Road Trip: Postcards From Alberta's Badlands & Ghost Towns

This summer we decided to explore some of the off-the-beaten path places in southern Alberta. Our first adventure was to Drumheller (where we haven’t been for decades) and to some of the small town “main streets” along the way, as well as the Badlands.  

This road trip strengthen our resolve to think outside the “city.”

Public Art?

Public Art?

More public art?

More public art?

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

Everybody loves a train ride!

Everybody loves a train ride!

First Stop: Irricana (population 1,216) 

Its name is a contraction of the words “irrigation canals” which are found in the area.  Settlement dates back to 1909 and it was incorporated as a village on June 9, 1911, by which time it had a post office, hotel and general store operated by the Irricana Trading Company.  Today, though the store’s building is still standing, is abandoned and much of the Main Street consists of vacant lots making it look like a ghost-town. While there are some attempts to add some colour and charm with murals, it seems a bit futile.  

However, just outside of town on the highway #9, sits a fun installation of farm equipment mounted high up on posts promoting, Pioneer Acres, where I am told you will find a dozen buildings filled with unique exhibits and artifacts from the early prairie pioneers.  Too bad those buildings weren’t located in the town along Main Street. 

Link:Pioneer Acres https://www.pioneeracres.ab.ca

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

Main Street Irricana.

Main Street Irricana.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

Second Stop:  Beiseker (population 819) 

Lying in a belt of rich black soil, Beiseker was developed as an agricultural service centre. It was founded by the Calgary Colonization Company, whose purpose was to promote settlement by demonstrating the grain-growing potential of the area. The village is named after Thomas Beiseker, a partner and vice president of the company. The surrounding area became known as "World Wheat King Capital" because of its ability to grow wheat. Today, a  small park at the end of main street tells the history of the town. It even has a tiny sod house that you can explore. 

The village began to grow in 1910 when the branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. The Grand Trunk Pacific line - now owned by Canadian National Railway - was constructed in 1912 to the east of the central business district

With the construction and intersection of Highways 9, 72 and 806 being at the northeast edge of the village, Beiseker came to have a very favourable location in terms of road and rail access. Almost equidistant from Calgary and Drumheller, Beiseker began to emerge as a local service and trade centre for the surrounding rural agricultural area. 

Beiseker currently serves as a centre for local agricultural services including fertilizer, seed cleaning, and soil testing. There is a local UFA outlet, and a Canadian Malting Co. grain elevator serving farmers in the area. Local industries serve the oil patch.  

It is also home to the Canadian office of Lampson International, a large international company specializing in construction cranes and a biomedical incinerator which handles medical waste from hospitals in Alberta, Canada and internationally.  

Not unlike Irricana, wandering Beisker’s main street on a Saturday morning was akin to walking in a ghost town -  nobody on the streets, lots of the main street buildings are gone and those that remain look like they are struggling to survive.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the fun factor…

Love the fun factor…

Third Stop: Horseshoe Canyon Park 

 While not the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon sits just off Hwy 9, 17 km west of Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. It is an eye-popping sight. Stand at the edge of this huge U-shaped canyon and try to imagine what it was like when the dinosaurs roamed a lush sub-tropical habitat some 70 million years ago. Today, marked trails guide your wandering down into the canyon to get a closer look at the different soils, rock formations and plants. There are even helicopter rides available on-site.  The park is free and there is lots of free parking. 

Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe Canyon

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Fourth Stop: Drumheller (population 7,982)

When we first moved to Alberta in the early ‘80s, Drumheller was best known as the home of the Drumheller Institution (aka prison). Opened in 1967 as a medium security facility, a minimum security facility was added in 1997. Today, it has a capacity of 704 (582 medium security and 122 minimum security). The Institution provides a stable economic and employment base for Drumheller and surrounding area. 

In the late 1980s, Drumheller became famous as a center for dinosaur tourism and research with the opening of the Tyrell Museum in 1985 (it subsequently received “Royal” status in 1990.  Located 6 km northwest from Drumheller, the museum is situated in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formationand holds 130,000 fossil specimens from the Alberta badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.  In the first year it attracted over 500,000 visitors from over 100 countries. Today, it averages about 350,000 visitors annually. 

We opted to skip the museum (a new exhibition had just opened and it was a zoo) to flaneur downtown Drumheller. To our pleasant surprise, the downtown has several charming shops, restaurants - even a Saturday farmers’ market.  What impressed us most is how the city has capitalized on the dinosaur theme with fun creatures at every downtown corner making for great photo ops. We encounter several families exploring the downtown taking photos of the kids with the dinosaurs.

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

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Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

 Fifth Stop: Wayne (population 40)

Wayne, located 10 km southeast of Drumheller was once a thriving coal mining town whose population is estimated to have reached a high of 10,000 in 1932. The last mine closed in 1957 and today it is home to about 40 diehard souls. Half the fun of visiting Wayne is navigating a winding road with 11 (no word of a lie)  one-lane bridges along a moon-like landscape to get there. 

In its heyday, Wayne had a school, hospital, hotel, theatre and several stores along its main street.  Today, all that remains is the Rosedeer Hotel which surprisingly still operates as a hotel and its Last Chance Saloon, now a popular watering hole for touring motorcycle groups.  The hotel has only 6 rooms, each with a different theme – Titanic, Golf, Harley, Miners, Honeymoon and Music Room.  

The Saloon often has live music and hosts the annual WayneStock music festival (this year’s festival is from August 30 to Sept 2, 2019).  While we were there the Maybellines were playing the afternoon set – it was magical. 

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Sixth Stop: East Coulee (population 148) 

We “passed” on stopping at the Hoodoos Park just east of Drumheller and proceeded directly to East Coulee and the Atlas Coal mine (a national historic site) site 16 km east of Drumheller. Once home to about 3,000 residents, its heyday was between 1920s and 1950s when, like Wayne, the coal mines were excavating hundreds of thousands of tons of coal.  Today, the old school has been converted into a museum which also hosts an annual spring music festival “SpringFest.”  Unfortunately we arrived just after 5 pm too late to get into the museum. 

The streets of East Coulee are lined with huge trees, giving it an oasis-like feeling compared to the barren surrounding landscape. The tiny miners’ homes are a reminder of how early pioneers lived in modest small homes, each probably housed six or more people.

Nothing is left of its main street except one large building that has been converted into a studio for the manufacturing of dinosaur-related items for museums, movie studios, parades and theme parks.  There is also a small gift shop with a lovely garden.  

Just across the river from East Coulee is The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site that operated from 1936 to 1979. It is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the country's last standing wooden coal tipple. In fact, it’s  the largest still standing in North America. Designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1989, it achieved  National Historic Site of Canada status in 2002. 

Various guided tour options exist. You can take a train ride through the site, walk up the tipple or tour the 210 foot underground conveyor tunnel. The facilities are open to visitors from May to Thanksgiving weekend. 

