Calgary, a metropolis of a million people that stretches along the banks of the Bow River, is the epitome of cosmopolitan cool.
You may know this city for its ranching roots, forest of spiky skyscrapers, and enticing location as the gateway to the Rockies and Alberta’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites. But there’s much more to uncover, like its walkable urban villages, acclaimed architecture, and hyper-local cuisine that are all points of pride among its residents. Spring is an ideal time to discover Calgary’s spirited side. This guide is all you need to be charmed by this friendly city on a spring weekend getaway.
ICONS TO DISCOVER
Central Library: Calgary’s dazzling new architectural icon that connects the East Village with downtown has quickly become a community gathering place. The six-story Central Library was one reason why The New York Times included Calgary on its 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. You can take an architecture tour of the library designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta and Canadian firm DIALOG, which features a sweeping archway made of Western redwood cedar and a curved timber shell that recalls the region’s Chinook cloud formations. Public art abounds such as the electromagnetic sculpture TRIO by Christian Moeller and installations by Indigenous artists.
Bow River Pathway: Calgary’s storied past and modern-day life mingle alongside the historic Bow River where you can wander 30 miles of paved pathways. Drop by communities such as historic Kensington, which has masses of restaurants and funky boutiques, and discover landmarks like Fort Calgary, the city’s 1875 birthplace and site of Markings, an interactive sculpture and tribute to Calgary’s founders. Nearby is Prince’s Island Park, an urban playground with natural wetlands, lush hiking (or cross-country skiing) trails, and tranquil places to plop down with a picnic basket from the award-winning River Cafe.
Studio Bell: Composed of nine interconnected buildings designed to evoke “acoustic vessels,” Studio Bell is an alluring addition to trendy East Village. This massive structure clad in metallic-glazed terracotta tiles is home to the National Music Centre, four Canadian Music Halls of Fame, and a museum filled with some 2,000 artifacts and rare musical instruments. Check out Elton John’s songwriting piano and memorabilia from Canadian artists Drake, Shania Twain, and Leonard Cohen. Go behind the scenes with a backstage pass tour to see the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio (RSM) and watch musicians demo instruments from NMC’s eclectic collection.
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Eau Claire Distillery: Take a scenic drive to Eau Claire Distillery to discover (and taste) farm-to-glass spirits made from Rocky Mountain spring water, Alberta-grown barley and rye, and native plants. Located in the Turner Valley about 45 minutes from Calgary, this certified farm distillery (similar to an estate winery) uses horses in its operations. Sample its award-winning single-batch malt whisky (Alberta’s first) and Prickly Pear EquineOx, a barley-based spirit infused with a spiky cactus species native to Alberta.
Burwood Distillery: Curious to taste honey-based spirits? Head to Burwood Distillery in Calgary’s Highland Park neighborhood. During a tour, learn how the crew uses 100 per cent raw Alberta honey to distill its honey eau de vie and medica, a local take on the traditional Croatian spirit. Then sip a bit of each in the tasting room and cocktail lounge and dine on delicious farm-to-table foods.
Confluence Distilling: This Manchester neighborhood distillery is all about making community connections. Confluence Distilling is committed to solely using local ingredients, whether sourced from family farmers or handpicked in the wild. You can taste the terroir in its Manchester Dry Gin, a delicate balancing act of botanicals such as juniper, Saskatoon berries, and wild rose. Headwater Vodka, distilled from Canada Prairie Spring Red Wheat, is the perfect base spirit for a classic Caesar — Canada’s national cocktail and its version of the Bloody Mary — which was invented in Calgary in 1969.
Modern Steak: Alberta is the heart of Canada’s cattle country and Modern Steak only uses humanely-raised beef from local ranchers, whether grilling its signature Modern Benchmark Black Angus T-bone steaks or bison filets. That local-first ethos extends throughout the menu, which has vegan dishes like root vegetable pave, and wild-caught steelhead salmon. Another modern touch? Warm decor, a deliberate departure from typically moody steakhouses, where the handpicked playlist is more Jay-Z than Sinatra.
WaalFlower Kitchen and Cocktails: There’s nothing shy about the menu at this new restaurant that occupies the 100-year-old old De Waal building in the lively Bridgeland neighborhood. At Waalflower seasonal ingredients are the stars of dishes like lamb tartare paired with pickled beets and Alberta strip loin accompanied with slow-cooked mushrooms. The cocktail menu offers the tried-and-true, plus creative concoctions like the Waalflower, a mix of Drambuie, rose liqueur, yuzu, and lemon juice.
Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market: Upscale food hall meets farmers market at this new culinary destination in the Lake Bonavista community. Situated in a modern space, the Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market brings together an exciting array of local restaurants, street-food vendors, and artisanal purveyors. Chow down on comfort food at Waffles and Chix, indulge in couture confections at Adila Chocolaterie (try the maple fudge), and get your greens slurping a cold-pressed juice at Juice Because.
