Back in 2014, Calgary, Alberta, Canada was one of the New York Times top 52 places to travel. Calgary was lauded for its thriving public art scene, the Peace Bridge and of course, the Stampede.
Calgary is no longer on that list. (After this blog was posted, Calgary got back on the NYT 2019 list, as a result of the opening of the new Central Library, not sure anyone would visit Calgary just to see a library). Their public art program has been ridiculed locally and internationally for some poor choices and its once thriving downtown is more like a ghost town with 25% office vacancy.
I have compiled 19 reasons NOT to visit Calgary in 2019.
Even the locals don’t like their public art.
Calgarians’ hatred for their public art can be traced back to 2013 with the installation of a giant blue ring on the side of a highway bridge over some railway tracks in the middle of nowhere. Locals were outraged the City paid $470,000 for what amounted to a glorified lamppost to the European based inges indee art group. Even the Mayor didn’t like it.
The good news is Calgary is full of GREAT public art. The downtown has 100+ works of art scattered along its streets, plaza, parks and pathways. There are hundreds more of museum quality art in the lobbies of downtown office buildings. It is literally one huge public art gallery.
It is still just a frontier town.
This is kinda true. One of the city’s biggest tourist attractions is Heritage Park, Canada’s largest living history museum, situated in a picturesque 127-acre park on the edge of the Glenmore Reservoir. The park has over 100 exhibits, a passenger train with two working steam locomotives, an antique midway, an early 20th century main street and Gasoline Alley Museum showcasing and extensive collection of antique cars and related memorabilia.
Still standing on Stephen Avenue, a national historic district is a small wooden building that survived the Calgary fire of 1886. Early 20th century homes – Dean House and Cross House – are now upscale restaurants.
Today Calgary is a modern metropolis that is know better for its spectacular new buildings than its frontier shacks.
Link: Heritage Park
The place is a concrete jungle.
You will definitely think that if you entered downtown on the LRT train above Bow Trail high above the huge Shaw Millennium Park skate park (one of the largest free skate parks in the world).
And yes, some of the downtown buildings are bland concrete blocks, but Calgary’s City Centre is full of shiny glass towers that together create one of the best skylines of any city in North America. The reflections created by the interplay of glass buildings create amazing surrealistic abstractions.
And, the City Centre is actually full of some amazing green spaces, from Prince’s and St. Patrick’s Island parks in the middle of the Bow River to urban parks like Memorial Park and Riley Park in residential districts.
It has no hipster districts.
Sure, Calgary is more an engineer, banker, geologist city than a hip artsy city, but don’t let that fool you. Calgary’s GABEsters (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers, Brokers and Engineers) know how to wear plaid, eat yogurt and do yoga.
Fact is, Calgary has some great hipster districts – Beltline and Inglewood being the two best. If you are looking for live music, check out the Ship & Anchor, Palominos or Ironwood. It if is music festivals you are into, you won’t want to miss Sled Island, the Calgary International Folk Festival or Country Thunder. If you are into film, you won’t want to miss the Calgary International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival and Artifact Small Format Film Festival. There is also two arthouse cinemas – Globe Cinema and Plaza Theatre.
It is more a “pick-up truck” than a “food truck” kinda town!
This is true. Calgary is considered to be the pick-up truck capital of Canada, but they are not beat up old pick-ups, but luxury fully-loaded models. And while we might not be the “food truck” capital of Canada, we do have a healthy community of food trucks with fun names like Rolls Rice and Jane Bond BBQ. And you can get everything from Hawaiian, Mexican and Caribbean flavours at Awko Taco, to chorizo wrapped scotch eggs at Crack’d YYC to Venezuelan gluten-free dough stuffed pockets at Arepa Boss.
Calgary even has a YYCFoodTrucks App that lets you find out where your favourite food truck any time that street food craving hits.
There are no good places to eat.
While that might have true 20 years ago, it’s definitely false today. Recently, 16 Calgary restaurants were included in Canada’s top 100 restaurants compiled by Open Table. That was second to Toronto but ahead of Vancouver and Montreal. And on a per capita basis Calgary was #1 in Canada.
Calgary also routinely places restaurants on EnRoute magazine’s annual top 10 new restaurants in Canada list.