With not enough time to do a tour (we arrived 20 minutes before closing) we instead walked up the dead end road west of the parking lot where we had heard there was an art installation.  Sure enough, at the end of the road, stood dozens of five foot tall tree limbs with alien head-like nobs stuck in the ground with rock piles at their base to help them stay standing. Many of the limbs had various small trinkets hanging or sitting on them, creating a somber, graveyard sense of place.  There is no markings or signs indicating who did them, why there are there, which only adds to the mystique. 

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

All aboard….

All aboard….

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

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Atlas Coal mine site

Atlas Coal mine site

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

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Loved this coal dust sand box….

Loved this coal dust sand box….

Public Art?

Public Art?

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Seventh Stop: Rosebud (population 87) 

It was founded in the 1885 by James Wishart, while following the Gleichen Trail with his family on their way to Montana. Arriving in the dark, they awoke the next  morning to discover the river valley covered by wild roses- Alberta’s official flower. Wishart then reportedly said, "Here's the promised land; we go no further." 

The beauty of the valley has attracted many people throughout the years, from nature lovers to artists. Notable Canadian artists A. Y. Jackson and H. G. Glyde, members of the Group of Seven, spent the summer of 1944 painting in the area. 

 Over the years, farming and coal mining have been the primary industries. In 1972, the Severn Creek School was shut down as part of an Alberta-wide education consolidating process, forcing local children to be bussed to Standard and Drumheller.  This resulted in the closure of  many local businesses and the hamlet population dropping to under a dozen people. 

But at Easter 1973, a group of young adults from Calgary brought about 40 teenagers out and camped in the then empty mercantile building. This pilot event initially evolved into a summer camp funded by a grant from the Alberta government and then later, Rosebud Camp of the Arts supported by Crescent Heights Baptist Church in Calgary. 

In 1977, a high school was founded using the old buildings of the town as classrooms and emphasizing practical visual, music and the performing arts in its curriculum. In the 1980s, Rosebud School of the Arts began to operate theatre, which eventually developed into Rosebud Theatre and the school shifted its emphasis to post-secondary education. 

Today, Rosebud Theatre runs as a fully professional company that offers programming year round and is a tourist attraction drawing patrons largely from Calgary and Drumheller.  It has a few shops, an art gallery and an excellent museum along its two main streets.  There were probably a dozen people wandering the streets while we were there. There are even an inn and bed & breakfast accommodations for those not wanting to drive home after the theatre. 

While tourism might save Rosebud, it can’t save every small town and village in Alberta. 

Link: Rosebud Theatre 

Link: The Hamlet of Rosebud 

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The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

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In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

Lesson Learned

On our way home, we chatted about how this road trip was a good reminder of how Alberta and the prairies have evolved over thousands of years from roaming dinosaurs, to nomadic indigenous people, to agricultural and resource pioneers (first coal, then oil and gas), to today’s corporate farming and resource development.  

It is good for us city folks to get out and explore the real towns and villages (not just the tourist attractions and tourist towns - aka Banff and Canmore) to get a better perspective of the world we share.  While much of the media attention these days is about the urbanization of Canada and decline of rural living, there are still a significant number of people living in rural Alberta communities - 656,048 according to 2016 Census of Canada.

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

Flaneuring Fun In Maple Creek

Delacour: Ghost Town or Golf Town

Meeting Creek: Ghost Town Could Be Art Town

Calgary vs Vancouver: Affordability & Livability

After recently spending a month living in the middle of Vancouver’s City Centre, exploring its different communities and checking out its condo market, I kept asking myself – how can millennials afford to live there?

And, for that matter how can empty nesters retire there? 

Calgary’s has numerous chill spots like Cold Garden a craft brewery in Inglewood that makes its City Centre a very attractive place to live, work and play.

Calgary’s has numerous chill spots like Cold Garden a craft brewery in Inglewood that makes its City Centre a very attractive place to live, work and play.

Dude Chilling Park is just one of many parks and public spaces that makes Vancouver’s City Centre one of the best places in North America for urban living.

Dude Chilling Park is just one of many parks and public spaces that makes Vancouver’s City Centre one of the best places in North America for urban living.

Affordability

The cost of a used condo in Vancouver is about $1,000/square foot. Translated, this means a modest 750 square foot condo is going to cost you $750,000. If you want a new 1,300 square foot condo be prepared to pay $2,000/square foot or $2,600,000.  That is more than twice the cost of a similar condo in Calgary.  

While you expect to pay a premium to live in downtown Vancouver because of its climate and amenities like Stanley Park, beaches and sea wall, that’s still a pretty stiff price to pay.  

I came away feeling Calgary’s City Centre communities while not on par with Vancouver’s in the way of amenities are not that far behind in their evolution as urban villages and all of them have significant upside potential.  

In chatting with several people in Vancouver and Calgary over the past few months I have often heard Calgary’s City Centre being called a “hidden gem” when it comes to urban living with potential to get even better.  

Let’s compare Calgary’s urban communities with Vancouver’s. 

Food trucks help to animate public spaces throughout Vancouver’s City Centre.

Food trucks help to animate public spaces throughout Vancouver’s City Centre.

Calgary’s City Centre has an amazing patio scene.

Calgary’s City Centre has an amazing patio scene.

Calgary also has a great pedestrian mall that is part of a National Historic District.

Calgary also has a great pedestrian mall that is part of a National Historic District.

The stairs in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery is a popular place to chill and catch some sun.

The stairs in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery is a popular place to chill and catch some sun.

Calgary also has some pretty cool places to sit.

Calgary also has some pretty cool places to sit.

Vancouver’s City Centre has numerous high streets offering upscale and fun places to shop.

Vancouver’s City Centre has numerous high streets offering upscale and fun places to shop.

Calgary has its fair share of quirky places to shop, including NERD a shop in Inglewood that specializes in fashion and accessories for roller skating.

Calgary has its fair share of quirky places to shop, including NERD a shop in Inglewood that specializes in fashion and accessories for roller skating.

Vancouver’s City Centre has dozens of funky residential developments.

Vancouver’s City Centre has dozens of funky residential developments.

It doesn’t get much cooler than the front entrance to Pixel condo in Calgary’s Kensington Village.

It doesn’t get much cooler than the front entrance to Pixel condo in Calgary’s Kensington Village.

Unless it might be the Colours condo in Calgary’s hipster Beltline community.

Unless it might be the Colours condo in Calgary’s hipster Beltline community.

Vancouver has is fair share of fun strange red sculptures.

Vancouver has is fair share of fun strange red sculptures.

Calgary Peace Bridge is one of North America’s signature pedestrian bridges.

Calgary Peace Bridge is one of North America’s signature pedestrian bridges.

Vancouver Art Gallery has funky exhibitions.

Vancouver Art Gallery has funky exhibitions.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has fun exhibitions also.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has fun exhibitions also.

Calgary’s City Centre has tons of things to see and do.

Calgary’s City Centre has tons of things to see and do.

Vancouver House is that city’s newest weird and wacky architecture.

Vancouver House is that city’s newest weird and wacky architecture.

Calgary has its fair share of weird and wacky architecture and public art.

Calgary has its fair share of weird and wacky architecture and public art.

