The skyscrapers of downtown Calgary seem out of place rising unexpectedly from the shallow Bow River Valley. They contrast sharply with the dry, flat prairie stretching off to the east and south, and are dwarfed by the jagged ramparts of the Rocky Mountains looming to the west. Pinched between the slopes of one of the world's most rugged mountain ranges and the soft, fertile waves of the grasslands, Calgary is a city constantly on the move, rarely pausing to catch its collective breath before the next boom sweeps it off its feet.
The city sprawls from the foothills of the Rockies in the northwest to the rolling hills and farm country of the southeast. It is divided into four quadrants intersecting at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, which meet at right angles in the city center. Center Street runs north to south, and Center Avenue east to west, with all streets laid out in a grid expanding outwards from the center.
Less than a century old, the city hasn't had time to develop a rich heritage, but instead, has built a rough and ready character full of youth that thrives on spectacle and excess. Calgary's downtown area is bustling and always on the move. From the noise and bravado of the
The Southwest extends from the forests of Kananaskis Country to the office towers of downtown, and is a mix of residential and business districts. It includes the natural beauty of
The Southeast is home to vast oil refineries, fabrication plants and heavy industry, as well as trendy new housing developments and the world famous
The Northeast is separated from the rest of the city by the Deerfoot Trail, a freeway which carries most of Calgary's commuter traffic and is one of the most dangerous roads in Canada. Comprised mostly of older working-class neighborhoods interspersed with industrial areas, the Northeast is the place to find factory-outlet shopping, as well as the
Northwest In the Northwest you can find many of the city's academic institutions and athletic facilities, as well as its upscale residential districts. Both the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology are located here, as well as the
Calgary is a city that has always thrived on adventure, from the cowboy antics of the first ranchers to the rough and tumble oil booms to the looming slopes of Banff National Park, which have tempted and challenged adventurers from all over the globe for the last century. It is not surprising then that the majority of excursions in and around the city glorify the great outdoors, from the deep powder of mountain ski resorts to the world famous trout fishing on the Bow River. Don't be alarmed if you feel that you aren't the adventurous sort—there are hundreds of more sedate ways to see the city.
Tour One: Walking
When you first arrive in town, the fastest way to get oriented is to take a trip to the top of the Calgary Tower, where the entire city is spread out over 600 feet below. The restaurant and lounge in the observation deck rotate slowly, giving you a 360-degree view. Exploring the city on foot is easy if you take advantage of the paved walking and cycling trails linking downtown with most of the residential areas and municipal parks. From the broad, tree-lined boulevards separating Eau Claire Market and the Bow River to the twisting walkways of Fish Creek Provincial Park, it is possible to ride from one end of the city to the other without ever leaving a bike path. If you feel like a gentle stroll along the riverfront, Prince's Island Park along the Bow River provides a quick getaway from the bustle of the downtown streets. Bicycle and in-line roller skate rentals are available during the summer, and maps issued by the city detail routes and points of interest.
Tour Two: Off the Beaten Path
If you want to get off the beaten path and see parts of the mountains invisible from the tour buses, guided horseback rides are offered at several ranches in Kananaskis Country. These rides last anywhere from an hour to several days, and are relatively inexpensive. Some ranches also offer bed and breakfast facilities for those wishing to stay overnight.
Heritage Park Historical Village and Fort Calgary Historic Park are two sites that allow you to discover the pioneer way of life with turn of the century buildings, artifacts, and guides dressed in period costume. The Glenbow Museum details the history of Western Canada, as well as its exhibits on cultures the world over.
The Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park features a recreation of life in Alberta 60 million years ago, complete with life-sized dinosaurs. If you want to take a drive in the country, visit the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, a small town two hours north of Calgary. This famous museum is a World Heritage Site, and is the site of hundreds of dinosaur fossil discoveries.
Tour Three: Outdoor Sports
A relaxing time can be had floating down the Bow River, which runs from Banff to Calgary, in a canoe, raft or drift boat. At Chinook River Sports, guides are available to help you navigate the twisting channels, and they can show you the best places to fish for the famous Bow River brook trout. Hunters seeking antelope, white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep in Kananaskis Country can secure the services of a guide through one of several outfitting companies in the area.
