Calgary (located in Alberta, Canada but not the capital, that’s Edmonton) is an easy-to-access, large, approachable city that works for a long weekend or a short break. Here’s what to do over a long weekend and why a pitstop in Calgary is travel bucket list worthy.
What To Do on a Calgary City Break
Calgary (pronounced Cal-Gree, not Cal-Guh-Ree), a population of 1.6 million, sits at the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Calgary’s airport is about a 20-30 minute drive from the city's heart and has direct flights from major U.S. cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas.
Why Visit Calgary?
If you’re watching airfare deals and Calgary comes up, that’s your sign to dig into what this Canadian city offers. Most major airlines operate flights in and out of Calgary, although some may codeshare with Canadian carriers. Upon leaving Calgary at the end of my trip, I went through U.S. immigration on the Canadian side, so there was no long line when I returned to the U.S.
The city is safe, and the downtown area is walkable, although winter temperatures and icy sidewalks may send you running for an Uber or Lyft. There’s also a network of indoor sidewalks to keep pedestrians out of the elements. Calgary’s Plus 15 Network covers 10 miles and connects 86 buildings, including downtown hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers.
Add a Trip to Banff
If Calgary alone doesn’t pique your interest, consider adding it to a trip to Banff National Park, about a two-hour drive from Calgary International Airport. Travelers flying into Canada to visit Banff or Lake Louise stop at Calgary International Airport (YYC). Banff is famous for skiing, snowboarding, and year-round outdoor adventure, so tacking on a little city break adds a fun dimension to a Banff trip.
The Calgary Stampede is a 10-day outdoor rodeo and festival called “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” The Calgary Stampede is the city’s most famous event annually in July. The 2023 dates are July 7-16. In addition to rodeo events, visitors will find midway rides, entertainment, cultural experiences, and a fair food scene. If you plan to visit Calgary during the Calgary Stampede, make your reservations well in advance and expect crowds and busier venues throughout the city.
Here are five ideas for things to do year-round in Calgary.
1. Visit The Calgary Tower
The Calgary Tower is a freestanding observation tower in downtown Calgary and a distinct part of the city’s skyline. A trip to the top will treat visitors to 360-degree views of the city and the Canadian Rockies. There’s also a rotating restaurant, Sky360. The tower is lit at night. The colors rotate and usually mean something. A schedule online will tell you what the colors mean or signify.
Test your courage by stepping out onto the plexiglass floor. This experience offers a feeling of stepping off the building and isn’t for the faint of heart.
2. Explore Calgary’s East Village Neighborhood
Calgary’s East Village neighborhood is in the heart of downtown and has easily walkable streets with lots of public art. East Village has a mix of permanent and temporary art installations to discover.
One of the most popular (and weird) pieces of street art in East Village is the Device to Root Out Evil by Dennis Oppenheim of New York. This piece of art is better known as the “upside-down church” because that’s what it is. With the steeple buried in the ground, this piece is meant to give a thought-provoking look at religion, which doesn’t come as a surprise given its name.
Another landmark piece of art is the trio of outdoor sculptures at Calgary’s Central Library. Two of the swaying pieces grace the west side of the building, while a third stands alone on the east, near the steps leading to the main library entrance. A complete list of East Village street art can be found here.
3. Stop by The Calgary Central Library
If you’re a book lover or library nerd, you’ll want to put Calgary’s Central Library high on your list of places to see in the city, but even if you’re not, this unique space is worth a stop. The external hexagon patterned architecture is unique. The inside area has the things you’d expect a library to have, with a few design elements and additions that pleasantly surprise you.
Visitors to the city will probably not return books, but the process is still remarkable. Watch the Bookscalator – a giant escalator just for books – in action. Watching the books go from the book drop to the second-floor sorting room is fascinating. There’s a coffee and plant shop on the second floor, a robust children’s area, lots of natural light, and a general sense of airiness. Check the library’s website for specific information on programming that you might be able to participate in without being a library card holder.
4. Check Out Trendy Inglewood
Calgary’s Inglewood neighborhood is about a five-minute cab or Uber ride from downtown/East Village or about a 30-minute walk, depending on your pace. Spend the day exploring the specialty shops that line 9th Avenue and discovering unique spots to stop and have coffee or tea. Inglewood favorites include The Apothecary, which features sustainable personal care products, baby products, home, and garden supplies, and the Silk Road Spice Merchant.
