First-time visitors to Alberta bracing themselves for another underwhelming central Canadian city are often flummoxed by Edmonton. Despite advance publicity regaling everything from dirty oil sands to North America's largest mall, Alberta's often ignored capital is more refined than many outsiders imagine. Sure, there are the glitzy petroleum-funded towers of downtown, predictable urban sprawl and plenty of SUV-clogged highways to negotiate, but in contrast to its longtime archrival to the south (Calgary), Edmonton has carved a distinctive cultural niche. Count on a large annual calendar of festivals, the redbrick and vaguely bohemian neighborhood of Old Strathcona, some little-heralded Ukrainian heritage, and a huge swath of riverside parkland that cuts through the downtown district like a pair of green lungs.
The North Saskatchewan River divides Edmonton in half. To the north is the downtown area, which is centered on 101st Ave, or Jasper Ave as it is called. To the south is Old Strathcona, once a separate city but now an independently minded neighborhood devoid of high-rises and overflowing with art, culture and style.
Giant-sized West Edmonton Mall is to the west, hidden in suburbia and best experienced in small doses.