Canada: A Country Of Prosaic Cities - Toronto!

I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem.  That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.   

A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.  

  This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

Jan Who?

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Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.   

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  Perhaps I am jealous?

By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.

Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.   

Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom  

Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!” 

In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World.  Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto.  She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”

She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan. 

But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”  

  Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Hinterland 

One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”

Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.

Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.

  Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Destination

I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.”   She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?”  Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”

Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”

Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…

Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.

  Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

  Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

  Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Nuclear Attack

Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”

She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”   

She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.

Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.” 

She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.

“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”

Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism. 

  The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

  Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

  The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

Futuristic

She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”

Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.” 

“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.” 

  Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

  Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Escape Tunnels

Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.” 

She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.” 

She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.” 

  Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

  Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

No Joie de vivre

She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.” 

When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.” 

To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”

In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.

Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.” 

  Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

  Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

  Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Last Word

Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”

I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.”  I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!”  I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.  

While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks.  What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!” 

  Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

City Travel: Canada vs USA

Canada: The Foundations of its future


 








Saskatoon Stories: Picasso Birdhouses & Gory Puppets 

Everywhere we go, it’s “eyes wide open!”  We are always on the lookout for something different, something off-the-beaten path, something you won’t find (at least not easily) online. Saskatoon didn’t disappoint. 

  You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

  The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise.  

The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise. 

Picasso Birdhouses

On our first evening, we were invited to a friends’ house for dinner where we enjoyed a great evening, highlighted by their quirky art collection and great backyard.  Yes, the one with the amazing pavilion! But what impressed us most were the Picasso-inspired birdhouses.  We had to have one. Well, maybe two.

Turns out we could – and did. And so can you!

They are made by John Remai (if the surname sounds familiar, it could be because his brother’s wife donated big bucks for Saskatoon’s controversial new Remai Art Museum, but that is another story) and he makes them in his parking garage studio in the downtown Saskatoon riverside residential tower where he lives.  

  John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

Once a builder always a builder?

Remai, now in his ‘80s, was one Saskatoon’s biggest developers before retiring a few years ago. As a philanthropist, Remai has been a big supporter of various Saskatoon charities, as well as the local Children’s Hospital.  However, he wanted to not only make personal donations but help encourage others to also give back to their community.  As a result, he decided in retirement to design and build birdhouses to sell to the public with all proceeds going to the Saskatoon’s Children’s Hospital.  Who could resist buying one or perhaps four (our host now has four) birdhouses, three at home and one at work?   

The public can buy a Remai birdhouse Monday through Thursday in the basement of the office building at the corner of Spadina and 20thStreet.  Depending on design, the birdhouses sell for $75 to $100, which is great value given the craftsmanship and complexity of designs.  

Given we were in town on a weekend, we were fortunate our host knew Remai and was able to arrange a downtown studio visit to see the birdhouses actually being built and meet Mr. Remai, a very cordial host and unassuming gentleman.

Indeed, the Remai’s huge workshop (probably the size of quadruple car garage) is located in the underground parkade of a residential tower.  It is neatly divided up into three spaces, one with all the While we were there, two volunteers from the building were painting pieces of his latest design, a “parrot birdhouse” in preparation for assembly.

A lovely sense of order and calmness filled this windowless, grotto-like studio.  Here are some photos, which I hope will convey the scale of the operations and the diversity of the birdhouses being produced.  

  JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

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  Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

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  The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

  JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

For more information: JR's Designer Birdhouses 

U of S: Timeless

  The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

Whenever we are in a new city we make a point of exploring the postsecondary campuses.  They are often full of interesting, under-the-radar places.

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) is no exception as it is home to an Antiquities Museum, a Natural History Museum and three art galleries.  

The campus is an architectural gem as the facades of almost all of the buildings have been built with sandstone or Tyndall stone facades giving it a timeless quality I have not experienced anywhere else. 

From a design perspective, it may well be the best campus in Canada! 

  The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

A-Mazing Campus

The U of S, like most campuses, is a maze of seemingly randomly placed buildings.  Note: I often wonder why postsecondary campuses never used the grid street system, which is so much easier to navigate. The grid street design has been around since before Christ for heaven’s sake, you’d think one or more universities would have used it. However, the good thing about the maze system is you often get lost and in doing so, you see things you might not have if you knew where you were going.  For us, getting lost lead to finding artisans making puppets for this summer’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (River). 

