A Guide to Calgary

Pioneer spirit meets modern enterprise in Canada’s newest business capital. It’s rich in cowboy culture, the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, and a magnet for adventurers the world over.

By the numbers

Population: 1,230,000

Elevation: 1045 meters / 3428 feet

Time Zone: GMT -7 (GMT -6 Daylight Saving Time); Mountain Standard Time (MST)

Weather

Average Annual Precipitation: 42 centimetres / 16.5 inches

Average Annual Snowfall: 129 centimetres / 51 inches

Average Winter Temperature: -7°C /19°F

Average Summer Temperature: 15.5°C / 60°F

Did you know?

Colonel James Maclead named Calgary for a Gaelic word thought to mean “Clear Running Water.” However, during the 1975 centennial celebration historians discovered the city’s namesake actually means “Cove Garden.”

Calgary is located at the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The city is located 243 kilometers (151 miles) north of the USA border and 676 kilometers (420 miles) from Vancouver, BC

District Guide

The skyscrapers of downtown Calgary seem out of place rising unexpectedly from the shallow Bow River Valley. They contrast sharply with the dry, flat prairie stretching off to the east and south, and are dwarfed by the jagged ramparts of the Rocky Mountains looming to the west. Pinched between the slopes of one of the world’s most rugged mountain ranges and the soft, fertile waves of the grasslands, Calgary is a city constantly on the move, rarely pausing to catch its collective breath before the next boom sweeps it off its feet.

The city sprawls from the foothills of the Rockies in the northwest to the rolling hills and farm country of the southeast. It is divided into four quadrants intersecting at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, which meet at right angles in the city centre. Centre Street runs north to south, and Centre Avenue east to west, with all streets laid out in a grid expanding outwards from the centre.

Downtown/ Eau Claire

Less than a century old, the city hasn’t had time to develop a rich heritage, but instead has built a rough and ready character full of youth that thrives on spectacle and excess. Calgary’s downtown area is bustling and always on the move. From the noise and bravado of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, billed as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” to the more subdued opulence of the Fairmont Palliser Hotel’s famous galas, the city vibrates with a barely-controlled energy straining to rush after the next trend.

Calgary, Canada

Calgary Tower remains downtown’s most recognizable landmark, and is a must for those looking to get a bird’s eye view. Devonian Gardens is a welcome refuge for nature lovers, while Olympic Plaza offers ice-skating in the winter and a wading pool in the summer.

Southwest

The Southwest extends from the forests of Kananaskis Country to the office towers of downtown, and is a mix of residential and business districts. It includes the natural beauty of North Glenmore Park, and the haute couture and fashion of the 17th Avenue shopping section. The Southwest is also home to the Fourth Street Restaurant district and the Elbow River, which winds its way from South Glenmore Park down through the city centre until its rendezvous with the Bow River near Inglewood. The  Eau Claire Market and riverfront trails around Prince’s Island Park provide a clean and refreshing break from downtown, and are popular lunch spots with downtown office workers.

Calgary cityscape

Southeast

The Southeast is home to vast oil refineries, fabrication plants, and heavy industry, as well as trendy new housing developments and the world famous Spruce Meadows equestrian facilities. Its western boundary is defined by the Macleod Trail Strip – 10 miles of flashing neon, huge nightclubs, malls, hotels, and luxury car dealerships. In the north end is the Saddledome and Stampede Grounds, as well as the historic district of Inglewood and the old town-site of Fort Calgary.

Northeast

The Northeast is separated from the rest of the city by the Deerfoot Trail, a freeway which carries most of Calgary’s commuter traffic and is one of the most dangerous roads in Canada. Comprised mostly of older working-class neighbourhoods interspersed with industrial areas, the Northeast is the place to find factory-outlet shopping, as well as the Calgary Zoo Botanical Garden and Prehistoric Park and Calgary International Airport.

Northwest

In the Northwest you can find many of the city’s academic institutions and athletic facilities, as well as its upscale residential districts. Both the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology are located here, as well as the Canada Olympic Park and McMahon Stadium. On the banks of the Bow River and close to downtown is Kensington Village, a collection of shops, galleries and restaurants catering to the more artistic crowd. Kensington’s famous eateries represent almost every ethnic cuisine, from Thai to Ethiopian to Irish, and are popular lunch spots for downtown executives.

