Big city kicks with a country heart: an insider’s guide to Calgary

There’s definitely a lot to love about Calgary. For a start, it was ranked the world’s fourth most livable city by the Economist last year. Nestled near the Rocky Mountains, it has natural beauty to spare, from lush forests to rolling farm fields – plus a growing collection of publicly displayed art and innovative architecture within the downtown core. There’s a great NHL team – the Calgary Flames – and every July the city hosts a 10-day party called the Calgary Stampede, as well as an outstanding folk music festival.

Calgary embodies a rare blend of frontier roots, urban modernity, and has more community spirit than I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot to love here, so what did it take for me to truly appreciate this city?

In 2013 Calgary experienced floods of catastrophic proportions. There was an estimated $5bn (CAD) in property damages. Calgary residents took evacuees into their homes and the outpouring of love was phenomenal. Calgary and the surrounding areas were rebuilt, the city suddenly looked better than ever and I felt a change ripple through my community. I knew then that I would never take Calgary for granted again.

The best way to experience the city is to start in the centre and work your way out.

  • The Plaza cinema in Kensington shows indie gems and cult hits

Be charmed in Kensington
Across the river (and the iconic red Peace Bridge) is the endlessly charming Kensington, which has always been one of my favourite neighbourhoods. There’s a historic movie theatre called the Plaza, which shows everything you won’t see in mainstream theatres, from indie gems to older cult hits. Rows of cool shops line the streets. Hit up Hot Wax Records for new and used vinyl, or check out Kismet Clothing for an updated ensemble. Miss your furry friend back home? Go to the Regal Cat Cafe to snuggle some kitties. If you come to Kensington hungry, I highly recommend checking out Hayden Block Smoke & Whiskey for mouthwatering barbecue and cocktails, or popping into Niko’s Bistro for fresh pasta in an intimate atmosphere. Here, Niko – who came to Calgary from Croatia – is likely to applaud you for ordering and eating two main courses (not that I’m speaking from experience. Except I’m definitely speaking from experience).




  • Niko’s Bistro (top); Hayden Block Smoke & Whiskey

Visit a food truck
As well as great restaurants, like a lot of cities, some of the best food you’ll taste here comes from a food truck. Want to find them? Download the YYCFoodTrucks app to see who’s out and where, like you’re a local in the know. Travelling from downtown to the outskirts of the city, the trucks tend to move around daily, but are all well represented on social media and easy to find on the app map.

  • Eat like a local from one of the city’s many food trucks

Get spooked in Inglewood
Calgary’s original main street, now the historic neighbourhood of Inglewood, has managed to keep its charm. This quirky area somehow manages to be downtown and hidden from downtown all at once. Grab a cup of the smoothest coffee you’ll ever taste at local roasters Rosso, then search for hidden gems in one of the vintage shops. If you’re curious about the occult, you shouldn’t miss the Inglewood Ghost Tour. A cape-wearing guide will lead you through the streets and give you a taste of Calgary’s spookier history. Do I believe in ghosts? No. Am I afraid of ghosts? Absolutely.


  • The Inglewood area of the city; grab a coffee at Rosso

A day out in Bowness park
Bowness park is a beautiful area that’s easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. Located along the Bow River, it’s got a fabulous pond for pedal-boating in the summer and ice-skating in the winter, a tea shop, playgrounds, and onsite barbecues. Whether you’re travelling with little ones (who will get a kick out of riding the miniature train through the park) or on a romantic getaway, this is a wonderful place to spend the day.

Raft along the Bow River
But to truly experience Calgary like a local, I’d suggest a “Bow float” along the river that runs through the city’s heart. Hop in a canoe or raft (you can rent them from various companies, such as Lazy Day Raft Rentals) and take to Bow River with the sun on your cheeks and wind in your hair. There are plenty of stop-off points for a sandwich as you make your way downriver, and the longest trip, at roughly three hours, runs from Baker park to Prince’s Island park.


  • The Bow River flows through the heart of the city; to the north is Bridgeland (left) with East Village, home of the Central Library (right), to the south

Elbow Falls/Bragg Creek
If you jump in a car and hit the road to the Rocky Mountains, within 45 minutes you’ll be at Elbow Falls. It takes its name from a couple of small but mighty waterfalls and is a great destination for outdoorsy types of all levels. Elbow Falls also provides perfect fodder for budding and professional photographers alike.

Bragg Creek is an adorable hamlet that’s great for a stop on your way to or from Elbow Falls. There’s a row of shops that includes restaurants serving comfort foods, an ice-cream and candy shop that just might have every sweet treat imaginable, and Spirits West – where wines are organised according to flavour and mood, rather than country.

Hike Canmore and Grassi Lakes
Banff gets a lot of well-deserved attention from residents and tourists alike and is definitely worth checking out. That said, I often opt to stay in Canmore, where you’ll find some great hotel options (I recommend Solara Resort & Spa), as well as local craft breweries and innovative restaurants. The standout activity in Canmore is the hike up to Grassi Lakes. You’re given the option of taking the easy trail or the hard trail upon arrival. The latter offers incredible views, while the former is nice for those with limited mobility. At the top, be prepared to be stunned when you gaze over the Rockies from the summit. But the best views are still to come when you reach the actual Grassi Lakes, which are aquamarine and so clear it’s like looking through glass. Their beauty may just render you speechless.



  • The Grassi Lakes are reached on foot; there are easy or hard trails

The markets and artists of Calgary
Calgary has myriad markets and fairs to enjoy – it’s a city that values creativity. One of the most exciting platforms for our community of artists comes in the form of the Market Collective, which has weekend events throughout the summer at the St Louis hotel in East Village. I nearly went bankrupt at the last market I attended, snatching up candles, beauty products, jewellery, and baked goods (I’m still having dreams about flavoured cream puffs and elderflower soda). It’s a family-friendly affair that can include food trucks, bouncy castles, a miniature skateboard park, and live music.


  • Downtown Calgary

Rachel Valette, mother of two and maker extraordinaire, moved to Calgary from Sydney nine years ago. She has an Etsy store and, over the past year, has participated as a vendor in a variety of Calgary’s markets. “I love the Calgary arts community,” Valette says, “as most people are from somewhere else and have travelled and experienced lifestyle, culture and the arts from all around the world. We’ve all ended up in Calgary and want to recreate those experiences here in Alberta. There is so much hidden talent and passion that is now blooming through markets, festivals, local maker stores, and communities.”

Calgary has always been full of interesting people and places, but since the floods of 2013 it’s definitely blooming at a faster pace. It’s a city that knows its roots yet continues to evolve. Regardless of the season, it’s a dynamic place to live or visit and always offers a warm welcome for tourists from all over the world.

Explore Calgary’s neighbourhoods and surrounds with year-round direct flights from London with WestJet

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