In 1795, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Edmonton , a trading post where the Cree and the Blackfoot brought their much-coveted furs for barter. Over the course of some 200 years, Edmonton has evolved from this desolate outpost into a proud provincial capital. Thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, the building of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s, and the discovery, also in the 1940s, of phenomenal amounts of crude oil within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) radius of the city, it has earned a status as a transportation hub, supply center and industrial capital. But, beneath this business façade, there is much more to this small city, dubbed the "Gateway to the North."
The City's Playground The North Saskatchewan River snakes its way through Edmonton, from southwest to northeast, cutting the city in half. The river valley parkland - the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America - is a playground for all seasons. More than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of multi-use trails, which accommodate walking, jogging, in-line skating, cycling, and cross-country skiing wind through a green corridor of park after park. Nestled in the valley along with some quaint residential neighborhoods are golf courses, campgrounds, skating ponds, tobogganing hills, and downhill ski areas.
Downtown Edmonton sits high on the north bank of the river, bordered on the west by the domed, granite and sandstone Legislative Building , and on the east by the castle-like Hotel MacDonald . The main downtown drag—a popular "cruising" route with young people—is Jasper Avenue, also known as 101 Avenue. The block-long, cobblestone, pedestrian strip, Rice Howard Way, with its pubs and trendy cafes, is a favorite hangout of the office crowd and weekend fun seekers. Churchill Square, a park in the core of downtown, plays host to many of the city's festivals, and is bordered by some of Edmonton's most important buildings: the glass pyramid-topped City Hall, the main branch of the Edmonton Public Library, the Francis Winspear Centre for Music and the Art Gallery of Alberta .
Enclosed pedestrian walkways called "pedways," both underground and overhead, connect most of the downtown buildings. They make getting around during Edmonton's "eight months of winter," as the locals ruefully joke, a bit more bearable. Edmonton Tourism provides pedway maps.
Chinatown is a few blocks east of downtown. Lining 97th Street, and on its adjacent avenues, are inexpensive Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, where tofu is sold in tubs at a fraction of the cost of the pre-packaged stuff, gift shops and clothing stores, and "pharmacies" staffed by Chinese herbalists who can offer something for just about any ailment.
Memories of a Prairie Town Across the river from downtown is Old Strathcona, a neighborhood with many turn-of-the-19th-century buildings and homes. Each Saturday, Edmontonians flock to the popular Farmer's Market held in the old bus barns. Several of the storefronts along Whyte Avenue have been restored and evoke the feel of a small prairie town. One-of-a-kind shops, cafes, and coffeehouses make this part of the city a popular hangout for young and old.
At the west end of Whyte Avenue lies the University of Alberta, one of Canada's most respected universities, and one of the largest research institutions in the country. More than 30,000 students in 15 faculties study in a tasteful mix of historic and modern buildings, many of which overlook the river.
The West End, as Edmontonians refer to it, is almost a city within a city. Residential neighborhoods, mega grocery and hardware stores, an abundance of hotels and restaurants, and the presence of every kind of service imaginable make this one of the most congested areas in the city. The West End's landmark, West Edmonton Mall , is reputed to be the largest shopping mall in the world, with 800+ shops, services, and attractions.
Edmonton's most fashionable neighborhoods line the banks of the North Saskatchewan. They are, for the most part, residential, with the most spectacular homes facing the river, visible only from a boat or canoe.
Easy Goings The grid design and the numbering system of Edmonton's streets and avenues make getting around in the older parts of the city easy. Streets run north to south, starting with zero in the east. Avenues run east to west, starting with zero in the south. In some of the newer residential neighborhoods, a map is essential, as the boulevards, lanes, greens and crescents are named. There are a few remaining traffic circles, and knowing the rules that govern them is a must. Get a friendly Edmontonian to explain, or give the local police or Alberta Automobile Association a call. Apart from those cautions, driving around this city of just over 600,000 people is relatively easy. Although native Edmontonians complain about "rush hour," newer residents and visitors hardly notice the few extra minutes it adds to travel time. Edmonton Transit System (ETS) buses cover the whole of the city, and an efficient telephone service called BusLink helps riders plan the best route to wherever they are going. The LRT, ETS's Light Rail Transit, runs partly underground and partly above. It services the downtown core along Jasper Avenue, crosses the river to the university in the south, and runs north about 20 blocks to Northlands Park , the largest exhibition facility in Western Canada.
