Cowboys and culture on Canada’s plains
In the middle of southern Alberta Canada’s vast prairie, multicultural urbanity meets cowboy country in Calgary. The outlaw Henry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, himself once owned a saloon in one of its grand hotels.
Locals still brag that when the city hosted the 1988 winter Olympics, some Calgarians opened their homes to visitors from all over the world, and others cleaned up horse manure after the Western-themed opening ceremony.
But the city is perhaps best known for the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the annual Calgary Stampede. Celebrated every July since 1912, the stampede offers 10 days of high-octane rodeo competitions that draw cowboys and cowgirls from all around and 1.2 million fans in non-COVID times.
While the pandemic has dampened travel everywhere, “Calgary’s ‘giddy up’ never left, and we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors back with our Western hospitality when it’s safe to do so,” said Tourism Calgary’s Nancy Jackson.
Located near five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Calgary is an intriguing, walkable historic city just an hour’s drive east of the Canadian Rockies.
Walkable in all types of weather
Calgary’s downtown is compact and easily walkable, with many shops and eateries along Stephen Avenue Mall.
The Plus 15 skywalk network makes strolling around town comfortable even in inclement weather. Opened in 1970, the 11-mile network now includes about 60 enclosed bridges connecting downtown buildings.
After an 1886 fire incinerated most of the town’s wooden buildings, all buildings by law were made of sandstone, earning Calgary the moniker “Sandstone City.” Many still stand.
The 62-foot Calgary Tower’s elevators whisk visitors to the top in only 62 seconds. There, you can sightsee on the observation deck’s glass floor, watch the city’s comings and goings below, or soak in broad vistas of the prairies, foothills and the Rocky Mountains. Built in just 24 days in 1968, the tower can withstand winds up to 100 miles per hour, partly because 60 percent of the building is underground.
Olympic Plaza, built for the 1988 winter Olympic games’ medal ceremonies, has plaques honoring the winners. Today, it’s a fair-weather setting for concerts and festivals, an ice rink in winter and a gathering place year-round.
The second floor of Jamieson Place is a mood booster with its skywalk-level garden and a 2,000-square-foot “living wall” that recalls a prairie landscape. The area sparkles with three hand-blown Dale Chihuly chandeliers of intricate, twisting tendrils and orbs that reflect the light in amber, green and blue — colors that suggest the prairie sky just before sunrise.
The 20-gallery Glenbow Museum, one of western Canada’s largest, chronicles the history of the Canadian West — from the indigenous First Nations through pioneers to the oil boom.
Alberta has been the hub of Canada’s oil and gas production since oil was first struck here in 1914. Today, around 85 energy companies have their headquarters here. Oil and gas are “in Alberta’s veins,” according to one exhibit.
Other exhibits explore mineralogy, cattle ranching and railroading. The museum has the oldest known rock in the world, a tonalite gneiss, 3.9 billion years old (the Earth is believed to be 4.5 billion years old).
Throughout the Glenbow Museum, plaques provide the First Nations peoples’ perspective, for example, pointing out that Europeans brought both tools and diseases to North America.
Blackfoot, Sarcee and Stoney tribes lived for centuries along Alberta’s converging Bow and Elbow Rivers. A gallery is dedicated to the culture of the indigenous Blackfoot people.
Another must-see is the city’s vibrant Chinatown and the Chinese Cultural Center, which is modeled after Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. Twenty percent of Canadians are Chinese, descended from immigrants who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1880s.
The center’s Chinese Artifact Museum has impressive replicas of the terracotta soldiers from a 247 B.C. imperial tomb discovered in Xian in 1974. Also on display is the first seismograph, invented in 132 C.E. by Zhang Heng: The ball in a dragon’s mouth drops to a toad’s mouth during an earthquake.
Another exhibit on discrimination recounts the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned most Chinese people from immigrating to Canada until it was repealed in 1947.
An especially intriguing attraction is Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, which welcomes visitors with its motto, “Everyone’s born to sing.” Visiting is as much an auditory tour as a visual one. The center’s 2,000-piece collection tells the story of 450 years of Canadian music. Artists use some of the center’s 200 instruments and recording studios, and visitors are invited to watch and listen.
One exhibit replicates a theater, where a professional organist makes a “great big sound” daily on a 600-pipe 1924 organ built by Kimball Piano and Organ Company for the silent movies, one of perhaps 600 in the world. Because it is a theater organ, the organist can use both hands and feet to make the sounds of a xylophone, glockenspiel, drums, marimba, chimes, wood blocks, gongs, gunshots and a toy box.
One performer explained that he “pulls out all the stops,” or mechanical knobs, playing all the pipes at once. “That’s how Bach started each piece.”
If you go
For travel planning, check ahead for current COVID-19 requirements. Roundtrip flights from Washington National via Chicago currently start at $344. For tourist information, go to visitcalgary.com.
The Calgary Stampede, July 9 to 18, is a 10-day spectacular of professional athletes in high-dollar rodeo competitions, including bareback, saddle-bronc, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing. Rodeo tickets available for purchase have been situated to allow for current physical distancing requirements. For ticket inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other highlights include First Nations dancing and drum competitions, livestock shows, midway rides, chuckwagon races, concerts and tasty treats like maple-glazed donuts and deep-fried, bacon-wrapped Reese’s cups.
Planners hope the Calgary Folk Music Festival, July 22 to 28, will be live (2020’s was virtual). Seventy Alberta artists will perform on six daytime and two evening stages. Visit www.calgaryfolkfest.com/festival.
Through the Beltline Urban Murals Project (BUMP), artists have transformed Calgary into an open-air gallery with outdoor murals. During the BUMP Festival, August 6 to 29, the city is expected to pop with live DJs, music, food and self-guided mural tours. Visit yycbump.ca.
Set aside a couple of days to visit nearby Banff National Park, 100 miles west — a vast expanse of nature bursting with sublime scenery, glacier-fed lakes, 1,000 miles of trails and a gondola that takes adventurers to Sulphur Mountain’s summit.
A good “base camp” is the stunning, emerald green-turquoise Lake Louise, which has several lodging options, including the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Check banfflakelouise.com for accommodations.
[Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the date of the Calgary Folk Music Festival. It is scheduled for July 22 to 28, 2021.]