  The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

Gory Puppets 

While trying to find our bearings, we noticed some quirky-looking objects in the basement windows of a building we had no intention of going into. However, they became the impetus for us to head in. Once inside, we immediately peeked into a large studio with three people working away making puppets. We were invited in come in dozens of puppets at various stages of completion.  Turns out they were making all of the 44 puppets for this summer’s production of TITUS A. Puppet Revenge, July 12 to August 19th.

Backstory: TITUS A. Puppet Revenge will tell the story of the most violent and bloody tragedy ever performed at the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival.  Dismemberment, disembowelment and cannibalism will all play out with an amazing set of carefully crafted rod puppets in a small tent tucked into a corner of the site.  It is billed as a delightfully disturbing romp for mature audiences. Due to the detailed nature of puppets, I recommend attendees bring opera glasses or binoculars. 

Turns out we were welcomed by Kristi Friday of Stumped Productions who along with some hired hands were building all of the puppets. After looking around and chatting a bit, she asked if we wanted to come with her to the basement where they had set up a small rehearsal stage to test out the puppets and we could see the finished puppets.  We said “Hell Yes!” It was fun to get a behind the scene tour and an up close and personal look at the puppets.  

  Puppets in various stages of completion.  

Puppets in various stages of completion. 

  An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

  The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

  Taking a break....

Taking a break....

  Hanging out....

Hanging out....

  The rehearsal stage...

The rehearsal stage...

Secret UofS Museum

Next door to the rehearsal stage, was the basement room that attracted us to go inside the building in the first place. Here we were rewarded with the opportunity to see some of the fun stage costumes other production from bubble wrap dresses to vintage hat boxes.

It was like finding a buried treasure or an unknown museum. 

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Lessons Learned

#1 Always travel with your eyes and mind wide open.  

#2 Always leave extra time to explore unexpected opportunities. 

#3 Don't be shy!

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Birdhouse vs Nest Box

Footnotes: University of Arizona 

University of New Mexico: A-Mazing 

Downtown Living Is Cooler Than You Think!

Downtown Calgary ‘flies under the radar” for most Calgarians when is comes to being a place to live.  However, that is not true for the 9,000 people who live in what the City of Calgary calls the “Downtown Commercial Core” (i.e. from 3rd St SE to 9th St SW and from 9th Ave to 4th Ave SW.

  Anthem Properties' Waterfront project one of several new luxury condo projects built over the past 10+ years in downtown Calgary along the south shore of the Bow River. 

Anthem Properties' Waterfront project one of several new luxury condo projects built over the past 10+ years in downtown Calgary along the south shore of the Bow River. 

  It doesn't get any nicer than strolling along the Eau Claire Promenade which is part of the Bow River Pathway that extends on both side of the river from one end of downtown to the other . 

It doesn't get any nicer than strolling along the Eau Claire Promenade which is part of the Bow River Pathway that extends on both side of the river from one end of downtown to the other

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Downtown vs Beltline

While the Beltline, Bridgeland, Inglewood and Kensington get all the attention as Calgary’s urban living hot spots, when you combine Downtown West End, Commercial Core, Downtown East Village (the City’s official names for these three communities), Eau Claire and Chinatown (together they are roughly the same geographical size as the Beltline) there are over 18,000 people living downtown vs. Beltline’s 21,357 and Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s 10,345). 

While downtown's shiny office towers get all the attention – good and bad – downtown (using the broader boundaries) is definitely a cool place to live.

Here’s why!

  Olympic Plaza is a great spot to sit and watch the world go by or chat with a friend.  Downtown has some amazing public spaces. 

Olympic Plaza is a great spot to sit and watch the world go by or chat with a friend.  Downtown has some amazing public spaces. 

  Hotchkiss Gardens is also a fun place to sit and chat with friends.

Hotchkiss Gardens is also a fun place to sit and chat with friends.

  Chinatown is a   fun place to shop for groceries.

Chinatown is a fun place to shop for groceries.

  Shaw Millennium Park provides not only a unique view of downtown, but also unique recreational and entertainment experiences. 

Shaw Millennium Park provides not only a unique view of downtown, but also unique recreational and entertainment experiences. 

