Every travel blogger must have a list of fun things to see and do in his/her home town. I can’t believe I haven’t done a list before. Better late than never, right?
Here are my picks for FREE things to see and do with links to websites and blogs that will give you more details. I have tried to make sure the information is correct at the time of posting (May 2019) but always best to check their website before you go.
Note: This is not a complete list of free things, but just some of the ones I know and like. If you have others, let me know and I will add to the list. I am short on free things to do in the suburbs as I don’t frequent those communities as often as perhaps I should.
Calgary has two rock gardens to wander – Reader and Senator Patrick Burns. The Botanical Gardens of Silver Springs (totally a community volunteer initiative) and the historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House are both delightful places to wander. Best to visit these outdoor gardens from May to September.
Calgary’s downtown boasts two lovely indoor gardens that can be enjoyed year round – Devonian Gardens (fourth floor of The Core shopping centre) and Jamieson Place’s winter garden.
The YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre is fun for everyone, with educational exhibits including The Forensic Lab, True Crime Stories, as well as Alberta’s largest collection of policing artifacts – uniforms, weapons and vehicles.
At the Grain Academy & Museum (open Monday to Friday), learn about how the prairies were settled, early pioneer life and see the world’s largest model train display showing the movement of grain from the prairies to the terminals at Vancouver.
In the lobby of their ATCO building at 11th Ave and 8th St SW is a mini museum with artifacts from the power industry. Both Smithbilt Hats and Alberta Boots Company have a flagship stores that double as museums with lots of artifacts.
And the Glenbow Museum is free the first Thursday of every month after 5 pm.
Link: Grain Academy & Museum
Free Walks in the Parks
While New York City has Central Park, Calgary has two huge parks – Nose Hill Park in the north and Fish Creek Park in the south. Nose Hill, a natural prairie grassland park, offers spectacular 360 degree views of the prairies, city, foothills and mountains. Fish Creek Provincial Park offers walks in a natural forest setting along a trickling creek. These are just two of the over 5,000 parks in Calgary.
Downtown’s Prince’s Island Park includes a small sculpture park, as well as the Chevron Learning Pathway (an innovative urban wetland environment) and fun children’s playground.
Just a few kilometers from the City Centre is the Douglas Fir trail up the Bow River escarpment. This is the furthest east where Douglas Fir trees grow - truly a forest in the middle of the city.
The Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is a fun place to wander and see what birds, fish and mammals you can spot. There is even a fishing pond for kids. A short walk away lies Harvie Passage where you might catch kayakers shooting the Bow River rapids.
Link: Inglewood Bird Sanctuary
Free Art Galleries
For those who like art, Calgary has lots of free things to see. The downtown is literally a free public art gallery with 100s of artworks along the sidewalks, on the plazas and in the lobbies of the larger skyscrapers.
On the +15 level of the Centennial Parkade you will discover a herd of colourful and playful, life-size cows. The Udderly Art Pasture is the legacy from the Colourful Cows project in 2000, when over 100 cows grazed in the downtown. In addition to the cows the pasture has several information panels that tell the story of Calgary’s most successful public art project to date.
Highlights include works by modern Canadian master painters Bush, Riopelle and Shadbolt at Eighth Avenue Place and Dale Chihuly glass works in Jamieson Place.
In Calgary City Centre office tower’s lobby hangs a huge expressionistic canvas drawing (32 feet by 16 feet) in its lobby of the Zeppelin by Saskatoon artist, Alison Norlen along with 19 other artworks in the building’s public space.
The two towers for Bankers Hall have numerous artworks in the lobbies and outside entrances including several interactive Weather Vanes in the southeast lobby that you can actually turn.
And don’t forget to ask at Eighth Avenue Place and City Centre for their booklet about their art program.
Calgary also has three free public art galleries. The Esker Art Gallery in the Atlantic Avenue Block in Inglewood, the Nickle Art Gallery in the Taylor Family Digital Library at the University of Calgary and the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta Arts University (formerly called Alberta Collage of Art and Design or ACAD). All offer engaging exhibition programs.
You should definitely check out cSpace a grand old sandstone school in Marda Loop that has been converted into artists studio, a craft gallery space and performance space. It is a fun place to explore with rotating exhibitions in the old school hallway. The preservation and repurposing of the building is exquisite.
The Beltline community just south of downtown has several murals that make for a fun walking tour, especially if you also visit the Beltline’s commercial galleries along the way – Gibson Fine Art, Herringer Kiss Gallery, Loch Gallery, Paul Kuhn, New Zones, Trepanier Baer and VivianArt.
Stampede Park also has numerous murals and artworks that are available for viewing year-round, including the Parade of Historical Posters on the 2nd floor walkway from the LRT Station to the Corral. They too have an art walk map.
Link: Beltline Mural map
Link: Stampede Art Walk Map
Free Street Markets
During the summer Calgary offers numerous street markets from 4th Streets Lilac Festival that attracts over 100,000 people to monthly Night Markets in historic Inglewood.
If you like the thrill of the hunt while mingling with locals, the Sunday morning Hillhurst Flea Market (Hillhurst Community Centre) is your place. In the winter, the two gyms are full of treasures; in the summer the market spills out onto the plaza.
Crossroads Market is a year-round farmers’ market, as well as antique and boutique market, with something for everyone.