Beltline vs West End 

In many ways, Calgary’s Beltline is the equivalent of Vancouver’s West End, with its tree-lined streets populated by a mix of old single family homes, scattered amongst small mid-century apartments and new mega highrise towers. The Beltline’s 17thAve is akin to Robson Street but with less shopping and more patios.  Tenth and 11th Aves are the equivalent to Davie St and Beltline’s 1st, 4th, 8th, 11th and 14th Street pedestrian corridors are Vancouver’s Denman St.  The Beltline’s Lougheed House and Beaulieu Gardens is much nicer than the West End’s Roedde House Museum and grounds.  

Calgary’s Memorial Park is very similar to the West End’s Nelson Park in scale but Memorial Park is home to a historic library that includes a very cool musical instrument lending program.  But the Beltline can’t match the West End’s amazing Mole Hill community housing block that includes the preservation of several century homes and a quaint garden pathway.  Both communities are home to their city’s respective LGBTQ communities. 

Where Vancouver’s West End really shines is in its easy access to parks and pathways along English Bay and Stanley Park. While Calgary’s Beltliners are land locked with no direct access to a major park or the Bow and Elbow Rivers. 

Link: Beltline Embraces Density

It is hard to beat Vancouver’s English Bay as an urban playground.

It is hard to beat Vancouver’s English Bay as an urban playground.

Vancouver’s West End streets not only have lovely tree canopies, but also enchanting front yards that gives it a very residential sense of place.

Vancouver’s West End streets not only have lovely tree canopies, but also enchanting front yards that gives it a very residential sense of place.

Vancouver’s West End is a mix of modern and traditional architecture.

Vancouver’s West End is a mix of modern and traditional architecture.

Calgary’s Beltline also funky modern architecture like Mark on 10th, which also has a roof top with hot tub, BBQ, kitchen and lounge for residents to mix and mingle. And yes we have food truck too.

Calgary’s Beltline also funky modern architecture like Mark on 10th, which also has a roof top with hot tub, BBQ, kitchen and lounge for residents to mix and mingle. And yes we have food truck too.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is lined with sidewalk patios that make for great people watching.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is lined with sidewalk patios that make for great people watching.

17th Avenue also has a diverse independent cafe culture.

17th Avenue also has a diverse independent cafe culture.

Jim Deva Plaza is a fun place for people of all ages to hang out along Davie Street.

Jim Deva Plaza is a fun place for people of all ages to hang out along Davie Street.

The Beltline’s equivalent would be Tomkins Park.

The Beltline’s equivalent would be Tomkins Park.

Vancouver’s West End has funky bike racks.

Vancouver’s West End has funky bike racks.

Calgary’s Beltline also has funky bike racks.

Calgary’s Beltline also has funky bike racks.

The Beltine has several pedestrian oriented main streets with pubs, patios, shops and restaurants.

The Beltine has several pedestrian oriented main streets with pubs, patios, shops and restaurants.

While the Beltline may not have as many grocery stores at the West End it has two major grocery stores as well as several specialty grocers like Community Natural Foods.

While the Beltline may not have as many grocery stores at the West End it has two major grocery stores as well as several specialty grocers like Community Natural Foods.

East Village vs Yaletown 

 East Village and the proposed new alliance with Victoria Park and Stampede Park could well become Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s Yaletown. Give it time.  Yaletown had a head start, its transformation into a funky place to live began in the early ‘90s. East Village’s mega makeover started about 15 years later.  

The master plans are surprisingly similar, build highrise residential development next to an iconic new library, along with some major sports and entertainment facilities and a multi-use pathway along the water and people will want to live there. 

Link: East Village a billion dollar work of art!

Vancouver’s signature central library in Yaletown.

Vancouver’s signature central library in Yaletown.

Calgary’s signature new central library in East Village

Calgary’s signature new central library in East Village

The ARC a new residential building in Yaletown has fun hole in the middle.

The ARC a new residential building in Yaletown has fun hole in the middle.

Calgary’s National Music Centre is the gateway between East Village and Victoria/Stampede Park.

Calgary’s National Music Centre is the gateway between East Village and Victoria/Stampede Park.

Calgary’s East Village has nothing to match Granville Street with its mix of bars, clubs, shops, hotels and offices.

Calgary’s East Village has nothing to match Granville Street with its mix of bars, clubs, shops, hotels and offices.

Yaletown’s pedestrian pathway is lined with residential buildings.

Yaletown’s pedestrian pathway is lined with residential buildings.

Calgary’s RiverWalk in East Village is a popular chill place.

Calgary’s RiverWalk in East Village is a popular chill place.

There are several parks located along Yaletown’s pathway.

There are several parks located along Yaletown’s pathway.

East Village Plaza is a poplar meeting place and the gateway to St. Patrick Island.

East Village Plaza is a poplar meeting place and the gateway to St. Patrick Island.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach is located next to East Village.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach is located next to East Village.

East Village’s skyline is changing rapidly with new residential towers being added every year..

East Village’s skyline is changing rapidly with new residential towers being added every year..

East Village’s Fort Calgary is a popular outdoor concert venue in the summer.

East Village’s Fort Calgary is a popular outdoor concert venue in the summer.

Eau Claire / Downtown West vs Coal Harbour

Eau Claire and Downtown West combined are Calgary’s equivalent to Coal Harbour with their modern high-rise residential towers lined up along the water’s edge.  In this case, the master plans differ.  Coal Harbour is home to Vancouver’s mega convention centre and cruise ship terminal making it a tourist hub, whereas Calgary’s Eau Claire/Downtown West is more focused on recreational amenities for residents including the Bow River pathway, Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Eau Claire Y.  

Eau Claire and Downtown West have tremendous potential, especially if you add in West Village which could become a funky innovation campus for start-ups businesses, perhaps even the next Amazon, Google or Apple if we play our cards right. 

Link: Downtown West a quiet evolution

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour is a boater’s paradise.

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour is a boater’s paradise.

Calgary’s Eau Claire shoreline.

Calgary’s Eau Claire shoreline.

Calgary’s Downtown West shoreline.

Calgary’s Downtown West shoreline.

Coal Harbour’s waterfront pathway

Coal Harbour’s waterfront pathway

The new West Eau Claire Park pebble beach is the perfect sunset watching spot with the Peace Bridge on the horizon.

The new West Eau Claire Park pebble beach is the perfect sunset watching spot with the Peace Bridge on the horizon.

River surfing on the Bow River is popular at the Louise Bridge in Eau Claire

River surfing on the Bow River is popular at the Louise Bridge in Eau Claire

Calgary’s old science centre planetarium in West Downtown is currently being converted into a public art gallery.

Calgary’s old science centre planetarium in West Downtown is currently being converted into a public art gallery.

Calgary’s West Village has huge potential to become a vibrant urban village on the Bow River.

Calgary’s West Village has huge potential to become a vibrant urban village on the Bow River.

Shaw Millennium Park, combined with the new civic art gallery will become the heart of vibrant urban community in the near future. Photo credit: Canadian Society of Landscape Architects

Shaw Millennium Park, combined with the new civic art gallery will become the heart of vibrant urban community in the near future. Photo credit: Canadian Society of Landscape Architects

Across the Water 

Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Crescent Heights being across water from downtown have many parallels to Vancouver’s Kitsilano and False Creek. “No way” you say! 