Festivals/Events

There is a festival or major event in downtown almost every weekend. Everything from the High Performance Rodeo to major international festivals (Children, Film, Folk and SLED) Downtown also hosts Calgary’s largest single day event - The Calgary Stampede Parade the first Friday every July. 

Major outdoor concerts and music festivals also happen at Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park every summer.

  The Calgary International Folk Festival is just one of the many festivals that take place on Prince's Island. 

The Calgary International Folk Festival is just one of the many festivals that take place on Prince's Island. 

Shops

An amazing diversity of shopping opportunities exists in Downtown – department stores (Hudson’s Bay, Simons and Holt Renfrew) to the uber chic Core and grassroots Chinatown.

In addition there are shop at Bankers Hall, Scotia Centre and Bow Valley Square.  Calgary’s downtown shopping not only surpasses anything Portland, Nashville or Austin have, but also rivals Calgary’s Chinook Centre (one of Canada’s top malls).

There are also off-the-beaten path shops like Map World with its incredible collection of wall maps, globes, travel and topographical maps.  Or, if you are into fly-fishing, Hanson’s Fishing Outfitters in the Grain Exchange building has everything you might need. Bonus: you can walk from Hanson’s to fish in the Bow River in just a few minutes.  How cool is that?

  The Core is an amazing shopping experience with 3 floors of shops, 4th floor food court and links to shopping at Holt Renfrew, Hudson's Bay, Simons and Bankers Hall. Imagine having this in your backyard!

The Core is an amazing shopping experience with 3 floors of shops, 4th floor food court and links to shopping at Holt Renfrew, Hudson's Bay, Simons and Bankers Hall. Imagine having this in your backyard!

 Holt Renfew offers an upscale shopping experience. 

Holt Renfew offers an upscale shopping experience. 

  Power hour on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Power hour on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Cafe Culture

Downtown Calgary is blessed with an amazing array of coffeehouses. Alforno Café and Bakery is arguably Calgary’s coolest café. Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters has two locations Simmons Building and on Stephen Avenue.  Calgary based, Good Earth Café also has two locations Eau Claire Market and 7th Avenue at 5th Street. Caffe Artigiano has two locations along Barclay Mall. Calgary’s Monogram Coffee can be found in Fifth Avenue Place.  

Downtown also has a very unique Starbucks in Eighth Avenue Place with its  minimalist open design with long communal tables rather than individual small tables for two and four. 

  Simmons building is a popular meeting spot on the weekends as it is right on the Riverwalk which is part of the Bow River pathway system.

Simmons building is a popular meeting spot on the weekends as it is right on the Riverwalk which is part of the Bow River pathway system.

  Downtown is full of fun surprises like these bike cafes.  How cool is that?

Downtown is full of fun surprises like these bike cafes.  How cool is that?

Restaurants

Downtown Calgary offers both high and lowbrow dining.  It includes four signature Calgary restaurants, the rustic River Café, classic Teatros, Murietta’s West Coast Bar & Grill, and Sky 360, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower.  The new kid on the block is Charbar in the Simmons Building, its roof-top patio offers spectacular views of the Bow River and RiverWalk.

There is a kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants downtown, Anatolia (Turkish), Atlas (Persian), Jonas (Hungarian), Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen + Bar to name just four.  And of course, there is no shortage of Asian restaurants in Chinatown. 

If you love Alberta beef, downtown offers five signature steakhouses – Buchanan’s, Caesar’s, Hy’s, The Keg and Saltlik.  Buchanan’s Chop House is known not only for food, but for its its selection of more than 300 malt whiskeys from around the world.

The Fairmont Palliser offers a themed afternoon tea by reservation.  The theme at the time of this blog posting was a Mad Hatter Tea Party that included Tweeledum Tweedeldee Yuzu tarts and Queen of Hearts red velvet cupcakes – very cool.

John Gilchrist, Calgary’s renowned food and restaurant critic has called downtown’s Stephen Avenue Walk one of the best restaurant rows in Canada. 

  The Guild on Stephen Avenue Walk brings the cooking to the street.

The Guild on Stephen Avenue Walk brings the cooking to the street.

  Stephen Avenue is chock-a-block full of patios.

Stephen Avenue is chock-a-block full of patios.