Calgary is home to not one, not two but three free Saturday afternoon blues jams – Blues Can, Ironwood and Mikey’s Juke Joint. Beer is extra. All three venues also have Sunday jams and live music Monday to Wednesday nights with no cover charge. Tom Phillips’ Sunday afternoon jam at Mikey’s is about as authentic as it gets for country music jam.
The Ship & Anchor is not only Calgary’s iconic pub, but it also hosts live music especially on the weekends. In Bowness, Hexters Pub has a fun Motown Jam on Sunday afternoons that will make you want to dance.
LInk: Hexter Pub
Link: Blues Can
Free History Tours
Stephen Avenue is a designated National Historic district with thirty plus early 20thcentury buildings along a 3 block stretch. Information panels along the pedestrian mall help tell some of Calgary’s history. For more detailed information, get the City of Calgary printable self-guided tour map.
9thAvenue (originally known as Atlantic Avenue) is Calgary’s first main street. Today it still has much of the charm it did early in the 20thcentury with its mix of shops, cafes and restaurants.
Three proud Calgarians aka “Walk The YYC” with lots of travel experience offer both free and paid tours. Check their website to see what they are offering.
Link: WalkYYC Free Tours
In the summer, there is free wading (no lifeguards) in the Bow River at Edworthy Park and along the Elbow River at Stanley Park and Sandy Beach (which isn’t actually sandy). Free wading pools can be found in Bowness Park, Eau Claire Plaza, Prairie Winds Park and Riley Park. Memorial Park as some fun small fountains that kids love to run through.
The Shaw Millennium Park has one of the world’s largest free public skate parks (skateboarding and BMX biking) – with separate areas for beginners, intermediates and experts. In the winter, free ice skating at Bowness Park and Olympic Plaza is very popular.
Link: Shaw Millennium Park
Link: Bowness Park
Free +15 Skywalks
Explore Calgary’s +15 walkway, the world’s longest elevated indoor walkway (20km) with 60+ bridges connecting over 100 buildings in the downtown. This is an especially great idea for a winter adventure when too cold to walk outside. It is known as the Plus 15 because the bridges are 15 feet above the sidewalks. It is like a futuristic indoor city with shopping, cafes, gardens, hotels and lots of public art.
Make it a treasure hunt. Without going outside, can you find the bush plane hanging from the ceiling (at Suncor Energy Centre) or the hanging Chihuly glass sculptures (over the infinity pool in Jamieson Place winter garden), the First Nations masks (in Devonian Gardens), the painted cows (in the Centennial Parkade) and the etched poetry on the glass (on the bridge from First Alberta Place)? Don’t worry if you get lost. Calgarians are very friendly and they will help you find your way.
For a real challenge, join locals on the Memorial Drive stair climb. There are 167 steps divided into 11 flights and make for a great workout whether you walk or run them! Maybe even take the “10 laps stair” challenge, starting at the bottom and finishing at the top. Do it in under 17 minutes and you are an Olympic athlete. Supposedly, 28 to 35 minutes is average but personally I think if you can’t finish, you are average.
Calgary also offers over 1,000 km of free cycling, running and walking trails throughout the city. You are never very far from a pathway.
For those who want a real challenge, there is the 130km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway pathway that that encircles circles the entire city.
Bow River Promenade
The quintessential Calgary experience is to walk along the 3 km Fort Calgary to the 14th Street Bridge. Not only will you get to enjoy the majestic Bow River, but you will also discover the quaint linear Nat Christie Sculpture Park, The Wave (river surfing) at the 10th Street bridge, the iconic Peace Bridge by Santiago Calatrava, Barclay Plaza with its wading pool, Jaipur Bridge to Prince’s Island, catch a glimpse of the beautiful Chinatown Cultural Centre and Sien Lok park, the historic Centre Street Bridge with its majestic lions, the historic Simons Building in East Village and the very cool George King Bridge to St. Patrick’s Island with its pebble beach, public art and other amenities. Final destination - Fort Calgary where the Elbow River flows into the Bow River.
Along the way, enjoy Calgary’s stunning skyline with iconic towers by international architectural firms like Norman Foster, Bjarke Ingles (BIG) and SOM. In the summer, especially on weekends, you will be joined by hundreds of colourful rafts floating down the river.
Link: Bridges Over The Bow
Calgary’s newest free fun thing to do is to hang out at the new Central Library, stunning inside and out. Built over a transit tunnel, kids will love watching the trains disappear and emerge from the tunnel from the brow of the building (shaped like a fly-fishing float boat or a luxury cruise ship). There is also great children’s play area. The TD Great Reading Room pays homage to the library tradition of having a communal place for patrons to read at long communal tables. As well, the Calgary’s Story area will appeal to anyone interested in local history. Grab a book, find a chair and read to your heart’s content.
Free Train Ride
Calgary’s LRT trains are free in the downtown, so walk from one end of downtown to the other (about 2km) and then take the train back. Or take the train both ways. Kids love hopping on and off. You can do it as many times as you want - for FREE.
So, there you have some my picks for FREE fun things to see and do in Calgary. I hope this list will be useful not only to anyone planning a visit toCalgary, but also to those who live in Calgary and have visiting family and friends looking for some fun things to do.
Remember, if you have others, let me know and I will add them to my list.
Here are some links to other blogs that will be helpful to tourists or visiting family and friends looking for things to see and do.