Canada Olympic Park, site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is open for tours year round; its most impressive sites include the 90-mile ski jump and the bobsled track. The top of the ski jump tower is the highest point in Calgary, and can be rented out for parties and conventions. The Bobsled Bullet is a modified bobsled that you can ride at speeds of over 55 miles an hour.
For an aerial view of the city, hot air balloons and operators at Rainbow Balloons Over Calgary can be rented to gently waft you over the city. A balloon ride can last from an hour to an entire day, and is the most peaceful and relaxing way to take in the city, the mountains rising to the west, and the prairie gently rolling away to the east.
The city of Calgary was incorporated as a city in 1894, but it is estimated that the Bow River Valley has been inhabited for the last 10,000 years. At the end of the last Ice Age, the ancestors of the present-day native tribes made their way across the Bering Sea from Siberia, traveling down through Alaska before settling in the Rocky Mountain foothills. There they formed the Blackfoot, Sarcee, Blood, Stoney and Shaganappi nations, and subsisted on the seasonal migrations of American buffalo herds. Their way of life remained relatively unchanged until the late 1870s, when Europeans hunted the buffalo to near-extinction. With the buffalo gone, the natives began trapping beaver and other fur-bearing mammals for the Hudson's Bay and North-West Trading companies, who set up trading posts in the Bow Valley and at Rocky Mountain House to the northwest. The local furs were especially prized by designers in Paris and New York for their richness and quality, and commanded high prices from the traders.
This lucrative market lured opportunists from the United States, who began selling cheap bootleg whiskey to the traders and native trappers. The resulting anarchy inspired the parliament to create the North-West Mounted Police (now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 1893. This same force was dispatched to build Fort Calgary and restore order later in 1875. Meanwhile, farmers were beginning to move into the fertile Alberta prairies. The first settler in the area of what is now Calgary was John Glenn and his family. The Glenns were situated near Elbow River where Fish Creek Park is currently.
In the late 1800s, Western Canada was still mostly wilderness and the Canadian government was afraid that the United States might try to annex the as-yet-undefined provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. To unite the nation, a railroad was proposed stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Construction began in Canada in 1881 and reached Calgary in 1883. It drastically changed the nature of the city, transforming it from a remote frontier outpost into a bustling jumping-off point for the settling of the Western Prairies.
The Calgary townsite had the good fortune to be built at the entrance to the Kicking Horse Pass, one of the few passages through the sheer eastern wall of the Rocky Mountains. The 10,000-12,000 foot-high peaks denied access to a railway all along their thousand-mile length, except for a narrow valley which led from Calgary into the heart of British Columbia. This meant that the railroad had to be routed through Calgary, which became a major supply station during the construction process. Hotels, saloons and shops sprang up to serve the construction workers, and the first train loads of immigrant farmers and ranchers began pouring in. The fertile plains to the west of Calgary made ideal grain farming territory, while the rich and abundant natural grasses also produced a grade of beef unequaled in North America. In 1894 the City of Calgary was incorporated with a population of 3,900. It grew slowly until the event occurred that would determine the city's direction for the rest of the century. In 1914, just before the start of the First World War, huge reserves of oil were discovered in the surrounding hillsides. Half the local ranchers became instantly wealthy, and a boom rocked the city. When the demand for oil dried up after the war, recession set in and many residents set off to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Starting with its first show in 1912, the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" also known as the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede finally became an annual event in 1923 when Calgary Stampede joined forces with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition. Originally started by an American promoter and four local ranchers seeking to revive the floundering local economy, this celebration of cowboy culture and the ranching lifestyle became the most celebrated festival in Western Canada. The rodeo competitions are still a showcase of the best and toughest cowboys and cowgirls in the world.
As the Second World War was winding down, a vast oilfield was discovered to the north, near Edmonton, ushering in a new boom. While most of the actual drilling and processing of the oil was centered around Edmonton, most company headquarters, refineries and related industries chose locations closer to the railroad in Calgary.
