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 center. Center Street runs north to south, and Center Avenue east to west, with all streets laid out in a grid expanding outwards from the center.
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 Palliser Hotel's famous galas, the city vibrates with a barely-controlled energy straining to rush after the next trend.
Calgary Tower remains downtown's most recognizable landmark, and is a must for those looking to get a bird's eye view. The interactive Calgary Science Centre is a nice place to go if you have children, while Devonian Gardens is a welcome refuge for adults. Olympic Plaza offers ice-skating in the winter and a wading pool in the summer.
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 Reservoir 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 Glenmore Reservoir down through the city center 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.
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 neighborhoods 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 . The area around the airport is currently undergoing heavy development, whose goal is the transformation of a rather seedy district into a comfortable village where air travelers can find all types of accommodation, dining and shopping without ever leaving the area.
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 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 spices. The bar and club scene is no less diverse with establishments catering to every crowd, from draft beer swilling traditionalists to martini-loving professionals to techno-rave enthusiasts.
There are several restaurant and bar districts, each with its own distinct flavor 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 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 Irish Kensington Pub . The Vietnamese flavor of the Blue Ginger Cafe and Restaurant adds even more character to an area famed for its diversity and adventurous architectural style. This is also ground zero for coffee shops, with over a dozen establishments ranging from cyber-cafes to old-fashioned bakeries crowded into a few blocks.
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 popular at the time. 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.
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 Cafe and Restaurant and the Buon Giorno's Restaurant specialize in traditional Italian dishes, while Kashmir and Spicy Hut offer 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 the Palace Nightclub , which is the undisputed monarch of Calgary nightclubs, as well as the more sedate Unicorn Celtic Pub and 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 bike couriers, business people and travelers.
If you are looking for a restaurant of any nationality, flavor or decor, chances are that it will be found somewhere on Fourth Street southwest. Between 17th street and the Elbow River, both sides of Fourth are jammed with dozens of restaurants serving fare as diverse as the Burger Inn's ostrich burger or the garlic-saturated "stinking steak" at Antonio's Garlic Clove . 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 prices.
If you are looking for a chain restaurant of any description, 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 Macdonald's, Pizza Huts and similar establishments, the strip is 10 miles of blazing lights and deafening music emanating from the many boisterous nightclubs. Sandwiched between the Porsche and Ferrari dealerships is a vast strip mall complex which shelters Outlaws, the Back Alley and the French Maid , the largest and loudest of the Calgary clubs.
This area is a little bit seedy, but 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 and has become a favorite haunt of Prince Albert of Monaco.
The country-western tradition is especially strong here, with many bar patrons sporting cowboy boots and large-brimmed Stetson hats. Local saloon owners are fiercely loyal to the home hockey and football teams, and one has made a habit of standing in the street dressed only in red long underwear and sporting a shotgun while he waits for the opposing team's bus to drive by, which it invariably does after hockey games, accompanied by much derisive hooting from both the bar patrons and the occupants of the bus.
Calgary is a city that has always thrived on adventure, from the cowboy antics of the first ranchers to 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.
Tour One: Walking
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 600 feet below. The restaurant and lounge in the observation deck rotate slowly, giving you a 360-degree view. 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 the downtown streets. Bicycle and in-line roller skate rentals are available during the summer, and maps issued by the city detail routes and points of interest.
Tour Two: Off the Beaten Path
If you want to get off the beaten path and see parts of the mountains invisible from the tour buses, guided horseback rides are offered at several ranches in Kananaskis Country. These rides last anywhere from an hour to several days, and are relatively inexpensive. Some ranches also offer bed and breakfast facilities for those wishing to stay overnight.
Heritage Park Historical Village and Fort Calgary Historic Park are two sites that allow you to discover the pioneer way of life with turn of the century buildings, artifacts, and guides dressed in period costume. The Glenbow Museum details the history of Western Canada, as well as its exhibits on cultures the world over.
The Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park features a recreation of life in Alberta 60 million years ago, complete with life-sized dinosaurs. If you want to take a drive in the country, visit the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, a small town two hours north of Calgary. This famous museum is a World Heritage Site, and is the site of hundreds of dinosaur fossil discoveries.
Tour Three: Outdoor Sports
A relaxing time can be had floating down the Bow River, which runs from Banff to Calgary, in a canoe, raft or drift boat. At Chinook River Sports , guides are available to help you navigate the twisting channels, and they can show you the best places to fish for the famous Bow River brook trout. Hunters seeking antelope, white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep in Kananaskis Country can secure the services of a guide through one of several outfitting companies in the area.
Canada Olympic Park , site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is open for tours year round; its most impressive sites include the 90-mile 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 Bullet is a modified bobsled that you can ride at speeds of over 55 miles an hour.
For an aerial view of the city, hot air balloons and operators at Rainbow Balloons Over Calgary can be rented to gently waft you over the city. A balloon ride can last from an hour to an entire day, and is the most peaceful and relaxing way to take in the city, the mountains rising to the west, and the prairie gently rolling away to the east.