  Charbar's roof top patio overs great views of the Bow River and downtown skyline.

Charbar's roof top patio overs great views of the Bow River and downtown skyline.

Art/Architecture

There area few places in Canada let alone Calgary that can match downtown for its combination of architecture and public art all within a few blocks of each other.  From the historic sandstone buildings (old City Hall and McDougall Centre) to the glittering glass office towers (Bow Tower, Eighth Avenue Place, Nexen Tower and 505 7th Avenue) to the three iconic bridges (Peace, King and Centre Street) and the National Music Centre. 

Coming soon are two new architectural gems – the new Calgary Public Library and Telus Sky office/residential tower. The Library was designed by internationally renowned architectural firm, Snohetta from Oslo while Telus Sky’s was designed by the esteemed Bjarke Ingels Group from Copenhagen. 

Downtown has literally hundreds of artworks along its streets, in its parks and plazas and along its pathways.  You could easily stroll around downtown all say enjoying the art - from the Famous Five tea party at Olympic Plaza to the Wonderland on the Bow Tower plaza to the Conversation on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Did you know that there are artworks in almost every downtown office lobby?  The Eighth Avenue Place lobby includes works of renowned Canadian painters Jean Paul Riopelle and Jack Shadbolt.  There are also some fun contemporary paintings in relatively new Calgary Centre office tower.

Downtown Calgary is one huge public art gallery waiting to be discovered.

 The Chinese Community Centre is a downtown hidden gem.

The Chinese Community Centre is a downtown hidden gem.

  I always smile when I flaneur past Sadko & Kabuki by Sorrel Etrog.  Public art like this adds a nice element of fun and colour to downtown living. 

I always smile when I flaneur past Sadko & Kabuki by Sorrel Etrog.  Public art like this adds a nice element of fun and colour to downtown living. 

  Calgary Tower and Scotia Centre take on a Salvador Dali-like metamorphosis when reflected in the glass facade of another building. 

Calgary Tower and Scotia Centre take on a Salvador Dali-like metamorphosis when reflected in the glass facade of another building. 

  Tea Time in downtown takes on a different meaning at the Famous Five sculpture.

Tea Time in downtown takes on a different meaning at the Famous Five sculpture.

  Downtown's urbanscape, a rich collage of public art, heritage and modern architecture, makes for a very pedestrian-friendly experience. 

Downtown's urbanscape, a rich collage of public art, heritage and modern architecture, makes for a very pedestrian-friendly experience. 

  The lobbies of most downtown office buildings are like mini art galleries.  

The lobbies of most downtown office buildings are like mini art galleries.  

Parks/Plazas/Pathways

Calgary’s downtown is also blessed with some of the best public spaces of any city its size and age in North America.  Any city would be hard pressed to match Prince’s Island (one of the best festival sites in Canada) and St. Patrick’s Island parks.

Add Shaw Millennium Park and Fort Calgary Park to the mix and you have four major downtown urban parks. Let’s not forget about Century (soon to get a mega makeover), Devonian and Hotchkiss Gardens, as well as James Short, McDougall and Sein Lok Parks. Impressive!

Downtown also boasts Eau Claire and Olympic Plaza, both with wadding pools in the summer, with the latter becoming a skating rink in the winter.

As for pathways, downtown offers easy access to people of all ages wanting to walk, run, board, blade or bike along the Bow River pathways.  In addition, there is the a-mazing 20 km +15 elevated walkway.

  St. Patrick's Island is a special place for families. 

St. Patrick's Island is a special place for families. 

  The Eau Claire wading pool is also popular for young families. 

The Eau Claire wading pool is also popular for young families. 

  The nature walk at the east end of Prince's Island is lovely oasis as well as educational. 

The nature walk at the east end of Prince's Island is lovely oasis as well as educational. 

  Downtown is a place where you can lie back and relax.

Downtown is a place where you can lie back and relax.

  The +15 walkway is the perfect place to bump into someone you haven't seen for years.  

The +15 walkway is the perfect place to bump into someone you haven't seen for years.  

Fitness/Recreation

The Eau Claire Y has been a very popular family fitness center for decades.  Its proximity to the Eau Claire Promenade and Bow River pathway system has resulted in creating a busy year-round outdoor running track.

