17/06/2024

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9+ Best Things To Do In Calgary, Canada (on A Short Visit)

16 min read
9+ Best Things To Do In Calgary, Canada (on A Short Visit)

Welcome to Calgary, Canada’s hidden gem at the heart of Alberta.

It’s a city where modern skyscrapers cast shadows on centuries of history, where the majestic Rockies embrace an urban playground, and where cultural diversity meets natural wonder.

downtown calgary skyline on edge of bow river

If you’re seeking a thrilling adventure, a taste of rich heritage, or simply a breath of fresh mountain air, you’ll find that there are plenty of things to do in Calgary that encompasses all of this.

Because of its location on the edge of the Canadian prairie and the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Calgary can be a stopover or passing through destination.

As Banff is one of Canada’s top destinations, many will pass through Calgary on their way there, so we thought it would be helpful to share what to do in Calgary on a short visit, so you can make the most out of the short time you have.

If, like me, you will be pausing in Calgary, here are a few attractions worth exploring in this Canadian city in half a day to a day trip.

Why was I visiting Calgary?

aerial view of calgary high rises and plains in the background

I arrived in Calgary for my friend, Christina McEvoy (@MacsExplore) Instasuccess Retreat in Banff National Park. I had half a day before that began so headed out to Downtown Calgary without any plans in place.

I was pleasantly surprised and glad I made the time to explore some of its top attractions in Calgary.

It was my first time in Canada, and I was intrigued enough with the diversity and beauty of Calgary to plan for more return trips to other Canadian cities.

I’ll add some more suggestions at the end that I did not get time to do, but if you have more time in Calgary, you may want to do it.

Is Calgary Worth Visiting?

bow river running under a bridge
The Bow River

Calgary is located in the province of Alberta, on the confluence of the Bow River and Elbow River.

It’s situated at the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies, which means it is relatively close to the transition point between the mountainous terrain of the Rockies and the flat expanses of the Prairies.

That means it’s a gateway to both the Rockies and the Prairies, and is only two hours from the iconic Banff National Park – so because of its location alone, it’s definitely worth visiting.

Aside from its location, Calgary is well known for its relaxing atmosphere, possibly due to its number of parks and the fact that everyone gets plenty of vitamin D – that’s right, Calgary boasts 333 days of sunshine a year!

Best Things to Do in Downtown Calgary

restaurant on street

While Edmonton is the capital of Alberta, Calgary is the largest city and the third biggest city in Canada, with a population of approximately 1.2 million locals, so you can be sure there are plenty of things you can do there to keep you entertained.

I spent most of my time in Downtown Calgary. Those with more time will want to explore further afield, but most things to do in Calgary are in Downtown.

1. Start with Coffee at the Simmons Building

brick exterior of the simmons building framed by trees
The Simmons Building

My friend Tamara from Globe Guide Instamessaged me to say I had to go to the East Village and to start with coffee in the Simmons Building located on the Bow River. And so, I did.

The Simmons’ Building is a landmark in the East Village, which is a neighborhood known for its alternative, hippy vibe, and art installations. The building dates to 1912, when it began as a mattress factory.

It was renovated in the early 2010s as part of the East Village revitalization project. Now it’s a culinary hub which houses the Charbar restaurant, Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, and Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters.

The bakery was closed as it was Sunday afternoon, but if open, this could be a good spot for lunch in Calgary if your itinerary allows for it. (as I was waiting for my room to be ready to check in at my airport hotel, I ate poutine at the hotel restaurant)

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters is the coffee shop, and I can report, while not as perfect as an Australian flat white, it was still pretty good and better than 95% of the coffees I’ve had in the USA.

It’s third wave, craft coffee style, not quick-fix subpar Starbucks style.

Many of its original architectural elements are intact, such as the exposed brick walls, wooden beams, and large windows, which help create a warm and inviting atmosphere. There are tables outside with scenic views of the river.