From an urban living perspective Calgary’s northsiders have two islands playgrounds. St. Patrick’s Island (which officially belongs to Bridgeland Riverside, not East Village) and St. George’s Island aka Calgary Zoo offer locals an urban playground for families that is hard to beat.  

Granville Island is the urban playground for those living in Kits and False Creek, however, Granville Island is more a tourist attraction than an amenity for residents. You can find fresh food at better prices in lots of places and without the crowds, than Granville’s Farmers’ Market. While Kitsilano’s 4th Street and West Broadway are its two pedestrian streets, Calgary’s north shore communities have 10th St and Kensington Road as their traditional main streets, with budding new main streets along Edmonton Trail, Centre Street and 8th Street.

While Calgary’s north shore communities don’t have the beaches of Kitsilano, they do have some lovely parks with stunning view of the mountains and the downtown skyline. 

Link: Calgary’s NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here

Calgary can’t match the Kitsilano beach.

Calgary can’t match the Kitsilano beach.

Calgarians like to dress up when then go fishing on the weekend.

Calgarians like to dress up when then go fishing on the weekend.

Kitsilano’s Main Street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Kitsilano’s Main Street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Kits is home to both a Whole Foods Market and Safeway grocery store.

Kits is home to both a Whole Foods Market and Safeway grocery store.

Kits is home to numerous great restaurants. We had a great lunch at Jam Cafe, where there is almost always a line-up.

Kits is home to numerous great restaurants. We had a great lunch at Jam Cafe, where there is almost always a line-up.

Kitsilano has several fun murals.

Kitsilano has several fun murals.

Vancouver’s City Centre is also home to Granville Island with its Public Market.

Vancouver’s City Centre is also home to Granville Island with its Public Market.

Vancouver’s False Creek residents enjoy easy access to the waterfront and Granville Island.

Vancouver’s False Creek residents enjoy easy access to the waterfront and Granville Island.

Calgary’s Crescent Height stairs not only offer a great workout but spectacular views of downtown and the Rocky Mountains..

Calgary’s Crescent Height stairs not only offer a great workout but spectacular views of downtown and the Rocky Mountains..

Tobogganing is popular with families in Bridgeland.

Tobogganing is popular with families in Bridgeland.

In Calgary’s City Centre there are street festivals pretty much ever weekend from May to September like this one outside Bridgland’s iconic Lukes Drug Mart a funky cafe, record store, grocery store, drugstore and post office.

In Calgary’s City Centre there are street festivals pretty much ever weekend from May to September like this one outside Bridgland’s iconic Lukes Drug Mart a funky cafe, record store, grocery store, drugstore and post office.

Bridgeland/Riverside has a tool lending library - how cool is that?

Bridgeland/Riverside has a tool lending library - how cool is that?

Coming soon to Bridgeland is the mixed-use Dominon project which will include a co-work space, as well as retail and restaurant.

Coming soon to Bridgeland is the mixed-use Dominon project which will include a co-work space, as well as retail and restaurant.

Calgary’s Kensington Village has two Main Street - 10th St and Kensington Road.

Calgary’s Kensington Village has two Main Street - 10th St and Kensington Road.

Kensington Village is home to the iconic Plaza theatre.

Kensington Village is home to the iconic Plaza theatre.

Kensington Village has numerous great restaurants with sidewalk summer patios.

Kensington Village has numerous great restaurants with sidewalk summer patios.

Kensington also has the fun Container Bar.

Kensington also has the fun Container Bar.

The Bow to Bluff along the LRT tracks in Sunnyside is now fully funded and will create a fun urban gathering space for all ages.

The Bow to Bluff along the LRT tracks in Sunnyside is now fully funded and will create a fun urban gathering space for all ages.

Funky new condos are popping up everywhere in and around Kensington Village.

Funky new condos are popping up everywhere in and around Kensington Village.

Mission vs South Granville

Mission/Erlton and 4th St SW is Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s South Granville.  Both have a main street with upscale shops, galleries and restaurants, mixed in with some mid-rise residential development.  

Mission/Erlton residents have the added bonus of the Elbow River in their backyard and easy access to Stampede Park and Repsol Sports Centre.  

South Granville has more in the way of shops and galleries, as well as the historic Stanley Theatre for its residents to enjoy. 

Link: Mission is marvellous

The Stanley Theatre anchors South Granville street.

The Stanley Theatre anchors South Granville street.

South Granville has numerous mid-century apartments.

South Granville has numerous mid-century apartments.

The side street next to South Granville have lots of smaller apartments, very similar to those found in Calgary’s Mission and Cliff Bungalow.

The side street next to South Granville have lots of smaller apartments, very similar to those found in Calgary’s Mission and Cliff Bungalow.

Meinhardt has been been a Western Canadian culinary destination since it opened in 1996.

Meinhardt has been been a Western Canadian culinary destination since it opened in 1996.

Calgary’s summer festival season kicks off each year with the Lilac Festival along 4th Street in Mission.

Calgary’s summer festival season kicks off each year with the Lilac Festival along 4th Street in Mission.

River rafting along the Elbow River through Mission is popular in the summer.

River rafting along the Elbow River through Mission is popular in the summer.

Mission’s 4th Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops.

Mission’s 4th Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops.

Historic Districts

Inglewood / Ramsay with its historic main street has many of the attributes of Vancouver’s Gastown, without the hordes of tourist, that make living there a nightmare in the summer.  The 2010 completion of the historic Woodward department store site redevelopment was the catalyst for Gastown’s revitalization. It includes a mix of uses from affordable and market housing to SFU School for Contemporary Arts, from the National Film Board office to a grocery and drug store.  

Inglewood’s revitalization was the result of Main Street Program in the ‘90s that focused on the façade restoration of the historic buildings along 9thAvenue to create a mixed-use pedestrian street. More recently new commercial buildings like the Atlantic Avenue Arts Block and West Canadian Digital Imaging building become workplace anchors for its main street.   

As well, several recent condo developments, co-work spaces and numerous craft breweries have made Inglewood/Ramsay a very attractive place to live, work and play.   

Inglewood’s Calgary Brewery site and Ramsay’s Dominion Bridge site and the coming Green Line all have the potential to make Inglewood/Ramsay a model for 21stcentury urban living.

While Calgary’s Chinatown is much smaller than Vancouver’s, it benefits from not having the spillover of undesirable activities from East Hastings. 

Link: Inglewood Calgary’s most unique community

Vancouver’s Gastown is very popular with tourists.

Vancouver’s Gastown is very popular with tourists.

Gastown is becoming increasingly popular as a place to live with the redevelopment of the old Woodwards department store.

Gastown is becoming increasingly popular as a place to live with the redevelopment of the old Woodwards department store.

Gastown streets are not only filled with pedestrians but cars also.

Gastown streets are not only filled with pedestrians but cars also.