There is also Shaw Millennium Park's mega skateboard park and river surfing on the Bow River under the Louise Bridge. 

Downtown also has several private fitness centres – Bankers Hall, Bow Valley Club and two Good Life Fitness Centres (including one in the historic 1931 Bank of Montreal building with its gold leaf ceiling on Stephen Avenue).

  River surfing is become more and more popular on the Bow River.

River surfing is become more and more popular on the Bow River.

  The skateboard part has three separate areas - beginners, intermediate and experts. It is one of the largest free public skate parks in the world.

The skateboard part has three separate areas - beginners, intermediate and experts. It is one of the largest free public skate parks in the world.

  Downtown is a great place to walk, run, cycle or just sit.

Downtown is a great place to walk, run, cycle or just sit.

Culture/Nightlife

Downtown Calgary is home to Arts Commons with its 3,200 seats in five performing art spaces, as well as the Theatre Junction Grand, Palace Theatre, Lunchbox Theatre, Vertigo Theatre (two spaces). If you stretch the boundaries a bit, there is also the Pumphouse Theatre way on the west side.  It is also home to the Globe Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire for movie buffs. 

Live music venues include The Palomino Smokehouse and Dickens Pub, as well as three churches – Knox United, Anglican Church of the Redeemer and Central United Church.

Downtown also is home to The Glenbow Museum, National Music Centre, Fort Calgary and Contemporary Calgary, as well as several private art galleries.

Culture vultures love living downtown as theatre, concerts and exhibitions are all within easy walking distance.

  Downtown offers a variety of nightlife options. 

Downtown offers a variety of nightlife options. 

Pubs/Beer/Spirits

The James Joyce pub on Stephen Avenue is downtown’s quintessential pub, followed closely by Dickens, Fionn MacCool’s, Garage Sports Bar and Unicorn. In the summer the patios along Stephen Avenue Walk create one long beer garden.

Downtown is home to Calgary Co-op’s World of Whiskey Store with its 850 different varieties of whiskey.  It is located on the +15 level at 333-5th Avenue SW.  In East Village’s N3 condo, the Brewer’s Apprentice offers up 48 craft brews. Not only can you sample a few, but you can take home a freshly poured growler or crowler of your favourites.

I recently heard Caesar’s Lounge described as nearest thing to time travel in Calgary – think Mad Men. This family-owned Calgary institution hasn’t changed since it opened in 1972.  It is known for its “Emperor” size cocktails, i.e. 3oz of your favourite spirits.

  Downtown's East Village is undergoing a mega makeover designed to create a vibrant urban village for 10,000+ people. 

Downtown's East Village is undergoing a mega makeover designed to create a vibrant urban village for 10,000+ people. 

Fun/Funky/Quirky (FFQ) Factor

For some, POW (Parade of Wonders) is the best FFQ event in Calgary.  Every spring as part of Calgary Expo, hundreds of Calgarians of all ages get dressed up in their favourite fantasy character and parade from Eau Claire to Olympic Plaza.  It is literally a sea of vibrant colours and characters.

For others, Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade each August ranks as the best FFQ event in the City. It attracts thousands of colourful participants and tens of thousands of spectators. 

Downtown Calgary’s “Power Hour” (term coined by a former downtown Hudson’s Bay department store manager in the mid ‘90s for the thousands of downtown workers who power shop at noon hour) is like a parade as tens of thousands downtown workers parade up and down Stephen Avenue.

It doesn’t get much quirkier than having an authentic bush plane hanging from the ceiling in the lobby of the Suncor Centre.  Or does it? The Udderly Art Pasture on the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade is definitely FFQ.  Here you will find a herd (10) of life-size cows with names like Chew-Choo or Moony Trader who have been put out to pasture.

  Everybody loves a parade...this is the annual POW Parade.

Everybody loves a parade...this is the annual POW Parade.

Last Word

Downtown Calgary is a hidden gem when it comes to urban living and it is only going to get better with several new residential developments in East Village, Telus Sky and the new West Village towers under construction. 

I can’t wait to see the “Northern Lights” light show on the façade of Telus Sky developed by Canadian artist, Douglas Coupland.  I have been advocating a Northern Lights inspired light show for a downtown office building for over 20 years.

  The new Vogue condo is located right in heart of downtown's commercial core.

