Calgary stands at the crossroads where the vast prairies meet the jagged, snowcapped mountains of the Rockies. While flat plains seem to sprawl eastward never-endingly, to the west some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away lie the Canadian Rocky Mountains in all its majestic splendor. And at the foothills where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet, beams the glittering skyscrapers of Calgary, rising out of its old suburban neighborhoods.
It’s hard to believe this city started out as a small settlement in the valley, founded to serve as a police post. Today, it spreads out over the largest land area of any city in Canada. It has become a high-powered metropolis of glass-and-steel high rises, large mall complexes, and every other urban modernity.
Modern comfort aside, Calgary can be a bit uncomfortable at times. Its climate is generally hot and dry in the summer and bitterly cold and windy in the winters. Fortunately, the warmer Chinook winds sweeping in from the Rocky Mountains sometimes tempers the winter chills. These winds are the cause of dramatic temperature changes within hours, sometimes blessing the city with spectacular sunsets that can been in the prairies for miles everywhere.
The character of the city is a contrast of its own. It is both an oil boom town with traffic congestion and glittering skyscrapers, as well as a cowtown full of rugged men and women out on the open range; it is this latter image that Calgarians prefer to nurture. It shows. Residents are aggressively nice, and surprisingly so, given the oil-rich city of towering high rises they live in. They almost go out of their way to welcome you. And everybody knows about the famous “Stampede” – the annual festival in July that has the whole country trying on their cowboy hats and boots. Cowboys from all over the world flood the city to celebrate with yeehaas, wild rodeos, chuckwagon races, merry dances, traditional parades, and hearty pancake breakfasts. For 10 days, Calgary embraces its cowboy alter ego. Everybody dresses up and the city wallows in good fun.
Getting around town in Calgary is logical, if not simple enough. The city is divided into sectors: northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest. It’s easy to figure out which section of town you’re in by noting the addresses: N.E., N.W., S.E., or S.W. Centre Street serves as the dividing line between the east and west sectors, whereas the Bow River separates the north and south sectors. Streets employ a grid system. Downtown streets are all one-way. Pedestrians will find it easy walking around the city because of the network of walkways called “Plus 15’s” that are available. These walkways are about 4.5 meters or 15 feet above ground. Public transportation is also efficient, with buses and streetcars called C-Trains running around.
The best place to begin any tour of downtown is by taking a trip up to the top of the Calgary Tower, which is located at Centre Street South and 9th Avenue. A high-speed lift takes visitors up to an observation deck near the top of the landmark. The tower reaches 191 meters or 626 feet high and has stunning views of the prairie lands to the east and the Canadian Rockies to the west. The top of the tower features a revolving restaurant and a cocktail bar. Occasionally, the Olympic flame is lit atop. The deck is open everyday and closes usually around midnight.
The Glenbow Museum at 130 9th Avenue S.E. has an art gallery on the first floor with both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The museum is not that far from Calgary Tower and shares the same road. The highlight of Glenblow is the excellent collection of Indian and Inuit art. There is also an extensive collection of medieval and contemporary military weapons, as well as a floor dedicated to the history of Western Canada. The museum is free and open almost everyday.
Toronto Dominion Square
The Toronto Dominion Square at 317 7th Avenue S.W. provides a welcomed respite from all those high rises and concrete buildings in downtown. This 2.5 acre indoor garden features waterfalls, fountains, pools, and more than 20,000 plants, including Californian tropical varieties. The square has a stage that is used by lunchtime entertainers, making it the perfect place to grab lunch with co-workers. There are snack bars and tables available at the bar. The square is open everyday, except on occasions when it is reserved by private parties.
The Lunchbox Theatre is another gem of downtown. Located at 205 5th Avenue S.W. on the second level of the Bow Valley Square, this lunchtime theatre is free. Professional performers put on various shows such as musicals and short plays that last around 50 minutes. Local workers enjoy coming here for lunch. Plays, however, are usually not performed during the summer.
The Energeum at 640 5th Avenue S.W. is inside the Energy Resources Building in the West Lobby. This museum educates visitors on Alberta’s energy resources, teaching about the formation, use, and exploitation of it. The exhibits are interactive, featuring computer games, models, hands-on presentations, and participatory activities that involve playing around with oil (gloves are provided of course). The Energeum is usually open only on the weekdays, at least during non-summer months.
