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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.