Calgary has a great mix of restaurants - from traditional steak houses to contemporary fusion. You can dine in a revolving restaurant 50-storeys above downtown, a rustic cottage on an island in the middle of the Bow River or in a 100+ year old house next to the Elbow River and Fort Calgary.
John Gilchrist, Calgary’s long time food and restaurant guru, reviews almost 300 favourites, in his 8th edition of “My Favourite Restaurants (Calgary, Canmore and beyond),”
Calgary is a city of “Yahoos!”
It is true, every year for 10 days in July, Calgarians from all walks of life get dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls and start yelling “yahoo” sometimes for no reason at all. They love to watch real cowboys climb up on wild horses and bulls, just to see how quickly they will get bucked off. They love the annual Stampede Midway, the chuckwagon races, the Grandstand show, the agricultural exhibitions, the Western Art Show and the many, many concerts.
The Calgary Stampede isn’t called the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” for nothing, it is literally seven festivals in one. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Link: Stampede 2019
There is no street life in Calgary.
True, Calgary doesn’t have the street life of big cities like New York, Chicago, Paris or London or even smaller European cities like Leipzig or Florence. However, it’s not to say there aren’t pedestrian hot spots!
Check out downtown’s Power Hour (spring to fall) when 20,000+ downtown office workers invade Stephen Avenue Walk to shop, dine and stroll. Or wander downtown’s 20-km maze of 60+ sky bridges (known by locals at the +15) that connect over 100 office, hotel, shopping and public buildings, joining thousands of others scurrying to get to meetings, grab a coffee or a bite to eat.
Calgary also boasts several pedestrian streets worth exploring on the edge of downtown – 4thStreet in Mission, 17thAve SW from 4th St to 14thSt SW, Kensington Road and 10thStreet NW, as well as, 9thAvenue in Inglewood.
Link: Calgary’s Power Hour
Calgary has no weird, wild, wacky architecture
You will hear people say that. Don’t believe them. Calgary has some amazing contemporary architecture and urban design. Some are by star international architects/artists like Bjarke Ingels (Telus Sky), Norman Foster (The Bow), Santiago Calatrava (Peace Bridge) and SOM Architects (707 Fifth), Allied Works Architecture (National Music Centre) and Calgary’s latest architectural gem the new Central Library by Snohetta.
There are also architectural gems by local architects - Nexen Building by Fredrick Valentine, Jack Long’s Planetarium, Albert Dale’s iconic Calgary Tower and Barry Graham’s Saddledome.
And there is Calgary’s +15 walkway system (60+ sky bridges), the brainchild of Bill Milne back in the early ‘70s that has since evolved to become a defining feature of Calgary’s unique sense of place. It is Calgary’s subway, but instead of dark dingy tunnels, it has shiny, sunny bridges with lots of public art, cafes, food courts and shopping along the 20 kms of indoor walkways.
Calgary’s downtown is home to some mega cathedral-like skylights be it Bankers Hall, Western Canada Place or Fifth Avenue Place, as well as the mega, three-block long Core shopping centre skylight. Calgarians love to enjoy their 320+ days of sunshine, especially in the winter.
Calgary has too many parks. You can’t possibly visit them all.
Calgary boasts 5,200 parks including two of the largest urban parks in the world – Nose Hill Park and Fish Creek Park, both being over three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park or New York’s Central Park. Calgary also boasts three of the most picturesque urban parks in Canada - Prince’s Island Park, St. Patrick’s Island Park and Memorial Park. Oh, and don’t forget the previously mentioned skatepark in Shaw Millennium Park and Rotary Challenger Park, the latter specifically designed for people with special needs.
If you are a dog lover (and who isn’t these days), Calgary is home to over 150 designated dog parks making it the “dog park capital of North America.” If you are visiting and are missing your dog, head to River Park to get your “fix” with literally hundreds of dogs walking their owners from sun-up to sun-down year-round.
And, if you like rock gardens, Calgary has two - the historic Reader Rock Gardens, a designated national historic site with its lovely café and the Senator Patrick Burns Rock Gardens next to Riley Park.
And if you want to meet local gardeners, check out the kilometer long Botanical Gardens of Silver Springs, created and maintained by community volunteers.
