The Lilac Festival on Calgary’s 4th Street

Stuart Forster attends the annual Lilac Festival on 4th Street in Calgary, Alberta.

When it comes to traditional costumes and Canada my first thought is of Mounties — members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — in their red serge tunics and broad-brimmed hats. But here on the fringes of the Lilac Festival, in Calgary, I’ve already met people of Peruvian and Hungarian origin in national dress.

Disclosure: Stuart travelled to Calgary as a guest of Air Transat and Canadian Affair, which did not review or approve this post.

Wandering through Central Memorial Park, Calgary’s oldest public park, I chat with members of the Mazovia Polish dance group. A few metres away members of a Chinese community group laugh together and snap photos using their phones.

The costumes emphasise the ethnic diversity of the peoples who settled the prairies and urban areas of Alberta. During the summer of 2017 Canadians celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the act of political union that is regarded as the birth of the modern state. It was formally known as the British North America Act of 1867, but, clearly, many immigrants came from elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Members of the Mazovia dance group.
Members of the Mazovia dance group.

Police officers in Stetsons

At the corner of the park stand a couple of police officers on crowd control duty. Normally my eyes would be drawn to the bright yellow of their high visibility vests. But it’s their black Stetsons and shades that make me do a double take. With pistols holstered at their hips they remind me that Alberta is a province that continues to embrace its Western heritage.

That is celebrated each July during the Calgary Stampede, when rodeos and chuck wagon racing are held at the city’s Stampede Park, a few blocks across town. Among the thousands of people on the streets I run into three members of the Calgary Stampede Royalty, who are wearing white Stetsons, flowered shirts and cowboy boots.

They tell me about their duties as members of the Stampede Royalty and explain that chuck wagon racing only occurs in Canada as we stroll along the street. Spotting a group of police officers, also in Stetsons, I set up a photo on a street corner before heading to grab a brisket sandwich from one of the many food trucks parked along the street.

Police officers with Calgary Stampede Royalty at the Lilac Festival.
Police officers with Calgary Stampede Royalty at the Lilac Festival.

Food trucks in Calgary

Like many Canadian cities, Calgary has a vibrant food truck scene. The trucks prove popular because they allow chefs to keep overheads to a minimum and focus on their strengths. Downloading the Street Food App means you can check where trucks will be parked and the type of cuisine that they serve.

Food served from a food truck at the Lilac Festival.
Food served from a food truck at the Lilac Festival.

I’ve just finished licking the last remnants of hot sauce from my hand when I run into the ladies from Dance Through Life, who run adult dance and fitness classes, and snap a selfie. We chat about line dancing, something I’m keen to experience while in Calgary.

Members of Dance Through Life at the Lilac Festival.
Members of Dance Through Life at the Lilac Festival.

Buskers and live music

Meanwhile, a young lad plays the violin across the street, drawing people to listen and mutter compliments. Buskers and musicians perform on stages along the length of 4th Street during the Lilac Festival. It’s easy to meander between them, pausing take in snippets of entertainment between viewing stalls.

I stop to look at the merchandise at the Rocky Mountain Vintage stall and chat with Sam, its director. He’s licensed images of the iconic railway posters that were designed to draw people to Canada’s West and sells them on T-shirts.

The Rocky Mountain Vintage stall at the Lilac Festival.
The Rocky Mountain Vintage stall at the Lilac Festival.

Politicians are also using the occasion to meet people and newspapers are distributing copies of their publications. Thanks to the day being sunny the event is busy, drawing families, couples and groups of friends.

For me, having arrived in Calgary yesterday, the Lilac Festival is providing my first impressions of being out on the city’s streets. I’m looking forward to seeing more over the days ahead.

Crowds of people on 4th Street during the Lilac Festival in Calgary.
Crowds of people on 4th Street during the Lilac Festival in Calgary.

About the 4th Street Lilac Festival

The Lilac Festival is held on 4th Street, between Elbow Drive and 13th Avenue, within easy walking distance of Calgary’s pedestrianised downtown shopping area, Stephen Avenue Walk. The event marks the beginning of Calgary’s festival season. The 2017 Lilac Festival was held on 4 June 2017, drawing in excess of 100,000 visitors. It was the 28th of the annual events.

The festival includes a parade, at 10am, plus performances by musicians, on six stages, throughout the day. One of the aims of the festival is to promote emerging talent.

Around 500 businesses showcase and sell wares from stalls along the streetside, including local craftspeople and food trucks.

Women in Canada T-shirts and hats at the Lilac Festival.
Women in Canada T-shirts and hats at the Lilac Festival.

Getting there

Stuart flew with Air Transat directly from London Gatwick to Calgary International Airport. Air Transat’s Option Plus provided priority check-in, with a dedicated counter and a supplementary checked baggage allowance. Additionally, Option Plus brought seat selection, priority boarding and perks for onboard comfort, including a comfort kit with a blanket and sleeping mask, plus headphones for in-flight entertainment. Gourmet meals, from the Chef’s Menu by Daniel Vézina, can be pre-ordered when flying in economy class (£15/€20).

Canadian Affair (tel. 0203 424 6316) has been arranging holidays in Canada since 1995.

Further information

For more information about things to do and see in Calgary, take a look at the Visit Calgary website.

For ideas about things to do in the surrounding region and further afield, check out the Travel Alberta and Explore Canada websites.

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Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.

People of Peruvian origin at Calgary's Central Memorial Park.
People of Peruvian origin at Calgary’s Central Memorial Park.


  • Andrew Baines

    June 18, 2017 at 22:24 Reply

    Loved being in Calgary during a self-drive vacation. Wish we had more time to explore the Badlands near to Drumheller.

    • Stuart Forster

      June 19, 2017 at 09:03 Reply

      I visited the Badlands from Calgary and was very impressed by the landscapes.

  • Enda O'Connor

    June 24, 2017 at 13:49 Reply

    We visited the Lilac Festival and had a ball. We loved the live music & street food.

  • Karen Burns-Booth

    July 1, 2017 at 13:56 Reply

    A wonderful piece Stuart and I loved following your adventures in Calgary on Instagram and Twitter too! That is on my list for a visit, as I’ve not been to Alberta yet! Karen

    • Stuart Forster

      July 2, 2017 at 17:14 Reply

      I can heartily recommend it. Thanks for your feedback. You’ll love the food scene in Calgary, there are some lovely places to dine.

  • Heather Cowper

    July 2, 2017 at 08:57 Reply

    Fab fun things to do with a local flavour, what fun in Calgary!

    • Stuart Forster

      July 2, 2017 at 17:09 Reply

      Absolutely, Heather. Walking up and down the street was a lot of fun.

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