Cycle the city: With the largest network of bike paths in North America, Calgary is ideal for exploring on two wheels. Get a bike from Nomad Mobile Gear Rental, map out your route (check out Calgary by Bike), and hit the flat pathway. Soon you’ll see local life playing out in chic cafes and verdant parks. For a mix of urban adventure and escape, pedal parts of the 86-mile Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, which winds through 55 communities and scenic areas such as Edworthy Park and 12 Mile Coulee, formerly a mail drop on an old stagecoach run.
Nose Hill Natural Environment Park: Calgary is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains (Kananaskis County is just an hour’s drive away), but you can find wilderness right in the city. Draped over four square miles, Nose Hill Natural Environment Park is an otherworldly place where you can hike grassland trails, spot pocket gophers and porcupines, and gawk at “glacial erratics,” like the rock that was a remnant of Mount Edith Cavell 80 miles away in Jasper National Park. Take time to explore archeological sites like the stone tipi rings that were considered sacred places for burials and ceremonies. There’s also a modern medicine wheel built in 2015 by the Siksikaitsitapi or Blackfoot Nation.
Surf the Bow River: Get gnarly on the Bow by taking a surfing lesson and riding the beginner-friendly 10th Street wave. The vibe is low key and the deep-water channel is safe for newbies. If you want to focus on Calgary’s sparkling skyscrapers and inner-city views, slide into the seat of a kayak, where you’ll get an up-close perspective of landmarks like the tube-shaped Peace Bridge (an unsupported structure). For more leisurely exploration, take a raft tour that depar ts from Pumphouse Theatre (a fun performing arts venue) and ends at Pearce Estates Park.
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Paul Hardy Design: Using fabrics typically reserved for special occasions (think cashmere “burlap” and raw-edge shearling) in everyday clothing is the hallmark of Paul Hardy Design’s eponymous fashion collections. The Calgary-based fashion (and interior) designer has dressed celebs such as model Diane Krueger and U2 guitarist, The Edge.
House of Nonie: This Calgary-born fashion brand launched in 2009 by designer Nina Kharey has gained a loyal following for its ready-to-wear blouses, dresses, and more. The spotlight got even brighter when Megan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, stepped out in House of Nonie’s sleeveless trench coat during a public appearance. Kharey’s tailored designs draw inspiration from Europe and Asia but all items are ethically-produced in Canada.
East Village Junction Pop-up: In late spring, a vacant downtown lot is transformed into a vibrant community hub. Check out East Village Junction Pop-up’s container boutiques selling restored vintage bicycles from Rath Bicycle, chocolate-almond butters from Munch, letterpress stationary from Calgary-based Wrinkle & Crease, among other unexpected treasures. Then stroll to the central square to watch live performances onstage while kicking back with a bite from the rotating selection of YYC Food Trucks.
Lauren Bagliore: Luxurious clothing can be modern and edgy, as evidenced by Lauren Bagliore, a women’s fashion brand that’s feted for its soft leather coats, hand-painted dresses, and ultra-cool leggings. Bagliore cut her teeth working with big-name fashion labels such as Vivienne Westwood and Zac Posen before opening her concept shop in Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest neighborhood.
Glenbow Museum: Get fully immersed in western Canada’s cultural history and contemporary life at the Glenbow Museum. This Calgary institution has amassed more than a million artworks, photographs, documents, and objects in its permanent collection. Two upcoming explore the idea of identity in dramatically different ways. Christian Dior’s couture gowns represent the transformative power of fashion, while Meryl McMaster Confluence delves into the artist’s Indigenous heritage and identity expressed through her mysterious self-portraits.
Esker Foundation: Art is incubating at this private contemporary gallery that invites emerging artists to develop new works in its Project Space. Esker Foundation located this alternative exhibition venue at street level to engage the community in contemporary art. The main gallery supports three shows each year, like the political and poetic Among All These Tundras. These works from contemporary Indigenous artists who live in the circumpolar north are an expression of shared history and the current issues facing the Arctic peoples, land, language, sovereignty, and resurgence.
Sled Island: Soak up the indie spirit at Sled Island, a five-day community arts and music fest featuring more than 250 bands. Indie singer-songwriter Julien Baker will be guest-curating this year’s event, where you can expect to experience sensory overload – in a good way. Club-hop between 30-plus venues scattered around Calgary, whether being entertained by cutting-edge comedians, seeing short independent films, discovering contemporary art, listening to music by performers like punk rockers Kid Congo Powers + the Pink Monkey Birds, whose founding member, Kid Congo, previously played with The Cramps and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.