11 Ways to Experience Alberta & Calgary: A Local’s Guide

Nick and Dariece from Goats on the Road share their favorite experiences in Alberta, plus the best places to eat and drink, and festivals to experience in Calgary.

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Photo © iStock/studio-laska

If you’ve heard of Alberta, chances are you know about the popular areas of Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. And, don’t get me wrong, those are absolutely breathtaking places to see, but Alberta has so much more to offer.

Note: The best time to visit Alberta is June–September. It’s possible to visit in the spring and autumn, but it could snow!

Must-See Places in Alberta

Alberta may not have the ocean, but it has stunning mountains, prairies, and lakes. In order to see all that Alberta has to offer, it’s a good idea to rent a car so that you can explore on your own. Alternatively, you can take the Greyhound or Red Arrow buses. If you base yourself in Calgary and Edmonton, you’ll be able to go on day trips from there to see the top attractions in the province.

A few top attractions in Alberta that I haven’t listed below include Moraine Lake, which is a picture-perfect lake near Banff that is perfect for hiking and canoeing. Lake Louise is another amazing lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. In the summer, you can hike, while in the winter, you can ice skate.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

You read that correctly. This UNESCO World Heritage site is where the Native American hunters used to trap and kill buffalo by driving them off the 11-meter-high cliff.

The Head-Smashed-In interpretive center and museum was built into the ancient sandstone cliff and was opened in 1987. Here, they offer tipi camping and hands-on educational workshops to get an insight into First Nations life. There are also a number of special events and native festivals held each year, so check out the calendar to see if your trip coincides with any festivities.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Photo credit: iStock

Columbia Icefield

You won’t want to miss the expansive Columbia Icefield. It’s about 90.75mi² (325 km²) and feeds eight major glaciers, including Athabasca – which is the most visited in North America.

Athabasca Glacier might not be around much longer, visit while there’s still ice! Photo credit: iStock

The City of Calgary

Also referred to as “Cow Town” due to its wild-west culture, Calgary is a diverse city that you won’t want to miss.

With a population of around one million people, a smallish downtown core, and a metroline, getting around Calgary is fairly easy. Another bonus of visiting Calgary is that it gets 332 days of sun each year. Even if it’s freezing cold outside, it’ll be sunny!

The beautiful Bow River slices through the city, with its banks and adjoining parks offering a wonderful place for walking. Or, if you’re visiting in the summer, you can hop in a dinghy and go on a leisurely float down the river with some friends.

The aptly-named Saddledome arena (due to its shape as a saddle!) is the place to go for concerts, sports events, and random events like a monster truck show.

If you’re in Calgary between October and April, don’t miss out on seeing a Calgary Flames hockey game. Grab a terribly strong draft beer from the concession stand and join the wild fans in cheering on the home team.

If rivers, sports, and events aren’t your thing, you can visit the famous 17th Avenue and Eau Claire areas for boutique shopping. Or, enjoy a fantastic view of the city while dining on a succulent Alberta beef steak at the Sky 360 Restaurant atop the Calgary Tower. Whether or not you decide to eat here, don’t miss this view.

Calgary skyline. Photo credit: iStock

Day Trips From Calgary

One of the great things about this city is that you can escape the concrete jungle and head into nature, in just an hour or so.

There are numerous things to do around Calgary – here are some of the best.

Kananaskis Country

In just an hour and a half's drive, you can find yourself surrounded by glacier lakes and pristine forest. This is an excellent spot to go camping. Just do a Google search of the best campsites in Kananaskis and lots of options will come up.  

The Town of Canmore

Only 70 minutes from the city, you’ll find yourself in a beautiful mountain town. Here you can hike, paddle, canoe, fish, golf, rock climb, and much more. Also, from May–October, there’s a weekly market showcasing local produce and meats.

Three Sisters Mountains, Canmore. Photo credit: iStock

Johnston Canyon

Located in Banff National Park, less than two hours from Calgary, you’ll find this beautiful hike. The lower falls is the most popular trip, followed by the upper falls. However, if you continue on for a further 2mi (3.2km), you’ll arrive at the Ink Pots. These are green-colored mineral springs that bubble up to the surface. Leave yourself plenty of time to explore, though: a return trip in Johnston Canyon to the Ink Pots takes around five hours on foot.

Johnston Canyon lower falls. Photo credit: iStock

City Viewpoint

Located just ten minutes from the city center, you’ll find Tom Campbell’s Hill Natural Park. This spot offers an excellent view of the city of Calgary and the Rocky Mountains beyond. 

Drumheller

Just an hour and a half from Calgary, you’ll find yourself surrounded by dinosaur fossils! If prehistoric animals are your thing, don’t miss Drumheller. The Royal Tyrrell Museum offers one of the largest displays of dinosaurs in the world. Want more than fossils? Drumheller and the Badlands have amazing hiking opportunities. This area really is one of Alberta’s best kept secrets.

Hoodoos near Drumheller, Alberta. Photo credit: iStock

Festivals and Events in Calgary

There are events happening in Calgary year-round, but this city really comes alive in the summer months.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Calgarian, Albertan, Canadian, or traveler, you must check out the Calgary Stampede!

The entire city gets into the spirit with many offices even encouraging their staff to dress like a cowboys and girls – complete with boots, hats, and jeans. The main thing that people come to Stampede for is the rodeo, agricultural showcases, chuckwagon races, and many other cowboy-related events. However, it’s so much more than that!

During this ten-day event, you’ll find live country music, a carnival with awesome rides, endless amounts of outdoor beer gardens, daytime partying, pub crawls, and parades.

Basically, the city shuts down for ten days while everyone is having a great time. In 2018, the dates are July 6-15. Don’t miss the Stampede, or as the locals call it: ‘Pede.

Another awesome festival is GlobalFest, which is held on August 16th–25th at Elliston Park each year. Tickets are very affordable at just C $10 (US $8) each if you’re an early bird, or you can get a pass for C $45 (US $36). The firework show is incredible. Bring a blanket or a camping chair and enjoy the spectacle.

Other summer events you won’t want to miss are the Pride Parade, Reggae festival, Inglewood Sunfest, and the Lilac Festival.

Where to Eat and Drink in Calgary

Over the years, Calgary has really updated its foodie scene. If you’re looking for some fun spots to hangout, filled with restaurants and bars, don’t miss 17th Avenue, Kensington, Eau Claire, and the downtown core.

Calgary is quite a sprawling city, so no matter where you are, you’ll find a pub, restaurant, or bar nearby! Plus, because the city is so multicultural, you’ll find a wide variety of cuisines on offer.

If you're looking for a fun, casual place for drinks, you’ll want to check out the Ship & Anchor on 17th Ave. where people sit shoulder to shoulder on picnic tables outside. For craft beer, check out Brewsters, Mill Street Brew Pub and Trolley 5.

Bonus: For a fun night out complete with a mini-golf course running through the bar, big screen TVs blaring the latest game, virtual golf and arcades, check out Shanks bar.

For a nice meal out, check out the Vintage Chophouse & Tavern which has amazing steaks and roast chicken in a classy setting. For rustic and delicious Italian, head to Bonterra. If you’re after authentic Vietnamese or Chinese cuisine, head to Chinatown near Eau Claire. Not only is the food delicious, but it’s very affordable.

Getting Around Calgary

The city has a pretty good transportation system including buses and a C-Train. However, calling a taxi or an Uber is the easiest way to get around the city itself. To get to the surrounding towns, rent a car for the day so you can stop and take photos whenever you want.

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