Anyone who appreciates a good book – an actual book and not the digital, e-reader version – should carve out some time to explore The Next Page, an independent bookseller offering new and used books and much more. In addition to books and related sundries, such as stickers, totes, and bookmarks, this inviting space also features a pay-what-you-can coffee bar and a seed library.
Don’t skip the basement mini-theater. The atmosphere is clean, warm, and welcoming, and a great place to take a sit-down break (comfy chairs and tables are plentiful) and enjoy a warm drink amongst the stacks.
More Inglewood Must-dos
Another Inglewood must-do is Canela’s Vegan Bakery. Even if you’re not plant-based, this woman and immigrant-owned bakery is a treat for all the senses. Vegan cinnamon rolls are Canela’s specialty – canela is the Spanish word for cinnamon – but they have a variety of sweet and savory drinks plus a coffee bar.
Note: There are more fun neighborhoods to explore in Calgary, but the two mentioned above are a short jump from downtown Calgary. See more of Calgary’s neighborhoods here.
5. Indulge in a Spa (Or Two)
Whether a spa treatment is part of the desired landscape for your city break or if your muscles need some TLC after the slopes in Banff, Calgary has several tempting options for pampering. The rnr Wellness spa at the Fairmont Palliser is luxurious and indulgent and includes access to the pool and saunas.
You don’t have to be a hotel guest to book a spa treatment. The pool area is beautiful, and the whole experience is oh-so-indulgent, which mirrors the Fairmont Palliser vibe.
One of the city’s newly opened downtown wellness escapes, SKA Thermal Spa, is a more budget-friendly option. SKA, an acronym for Self Kindness Amplified, offers two-hour hydrotherapy packages that start at about $48*. This includes access to a whirlpool, plunge pool, various steam and sauna areas, and relaxation chairs.
Massages and facials can be added on for an extra fee. The only downside is that the spaces (both the wellness area and the locker rooms) are very condensed. SKA doesn’t overbook the space, but it can feel crowded if the hydrotherapy is at full capacity.
Downtown Hotels and Dining
For luxury, the Fairmont Palliser is worth checking out. Enjoy the white glove service, the Hawthorne Dining Room and Bar (grab a pre-dinner drink or afternoon tea), and the spa/pool facilities mentioned above. The luxury amenities come with a price tag: the rooms start at about $200 per night and go up.
I stayed in a Gold-level room, including continental breakfast, evening canapes, lounge access, and a premium bathroom with heated floor tiles. Prices will vary based on season, specials, and other factors, but a starting price for the room I stayed in comes at around $400.
Expert Advice on Calgary Accommodations
Casandra Karpiak, travel writer and owner of Savoteur, recommends staying at the Fairmont Palliser’s sister property in Banff if you get there. “A stay at the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs tops most bucket lists and does not disappoint. The indoor pool is heavenly, and the patio overlooking the Bow River is an ideal location for happy hour.”
Try the Calgarian version of the Bloody Mary, the Ceasar. The Ceasar has clamato instead of plain tomato juice, and the one I had at the bar at the Hawthorne had a dash of balsamic vinegar.
For those seeking more budget-friendly options, the Alt Hotel Calgary East Village is located within steps of the Bow River and has many shopping and dining options. This newer property has a bright, airy, trendy vibe. Rooms start at $169 per night.
Dining in Calgary
There are many dining options in downtown Calgary, so you can find whatever your taste buds fancy. Newly opened Barbarella Bar and Ten Foot Henry are fun downtown places with small, shareable plates.
Generally, fans of vintage comic strips or pop culture will find 10 Foot Henry amusing. The restaurant is so named because of a 10-foot mural of Henry from the 1930s comic strip of the same name. The mural is located outside the restroom at 10 Foot Henry but has been in various spots around Calgary over the years before settling in its current location.
If you’re a sushi lover, I recommend you book a table at NUPO. You can order off the regular menu or book more exclusive experiences, such as the Omakase counter service experience or EIGHT, Chef Darren McLean’s private, seasonal tasting. Check out the NUPOs website for more information or to see their menu.
Note: All pricing listed is in U.S. Dollars. Prices in Calgary will be listed in Canadian Dollars (CAD), so check out the current exchange rate before your trip.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Jill is an expert travel writer focusing on family and adventure travel as well as practical tips to help travelers get the most value out of their vacation experiences. In addition to Wealth of Geeks, Jill has written for Business Insider, MSN, Tripsavvy, Matador Network, Canadian Traveller, and Travel Awaits. She lives in San Antonio with her husband and sons but she's usually somewhere else.