy some of Calgary’s topographical features such as the Bow and Elbow rivers.
2- Calgary Stampede
Explore your inner cowboy at the annual Calgary Stampede (July 3-12, 2015). As a keen horsewoman, I particularly enjoy the sights and sounds of working western horses. The Stampede’s rodeo is thrilling, where cowboys rope cattle, ride bucking broncos, and do barrel racing.
Insider’s tip? The Stampede Ranch website informs us that since 1961, a herd of now-600 stock horses have been bred specifically to be “professional” bucking broncos.
The Stampede delivers lots more action. There’s a nightly grandstand show, a display of animals and agricultural techniques showcasing life in Canada’s West, while the Bell adrenaline ranch presents such shows as the Evolution of Extreme.
Want to look like a “Stampeder”? Visit Smithbilt Hats and buy a handmade cowboy hat – aka a Stetson. Want cowboy boots? Discover a variety of shapes, colours, and tooling patterns on genuine leather boots at The Alberta Boot Company.
3- Jog it, Bike it, Paddle it
Two rivers run through it. The Bow and Elbow rivers flow through Calgary – and because Calgarians are nothing if not outdoorsy and health-conscious, it’s fun to play on or beside the rivers. Plus, because jogging and biking are popular, a riverine pathways network offers lovely views and nice picnic spots.
Rent a raft and head downstream. Rent a canoe or kayak and go paddling. Rent a paddleboard and go stand up paddleboarding (SUP). Bike the Bow River Pathway on rentals, or if you prefer terra firma, bring your own gear and jog along.
Insider’s tip? If you rent any type of river conveyance you’ll need to make arrangements to be picked up or, if you have two cars in your group, leave one car at the out-take.
What’s very cool? Paddlers won’t want to miss at least knowing about the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre where outings, courses and workshops are offered.
Free bikes? Two boutique hotels – Hotel Arts and Kensington Riverside Inn – offer free bikes to guests.
4- Nose Hill Park
Have a nose for the outdoors? Visit Nose Hill Park, an extraordinary 11 square kilometre ecosystem in the northwest of the city. The fescue grassland, exposed ecosystem boasts fabulous views of the city, while as you hike perhaps you’ll find wild roses (Alberta’s provincial flower), shooting stars, flax, lupin and other wildflowers. Wildlife such as cedar waxwings, great blue herons, deer and coyotes may be found here.
Insider’s tip? Take binoculars, a sunhat, and windbreaker – Calgarians rightly say “wait five minutes and the weather will change,” so it’s always good to have something cozy, even on a summer’s day.
Other parks are super too. Fish Creek Provincial Park and North Glenmore Park are gems, offering many activities (pending the season) from swimming, kayaking, tennis, and hiking in summertime to cross-country skiing, skating and snowshoeing in the season of ice and snow. Check the websites, but these and other parks often have firepits and barbeque (BBQ) stands, children’s playgrounds, and stretches of paved trails, too, meaning youngsters in strollers through to people needing wheelchairs can participate.
Tip: Birders: enjoy free nature walks with naturalists from Nature Calgary. At Birds Calgary, investigate free Saturday field trips, for instance, or birding courses (fees apply).
5-Heritage Park Historical Village
Learn about Calgary’s history at Canada’s largest living history museum. Heritage Park Historical Village has all sorts of demonstrations, exhibit collections, rides, and more. For instance, workshops such as beer-making workshop, wool-spinning, and cooking classes teach various artisanal crafts.
Exhibitions include a fur-trading post recalling the times of the 1860s, an 1880’s pre-railway settlement, and the 1930’s to 1950’s Gasoline Alley Museum and Heritage Town Square. The latter’s great fun, where you can wander inside, protected from the elements, and visit Calgary as it used to be.
Insider’s tip? There are restaurants on-site so, budget a day for a stay!
6- Glenbow Museum
Don’t miss the Glenbow Museum, one of my favourite museums in Canada because of its varied collection which so well describes the 30 different First Nations Great Plains People. Don’t miss the Niitsitapi exhibit highlighting the Blackfoot peoples, where I think the pictograph robes (paintings depicting yearly events recorded on bison hides – a type of journal) are perhaps the most fascinating artefacts.
