Southern Alberta’s likeable main city, CALGARY is a mere hour’s drive east of where the prairies buckle into the Rockies to form some of the continent’s most magnificent scenery. So it takes self-restraint to give this city at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers the day or two it deserves. It’s best known as the home of the Calgary Stampede, a veritable cowboy carnival that takes place over ten days every July. It inspires most of the city and plenty of tourists to indulge in a boots-and-Stetson image that’s still a way of life in the region. As such, Calgary’s “Cowtown” nickname still has resonance – but a lot less relevance, given the wealth the oil and gas industry has brought to the city in recent decades. These riches have seen the city’s population grow to over one million, many of whom live in an ever-expanding cookie-cutter suburban sprawl – albeit with the occasional superb view of the Rockies. Despite this Calgary is still an energetic place, harbouring a burgeoning arts scene, excellent restaurants and cafés, splendid parks and some lively neighbourhoods that are good for strolling.
Compact, high-rise downtown Calgary, loosely centred on the largely pedestrianized Stephen Avenue Mall (8th Avenue between 1st Street SE and 3rd Street SW), is a cluster of mirrored glass and polished granite. A monument to oil money, the area is sleek as can be, but short on sights, other than the prestigious Glenbow Museum, where any city tour should start. A jaunt up the Calgary Tower, across the street, will help you get your bearings. Much of the rest of the central city lends itself to wandering on foot; Eau Claire offers a riverfront focus opposite Prince’s Island, the nearest of many parks and something of an epicentre for Calgary’s excellent 210km system of walking and bike paths. A twenty-minute stroll west leads to Kensington, a gentrified, faintly bohemian shopping and café district north of the Bow River. A similar walk south of downtown, 17th Avenue SW, packed with more shops, restaurants and cafés. The appeal of attractions further afield – Fort Calgary, Heritage Park , Telus Park and Calgary Zoo – will depend on your inclinations. These and other sights can be easily reached by bus or light railway (C-Train). The city is also a great hub for day-trips to the dinosaur remains in the strange Badlands around Drumheller to the east and to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
Modern Calgary is one of Canada’s largest and youngest cities. It was once the domain of the Blackfoot, who ranged over the whole area for several thousand years. About three hundred years ago, they were joined by the Sarcee, forced south by war from their northern heartlands, and the Stoney, who migrated north with Sitting Bull into southern Saskatchewan and then Alberta.
Europeans first began to gather here in the late 1700s; explorer David Thompson wintered here during his travels, while the Palliser expedition spent time nearby en route to the Rockies. Settlers started arriving from around 1870, when hunters moved into the region from the United States, where they had hunted buffalo to the edge of extinction. In 1875, soon after the creation of the first North West Mounted Police stockade at Fort Macleod, a second fort was built further north. A year later it was christened Fort Calgary, named after the Scottish birthplace of its assistant commissioner. The word calgary is Gaelic for “clear running water”; it was felt the ice-clear waters of the Bow and Elbow rivers were reminiscent of the “old country”.
By 1883 a station had been built close to the fort, part of the new trans-Canadian railway. The township laid out nearby quickly attracted ranchers and British gentlemen farmers, cementing an enduring Anglo-Saxon cultural bias. By 1886, fires had wiped out most of the town’s temporary wooden buildings and tents, leading to an edict declaring all new buildings should be constructed in sandstone and, for a while, Calgary was nicknamed “Sandstone City”. It achieved official city status in 1894, something it had taken rival Edmonton over a hundred years to achieve.
Cattle and the railway generated exceptional growth, though the city’s rise was nothing compared with the prosperity that followed the discovery of oil. The first strike took place in 1914 in nearby Turner Valley. An oil refinery opened in 1923 and since then Calgary has rarely looked back. When prices soared during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the city exploded, becoming a world energy and financial centre – headquarters for some four hundred oil-related businesses.
Crucially though, Calgary has diversified into light manufacturing, high-tech, film, transportation and tourism, with 4.6 million visitors to the city every year.
The annual Calgary Stampede brings around 1.25 million spectators and participants to the city for ten days in early July. This is far more than a carefully engineered gift to Calgary’s tourist industry, however, for the event is one of the world’s biggest rodeos and comes close to living up to its “greatest outdoor show on earth” billing.
The competition end of things is taken very seriously and the combined prize money exceeds $2 million. The first show in 1912 put up $100,000 and attracted sixty thousand people to the opening parade, with a line-up that included two thousand Aboriginal people in full ceremonial garb and some of Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolutionary bandits in an event billed as “The Last and Best Great West Frontier Days”.
Things officially kick off on the first Friday of the Stampede with a parade at 9am, though many spectators are in place along the route at 6am. The two-hour march involves around 170 entries, four thousand participants and 750 horses. For the duration of Stampede, downtown’s Olympic Plaza (temporarily renamed Rope Square) offers free pancake breakfasts (8.15–11.30am) and entertainment every morning; events include live music, mock gunfights and Aboriginal dancing, and square dancing also fills parts of Stephen Avenue Mall at 10am. To really experience how the city celebrates Stampede move outside this central area, where you’ll find entire neighbourhoods, shops, bars, churches and even local luminaries organizing their own festivities (usually a pancake breakfast). Nightlife is a world unto itself, with Stampede locations giving way to music, dancing, mega-cabarets, plus lots of drinking, eating (it’s barbecue heaven), fireworks and general partying into the small hours.
The Stampede’s real action – the rodeo and allied events – takes place in Stampede Park, southeast of downtown, best reached by C-Train to Victoria Park–Stampede Station. This vast, open area contains an amusement park, concert and show venues, bars, restaurants and a huge range of stalls and shows that take the best part of a day to see. Entrance is $16, which gives you entry into everything except the rodeo and chuck-wagon races. Entertainments include: the Indian village, where members of the Blackfoot, Blood, Sarcee, Stoney and Piegan First Nations set up a teepee village; the World Blacksmith Competition; the Centennial Fair, which hosts events for children; the Agricultural Building, home to displays of cattle and other livestock; the outdoor Coca-Cola Stage, used for evening concerts; and Nashville North, an indoor country music venue.
To see the daily rodeo competition – bronco and bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and the rest – you’ll need another ticket and unless you’ve bought these in advance it’s hardly worth it: you’ll likely be in poor seats and miles from the action or have to stand. You’ll also need a ticket (also best bought in advance) to watch the other big event, the ludicrously dangerous but hugely exciting chuck-wagon races. Both events are held in the Stampede Park grandstand.
If you’re coming to see the Stampede, plan ahead. Accommodation is stretched and prices can skyrocket for the duration. Tickets for the rodeo and chuck-wagon races range from $20–400; tickets for the finals of both events are a few dollars more; all tickets include park admission. For ticket and all other general information, check w calgarystampede.com.