The New Calgary
National Geographic photographer Katie Orlinsky uncovers the best of the Canadian city’s cosmopolitan aesthetic.
A new culture has arisen in the Alberta, Canada, city of Calgary, one that favors healthy lifestyles and bright ideas built directly into its existing fabric. With so much to discover both within the city limits and just beyond—from its mainstay neighborhoods and inventive eats to the four nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites and a horde of both indoor and outdoor adventuring—Calgary acts as a spirited basecamp to Canadian wonders like the Rockies and Badlands and as a destination unto itself. Here are the places and experiences that top our don’t-miss list.
THE CITY CENTER
STEPHEN AVENUE WALK
The hub’s main promenade, Stephen Avenue Walk doubles as the city’s commercial core, coming alive during warmer months with thousands of visitors who meander the pedestrian mall between shopping in its myriad boutiques and shops. A National Historic District, Stephen Avenue Walk is home to Old City Hall, Hudson’s Bay Company, and the old Bank of Montreal building, plus some of the city’s most acclaimed eats, like Saltlik, where local Alberta beef drives the menu, and Blink, where the modern cuisine served within one of the area’s historic sandstone buildings leans French.
Stephen Avenue is a major pedestrian mall downtown where you can find for some of Calgary's finest restaurants, cafés, pubs, and bars, and an eclectic mix of boutiques and high-end retail.
"Wonderland" at the Bow
At the base of the 58-story Bow Building—a shimmering crescent-shaped skyscraper whose iconic blink has defined Calgary’s skyline since 2012—sits “Wonderland,” a three-dimensional, 40-foot-tall white wire construction of a young girl’s head. Artist Jaume Plensa left two openings big enough to walk through, allowing visitors to take a stroll through “Wonderland” any time of the day.
Another well-known character on the city’s skyline, Calgary Tower rises 525 feet above the downtown core, while the hub at the top offers unobstructed 360-degree panoramic views that stretch all the way to the Rockies. Built in the late 1960s to celebrate Canada’s centennial, the tower also holds the Sky 360 restaurant, which spins slowly during both lunch and dinner service, supplying an ever changing view for guests.
NEIGHBORHOODS WITH CHARACTER
What was once the city’s main artery is now the heart of one of its most vibrant neighborhoods. In Calgary’s east end, just across Elbow River from the city center, Inglewood is a tastemaker’s paradise, with antique shops and lifestyle boutiques filling the historic buildings that line Ninth Avenue SE. Look for indie shops like 28 Blankets (for all your cozy needs), and Crown Surplus, a family-owned outpost that specializes in military and vintage relics, and make sure to stop for a nosh at one of the neighborhood’s award-winning restaurants, like Rouge.
Also just across the river from downtown—this time using Louise Bridge—is Kensington, Calgary’s ultra-walkable urban village, with more than 300 restaurants and one-of-a-kind retail shops. Vinyl junkies can head to Hot Wax, which has been serving bold new tunes and varied classics alike for three decades. Film buffs can take a load off at the old Plaza Theatre, which screens hard-to-find art films and new releases. Stop at one of the many craft coffee cafés for a pick-me-up, or grab a boozy afternoon treat from Container Bar, built into a shipping container and wedged cozily between two buildings in an alleyway.
Just across the Louise Bridge, Kensington Village’s outdoor cafés, restaurants, and specialty boutiques make it a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.
Public spaces rule East Village, with more than a mile of the city’s famed RiverWalk lining its shore, heritage buildings filling out the neighborhood, and art installations setting the vibe. Five stories of musical history are archived in the National Music Centre and the Canadian Halls of Fame, both at home in Studio Bell, a massive hub constructed to emulate the tuneful archives that live within. Summer months welcome East Village Junction, a colorful pop-up market, while the architecturally masterful and vast New Central Library is set to be completed in 2018.
FANTASTIC LOCAL FLAVORS
Set in Calgary's storied Theater Junction Grand, Workshop Kitchen + Culture offers a highly artistic scene with interesting foods and drinks.
The culinary landscape in Calgary is changing. There’s a push toward creative spaces, playful concepts, and inventive menus—and Cannibale follows suit. The cozy cocktail bar has drink options broken down according to periods in cocktail history. There’s also a small menu of shareables and sandwiches and a patio nearly as large as the bar itself, but the novelty here is the barber’s chair in the window, where patrons can order a hot shave or a trim with their libation.
COLD GARDEN BEVERAGE COMPANY
What would a creative culinary scene be without its devotees of craft beer? Cold Garden Beverage Company planted its roots in Inglewood. The microbrewery has a tasting room open to the public five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays), where you can sample staples and experimental brews side by side.
