When it comes to cool communities in North America, Calgary’s Kensington Village has to be near the top. It truly is a village in the middle of the city with its two main streets 10th St NW and Kensington Road NW (most communities are lucky to have one) surrounded, until recently, by mostly single-family homes in the historic communities of Hillhurst and Sunnyside.
Today, Kensington’s mega-makeover means it is evolving from a quaint, early 20th century village to a bustling 21st century urban village with the addition of several low and mid-rise condos, as well as numerous infill houses.
Kensington is where professionals, empty nesters and students (ACAD, SAIT and University of Calgary) mingle. From coffee to curling, from cricket to cupcakes, from flea market to farmers’ market, Kensington is trés cool.
It is Calgary’s Left Bank!
(FYI: The term “left bank” references Paris’ bohemian district on the left side of the Seine River as it flows through that city).
Each year, volunteers transform an unused grassy knoll next to Memorial Drive just west of the Centre Street Bridge into a field of crosses to celebrate Remembrance Day. Even when driving by the Field of Crosses is truly a sobering and thought-provoking experience.
Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre is home to numerous events year-round from rummage sales to a long-standing Sunday Flea Market.
Recently, it hosted Calgary’s Seedy Saturday event - a huge hit with gardeners across the city. It is also home to a weekly farmers’ market in the summer.
One of the most attractive things about Kensington is its abundance of independent boutique shops like Livingston Cavill Extraordinary Toys.
Owned and operated by two experienced museum professionals, it is part toy museum / part toy store. Definitely one-of-a-kind.
As is Hillhurst Hardware whose motto is “building Calgary since 1945.” This tiny hardware store at 134 - 10th St NW packs a lot of tools and hardware into a tiny space. Speaking of tiny spaces, Sunnyside Art Supplies next door stocks everything needed to become the next Picasso or Rembrandt. Kensington is also home to Pages Books on Kensington, Calgary’s best independent bookstore.
Kensington’s hippy past lives on at the corner of Kensington Road and 14th St SW where you will find Birkenstock Sandals and Futons for Less shops, located in two old houses.
Today, Kensington is home to two bike shops - Ridley’s Cycle and Lifesport (located in an old church) – keeping the bikesters happy.
Framed on Fifth is a hidden gem with exhibitions showcasing local artists, as well as a profession frame shop all packed into a tiny house. Yes, it is on 5th Ave NW (between 11A and 12th Streets NW). Next door is Pushing Petals, a funky neighbourhood florist. Sit on the bench outside these two shops and enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Kensington had a vibrant coffee culture long before the Starbucks invasion in the 90s. Higher Ground have been around forever as has The Roasterie (which, as you might imagine, still roasts its own beans on site.)
There are several new kids on the block with Vendome perhaps providing the coolest experience given its turn-of-the-century building in the middle of quaint Sunnyside and across the street from Container Park.
Kensington is blessed with a plethora of restaurants - from the iconic Chicken on the Way to the newcomers like Cotto Italian Comfort Food and Oxbow in the uber cool Kensington Riverside Inn. For Sunday brunch Vero Bistro Moderne is very popular and for Alberta beef, you can’t beat Modern Steak.
Kensington has one of Calgary’s signature pizza parlours too – Pulcinella’s. A member of the exclusive Associazione Pizzaioli Napolitani, it is almost like having the Pope bless your pizza!
Kensington is home to Calgary’s fledgling street art culture. Wander the alley behind the shops on the east side of 10th Avenue NW to find a street art gallery.
The Pixel condo with its funky bright yellow cube balconies and neon-coloured entrance has the village’s most contemporary architecture.
Kensington is also home to several historical buildings including the Hillhurst United Church (1907), St. Barnabas Anglican Church (1906) and the lovely St. John’s elementary school (1916) and the majestic sandstone Hillhurst School (1912).
Wander Kensington’s residential streets and you are sure to find some of the many “Free Little Libraries,” that are often fun folk art pieces.
In 1904, the Riley Family donated 8 hectares from their 146,000-hectare Cochrane Ranch to create Riley Park (north of 5th Avenue from 10th to 13th Streets NW). It boasts one of the oldest cricket grounds in North America, a lovely children’s wading pool and the Senator Patrick Burns Memorial Rock Garden. (FYI: The rock garden was created using 20,000 pieces of flagstone from Senator Patrick Burns’ mansion.)
Poppy Plaza, located at the corner of 10th St and Memorial Drive pays homage to Calgary and Canada’s war and peacekeeping efforts. It is a great place to enjoy the vista of the downtown skyline, the shimmering water of the Bow River and people walking, cycling, skateboarding and roller blading along the Bow River pathway. You may even spot a fisherman.
In addition to the Riley Park cricket matches, Kensington is also home to the historic Calgary Curling Club (established in 1888, it moved to its current location 1953) and Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club (1932).
It is also home to several modern fitness clubs - Bodhi Tree Yoga Studio, 10th Street Boxing Gym, Orangetheory Fitness Studio, and Urban Fitness Studio to name a few.
The Plaza Theatre has been curating and showing indie films for over 40 years. No reclining cushy seats here, just thought-provoking movies and respectful audiences. There are lots of places to go before or after to eat, drink and debate current issues and the meaning of life.
Jubilee Theatre may not technically be within Kensington boundaries but it is on the border and offers Kensingtonians easy access to everything from Broadway shows to ballet performances.
During Calgary’s pre-World War 1 boom, Kensington developed as a working-class, largely Anglo-Saxon suburb - hence the British street names. It is home to one of Calgary’s best neighbourhood pub appropriately named “The Kensington Pub.” In 1983, the pub was created by combining the 1911 brick veneer residence of developer John Smith with the 62-year old duplex next door.
The Oak Tree Tavern, popular with the younger crowd, offers up “All You Can Eat Hot Dog Tuesdays,” as well as, comedy nights and live music.
For 26 years, Kensington Wine Market has offered a great selection of curated wines, beers and scotches. Their popular Saturday afternoon samplings make browsing the shelves too much fun. They also have one of the best seminar and tasting programs in the city.
Fun/Funky/Quirky (FFQ) Factor
It doesn’t get much quirkier than The Plaza Theatre, originally built in the 1920s as an automobile garage, then in 1935, converted into a neighbourhood theatre, before evolving in 1970s into Calgary’s first arthouse cinema.
Alpine Shoe Service is a walk back in time, when people fixed things rather than throwing out anything broken or worn out. It’s small, easy-to-miss display case next to the entrance has ever-changing, thought-provoking quotes.
While people in Hillhurst don’t think of themselves as living in a gated community, in fact there are several streets with decorative gates that not only keep cars from cutting through the residential streets, but also evoke a sense of being a private street. The gates serve as historical reference as they have the original names of the streets, before Calgary converted to numerical street names in 1904.
Jane loves Kensington
I can’t help but think the late great urban guru Jane Jacobs would approve of how Calgary’s Left Bank (aka Hillhurst/Sunnyside, aka Kensington) is evolving with its mixture of old, new and middle age; human-scale commercial buildings housing mostly independent enterprises.
She would also approve of the diversity of housing stock – everything from cottage homes to co-op housing, to low and mid-rise condo buildings.
NO high-rises along Calgary’s “Left Bank.”