The new Vogue condo is located right in heart of downtown's commercial core.

 Cidex Group of Companies is currently constructing the first tower of their ambitious West Village Towers project designed by NORR's Calgary and Dubai offices. 

Cidex Group of Companies is currently constructing the first tower of their ambitious West Village Towers project designed by NORR's Calgary and Dubai offices. 

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs examining what makes Calgary’s City Centre neighbourhoods so cool.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Downtown Calgary Glows With Fun

Downtown Calgary puts the PARK in parkades

Calgary's 2018 Festival Fun For Everyone!

Cities are often defined by their signature festivals - Edinburgh and Edmonton by their Fringe Festivals, Montreal by its Jazz and Comedy Festivals, New Orleans by Mardi Gras, Quebec City by Winter Carnival and Rio de Janerio by Carnival.

Similarly, Calgary is known internationally as the Stampede City, the result of the 100+ year old Calgary Stampede. However, over the past few decades Calgary has become more than just the Stampede. Spruce Meadows has made Calgary the show jumping capital of North America. Beakerhead celebrates Calgary’s emergence as an international engineering and science hub. And SLED Island reflects Calgary’s evolution as a budding new music city.

For anyone considering a visit Calgary in 2018, here is the line-up the City’s major festivals - something for almost everyone!

High Performance Rodeo, Jan 3 to 28

In 1987, Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit collective of artists produced the “Secret Elevator Experimental Performance Festival,” renamed the following year as the “High Performance Rodeo.” Over the past 30+ years it has evolved into one of North America’s best contemporary art festivals, featuring local and international theatre, music, dance and visual arts, a true multidisciplinary celebration of the arts.  This year it offers up 23 sizzling shows, 153 performances at 15 different venues.

Link: High Performance Rodeo

  Friends highly recommend the 10-minute play festival, they have attended every year for the past 20+ years.

Friends highly recommend the 10-minute play festival, they have attended every year for the past 20+ years.

Big Taste, Mar 2 to 11

Foodies won’t want to miss the Big Taste where 80+ restaurants in City Centre offer special 3-course fix price menus for lunch and dinner.  There is even a Gourmet Big Taste 5-course dinner for $65. The Big Taste is Canada’s oldest restaurant festival and offers a chance to experience Calgary’s contemporary dining scene – Cotto, Pad Thai, Foreign Concept, Yellow Door, Pigeonhole, Bar Vonder Fels, Charbar, Model Milk, need I go on.

Link: Big Taste

IMG_9441.jpg

Calgary Performing Arts Festival, April 23 to May 13

In 1931, a small group of Calgary musicians created The Calgary Music Festival held at the Knox United Church. By 1954, the festival was so large the organizers asked the Kiwanis Clubs of Calgary to take ownership of the Festival, and became the Calgary Kiwanis Festival. It continued to evolve into one of the largest amateur competitive music festivals in North America by the end of the 20th century.  In 2014, the festival included theatre, resulting in another name change - The Calgary Performing Arts Festival.

Today, the Festival has over 4,000 entries and 12,000 participants performing in the new Taylor Centre for Performing Arts Centre at Mount Royal University.

Link: Calgary Performing Arts Festival

 Last minute practice...(photo credit: Calgary Performing Arts Festival)

Last minute practice...(photo credit: Calgary Performing Arts Festival)

Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, April 26 to 29

Calgary Expo is a four-day mash-up of comics, sci-fi, gaming and cosplay fun for all ages. In addition to headliners, hundreds of vendors, workshops and talks and costumes transform Calgary’s Stampede Park into a colourful fantasyland for over 100,000 visitors. Don’t miss the parade on the Friday - everyone can participate as long as you dress-up!

Link: Calgary Expo

  Everyone loves a parade, especially one's with princesses and super heroes!

Everyone loves a parade, especially one's with princesses and super heroes!

Calgary International Children’s Festival, May 23 to 26

Established in 1987, the Calgary International Children’s Festival has grown to become Canada’s second largest Children’s Festival. Each year it not only transforms the four theatres and concert hall of Arts Commons into a giant children’s playground, but the surrounding Olympic Plaza as well. A wonderful festival for the young and the young at heart.

