When planning trips to other cities, one of the first things we do is Google phrases like: “off the beaten path, hidden gems and best kept secrets.”
With Calgary’s tourist season about to begin, here is the Everyday Tourist’s list of off the beaten path (OTBP) places in Calgary, our hometown for 25+ years.
You should know….
- We tried to include a diversity of things to see and do that will interest visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
- In all cases there is a website link for more information about the place.
- In several places we included a link to an Everyday Tourist blog for more information about the area.
- Though for the most part the places are within a few kilometers of Calgary’s downtown, we have ventured a little further afield in a few cases.
- This blog is in no way trying to underestimate the quality of Calgary’s many well-publicized tourist attractions, but merely offer some lesser known, fun alternatives.
- Hidden gems are in the eyes of the beholder. Be open to discovering your own OTBP gems while you enjoy ours.
A-mazing +15 Walkway
If you are wandering the streets of downtown Calgary, you can’t miss the +15 walkways (called “plus 15s” by locals); there are 60 of them. “What is a +15?” You might know them as sky bridges i.e. structures that connect buildings over the sidewalks and roads. Many downtowns have them but Calgary has the most and their name comes from the fact they are 15 feet above the street. Collectively, they create a 20-km indoor walkway that is on par with Montreal’s Underground.
While you won’t see them listed as a tourist attraction, it is great fun to wander the maze of office buildings, shopping centres, hotels, food courts, museums, public art and performing arts centre they connect. The view of Calgary’s modern architecture from the +15 is spectacular.
Despite maps and signage, you are bound to get lost, but that is part of the adventure. Just ask someone and they will be more than please to get you back on track. Calgarians are very friendly. Link: +15 Map
Hidden Canadian Masterpieces
Tucked away in the lobby of the Eighth Avenue Place office tower hang paintings by iconic Canadian painters – Jack Shadbolt, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Jack Bush. A five-piece Shadbolt in the lobby entrance off 8th Avenue is stunning; other masterpieces are located in the elevator lobbies on the main floor.
While Eighth Avenue Place’s lobby has the most well known artists, the lobbies and plazas of almost every downtown office building (and there are over a 100 of them) have original art. Downtown is like one giant art gallery.
The Chocolate Lab
While exploring Calgary, you will surely find some of our many chocolatiers – Chocolatier Coppeneur (Stephen Avenue), Epiphanie Chocolate (11th St SW) and Olivier’s (Inglewood), the latter being one of Canada’s oldest chocolate and candy makers.
But hidden (unless you go to Chinatown which you probably should do) is The Chocolate Lab in a tiny space at 202D Centre Street E. Here you will find some of the best works of chocolate art in the city. The artisan bonbons would make a tasty souvenir of Calgary - my personal favourite being “Scotch on the Rocks.”
Udderly Art Cow Pasture
Every downtown needs a fun place or two. In Calgary, one is the Udderly Art Cow Pasture (located on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade along 9th Avenue between 6th and 5th Streets SW.) Here are a dozen cows put out to pasture from the 100+ cows that invaded Calgary in the year 2000. The Pasture’s enormous information panels provide fun facts about Calgary’s biggest and best public art project to date - Udderly Art: Colourful Cows For Calgary.
NW of Downtown
A lot is written about Calgary’s great parks, from the big ones like Fish Creek and Nose Hill to the island parks - Prince’s and St Patrick. But as for the best OTBP park, we recommend Riley Park. Sundays are a great day to visit (but any summer day is good) as you can not only enjoy the Burns Memorial Rock Gardens and the kids’ wading pool action, but you can sit back, relax and watch a game of cricket. The children’s playground in the southwest corner is always animated
There are lots of picnic tables and the Sidewalk Citizen Bakery across the street from the Safeway next to the Second Cup on 10th Street makes great sandwiches to go.
The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s campus is worth exploring for those into architecture as it has a wonderful combination of old and new architecture. Check out the stately 1912 Heritage Hall, with its many vintage murals in the staircase, and then head over to one of the funky new buildings and the stunning parkade. Yes, you must check out the parkade with the soccer field on top, that also offers a spectacular view of Calgary’s downtown skyline and the Rockies.
Hillhurst Flea Market
For over 40 years, the Hillhurst Community Centre has hosted a year-round Sunday (7am to 3 pm) flea market which, in the summer, overflows onto the courtyard outside. You will find a plethora of characters selling everything from books and records to antiques and collectables. It is where we found many of the vintage Fisher Price toys for our collection.
Crescent Height StairMaster
For the billion-dollar view of Calgary and a bit of exercise, check out the Crescent Height stairs. Find them just north of the pedestrian bridge over the Bow River and Memorial Drive at the north entrance to Prince’s Island. At the top of the stairs (there are 167 by the way), you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Bow River valley, the Rocky Mountains and the downtown skyline.
And fitness fanatics might want to take the Olympic Challenge. The steps are divided into 11 flights and while for most people, once is enough, but for Olympians, NHL and CFL players can do them 10 times in under 17 minutes. Give it a try.