Alberta Science Centre and Centennial Planetarium
While the Energeum deals with matters below ground, the Alberta Science Centre and Centennial Planetarium at Mewata Park (intersection of 7th Avenue S.W. and 11th Street) both look to the heavens. This is where you go to learn about astronomy and physics. There are laser and star shows, hands-on displays that teach about science and the laws of physics, and a small observatory with telescopes for star-gazing.
Prince’s Island Park
Prince’s Island Park in the Bow River is north of downtown but within walking distance. It provides a shady retreat in the summer. Jogging and cycling trails run along both sides of the river. There are picnic facilities and a footbridge that gives park visitors access to both riverbanks.
Fort Calgary Park
Fort Calgary Park at 750 9th Avenue S.E. sits on the east side of the city center where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet. This was the site where the North West Mounted Police camped out in 1875. While not much remains of the fort, this birthplace of Calgary has an Interpretive Centre with vivid pictures showing the history of Calgary and the life of the early settlers. It is open everyday in the summers but only for half the week in the winters.
The Calgary Zoo can be reached by crossing the bridge from Fort Calgary over to St. George’s Island. The zoo has over 300 different species and more than 1,400 animals of different that live in simulated natural habitats. Polar bears, seals, penguins and other water creatures can be viewed through glass panels. A large conservatory features thousands of exotic birds, butterflies, and tropical plants. The Prehistoric Park is adjoined to the zoo and has life-size replicas of dinosaurs. The Calgary zoo is open everyday of the year, but the Prehistoric Park is open only from May until November.
Inglewood Bird Sanctuary
The Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is about 1.5 miles or 2.5 kilometers away from the Calgary Zoo. It is located at 9th Avenue S.E., southeast of Calgary’s city centre. This sanctuary has more than 250 different species of birds set in a forest reserve all along the Bow River’s west bank.
Stampede Park – Olympic Saddledome
Stampede Park at Olympic Way S.E. and 14th Avenue southeast of downtown is the site of all the action that takes place during the annual Calgary Stampede. Even when the Stampede isn’t taking place, it’s worth a visit just to see the Olympic Saddledome. This sports arena has a roof shaped like a giant saddle. It is the home arena of the Calgary Flames, a National Hockey League team. Besides the Saddledome, the park has a Grain Academy at the top floor of the Round-Up Centre. This museum has a miniature railway and models that illustrate how grain is transported from the prairies to the docks of Vancouver.
Museum of the Regiments
The Museum of the Regiments at 4225 Crowchild Trail South is located at the Canadian Forces Base, southwest of downtown. The museum showcases weapons, military uniforms, and memorabilia of four regiments: the Calgary Highlanders, Lord Strathcona Horse, King’s Own, and the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry.
Heritage Park at the Glenmore Reservoir is about 10 miles or 16 kilometers southwest of town. It reconstructs life in pioneer times as well as other periods in the city’s history. Many original buildings from other parts of Alberta have been brought in for the reconstructions. One recreation is of an early 20th century village complete with a mill, newspaper office, working bakery, stocked-up stores, and a line of houses. Visitors can also hop on a restored steam train or the old sternwheeler, the S.S. Moyie, which sails the reservoir. Snacks and dining are offered aboard.
Fish Creek Park
Fish Creek Park stretches 5 miles or 8 kilometers along the edge of the city. It can be reached by heading south along the Macleod Trail and then taking a left onto Bow Bottom Trail S.E. This parkland, streamed by Fish Creek, is a sanctuary for wildlife and people looking to escape the noise and hustle of the city. The park is free and open daily. The visitor center is also open everyday of the year.
Olympic Park is on the west side of town, about a 10 minute drive from downtown if you take Highway 1 (Trans-Canada Highway). It was the site of the bobsled, luge, and ski jumping events during the 1988 Winter Olympics. The facilities are impressive and can be self-explored or toured by guide. The courses can be seen from the same vantage point the Olympic athletes had, as they attempted to capture gold.
Olympic Hall of Fame
The Olympic Hall of Fame is located at the Olympic Park. It boasts three floors of Olympic memorabilia, including films and photos of the 1988 Olympics. You’ll feel like you were actually at the games.
