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Calgary is situated on the banks of the beautiful Bow River at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, 200 miles (322km) north of the US border. Although Alberta's second city, Edmonton, is the state capital, Calgary is its largest, offering all the trappings of urban life as the territory's commercial and cultural centre, along with the pleasure of enjoying the dramatic countryside that surrounds the city.
Splendid national parks flourishing on Calgary's doorstep act as a magnet for hikers, fishermen and lovers of the great outdoors. Set on the Trans-Canada highway, the city is also the gateway to the Rocky Mountains resorts which attract skiers from all over the continent during winter.
The downtown area of Calgary not only serves as a shopping, entertainment and cultural hub for locals, but it also welcomes four million visitors a year who come for the annual attractions and festivals, wonderful parks and open spaces, and a selection of excellent shops, restaurants and bistros.
The city is perhaps best known for the Calgary Stampede, a world-class cowboy carnival and rodeo that draws more than a million people every year to watch the action and enjoy the accompanying festivities.
The site on which Calgary sits today is historically home to the native Blackfoot people, with the first European settlers not arriving until 1860. Colonel James Macleod established the small trading post, naming it Fort Calgary after Calgary Bay on his native Isle of Mull in Scotland. The Pacific Railway reached the town in 1883, but it was not until the discovery of oil in Turner Valley, 22 miles (35km) southwest of the city, that the population started to explode.
There's also a certain cowboy feel to the city. Wander the streets in your Stetson beneath the sparkling skyscrapers built on the back of the oil boom or dine on juicy steaks in a saloon with country music playing in the background. It will be hard to discern whether you're in Calgary or Texas...
There's a lot to see and do in Calgary, which means it attracts all types of travellers. It's both a great stop for those wanting to explore the surrounding wilderness while also an attractive option for a holiday of gastronomic indulgence and cultural education.
The Glenbow Museum is Canada's largest museum, with more than 93,000 square feet (8,640 sq metres) of exhibition space, spread over three floors. It houses more than a million objects that fill up its 20 galleries and showcase the colourful history of Canada's West, with exhibits focusing on its First Nations to the arrival of European settlers. A special feature is the Blackfoot Gallery, which tells the story of the Nitsitapi people through interactive displays, artefacts and a circular narrative path.
There are also some 28,000 artworks dating from the 19th century to the present on display in the museum. Glenbow's library is a treasure trove of reference materials on western Canada, with the Glenbow Archives serving as a major research centre for historians, writers, students and the media.
Canada's second largest zoo is home to more than 1,000 animals from all over the world, as well as a variety of fish and insects in natural habitat enclosures. It also features a prehistoric park with 19 life-size animatronic dinosaurs on display. The botanical gardens include a 20,000 square foot (1,858 sq m) conservatory, butterfly garden and a special Rocky Mountains exhibit featuring many indigenous Alberta animals, including the endangered Whooping Crane. The zoo is situated close to the downtown area, on St George's Island, and is a wonderful treat for the whole family.
This historical site chronicles Calgary's history between 1875 and the 1940s, allowing visitors to step back in time and explore the early days of the city through interactive exhibits, costumed interpreters, hands-on activities, guided tours and an entertaining audio-visual presentation. Fort Calgary is situated on the site of an original North West Mounted Police Fort and is designed to preserve the history of the founding, development and growth of the city. The 40-acre riverside park includes the reconstructed 1875 fort, 1888 barracks, the interpretive centre, and Deane House Historic Site and Restaurant.
Consisting of eight major glaciers, this massive field of ancient ice is situated near the town of Jasper in the middle of Jasper National Park. The icefield covers 125 square miles (325 sq km) and is estimated to be 1,270ft (385m) deep in places. The icefield feeds four of North America's major river systems: the Columbia, Fraser, Mackenzie and Saskatchewan Rivers, and its meltwaters flow into all three oceans. Tours of the glacier are offered on snowcoaches between April and October each year, and ice-walk tours are also offered by the Jasper Adventure Centre. The icefields are one of Alberta's natural marvels and a must-see for outdoor enthusiasts visiting the region.
Heritage Park is a village of living history, comprising more than 180 exhibitions that attempt to show what life was like in Alberta in the 19th and 20th centuries. Set on 127 beautiful acres of parkland and located just 15 minutes from Calgary's central business district, Heritage Park makes for a worthwhile day trip, especially if you have kids in tow. Highlights include steam train rides and an impressive collection of vintage automobiles. Thousands of genuine historical artefacts have been used in the creation of the park, while other buildings and scenes have been faithfully recreated. Costumed interpreters educate and entertain visitors, bringing history to life.
Canada Olympic Park was a major venue during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games and now hosts skiing and snowboarding programmes every winter. It also houses the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum, and is frequently used as a venue for festivals and events in Calgary. Known to locals as COP, it remains a chief tourist attraction for casual visitors and winter sports enthusiasts alike. The park is operated by WinSport Canada and is used throughout the year. During summer, it is used for sports such as mountain biking, and its obstacle courses and zip lines are also highly popular.