2. Enjoy Art Installations in the East Village

statue of people in a circle
Family Man sculpture | Source: Yay Images

You don’t need to walk into an art gallery in Calgary to enjoy art. A program called Art in the Public Realm has brought permanent art installations to our outdoor spaces, as well as revolving installations that feature temporary artwork by local artists.

Murals, sculptures, and digital art by international and local artists give life to our streets and public spaces. Look out for them as you walk around, there are plenty along the riverfront and underpasses, walls, plazas, and islands.

3. Bike or Walk Along Bow River Pathway

bike riding bow river path calgary

Now you’ve had your coffee fix, it’s time to stretch your legs along the Bow River. The Bow River Pathway in Calgary is a scenic and extensive network of pedestrian and cycling pathways that run alongside the Bow River.

It stretches for approximately 48 kilometers (30 miles) along both the north and south banks of the Bow River as it winds its way through Calgary.

It’s particularly picturesque during the spring and summer when the riverbanks are lush with greenery.

Several pedestrian bridges cross the Bow River, connecting both sides of the pathway. These bridges are not only functional but also provide unique vantage points for enjoying the river and city views.

bird flying over Bow River

As you’re near the Simmons Building, you can cross the bridge to explore St Patrick’s Island before turning around to walk along the pathway to Prince’s Island – both in the middle of the Bow River (which is a cool feature of this downtown Calgary attraction.).

Take your time watching people fishing, paddling down the river, and the many birds flying back and forth.

You may want to cross over for elevated views of the city. Crescent Heights Lookout Point is highly recommended as one of the best viewpoints of Downtown Calgary’s skyline.

raft on bow river
rafting fun

I loved walking the Bow River Pathways as it gave me a great insight into Canadian life. I could tell, it’s a culture that loves outdoor living and adventure and soaking in natural spaces.

The atmosphere seemed calm and happy, and I was very surprised at the diversity of cultures out and about. It made me wonder how it had taken me all these years to visit Canada. I think it will be a country and culture I’ll like very much.

I walked the pathway between St Patrick’s Island and Prince’s Island. It took around 20 minutes to walk between the two. Allow for extra time to explore the two islands or rest at one of the many chairs along the pathway.

Here’s a 3-hour City Highlights and Bow River Bike Tour you may enjoy. Ride through the bike-friendly streets of Calgary, learn the story of the Red Mile, explore the rustic boutique area of Inglewood, and wind your way down the Bow River. See rates and availability here.

4. Explore St Patrick’s Island

bike crossing bridge on St Partrick's island with yellow trees

In the middle of the Bow River, right near the Simmons Building is one of Calgary’s oldest parks, St Patrick’s Island. 

St. Patrick’s Island recently underwent a major revitalization transforming it into a vibrant urban park b to restore the natural environment, improve access, and create a welcoming space for the community.

St Patrick’s Island is a little wilder than Princes Island. It’s 31 acres of mostly natural landscapes which include forests, wetlands, and green spaces with plenty of hiking trails and biking trails and skiing in the winter.

It’s a haven for wildlife and a peaceful escape from the urban hustle and bustle.

views of calgary skyline with river in front
View from St Patrick’s Island

You’ll find a fishing cove, naturalized wetlands, wooded areas with meandering pathways, a playground, and a hill that offers some of the best views in the city. There’s also a monumental public art installation, a completely accessible picnic area and an amphitheater.

The island provides picturesque views of the Bow River, the downtown skyline, and the nearby East Village.

5. Enjoy Prince’s Island

sigh on edge of flowered path

The more landscaped of the two islands is Prince’s Island in the heart of Downtown Calgary.

The park is named after Peter Anthony Prince, one of the founders of the Eau Claire Lumber, a lumber company that dug a channel in the Bow River to transport logs floating downstream closer to the saw mill.