Calaway Park is a large amusement park west of Calgary along Highway 2, about a few minutes drive. It features a large maze measuring 18,000 square feet or 1,653 square meters. There are also rides, shows, and a petting farm. The park is open daily in the summer.
The Calgary Stampede is billed as “the greatest outdoor show on earth”. It started back in 1912 when a vaudeville trick roper organized a pioneer day. The Stampede runs for 10 days in the middle of July. Residents and visitors dress up in don Stetsons, cowboy boots, western shirts, and jeans and party non-stop in the “wild west” fashion.
Several shows and events take place during the Stampede. The combined Exhibition and Stampede is a colorful parade of cowboys and cowgirls, natives in traditional dress, decorated flats, and marching bands. The Grandstand show features The World Championship Chuck Wagon Races, a dangerous half-mile chuck wagon race between four speeding horse-driven wagons that follow the cattle drives. The wagons are stocked with food and cookware to feed the cowboys. Following the race, a staged show of music, dance, variety, and comedy ensues.
The highlight of the Stampede is the Half Million Dollar Rodeo, which takes place every day of the festival in the afternoons at Stampede Park. Riders try to buck Brahma bulls and broncos in an unabashed display of machismo. Events such as Indian buffalo riding, wild cow milking, and calf-roping promise cash prizes.
At Stampede Park, an Indian village and a western town are set up. Entertainment attractions on the grounds include championship livestock shows, stage shows, a casino, a blacksmiths’ competition, and plenty of rides.
Every morning of the Stampede, free pancakes and flapjacks are whipped up by city officials and dispensed from chuck wagons at various locations. The festivities continue all day with mini-parades and square dancing on the streets. The bars, saloons, and hotels carry on the cowboy theme, playing country music and hosting western dances.
Visitors need to book their tickets and hotel rooms in advance if they want to see the events in connection with the stampede.
People in town are hockey fanatics. The Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League are their favorite team. Originally located in Atlanta, the franchise moved to Calgary in 1980 and went on to win the 1989 Stanley Cup. Fans can watch live home games at the Olympic Saddledome in Stampede Park from October to April.
For football fans, the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League play at McMahon Stadium from June to November. The team has won 5 Grey Cup Championships over its 70+ years in the league.
Thoroughbred and harness racing takes place at the Grandstand in Stampede Park, while equestrian events and international show jumping trials are held at Spruce Meadows.
Joggers, hikers, and bike riders can find pleasant trails at Prince’s Island Park. The park can be reached by taking a footbridge from downtown. There is another bridge that crosses from Fish Creek Provincial Park at Calgary’s southern fringes.
The Glenmore Reservoir right by Heritage Park is a great place for boating. Canoeing is popular among residents in the Bow and Elbow Rivers, especially at Bowness Park (48th and 90th Street N.W.). The two rivers also have a number of world-class fly-, float-, and trout- fishing spots, including the Bow River section between east Calgary and Carseland. The Bow and Elbow Rivers, however, are unfortunately too cold to swim. Brave souls, though, can go for dips at Fish Creek Provincial Park or at one of the many leisure centers in the city. The closest one to downtown is the Lindsay Park Sports Centre (2225 Macleod Trail S.W.).
The city has six municipal golf courses and several more private clubs for visitors to play at. The 18-hole McCall Lake is the closest municipal course to downtown and is located at 1600 32nd Avenue N.E. The nearest private course to downtown is the Inglewood course at 9th Avenue S.E. near the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. Public and private tennis courts, meanwhile, are found throughout town. Most of the city’s leisure centers also have squash and racquetball courts.
Horseback riding can be done at the Fish Creek Riding Stables in Fish Creek Park. Lessons are available and riders can choose between guided and unguided trails.
Go-karting can be enjoyed at the Kart Gardens International (9555 Barlow Trail N.E.). It is just north of the airport. You can choose from a variety of tracks.
Many indoor winter sports can be enjoyed in Calgary. At Bowness Park (48th Avenue and 90th Street N.W.), people can skate on a lagoon. Year-round speedskating, meanwhile, is available at the University of Calgary, where you’ll find the Olympic Speed Skating Oval. This track is open to the public.
