Stuart Forster provides an introduction to Calgary, Alberta’s biggest city.
Disclosure: Stuart travelled as a guest of Air Transat and Canadian Affair. He was hosted by Visit Calgary and Travel Alberta. None of those organisations reviewed or approved this post.
Calgary is more than merely a gateway to reaching Canada’s West. It’s a city with lots going on, so fun to spend time in, and a good base for exploring southern Alberta.
In June 2017 I had an opportunity to spend a week in Calgary. I travelled there as part of Destination Canada’s City Bloggers Plus project, involving 15 leading UK travel bloggers. The bloggers were distributed in cities across Canada.
So where is Calgary?
Calgary is ‘out West’ in Alberta, a province that’s renowned for its prairies and for the dramatic landscapes of the eastern Canadian Rockies.
The city’s international airport a just over nine hours of flying time west of London (the one in England, rather than London, Ontario) and a little more than four hours’ west of Toronto (the one in Ontario, rather the one in County Durham, England).
Calgarians embrace their Western heritage, which is celebrated each summer during the Calgary Stampede. Rodeos, chuckwagon racing and line dancing are all elements of an event that’s dubbed ‘the greatest outdoor show on earth’. You’re likely to see police officers wearing broadbrimmed hats, reminiscent of sheriffs in Western movies.
Edmonton is Alberta’s provincial capital and lies around 180 kilometres, or a three-hour drive, north of Calgary. Calgary, though, is the province’s most populous city, with 1.37 million inhabitants.
After Toronto and Montreal, Calgary has the third largest population in Canada. Skyscrapers thrust upwards in the downtown core, where the city feels like a metropolis. The high-rise buildings soon give way to low-rise architecture. The riverside East Village is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the city centre. Inglewood, a resurgent brewery district with a hip vibe, lies a further 15 minutes’ stroll eastwards.
Getting your bearings in Calgary
Take the lift up to Calgary Tower’s observation deck, for views from 160 metres above street level. It’s a good place to orientate, as you can see the layout of the city and the location of landmarks such as the Saddledome indoor stadium, which doubles as a concert and sporting venue.
The Glenbow Museum’s name is splashed across its rooftop. The Glenbow has an informative exhibition about the city’s development and the region’s First Nations heritage.
It’s one block over from Stephen Avenue, a pedestrianised street with a smattering of bars, restaurants and shops, including a Hudson’s Bay department store and Core Shopping Mall.
Orientation in Calgary
If you google the distance from Calgary International Airport to downtown Calgary and you’ll see the two are 18.8 kilometres or a 22-minute drive apart.
My initial drive into the downtown district took just over 20 minutes. However, it took a further hour for me to locate my hotel.
That doesn’t mean Calgary is a difficult place to drive. Embarrassingly, it simply reflects my limitations in using GPS technology that many children can operate and woeful orientation.
Like many North American cities, Calgary is laid out on a grid plan. What I wish I’d known before setting off from the airport is that the city is divided into quadrants. Centre Street demarcates the western and eastern parts of the city. The Bow River divides the northern and southern sections.
So why did I waste so much time arriving into the city? I typed in an address on 4th Street South West rather than 4th Street South East. Yes, I noticed. Mistakenly, I thought there wouldn’t be a problem because the two would simply be divided by a cross street and that I’d have no problem seeing the hotel. The two streets are actually about a kilometre from each other. (Even that should have been no big deal. However, unfamiliarity with the one-way system and a series of wrong turns accounted for the lost hour plus a mystery tour of the city.)
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d now say Calgary is an easy place to orientate and get about. Just remember that it’s divided into a quadrant.
Driving in Calgary and Alberta
Even if you’re unaccustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road, as is the common practice in North America, it’s likely that you’ll find Canadian highways easygoing. Drivers tend to be considerate and the volume of traffic is, apart from during rush hour peaks, significantly lighter than on UK roads.
Having your own vehicle is a great way of exploring beyond the city boundaries.
Consider day trips to places such as Banff (90 minutes away by car), Drumheller (also 90 minutes’ away) and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (less than two hours distant).
Getting about in Calgary
Having a vehicle is undoubtedly advantageous if you want to explore Calgary’s environs and beyond. Attractions such as the Calgary Farmers’ Market and the Canada Olympic Park are both short drives out of the downtown area.
Attractions in the city centre fall within relatively short distances of each other. So long as you apply common cautions, you should be safe. At no point did I feel uneasy or threatened, including while out and about on the streets late at night (there are some outstanding brewpubs and breweries with tap rooms in Calgary).
The CTrain light transit system is an option if you want to use public transport. Day passes and single tickets are available.
