15 must-see attractions to get a true feel for the city
We’ve compiled a list of 15 of our favourite attractions and city landmarks that anyone coming to Calgary for the first time should experience.
The Chinese Cultural Centre is an imposing sight, thanks to its 70-foot-high ceiling modelled after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. There are 561 dragons, 40 phoenixes, and four columns that adorn the space, created by 22 artisans flown in from China in 1991. The centre is a prime place to start a tour of Chinatown, which occupies the northeast corner of downtown and is a great spot to find unique shops and authentic Asian cuisine. It is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, and the 4th largest Chinatown in Canada after Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
This beautiful museum is one of the largest in Western Canada. Its 93,000-square-foot exhibition space allows it to have plenty of room for serene galleries like Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia, showcasing various statues of Buddha, and its newest permanent exhibit Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. Unlike traditional exhibits, Mavericks is interactive, with a recreated train car, Chinese diner, trading post and teepee, and inventive ways to see, smell, hear, and touch the history of Alberta.
Calgary’s premiere pedestrian mall is a collection of high-end restaurants, chic boutiques and turn-of-the-century sandstone buildings. Built after the fire of 1886, Stephen Avenue is a National Historic Site and home to farcical gargoyles that once adorned the office of the Calgary Herald. Be sure to look at the top tier of each building, which has the name of its original inhabitants. In the summer the street is filled with merchant stands and occasional live entertainment, while in the winter, most people flock to the Plus-15s, a network of enclosed skywalks that rides an average of 15 feet above our city streets.
This historical village is a throwback to the days when Alberta was home to enterprising settlers who struggled to survive on windswept prairie. There are more than 150 buildings, all built before 1945 in locations across the province. Highlights include a steam locomotive, antique midway rides, an old-fashioned candy store and the S.S. Moyie Sternwheeler, a paddlewheel boat that takes guests out on the Glenmore Reservoir. In 2009, the park built six new attractions: the Haskayne Mercantile Block, Big Rock Interpretive Brewery, Selkirk Grille Restaurant, the Bissett Wetlands, the 1893 Canadian Pacific Railway Station and Gasoline Alley Museum.
This recreation and training facility was the site for the bobsleigh, luge and ski jumping during the ‘88 Olympic Winter Games. In summer, the park is home to 25 km of mountain bike trails, mini golf, a Eurobungy trampoline, climbing wall, and Z-Trip, the chance to tumble downhill while harnessed inside a giant translucent ball. Their year-round zip line, Skyline at the Park, sends you soaring down a cable from the ski jump tower to the base of the hill. And if you missed the ‘88 Olympics, you can take a self-guided tour of the Ice House, ski jump tower and Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum.
With over 1,000 animals from around the world there is always something new to see at the Calgary Zoo. The grounds are divided into geographic areas like The Canadian Wilds and Eurasia. In Destination Africa, the Western Lowland gorillas are a popular attraction, especially since the birth of 2-year-old Yewande (right). Also worth checking out is the Prehistoric Park, complete with sandstone hoodoos, life-size dinosaur models and a visiting exhibit of 20 animatronic dinosaurs on display until October 31. If you plan to go more than twice a year, it’s worth it to buy a season’s pass.
In 2004, NHL underdogs the Calgary Flames, went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. After each game, fans from the Saddledome and the bars, pubs and clubs strewn along 17 Ave would congregate en masse, stopping traffic and creating a sea of red—a sight that gave 17 Ave its nickname: the Red Mile. This is also the street for shopping, with many independent and upscale boutiques. Popular places to watch the game along this strip include the always-packed Melrose Café and the lively Bob the Fish.
Located 160 metres above the ground, the Calgary Tower’s glass floor is a hair-raising experience. But, there’s no need to worry: the glass panels can hold the weight of two hippos. Built in 1968 to celebrate Canada’s centennial, the tower is a top attraction in Calgary, affording unparalleled views of the city and the distant Rocky Mountains. At night you may see a flame burning on the top of the tower, a common sight during the 1988 Olympics. There is also Sky 360—a rotating restaurant offering panoramic views and innovative cuisine.
This is where it all began: in 1875 the North West Mounted Police, built a fort on the Elbow River in an effort to discourage American expansion and police whiskey traders operating on the plains. The original fort has long since disappeared, but archaeological remains and an interpretive centre make Fort Calgary a must-see for history buffs. Visitors can try on a uniform worn by the North West Mounted Police, step inside a jail cell or ride in a virtual streetcar.
In Fall 2011, the Telus World of Science will unveil its new venue, a 153,000-square-foot space north of the Calgary Zoo. In the meantime, the centre is using its current space for international touring exhibits. The inaugural guest is Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds & The Brain, made up of over 200 authentic donated specimens of the human body that have been preserved by plastination. Expect to see smokers’ lungs, organs, nerve tissue and whole body figures shaped in interesting poses, such as The Ponderer (right).
This art complex downtown houses over 50 art galleries, working artist studios, art boutiques and services. It is a great place to find handcrafted, original pieces by local, Canadian and international artists, or to just wander through on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On the first Thursday of every month they participate in First Thursdays—an event put on by the Cultural District that celebrates art in all its forms with free and discounted food, theatre, and exhibits. DeVille Luxury Coffee & Pastries and The Bistro at Art Central are also on site.
Built in 1891, Lougheed House, or Beaulieu as it was then known, was the grand estate of James and Isabella Lougheed—after James was appointed to the Senate of Canada. As prominent high society figures, the Senator and his wife entertained many of Calgary’s crème de la crème in their downstairs ballroom. This National Historic Site was taken over by the province in 1976, and in 1995, the Lougheed House Conservation Society took on the painstaking task of restoring the mansion to its 1890s glory. The 2.8-acre estate also features the lovely Beaulieu Gardens and The Restaurant at Lougheed House.
This local brewing company was founded in 1985 by Ed McNally, a farmer/entrepreneur/lawyer who owned land near the Big Rock, a 15,000-tonne glacial erratic southwest of Calgary. In the 25 years since its inception the company has grown to be one of the biggest independent breweries in Canada, and today ships beer from Vancouver to the Maritimes. The brewery runs hour-long, private tours, and at the end, visitors can fill a 6-bottle take-home pack with their favourite brews.
Bohemian and eclectic, Kensington is one of Calgary’s best neighbourhoods for people watching, especially from the patio of one of its cafés in the warmer months. The Roasterie draws a younger, hipper crowd, while Higher Ground is the haunt of choice for those desiring wireless Internet, wines by the glass and cozying up next to a fireplace with a warm drink. There are also independent clothing boutiques and shops in this area, along with great pubs and Italian food. In July, be sure to check out the Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival.
This northwest park occupies 30 hectares in a river valley. Hike through the majestic firs at the west end, or stroll around the lagoon. In the summer, visitors can rent out barbecue pits and paddleboats and enjoy an ice cream from their on-site café, while in winter, it becomes a popular spot for outdoor skating. If you’re up for exploring, check out the Stoney Trail suspension bridge and cross the river to Bowmont Park for some of the best trails in the city.