New buildings are always under construction; new neighborhoods are continually being tacked on to the outskirts. Edmonton has the feel of a young, vibrant, yet not-too-cosmopolitan city, and its beauty and simplicity often surprise visitors.
There are some 2,000 eating establishments in Edmonton, and they represent a wide variety of cuisine. Take a walk down Bourbon Street, West Edmonton Mall's restaurant strip, and you will get an idea of how the city's culturally diverse population is manifested in its dining options. Here's a look at some of the cuisine that dominates the scene.
Canadian/North American Edmontonians love their meat—particularly their beef. After all, this is cattle country. The word "steak" or "steakhouse" is part of many a restaurant name. Alberta prime rib—a choice cut from the seven ribs just before the loin—is served at quality steakhouses like Von's and Teddy's . In addition to a variety of beefy steaks, burgers and ribs, other popular meat items include pork tenderloin, a variety of chicken dishes, and bison steak, all from locally raised animals.
The seafood served in the city's restaurants is imported from both of Canada's coasts. Thus, you can try Pacific salmon in one restaurant, Atlantic salmon in another. Typical offerings also include lobster tails, shrimp, scallops, mussels and a variety of other fish. A good option that is a bit on the upmarket side is Packrat Louie .
Steakhouses, seafood restaurants and other establishments that serve what is typically known as "Western" or "Canadian" food are found virtually everywhere in the city, with the biggest clusters in the west end (not far from West Edmonton Mall ), in the downtown core, and on the south side along Calgary Trail. They range from counter-style like Debaji's to more elegant establishments like La Ronde and Chance , where you can foray into what has been dubbed "Canadian Regional" or "Canadian Prairie" cuisine.
Chinese/Cantonese/Szechwan Chinatown, of course, offers the largest selection of these restaurants, but no matter where you are in the city, you are likely to find several more.
The majority of Chinese immigrants here in the West came from the region of Canton, in Kwangtung Province. The many Cantonese restaurants in Edmonton specialize in seafood dishes, tropical produce and rich sauces. Szechwan restaurants, like Szechuen Cuisine , are also abundant in Edmonton and serve dishes with more familiar ingredients, which are flavored with red peppers, ginger, garlic, and Szechwan pepper grown in the prosperous province, Szechwan, in western China.
Italian Fettuccine Alfredo, Veal Parmigiana, risotto, focaccia, bruschetta, tiramisù. They taste as wonderful as they sound. Italian restaurants in Edmonton range from lively pasta kitchens like Chianti to fancy, first rate establishments like Sorrentino's - Little Italy , all serving food to satisfy your hunger and warm your soul. And yes, there is pizza. You can have thin crust, thick crust, or stuffed (with cheese) crust, with anything and everything on it. Il Forno's pizza comes right out of it's signature brick oven.
Greek Edmonton's Greek restaurants are local favorites. Nothing beats the combination of delightful food and Mediterranean ambience that is offered in establishments like Symposium and Syrtaki . While you're enjoying your souvlaki, spanokopita, hummus, or baklavá, you might even have the opportunity to catch a little belly dancing at a few of these establishments on Friday and Saturday nights.
French Many of Edmonton's classiest (and most expensive) restaurants, like the unique La Boheme , fall into this category, offering classic French cuisine like chateaubriand, filet mignon, coquille St. Jacques and bouillabaisse, as well as veal and lamb dishes. A few of the French restaurants here, like The Creperie , specialize in crêpes, thin pancakes with delightful fillings. Be sure to follow your main course crêpe with a decadent desert crêpe.
Whatever type of cuisine you want to try, it's likely that Edmonton has it. Japanese, East Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Lebanese—the list goes on. And if you're vegetarian, don't be alarmed by the preponderance of meat items on every menu. There are some vegetarian (or almost-vegetarian) restaurants in the city, like the unique Oriental Veggie House and the quaint Max's Light Cuisine. Most others offer at least a few vegetarian options. If you can't find anything on the menu, chances are the chef will whip up something meatless just for you.
The Pub Scene There is no shortage of pubs in Edmonton, and new ones seem to pop up all the time, and all over the place. Whyte Avenue and downtown have the largest concentration. Pubs are popular with the locals, and on Friday and Saturday nights the lines can be long; owners are diligent about not exceeding maximum capacities. While you enjoy whatever is on tap, indulge in finger food. The most popular item is definitely chicken wings, mild, medium or screaming hot.