This channel (or lagoon) eventually separated an entire piece of land from the mainland and formed into what we know today as Prince’s Island Park. The park was acquired by the City of Calgary in the 40s and developed into a public park.

flowering plant on bridge with river in the background
flowering gardens, green space and buildings in the background

The park boasts lush green spaces, mature trees, flowering gardens, and meandering pathways that offer a peaceful and natural escape from the city’s hustle and bustle.

It’s a haven for both wildlife and humans, providing a serene atmosphere in the heart of the city.

Birdwatchers can often spot ducks, geese, and other waterfowl along the river, especially during migratory seasons.

There are many sculptures and art installations on the island you can look at along the trails. Hammocks were strung between trees and people picnicking on the open grass areas.

steel intertwined sculpture in park

Prince’s Park is a hub for cultural events and festivals during the summer months. It hosts the Calgary Folk Music Festival, Shakespeare by the Bow, and various other music and arts events.

The natural amphitheater in the park serves as a popular venue for outdoor concerts and performances.

On Prince’s Island there is a small restaurant, The River Café, you may wish to stop at for lunch, especially those looking for romantic things to do in Calgary.

restaurant with lettering river cafe on outside

They use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible and have an award-winning list of wines. I had a few Canadian wines – both red and white – on my trip and really enjoyed them all, especially the chardonnay. 

6. Paddle the Bow River

people paddling on bow river

I wish I had done better research on things to do in Calgary, as I would have loved to paddle along the Bow River. I enjoyed watching many people come cruising down on stand-up paddle boards, kayaks and river rafts and tubes.

The river is fast moving and doesn’t look like much paddling effort is required. So put cruise mode on and enjoy those beautiful views. Here is a company that rents paddle craft.

7. Climb Calgary Tower for Panoramic Views

caz standing on glass floor of calgary tower
A little scary!

I was debating whether to head up to the top of Calgary Tower for panoramic views over Calgary. Since it’s a relatively cheap Calgary attraction, I figured I wouldn’t lose too much if it was overrated.

It wasn’t! I really enjoyed the Calgary Tower experience. The Calgary Tower, formerly known as the Husky Tower, is an iconic landmark located in the heart of downtown Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

calgary tower in between other high rises

The 190.8 meters (626 feet) tower was constructed in 1967 by Husky Oil and Marathon Realty as a project for the Centennial Celebration of Canada’s Confederation It is one of the city’s most recognizable structures and serves as both an observation tower and a symbol of Calgary’s skyline.

As soon as you step off the elevator onto the enclosed observation deck, you’re in front of a large glass floor edge that juts out from the side of the circular tower.

people looking out glass window at buildings

It was slightly unnerving walking out onto the floor and looking down at the traffic below, but don’t worry, these glass floors can hold the weight of two hippos.

They haven’t tested it with real hippos, but real horses do stand on as a way of kickstarting the Calgary Stampede. (I’ve done a similar one in Chicago)

caz sitting on floor of glass ledge in calgary tower
Not a hippo or horse, but it’s holding me up
feet on glass floor with traffic underneath
Look Down!
row of buildings in calgary as seen from the tower
calgary buildings with bow river in background

On a clear day, you can see the Rocky Mountains from up here. I could just make out their outlines in the distance.

Other than that, you’ll look out at some of the uniquely shaped Calgary high rises and over the Bow River and surrounding plains.

If you’re hungry, or just want a drink with a view, Sky 360 is a rotating restaurant in the tower. The Calgary Tower features an exterior LED light show each morning before sunrise and nightly from dusk to midnight.

8. Wander Stephen Avenue

rainbow crossing on pedestrian stephen ave with high rises in backgroud

Right near the Calgary Tower is Stephen Avenue, also known as Stephen Avenue Walk It’s a vibrant and historic pedestrian mall spanning several blocks in downtown Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

It is one of the city’s most iconic and lively streets, known for its mix of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, and historic architecture adding to its charm.

You’ll also find public art installations and sculptures along Stephen Ave and the street often hosts various outdoor events, live performances, and street festivals, especially during the summer months.

wired art installation on street

I just missed a live music performance with Adirondack chairs set up in the street!