Inglewood is getting a mega makeover with several new mixed-use condo buildings along its main street.

Inglewood is getting a mega makeover with several new mixed-use condo buildings along its main street.

Inglewood is home to Canada’s Knifewear’s flagship store as well as numerous other independent shops, restaurants, pubs and shops.

Inglewood is home to Canada’s Knifewear’s flagship store as well as numerous other independent shops, restaurants, pubs and shops.

Inglewood is home to Recordland one of Canada’s biggest and best used record stores.

Inglewood is home to Recordland one of Canada’s biggest and best used record stores.

Inglewood is home to Calgary’s live music scene.

Inglewood is home to Calgary’s live music scene.

Inglewood’s Harvie Passage is fun for hikers, kayakers and bikers.

Inglewood’s Harvie Passage is fun for hikers, kayakers and bikers.

Gotta love public art that you can climb on like this one at Inglewood’s Harvie Passage

Gotta love public art that you can climb on like this one at Inglewood’s Harvie Passage

In My Opinion

As a place to live, Calgary’s City Centre offers as much to its residents in the way of festivals, entertainment, culture, restaurants, bars, shops, parks and pathways as does Vancouver’s. 

What Calgary is missing are the amazing array of urban grocery stores - big and small - that Vancouver offers. However, this is gradually being addressed with the opening of Urban Fare in the Beltline this year and City Market in East Village next year.

What really makes Calgary’s City Center MOST attractive as a place to live is its affordability not only compared to Vancouver, but also Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto.

Now is the perfect time for Calgary to attract more young techies from across North America (who can live anywhere) to establish their live/work lifestyles and grow their businesses here. 

What is needed is a clever marketing campaign that captures the imagination of young entrepreneurs re: why Calgary is perhaps the most affordable and livable urban playground in North America. 

Theodore is Calgary’s newest City Centre condo with homes starting at $290,000.

Theodore is Calgary’s newest City Centre condo with homes starting at $290,000.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on May 18, 2019.

 

 

Calgary: 59+ Free Fun Things To See & Do

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.

Tourists love Calgary’s parks, plazas, public art, markets, streets, museums, art galleries, trails, pathways, promenades, rivers etc etc…..

Tourists love Calgary’s parks, plazas, public art, markets, streets, museums, art galleries, trails, pathways, promenades, rivers etc etc…..

Free Gardens

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.

Link: Postcard from Reader Rock Garden

Link: Stop and smell the flowers in Silver Springs 

In the summer, Olympic Plaza becomes Olympic Gardens with beautiful hanging baskets, trees and other ornamentation.

In the summer, Olympic Plaza becomes Olympic Gardens with beautiful hanging baskets, trees and other ornamentation.

Historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House

Historic Beaulieu Gardens at Lougheed House

Reader Rock Garden

Reader Rock Garden

Silver Springs Botanical Garden labyrinth

Silver Springs Botanical Garden labyrinth

Devonian Gardens

Devonian Gardens

Jamieson Place’s winter garden with three David Chihuly glass sculpture, infinity ponds and living wall.

Jamieson Place’s winter garden with three David Chihuly glass sculpture, infinity ponds and living wall.

Free Museums

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: Police Interpretive Centre

Link: Grain Academy & Museum

YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre

YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretive Centre

Glenbow Museum Free First Thursday Nights

Glenbow Museum Free First Thursday Nights

Grain Academy at Stampede Park

Grain Academy at Stampede Park

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: Edmonton vs Calgary: Who has the best river valley parks?

Link: Inglewood Bird Sanctuary

Inglewood Bird Sanctuary’s fishing pond. You can easily see the trout you are trying to catch.

Inglewood Bird Sanctuary’s fishing pond. You can easily see the trout you are trying to catch.

Harvie Passage fun

Harvie Passage fun

Douglas Fir Trail (photo credit: Hiking with Barry)

Douglas Fir Trail (photo credit: Hiking with Barry)

Prince’s Island sculpture park

Prince’s Island sculpture park

Calgary has over 5,000 parks offering lots of fun walks.

Calgary has over 5,000 parks offering lots of fun walks.

Chevron Interpretive Trail is also in Princes’ Island Park

Chevron Interpretive Trail is also in Princes’ Island Park

Fish Creek Park is one of the largest urban parks in Canada. It offers numerous trails, as well as the historic Bow Valley Ranche restaurant.

Fish Creek Park is one of the largest urban parks in Canada. It offers numerous trails, as well as the historic Bow Valley Ranche restaurant.

 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: Calgary has a free public art map 

Link: Beltline Mural map 

Link: Stampede Art Walk Map

Link: Downtown’s Udderly Cow Pasture

Stampede Park has numerous murals and sculptures scattered throughout the park. At the entrance to the Park from the LRT Station on Macleod Trail is a contemporary tipi inspired sculpture - the semi-circle design depicts the historic iconography of the Kainai, Piikani, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. The sculpture sits on the original site of Stampede’s Indian Village which was Sun Tree Park.

Stampede Park has numerous murals and sculptures scattered throughout the park. At the entrance to the Park from the LRT Station on Macleod Trail is a contemporary tipi inspired sculpture - the semi-circle design depicts the historic iconography of the Kainai, Piikani, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. The sculpture sits on the original site of Stampede’s Indian Village which was Sun Tree Park.

Jack Shadbolt painting in the lobby of Eighth Avenue Place office tower is a great place to sit. There is a coffee shop right there.

Jack Shadbolt painting in the lobby of Eighth Avenue Place office tower is a great place to sit. There is a coffee shop right there.

The Cow Pasture is fun for people of all ages.

The Cow Pasture is fun for people of all ages.

There is public art on almost every block downtown, as well as in the lobbies of most office towers. Free artwalk!

There is public art on almost every block downtown, as well as in the lobbies of most office towers. Free artwalk!

Barclay Mall aka 3rd Street SW has numerous sandstone sculptures as it winds its way from Stephen Avenue to Prince’s Island.

Barclay Mall aka 3rd Street SW has numerous sandstone sculptures as it winds its way from Stephen Avenue to Prince’s Island.

Nickle Art Gallery at the University of Calgary

Nickle Art Gallery at the University of Calgary

The Esker Art Gallery has not only great exhibitions, but it is housed in a mixed-use building full of art.

The Esker Art Gallery has not only great exhibitions, but it is housed in a mixed-use building full of art.

For those interested in local art and design cSpace is a great place to visit as it has a diversity of studios from jewelry to fashion, as well as a craft shop and the main hallway is an intimate art gallery space.

For those interested in local art and design cSpace is a great place to visit as it has a diversity of studios from jewelry to fashion, as well as a craft shop and the main hallway is an intimate art gallery space.

There are numerous murals and street art scattered throughout Calgary’s City Centre, making it an outdoor art gallery.

There are numerous murals and street art scattered throughout Calgary’s City Centre, making it an outdoor art gallery.

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.   

