If you think Calgary is just a mere stopover before your Banff adventure, you’re missing out on some incredible experiences in Stampede City.
Often overshadowed by Banff’s awe-inspiring mountain landscapes and natural beauty, Calgary offers a different kind of allure. Travelers who tack on a few days in the city get the chance to immerse themselves in urban cowboy culture, indulge in a dining scene that punches well above its weight, and sample Calgary’s signature cocktail: the Caesar. Hopping around bars to see which one has made the wildest version of this Clamato-infused alternative to the Bloody Mary is an adventure unto itself. Plus, you can get a jumpstart on your outdoor excitement with a Bow River rafting trip.
In other words, it’s absolutely worthwhile to spend a few days in Calgary before heading to Banff National Park. Here are six unmissable things to do while you’re there.
Indulge in Calgary’s world-class dining scene
Calgary boasts a drinking and dining scene that exceeds expectations for a city of just 1.3 million people. The destination’s close proximity to the Alberta plains gives it ample access to farm-fresh meats, grains, and produce. It also draws talented chefs, who are committed to crafting inventive dishes and making sure “eating” is one of the top things to do in Calgary.
Case in point: River Café, an award-winning restaurant in the middle of Prince’s Island Park. It grows around 80 ingredients at its on-site garden, including horseradish, sea buckthorn, leafy greens, and edible flowers—visible evidence of the restaurant’s dedication to local cuisine. When the kitchen can’t source a certain ingredient from within the region, it finds alternative ways to get the flavor, such as using tangerine marigolds to mimic the citrus taste of lemon. The menu changes with the seasons, but you can expect to find a mix of hand-cut pasta, burgers, vegetable-forward entrees, and fresh fish dressed up with greens and herbs.
In the mood to slurp? Head to Shiki Menya, a buzzy Japanese joint in Bridgeland. It offers more than a dozen made-from-scratch ramen bowls, including spicy chili goma ramen in sesame-pork broth, a classic veggie ramen, truffle salted chicken shoyu ramen, and a creative grilled cheese ramen with flame-torched cheese melted on top.
No matter where you eat in Calgary, be sure to leave room for a meal at D.O.P. The Italian-Canadian restaurant’s warm staff will make you feel like family the moment you sit down. Its housemade antipasti and well-curated menu of pasta and comfort foods, like giant ravioli stuffed with egg yolk, cacio e pepe tagliatelle, and veal parm, will leave you beyond satisfied. End the meal with tiramisu, made from the owner’s mom’s recipe. Her phone number is printed right on the menu, so you can text her and let her know just how much you love it.
For more sweet treats, head to Inglewood. It’s home to the first all-vegan bakery and cafe in Western Canada: Canela. The ultra-flaky croissants come coated in delectable toppings, like almond paste and chocolate-hazelnut drizzle. It also makes an assortment of ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls.
Take a Bow River rafting trip
You don’t have to leave Calgary’s city limits to start your outdoor adventure. Lazy Day Raft Rentals can hook you up with paddles, rafts, life jackets, and everything else you need to float down the Bow River. The glacier-fed river runs right through Calgary, giving paddlers some of the best views of the city. As the name of the rafting company suggests, this float skews more relaxing than thrilling, but you can personalize the adventure by bringing along a waterproof speaker to stream your favorite paddling playlist and a cooler of drinks.
Explore Calgary’s award-winning library
The Calgary Central Library is more than a fantastic library—it’s an architectural marvel and cultural destination. Located in East Village, the acclaimed library was designed to look like an oil lamp—a nod to the lighting source bookworms used to rely on to read after dark—covered in futuristic hexagonal patterns.
On the lower of the four floors, you’ll find lively public spaces steeped in warm wooden tones. The floors become gradually quieter and cozier as you move upstairs toward the central skylight.
The library also offers the opportunity for anyone, including travelers, to meet with elders of southern Alberta’s indigenous communities and learn more about their culture during drop-in hours at the Children’s Lodge.
Another cool feature: the Short Story Dispenser. Located on the first floor, this quirky machine will print out short works of fiction and poetry from local authors on demand.
Step inside the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio
Once you’ve had your fill of literary treasures at the library, make a beeline to another major Calgary attraction for a dose of music history at Studio Bell. It’s home to several Canadian music halls of fame (including halls for songwriters and country music), the National Music Centre, and five floors of museum exhibition space filled with iconic instruments.
There’s something for every music lover at Studio Bell, no matter what genre or decade of music you prefer. Here, you can see Elton John’s songwriting piano, Randy Bachman’s “American Woman” guitar, and performance costumes from famous musicians, including Shania Twain and Deadmau5. You can also step inside the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Located inside a big blue DAF F1600 Turbo truck, this recording studio on wheels has been used by some of the most legendary names in rock ’n’ roll history, including Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.
Stay up late for Calgary’s nightlife scene
If you’re up for a night on the town, you don’t have to look far for nightlife in Calgary. Head to 17th Avenue for bar-hopping through pubs, microbreweries, lounges, and nightclubs. Looking for live music? Music Mile, which runs from Inglewood to East Village on 9 Avenue SE, has more than 20 performance venues.
Bubbly aficionados will want to make a point to visit Moonlight & Eli. The intimate champagne bar, tucked within a small pink and black building trimmed like a gingerbread house, offers more than 30 types of sparkling wine, including the bubbly served at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding. Make the night extra special with an order of classic Swiss fondue for two.
Cocktail lovers, on the other hand, should zip over to Calgary’s Chinatown to visit Paper Lantern. Located within a hidden basement, the underground Vietnamese cocktail bar can be tricky to find (it is a speakeasy, after all!), but it’s well worth the effort. Those who discover it are treated to tropical drinks, ranging from classic tiki cocktails to punch bowls, along with traditional Vietnamese street food.
Spill your secrets at the Dorian
The Dorian, one of the newest boutique hotels in Calgary, offers a special way to end a night on the town. As part of its turndown service, the Autograph Collection hotel, which is themed around Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” invites guests to access an online portal where you can share a secret (anonymously, of course!). Then, you can read other guests’ revelations and rank them based on how rotten they are. The next morning, take a peek at the digital portrait of Dorian Gray in the lobby—he turns more youthful or decayed, based on how sinful guests’ secrets were ranked.
The turndown service is just one of several unique touches that make the Dorian a worthwhile place to stay in Calgary, though. The pet-friendly hotel’s guest rooms have an unforgettable whimsical design with bird-print wallpaper, art deco-inspired lighting and mirrors, furniture with “fanciful flair,” and, naturally, a copy of the property’s namesake novel. You can also sip strong coffee downstairs at Prologue—just the thing you’ll need before you hit the road to Banff.