It’s also home to several theaters, making it a cultural hub for arts and entertainment. If you’re looking for what to do in Calgary at night, Stephens Avenue is the place for lively nightlife!

Its blend of heritage and modernity, combined with its lively atmosphere, makes it a must-visit area for anyone exploring downtown Calgary.

9. Drinks at the Rooftop Bar at Simmons Building

caz with drink on rooftop bars and view of river

My research on the best rooftop bars in Calgary brought me to the Simmons Building and their adults-only rooftop patio overlooking the Bow River and downtown Calgary’s cityscape.

The uninterrupted views were gorgeous, and I enjoyed watching more people float down the river with a refreshing Aperol Spritz. It certainly wasn’t as good as what you’d get in Italy, but it was not bad!

If you want to have a few drinks and a bite to eat, you can order Connie & John’s Pizza from downstairs, which will be delivered to your rooftop table.

aperol spritz on table with river views behind
Aperol Spritz time
tables and chairs on rooftop patio with bow river views

The rooftop garden’s atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, making it an excellent place to unwind, socialize, and take in the surrounding urban and natural scenery.

When the sun goes down, you’ll get to see the lights of Downtown Calgary. There are built in heaters, a glass encased fireplace and live music on feature nights.

As I had been up since 3:30am (1:30am Calgary time) I opted to go back to my hotel after my evening drink for cheap wings and a Canadian chardonnay (I was impressed) at my hotel restaurant.

Other Things to Do in Calgary (with more time)

If you have more time on your visit, you may also want to include some of these top attractions and things to do in Calgary.

10. Get Inspired at Glenbow Museum

brown square building of glenbow museum

If you’re interested in art and culture, visit the Glenbow Museum. Its diverse collection of art, historical artifacts, and exhibitions showcase the history of Western Canada from the stories of Canada’s first peoples to the lives of newcomers to Canada, to the modern insights of contemporary artists in the 21st century.

11. Visit Heritage Park Historical Village

people walking onto paddle wheeler at the dock

 If you’re interested in history, consider visiting Heritage Park Historical Village. It’s the largest living history museum in North America that showcases life in Western Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Heritage Park is situated on a 127-acre peninsula of prime parkland surrounded on three sides by the Glenmore Reservoir.  You can pre-book your admission ticket here.

12. Explore the National Music Center, Bell Studio

building shaped like a guidtar
Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre building.

Many visitors recommended the National Music Centre as a must-visit place in Calgary.

It serves as a museum, performance venue, education center, recording studio, and Canadian Music Hall of Fame showcasing Canada’s rich musical history and its impact on the world.

One of the standout features of the NMC is its architecturally stunning building, known as Studio Bell. Designed by Brad Cloepfil from Allied Works Architecture, its unique design includes interlocking towers clad in glazed terracotta that is meant to reference the design of musical instruments.

This top Calgary attraction is said to take around two hours to see all five floors.

13. Visit Nose Hill Park

Calgary’s largest natural environmental park in northwest Calgary offers 60 km of designated trails and pathways and contains one of the most significant examples of this grassland ecosystem left on the Canadian prairies.

From the top you get a superb overview of downtown Calgary, but of the Rocky Mountains, the Bow River Valley, and the Calgary International Airport.

14. Watch an Ice Hockey Game

aerial view Scotiabank Saddledom behind tall buildings
Scotiabank Saddledom behind the buildings

Would it be a visit to Canada without seeing an ice hockey game? If you are visiting during the season, and love sports, you may love attending an NHL Calgary Flames match at Scotiabank Saddledome located in Stampede Park.

I would have done this if I had more time and there was a game on. Ice Hockey is one of my favorite sports to see live!

If there’s not a game on but you love sports, Calgary also has Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame which is worth checking out if you have time.

15. Attend the Calgary Stampede

wore sculpture horse

If you are visiting Calgary in July, you may want to put the Calgary Stamped on your list of things to do, it’s the greatest outdoor show in Calgary!

