Planning a road trip through Western Canada? Kick-start your itinerary by exploring the best things to do in Calgary.
Calgary is the urban gateway to Western Canada, one of the most beautiful regions in North America. It’s the largest city in the province of Alberta and the fourth-largest in Canada.
For most travellers from abroad, Calgary’s claim fame is its event-hosting prowess. The Albertan city hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. Every summer, visitors gather to experience the Calgary Stampede. In the event’s history, it’s become one of the world’s most famous outdoor spectacles.
Outside of its festivals & events, the top tourist attractions in Calgary are plentiful. The city offers a mix of both cultural activities and quieter moments. Downtown Calgary bustles with historical buildings hiding boutiques & trendy restaurants. Outside the city centre, you can immerse yourself in nature, relaxing and contemplating life on the banks of the Bow River.
Not sure what to do in Calgary? Start planning your trip with this guide to the best places to visit in Calgary, Canada…
What to see & do in Calgary
Prince’s Island Park
A favourite urban escape for Calgarians, Prince’s Island Park sprawls across 20 hectares on a northward bend in the Bow River. It’s a fantastic place for travellers to enjoy some of the city’s quieter moments.
There’s plenty to do in Prince’s Island Park. You can meander along the picturesque walking & hiking trails. In winter, strap on on a pair of skates to go skating on the park’s lagoon.
Prince’s Island Park is also home to several festivals throughout the year. The most popular events include the Calgary Folk Music Festival and Barbecue on the Bow. The park also hosts celebrations for Heritage Day and Canada Day.
Travelling to Calgary with kids? The Calgary Zoo is the king of family-friendly attractions in Calgary. Calgary Zoo is the second-largest zoo in Canada. As you’d expect, there’s a barrage of interesting animals and activities here. It’s an absolute blast for the entire family!
Among the highlights at Calgary Zoo are the giant pandas & their cubs, penguins, and gorillas. Of course, there’s also a host of native Canadian animal species at the Canadian Wilds habitat.
If you happen to visit during the holidays, be sure to check out the zoo’s ENMAX Conservatory. The conservatory holds one of Alberta’s most spectacular Christmas light shows.
Dubbed as “the greatest outdoor show on earth,” the annual Calgary Stampede is one of the world’s must-attend events. Every July, the Stampede draws visitors from all around the globe for 10 days of western hijinks.
Even if your regular day-to-day attire doesn’t consist of cowboy boots & worn-in jeans, the world’s most famous rodeo may change your tune. The Calgary Stampede is a barrel-load of entertainment. It showcases everything from chuckwagon races to live country music.
The western-themed festival is also famous for rewarding early-risers. Get to the gates early to enjoy its hearty pancake & sausage breakfasts. Grab a fork & your cowboy hat and dig right in!
Heritage Park Historical Village
Heritage Park Historical Village is the largest living history museum in Canada. For history buffs, it’s, undoubtedly, one of the coolest things to see in Calgary.
The open-air museum showcases life in Western Canada from the time of confederation to the 1930s. Sprawling out over 127 acres, over 180 exhibits tell the story of the original settlers of the west. Visitors will get an interactive glimpse at the conditions & aesthetics of small-town Alberta from this bygone era.
Visiting Heritage Park Historical Village with children? One of the highlights is riding on the antique train.
The park also entertains guests with entertaining theatrical performances. They’re performed by costumed actors who bring the history & the stories of the late-19th to the early-20th century in Canada to life.
One of the largest & finest museums in Western Canada, Glenbow Museum offers a fascinating collection. There’s over one million artifacts and 30,000 pieces of art here from all around the world. All in the heart of downtown Calgary!
The collection at Glenbow Museum spreads out over several floor. It’s split into both permanent & temporary exhibitions. The permanent exhibitions focus on historical exhibits (including First Nations culture). In the temporary exhibition, you’ll find a rotating collection of bold contemporary art.
Studio Bell & National Music Centre
In 2016, Studio Bell opened in Calgary’s revamped East Village neighbourhood. It’s home to the National Music Centre of Canada, and is one of the most interesting places to visit in Canada for music lovers.
