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If you will be a first time visitor to Calgary, check out the Tourism Calgary and Travel Alberta websites or some guidebooks to provide you with a good overview of Calgary, things to do as well as places to stay and dine.
Calgary is a thriving young city that is enjoying tremendous growth as a result of a booming oil and energy economy. Over the last five years, the city's population has swelled to over a million and has attracted a very well educated and affluent workforce. By nature of this economy, Calgarians have to travel to export their products to the global marketplace. These travels and the influx of cash are leading Calgarians to ask for new types of lifestyle offerings. New restaurants, galleries, theatres, specialty retailers, boutique hotels, spas, high-end lifestyle and recreation operators are jumping into the Calgary market to appeal to the increasingly discerning tastes of Calgarians. In short, Calgary is moving from a great city to live in to a great city to hang out in.
In prior years, many travel writers recommended that you use Calgary as a gateway to the Rockies. Increasingly, you can now marry an urban escape with a wonderful mountain retreat if you pair up a weekend in Calgary with a mid-week stay in the Rockies. Calgary is certainly a booming corporate town mid-week but people like to let their hair down on the weekends and it takes on a different flavour. Calgary's hotel accommodations are considerably less expensive on weekends than weekdays.
First-time visitors will likely remark that Calgary is modern, clean, and its people are quite friendly. In many respects, it's an increasingly cosmopolitan city than still retains the charms of its small town roots. Calgarians are really the city's best feature but there are a host of places to check out, restaurants to dine at, entertainment options to experience, and recreational pursuits to keep all sorts of visitors occupied. Unless you're staying downtown, you'll likely need a car to get around in order to experience some of the best that Calgary has to offer.
If you're spending a night in Calgary because of a late arrival or early departure, read Calgary: Hotel Districts to find out which area would be the most convenient in which to stay. In brief, while the northwest quadrant of Calgary is the most convenient for arrival, and the northeast quadrant is the most convenient for departure, you can get from the airport to anywhere in Calgary in under 30 minutes if it's not rush hour.
The best time of year to visit Calgary is from late May to the end of September. The shoulder months of October and April could have fine weather, but you also could have snow. In winter, Calgary is renowned for having unpredictable weather. Weeks could pass without a trace of snow and then a great dump of the white stuff will make its presence known. Lots of Calgarians get a little lazy about shoveling the snow away because they expect a friendly Chinook (a warm wind from the west) to come by and melt all the snow. Don't be surprised to see 15° Celsius weather in the middle of February. At the same time, don't be surprised if a foot of snow is winter's last gasp in late April or (more rarely) in mid-May.
If you will be combining your visit to Calgary with a visit to the Canadian Rockies, the best time to visit is from June till the end of September. Unless, of course, you're into winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. Calgary gets the most hours of sunshine in Canada per annum and the weather is pretty comfortable: 10° to 25°C on average for the low and high temperatures of the day during the summer months. Sightseeing is great, recreational options abound, patio dining is popular, and the city is flush with activity.
Winter enthusiasts will enjoy the fact that Calgary is the gateway to the Rockies. There are a host of great things to do in the city and in the Rockies. But, if you're not a fan of winter sports and if budget is an issue for you, you should reconsider the idea of visiting this area in winter. Calgary is very quiet between Christmas and New Year. Calgarians either spend time with their families or they go out of town to ski in the Canadian Rockies or sun themselves in warmer holiday spots. If you want to come to this area over Christmas and New Year, do not expect the city to be flush with activity (aside from shopping). Everyone is recuperating from eating seconds of turkey dinner! Except for New Year's Eve, the Rockies will offer a little more for travelers seeking some excitement.
In winter, the mountain lakes will be frozen so you won’t be able to see their legendary turquoise colour. Winter activities like horse-drawn sleigh rides, dog sledding, etc., cost money, whereas in the summer you can hike for free. Finally, if you live in a place where you don’t need a winter wardrobe, investing in the necessary parka, boots, etc., will be a significant expense. To get some sense of the winter apparel you'll need, look at the packing list for non-skiers on the Banff National Park: Clothing page. If you do visit this area in winter and require winter gear, the Calgary: Shopping page here at TripAdvisor may be helpful.
Alberta air is dry and desert-like, especially in the winter. (Most Calgary homes have furnace humidifiers.) Contact lens wearers from higher humidity areas should expect to use eyedrops or have shorter wearing times than usual. If you have a longer stay, particularly in the winter, you may find that you need to use skin cream on your hands and legs. A local product, George's Cream, is very popular during Calgary winters.