In the 1990s, many of Canada's largest corporations moved their head offices from the more traditional business centers of Montreal and Toronto, and have set up shop in downtown Calgary. The electronics and e-commerce industries have found the community appealing, and are now a driving force behind the city's development.
When finding a place to stay in Calgary, your choice of activities will likely play a major factor in picking an area to stay. The most luxurious accommodations, which are also surrounded by the best dining and entertainment in town, can be found in the Downtown and Eau Claire districts. For those who desire the peace and quiet of a romantic getaway, one of the hundreds of bed and breakfasts scattered throughout the city and Rocky Mountain Foothills can satisfy even the most demanding guest. Hotels catering to business travelers and conventions can be found near the Calgary International Airport and in the Banff Trail area. The more adventurous may prefer the lodging in the Bowness region for its proximity to the mountains of Banff and Kananaskis Country. Downtown
Built by the Canadian National rail company, the first major hotel in Calgary wined and dined investors before introducing them to the splendor of the mountains. The Palliser Hotel still stands as a monument to the faded railroad history that first put Calgary on the map. Although airplanes have replaced trains in transporting travellers to Banff, the Palliser continues to provide luxurious accommodations for those who desire nothing but the best, along with such newer hotels as the Sheraton Cavalier and the Westin Calgary. Other good choices are the comfortable Sandman Hotel, the classic Calgary Marriott Hotel and the elegant Regency Suites Hotel Calgary.
Adventurers and skiers on their way to Banff can watch the rising sun blaze scarlet off the eastern slopes of the Rockies from the balconies of the Bowness hotels. Conveniently located beside the Trans-Canada Highway directly across from Canada Olympic Park, these hotels offer easy access to the mountains while still allowing you the pleasures of Calgary nightlife. These hotels are best suited to travelers with their own vehicles, as it is a lengthy bus ride to downtown or a C-Train station and taxi service is often slow to arrive this far from the city center.
If you want to be right in the thick of the action, the hotels along the Macleod Trail Strip are located amongst the biggest shopping centers and nightclubs in Calgary, and are only a five-minute drive from the Stampede Grounds, the Saddledome and Downtown. Most of these hotels are moderately priced franchises of large international chains, and are a good place to stay while enjoying the sporting events and festivals in the Stampede area. There are several C-Train stations close to the hotels, which allow for quick and easy access to downtown. The Carriage House Inn, Blackfoot Inn and EconoLodge South have well-appointed rooms with excellent guest service. The Howard Johnson Express Inn-Calgary and the Stetson Village Inn are two other no-frills options that offer guests spectacular views. The Best Western Calgary Centre Inn is a popular choice among families with small children.
The Banff Trail hotels cater to business travelers who want to be close to the downtown business district, but want a more affordable stay with modern amenities. These hotels are also popular with football fans, as they are right across the street from McMahon Stadium and the University of Calgary. Early reservations are very important during the football playoffs in October and November when exuberant fans flood the area. The decked-out lounge at the Quality Inn University is popular with guests, while the Super 8 Motel is located near many attractions, such as Olympic Park. Those staying at the Bow River House or the Inn on Crowchild are able to get downtown in just minutes.
This area is filled with accommodation mostly of the B&B variety. You'll feel right at home; you might even have a private balcony, the use of a kitchen, laundry facilities or a complimentary breakfast thrown in. Barb's Bed & Breakfast, the Bed & Breakfast Inn of Calgary and Betty's Bed & Breakfast are all excellent choices. If you're looking to stay for the longer-term, check out the apartment-style quarters at the Pinnacle, where guests have a full kitchen, a housekeeper and laundry service.
There are many places to stay off the beaten path. Try the Delta Calgary or the Holiday Inn Calgary if you'd like to stay close to the airport. The deluxe Greenwood Inn & Suites, Coast Plaza Hotel and Four Points Sheraton Hotel & Suites Calgary West offer spacious, high-quality rooms with features like jacuzzis and fireplaces. B&B's are also aplenty. Along River Ridge B&B is close to many shops and restaurants, and the Edwardian-period architecture and details of the quiet Bankview House B&B offers a nice break from the noise of the city.