Link: Calgary International Children's Festival

  Outdoor performances at Olympic Plaza a free and fun for everyone. (photo credit: Calgary Arts Development)

Outdoor performances at Olympic Plaza a free and fun for everyone. (photo credit: Calgary Arts Development)

4th Street Lilac, Festival June 3

Join 100,000+ Calgary in celebrating the arrival of spring at the 4th Street Lilac Festival.  The street comes alive with six stages and 500 vendors creating Calgary’s best street party along 4th Street SW from the Elbow River to 17th Avenue SW.

Link: 4th Street Lilac Festival

  Finally Spring has arrived in Calgary (photo credit: Carpe Diem!)

Finally Spring has arrived in Calgary (photo credit: Carpe Diem!)

Spruce Meadows, June to September

Spruce Meadows is one of North America’s most unique festival sites, offering not one, but five major international show jumping events annually – National (June 6 to 10th), Continental (June 13 to 17), North American, (July 4 to 8th) Pan American (June 26 to July 1st) and Masters (Sept 5 to 8th).  If you love horses, this is a “must see.”

Link: Spruce Meadows

 Family fun at Spruce Meadows (photo credit: Spruce Meadows Media)

Family fun at Spruce Meadows (photo credit: Spruce Meadows Media)

Sled Island, June 20 to 24

Sled Island Music & Arts Festival is a curated mash-up of music genres and art with more than 250 events at 35 different venues (record stores to Olympic Plaza) including bands, comedy, films and exhibitions involving local and international headliners and emerging artists.

Link: Sled Island

 Crosss @ Tubby Dog (photo credit: Sled Island Photo)

Crosss @ Tubby Dog (photo credit: Sled Island Photo)

Calgary Stampede, July 6 to 15

Billed as the “Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth,” the Calgary Stampede combines a 2-hour long parade attracting over 200,000+ people, as well as a Rodeo, Chuckwagon Races, Grandstand Show, Agricultural Exhibition, Midway, Indian Village and Music Festival (headliners have included Garth Brooks, Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire) that attracts over one million visitors of all ages and backgrounds to Stampede Park.  

Link: Calgary Stampede

 Stampede is seven festivals in one - Agricultural Exhibition, Indian Village, Rodeo, Chuckwagon Races, Grandstand Show, Midway and Music Festival. 

Stampede is seven festivals in one - Agricultural Exhibition, Indian Village, Rodeo, Chuckwagon Races, Grandstand Show, Midway and Music Festival. 

Calgary International Folk Festival, July 26 to 29

No city can match the pastoral setting of Calgary International Folk Festival held at Prince’s Island Park located in the middle of the majestic Bow River and in the shadows of Calgary’s glittering downtown skyscrapers. It’s a magical place with glowing sunsets each night on the Main Stage headliners like Coeur De Pirate, Tanya Tagaq or Blue Rodeo in 2017. During the day, enjoy the six stages for an up close and personal experience under the canopy of 100-year old cottonwood trees.

Link: Calgary International Folk Festival

  It doesn't get any better than this!

It doesn't get any better than this!

Historic Calgary Week, July 27 to August 6

For history buffs, don’t miss the hundreds of lectures and walkabouts lead by local history enthusiasts organized by Chinook Country Historical Society.  Learn all about Calgary’s boom/bust evolution from the Blackfoot nation’s summer meeting place, to the pioneer settlers, to becoming one of North America’s leading corporate headquarters cities.

Link: Historic Calgary Week

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 GlobalFest, August 16 to 25

GlobalFest burst (pun intended) onto the scene in 2003, a collaborative effort that combines an international fireworks competition with a multicultural night market. Held in Calgary’s Elliston Park with its man-made lake, just off International Avenue (aka 17th Ave SE) it celebrates Calgary’s multiculturalism.  The American Bus Association ranked it in the Top 100 Events in North America.

Link: GlobalFest

  GlobalFest fireworks (photo credit: GlobalFest and J&J Photography)

GlobalFest fireworks (photo credit: GlobalFest and J&J Photography)

Shaw Classic / Tour Champions, August 29th to September 2

Calgary is not only home to many world-class golf courses, but also to one of the premier PGA TOUR Champions events attracting one of the best international line-ups of the season.  In 2017, the Shaw Classic had one of the largest audiences of any TOUR Champions event and set a TOUR Champions fundraising record of $8.3 million for local charities.  It is a great opportunity to watch some of the greatest golfers of our time – Fred Couples loves this tournament!