Who would think the non-descript little building with the blue awning on the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Ave N) is home to one of North America’s - if not the world’s - great antiquarian bookstores? Aquila specializes in books dealing with Polar Expeditions, Western Canadiana, Mountaineering and the Canadian Pacific Railway.
It is as much a museum as a bookstore with antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards and scientific instruments. It even has an authentic Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling. Bibliophiles will want to do a “long browse” here!
Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys
The buzzword of upscale retailers these days is to say they offer a “curated” collection. But when it comes to Livingstone & Cavell, it is more than just a buzzword. Owners Donna Livingstone (CEO, Glenbow Museum) and Edward Cavell have both been museum curators for decades. Drop in and see their collection of toys for all ages – it truly is exceptional!
South of Downtown (Beltline/17th Ave)
Secret Heritage Trail
While Calgary downtown’s Stephen Avenue (8th Avenue SW) is a National Historic District and Inglewood’s 9th Avenue (Atlantic Avenue) has an official historical Main Street designation, 13th Ave SW between 2nd Street SW and 9th Street SW is a wonderful “walk back in time.” Calgary’s first school, Alberta’s first library and many more historical gems are yours to discover.
Stampede Art Park
Even if you are not in Calgary during the 10 days of Stampede, you should still visit Stampede Park to check out the many murals and sculptures and the new ENMAX Park. If you are lucky, the Corral might be open allowing you to wander the museum-like hallways, full of historical photos.
If you go, check out The Grain Academy & Museum, located in the BMO Centre on the Plus 15 level (open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 4 pm). Also, the walls of the +15 walkway from BMO Centre to Saddledome are lined with Stampede Posters dating back to 1912. Kids will love the huge goalie mask on the side of the Saddledome’s NE entrance too.
Village Ice Cream
Not to be confused with Village Beer (which you should also try), Village Ice Cream’s flagship location is definitely “off the beaten path.” Its entrance and teeny, tiny patio is located in a parking lot of a non-descript building on 10th Ave. where it dead-ends at 4th St. SE. The artisanal, small batch, hand-made ice creams are not to be missed. Our favourite is the salted caramel.
Heritage Posters & Music
Although Inglewood’s Recordland has one of the largest collections of vinyl in Canada, for my money I think Heritage Posters & Music is the place to hunt for vinyl (20,000 records are on site at any given time) and that rare poster you have always wanted. It is still settling into its new location, but we are told they have plans to make the exterior as eye-catching as the last. Backstory: Its previous location had exterior walls decorated with thousands of records, the Rolling Stone’s toque street art and a mural of Calgary blues man, Tim Williams.
11th Street Design District
When doing your research, you will undoubtedly learn about Kensington Village, 17th Avenue and 4th Street as Calgary’s best pedestrian streets. But for those who like “everything design,” 11th Avenue SW (4th Street to 8th Street) is the place to go. Here you will find several contemporary art galleries, as well as furniture and home accessory stores and the always-buzzing The Camera Store (worth checking out even if you aren’t a camera buff – check out the photography books section for great deals). Metrovino is a great wine and spirits shop tuck away in the back Paul Kuhn Gallery block.
Calgary has many independent fashion boutiques, but for our money, the one with the best space is Gravity Pope at the west end of 17th Avenue. Not only are the fashions and footwear funky and quirky, so too is the space. On a sunny day the place glitters with sunlight pouring through the skylights and bouncing off the mirrors and displays. It is somewhat akin to entering a psychedelic dream.
East of Downtown
While most of the current attention on Calgary’s urban transformation is on the mega makeover of East Village, go a little further east and north (through the lovely new St. Patrick’s Island Park) across the river to Bridgeland (formerly “Little Italy”). Check out Lukes Drug Market (not your average drug store), Bridgeland Market, Blue Star Diner Whitehall Restaurant and Cannibale (barber/bar).
The streets of Bridgeland are well worth wandering with their many churches and mix of older cottage and new infill homes. Backstory: Calgary is the infill home capital of North America. For the past 15+ years literally hundreds of small mid-century homes being torn down each year to make way for new two and three storey mini-mansions mostly for young families.
Those interested in contemporary art shouldn’t miss the Esker Foundation Contemporary Art Gallery on the fourth floor of the funky Atlantic Avenue Art Block in Inglewood. This privately-owned gallery functions as a public art gallery (free admission) with thought-provoking curated exhibitions in a space that is an amazing work of art itself. It is a great place to start exploring the community of Inglewood.
Just around the corner sits Crown Surplus Store, a family-operated business since 1955. Here you will find everything from military uniforms, tents, camouflage nets and helmets to great outdoor wear jam packed into a well-weathered wooden Quonset building. It is a popular place for film and TV producers to shop. Cher is also known to shop here when she is town.
Fairs’ Fair Books opened its flagship location in the basement of 1336 9th Street in 1988. Since then has sold over one million used books in its five locations. The Inglewood location with its 9,000 square feet and 200,000 books is a major league used bookstore.