WORKSHOP KITCHEN + CULTURE
Housed in downtown’s Theatre Junction Grand, Workshop revels in a counter-culture philosophy, making bold decisions in the kitchen for those ready to experience imaginative food that’s ready to share.
Dinner and a show—that’s what you get at Palomino Smokehouse, along with slow-cooked meats prepared daily in the largest smoker in Western Canada. The basement of the restaurant doubles as a lively music venue, while upstairs patrons go hog wild for pulled pork poutine, BBQ, rib-sticking sides, and a brunch to cure even the most stubborn of hangovers.
An elegant dining option in the middle of Bow River in Prince’s Island Park, River Café has been recognized for both its season-driven menu and its wine program. Hyper-local ingredients come straight from Bow River and are honored in dishes prepared with extreme care and dedication to doing all butchering, brining, curing, and smoking in house.
Cold Garden Microbrewery has become a cozy neighborhood gathering spot to drink beer, meet new people and get together with old friends.
The welcoming and bright space at Foreign Concept in downtown reflects the stylishly modern food on its menu. Award-winning chefs use locally sourced ingredients to execute Asian flavors both fresh and familiar, creating a culinary experience imbued with a sense of play.
CALGARY’S GREAT OUTDOORS
PRINCE’S ISLAND PARK
The site of favorite annual events like Canada Day celebrations and the Calgary Folk Festival, Prince’s Island Park sits in the city center with all the usual park draws but with one major difference: The entire park is an island in the middle of Bow River, accessible by a number of foot bridges. Rent canoes to take out on the water in warmer months, and when winter hits, lace up your ice skates for a few laps around the frozen lagoon.
Adventure seekers can rent kayaks, canoes or rafts for a journey down the Bow River.
BOW RIVER WATERSPORTS
Surf’s up in Calgary. Sure the city is landlocked, but that hasn’t stopped creative swell chasers from grabbing their boards to surf the permanent wave formed by the 10th Street bridge. The wave doubles as the river’s only set of Class II rapids, which Calgarians hit while on three-hour rafting journeys from Baker Park to Prince’s Island Park. If something a little slower is more your speed, there are kayak rentals as well.
CANADA OLYMPIC PARK
With a long history in Calgary—and the site of the XV Olympic Winter Games—WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park functions as both training facility and recreation center. It’s an extreme playground for all ages, with year-round bobsledding, a zip line, an eight-story bungee jump, luge runs, and a winter park for skiing, snowboarding, and tubing, among other activities. Proceeds go back into a nonprofit, which not only supports the country’s high-performance athletes but also introduces others to heritage sports.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
FISH CREEK PROVINCIAL PARK
More than five square miles of parkland lie within the city limits—and that’s just Fish Creek Provincial Park alone. One of the largest urban parks in Canada, Fish Creek is open for just about every summer activity you can dream up, with a day of fishing, swimming, trail running, or cycling ending with a bonfire under the stars. During winter, there’s cross-country skiing and excellent snowshoeing trails.
A FRENZY OF FESTIVALS
Calgarians make great use of their ample public spaces, with a host of annual festivals taking place throughout the city each year. Beakerhead is one of the more unique ones, marrying the arts, sciences, and engineering for a multiday festival that celebrates creativity in all its forms. Self-guided tours take attendees throughout the city to discover installations, interactive exhibits, and more.
Every year, installations like 2017’s fire-breathing Serpent Mother dazzle visitors at Beakerhead.
A massive event that’s family friendly, Circle Festival combines live music, great food, and excellent beer with outdoor activities, like blow-up climbing walls and a giant inflatable obstacle course. While mom and dad are off crowd surfing, kids can spend the afternoon at Circus School, where trained instructors teach how to walk on stilts, juggle, and more.
LAND OF UNESCO
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a First Nations Tribal site, was used for 5,500 years by the indigenous peoples of the plains to kill buffalo by driving them off high cliffs.
Calgary serves as an ideal cosmopolitan base camp to not one but four nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Banff National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. Less than three hours east of Calgary, however, lie the stunning badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, so named for the 75-million-year-old fossils found there in what’s considered one of the most important discoveries from the Age of Reptiles. More than 32 square miles of protected land make up the park, where you can camp among ancient history under the stars. Book your site (and guided tour of the otherwise off-limits preserve areas) early.
Just shy of two hours south of Calgary is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where the vast Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. Here, the remains of thousands of charging buffalo that pounded the ground 6,000 years ago can still be found scattered about. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is more than just an awe-inspiring beautiful landscape—it’s an important First Nations Tribal site, where ancient people drove stampedes over a sandstone cliff edge in order to hunt them below. Today there’s an education center where you can learn about the Plains people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz is a California based travel writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.