City Guide: Calgary
From where I sit, the view of Calgary’s city center is decidedly new: towers of concrete and glass, construction cranes dotting the horizon, everything shiny and oozing new boomtime money.
Calgary is growing straight up and straight out. Its sprawling suburbs make it physically the largest city in Canada, and all the oil- and gas-company headquarters glinting in the prairie sunshine are a testament to its red-hot, resource-based economy.
But up on the hill just above the historic Centre Street bridge, where the stone lions have been staring down into the big Bow River for nearly a century, you can well imagine what it looked like when the earliest missionaries, fur traders, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and cattlemen set up their camps, forts and corrals here on the rolling plains.
Next to my bench on Jim Fish Ridge, in one of the parks dotting the embankment high above the forest of downtown towers, there’s a historical photograph mounted on a pillar—a wide-angle view of what the place looked like in 1915. You can see some of the original sandstone buildings among the frame houses scattered along the riverbank, a sepia Wild West world that has all but disappeared over a century of rip-roaring development. Still, if you walk among the skyscrapers, you’ll find bits of the old west among the new.
Many visitors to Calgary who arrive during the annual Calgary Stampede in July—the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” and one of the top-paying professional rodeos in the world—imagine that everyone here is a cowboy (or cowgirl). That’s not surprising, since nearly every geologist and engineer working in those big office towers is expected to “dress Western” for the 10-day fair, and a lot of Stetsons and boots turn up.
But after that annual brouhaha, things go back to normal. Calgary’s million-plus residents live in an entrepreneurial, active town, with the kind of modern lifestyle you’d find in any busy, wealthy urban center sitting next to one of the country’s top tourist draws: the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park.
Outdoors enthusiasts know the city as a staging area for incredible mountain and wilderness activities. But thanks to Calgary’s transportation, infrastructure and relative safety, the Economist also rates it as one of the top cities in the world for business travelers, while the Conference Board of Canada has named it the best city to work in in the country and the third best in North America, behind Washington, D.C., and Austin, Tex.
Calgary’s 395 miles (635 km) of walking and cycling paths—two of my favorite ways to travel—encourage urban exploration. From my perch on Jim Fish Ridge, the pathway cuts down across McHugh Bluff to a footbridge over the river and onto Prince’s Island, a gem of a downtown park, where logs once floated down the Bow to Peter Prince’s 18th-century lumber mill. Prince’s old clapboard lumber office is still there on the river bank, now home to a funky breakfast spot called 1886; and the River Café, arguably the city’s best restaurant, is nestled among the island’s tall trees.
From here, I often walk the riverside pathway west to 10th Street to shop at stores like Killian, or meet friends at the neighborhood Kensington Pub. Or I head east toward Centre Street and Chinatown, catching a glimpse of Chinese elders practicing early-morning tai chi, en route to authentic dim sum at Silver Dragon.
The newest oil and gas edifice—EnCana’s $1 billion, 59-story building known as “The Bow”—will be bigger and taller than anything in town, but its ongoing construction currently causes a traffic snarl downtown. On foot, you can dodge past the construction zone to 7th Avenue and Art Central, where a snoop through the small galleries and artist studios offers the perfect visual and human-scale respite.
Continuing south, with the Calgary Tower in your sights, you’ll cross Stephen Avenue, the daytime pedestrian mall where what’s left of the city’s architectural history has been repurposed as a lively retail and restaurant strip. This four-block stretch, with more than a dozen designated heritage buildings, represents this former cow town’s first big real-estate boom back in the late 19th century, and it’s now a national historic district.
Two of the city’s earliest banks have become fine restaurants: Teatro, in the stunning, circa-1911 Dominion Bank, and Catch, in the 1886 Imperial Bank. The street is dotted with original sandstone facades, where restaurants like Tribune, Divino, Blink and Belvedere make this area the best in the city for dining.