Link: A Sunday walkabout in Hillhurst

Link: Where on Earth Did You Get That

Inglewood’s Night Market fun

Inglewood’s Night Market fun

Hillhurst Sunday Flea Market

Hillhurst Sunday Flea Market

 Live Music

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: Nashville vs. Calgary: Music Cities

LInk: Hexter Pub

Link: Blues Can

Link: Ironwood

Tim Williams hosts the Saturday Blues Jam at the Blues Can. Wiliams won the 2014 International Blues Competition in Memphis not only as the best solo/duo performer, but as best guitarist.

Tim Williams hosts the Saturday Blues Jam at the Blues Can. Wiliams won the 2014 International Blues Competition in Memphis not only as the best solo/duo performer, but as best guitarist.

Ship & Anchor is always a good bet for local live music

Ship & Anchor is always a good bet for local live music

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: Discover Calgary’s Secret Heritage Walking Tour

Link: City of Calgary Self-Guided Tour

Link:  WalkYYC Free Tours

Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue from 1st St SE to 3rd St SW) is lined with historical buildings from the early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue from 1st St SE to 3rd St SW) is lined with historical buildings from the early 20th century.

In the summer you will want to be on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour when 10,000+ people walk the walk. It is full of patios and vendors that create a festival-like atmosphere.

In the summer you will want to be on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour when 10,000+ people walk the walk. It is full of patios and vendors that create a festival-like atmosphere.

The Hudson’s Bay Company department store is the jewel of the Stephen Avenue Historic District..

The Hudson’s Bay Company department store is the jewel of the Stephen Avenue Historic District..

Memorial Park Library is just one of dozens of historic sandstone buildings in Calgary’s City Centre.

Memorial Park Library is just one of dozens of historic sandstone buildings in Calgary’s City Centre.

cSpace is a must see for anyone interested in historical preservation and repurposing. It is fun to visit anytime, but on Saturdays in the summer is has a farmers’ market that adds a nice buzz.

cSpace is a must see for anyone interested in historical preservation and repurposing. It is fun to visit anytime, but on Saturdays in the summer is has a farmers’ market that adds a nice buzz.

Window shopping in historic Kensington Village is free and fun.

Window shopping in historic Kensington Village is free and fun.

Exploring Calgary’s Chinatown is fun. Be sure not to miss the ceiling of the Chinatown Cultural Centre.

Exploring Calgary’s Chinatown is fun. Be sure not to miss the ceiling of the Chinatown Cultural Centre.

Walk around downtown and you will discover an intriguing mix of old and new architecture.

Walk around downtown and you will discover an intriguing mix of old and new architecture.

Free Wading  

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.  

Link: City of Calgary Wading Pool and Splash Parks

Wading fun downtown on St. Patrick’s Island.

Wading fun downtown on St. Patrick’s Island.

Riley Park wading pool

Riley Park wading pool

Memorial Park fountain fun.

Memorial Park fountain fun.

There are pebble beaches all along both the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

There are pebble beaches all along both the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

Free Skating

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

Link: City of Calgary outdoor rinks

Bowness Park skating fun

Bowness Park skating fun

Olympic Plaza skating fun (photo credit: todoCanada)

Olympic Plaza skating fun (photo credit: todoCanada)

Skateboarding fun at Shaw Millennium Park

Skateboarding fun at Shaw Millennium Park

Roller blading along East Village’s RiverWalk…

Roller blading along East Village’s RiverWalk…

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.

Link: Calgary’s +15: Love It or Hate It?

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The Core Shopping Centre is the hub of the +15 system with four floors of shops.

The Core Shopping Centre is the hub of the +15 system with four floors of shops.

Bush Plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre office tower lobby.

Bush Plane hanging from the ceiling of the Suncor Centre office tower lobby.

There are lots of cafes and places to grab a bite to eat while you explore the +15 maze.

There are lots of cafes and places to grab a bite to eat while you explore the +15 maze.

The +15 system is full of atriums that become an urban oasis in the winter. Brookfield Place Atrium.

The +15 system is full of atriums that become an urban oasis in the winter. Brookfield Place Atrium.

Some of the +15 bridges are like walking through a work of art like this one linking the Municipal Building to Arts Commons. Each of the 60+ bridges are different.

Some of the +15 bridges are like walking through a work of art like this one linking the Municipal Building to Arts Commons. Each of the 60+ bridges are different.

The + 15 is full of fun fountains, waterfalls, plazas, winter gardens and public art.

The + 15 is full of fun fountains, waterfalls, plazas, winter gardens and public art.

Free Recreation 

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. 

Memorial Park stair challenge

Memorial Park stair challenge

The climb to the top is worth it as it offer a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, the mountains and the Bow River valley.

The climb to the top is worth it as it offer a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, the mountains and the Bow River valley.

Running along the Bow River is a popular recreational activity with the Peace Bridge being one of the highlights.

Running along the Bow River is a popular recreational activity with the Peace Bridge being one of the highlights.

The Edworthy Park Hill challenge - run or ride - up or down!

The Edworthy Park Hill challenge - run or ride - up or down!

The Rotary Mattamy Greenway is family friendly with lots of playgrounds and other places to stop and play.

The Rotary Mattamy Greenway is family friendly with lots of playgrounds and other places to stop and play.

Free fly fishing along the Bow River - bring your equipment!

Free fly fishing along the Bow River - bring your equipment!

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: Calgary: A Bow River Bike Ride

Link: Bridges Over The Bow

You will find lots of public art as you walk along the Bow River like these pieces near the 14th Street bridge.

You will find lots of public art as you walk along the Bow River like these pieces near the 14th Street bridge.

River surfing at the Louise Crossing Bridge wave.

River surfing at the Louise Crossing Bridge wave.

Enjoy a sunset at Eau Claire’s pebble beach with the Peace Bridge in the background.

Enjoy a sunset at Eau Claire’s pebble beach with the Peace Bridge in the background.

The Eau Claire Promenade is the perfect spot for a leisurely walk and some good people watching.

The Eau Claire Promenade is the perfect spot for a leisurely walk and some good people watching.

There are lots of great places to sit in Prince’s Island.

There are lots of great places to sit in Prince’s Island.

Historic Centre Street Bridge

Historic Centre Street Bridge

One of the best spots to stop along the Bow River for refreshments and people watch is at the Simmons Building in East Village.

One of the best spots to stop along the Bow River for refreshments and people watch is at the Simmons Building in East Village.

There is a great roof top patio on the roof of the Simmons building but it isn’t free.

There is a great roof top patio on the roof of the Simmons building but it isn’t free.

Free chaise lounge chairs

Free chaise lounge chairs

You never know what you will happen upon when exploring Calgary’s Bow River pathways.

You never know what you will happen upon when exploring Calgary’s Bow River pathways.

While walking along the Bow River you will find several pedestrian bridges allowing you to criss-cross back and forth to enjoy the river and downtown architecture from different perspectives.

While walking along the Bow River you will find several pedestrian bridges allowing you to criss-cross back and forth to enjoy the river and downtown architecture from different perspectives.

Central Library

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.

 Link: Step Inside The World’s Most Futuristic Libraries

Calgary’s new Central Library is being heralded as one of the most beautiful new buildings of 2018. photo credit Architectural Digest

Calgary’s new Central Library is being heralded as one of the most beautiful new buildings of 2018. photo credit Architectural Digest

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.

