There are few places that embrace the ‘city for all seasons’ moniker better than Calgary. When warm Chinook winds blow in off the Rocky Mountains, the temperature can jump by double digits within hours. Meanwhile, the city enjoys great patches of distinct seasons – everything from true, powdery winters to breezy and carefree summers. Regardless the weather, generations of resilient Calgarians have built up a wide variety of activities that take advantage of every possible temperature twist and turn. Chilly weather brings to life well-groomed ski runs in the Canada Olympic Park, while toasty sunshine invites cold beers on a sunny patio on 17th Avenue.
As the business hub of Canada’s oil industry, Calgary has a reputation as a real driving city. But unbeknownst to drivers racing through on the Trans-Canada, it also has the most comprehensive network of urban parkways in North America. Close to 800km of trails have been developed purely for walkers, cyclists and other non-motorized traffic, and, defying inclement weather, almost half of them are snow-cleared in the winter.
The most scenic section of path parallels the mighty Bow River as it meanders through downtown. This path pleasantly steers visitors toward the wooded expanse of Princes Island Park, an urban oasis popular with picnickers and lovebirds on pleasant days. Just west of the island stands the Peace Bridge, a futuristic tube-like structure completed in 2012 to provide a fast walking-cycling connection between downtown and the trendy neighbourhood of Kensington.
If you’ve got unlimited supplies of energy, you can follow the Bow River 20km south through a patchwork of waterside greenery to Fish Creek Provincial Park, the largest urban park in Canada. Embark on a summer trip here for swimming in Sikome Lake. Spring and fall bring an abundance of migratory birds, while winter offers excellent ungroomed cross-country skiing.
For bike hire call Nomad Mobile Gear Rentals (www.nomadgearrentals.com) who’ll deliver a bike to your hotel and pick it up afterwards.
A versatile sports paradise
Calgarians appear to be congenitally accustomed to life below -20ºC, keeping warm by skiing, something you can do without even leaving the city limits if you head to Canada Olympic Park. With its emblematic 90m-high ski-jump visible for miles around, the multi-purpose park was built for the 1988 Winter Olympics when it hosted the ski-jumping, bobsleigh and luge events.
Thanks to regular upgrades, the facility has kept up with the times. Competitive athletes still use the facilities to train, including world-class terrain park with its two skill-honing half-pipes. The park’s real novelty is probably its public bobsleigh rides. With a trained expert on the brakes, you can descend the icy run at speeds of 120km/h in what could be the most hair-raising 60 seconds of your life.
Befitting of Calgary’s all-season reputation, the Olympic Park opens its chair-lift to mountain-bikers in the summer while the ski jump morphs into North America’s fastest zip-line. On top of that, since 2011, the park has co-hosted Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Calgary is an urban landscape tempered by the gentle Bow River, which runs right through the core of downtown. This area boasts a multitude of inner-city neighbourhoods whose jumble of bars and cafes are great attractions for all types of travellers. These enclaves are as inviting on a picture perfect crisp January weekend as they are on a hot afternoon in June in the middle of a Stanley Cup run.
One of the closest to downtown and the most rambunctious in terms of nightlife is the Beltline district, a rainbow of boisterous hockey season crowds, beer hall-style bars, a growing network of bike lanes and emerging locavore restaurants. Inglewood, east of downtown, is the city’s most consciously hip neighbourhood with antique shops, indie boutiques and some esoteric eating options. This part of town is where Calgary was founded in 1875 and a replica of its original fort stands on the neighbourhood’s western edge.
Kensington, north of the Bow River, is an upscale neighbourhood that wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco. Embellished with bistros, ethnic eateries, vinyl shops, and bookish coffee bars, it has a tangible community spirit and is sometimes referred to by locals as ‘Kensington Village’.
Food for all seasons
Traditionalists still call it Cowtown, but dip your metaphoric fork into Calgary’s fast-moving restaurant scene and you’ll find that Albertan beef isn’t the only thing propping up the menu these days. Calgary is Canada’s third most cosmopolitan city after Toronto and Vancouver and the diversity is reflected in the food. Ethnic restaurants abound – Vietnamese soup (pho) is a recent trend - but it’s the burgeoning farm-to-table movement that has really raised the game. Envelope-pushing restaurants like Blink, Model Milk and River Cafe (www.river-cafe.com) all share similar food philosophies: know your farmer, work hard at sustainability, and change the menu seasonally, if not weekly, to suit availability and tastes.
One of the city’s most celebrated restaurant, Rouge, is housed in an elegant old mansion (dating from 1891) in the historic Inglewood neighbourhood. While some downtown restaurants have a detectable corporate air, Rouge is intimate, old-world and refined. It even has its own vegetable garden which chefs forage daily for ingredients. Rouge is one of the few Canadian restaurants to have appeared in the prestigious San Pellegrino ‘World’s Top 100 Restaurants’ list and its Gallic-leaning menu fuses creative and sustainable food with fit-for-royalty service. If in doubt, opt for the chef’s tasting menu.
In the pantheon of top Canadian sights, Banff, located an hour west of Calgary, arguably sits at number one. As much a piece of early pioneer history as a natural wonder, the world’s third oldest national park was founded in 1885 and is Canada personified: a rugged but easily accessible wilderness that caters to every possible taste, from bus tour seniors sipping afternoon tea in the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel to adventurous hikers in search of backcountry isolation. Indeed, one of the great beauties of Banff is its juxtaposition of the tamed and the untamed. The apparent commercialism of bar-lined Banff Avenue is merely illusionary. Not 8km away, you can climb and scramble up to Cory Pass, Banff’s white- knuckle black-diamond hike where your primary company could well be ursine (a heap of hikes for all levels is also just as accessible here). The bulk of Banff’s five million annual visitors come in July and August. Savvy hikers arrive after Labour Day when trails are quieter and the larches of Lake Louise turn a beautiful golden-yell0w colour. The snow brigade descends in December – Banff has three world-class ski areas which welcome skiers through late April or May, and some of the best ski-in back-country lodges in the Rockies.
Great Family Activities
Calgary is a young city (average age: 36), meaning families with kids don’t lack choices when it comes to entertainment. The infrastructure’s not short on standard kid-friendly distractions, including the summer-only Calaway Park, an outdoor amusement park with rollercoasters and carrousels, and the year-round Telus Spark, Calgary’s science centre. A little more educational and old-school is the Heritage Park Historical Village, 10km south of downtown, where, in summer, costumed actors roam the carefully reconstructed streets of early-20th century Calgary re-enacting everyday dramas, comical episodes and casual street banter.
Calgary is also home to Canada’s best zoo and the enclosures are particularly alluring in the winter when you can warm up in the climate-controlled Destination Africa exhibit with its savannah and rainforest zones, or drop by to see the glittering Zoolights festival.