Although it is the largest city in Alberta – it is the oil capital of Canada and one of the most important business and financial centers of North America – Calgary has never departed from its nickname of “Cowtown”. A reference to the region’s long history as the center of a vast cattle rearing region, it is a name that has in fact been of immense value to tourism marketers, evoking romantic ideas from cowboys, cattle drives and a wild Far West. That’s why when you visit this vibrant city, you’ll find plenty to do, from capturing the famous Calgary Stampede each July to exploring the city’s pioneer era heritage park (particularly fun for families). It is a particularly beautiful place for those who also appreciate the beautiful views. The Rocky Mountains on the western horizon appear as an insurmountable barrier rising from the plain. The proximity of these mountains, with their well-known national parks, makes Calgary a great choice for skiing, hiking, or sightseeing vacations. But for those looking for entertainment in the city itself, there are also many tourist attractions. At night, it is particularly fun to stroll through the immense park of Prince’s Island and cross the emblematic Peace Bridge, before or after enjoying an excellent restaurant in the city center.
1. Calgary Stampede
The 10-day Calgary Stampede can be traced back to its roots in the 1880s and is the culmination of Calgary’s summer, cementing the reputation of this city in Alberta as the “City of the Stampede” in Canada. This famous rodeo, presented as “the biggest outdoor show in the world”, takes place in July and includes all kinds of entertainment and cowboy and rodeo exhibitions. The population and up to a million visitors dress accordingly, and blue jeans and brightly colored Stetsons are becoming the order of the day.
Events include a grand parade, rodeo competitions, thrilling cart races, an authentic First Nations village, concerts and live entertainment, a funfair, pancake breakfasts as well as farm shows.
Getting to Stampede Park, the permanent home of the festival, is easy either by public transport or by car, with plenty of parking available, and even if you’re here in the low season, a tour and visit – or possibly a concert here – remains one of the best things to do in Calgary.
2. Banff & Lake Louise
Undoubtedly one of the most perfect places in Canada, Banff National Park and the city of Banff are a perfect day trip from Calgary. Crossable in less than 90 minutes, the route itself is simply spectacular, offering incredible views of the mountains shortly after leaving the city, and which has never stopped en route. After passing Canmore and enjoying the gates of the park, you will find yourself in the town of Banff, the only community located in beautiful Banff National Park. It is an ideal place to explore before or after visiting the park, and offers many shopping and dining options. However, one of the highlights of your visit will be Lake Louise. Famous for its dazzling turquoise waters framed by stunning snowcapped mountains, the tallest heights reaching over 3000 meters, this is the ultimate (safe) place for selfies, especially with the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in the distance – and a great place to take a break and reflect the splendor and natural beauty of this part of the world.
3. Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park
Dating back to 1917, the Calgary Zoo, one of the city’s most popular family attractions, and Canada’s largest and most visited zoo, sits on a 120-acre site on the St. George Island in the Bow River. The zoo is home to over 1,000 animals representing some 272 species, including many examples of rare and endangered species, as well as botanical gardens. Spring is always a fun time to visit due to the arrival of newborn animals (check the zoo website for news and details).
Must see sections include the Lemur Country; Destination Africa; and the Canadian Wilds, where you can admire fascinating creatures up close, including grizzly bears and newcomers, a pair of pandas.
Other fun things to do include spending time exploring the attraction of the six-acre prehistoric park with its full-size dinosaur replicas. For those traveling in winter, be sure to visit the “Zoolights” night Christmas festival which takes place here every year.
4. Heritage Park Historical Village
Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary is a typical pioneer village, with dozens of reconstructed historic buildings and costumed animators from four different periods. In addition to exhibits and buildings ranging from an 1860 fur trade fort to a 1930s town square, the highlight of a visit is the operation of the old steam locomotive, which provides transportation to the park. There is also a paddlewheel tour boat that offers scenic cruises through the Glenmore Reservoir, and which offers lots of great sightseeing and photo opportunities. The reservoir is also a popular place for outdoor activities such as sailing, canoeing and rowing.