Most tap water in Alberta comes straight from the Rocky Mountains. The quality of Calgary's drinking water is excellent (in fact, Calgary's water treatment system has won many awards), but it is hard water; people used to soft water back home will find that more soap or shampoo is needed. Again, many Calgary homes are equipped with water softeners attached to the basement plumbing.
Calgary’s big draw in the summer is the Western-themed festival known as the Calgary Stampede . It lasts ten days and takes place in early July. Stampede is one of those great festivals (like Mardi Gras or Running with the Bulls in Pamplona) that you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. This is where Calgarians earned their well-deserved reputation for hosting a great party. It is common for visitors to combine a visit to the Canadian Rockies with a visit to the Stampede. Be aware that Calgary accommodation gets heavily booked up during Stampede. In most cases, the city will be sold out for mid-week by March, so be sure to make reservations well in advance to avoid disappointment. To find out which areas are the most convenient in terms of access to Stampede Park , read Calgary: Hotel Districts . For lots more information on the Calgary Stampede, check out Calgary: Stampede: First-time Visitors.
Calgary is also a suitable base for some day trips outside of the city, for example, to the world-class Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller and to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek. There is also the newly-opened Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park in Cluny, an hour's drive east of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. For more details, see Calgary: Day Trips .
If you are looking for a Canadian city that has museums, art galleries and shops to keep you occupied during a visit, head downtown as there are quite a few spots worth checking out. While not as large as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, Calgary is turning some heads in cultural circles for what it has to offer.
The Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts is the home of Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, One Yellow Rabbit Theatre, and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a host of visiting artists. Vertigo Theatre, at the base of the Calgary Tower, specializes in plays about mystery and murder.
There are free lunchtime concerts every Wednesday at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, near Olympic Plaza. A host of events are offered by the Calgary Downtown Association.
Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue South) is a hub of activity on a weekday, and really comes alive in the summer with patio dining and street buskers. Things are a little quiet on a non-Stampede Sunday until noon when stores open. As the city grows, the downtown scene will continue to blossom as more population density in the downtown core picks up with the latest wave of condominium projects — this means more cafes, nightclubs, restaurants, boutiques, etc.
If Stephen Avenue is still too sleepy during your stay, walk a few blocks from your downtown hotel. If you walk northeast, you’ll reach bustling Chinatown and some great options for dim sum. If you walk due north, you’ll reach Eau Claire Market, the pleasant path along the Bow River and the lovely Prince’s Island Park. (In July, Prince's Island hosts the Calgary Folk Festival; in August, you can see Shakespeare in the Park.) If you walk northwest, you’ll get to Kensington with its funky shops and restaurants. Head south and you’ll find the shops and restaurants of Uptown 17th Avenue and 4th Street SW , bounded on the south by the Elbow River’s nice walking path. To find out more about these options, read Calgary: Neighborhoods . Perhaps one of Calgary’s many summer festivals will be in progress in one of those communities.
If you have a business trip to Calgary during the winter months and if your meetings will take place in the downtown core, you will find the Plus 15 system useful. This is a system of above-ground, climate-controlled glass-enclosed walkways that connect downtown buildings. It is called Plus 15 (or +15) because regulations specify that walkways be built 15 feet above ground level. The Plus 15 system enables pedestrians to walk from one end of downtown to the other without coats and boots in winter. Keep your winter coat in the closet and do your trek indoors. In 2007, a CBC Radio panel judged listener nominations, and determined the Plus 15 system to be one of the Seven Wonders of Calgary.
If you have a longer period of time to spend in the area – say ten days or more – you could combine a visit to the Canadian Rockies with a day or two in Calgary and Edmonton . You even could contemplate a circular drive that took in both of those cities as well as the Canadian Rockies. First drive the stretch between Calgary and Edmonton , which takes you across the prairies. Finish your trip on a high note, literally and figuratively, by saving the Rocky Mountains till last. The Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff is one of the most spectacular drives you'll ever experience irrespective of the season. Take your time and revel in the wonder of the landscape.
If you will be traveling to Calgary primarily to visit family, you may spend more time in Calgary and less time in the Canadian Rockies than the average tourist. You should, however, take advantage of the proximity to the Rockies and check it out for at least a day trip to the Rockies. It is recommended that a day trip include Moraine Lake, Lake Louise and the town of Banff. For more ideas, visit the TripAdvisor page entitled Calgary: Day Trips . If you will be visiting Calgary with children, the Calgary: Family Travel page lists attractions that are fun for kids. You may find that you are in Calgary during one of the city's several summer festivals. TripAdvisor's page on Neighborhoods will tell you about districts that have funky shops and restaurants.