What to Do in Calgary

Gateway to the West, Calgary is known for oil, as a launching point for the Rocky Mountains, and of course for its cowboys. Although it’s not a top destination for most world travelers, many in the West descend on it for the Calgary Stampede in the summer and skiing season in the winter. If the thought of a chilly Canadian winter isn’t your ideal holiday, the summer has many great events to enjoy and places to explore.

The Calgary Stampede

Calgary is known for its cowboy culture, so it only fits that the biggest rodeo in Canada (and possibly North America) takes place here. The Calgary Stampede is ten days packed full of rodeos, carnival rides, farm animal and equipment exhibitions, and more. The city gets into the spirit with street parties, parades, and pancake breakfasts, and everyone dresses in cowboy hats and jeans. A quick piece of traveler’s advice – if you want to see any of the rodeos book your tickets well in advance as they sell out quick!

Prince’s Island Park

On the northern edge of downtown is Prince’s Island Park. Located on the Bow River and connected to downtown by a bridge, Prince’s Island is popular with the locals as a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. The park boasts an outdoor amphitheater, a park, local theater acts performing on the grass, and live concerts and festivals during the summer months.

Calgary Tower

Once the tallest structure in town, the Calgary Tower was the top attraction for locals and travelers from around the world. At 1,228 meters above sea level, a trip to the top gives you a commanding view of the entire city, the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the prairies to the north, east, and south. Hungry? The tower has its own restaurant at the top that rotates 360 degrees while you eat!

Heritage Park Historical Village

A throwback to the days of yore, Heritage Park is a historical theme park complete with an old-fashioned steam train, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor (worth the price of admission right there), an 1860’s fur trading post, and staff dressed like it’s the wild west frontier. It’s Canada’s largest living history museum, so if you’re a history buff, this should be on your bucket list for Calgary. If you don’t like history, it’s still an excellent way to spend a sunny afternoon.

View of Banff Alberta Canada from the gondola
View of Banff, Canada from the gondola

Head to the Hills

Calgary lies in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A short drive west and the foothills grow into majestic mountains, perfect for skiing in the winter and hiking and camping in the summer.

A scenic 60-minute drive west of the city lies Banff National Park, over 2,500 square miles filled with pristine forests, waterfalls, beautiful mountains, and Canadian wildlife. The town of Banff is reminiscent of an alpine village, with small specialty shops right next to ski and snowboard shops. It’s grown both in popularity and size in recent years, but it still has that small town feel. And in true Canadian fashion, you can sometimes see brown bears, elk, or deer wandering through town. A breathtaking way to see the whole city is by heading up the gondola. Within 8 minutes you’re at the top of Sulphur Mountain with a stunning view of Banff, the lakes, and six mountain ranges. The gondola ride itself is not for those with a fear of heights or anxiety problems.

Travel further along the Trans-Canada highway, and you’ll wind up in Lake Louise, a small town in the midst of the mountains with some of the most spectacular views in the Rockies. Known more for its hotel Chateau Lake Louise, the town itself is a small, laid back place nestled in amongst the majestic Rockies. If you’re into hiking, boating, kayaking, and mountaineering, then this is the perfect place to set up base.

A view of Lake Louise, Canada
A view of Lake Louise, Canada

Calgary Zoo

One of the best and largest zoos in Western Canada, the Calgary Zoo regularly has exhibits featuring some of the world’s more exotic animals. In addition to the special exhibits, they have many mainstays.

  1. The Penguin Plunge – an enclosed destination mimicking the cold environment of the Antarctic with icy water, snow-covered rocks, and chilly air. They even add flicking Aurora Australis to make the many penguins feel at home. The Gentoo Penguins, Humboldt Penguins, King Penguins, and Rockhopper Penguins seem to like it.
  2. Canadian Wilds – forget wandering across Canada to see the wildlife, the Calgary Zoo has them all there waiting for you. From wolves sunning themselves, eagles in treetops, and moose, cougars, bighorn sheep and bears splashing about in the ponds, it’s a great display of Canadian wildlife.
  3. Destination Africa – forget the long flights and expensive airline tickets, the Calgary Zoo has an excellent and realistic exhibit that goes from the grasslands of the Savannah to the hot and humid rainforests. From hippos to gorillas, from lions to giraffes, it’s like being on a safari in the midst of Calgary.
  4. Eurasia – Europe and Asia is a myriad of lands, climates, and environments. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, Eurasia is a wonderment of everything. The exhibit includes red pandas, Bactrian camels, Japanese macaques, tigers, and more.
  5. Prehistoric Park – don’t worry this isn’t Jurassic Park. The zoo has an exhibit that pays homage to when Alberta was populated by dinosaurs – Tyrannosaurus Rex, Apatosaurus, and Stegosaurus to name a few. It’s a great way to see them in what would have been their natural habitat.

The zoo is right on the subway system (the C Train) and easy to get to no matter where you’re staying. If you want to see everything, plan on spending the better part of a day exploring.

From wildlife to natural beauty to your typical tourist attractions and the Rodeo, Calgary is a great city to spend a few days exploring. It’s long been a favorite travel destination in the west and prairies, and it’s now gaining attention from international travelers.

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