Calgary skyline

Calgary: The Western Canadian City That’s the Gateway to the Rockies

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

October 21, 2023

7 min read

The heart of Canada’s western prairie region, Calgary is the largest and most populated city in the province of Alberta. It’s a growing urban center blessed with some heavy-duty natural beauty just outside of its city limits. Known for its trademark Western hospitality, one of the largest outdoor rodeos in the world, 333 average sunshine days per year, and recognized as one of the most liveable places in the world, Calgary’s youthful population is eager to impress visitors.

And there’s plenty to be impressed by. With its award-winning modern architecture, cutting-edge music festivals, countless craft breweries, easy access to outdoor adventures (including some of Canada’s best skiing), and those spectacular Rocky Mountains framing the west end of the city, Calgary offers plenty of opportunity for urban and natural adventure.

Dive into history

Fort Calgary.

Calgary is a young city by global measures, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t steeped in history. The city sits on traditional Treaty 7 territory and has been the home to the people of the Blackfoot Confederacy and their ancestors for thousands of years. Visitors can learn about Indigenous culture at sites just outside the city such as Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, a museum that details the culture of the Blackfoot People, or the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site, which features an interpretive center detailing the history of Indigenous bison hunting.

European settlers began to really lay down roots in the 1800s, especially after the railroads were built out west. For history lessons on how Calgary grew into the city it is today, there are fun and interactive resources like Fort Calgary (a former North-West Mounted Police outpost built in 1875) or Heritage Park, a living history museum with more than 180 exhibits spanning from the 1860s to the 1950s.

Skiing and hiking in the Rockies

Banff skiing.

Many visitors fly to the Calgary airport and immediately board a shuttle to go to Banff, Canada’s oldest and most famous national park. Strategic travelers use the city as an urban home base, planning day trips to the ski resorts, mountains, and other natural areas within a short drive from Calgary. The rugged snow-capped Rockies are visible from many parts of the city, and it’s nearly impossible for nature lovers to resist their call.

Banff is only about a 1.5-hour drive from Calgary (the mountain town of Canmore is even closer). It’s more than possible to make a day trip out to Sunshine Village, Nakiska, or Norquay for some epic skiing, hike around Moraine Lake or the sparkling turquoise Lake Louise, or just stroll around the charming Banff townsite.

The Calgary airport is also one of the main gateways to British Columbia’s Powder Highway, a route that connects eight alpine ski resorts and over 20 backcountry lodges.

Award-winning architecture

Calgary library.

Like many Western Canadian cities, Calgary is incredibly young and doesn’t have much pre-20th century architecture (many of its earliest buildings were torn down for more modern digs), but it makes up for it with an increasingly interesting modern skyline. The city’s most iconic (and, admittedly, kitschy) landmarks are the saddle-shaped Scotiabank Saddledome arena and the 1968 Calgary Tower, featuring a rotating restaurant and observation deck that offers an expansive view of the city.

Calgary has been busy upping its architecture over the last few years, with new office towers as well as builds like the National Music Centre in Studio Bell, a multi-towered music museum covered in gleaming terra cotta tiles. That’s just next door to the Central Library, an award-winning $245-million wedge-shaped public space that combines geometric angularity with sweeping wooden curves.

Get your cowboy hat on

Calgary stampede.

Lifelong Calgarians don’t tend to love the city’s “Cowtown” nickname (a nod to all of Southern Alberta’s cattle ranches), but it’s impossible to ignore Calgary’s air of urban cowboy chic. Cowboy culture is on full display during July’s Calgary Stampede, a 10-day rodeo and festival that features a midway and parade, packed concert tents, free pancake breakfasts all over the city, and country music blasting from every restaurant and bar.

Wannabe cowpokes can get their fix any time of the year by taking a drive down the Cowboy Trail, a 400+ mile road that passes fields full of grazing cattle and leads to guest ranches, trail riding, and historic sites. Stop in at places like Boundary Ranch for a trail ride or Bar U Ranch National Historic Site for a taste of cowboy history among the 100-year-old ranch buildings.

A taste of place

While the mountains to the west get all the fanfare, the agricultural regions to the city’s east, south, and north provide plenty of bounty for Calgary’s busy restaurants. Steakhouses are always a good choice, as Alberta is cattle country and its more than 18,000 beef producers have the largest market share in Canada. Locally owned Modern Steak can even trace your steak back to the bull that sired it.

But there are other ways to get to know Calgary through food. Get a taste of ultra-fresh locally grown bounty at spots like River Cafe and Rouge, both of which specialize in local ingredients, like bison, regional fish, and red fife wheat.

Meanwhile, the city’s diverse population (citizens hail from more than 240 different ethnic origins and over 20% Calgarians identify as visible minorities with large South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino populations) is reflected in a huge collection of Vietnamese restaurants, including Một Tô, which offers creative takes on traditional classics. Other global cultures are represented at places like the pan-Asian Foreign Concept and Latin American hot spot Fortuna’s Row.

Grain to glass

Calgary whisky.

Eating the grain grown in the prairies surrounding Calgary is fun, but drinking it can be even better. Nearly a decade ago the province of Alberta began allowing for small beer and spirit producers and Calgarians have since gone wild, with over 40 craft breweries and boutique distilleries popping up in every area of the city.

A self-guided tour (by cab if you’re drinking) will reveal everything from the barrel-aged sour beers at The Establishment (the 2021 Canadian Brewery of the Year) to the tried-and-true brews at Village Brewery. On the spirits side, you’ve got unique tipples like the eastern European-style honey spirits at Burwood Distillery or the craft brandy and whisky at Bridgeland Distillery. Taprooms must serve food by law, so be sure to indulge in some snacks as you imbibe.

Music city north

The distance between Calgary and other major cities means that Calgary is often missed on major concert tours, so the city has a history of building events that draw international acts while also cultivating a thriving local music scene. Plan a trip to Calgary strategically to hit one of the city’s excellent music festivals, be it the wintertime Block Heater fest, or summer events like the Calgary Folk Music Festival, the alternative Sled Island festival, or even the Stampede, which attracts acts of every genre.

But even if you’re only around between festivals, there’s plenty of opportunity to catch live music in Calgary. The Music Mile is a stretch of more than 20 blues, rock, and jazz clubs that runs through Inglewood (known as Calgary’s oldest neighborhood) towards the National Music Centre. Calgary also boasts a number of concert halls that attract local and international artists, including the downtown Arts Commons and the acoustically outstanding Bella Concert Hall at Mount Royal University.  

Get on the right path

Calgary trail.

While Calgary is often criticized for its urban sprawl, that footprint allows for the most extensive urban pathway system in North America, with over 620 miles of connected trails. Take a stroll along the Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk in the city’s east village or explore farther-flung corners of the city—it’s all connected.

For those in search of a little more action, rafting down the Bow River is a popular summertime activity (bring sunscreen!) and the Calgary Zoo offers lots of space to walk in along with all those lions and tigers and bears. Visitors can also take advantage of Calgary’s Olympic legacy (the city hosted the winter Olympics in 1988) with a ski down the slopes at Canada Olympic Park, just within the city’s western border.

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Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

Freelance Writer

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance journalist. She writes a weekly restaurant column for the Calgary Herald, contributes regularly to CBC radio, and has also written for publications including CNN Travel, the Globe and Mail, and WestJet Magazine. While she loves traveling, Elizabeth is a lifelong Calgarian and loves sharing stories about her home city.

Published October 21, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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