When asked by visitors, “what is there to do on a Sunday in Calgary?” I often suggest a walkabout in Calgary’s tony Hillhurst community.
Established in 1914, Hillhurst is one of Calgary’s oldest communities and still has a small town atmosphere with quaint cottage homes mingling with new infill homes with a few mid-rise condos thrown into the mix. As well, it boasts two Main Streets – 10th Street NW and Kensington Road – both lined with cafes, restaurants and shops.
But what I love about wandering Hillhurst are the things that are a bit off the beaten path – up the hill, across the park and down 5th Avenue NW.
Hillhurst Flea Market (13th Street and 5th Avenue NW)
Early birds can check out the Hillhurst Flea Market, which opens every Sunday between 7am, (but doesn’t really get bustling until about 9 am) and 2 pm. Located in the Hillhurst Community Association building, vendors fill two gymnasiums, the small food court and even spill outside in the summer.
Like any good flea market, you will find a hodgepodge of things to see, touch and potentially take home. It is mostly smaller household items, records, books and collectables that are easy for tourists to pack in your suitcase. There is a good chance you might find a piece of authentic Calgary memorabilia as a unique souvenir of your visit.
Give yourself 30 to 45 minutes
Riley Park / Senator Patrick Burns Rock Garden
Just east of the flea market is the lovely Riley Park with its popular summer wading pool. It is also home to one of Canada’s oldest (1908) cricket pitches in the middle of the park, don’t be surprised if there is a game going on or some guys practising. And on the east side, sits a small garden with benches for contemplation while just and then just up the 10th Street hill is the Senator Patrick Burns Rock Garden.
The rock gardens were created in the 1950s and named after Senator Patrick Burns who was a successful businessman (Burns Foods), rancher, politician and philanthropist. He was one of the four investors in Calgary’s first Stampede. The gardens incorporate over 20,000 pieces of fieldstone taken from his 18-room mansion that was across the street from Memorial Park (4th St SW and 13th Avenue) when it was torn down.
Plan for 30 to 45 minutes to wander the park and gardens, unless you decide to watch some cricket.
It is a bit of a hike up the hill to SAIT Campus, but you are amply rewarded with spectacular views of Calgary’s stunning skyline.
The SAIT campus itself has a wonderful mix of old and new architecture. The signature building, Heritage Hall completed in 1922, is an excellent example of the Collegiate Gothic architecture - twin towers with parapet, gothic arches and gargoyle stonework. (FYI: The twin towers of this building are repeated in both the Stan Grad Centre and Clayton Carroll Automotive Centre.) If you can get inside, check out the stairwell with its collection of vintage murals and the terrazzo flooring.
The Johson-Cobbe Energy Centre, with its goblet-like entrance, is perhaps one of the most futuristic looks of any building in Calgary. Not to be outdone next door is the Aldred Trades and Technology Complex with its massive wavy roof and glass façade.
Speaking of glass, seek out the entrance to the SAIT Parkade (Vancouver’s Bing Tom Architects and Calgary’s Marshall Tittemore Architects) with its intersecting acute triangular glass shapes that seem to be taking off like a futuristic plane.
In reality, the glass “sculpture” functions as a huge sunroof, allowing sunlight into the parkade. This unique parkade even has a playing field on top and the façades on the east and south sides are an incredible work of art (modern mural) by Vancouver artist Roderick Quinn.
Backstory: The parkade’s metal façade, with its thousands of holes resembling opened tabs of a beer can, each strategically punched, create a giant (560 feet long for the east wall and 260 feet for the south wall) landscape artwork titled "The Ombrae Sky" inspired by the dramatic prairie clouds and skies. The “functional artwork” not only changes throughout the day with the changing light, but also allows natural light into the parkade.
Give yourself at least an hour to tour the campus. Bring a camera as it is very photogenic. Link: SAIT Campus Map
Just south of Riley Park and Burns Rock Gardens is Kensington Village, one of Calgary’s best pedestrian-oriented streets with shops, restaurants and cafes along 10th Avenue and Kensington Road. It is home to two of Calgary’s oldest cafes - Higher Ground and The Roasterie if you want to experience Calgary’s café culture.
It also home to Calgary’s signature art house cinema, The Plaza. While it isn’t an architectural gem, the place has lots of charm and a great schedule of movies. I totally recommend a Sunday matinee.
Right beside The Plaza is Pages, perhaps Calgary’s best independent bookseller with a great selection of books on Calgary’s history and by Calgary authors.
Food For Thought
Kensington offers a wide spectrum of cuisines from a Ramen Bar to classic Italian. Here are a few recommendations.
- Best Brunch: Vero Bistro Moderne
- Best Pizza: Pulcinella
- Best Burger: Flipp’n Burgers
- Best Patio: Container Bar
- Best Pub: Oak Tree Tavern
- Best Takeout: Chicken On The Way (a Calgary icon)
It ‘s also worth a visit to Calgary’s grittier side – the alley behind the shops on the east side of 10th Street. It’s numerous street artworks combine to create a fun outdoor art gallery. Don’t miss the most ambitious piece under the patio deck of the Oak Tree Tavern, near where Kensington Road meets 10th Street NW.
Streets of Hillhurst
Fun can also be had by wandering the residential streets of Hillhurst and its sister community Sunnyside (east of 10th Street), where you can still find quaint 75+ year old cottage homes, side-by-side with contemporary two storey infills.
FYI: Calgary might just be the “Infill Capital” of North America. Each year hundreds of older 20th century inner-city homes are replaced by modern single-family and duplex homes. In some cases the 50-foot lots are divided into two lots for the new houses, in other cases the 600 square foot cottage homes are replaced by 2,500+ square foot mini-mansions. Either way, the new infill homes help to revitalize Calgary’s inner city communities, as they are very attractive to young families.
Too me, the interesting juxtaposition of old and new, reminds us of just how much urban living has evolved over the past century.
Where to Stay:
For visitors looking for a recommendation on where to stay or perhaps Calgarians wanting a romantic weekend, I recommend The Kensington Riverside Inn with its luxury rooms with fireplaces, patios or balconies that overlook the Bow River and views of the Calgary’s stunning downtown skyline. Homemade cookies are served all day and Callebaut chocolates are part of the turndown service.
It is also home to the Oxbow restaurant serving up a creative menu with things like rhubarb ice cream-topped shortcake and duck wings with crushed cashews and Saskatoon berries along with a carefully curated wine list. It is no wonder this boutique inn has the coveted Relais & Chateaux designation.
Calgary is made up of 200+ communities, each with their own distinct charm and character. One of the things I love about Calgary is that we all live in “small towns of 5,000 to 15,000 people.” It truly is a big city with small town charm.
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