Calgary Higher Education

Dining and drinking

Calgary is a city where an international population and a strong local culture assure a broad range of dining choices, whether you are looking for an old-fashioned family restaurant or feel the need to sample exotic foreign flavors. The bar and club scene is no less diverse with establishments catering to every crowd, from draft beer drinking traditionalists to martini-loving professionals.

There are several restaurant and bar districts, each with its own distinct flavour and character. From the refined pubs of Kensington to the rough and ready cowboy bars of the Stampede area, there is something for everyone to be found here.

Kensington

Kensington is the place to find the exotic and unusual in Calgary, with several blocks packed with small shops and restaurants. This is where the ethnically diverse establishments such as the Marathon Ethiopian Restaurant and the Kensington Pub. This is also ground zero for coffee shops, with over a dozen establishments in the area.

Inglewood

Inglewood is the oldest region of the city, and the area where the first settler in the Bow Valley built his homestead. The buildings date from the turn of the century, with many built in the now-crumbling sandstone blocks. The local businesses reflect the frontier character by offering a more down-home Canadian atmosphere than the upper-crust cuisine of Kensington. This is where you will find Kane’s Harley Diner, located in a Harley Davidson shop, as well as the Hose and Hound Pub, which occupies a deserted fire-hall.

17th Avenue

Fashion, flash, and panache dominate 17th Avenue. Home to most of the city’s upper-end clothing and jewelry designers, this is where the young and upwardly mobile strut their stuff. Martini and hibachi bars line the east end, while family and international restaurants nestle amongst the shops of the west end. The Chianti Café and Restaurant and the Buon Giorno’s Restaurant specialize in traditional Italian dishes, and the Spicy Hut offers other types of distinct regional cuisine.

Stephen Avenue Walk

Stephen Avenue Walk is a cobblestoned street in the heart of the city which is closed to vehicles and has become a gathering point for Calgarians from all walks of life. This is where you will find a host of street cafes and small restaurants. Located beneath the towers of Bankers Hall, the sidewalks are always alive with street performers and buskers plying their trade amongst a steady stream of business people and travellers.

Stephen Avenue

Fourth Street

Between 17th street and the Elbow River, both sides of Fourth Street are jammed with dozens of restaurants serving fare as like the Burger Inn’s ostrich burger. The Fourth Street area is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best places to eat in western Canada because of its ethnic diversity and wide range of restaurants.

Macleod Trail

If you are looking for a chain restaurant, it will probably be found somewhere on Macleod Trail. A drive along the strip will reveal at least one franchise of every American fast food restaurant imaginable, as well as the Southcentre and Chinook shopping malls. Lined with McDonald’s, Pizza Huts and similar establishments, the strip is 10 miles of blazing lights and deafening music emanating from the many boisterous nightclubs.

Stampede

This area contains some of the wildest and most interesting bars in the city. As it is close to the Stampede Grounds and the Saddledome, hockey fans and Stampede-goers make sure that an exciting time is had by all. The area is often frequented by sports celebrities traveling incognito. The country-western tradition is especially strong here, with many bar patrons sporting cowboy boots and large-brimmed Stetson hats. Local saloon owners are also fiercely loyal to the home hockey and football teams.

People line up outside the Cowboys night

Entertainment

A lack of entertainment is never a problem in Calgary. Known for its sense of adventure, there’s always an activity here to get your blood pumping.

As soon as you mention Calgary, most people immediately think of the noise, dust, and excitement of the Calgary Stampede, but there is much more to the city. From the world-renowned sports facilities to over 4,000 restaurants of every nationality and culinary discipline imaginable to a vibrant performing arts community, Calgary provides enough entertainment choices to stave off any sort of boredom.

Sports

The Saddledome and McMahon Stadium are Calgary’s two largest sports venues, and home to the Calgary Stampeders CFL team and Calgary Flames NHL hockey team. For a unique football experience, drop by McMahon Stadium on any chilly autumn Sunday to see rabid fans, wearing nothing but bathing suits and body paint, as they cheer on the Calgary Stampeders amidst driving sleet and hail. Impervious to cold, such hardcore cheering squads often brave freezing weather; fuelled by a healthy supply of beer, will remain outside for the duration of the game.