The city's most recognisable structure looming 626 feet (191m) above the city, Calgary Tower is a must-visit landmark. The glass-floored observation deck offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city below, and there's a revolving restaurant too. Tours of the city are offered by guides on the Observation Deck, allowing visitors to take in many of the city's major attractions from their vantage point in the sky. Calgary's Tourist Information Centre is located at the base of the tower, a useful stop for all visitors, and there are also gift shops selling Calgary souvenirs and the like.
Calgary experiences a humid continental climate, warm summers and cold winters, with temperatures often dropping below freezing. The mountains cause Calgary's climate to be rather dry, the little rainfall that does occur falls in summer (June to August).
Winters (December to February) are long and cold and occasionally relieved by a warm wind called a Chinook. Average daily temperatures in Calgary are 62°F (17°C) in summer and 20°F (-7°C) in winter. The weather in Calgary is highly changeable and daily predictions are often off the mark.
Calgary's affluence has meant a restaurant boom that encompasses nearly every worldwide cuisine, so eating out in Calgary can include a range of experiences. The city's specialty is Alberta beef, generally acknowledged to be some of the best in the world. But expect to see elk or bison on the menu as well. There are a range of great international options as well, from sushi and Asian to French and Italian cuisine.
The best Calgary restaurants are generally located within easy distance of the city centre and are concentrated in three areas: the Eau Claire district on Prince's Island, the chic 4th Street and 17th Avenue Mission district, and the downtown area that includes Chinatown and the Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall.
All restaurants in Calgary are smoke-free, even outdoor dining areas. Nearly all restaurants will accept credit cards and Canadian cash, although some will take American dollars at their own discretion. The exchange rate is never in your favour, though. A service gratuity of 10 to 15 percent is expected for good service and is not included in the bill.
Joey's offers a uniquely Calgary take on Italian/Asian fusion, with a selection of pizzas, pastas, steaks, and burgers. Its location is superb and makes for easy access. The atmosphere is always bustling, with both indoor seating and an outdoor patio. Joey's is open Sunday to Thursday from 11am to midnight, and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 1am.
Calgary's 1886 Buffalo Cafe specialises in one thing: breakfast. Locals know it as the place to go for hearty meals to start the day, including the hashbrowns, vegetarian chilli omelette, and breakfast burrito. It's housed in the former site of the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company's offices, built in 1911, overlooking the trendy Eau Claire downtown district. 1886 is open weekdays from 6am to 3pm, and weekends from 7am to 3pm.
The elegant and upmarket Vin Room is a restaurant where everything is designed to complement the wine, from the decor to the menu. The food is predominantly tapas, with fusion options ranging from meat and cheese platters to bison short ribs, fish tacos, and oysters.
Lunch entrees include choices like salads, pasta and steak. They have a number of interesting wines available, with small tasting options before you commit to a glass or bottle. The tables are close together and it gets crowded, so it's always a good idea to call ahead.
Vin Room is located in the chic Mission District. It is open Sunday through Wednesday from 3pm to 10pm, Thursday from 3pm to midnight and Friday and Saturday from 3pm to 1am.
For 10 exciting days each July, the Wild West is celebrated in Calgary when the city comes alive with a celebration of true western hospitality and rousing fun. The Calgary Stampede centres around a myriad of rodeo events that see top professional cowboys compete in bull riding, roping, bareback riding and steer wrestling. Meanwhile, the gathered crowds join in the festivities with pancake breakfasts, square dancing and cheering on a two-hour parade, along with ground-shaking chuckwagon races and a spectacular Grandstand Show extravaganza. The celebration is complemented by other attractions such as an authentic Indian village, recreated frontier town, gambling hall and dazzling fireworks display.
Morningside Music Bridge is a month-long summer classical music programme, established in 1997 to promote interaction between talented Chinese and Canadian music students, and it now attracts students from all over the world. The students earn places in the scholarship programme through a competitive auditioning process, which culminates in concerts featuring both students and faculty that take place throughout July and early August in venues all over Calgary. Classical music enthusiasts will be delighted by the amount of quality recitals on offer.
A well-respected music festival, the Calgary Folk Fest attracts about 50,000 music fans every year to Prince's Island Park. Featuring more than 60 local and international acts and spread across seven stages, the Calgary Folk Music Festival is considered to be a bit of a purist's festival, known for attentive and appreciative audiences.
Calgary's nightlife is thriving, which is no surprise considering more than half of its population is under 30 years old. The most popular nightlife areas are in the city centre, including the lounges, pubs, and restaurants in the Mission district, focusing at the intersection of 4th Street and 17th Avenue. Stephen Avenue is bustling in the early evening as young professionals empty their offices downtown, and you'll find quite a few clubs, pubs, and live music venues there.
There are a number of live music venues, including the Ironwood Stage and Grill in 9th Avenue, which hosts country, blues, and folk bands, while there are establishments catering to the varied tastes of Mount Royal College's students.