Taxis are easy to locate and can be hailed on the streets.
Calgary is a bicycle-friendly city, with dedicated cycle paths and multi-use trails. I had a bicycle delivered to my hotel by Nomad Gear Rentals and spent a day exploring. The riverside trail provides some fine city skyline photo opportunities. If you feel nervous about heading out by yourself, you could always join a guided cycling tour.
Getting to Calgary
Stuart flew directly to Calgary International Airport with Air Transat from London Gatwick. Air Transat’s Option Plus provided priority check-in, with a dedicated counter and a supplementary checked baggage allowance. It meant seat selection, priority boarding and perks for onboard comfort. Those included 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. The Calgary and Banff Short Break includes seven nights of accommodation, including two in Calgary’s city centre.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Hilton Calgary Inn Calgary Downtown (711 4 SE Street, TG2 1N3; tel. +1-587-352-2020). This modern hotel has an indoor swimming pool and a fitness centre. Its rooftop terrace meant opportunities to enjoy views over the city. The Wi-Fi connection is quick and reliable, and beer is served in the lobby bar.
Located in the East Village, the hotel is just a couple of minutes’ walk along the street from Studio Bell, the home of Canada’s National Music Centre. Attractions within the downtown core are easily reachable on foot.
For ideas about things to do and see in Calgary, view the Visit Calgary website.
For inspiration about things to do in the surrounding province and further afield, see the Travel Alberta and Destination Canada websites.
The Bike Calgary website is a useful resource if you plan on cycling.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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Heather CowperAugust 27, 2017 at 12:31
Great introduction to Calgary – hope you tried out the cowboy boots and stetsons while you were there!
Stuart ForsterAugust 28, 2017 at 17:04
Thank you. I certainly did. I bought a pair of cowboy boots from Lammle’s while I was at the downtown store.
Kathryn BurringtonAugust 28, 2017 at 09:06
Not a part of Canada I’ve been to yet but it is on my list. It’s such a fabulous country on so many levels I want to explore every corner of it!
Stuart ForsterAugust 28, 2017 at 17:05
I know that feeling. I fall in love with Canada a tiny bit more each time I visit.
Zoe DawesAugust 28, 2017 at 09:54
You saw much more than we did Stuart – great write up of a fascinating city. It was our last stop on our fab Rockies road-trip. Highly recommend your article to anyone visiting quirky Calgary.
Stuart ForsterAugust 28, 2017 at 17:09
Thanks, Zoe. I drove over to Banff National Park one of the days I was staying in Calgary and loved the scenery in the Canadian Rockies. Thank you for your tip about the Calgary Stampede poster exhibition in the walkway next to the Victoria Park CTrain station, by The Grain Academy and Museum.
Karen Burns-BoothAugust 29, 2017 at 13:17
Looks like you had a lot of fun in the Stampede capital of the world Stuart! Loved reading all about your adventures and looking at the photos too!
Stuart ForsterAugust 30, 2017 at 10:00
Thank you Karen. I know you have travelled widely in Canada and suggest people looking to read about food in destinations across the country pop over to your blog for a read.
Lucy DodsworthAugust 29, 2017 at 17:40
Looks like a great city with plenty to do – I passed through (literally, I just flew in then drove out!) last year but didn’t get chance to see anything, so a Calgary and the Rockies trip is a must next time I get out to Canada.
Stuart ForsterAugust 30, 2017 at 10:02
Thanks Lucy. I’d love to return to experience the city during the Calgary Stampede. It’s well worth spending at least a couple of days in the city. The craft beer scene alone would take days to explore.
Iain MalloryAugust 31, 2017 at 10:04
Great guide to Calgary Stuart, long time since I was there properly, but brought back plenty of memories. Thanks
Stuart ForsterAugust 31, 2017 at 10:09
It’s a very good base and well-placed for the outdoor activities that I know you love. From my hotel I drove into the Rockies in under two hours. The scenery was gorgeous.
Becky MooreSeptember 9, 2017 at 06:54
I have I friend who emigrated over there years ago so it’s really interesting to see what it’s like, I must visit her soon!
Stuart ForsterSeptember 11, 2017 at 15:56
I can see the attraction. The quality of life there in Calgary is high.
Steven AndrewsNovember 19, 2021 at 14:11
You have explained everything in a detailed manner about Calgary Alberta. Thanks for sharing this informative blog post with us since I am planning to move to Alberta in coming next month, that’s why this information is really helpful for me.
Go Eat DoNovember 22, 2021 at 10:26
Thank you. Calgary is a great city. Enjoy your time there.