CFL: OCT 08 Calgary Stampeders at Montreal Alouettes

After hosting the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, the city gained attention for its excellent athletic facilities and became a destination for world-class athletes. At 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above sea level, the high altitude and thin mountain air enhance training and attract athletes from all over the planet. The Olympic Oval speed skating track is a famous spot for the setting of world records. Spruce Meadows is one of the world’s most famous equestrian facilities, and the site of several prestigious show jumping competitions.

The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede is undoubtedly Calgary’s biggest event, and claims to be the largest festival in Western Canada. Over a million people pour into the city to watch the bull and bronco riding, chuckwagon races, and receive a heaping dose of cowboy culture.

Outdoor Activities

If you want to get some skiing done but don’t have time to drive to Banff and the Rocky Mountain ski resorts, Canada Olympic Park, site of many of the events in the 1988 Olympics, is located about five minutes from downtown and features several lifts and lots of artificial snow. For a real adrenaline rush, watch the Nordic ski jumpers as they launch themselves off the 90-meter ski jump and soar hundreds of feet through the air. For a more relaxed skiing experience, Wintergreen Ski Area lies just outside the rustic hamlet of Bragg Creek, a 40-minute drive from downtown. With several small lifts and cross-country ski trails, it is ideal for beginning skiers.

In the summer, horseback riding and cycling are the best ways to explore the forests and mountains of the parks surrounding the city. Guided tours are available in Kananaskis Country to the west of the city, as well as in and around the city itself. For those looking for a more leisurely adventure, canoes and drift boats can be rented for a pleasant float down the Bow River.

Theatre and Comedy

Theatre groups include the Loose Moose Theatre, which is renowned for its hilarious improvisational sessions. For large theatrical productions, the Arts Commons is a multi-venue complex, including the 1,800-seat Jack Singer Concert Hall and the 180-seat Big Secret Theatre.

Shopping

Shopping in Calgary is easy. There are about a dozen shopping areas in the city, each unique in character and merchandise. 17th Avenue is lined with trendy clothing and jewelry shops, Kensington Village caters to the artistic and international crowd, downtown is home to both Bankers Hall and Stephen Avenue Walk, and Eau Claire Market is a showpiece of independent small business. Inglewood and Marda Loop areas cater to the more eclectic shoppers with vintage galleries and unusual import shops, and Macleod Trail boasts a selection of hundreds of discount warehouses and huge shopping malls like the Chinook Centre.

Cinema

Calgary has a plethora of mainstream and alternative cinema choices for the discriminating moviegoer. Cineplex Odeon theatres are scattered throughout the city, and every major shopping centre has a cinema hidden in it somewhere. The Plaza is a pillar of the local independent film community, while the Westhills 10 Calgary has all the newest, big-budget flicks.

Concerts and Music

Calgary plays host to most North American rock and pop tours with a steady stream of concert dates throughout the year. Jazz and blues fans will be delighted by the Calgary Jazz Festival, held every year in July. Aficionados of classical music will enjoy the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, which performs on a regular basis at events throughout the city.

Museums and Interpretive Sites

For explorers young and old, Calgary has a wealth of museums and exhibitions, including the Glenbow Museum and Heritage Park Historical Village. The Calgary Zoo, Botanical Garden and Prehistoric Park showcases flora and fauna from every corner of the globe, while an hour’s drive from Calgary in the town of Drumheller, the Royal Tyrrell Museum will astound and fascinate dinosaur lovers and naturalists with one of North America’s largest dinosaur skeleton collections.

Nightlife

Nightclubs are party atmosphere may not be things Calgary is readily associated with, but few can deny the city’s wealth of nighttime distractions. The young and restless head to nightclubs like Jimmy’s, Eden and Habitat Living Sound for DJ-spun sounds. The Commonwealth is another popular nightlife venue, established by local DJs to offer a curated selection of music from varying genres. Gay bars like the Twisted Element and the Hifi Club boast a distinctive verve, while Cowboys Dance Hall is a haven for die-hard fans of country music. There are plenty of laid-back bays with inviting patios, sports bars bursting with energy and neighborhood pubs as well, making for a colourful, enthusiastic and ever-changing nighttime landscape in Calgary.