Be sure to allocate some extra time to your Heritage Village itinerary to visit the Gasoline Alley Museum, popular for its hands-on interactive experiences with unique vintage vehicles.
5. Calgary Tower
At the top of the Calgary Tower, a viewing platform with a glass floor and a revolving restaurant allows tourists to enjoy the thrilling feeling of being 191 meters above the city in one of its emblematic buildings.
Opened in 1968 and until 1984 the tallest structure in the city, the tower still offers excellent views of the city and beyond on the mountains. It is particularly beautiful at night and the tower itself is illuminated each evening for a breathtaking effect.
In 1988, the giant torch on the tower testified to the spirit of the Olympic Games and is always lit on special occasions. A funny film, shown regularly in the building, highlights the construction of the tower.
6. Canada Olympic Park
In the foothills of the mountains to the west of the city rise the strange towers of WinSport, which houses the Calgary Olympic Park. In 1988, it was the main site of the XV Olympic Winter Games. Today, the hill is still open for skiing and snowboarding, and there are opportunities for bob sledding, ziplining, sledding, snow tubing and mountain biking on the slopes and hills. Indoor ice skating is also available, including professional competitions and casual sessions and programming for tourists and locals.
Guided tours of the ski jump tours offer panoramic views of the Calgary skyline from the top of the ski jump trail. Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame is also located in the park.
7. Prince’s Island Park
Prince’s Island Park is a large 50-acre green space located north of downtown Calgary. Located on an island on the Bow River, the park is adjacent to the Eau Claire market, and many tourists visit these two main attractions together. Connected to the mainland by three pedestrian bridges, the park offers walking and cycling areas, as well as concerts and outdoor shows during the summer months. A renowned restaurant is located on the island.
8. Rocky Mountaineer Rail Journey
Rocky Mountaineer’s award-winning, luxuriously appointed and private rail tour takes place between Calgary or Jasper and Vancouver (the base of the company), cutting west on the historic Canadian Pacific Line through the mountain wall of the Rockies. In Canmore, provided the weather is fine, there is a beautiful view of the three snowy sisters, a group of mountain peaks which constitute a magnificent backdrop for your trip. Shortly after, the popular winter resort of Banff was reached. Other highlights of this mountainous section (where the peaks peak at 3,600 meters) include Lake Louise, Kicking Horse Pass and Rogers Pass, and a variety of day trip options are available. A word of warning: as one of the busiest rail adventures in North America, it’s a good idea to plan your excursion well in advance, especially if you want to drive the dome car First class GoldLeaf.
9. Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre
Situated in Calgary’s East Village area, Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre, opened in its new state-of-the-art facility in 2016. Able to trace its roots back as far as 1987, the huge structure houses a number of music-related attractions, including the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Collection. Together, these museums boast an impressive collection of 2,000 music-related artifacts, including numerous old and rare instruments. Among the larger exhibits are a mobile recording studio that once belonged to the Rolling Stones and a piano once owned by Elton John. The building itself is simply stunning, especially its interior, which features more than 226,000 attractive terra-cotta tiles. In addition to its many exhibits-many of them hands-on and interactive-Studio Bell offers a diverse program of educational events and workshops, daily performances, as well as concerts. Guided tours are available, along with a fun backstage pass tour that includes time playing some of the instruments you’ll see.
10. Fish Creek Provincial Park
The second largest urban park in Canada, Fish Creek Provincial Park covers an area of almost 14 square kilometers. Located in the far south of Calgary, this huge green space is popular for its many enjoyable hiking trails, which lead through forested areas and along the stream, some of which connect to other trails that crisscross the city. Fish Creek Park has been designated as a natural area and, as such, is perfect for people looking for a taste of nature. It is a popular place for bird watching, with around 200 different species identified as living here. Other fun activities to do include fishing, swimming, biking and participating in an organized nature tour. There are also a number of heritage buildings in the park that are fun to explore, as well as a visitor center and restaurant.
If you have time left in your day, also try to make your way to Bowness Park. Located in the northwest corner of town, it is a popular spot for picnics or a boat ride in summer, and for skating in winter.