The studio rises over five floors. The floors chronicle the history of Canadian music with interactive displays & exhibits. Among them are the Canadian Halls of Fame and one of the most diverse collections of musical instruments in North America.
While visiting Studio Bell, be sure to also check out the legendary King Edward Hotel. It’s one of Calgary’s most famous performing arts venues. The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio is also next-door.
Opened for Canada’s centennial, Calgary Tower is the city’s most recognizable landmark. It’s one of the top points of interest in Calgary and a must-see attraction—even if you only have one day in Calgary.
Scoot up 191 metres from ground level to the Calgary Tower observation deck. It offers incredible panoramic views of downtown. You may even see as far as the Rocky Mountains on a clear day!
For experiencing the views at their fullest, settle in for a meal at Sky 360. This revolving restaurant spins out 360-degree views of the city—all while you eat dinner! A full rotation takes 45 to 60 minutes.
Day Trip to Banff
You might have noticed that Calgary’s topography is (surprisingly) unremarkable. But don’t let it fool you: Just outside of the city lies some of Canada’s most impressive natural scenery.
Of all the best day trips from Calgary, none is easier and more compelling than Banff. For travellers, Banff is, without a doubt, one of the most popular destinations in Canada.
Often referring to both Banff National Park and its main town, Banff is one of the top resort towns in Canada. It’s popular in both summer and winter. In summer, traipse through the Canadian Rockies on its mountain biking & hiking trails. In winter, hit the slopes at Banff’s most popular ski resorts.
While the town itself is pleasant, Banff’s surroundings entice visitors the most. Steps away from town is Canada’s most pristine wilderness in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Heading out into Banff National Park on a day trip, you’ll get to marvel at its Rocky Mountain scenery and primeval forests. There’s also plenty of wildlife in Banff including bears & wolves. (You might want to avoid encountering the latter two!)
If you decide to stay in Banff (which, let’s be honest, you should!), you’ll get to check out more of Banff National Park. Other nearby gems include the impossibly beautiful Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
Located at Canada Olympic Park, the award-winning Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame celebrates the legacy of Canadian sports. Since its opening, it’s become one of the country’s most famous sporting sites.
The Sports Hall of Fame isn’t your typical museum. It’s home to a massive collection of 100,000 items. The collection highlights the most important contributors & contributions to Canadian sport.
Besides the artefacts, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame is chock-loaded with dozens of interactive exhibits. They cover sports as varied as wheelchair racing to hockey, Canada’s favourite national sport.
Once you’ve filled your brain with Canadian sporting history, head to Olympic Park. It’s the former site of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. Spike your adrenaline with a luge run in winter or a ziplining experience in summer.
WinSport (Winter Sport Institute)
WinSport (Winter Sport Institute) is a leftover from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. It’s set within the former Canada Olympic Park, one of the main outdoor venues used in the 1988 Winter Games. Today, WinSport’s become a world-class training facility for Canada’s top winter athletes.
Besides hosting Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, WinSport offers locals & visitors a chance to sharpen their skills. There’s a small winter ski hill here that opens as early as mid-November. It’s the perfect place to perfect your technique.
Loosen up with some pro lessons before hitting more challenging slopes elsewhere. After all, many of Canada’s best ski resorts are nearby in Alberta and Western Canada!
If you happen to visit Calgary in summer, test your will on WinSport’s adrenaline-pumping zipline. Starting 90 metres up from the Ski Jump Tower, the zipline zooms you up to 140 km/hour to your final destination. It’s the fastest zipline of its kind in North America!
In the summer, the WinSport also hosts an 18-hole mini-golf course. There are also over 25 kilometres of mountain biking trails for a little outdoor fun.
One of the most iconic streets in downtown Calgary, the Canadian heritage site of Stephen Avenue is among the best places to go in Calgary. It’s the perfect place for travellers to shop and eat to their heart’s content in Calgary.
The pedestrianized section of Stephen Avenue between 4 Street SW and 1 Street SE is the best place to start. It’s home to some of the city’s best restaurants, cafés, and bars. There are also several high-end boutique shops and shopping malls in the area. Popular shopping centres here include The Core Shopping Centre and Bankers Hall.