Downhill skiing slops are open to the public at the Olympic Park while cross-country skiing is available at Fish Creek Provincial Park.
Residents tend to lean towards shopping malls that connect to other facilities via the “Plus 15” system of protected walkways. While this makes the shopping scene rather characterless, it’s not surprising considering the protection the walkways provide from the bitter cold.
The central section of 8th Avenue has a nice shopping mall that features a couple of department stores, some eateries, and a mix of interesting shops. Another shopping area is the district between 5th and 9th Streets S.W. along 17th Avenue. This area is highlighted by the Mount Royal Village Shopping Center and supplemented by cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, fashion shops, and specialty shops. Calgary’s specialty, by the way, is furs and cowboy gear.
Many of the city’s large hotels have higher-end cocktail lounges and nightclubs that provide a variety of entertainments. Cultural life in Calgary revolves around the Center for the Performing Arts at 205 8th Avenue S.E. This complex includes the Jack Singer Concert Hall where the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra plays, the Martha Cohen Theatre, the Max Bell Theatre, and the One Yellow Rabbit Theatre.
For ballet, the Jubilee Auditorium at 14th Avenue and 14th Street N.W. hosts ballet performances staged by the Alberta Ballet Company and the Southern Alberta Opera Association, among others.
Plays and theatrical productions are staged at the Pumphouse Theatre. A variety of companies put on a number of programs there. The location is 2140 9th Avenue S.W.
For lively fun, Electric Avenue on 11th Avenue has a line of thumping clubs, bars, and pubs. For less noise, go to the Kensington neighborhood around 10th Street N.W. and Kensington Road, where you’ll find a handful of bars, pubs, and restaurants.
Calgary had its beginnings in 1875 when the North West Mounted Police were dispatched to the area to restore peace. Fur trappers and U.S. whisky traders were stirring up trouble and fanning conflicts between the Indians. When the police force arrived, they immediately set up a fort at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers and named it after Calgary Bay of Scotland. The Mounties clustered around the post for the next two years until an 1877 treaty was signed without bloodshed; the Indians tribes were granted certain rights and provisions from the government in return for relinquishing their claims to the land.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1883, connecting Calgary with the rest of the country. The railroad along with the free land homesteaded to settlers triggered a rapid population growth. Many American ranchers were attracted to the vast grazing lands in the area and brought their huge herds with them. The town grew as a center of ranching, farming, and meat-packing. By 1891, the population had reached 4,000. Shortly after, Calgary was granted a charter.
In 1914, an oil discovery was made in the Turner Valley, southwest of the city. While Calgary prospered from this find, it was the big strike of 1947 in Leduc that transformed the sleepy town into a major city. Subsequent oil discoveries in Edmonton added fuel to this meteoric rise. Calgary became the center of Canada’s petroleum industry. Hundreds of oil and gas companies headquartered themselves in this city. With its new found wealth, Calgary spent it over a 20-year period building skyscrapers at a rate never seen before in the world, at the same time quadrupling its population to 650,000. A decrease in demand and crude oil prices in the 1980s resulted in high unemployment and would have slowed the pace of development were it not for the fact that Calgary was to host the 1988 Winter Olympics.
The success of the 1988 games became a message to the world that Calgary was more than just an oil town. The city showcased its famous hospitality to millions of TV viewers. People liked what they saw; tourism saw a rise in the decade to follow.
How to Get There
The Calgary International Airport is about 9 miles or 15 kilometers away from downtown. All the major international airlines fly in and out of there. To reach town, you can take an Airporter shuttle bus that runs every 20 minutes. It transports passengers from the airport to the major downtown hotels and vice-versa.
There are no transcontinental train service operating routes to and from Calgary. Greyhound, however, has bus services to all major cities in Alberta, including frequent runs to Edmonton, Banff, and Drumheller. Vancouver is also regularly served. The station is located at 850 16th Street S.W.
The Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) links Calgary with British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The TCH to the west takes drivers to Banff National Park and Glacier National Park in British Columbia. Highway 2 reaches Edmonton in the north and the Montana-U.S. border in the south.
“Calgary Stampeders.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calgary_Stampeders>
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
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