If you are planning to unwind in more private surroundings, it might help to know that the liquor stores in the province of Alberta are privately owned, so they don't keep government hours. They are open seven days a week and some until as late as 2a on weekends.
If you've got a car, you'll quickly discover that it's fast and easy to get from one place to another in Edmonton. But really getting to know the city takes more than watching it whiz by on the other side of a pane of glass. Here are some ideas for getting to know the places and the prairie culture that are Edmonton.
You really have no choice but to walk in Fort Edmonton Park , Canada's largest historical park, where you will step back in time to the days of fur-trading, and with the help of costumed interpreters, gain some insight into the beginnings of the city.
The beautiful grounds of the Legislature Building are definitely worth a stroll. In the summer, you can cool your feet in the fountains; in the winter, you can skate on the small outdoor rink that's tucked into the riverbank just below.
Whyte Avenue is a great place to walk, window shop (or really shop), and do some people watching. If you need a break, stop for a latte at one of the many coffeehouses. An abandoned railway line runs parallel to Whyte Avenue, and from May through September, you can hop on board the Old Strathcona Street Car, which will take you for a scenic ride across the river and back. Head west on Whyte, and you will hit the University of Alberta, where you can stroll through the pretty campus, visit the Edwardian-style Rutherford House , home of Alberta's first premier, and check out Hub Mall, a unique student residence and shopping complex.
Parallel to Whyte Avenue and the railway line, along the top river valley, is Saskatchewan Drive, where you can stroll, take photos from the many lookout points, and enjoy a peaceful moment resting on a bench and taking in the downtown skyline. There are several paths that lead down from here to the river valley trails.
On a Bike
More than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of paved trails wind through the river valley, and although any non-motorized form of locomotion is allowed, the trails really are a cyclist's dream. In addition, there are about 100 kilometers of signed, on-street cycle routes, and over 75 kilometers of roadside (wide sidewalk) multi-use trails. The City of Edmonton publishes a comprehensive cycle map that includes the laws pertaining to cyclists, tips for riding in traffic, and a wealth of other useful information.
If you're going to be in Edmonton for any length of time, you might want to consider bringing your bike, or you can rent some wheels from one of the bike rental companies in the city. Some even offer free drop-off and pick-up service.
Seeing Edmonton on a bike is fun, efficient, and safe. You can do a nice river valley circuit that takes you through both historic and new neighborhoods, and which really gives you a feel for the amazing park system that snakes along the river. Starting on the trails in the centre of the city, head east to Rundle Park , on the outskirts of the city. Stay on either the north or south side of the river on the way there; the other side on the way back. Depending on your speed, it could take you a couple of hours to half a day, but make a full day of it if you can. Pack a picnic lunch and take the time to stop and enjoy the sights (and nature) along the way.
There are a few tour bus operators in the city, and some of them will custom design city tours for you, your family, or your company. You can take a half-day or full-day tour to historic and cultural sites in the city and surrounding area. You can go on a pub/club crawl. You can take a guided canoe trip down the river. Or, you can go on a naturalist-guided hiking tour through the river valley.
Out of Town Must-See Sights
Most first-time visitors to Edmonton are surprised by the vastness and flatness of the prairie that surrounds it. It is said that people who live in the prairie, though, are never happy anywhere else. They always long for those wide open spaces, which are probably never as pretty as they are in July when the golden yellow, fully-blooming canola fields dot the landscape.
Several excellent attractions are only short distances from the city. To the east, is Elk Island National Park , where you can see free-roaming herds of wood bison. Nearby is the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village , which depicts the lifestyle of Ukrainian settlers during the early 1900s. Just southwest of Edmonton, near the city of Devon, is the Devonian Botanic Garden , which is a plant and flower lover's paradise.
A bit further afield are the spectacular "badlands," near the town of Drumheller, where dinosaurs used to roam millions of years ago. This area is one of the richest sources of fossil deposits in the world.
Then there are the Rockies, Alberta's majestic mountains. You can drive from Edmonton or take a full-day or multi-day tour to the Jasper and Banff National Parks, where you will likely catch glimpses of mountain goats, elk, bear, and bighorn sheep, and where geographical formations like the Columbia Icefields' glacier will leave you with unforgettable memories.