Calgarians don’t know the difference between craft beer and arts & crafts.
Not true. In fact, Calgary’s beer making history dates back to 1892, when the Calgary Brewery & Malting Co. was established in Inglewood (and it didn’t close until 1994). When it comes to artisan breweries, Calgary had one of Canada’s first, when Ed McNally opened Big Rock brewery in 1985.
Today, Calgary boasts 50+ craft breweries scattered around the city and just beyond. Calgary is also home to several beer festivals including the Calgary International Beerfest and The Mashing Calgary. The Craft Beer Market on 10thAve in the Beltline has 100 beers on tap, while one at Southcentre Mall has 120. There is even an emerging Brewery Flats neighbourhood.
In addition, southern Alberta has 13 craft distilleries, including many award winners – one being Secret Barrel white rum which won silver at the 2018 New York Spirits Competition. Downtown is also home to Calgary Co-op’s World of Whiskey, a unique store that sells 700 different whiskies, from the finest 60 year-old scotch to trendy Taiwanese and Japanese whiskey.
Calgary has no cycling infrastructure.
While Calgary is no Amsterdam or Copenhagen when it comes to urban cycling infrastructure, it does have over 1,000 kilometers of mixed-use pathways. It even has the 138-km Rotary Mattamy pathways that encircles the city. In the winter, over 400 km of paved pathways are cleared of snow.
Three of the most popular rides - around the Glenmore Reservoir, along the Bow River from Harvie Rapids, through downtown to Edworthy Park and anywhere in Fish Creek Park.
In 2019, Calgary will host the Winter Cycling Congress. Local writer Tom Babin, literally wrote the book on winter cycling “Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.”
And, Calgary may well be home to the largest bike shop in North America - Bow Cycle.
Link: Frostbike Review
If you are a history buff, you will hate Calgary.
Sure, Calgary doesn’t have centuries old buildings and there haven’t been any world altering events happen, i.e. no wars, no great inventions and no really, really famous people were born here or lived here for long.
But, yes we do have lots of history be it the Glenbow Museum or the National Music Centre, or how about Fort Calgary or Heritage Park with its antique car museum. Did you know Calgary has the second largest War Museum in Canada?
Oh, and by the way, Calgary is home to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame with 2,000+ artefacts and 12 galleries. It is a must see for sports fans.
Stephen Avenue a national historic district with its collection of turn-of-the-century buildings is like a walk back in time as is Inglewood’s 9thStreet (aka Atlantic Avenue) a lovely historic main street full of shops, cafes, galleries and restaurants.
Calgary is also home to a lovely collection of early 20th century local Paskapoo sandstone buildings, from the old city hall to schools and the quaint Memorial Park Library.
Don’t you just hate all this history…
There are no family-friendly tourist attractions in Calgary.
Think again! The Calgary Zoo is one of Canada’s best family attractions because it is very walkable and has lots unique things for kids to see and do - panda bears and penguins. Telus Spark (Science Centre) is not only an architectural gem but also has some great kids’ activities including a unique outdoor playground. Side by side on the northeast edge of the downtown, the pair make for a fun family day or weekend.
Bonus – If you are staying downtown, add to the adventure by taking the quick and easy train ride to the Zoo or Telus Spark. In fact, riding the LRT trains for a few hours as it weaves its way around the city can be a very fun adventure in itself for young children.
The Glenbow’s hands-on activity room and its historical and modern exhibitions are a great indoor family-friendly option.
In the summer, young families will want to check out Calaway Park with its 32 family-friendly rides just a few minutes west of the City.
There are no beaches, lakes or oceans.
Yes, Calgary is landlocked but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of fun water activities. River surf at the base of the Louise Bridge, float or paddle the Bow or Elbow Rivers, or sail or row in the Glenmore Reservoir.
And while we don’t have any white sand beaches, we have pebble beaches that can be a lot of fun. Who doesn’t like to throw rocks in the water?
Calgary is a one horse town.