Link: Shaw Classic

  The Shaw Classic attracts all of the best players from the Champions TOUR, including Fred Couples, Hal Irwin, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez....

The Shaw Classic attracts all of the best players from the Champions TOUR, including Fred Couples, Hal Irwin, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez....

Honens Piano Competition, August 30 to September 8

If you love classical music and the piano, don’t miss the Honens International Piano Competition. The quarterfinals are in Berlin and New York this spring, but the semifinals and finals are in Calgary.  The winner gets $100,000 in cash and an artist development program valued at half a millions dollars – the largest of its kind. 

Link: Honens Piano Competition

Beakerhead, Sept 19 to 23

Beakerhead, perhaps one of the most unique festivals in the world, is a wonderfully bizarre combination of science, engineering and the arts.  It encompasses 60+ events, installations and shows throughout the City Centre over five days and attracts over 125,000 participants.  Bring the entire family - including grandma and grandpa.

Link: Beakerhead

  Beakerhead seems to be especially popular with teens and 20 somethings....

Beakerhead seems to be especially popular with teens and 20 somethings....

Calgary International Film Festival,  (2018 dates needed)

For the past 17 years, Calgary has hosted “the best little film festival on the prairies.”  0ver 200 films in multiple genres are screened over 12 days attracting 40,000 cineophiles.  The Calgary Film Festival is recognized as one of the top “short film” festivals in the world. 

Link: Calgary International Film Festival

Wordfest, Oct 9 to 14

Over the past 22 years, Wordfest has showcased over 900 writers conducting readings, workshops, and panel discussions.  Last year, 70 events attracted 15,000 people of all ages including children.  Its year-round literary program culminates with this October festival featuring international best-sellers, groundbreakers and up-and-coming authors.  

Link: Wordfest

 (photo credit: Wordfest)

(photo credit: Wordfest)

Christmas In Calgary

ZOOLIGHTS,  Nov 23 to Jan 5 2019

At Christmas, 1.5 million lights transform the Calgary Zoo into a winter wonderland.  It takes about 90 minutes to fully experience the displays. In addition, there is a mix of indoor (crafts, pictures with Santa) and outdoor activities (skating, fire pits) for all ages.

Link: ZOOLIGHTS

  (photo credit: Condo Living Magazine)

(photo credit: Condo Living Magazine)

Spruce Meadows Christmas Market

Nov 16–18, Nov 23–25, & Nov 30-Dec 2

The Spruce Meadows Christmas Market gives Calgarians a shopping experience filled with entertainment, delicious food, and unique gift buying opportunities.  300+ vendors spread Christmas Spirit in the indoor comfort of Spruce Meadows’ various buildings.  Kids love Reindeer Alley, Candy Cane Lane and listening to various choirs, instrumental performances and magical dance displays amongst the 74 kilometres of Christmas lights strung around the grounds. (Seniors (65+) and Children (-12) admitted free.

Link: Spruce Meadows Christmas Market

  Spruce Meadows Christmas Market (photo credit: Spruce Meadows Media)

Spruce Meadows Christmas Market (photo credit: Spruce Meadows Media)

Lions’ Festival of Lights, Dec 1 to Jan 7

Each year the Lions Clubs of Calgary create a free Festival of Lights in Confederation Park incorporating over 450,000 bulbs on 16,000 strings into various Holiday characters.  The festival is unique as you can enjoy it many different ways – drive-by on 14th St NW, walk, snowshoe, cross-country ski or even toboggan down the hills amongst the display. Lights are on from 6 pm to midnight, 7 days a week. 

Link: Lion's Festival of Lights

  Tobogganers having fun at Lion's Festival of Lights

Tobogganers having fun at Lion's Festival of Lights

Last Word

In addition to these signature festivals, Calgary has numerous smaller festivals year round that serve niche groups, especially in film and music. For more information check out Tourism Calgary’s website: http://www.visitcalgary.com/things-to-do/festivals-events

Everyday Tourist Calgary Festival Blog Links:

Everyday Tourist Visits Calgary Expo 2016

Postcards from 2016 Calgary Folk Festival

Calgary Historic Walks