To most, Calgary is all about Stampede, oil, and cows, but there is also a vibrant culture and spirit wrapped up in this beautiful city. From its successful hosting of the Winter Olympics in 1988 to the large expanse of wilderness to explore, Calgary has a rich history that goes beyond the Wild West. 

Guided tours from Calgary, Canada

Where is Calgary?

Calgary is located at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. It is in Southern Alberta, at the base of the foothills and the prairies. Calgary is an excellent home base for exploring the Rocky Mountains, which are about 50 miles to the west. The city is 186 miles south of Edmonton, the capital of Alberta.

History of Calgary

Calgary has been inhabited for 11,000 years. The indigenous people referred to it as “elbow” for the sharp bend in the river. Europeans arrived in 1787, and after settling in 1975 it was named Calgary after a Scottish hamlet. To help settle the area, in 1881 leases for cattle ranching were offered at 1 cent per acre. Two years later the Canadian Pacific Railway was extended through the city, just before it was incorporated in 1884.

Though it missed the official designation of the capital city of Alberta, it became an important location for oil wells after the biggest oil field in the British empire was discovered in 1914. The Leduc No. 1 solidified Calgary’s position as an oil and gas city and the population doubled between 1949 and 1956.

During this time, various exhibitions were held to showcase western Canadian culture, particularly rodeo. In 1912 the first Stampede was held. In 1923, the festival marched with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition and became the success the Calgary Stampede is known as today. Over the years it has been frequented by famous attendees including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and even royalty.

The 1988 Olympics were the first Winter Games ever hosted by Canada and were a phenomenal success for the city. It created a financial boom after a long recession, bringing a 1.4-billion-dollar economic lift to the region.

Best time to visit Calgary

Vancouver boasts warm summers and cold dry winters. The unpredictable Chinook winds that come in off the Rocky Mountains can bring unseasonably warm temperatures with hurricane-force winds. The Chinooks can raise the temperature of the city by more than 20 degrees Celsius in the middle of February.

What to do in Calgary

Calgary’s tourism isn’t all about rodeo. There is plenty to see and do in this charming city, especially if you love the outdoors.

Calgary Tower

The Calgary Tower is the best way to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. The observation deck is located 191 meters above the downtown core and offers a 360-degree view of the city. You can admire the Rocky Mountains, the foothills, and the prairies all from one spot. It was constructed in 1968 and was an iconic symbol in the 1988 Olympics, with a hand-held replica being used as the vessel for the Olympic flame in the torch relay. Brave tourists can check out the glass floor. Each night, the tower is lit up with LED lights to celebrate and bring awareness to different causes.

Heritage Park Historical Village

This park is a mix of antique amusement park and heritage village and markets itself as “How the West Was Once.” It is Canada’s largest living history museum at 127 acres and a great way for kids and adults alike to experience history first hand. Gasoline Alley Museum, located inside the park, features a rare vintage collection of gasoline and automobile memorabilia. Take a trip on a steam train or a paddle steamer. Or take a relaxing horse and carriage ride. Don’t miss a trip to the bakery, where you can buy fresh handmade cinnamon buns.

The Calgary Zoo

This zoo is the largest in Canada and houses almost 900 animals. It features animals from around the world as well as from the Canadian Wilds. If you want to see grizzly bears, cougars, snow leopards, and bison up close (and behind glass!) this is the best spot. If you visit during the winter, it is cheaper and you can see the animals in their snow-filled enclosures. Don’t miss the beautiful Harvie Gardens or the butterflies in the ENMAX Conservatory.

Bow River Pathway

The Bow River is a wonderful place to escape the city with your family and enjoy nature. The river provides hydroelectric power for Calgary and is an important habitat for the area’s wildlife. Walk along the Bow River pathway, which you can enjoy from either side of the river. It’s a perfect spot to cycle, jog, or rollerblade. Or take part in some fishing and boating. You can fly or reel fish year-round. The river is prized among anglers for its population of brown and rainbow trout.

Festivals in Calgary

Over 1.2 million people visit the Calgary Stampede annually, making it Calgary’s largest festival. While the Stampede is the best-known event in Calgary, for those who want to avoid the crowds but have an authentic Western experience there are plenty of other festivals to attend.

Calgary Stampede

The Calgary Stampede is billed as the greatest outdoor show on earth. This community organization is not-for-profit and is meant to preserve Western heritage in Calgary. The entire community shows its support by wearing traditional western garb, including cowboy hats, denim, and cowboy boots. The Stampede is a 10-day festival and features rodeo events like bucking broncos, barrel racing, and trick riding. The kickoff to the festival is a large parade that includes marching bands, floats, and more than 750 horses. First Nations are honored during the festival with a large cultural showcase. Simultaneously, the Stampede hosts one of Canada’s largest music festivals with several stages, all devoted to live country music.

High Performance Rodeo

Every January Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts comes to life in venues across the city. The event is known as High Performance Rodeo. Here you will find theater performances, art, dancing, and comedy. This is a culture lover’s dream and a great way to see multiple venues in Calgary in a short period of time. Most events are ticketed but you can partake in some of the free activities.

Taste of Calgary

Enjoy the best food and drinks Calgary restaurants have to offer at this free outdoor culinary event. Every August restaurants and beverage companies come together to promote their businesses, offering tasting samples for just $1. Enjoy beer and ribs with a side of music at the Eau Claire Market.

Getting around Calgary

In the summer, biking or walking are practical ways to explore the city. Calgary has an extensive system of cycle paths and walkways that you can navigate to see all of the main attractions. The city was designed as a grid with numbered streets making it easy to figure out which direction you’re headed in.

If you prefer to take public transit, the two Light Rail Transit lines called the C-Train will transport you downtown. There are also a number of buses that service the greater Calgary area.

If you travel in the winter, you will want to rent a car – just make sure it has snow tires!