Link Downtown Calgary’s 7th Ave Corridor: Good but not great!

Hop on and hop off the LRT in downtown Calgary as many times as you wish for free.

Hop on and hop off the LRT in downtown Calgary as many times as you wish for free.

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Last Word 

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.

The Streets of Calgary

Fun Calgary Restaurants

Uniquely Calgary Shopping Experiences

Calgary Military Museums

 

Jane Jacobs' quintessential main street is located in Vancouver?

“Where is this perfect main street in Vancouver?” you ask. No it is not Robson Street. No, it is not Alberni Street. No, it is not South Granville Street. Nor, is it not Denman Street, Commercial Drive or Lonsdale Ave.

Ironically it is actually called “Main Street” and it is from East 7th Ave to 30th Ave. Yes, 23 blocks of continuous local boutiques, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores and services.

Jane Jacob’s would have loved Vancouver’s Main Street.

This is a typical block along Vancouver’s Main Street. It has just the right amount of charm and clutter, old and new, low and highbrow to create a fun walkable street that is full of useful shops that meet the everyday needs of locals.

This is a typical block along Vancouver’s Main Street. It has just the right amount of charm and clutter, old and new, low and highbrow to create a fun walkable street that is full of useful shops that meet the everyday needs of locals.

No Gentrification

There are few national chains, mostly “mom and pop” shops, which is exactly what Jacobs thought made for a great Main Street.

There are lots of doors on the street and windows to look at. There are thrift stores and used bookstores, mixed in with funky restaurants and small grocery stores. There is even a garage that still repair cars and a car dealership.

It has all of ingredients of a good Main Street that Jacob’s wrote about in her 1960s book “The Death and Live of Great American Cities.”

It is a nice mix of shops, cafes, restaurants and services - something for everyone! There are just a few new condos and nothing over four stories.

The side streets have a diversity of single family homes that still look like the original homes, with a few new infills and some renovations, but nothing as extensive as Calgary’s inner city communities where there are new infills on every block.

FYI: We didn’t see a lot of “For Lease” signs along Main Street, which is surely a healthy sign. And Kevin Kent of Knifewear tells me that he pays higher rent for his store in Vancouver, than for his stores in Calgary (Inglewood), Ottawa (Glebe) and Edmonton (Whyte Avenue). So the success of the street isn’t lower rents that makes it so attractive to local businesses.

There are no fancy designer buildings, no special signage or ornamentation, just back-to-back pedestrian oriented shops.

There are no fancy designer buildings, no special signage or ornamentation, just back-to-back pedestrian oriented shops.

One of the few blocks with residential above the shops.

One of the few blocks with residential above the shops.

A typical side street is populated with single family homes, there are no low, mid or high rise buildings.

A typical side street is populated with single family homes, there are no low, mid or high rise buildings.

Postcards From Main Street

Every good Main Street has to have a diner.

Every good Main Street has to have a diner.

Independent cafes like The Liberty Bakery and Cafe at E 21st Street are scattered all along Main Street. In fact there are three cafe’s on this corner alone.

Independent cafes like The Liberty Bakery and Cafe at E 21st Street are scattered all along Main Street. In fact there are three cafe’s on this corner alone.

There are several used bookstores like this one. No I didn’t get lucky at this bookstore but I did the next day at Paper Hound Bookshop the next day - a signed copy of Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival.”

There are several used bookstores like this one. No I didn’t get lucky at this bookstore but I did the next day at Paper Hound Bookshop the next day - a signed copy of Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival.”

There are lots of good food places…

There are lots of good food places…

Main Street is home to a couple of neon signs like this one….a reminder of how the street has evolved with the times.

Main Street is home to a couple of neon signs like this one….a reminder of how the street has evolved with the times.

Their old post office has been converted into a special event space.

Their old post office has been converted into a special event space.

I counted 40+ typewriters at The Regional Assembly of Text stationary and card shop. They actually have a free night when they let people use the typewriters to create their own prose. I have added it to my calendar.

I counted 40+ typewriters at The Regional Assembly of Text stationary and card shop. They actually have a free night when they let people use the typewriters to create their own prose. I have added it to my calendar.

Yes it has the organic grocer offering Kombucha “that is not as expensive as you think,” but there are several older grocery stores that look like they have been there since the ‘60s.

Yes it has the organic grocer offering Kombucha “that is not as expensive as you think,” but there are several older grocery stores that look like they have been there since the ‘60s.

Sing Sing Beer Bar is a great spot for people watching and catching some afternoon rays…we certainly enjoyed their Happy Hour!

Sing Sing Beer Bar is a great spot for people watching and catching some afternoon rays…we certainly enjoyed their Happy Hour!

I included myself in this photo so you could appreciate how big this sock monkey aka Easter Bunny is. I love streets with quirky window displays.

I included myself in this photo so you could appreciate how big this sock monkey aka Easter Bunny is. I love streets with quirky window displays.

The Granville Island Toy Company opened a second location on Main Street in 2007.

The Granville Island Toy Company opened a second location on Main Street in 2007.

I am a sucker for shops with great blade signs.

I am a sucker for shops with great blade signs.

There are some great “window licking” photography opportunities along Main Street. A sure sign of a pedestrian friendly street.

There are some great “window licking” photography opportunities along Main Street. A sure sign of a pedestrian friendly street.

The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples offers a wide array of natural products. No those are not beer taps.

The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples offers a wide array of natural products. No those are not beer taps.

Even Calgary’s Kevin Kent chose Main Street for his Vancouver Knifewear store.

Even Calgary’s Kevin Kent chose Main Street for his Vancouver Knifewear store.

There are some great shop and restaurant names like this one and The Shameful Tiki Room.

There are some great shop and restaurant names like this one and The Shameful Tiki Room.

Marian Distribution Centre is a real throw back, with its selection of spiritual books and artifacts.

Marian Distribution Centre is a real throw back, with its selection of spiritual books and artifacts.

Main Street has a few antique stores, as well as a couple of thrift stores for those treasure hunters.

Main Street has a few antique stores, as well as a couple of thrift stores for those treasure hunters.

I love the simplicity of just closing off half a block of this side street to create a community gathering place. It is also a simple and effective way to prevent traffic from cutting through the neighbourhood.

I love the simplicity of just closing off half a block of this side street to create a community gathering place. It is also a simple and effective way to prevent traffic from cutting through the neighbourhood.

This is the only other evidence of modernization of the street with a small pocket park and a strange red metal sculpture passageway that seems so popular these days. There are no special pedestrian crossing, no bump outs so drivers can see people trying to cross the road and no bike lanes. Everyone just seems to use common sense to make it work.

This is the only other evidence of modernization of the street with a small pocket park and a strange red metal sculpture passageway that seems so popular these days. There are no special pedestrian crossing, no bump outs so drivers can see people trying to cross the road and no bike lanes. Everyone just seems to use common sense to make it work.

Yes there is even an Exile on Main Street in Vancouver….