Calgary's dance clubs are as varied as its live music, so you'll find offbeat places, which play everything from retro funk to breakbeat, alongside more mainstream entertainment venues. For those who enjoy live comedy, you can visit the Comedy Cave in MacLeod Trail, or the Laugh Shop Comedy Club at the Blackfoot Inn in Blackfoot Trail.
Shopping in Calgary reflects the moneyed population that has grown wealthy with oil booms and big business. You'll find all the major luxury brands represented alongside most western franchises and chain stores at the numerous shopping centres and outlet malls.
The most popular Calgary souvenirs are cowboy hats and other Wild West paraphernalia, easily found at most shopping centres. You'll find more one of a kind items at the Eau Claire Festival Market on Barclay Parade, including fresh produce, independent boutiques, art galleries, and a variety of entertainment options like restaurants, movie theatres, and an arcade.
The Mission District also has eclectic and interesting boutiques and vintage stores, and is the best place to go for Calgary fashion. Nearly every shop in Calgary will accept major credit cards and Canadian money. Most stores will also accept US dollars, but at exorbitant exchange rates.
Getting around in Calgary is easy as most of the city's attractions are concentrated within the city centre. The streets downtown are laid out in a numbered grid with avenues running east to west and streets running north to south, while in outlying areas neighbourhoods have more meandering streets which can be confusing to visitors.
Because of the grid system, walking around downtown Calgary is a simple way to get around. The Eau Claire market area and the Stephen Avenue Mall are pleasant pedestrian-only areas. Calgary's public transport system is efficient and reliable, with a light rail and bus system servicing the city centre. The light rail runs from 4am to midnight every day, and the buses operate from 5am to midnight, with some routes continuing until 1am. There is a fare-free zone in the middle of town, and in other areas a pass can be purchased at many convenience stores.
There are plenty of taxis available, either by hailing them in the street or calling the dispatch. Note that taxis cruise mainly the central areas of the city. Driving in Calgary is relatively stress-free. Many streets are one-way, and streets marked 'transit only' are for public transport vehicles only.
Parking downtown can be scarce and confusing, as the city uses an automated pay system that requires you to enter your zone and license plate number into a pay station. It is often easier to park in a private lot. There are numerous companies from which you can hire a car in Calgary.
The bustling metropolis and vibrant culture is a treat, but sightseeing in Calgary is dominated by the natural wonders that surround the city. Calgary is the gateway to Alberta's many impressive landscapes, which include mountain lakes, rolling prairies, and icy glaciers.
If you do find yourself exploring the city, there are many museums and cultural sites in Calgary worth visiting, all located within easy distance of the city centre. The Glenbow Museum is Alberta's largest history museum, with nearly 30,000 artefacts from Canada's history. It has archives onsite, along with a cafe, shop, and library.
The Tsuu T'ina Museum looks more specifically at the history of the Sarcee tribe, complete with antique headdresses and a model tepee. The Heritage Park Historic Village takes a living look at Canada's history, with an antique midway, old-fashioned bakery and candy store, and authentic steam train among the attractions. Fort Calgary is another place to explore frontier life, with 40 acres of land set up to resemble life in 1875.
Prince's Island Park brings nature into the heart of the city, with fishing sites and a network of hiking and biking trails. The park also features the Eau Claire Market, with its array of funky boutiques, restaurants, theatres, and art galleries. The Olympic Park is also a popular spot for lovers of sports. Whatever visitors enjoy, there is something for everyone in Calgary.
Located within Banff National Park and close to the popular resort towns of Lake Louise and Banff, Moraine is a spectacular glacially-fed lake. Its waters are a vivid turquoise colour due to rock flour, which are tiny particles of suspended sediment. On a clear day, the lake reflects the surrounding mountains in its mirror-smooth azure surface.
There's plenty to see and do in the snow-capped and pine-strewn Valley of the Ten Peaks, including an assortment of scenic hiking trails, kayaking facilities at the Lodge, and an onsite café serving wonderful food and refreshments.
Although not impossible, getting to Moraine can be difficult without a car. Visitors can take a bus to Banff station, and from there either walk the nine miles (14km) to the lake; rent a bicycle; take a taxi; or make use of the Park-run Vista shuttle service, which departs every 30 minutes from the Lake Louise campsite.
The kids will love visiting Calaway Park, western Canada's largest outdoor amusement park. It's the ideal destination for a fun-filled family outing, with thrilling rides and various other entertainment. The outdoor park has been in operation for more than three decades and is greatly enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. It closes during the frosty Alberta winters, but is open seven days a week during the warmer months. Check the calendar on the official website listed below for exact opening times and dates.
A buffalo jump is a ledge or cliff traditionally used to lure stampeding buffalo to their deaths. Head-Smashed-In is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved in the world and was used by the native people for about 6,000 years. Head-Smashed-In not only has a wonderfully felicitous name, but was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It proudly displays exhibitions detailing the life and history of the Blackfoot people, the original inhabitants of the Great Plains region of southern Alberta. It is now a remarkable archaeological site and well worth a visit for any traveller interested in Canadian history.
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