Located in the eastern foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Calgary offers easy access to ski resorts and sprawling prairies, and is home to the world's most famous rodeo. But there’s so much more to ‘Stampede City’. Barry Johnson and Adam Ford check in with a suggested to-do list…
For a northern knees-up, there’s nowhere in the world quite like Calgary.
The province of Alberta’s largest city is home to the fabulous Calgary Stampede — an annual ten-day celebration of western culture — but savvy visitors are now wising up to the charms of this city throughout the year. A rich cultural story unfolds in museums and galleries, while Calgarians revel in an ever-expanding mix of eateries and craft beer bars. You’re destined to be delighted from sunrise to sunset — especially spectacular when viewed from the Jetsons-retro Calgary Tower.
Calgary’s Stampede festival in July needs no introduction. It’s far and away the biggest shindig on the city’s calendar. Visitor numbers and accommodation prices spike, but as one of the world’s richest rodeos, the Stampede is a must-attend for many regardless. Cowboys and cowgirls wrangle with bucking broncos, while chuckwagons tear up the racetrack. Chat with Indigenous Canadians in traditional buckskin outfits in Elbow River Camp, before taking in the evening grandstand show of music, daredevil stunts and spectacular fireworks.
Buying a ticket to the Stampede requires careful consideration. A general admission ticket doesn’t include entry to the rodeos, concerts or special events. You need separate tickets for those. A ticket to the evening show includes general admission, but not vice versa.
Tip: If you’re not wearing cowboy boots, a hat and a western shirt at Stampede, expect to attract some odd looks!
2. Step back in time at the Heritage Park Historical Village
One of Calgary’s top tourist attractions, the Heritage Park Historical Village transports visitors back to the days of the frontier, escorted along the way by actors in period dress. Ride in antique automobiles, horse-drawn buggies, a paddle steamer, and a steam train, as you pass through exhibits depicting everything from life in a traditional First Nations encampment to fur trading on the prairie. Dabble in the arts of beekeeping, candle making and beer brewing, before treating yourself to lunch in the Railway Cafe overlooking Glenmore Reservoir.
3. Get arty at Glenbow Museum
Calgary is home to a swag of museums and cultural institutions, but if you must be picky due to time constraints, you can’t go wrong at the excellent Glenbow Museum. It houses more than a million artefacts and artworks. Get some solid grounding in First Nations cultural heritage, learn more about the pioneering era, then ponder the contemporary art collection or take in the latest touring exhibition. Like all good cultural institutions, the Glenbow has an awesome retail space, so leave time for a good browse.
4. Tap along at Studio Bell — The National Music Centre
Feel the beat of Canada’s diverse music scene at the state-of-the-art Studio Bell — home to the National Music Centre — which is located in the regenerating East Village. The architecturally stunning building opened in 2016 and incorporates recording studios, performance venues and a museum dedicated to the country’s rich musical legacy. The building’s flowing curves lead guests upwards on an immersive musical journey over five floors.
Check out the exhibitions on Canadian Musical Hall of Famers, including Leonard Cohen, k.d. Lang, Rush and Neil Young, and don’t leave without catching a glimpse of the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. It’s hosted the who’s who of classic rock over the decades and still does recording sessions.
5. Do the Riverwalk
Not too far from the Studio Bell is the start of Riverwalk — a recreational trail that hugs the course of the Bow River around to the Chinatown precinct and Prince’s Island Park. Enjoy the public art along the way and hop on and off the trail as you need to, to check out nearby landmarks and attractions. Take a break in serene Sien Lock Park with its cherry trees and sculptural works, and enjoy lunch at the rustic River Café on Prince’s Island.
6. Get away from it all in Fish Creek Provincial Park
Calgary may be Canada’s fourth largest city and home to well over a million residents, but it’s not difficult to find some solitude. Head for the 54-acre Fish Creek Provincial Park south of the city centre. This gorgeous green space winds along the course of the Bow River, buffering walkers, cyclists, picnickers and bird watchers from the hectic pace of modern life. The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, weasels, and even coyotes! Fall is an especially beautiful time to enjoy a meander.
7. Hit the ale trail to Big Rock Brewery
Brewed with quality hops grown on the city’s doorstep and water drawn from crisp mountain streams, beer is big in Calgary. So much so that the city has its own beer map of thirty brewhouses. Download a map and away you go. One top option to check out is Big Rock Brewery — Canada’s largest independent brewhouse. Originally established by 60-year-old unfulfilled beer lover Ed McNally, Big Rock offers guided tours of its city site under the expert guidance of a trained ‘beerologist’. Taste-test a selection of ales, lagers, ciders and draft beers as part of the deal.
8. Delve into local culinary culture
Calgary’s one-time meat-and-potatoes food scene has been transformed in recent decades and today, pretty much anything goes. A food tour is a fun and inexpensive way to get a grip on the local dining scene. Do this early on and pick up plenty of recommendations for great places to eat during the rest of your stay.
Also check out the excellent Calgary Farmers’ Market in the city’s south-east. It operates Thursday to Sunday and features predominantly locally produced foodstuffs.
Just over the Bow River north of the CBD, Kensington is one of Calgary’s most walkable neighbourhoods and offers plenty of options for innovative eats. Top rated Vero Bistro Moderne is well worth checking out. This modern take on French and Italian classics draws on locally sourced organic ingredients. The two-course prixe fixe lunch menu is an awesome deal.
9. Hit the slopes at Winsport
The tale of Calgary’s bid to stage the 1988 Winter Olympics is a proud one. The games put the city on the map for many, and left a lasting legacy in the form of what is now known as Winsport’s Canada Olympic Park — a training ground for the nation’s up-and-coming sporting heroes, and a world-class recreational facility for everyone else. Winter at Winsport brings access to a ski run and tube course, while summer sees the ski run transformed into a thrilling zipline experience.
10. Do a day trip
It often comes as something of a surprise to discover that quintessential Rockies hangout Banff is just an hour and half’s drive from Calgary, making it a very doable day trip destination. If you prefer to study the scenery rather than a map, an organised day tour is a good way to go, but it’s certainly possible to DIY if you have wheels. Ride the soaring Banff Gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain for incredible vistas or enjoy a soak at the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Afternoon tea at the right royal Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is a time-honoured tradition.
A two-hour drive in the opposite direction will bring you to the fascinating UNESCO World Heritage-listed Dinosaur Provincial Park — home to plenty of geological oddities and a rich concentration of dinosaur fossils. More than 150 full skeletons have been unearthed in what was at one time a wooded subtropical paradise. Drop into the excellent visitor centre before driving the public scenic loop road and stopping off at the Fossil Houses. There are also some great walking trails to tackle.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Calgary? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.