Yes there is even an Exile on Main Street in Vancouver….

This photo says it all…

This photo says it all…

Last Word

You will notice there are no fancy sidewalks. No designer furniture. Yes there are some banners, but for the most part the street and buildings have been left to age gracefully. There is something authentic about the street. It is not contrived as so many urban streets are today - trying to hard to be pedestrian friendly. One could ask can good Main Streets be planned or do they have to grow organically.

It has the right combination of old, middle-aged and new buildings and diversity of shops catering mostly to locals, with some destination shops thrown in for good measure.

I think Jane Jacobs' would have loved Vancouver’s Main Street. It is hard to believe there are still streets like this in Vancouver, where everything is being gentrified.

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

Calgary: 24 Main Streets Coming Soon?

Halifax: The blade sign capital of Canada

Window Licking in Portlandia



Lacombe: Mural Capital of Alberta 

It seems like every town and hamlet in Alberta, Canada and North America has developed a mural program as a means of trying to attract tourists off the major highway and into town where they might spend a few bucks.  

In addition to attracting tourist, these mural programs can be the catalyst for fostering community pride in both the past and the present.  

In my opinion, fostering community pride is the most important aspect of sustaining community prosperity - be is a small town or a big city.  

Without civic pride, a town or city is destined to decline

Lacombe’s mural program is unique in that all of the murals are hidden in the downtown’s back lanes, rather than on side walls building that can be seen from the main street sidewalks.

Lacombe’s mural program is unique in that all of the murals are hidden in the downtown’s back lanes, rather than on side walls building that can be seen from the main street sidewalks.

I love that you can examine them close up to see the detail of the artist Tim Giles’ painting.

I love that you can examine them close up to see the detail of the artist Tim Giles’ painting.

While many mural programs are based on capturing the history of the community, Lacombe’s murals integrate the actual buildings into the mural so as you wander the alleys you begin to forget we live in the 21st century. I imagine, it is a bit like wander onto a movie set.

While many mural programs are based on capturing the history of the community, Lacombe’s murals integrate the actual buildings into the mural so as you wander the alleys you begin to forget we live in the 21st century. I imagine, it is a bit like wander onto a movie set.

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Murals to the rescue

The first town I remember to created a comprehensive curated mural program in Canada was Chemainus, BC back in 1981. The town’s lumber mill had closed and the town leaders looked to tourism to save the town.  It has been a huge success. Other towns followed - High River, Alberta just south of Calgary, Windsor, Nova Scotia and Huntsville, Ontario.  The later has 90 murals celebrating the work of the Canada’s Group of Seven (note to self, go to Huntsville next time you are in Ontario).  Even I, as an artist, got on the bandwagon, initiating the ill-fated Street Art For Gleichen project while living in Gleichen, Alberta back in 1983.   

Link: Best Outdoor Murals in Canada

Several years ago, I heard Lacombe (100 km south of Edmonton on the QEII highway) had a great mural program and made a mental note to check them out when I was in the neighbourhood. That is exactly what happened on a trip to Edmonton this past January.

There is something intriging about how the murals and the dumpsters are juxtaposed.

There is something intriging about how the murals and the dumpsters are juxtaposed.

Giles’ work successfully integrate the existing buildings into his murals to create a lovely narrative and realism.

Giles’ work successfully integrate the existing buildings into his murals to create a lovely narrative and realism.

More than just murals

Lacombe (population: 13,000) has a lovely historic downtown main street with lots of early 20th century buildings. Who knew they have six designated Provincial historic buildings and the most intact concentration of Edwardian buildings in the province? 

Lacombe has a rich history.  It is named after Father Albert Lacombe (1827 – 1916), a Roman Catholic Oblate missionary who is best known for brokering peace between the Cree and Blackfoot to allow the Canadian Pacific Railway to build Canada’s transcontinental railway. It is where Governor General Roland Michener (1967 to 1974) was born.  In 1907, the federal government set up the Lacombe Experimental Farm, establishing the town as the agricultural hub for the region.  And, it is home to Burma University, formerly the Seventh-day Adventist Canadian University College campus which can be traced back to 1909.  

There are some fun shops including a mid-century bowling alley that look like a hoot.  And they have not one, not two, but three museums – Flatiron Museum, Michener House Museum and Blacksmith Shop Museum. 

Link: Lacombe Historical Resources

Note to self: Next time you are in Lacombe area, give yourself more time so you can check out the Burman University campus and the museums. 

Link: Burman University

But I digress…

Next time I will definitely be booking a lane at Ambassador Lanes.

Next time I will definitely be booking a lane at Ambassador Lanes.

Flatiron Museum & Interpretive Centre

Flatiron Museum & Interpretive Centre

Lacombe United Church

Lacombe United Church

Michener House

Michener House

Main Street

Main Street

Burma University

Burma University

Mural Capital of Alberta 

I was surprised to discover that most of the murals are done by one guy – Tim Giles. Giles, a self-taught artist, who comes from a family of artists, started creating murals in 2004 as part of Lacombe’s effort to win the Canada-wide “Communities in Bloom” contest.  He didn’t know if his first mural would be temporary or permanent, however they were well received and he was asked to do more.  

“More” meant he would eventually do 20+ murals – all in the back alleys of downtown Lacombe and all depicting the life of early area pioneers (from 1890 to 1910). In 2009, he completed another series of murals depicting life in the 1930s. Using archival photos of local street scenes, his painterly realism style of painting transformed Lacombe’s downtown alleys into a lovely, walk back in time.   

Link: Lacombe Regional Tourism Murals

I was surprised the murals were in such great shape given some are 15 years old. After some digging I learned why. In 2015, St. Albert, Alberta muralist Robert Murray was hired to restore the murals.  There are also new murals being added. Local sign painter turned artist, John Ellenberger (known as Little John) recently created a mural titled Clydesdale Parade based the Clydesdales were the common draft horse used for field work at the Lacombe Research Station.  

While wandering Lacombe’s alleys you quickly began to feel that you were actually wandering into the back yards of homes and businesses at the turn of the century.

While wandering Lacombe’s alleys you quickly began to feel that you were actually wandering into the back yards of homes and businesses at the turn of the century.

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Last Word

What I most loved about Lacombe’s mural program is that it gives visitors an immediate sense of the community’s pride not only in its history, but in its present and future. Rather than let their downtown decline as many smaller rural towns have done, they have kept theirs alive.

They are so proud of their mural they have proclaimed themselves, “The Mural Capital of Alberta.” And, who is going to argue with them?

Lacombe is great example of the importance of “civic pride.” If people are proud of where they live they will take ownership in it. They will ensure it’s streets, alleys and buildings are clean, safe and in good repair, which in turn will make the community an attractive place to live, work and play for themselves, as well as potential newcomers. 

If you ever find yourself in the Lacombe area, check out the murals and experience the community pride for yourself. Even if you have only 30 minutes. 

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

Meeting Creek: Ghost Town Meets Art Town

2018 Summer of Murals: Beltline

2018 Summer of Murals: Northern Hills

Boise: Freakn Fun in Freak Alley