Recommended tours

Calgary is a city that has always thrived on adventure, from the area’s first ranchers and the rough and tumble oil booms to the looming slopes of Banff National Park, which have tempted and challenged adventurers from all over the globe for the last century. It is not surprising then that the majority of excursions in and around the city glorify the great outdoors, from the deep powder of mountain ski resorts to the world famous trout fishing on the Bow River. Don’t be alarmed if you feel that you aren’t the adventurous sort—there are hundreds of more sedate ways to see the city.

Calgary Tower

When you first arrive in town, the fastest way to get oriented is to take a trip to the top of the Calgary Tower, where the entire city is spread out over several meters below. The restaurant and lounge in the observation deck rotate slowly, giving you a 360-degree view.

Calgary Tower and Olympic Plaza, Calgary,Alberta,Canada

Downtown/Eau Claire

Exploring the city on foot is easy if you take advantage of the paved walking and cycling trails linking downtown with most of the residential areas and municipal parks. From the broad, tree-lined boulevards separating Eau Claire Market and the Bow River to the twisting walkways of Fish Creek Provincial Park, it is possible to ride from one end of the city to the other without ever leaving a bike path. If you feel like a gentle stroll along the riverfront, Prince’s Island Park along the Bow River provides a quick getaway from the bustle of downtown.

Canada Olympic Park

Located west of downtown, Canada Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is open for tours year round. Its most impressive sites include the ski jump and the bobsled track. The top of the ski jump tower is the highest point in Calgary, and can be rented out for parties and conventions. The bobsled rides offer visitors a modified bobsled that you can ride.

International Flags

East of Downtown

Fort Calgary Historic Park allows you to discover the pioneer way of life with turn-of-the-century buildings, artifacts, and guides dressed in period costumes. Head south and across the river and explore the Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park, which features a recreation of life in Alberta 60 million years ago that is complete with life-sized dinosaurs.

If you’re looking for an affordable way to hit all of Calgary’s hotspots, try one of these tour companies.

Walking Tours

Calgary Walks ( +1 855 620 6520/ http://www.calgarywalks.com/ )

Calgary Greeters ( +1 403 921 7783/ http://www.calgarygreeters.com/ )

Food Tours

Calgary Food Tours ( +1 800 656 0713/ http://www.calgaryfoodtours.com/)

Calgary Brewery Tours ( +1 866 279 1999/ http://www.calgarybrewerytours.beer/ )

Segway Tours

River Valley Adventure Co. ( +1 877 433 7347/ http://www.rivervalleyadventure.com/calgary/ )

Bus Tours

Round The Block Tours ( +1 855 595 1855/ http://www.rtbtours.ca/ )

Helicopter Tours

LR Helicopters ( +1 877 286 4601/ http://www.lrhelicopters.ca/)

Mountain View Helicopters ( +1 403 286 7186/ http://www.mvheli.com/ )

Railroad Tours

Canada Rail Vacations ( +1 888 589 3777/ http://www.canadarail.ca/ )

Small Group Tours

Alberta Blue Sky Tours ( +1 403 609 4984/ http://www.albertablueskytours.com/ )

Klein Tours Canada ( +1 403 903 7510/ http://www.kleintours.ca/en/ )

Lifetime Adventures Travel ( +1 587 435 5433/ http://www.lifetimeadventurestravel.com/en/ )

Day Trips

Anderson Vacations ( +1 866 814 7378/ http://www.andersonvacations.ca/ )

Hammerhead Scenic Tours ( +1 403 590 6930/ http://www.hammerheadtours.com/ )

History

The city of Calgary was incorporated as a city in 1894, but it is estimated that the Bow River Valley has been inhabited for the last 10,000 years. At the end of the last Ice Age, the ancestors of the present-day native tribes made their way across the Bering Sea from Siberia, traveling down through Alaska before settling in the Rocky Mountain foothills. There they formed the Blackfoot, Sarcee, Blood, Stoney and Shaganappi nations, and subsisted on the seasonal migrations of American buffalo herds. Their way of life remained relatively unchanged until the late 1870s, when Europeans hunted the buffalo to near-extinction. With the buffalo gone, the natives began trapping beaver and other fur-bearing mammals for the Hudson’s Bay and North-West Trading companies, who set up trading posts in the Bow Valley and at Rocky Mountain House to the northwest. The local furs were especially prized by designers in Paris and New York for their richness and quality, and commanded high prices from the traders.