Also discover some of Alberta’s most quirky, tenacious characters. The Mavericks: an incorrigible history of Alberta exhibition profiles many independently minded individuals who made this province hum. Whether it’s learning about rancher George Lane, or Henrietta Muir Edwards who fought for Canadian women’s rights to vote, here you’ll meet politicians, settlers, oil and ranch characters who, through dogged determination and smarts fashioned the Alberta of today.
Want to do dive deeper? Visit the Glenbow Archives. For example, I’m interested in horse regalia of the Niitsitapi First Nations, so I phoned ahead, asked if I could come in and so some research. Very accommodating archivists welcomed me and I spent a several contented hours investigating my topic. You can, too.
7- Canada Olympic Park
Unleash you inner Olympian at Canada Olympic Park, site of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Nowadays people like you and me who want to try out some Olympian sports can do so, while performance athletes also train here. In winter roughly 300,000 skiers and ’boarders come here for lessons or to play on such venues as the only half-pipe in a North American city.
Want a total rush? In winter, ride the bobsled track with a bobsled athlete as your driver. In summer? Thrill to the mountain bike park or take the North America’s fastest zipline, descending 500 metres at a speed of 120-140 km/h.
Insider’s tip? Olympic Park is also home to the Sports Hall of Fame where you can “meet” Canada’s 540 sports heroes.
8- Calgary International Film Festival
Culture vultures won’t want to miss taking in some of the Calgary International Film Festival’s movies where more than 25,000 keen Calgarians get their fix of films. Various exhibitions go on annually such as “Hot Docs” (Canadian International Documentary Festival) and the CIFF itself, an eleven-day festival held in the autumn.
9- Restaurants galore
Where do Calgarians go to eat? From a thriving Chinatown to stellar Alberta steak houses, foodies find Calgary irresistible. My Calgarian brother introduced me to the modestly priced Pfanntastic Pannenkoek Haus – a personal fave where absolutely fresh savoury or sweet Dutch pancakes await.
Where else? I asked some Calgarians I know for recommendations: Model Milk for their Sunday Supper, served family style. MARKET, the 2014 Gold Medal Plates winner (Canadian Culinary Championships) and home to the Urban Cultivator, where 16 heirloom varieties of plants are grown and incorporated into the menu. River Café, resonates with Canadiana because snowshoes and canoes adorn the walls, and its Bow River setting on Prince’s Island Park further accentuates the outdoorsy atmosphere. Its food? Seasonal Canadian cuisine where farm-to-table freshness is de rigeur.
Less pricey venues? Try Holy Grill for panini and burgers. Shiki Menya for ramen, rice bowls, noodles and soups. Without Papers features yummy pizza (who’d have thought?) in Inglewood, a trendy Calgary neighbourhood.
Speaking of Inglewood… Anyone who knows me knows I’m not “a shopper.” However, when my Calgarian girlfriend and I decided to explore her fave ’hood, she introduced me to historic Inglewood. In 2014 it was voted Canada’s greatest neighbourhood (Great Places annual competition) so it’s worth exploring and besides, it’s one of the principal filming locations of Fargo, the TV miniseries. Here, the Bow River wends past old homes which have been transformed into funky shops, cafés and galleries, so what’s not to like?
Check out eco-friendly items at Rivas “a clean living eco store” where you’ll find ideas for eco-living in your homes through to skincare, cosmetics and fashions. Visit The Uncommons, an aptly named shop where you can find designer items that aren’t too easily found elsewhere. The Festival Hall houses a performance space where live concerts are held, and the Esker Foundation Contemporary Art Gallery holds several shows yearly. As a writer, I’m keen on Fair’s Fair “For Book Lovers” which has been selling books to Calgarians since 1988.
There are tons more things to do such as strolling the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Nature Centre… So grab a pair of comfy shoes and spend the day exploring – and dining. Another great restaurant is Rouge. Housed on a corner lot in a gracious 1891 mansion, Rouge offers locally grown foods paired with a select wine menu.
Whatever your interests – history, art, shopping, Olympic style sports, fine dining or outdoorsy activities, Calgary has it all… and more. As I mentioned above, the spectacular Rocky Mountains beckon… but that’s another story!
For more exciting ideas on things to do in Calgary see Best of Canada.
For more things to do in Canada see Best of Canada.