It used to be. But today, Calgary has a full calendar of eclectic festivals from the High Performance Rodeo theatre festival (kicks off the year off each) to Calgary Expo, (one of Canada’s largest cosplay festivals), SLED Island (contemporary music and arts) to summer Blues, Folk, Afrikadey, Taste of Calgary and Country Thunder festivals. In the fall there is Beakerhead (a unique mash-up of science, art, engineering), Artwalk, Tattoo & Arts and Wordfest. And if you decide to come in December, Zoolights is spectacular.
There are also several street festivals with the biggest being the Lilac Festival along 4th Street SW in Mission that attracts over 100,000 people. It’s Calgary’s rite of spring.
While the Calgary Stampede Parade is the biggest parade in town, the Nagar Kirtan and the Calgary Pride parades are colourful fun attracting thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators.
The shopping sucks.
Maybe… if you are from a really big city or international tourist town, but Calgary holds its own with most cities. There is downtown’s shopping corridor from the historic Hudson’s Bay department store to the modern Holt Renfrew designer department store. In between are over 200 shops.
Chinook Mall is one of Canada’s biggest malls with Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Hudson’s Bay as the anchors for its 250+ stores. The newest kid on the block is the CrossIron Mills outlet mall with 200+ specialty and outlet stores.
If you are looking for local street shopping, you are in luck. Calgary has several great local shops. In Inglewood there is Knifewear (Canada’s best selection of Japanese Knives) or Kent of Inglewood (“every man should have a stiff axe, a stiff cocktail and a perfect shave” says its website), NERD (a roller derby boutique), Circa Vintage Art Glass and Tea Traders to just name a few.
Along 17th Avenue SW, you will want to check out Rubaiyat for its curated collection of home accessories and jewellery, Gravity Pope for unique shoes and fashions and Reid’s, a fun party/stationery store, as well as 100+ stores.
In Kensington, don’t miss Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys, while in Mission, Masters Gallery is one of Canada’s best private art galleries and inspirati offers an expansive collection of fine linens.
Link: Shopping In Calgary
Calgarians don’t know the difference between an espresso and instant coffee.
Actually, that is not true. Calgary’s independent coffee culture dates back to the early 80s, well before Starbuck’s invasion. In Kensington, Higher Ground café has been serving fine coffee since 1982, and The Roasterie has been roasting its own beans since 1984. Café Beano has been a hit with Calgary’s bobo culture along Uptown 17thsince 1990.
Today, Calgary is home to several homegrown roasters and cafes that make it one of the more interesting coffee cultures in North America. If you are a contemporary coffee aficionado, here are some caffeine hot spots.
Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters started out as pop-up coffee shop at the Calgary Farmer’s Market in 2006. Today, is has several locations across the city including two unique sites in the downtown - one in the historic Hudson block on Stephen Avenue that it shares with the ATB bank/art gallery (how cool is that) and one in East Village’s trendy Simmons Building.
In 2007, Café Rosso opened in the community of Ramsay in an old Dominion Bridge industrial building definitely off-the-beaten path. But they made it work and before you knew it, they had several locations around the city. Not only that, in 2012 they started to experiment with roasting their own beans, which they now ship across Canada. In 2018, one of the partners Cole Torode placed 5that the World Barista Championships. Café Rosso, has a flagship café in the new National Music Centre.
In 2012, Jeremy Ho won the title of Best Barista in Canada and in 2014 his buddy Ben Put won the championship for the second year in a row, while working at Phil & Sebastian. Together they capitalized on their fame to create Monogram Coffee Co. that is both a custom roasterie and operates boutique cafes.
How to do you fix up the family’s tired old drug store? If you are Gareth Lukes, you add a café at the entrance, grocery in the basement, some shelves for records and other hip items and “voila” - hipster hangout. This is exactly what he did in 2012 with the families Bridgeland drug store and he hasn’t looked back. He was an early adopter of Portland’s Stumptown beans, but he continued to source new beans and still continues to do so. He has just opened a flagship café in Calgary’s stunning new Central Library.
If you are looking for an old school bohemian coffee house from the ‘60s, Calgary has two - Bell’s in Marda Loop and Weeds in Capitol Hill.
So, there you have it, 19 reasons NOT to visit Calgary in 2019.
A big thanks to Buzzfeed for the idea for this satirical blog. I saw their Twenty One Reasons You Should Never Visit Colombia and thought it would be fun to do something similar on Calgary.