This lucrative market lured opportunists from the United States, who began selling cheap bootleg whiskey to the traders and native trappers. The resulting anarchy inspired the parliament to create the North-West Mounted Police (now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 1893. This same force was dispatched to build Fort Calgary and restore order later in 1875. Meanwhile, farmers were beginning to move into the fertile Alberta prairies. The first settler in the area of what is now Calgary was John Glenn and his family. The Glenns were situated near Elbow River where Fish Creek Park is currently.

Fort Calgary. National Historic Site of Canada.

In the late 1800s, Western Canada was still mostly wilderness and the Canadian government was afraid that the United States might try to annex the as-yet-undefined provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. To unite the nation, a railroad was proposed stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Construction began in Canada in 1881 and reached Calgary in 1883. It drastically changed the nature of the city, transforming it from a remote frontier outpost into a bustling jumping-off point for the settling of the Western Prairies.

The Calgary townsite had the good fortune to be built at the entrance to the Kicking Horse Pass, one of the few passages through the sheer eastern wall of the Rocky Mountains. The 10,000-12,000 foot-high peaks denied access to a railway all along their thousand-mile length, except for a narrow valley which led from Calgary into the heart of British Columbia. This meant that the railroad had to be routed through Calgary, which became a major supply station during the construction process. Hotels, saloons and shops sprang up to serve the construction workers, and the first train loads of immigrant farmers and ranchers began pouring in. The fertile plains to the west of Calgary made ideal grain farming territory, while the rich and abundant natural grasses also produced a grade of beef unequaled in North America. In 1894 the City of Calgary was incorporated with a population of 3,900. It grew slowly until the event occurred that would determine the city’s direction for the rest of the century. In 1914, just before the start of the First World War, huge reserves of oil were discovered in the surrounding hillsides. Half the local ranchers became instantly wealthy, and a boom rocked the city. When the demand for oil dried up after the war, recession set in and many residents set off to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Starting with its first show in 1912, the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” (also known as the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede) finally became an annual event in 1923 when Calgary Stampede joined forces with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition. Originally started by an American promoter and four local ranchers seeking to revive the floundering local economy, this celebration of cowboy culture and the ranching lifestyle became the most celebrated festival in Western Canada. The rodeo competitions are still a showcase of the best and toughest cowboys and cowgirls in the world.

As the Second World War was winding down, a vast oilfield was discovered to the north, near Edmonton, ushering in a new boom. While most of the actual drilling and processing of the oil was centered around Edmonton, most company headquarters, refineries and related industries chose locations closer to the railroad in Calgary.

In the 1990s, many of Canada’s largest corporations moved their head offices from the more traditional business centres of Montreal and Toronto and have set up shop in downtown Calgary. The electronics and e-commerce industries have found the community appealing, and are now a driving force behind the city’s development.

Getting there and getting around

Getting There

By Bus

Calgary can be reached by Greyhound (+1 800 661 8747 / http://www.greyhound.ca), Red Arrow Motorcoach (+1 800 232 1958 / http://www.redarrow.ca/home), and a number of regional providers.

By Train

Calgary is serviced by VIA Rail Canada (+1 888 842 7245 / http://www.viarail.ca) and Royal Canadian Pacific (+1 403 508 1407 / http://www.royalcanadianpacific.com/).

By Car

Calgary can be reached by Trans-Canadian Highways 1, 2, and 72. Cab facilities from reputed companies like Associated Cabs Limited are available.

Getting Around

Calgary Transit (+1 403 262 1000 / http://www.calgarytransit.com) offers extensive public transportation throughout the city.