Alberta’s provincial capital, EDMONTON, is among Canada’s most northerly cities and at times – particularly in the teeth of its bitter winters – can seem a little too far north for comfort. It straddles the North Saskatchewan River, whose leafy banks contrast strikingly with the high-rises of downtown, and is a proud and bustling city that tries hard with its restaurants, urban-renewal projects and festivals – which include August’s world-class Folk Music Festival.
For years the downtown core on the north side of the river had a somewhat bleak feel to it, but with vast construction projects going on – a new Royal Albert Museum; a giant stadium for the Edmonton Oilers ice hockey team; and scores of associated developments – things should be better very soon. Meanwhile, the core district on the southern side of the river is Old Strathcona, a rejuvenated, late nineteenth-century area, whose main strip is filled with heritage buildings, low-key museums and a booming restaurant, bar and nightlife scene – all fuelled by a huge recent injection of oil money (and young workers) into the city. Several other attractions dot the outskirts, including the impressive TELUS World of Science museum, but none is more famous than the West Edmonton Mall, a gigantic shopping centre, which for long was the main attraction for visitors and is still an essential outlet in the dead of winter even if it feels a little dated. Attractions that are an easy day-trip from town – if you have your own transport – include Elk Island National Park and the Ukrainian Cultural Village.
Edmonton began life in 1795 as Fort Edmonton, the burly log stockade of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in some of Canada’s richest fur country. A century later the town became a staging point for those heading north, particularly during the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush. Then in 1947, things boomed again when an oil strike caused some three thousand wells to sprout within 100km of the city in a decade. Oil money flooded in again in recent decades as rising prices made difficult-to-extract oil in Alberta’s north economically viable, helping keep Edmonton’s population around a million.