The large red sign on the highway summed it all up; ‘Horses always have Right of Way. It’s a Stampede Thing’. The Calgary Stampede is Calgary’s USP. Billed as the Largest Outdoor Show on Earth, it attracts over 2.5 million visitors every July (plus lots of horses) and brings a wild-west tang to the city. Originally a small agricultural fair started in 1886 to promote Calgary and lure farmers to move from west to east, it quickly grew in popularity. The exhilarating covered-wagon races were a huge draw in the 1920s and still attract big crowds today.
I was in Calgary just a week before this epic festival kicked off and the whole city was ablaze with all things Stampede-related. It was the final day of our Canadian RV Road Trip through British Columbia and Alberta from Vancouver via the Rocky Mountains. We’d left the iconic mountains to cross the ‘endless’ prairies, so very flat after the spectacular ups and downs of the majestic Rockies. The sun shone and the heat increased as we reached Calgary, the sunniest city in Canada.
My fellow traveller, photographer Alison Bailey, and I had driven our Cruise Canada RV (Recreational Vehicle = motor-home), nicknamed Rocky in honour of our route, over 3,000km and were very pleased to have arrived in Calgary, not only unscathed, but having had an absolutely wonderful trip. We dropped Rocky off at the Cruise Canada RV depot on the outskirts of the city and had 24 hours to explore Calgary before we returned home to the UK.
We stayed overnight at the Lakeview Signature Inn, close to the airport. Our comfortable suite of rooms seemed very luxurious after 2 weeks in our RV (though I am a total convert to motorhome travel now). The helpful receptionist gave us a map and suggested we got the C-Train (Light Railway) into the city centre, where we could see all the main sites within a fairly small area. Skyscrapers soared above the Alberta prairies as we got nearer, crossing the Bow River, which we’d last seen winding sinuously through Banff in the heart of the Rockies. We got off the train near the Town Hall and headed to the Calgary Tower, which my guide book said was home to the Tourist Information Centre.
Not any more. It’s a dedicated tourist attraction, selling tickets to whiz you up 190m, 62 floors, in just over minute, but no sign of the Tourism Office. Never mind; Calgary city centre is built on the classic North American grid system so it’s very easy to get around. Everyone seems to gravitate towards Stephen Avenue, a pleasant walkway, lined with cafes, bars and restaurants and some attractive older buildings.
The Tourist Information Office is now situated on Macleod Trail and they suggested visiting the Glenbow Museum, on the corner of Stephen Avenue. It’s one of Canada’s largest museums and hosts a number major temporary exhibitions as well as having over 20 permanent galleries. They chart the history of Canadian West with First Nation exhibits, with a special section on the Blackfoot people and displays from the 19thC pioneering era. It’s also home to contemporary art and militaria from around the world. Or so the marketing blurb says; unfortunately it was closed the day we visited …
You might imagine, in a place famous for its ‘frontier’town’ atmosphere, there would be ‘cowboys’ sporting stetsons all over the city. No. There were plenty of people dressed for work in shirt sleeves, dresses, suits and more casual tourists, but hardly a stetson in sight. I saw one guy on the train; that was it. However, we were told that as soon as the Calgary Stampede started, “everyone thinks they’re a cowboy” and everyone dresses up. But fear not, you can buy the iconic headgear on street stalls and shops all over Calgary, with prices varying from a few dollars to much more, depending on the quality of the hat.
As the sun sank down behind the skyscrapers, we decided to have a meal in town before returning to our hotel. We chose Milestones on Stephen Avenue, as it was Happy Hour and their cocktails looked great. I can highly recommend their Original Bellini; very colourful and moreish. We had a selection of small bites including crisply perfect Asian Chicken Bites, followed by Steak Frites; melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak, golden Parmesan fries, delicate buttermilk onion rings and truffle aioli. Perfect meal for our last night in Canada.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel, leaving our luggage to be collected after lunch. We got the C-Train back into Calgary, where we split up. I wanted to visit two major sights, whilst Ali wanted to do some photography. I got another train to Stampede Park, home to the famous festival, which was gearing up for opening the following week. I wandered into the BMO Centre (Bank of Montreal) where I found a perfect little gem of a museum; the Grain Academy. Volunteer and enthusiastic raconteur Gordon showed me round the quaint exhibition which tells the history and importance of grain to Canada and the rest of the world. There’s a very big model railway showing the journey of grain from the Alberta prairies through the Rockies to Vancouver. (If you travel through this part of Canada you can’t miss the VERY long trains transporting this valuable commodity for global distribution.)
On the main corridor outside the Grain Academy is the wonderful Calgary Stampede ‘Parade of Posters‘. There is one poster from almost every year since 1912 to the present day. Not only does it give a fascinating summary of the way the show has grown over the decades, but it also illustrates the history of art and poster making.
The most famous is the 1923 poster. The sketch of a cowboy on a bucking bronc by Edward Borein, called I See U was designed vertically so the poster would fit on a telephone pole. This image has been immortalised in an electrifying bronze sculpture at the entrance to the Park.
There’s a really excellent Art Trail which takes you round all the Public Art works on display here. They illustrate the history of Alberta and reflect an aspect of Canada’s heritage in an original and entertaining way. ‘By the Banks of the Bow’ is one of the biggest sculptures in North America.
There are a number of stadiums which host events and entertainment. You can visit the Stampede Ground any time of the year.
The last place I went to was Fort Calgary, It was built by the North West Mounted Police in 1875 due to its strategic position where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet. Reconstructed in modern times, Fort Calgary now houses an award-winning interpretative centre telling the story of Calgary and its pioneering past. There are some interesting recreations including a carpenter’s workshop. I didn’t have time to walk beside the river, but it looks like a nice way to end your day.
Ali and I met up for a quick bite to eat; we only had time to grab a sandwich from a street cafe, before we got the C-Train back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and headed off to the airport. Even though we’d only had 24 hours in Calgary, we’d managed to get a really good feel for this vibrant, historic city of contrasts.
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Travel with Kat – The Sunshine Coast
On the Luce – Waterfront Toronto
Heather on her Travels – A perfect day in Montreal
Watch out for more articles on this amazing adventure across Canada.