Calgary’s vibrant and cosmopolitan downtown is uniquely concentrated into a few city blocks – hemmed in by Bow and Elbow rivers that converge to the east and the railroad to the south. Most first time visitors find so many attractions in the downtown core, that few venture beyond the inner city on a 24-hour visit. If your stay coincides with the Calgary Stampede, that’s a different story, but if you are visiting at any other time of the year, here are my recommendations to make the most of your brief stay.
To quickly orient yourself, find Centre Street downtown and walk south (maybe following the sound of carillon chimes) until you are in front of Calgary Tower. A free standing observation tower, it once dominated Calgary’s impressive skyline at 191 meters. Now surpassed by several newer and taller skyscrapers, the tower is still Canada’s tallest structure with a “moving view”. From the top floor panoramic Observation Deck, visitors can easily spot most of the inner city attractions, the Rocky Mountains on the western horizon, Stampede Park and the Saddledome to the South and Fort Calgary looking to the East. One floor below, you can enjoy elegant dining while the view comes to you: the floor rotates at a snail’s pace to offer a 360º view of the city day or night.
As you exit Calgary Tower, walk one block east to the Glenbow Museum which houses a fabulous collection of native and early pioneer artifacts along one of the vast and impressive travelling exhibitions which add significantly to the attractions of the Museum. Fort Calgary, detailed below, houses another museum. Calgary boasts more than two dozen fine art galleries, many in the downtown area or strung along 11th Ave SW.
While you can hop on the LRT (light rail transit) and travel free from one end of downtown to the other, you can easily stroll the streets to ferret out fantastic shopping, dining, entertainment and cultural events. Even during rainy or cold weather, Calgary’s unique Plus-15 walkway system is an 18km-long above-ground network that connects almost every major building using more than 50 enclosed pedestrian bridges. It is like a city above the city complete with storefront shops, businesses, museums, galleries, restaurants and food court and even an enclosed park that occupies an entire city block.
Calgary is a heaven for food lovers and famous for its aged Alberta grass-fed beef, a staple on most menus. Food trucks which gather in the downtown area during the day are wildly popular and have an astonishing variety of dishes. For casual dining, go early and grab a table indoors or out at any of the myriad of pubs, especially along Stephen Avenue Mall (a portion of 8th Ave SW), where you can people-watch and enjoy reasonably-priced fare. You’ll need reservations at the more upscale establishments which fill to capacity most weekdays between 11:30am to 2pm.
Be sure to try Calgary’s signature cocktail (best before 5pm) known as a Bloody Caesar, using Clamato juice as the base. Delicious.
Asian cuisine can be found all over the city, but you can find Calgary’s most enduring Mandarin and Schezuan cuisine in the heart of Chinatown on the north east side of downtown.
Begin your trek before or after lunch at the Eau Claire covered market near Prince’s Island Park. Here several river pathways converge. You can head over the bridge to enjoy a lovely walk in a park or head east towards Fort Calgary, passing Chinatown and the vibrantly restored East Village along the way. You’ll walk beside the Bow River until you reach the Elbow River. This confluence, long used by the Indigenous prairie people, is where Fort Calgary was established in 1875 by the Northwest Mounted Police. The foundations of the Fort have been preserved and the rest rebuilt to house an on-site interpretive centre and museum that showcases Calgary’s beginnings as a police outpost and trading centre.
Following the river further downstream are two more of Calgary’s top attractions – Calgary Zoo and Telus Spark, however, you need another day to fully appreciate the experience.
Calgary’s most popular bumper sticker reads “WE ♥ ALBERTA BEEF.” Grilled T-bone steaks or prime rib are to Cowtown (Calgary’s self-appointed nickname) as baked-beans are to Boston. If you are being hosted, try to wrangle an invitation to either the Petroleum Club or the Ranchman’s Club where you can hobnob with the city’s elite and sample the best of Triple A aged Alberta Beef. The Fairmont Palliser, the historic landmark hotel is another good bet for excellent beef as are Caesars and Hy’s Steakhouse, two other long-established restaurants.
There are a several western-type saloon bars in the downtown but to imbibe with real cowboys from nearby ranches, head to the Ranchman’s Bar and Saloon on the south side of the city. This popular drinking, dining and dancing establishment is well worth a visit to mingle with locals and enjoy live action.
By now you will already have guessed that one day is not enough to enjoy the best of the city; so check out our (forthcoming) two-day itinerary.