Travel – Calgary is Full of Surprises
Get acquainted with Calgary, Canada’s friendliest big city
By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas April 18, 2023
Take a well-organized, thriving metropolis of more than 1 million people and add in hipster food joints, craft cocktails, the culture of a cosmopolitan city, and vibrant street art. Shake it up like a martini and scatter it in the Canadian prairie surrounded by mountain villages and jaw-dropping scenery. This is Calgary — and all less than two hours by air from Seattle.
Calgary is full of surprises. For starters, it is pronounced CAL-gree. As Calgarians are quick to point out, this makes the word no different from “chocolate” or “every.” Outsiders identify themselves with the incorrect three-syllable pronunciation, which simply makes it easier for locals to welcome them with their legendary hospitality.
The city’s history is familiar to the western side of the continent: settlements, railroads, oil, boom and bust, galvanizing public works, slow decay, robust renewal. It combines the Far West’s sense of frontier adventure with Midwestern friendliness, along with capable Canadian governance. The 1988 Winter Olympics left the city with numerous useful buildings, and a sense of global pride.
Calgary was recently named the world’s third most livable city — ahead of every other city in North America. Whether you go for three days or three weeks, it’s time to put Calgary at the top of your travel list.
The downtown core is perfectly accessible by car or on foot. If you’re only in town for a weekend, be sure to stop by the Downtown Marriott for a quick skate on the hotel’s magical rooftop rink. Zoom around on skates with views of Calgary Tower and beautiful skyscrapers like The Bow and Telus Sky. Calgary Tower is like the Space Needle’s little brother, slightly taller and five years younger.
Make friends at the Calgary Central Library, a stunning wood-and-glass architectural gem designed in homage to the Chinook winds that blow across the Albertan prairie. The library is an example to other cities worldwide, with its commitment to acting as a community center and meeting place rather than just a book depository. Stop by at any time and you might see seniors learning software, children listening to story time, and teenagers in their exclusive hangout — no adults allowed.
Like most great cities, Calgary is a collection of distinctive neighborhoods.
Start with breakfast at Chix Eggshop in the East Village. The area abuts the winding Bow River just east of downtown with a pedestrian bridge at the end. Order the first of many Caesars — Canada’s national drink, invented in Calgary at The Calgary Hotel, now the Westin. Think Bloody Mary with Clamato, and also a potential meal in a glass. Chix serves it up with deep fried bacon as a garnish.
Keep heading east along the banks of the Bow to Inglewood, Calgary’s Capitol Hill doppelganger. Don’t be fooled by the somewhat buttoned-up appearance — this little district has some of the best thrifting, shopping, and breweries to be found. For cool used threads, head to Genuine Design Luxury Consignment or Peacock Boutique. Even if you think you’ve seen every possible brewery design in Seattle, nothing will prepare you for the kitschy, rainbow explosion that is Cold Garden. Note the giant, sequined suspended troll mascot for starters. Just next door, Ol’ Beautiful Brewing serves up award-winning ales in a more typical industrial atmosphere. Dining options in Calgary are plentiful, with creative cuisine and eclectic design. The Beltliner is another great breakfast stop, and its Caesar game is also on point and can be ordered with a cupcake garnish. Yes, a cupcake. Ten Foot Henry is great for lunch or dinner, and does interesting things with vegetables, including spicy cauliflower and maybe the best cabbage ever. In fairness to carnivores, Alberta is also justifiably famous for its beef, so ask your server to recommend something if you’re so inclined.
Una Pizza and Frenchie’s Wine Bar are one-stop date nights, with inventive thin-crust pizzas and carefully curated wines from the Okanagan Valley. Then make your way back to the “hidden” speakeasy for decadent atmosphere and craft cocktails. You don’t have to order a Caesar, but at this point, if you’re sufficiently hooked, no one will stop you.
