Calgary stands confidently on the spacious plains of southern Alberta. Blocks of mirrored skyscrapers make the city look new, which it is: Most of downtown has been built in the past few decades. The city's major businesses are in keeping with this modern image—oil, gas and high technology.
But there's still a wild, frontier side to the town. Cattle lands and farms surround it, and the Rockies rise dramatically in the west. Calgary has acquired a sophisticated demeanor while retaining a cocky, entrepreneurial spirit that stems from the independent, self-reliant cowboy culture that was the city's foundation.
This mixture of the urbane and the untamed gives the city much of its vitality. It's even reflected in the major events associated with Calgary. The same town that showed off its cosmopolitan qualities for the 1988 Winter Olympics also puts on a cowboy hat for 10 days each summer during the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, the mammoth rodeo that is by far the best-known event in Alberta.
In spite of its cool business image, the city is devoted to preserving nature. It has 19,027 acres/7,700 hectares of green space and 435 mi/700 km of recreational pathways within the city, providing an escape for residents and 180 mi/290 km of on-street bike lanes for commuters. Calgarians love to work hard and play hard, and this is reflected in the wide selection of shopping and entertainment venues. And its broad mix of international cultures is represented by the astounding diversity of restaurant fare.
Located on the southern plains of Alberta, Calgary is divided into four quadrants, and the majority of streets are numbered, making it fairly easy to find a location simply by its address and quadrant. The key to the system is the dividing lines: East and west are divided by Centre Street and Macleod Trail, and north and south are separated by the Bow River and Memorial Drive.
All numbered avenues (Third Avenue, Fourth Avenue, and so on) run east-west and increase in number the farther you are from the river. Numbered streets (Sixth Street, Seventh Street) run north-south and increase as you move away from Centre Street. Thus, an address on Fourth Street Southwest would be four blocks west of Centre Street on the south side of the river.
Downtown is on the south bank of the Bow River, surrounding Centre Street and stretching to the west. Kensington, with its trendy cafes and shops, is just northwest of downtown (across the Bow River), near 10th Street and Kensington Road. If you follow Ninth Avenue East from downtown, you'll reach the Inglewood neighborhood. At the northeast corner of downtown, you will find the third-largest Chinatown in Canada (after the Chinatowns in Vancouver and Toronto). The Mission district along 17th Avenue Southwest between Second and 10th streets, is lined with restaurants, bars, coffee shops and boutiques.
The city's downtown and its bordering neighborhoods are on the plain of the Bow River, so it's generally flat and easy walking. Older neighborhoods have plenty of trees, but newer suburbs have a rather barren appearance.
The site where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet was often visited by both the Sarcee and Blackfoot tribes, though they didn't settle in the area for extended periods. Fort Calgary was established there in September 1875 by the North West Mounted Police with orders to roust some illegal inhabitants: U.S. whiskey traders operating along the Bow River. The Mounties quickly chased their bootlegging neighbors south, clearing the way for Calgary's peaceful development.
Unlike many settlements in western North America, there was little trouble between the native inhabitants and Calgary's new residents. In the winter of 1880, a small band of Sarcee did hold the fort hostage, demanding a reserve apart from the Blackfoot. The Sarcee Reserve was soon established and is located today in Calgary's southwest corner (it has since been renamed the Tsuu T'ina Nation).
With law and order firmly established and thousands of miles/kilometers of prairie grass beckoning, ranchers moved in and were soon filling the stockyards. These were served by the Canadian Pacific Railway, built between 1881-85. Large numbers of immigrants—Chinese, British, Eastern Europeans and U.S. expatriates—arrived between 1881 and 1914 to work for the ranch- and railroad-related businesses.
In 1894, the city of Calgary was incorporated and chose the fitting motto "Onward" to appear on the official city crest. In 1905, the province of Alberta was carved out of the original Northwest Territories. In 1914, a major natural gas and oil reservoir was discovered in the foothills south of the city. The oil boom, interrupted at intervals by World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, brought an extended period of prosperity and growth.
Today, oil, gas and coal still fuel Calgary's economy, and the energy industry is one of the city's largest employers. The 1990s witnessed an influx of technology companies, and a real-estate boom led to a huge increase in housing and commercial construction. Calgary's location has made it a major distribution center for the Alberta beef industry.
Along with its well-educated workforce, high rate of computer literacy and entrepreneurial drive, Calgary has created new business ventures in advanced technology, manufacturing, retail and tourism.
The best place to start a tour of Calgary is downtown—in fact, you can do the majority of your sightseeing there. Thanks to an extensive network of indoor walkways called the Plus 15 system (because they are 15 ft/4.5 m above the ground), it's possible to see most of the downtown highlights without stepping outside—a wonderful treat on cold winter days.
Start with an overview of the city from the observation deck in Calgary Tower, and then move across the street to the Glenbow Museum for a look at the history of the region's original inhabitants. If it's warm enough, stroll along Stephen Avenue Walk (Eighth Avenue Southwest), which is lined with historic sandstone buildings that house shops and dining establishments. Nearby, Devonian Gardens is an indoor tropical paradise with thousands of plants and lots of waterfalls and fountains.
At the northern edge of downtown are Prince's Island Park. Also along the river, just east of downtown, is one of the country's best and most innovative zoos—the Calgary Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Prehistoric Park. In the southwest quadrant overlooking Glenmore Reservoir is Heritage Park Historical Village, a living museum of heritage houses and buildings staffed by costumed interpreters.
If you're visiting Calgary during the beginning of July (Stampede time), then you will have no trouble finding an array of western-style entertainment at night. Inside and close to Stampede Park are live music, dancing and cabarets—many right in the streets and some with productions that are very elaborate.
A strong push by club owners to promote 17th Avenue as the place to go after dark is evident in the long row of shops and trendy restaurants. The other nightlife area is a four-block strip along First Street Southwest between 10th and 14th avenues, where you can find a concentration of Top 40 dance clubs and a good variety of modern music, from alternative to the ubiquitous country music. Numerous nightclubs and restaurants there attract a young, lively crowd.
Bars, taverns and clubs generally close between midnight and 3 am.
Note: Smoking is not allowed inside public buildings or on patios.
Calgary may promote its cowboy image, but there's more than ribs and back bacon on restaurant menus. A cruise down 17th Avenue Southwest is a culinary tour of innovative bistros and cafes. Chinatown (north of downtown) is well known for its dim-sum restaurants.
Breakfast is usually served 6:30-11 am, lunch 11:30 am-2 pm and dinner 6-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$40; $$$$ = more than Can$40.
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