Renowned Calgary interior designer Alykhan Velji along with Kelly Kask, owner of Reclaimed Trading Company are passionate about salvaging and reclaiming materials from “off the beaten path” sources from OTBP places in the Prairies and BC. Link: Ramsay is Rad!
Along with their colleagues, they either rework them into home décor items or make them available to artists and scavengers to work their own magic. Never before has the old adage “one person’s junk is another’s treasure” been so true.
Carly’s Angels is a riotous drag show has been running for over a decade in Lolita’s Lounge. This intimate OTBP place is for serious vacation planner, as you must book two to three months ahead to get tickets. (Note the Carly takes a hiatus for part of the summer).
When you think of cities with a robust café culture, Seattle and Vancouver likely come to mind. Not to be outdone, Calgary’s café culture has also been thriving since the ‘80s with original coffee houses like Roasterie and Higher Ground (both in Kensington) and Café Beano (on 17th Avenue) still very popular with the locals.
The new kids on the coffee block include Analog Coffee (17th Ave), Phil & Sebastian (East Village), Caffé Rosso (Ramsay), Gravity Espresso & Wine Bar (Inglewood), Vendome Café (Sunnyside), Purple Perk (Mission), Kawa Espresso Bar and Bumpy’s Café (both in the Beltline).
Note: In 2014, BuzzFeed ranked Analog 7th in a list of 25 Coffee Shops Around The World You Have To See Before You Die.
And Alforno Café and Bakery is Calgary’s newest, coolest place to chill. It is located downtown near the Peace Bridge at 222-7th Street SW.
Calgary has some of Canada’s best restaurants. Calgary has placed one or more restaurants in enRoute Magazine’s best new Canadian restaurants almost every year since this award’s inception ten years ago. In 2015, Calgary’s Pigeonhole restaurant was their #1 restaurant. Pigeonhole’s sister restaurant Model Milk on 17th Avenue (which placed #2 in 2012) has a wonderful Sunday Supper. For $40/person, you’ll leave comfortably full after a great family-style meal that is different every week. (Warning: the regular menu is not offered on Sundays.)
Sunday Supper is also served up at The Nash in Inglewood for $39/person. It includes an appetizer, a main course and scrumptious dessert. (Note: The Nash’s sister restaurant NOtaBLES (Montgomery) is a great “off off the beaten path” place to dine.)
And if you “miss” Sunday Supper, know that all these restaurants are very good choices any day of the week. You might also want to visit:
Calgary is working very hard to become a music city. It hosts some great music festivals – Calgary International Folk Festival, SLED Island, X Fest, Honens International Piano Competition and International Blues Festival. It even has a Music Mile (from the east end of downtown to Inglewood along 9th Avenue there are 20 venues that over live music Thursday to Sunday).
For blues lovers, Calgary offer three great Saturday afternoon jams. Take in all three if you start at the Blues Can at 3 pm, which is hosted by Tim Williams, 2014 winner of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, then take a short walk to the Ironwood at 4pm and finally catch a short cab ride to Mikey’s Juke Joint at 5 pm (or do the reverse). All are great places to stop for an afternoon beverage, listen to some great music and have a bite to eat (the food is good). If you are not around on Saturday, they all have live music in the evening seven days a week.
Outside the City Centre
There is lots of tourist information about the Glenbow, Fort Calgary and the new National Music Centre, but two OTBP museums we’d recommend are The Military Museums of Calgary just off of Crowchild Trail SW and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame just off the Trans Canada Highway.
The Military Museums of Calgary, the second largest military museum in Canada, is a moving experience for anyone, any age, with lots of interesting stories and artefacts including a piece from the World Trade Centre that collapsed in 2011. For Canadians, the museum is a poignant reminder of the incredible and important role our country played in both WWI and WWII.
The Canada Sports Hall of Fame is a comprehensive look at the accomplishments of Canadian athletes not only in mainstream sports like hockey, football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse, but also in the Olympics and minor league sports. Hands on activities make it great “edutainment” for all ages.
Cyclists love downtown Bowness
Avid cyclists should get to Bowness Cycle (an easy 25 km ride from downtown), which might just be the world’s largest cycle shop. And, while in downtown Bowness, check out Cadence Café, Undercurrent and the WINS Thrift Store.
Hikers love Douglas Fir Trail
Calgary boasts over 800 km of pathways, but the Douglas Fir Trail is special. It is the most easternly place the majestic Douglas Fir grows in Canada. The Trail is located on the south shore of the Bow River just east of Edworthy Park. Once the trail, it is hard to believe you are still in the city. It offers great views of downtown and is only 6 km away.
Though it is impossible to create the definitive list of “Off The Beaten Path” things to see and do in Calgary, we hope this blog will help you discover Calgary’s unique sense of place.
And if you find a hidden gem while exploring Calgary that you think we should add, let us know. We do plan to update the blog as we find more OTBP gems.
Last updated: June 14, 2016