Calgarian comfort food naturally lends itself to brunch. Don’t miss Orchard, which provides interesting egg dishes, healthy salads, and tasty mimosas, while somehow making the tropical, humid, louche, Southeast Asia vibe totally work against the snowy Canadian Plains backdrop. Another charming option is Park, located in Central Memorial Park. The small, square space evokes Scandinavian midcentury, with fresh, healthy dishes served beneath a glowing solarium.
Calgary is close and easy enough for a long weekend, but rent a car to turn it into a long week. The Canadian Rockies are one of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth, site of Olympic and World Cup ski events as well as picturesque mountain villages. Within a one- to two-hour drive, you will happen upon the towns of Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise.
An hour to the west, Canmore beckons as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies. The quaint mountain village offers incredible views, as well as sports like skiing, hiking, and more. The Canmore Nordic Centre provides world-class cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat biking.
The Malcolm Hotel’s outdoor pool and hot tub are seemingly nestled in the mountain, giving bathers a quiet way to enjoy the view. Hang around town to enjoy great bars and more than a few interesting restaurants. Crazyweed is a favorite of locals, with farm-to-fork dishes served up in a buzzing atmosphere. For a special night out, make a reservation at The Sensory Restaurant and Lounge with gorgeous, peaked views and carefully crafted regional cuisine.
In the morning, stop in for a delectable, stacked bagel sandwich at Rocky Mountain Bagel, and then head north. Pay the toll on the highway to enter Banff National Park and prepare to be mesmerized.
For a mountain town of about 8,000 residents, Banff is absolutely bustling. It’s the epicenter of the various ski resorts and mountain activities spread through the Rockies, as well as its après-ski scene. Visit Park Restaurant and Distillery, which makes its own excellent gin, and then have dinner at Brazen. Its flaming version of locally invented specialty ginger beef is a must.
Banff also has one of the most unique hotels one could ever visit, which itself is a historic microcosm of tourism for the entire West. William Van Horne, an executive at the Canadian Pacific Railroad, was so taken with the region that he uttered his famous line, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” Many years and millions of dollars later, the (now Fairmont) Banff Hot Springs Hotel opened in 1888, with 768 rooms in the Scottish Baronial style. Think Harry Potter meets Tim Burton meets Dracula. It was the largest hotel in the world when it opened.
Though completely destroyed by fire in 1926, it reemerged grander than ever a few years later. Visiting the hotel now is like traveling through time, both appealing and also kind of surreal. Its UNESCO World Heritage status won’t allow for a redesign of its dizzying warren of mazelike dead ends and yet, why would they? It is perfect in its haughty, grandiose imperfection.
The Moose Hotel and Suites is a great place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action. The spa will soothe tired muscles — the adjacent outdoor whirlpool sits above a quiet back street with a firepit warming the experience. For a unique stay, rent the historic house that sits inside the resort’s interior courtyard. One of the original catalog houses in Banff, it now has a queen bed upstairs with a kitchenette and small living quarters below.
It would be possible to keep driving to Jasper to the Yukon and on, all the way to Alaska. For our purposes we will end with the most picturesque spot in the Rockies.
The turquoise waters of Lake Louise have called to travelers since the turn of the 20th century. The tiny lake turns bright white in winter, inviting visitors to walk, skate, or stumble across its icy surface, surrounded by epic peaks. As in Banff, the Fairmont is the 100-plus years old tentpole franchise here, the Chateau Lake Louise. Even if you’re not staying, a drink at the hotel bar is a must, with its massive window views of the mountains.
If conditions permit, make plans to do one of the iconic tea house hikes, open most of the year except for darkest winter. The Lake Agnes Tea House Trail is the easier and more well-traveled of the two. Count on 2.2 miles and one to two hours each way. The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Trail is 3.4 miles each way, for a two-to-three-hour trip, serving up postcard-perfect views of Lake Louise.
Before heading home, don’t forget to stop at iconic Smithbilt Hats in Calgary and pick up your own Calgary White Hat as a souvenir. The tradition of “white hatting” visitors began in 1948 with football fans giving theirs away in Toronto. The hat, and the gesture, are enduring symbols of Calgary’s passion for hospitality.