This world-famous annual event lasts for about ten days and features a wide range of activities and attractions, including rodeo events, parades, chuckwagon races, rides, and live entertainment.

16. Have Fun at Calgary Zoo

 The Calgary Zoo is a great place to spend a few hours, especially if you’re traveling as a family with kids.

It’s home to a wide variety of animals from around the world, from gorillas to penguins, and offers educational experiences.

It’s located on the other end of St Patrick’s Island. 

17. Visit Buffalo Jump

Beautiful aerial view of Canadian Prairie at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump world heritage site in Southern Alberta on a sunny day with blue sky and clouds in summer
Buffalo Jump

Buffalo Jump is actually located just outside Calgary but can easily be visited on a half day trip.

This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of the best-preserved and largest buffalo jumps in the world.

For nearly 6,000 years, native people of the North American plains practiced buffalo hunting at this site.

The Blackfoot people, in particular, utilized this method to hunt buffalo for countless centuries. The buffalo jump is a testament to their ancient culture and hunting techniques.

Visiting Buffalo Jump offers a unique opportunity to learn about the rich history and traditions of the indigenous people.

18. Take the Kids to Calaway Park

Calaway Park is Western Canada’s largest outdoor family amusement park, and offers a thrilling experience with its 32 rides, live entertainment, 3D theater, and haunted hotel.

Founded in 1982, Calaway Park has been entertaining visitors for over four decades. From exhilarating roller coasters to kid-friendly arcade games, there’s something for everyone.

19. Visit Fort Calgary

monument of man on horse out front of old fort building

Fort Calgary was established in 1875 as a North-West Mounted Police outpost, it played a pivotal role in the development of the region.

Today, Fort Calgary stands as a National Historic Site of Canada, preserving its rich heritage.

If you love military history, then a visit to the Military Museum, which is the second largest military museum in Canada, is a must visit, too!

Where to stay in Calgary

overlooking calgary

I was staying at the Applause Hotel by Clique near the airport. This was because the next day we were doing airport pickups all day for retreat attendees before driving to Canmore, near Banff National Park.

Upon returning to Calgary to fly out, I also stayed at Acclaim Hotel by Clique as I had an early morning flight home.

The free airport shuttles for both hotels were welcome! Both hotels had spacious and comfortable rooms with good hotel amenities like rooftop hot tub and restaurants.

I did not try the restaurant at Acclaim, but the food at Applause was really good and included a hearty breakfast.

plate of poutine
Delicious poutine

The Calgary Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel is the perfect for those who want to check out of their hotel, walk four minutes, and check into their flight!

Some restaurants near Calgary airport that we ate at were the Cactus Club Cafe and Calgary Momo House, a fantastic Nepalese restaurant.

For the best places to stay in Downtown Calgary, these places have great reviews, location and amenities.

  • Alt Hotel Calgary East Village is an eco-certified hotel near Studio Bell that has two restaurants. See rates and availability.
  • Sandman Signature Calgary Downtown Hotel is close to Calgary Tower and has an indoor pool and restaurant. See rates and availability.
  • Hotel Arts is a fun 4-start eco-certified hotel near Calgary Tower and Stampede Par. It also has a poolside bar, shopping on site, and a coffee shop/cafe, and free bicycle rental. See rates and availability.

Final Thoughts

people fishing in the river

While my visit to Calgary was short, I feel I experienced a lot of its cultural diversity and natural beauty.

I enjoyed seeing the diverse, active, and relaxed, personality of a city quite connected to its surrounding beauty.

Calgary is a great stopover point on the way to some of Canada’s top attractions like Banff National Park, Yoho National Park, and the Icefields Parkway. It’s worth stopping for at least a day to experience this dynamic Canadian city.

Calgary’s warm hospitality, its blend of modern and historic, and its boundless opportunities for adventure are yours to savor.

Stay tuned for my next stop: The Incredible Banff National Park. (Join our email community so you never miss a post (form below)!)

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