Done admiring all the historic buildings, browsing the modern shops & taste-testing eateries? Stroll along the Stephen Avenue Walk, and keep your eyes peeled for eclectic street art & street performances.
Telus SPARK Science Centre
Looking for one of the best family-friendly activities in Calgary? Pop over to the new TELUS Spark Science Centre. This innovative science & technology museum features over 200 interactive exhibits. They’re a boatload of fun for kids & adults alike!
There’s a ton of interesting and popular galleries at TELUS Spark Science Centre. Explore the inner workings of various animals (even humans!) at the temporary Body World: Animal Inside Out exhibition. Unleash your creativity at Creative Kids Museum. Or enjoy a walk around the year-round outdoor Brainasium park.
TELUS Spark also hosts the largest dome theatre in Western Canada. You can enjoy interesting animal documentaries like Great Bear Rainforest. Or get your astronomy fix with live planetarium shows.
Check out the official website for information on current exhibits and how to get tickets online.
Bow River Pathway System
Calgary’s reputation as a green city hits its apex with the Bow River Pathway System. This massive pathway system is one of the most extensive in North America.
The Bow River Pathway System comprises 48 kilometres of walking & biking paths. It snakes alongside the banks of the Bow River, criss-crossing it over various bridges. Wandering the pathways provides a relaxing break from your typical Calgary sightseeing itinerary.
Stretching between Bearspaw Dam to Fish Creek Provincial Park, the system also connects to the Elbow River Pathway. Along the way, it winds through some of Calgary’s most popular parks. Popular stops include Prince’s Island Park and Edworthy Park.
Fish Creek Provincial Park
Fish Creek Provincial Park is located 25 minutes south of downtown Calgary. The popular park stretches out over 19 kilometres along its snaking namesake waterway. It’s accessible year-round and is a favourite getaway for Calgarians looking to escape the bustle of the city.
Plenty of activities await visitors at Fish Creek Provincial Park. Some popular things to do here include swimming, kayaking, fishing, and birdwatching.
With over 80 kilometres of both paved and unpaved trails, the park is also one of the best places to go hiking in Calgary. Mountain biking, and, in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are also popular options.
For most visitors, the easiest access point for Fish Creek Provincial Park is the Glennfield Meadows day use area. It’s located 25 minutes south of downtown via Macleod Trail SE.
Built by the North West Mounted Police in 1875 at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, Fort Calgary pre-dates the city. It’s the most important historical attraction in Calgary.
Besides tracing the city’s founding, Fort Calgary also sits upon sacred native lands. The confluence of the rivers was once a traditional meeting place. It’s revered by Alberta’s Indigenous people including the Stoney-Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Siksika.
Today, this National Historic Site of Canada is home to a museum and educational centre. Together, they weave stories of Calgary’s ancient beginnings to its modern history.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Want another look at Alberta’s ancient history? Embark on day trip the curiously-named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, this interpretive centre sits upon one of the world’s best-preserved buffalo jumps. Visiting springs to life the nearly six millennia-old custom.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you’ll learn about the ancient cultures & customs of the area. You’ll also be able to browse a wide array of archeological artifacts that paint a picture of Alberta’s prehistoric life.
At the time of writing (summer 2020), the interpretive centre is closed indefinitely to visitors.
17th Avenue SW
If you’re a hockey fan, you might recognize 17th Avenue SW as the “Red Mile” during the Calgary Flames’ 2004 Stanley Cup run. This road is more than a haunt for hockey maniacs though. It’s long been a favourite shopping & entertainment destination for Calgarians.
Branded as the 17th Ave Retail & Entertainment District, this lively area stretches between 2nd and 14th Street SW. It features over 400 shops, restaurants, bars & cafés in its midst.
There are plenty of options to enjoy your time here. You can spend the morning caffeinating at a local coffee shop. Afternoons on 17th Avenue SW are best spent browsing boutiques. In the evenings, baristas beckon as they sling happy-hour cocktails your way.
Whatever your preferences, 17th Avenue SW is among the most interesting hangout spots & coolest places to see in Calgary.
Where to stay in Calgary for sightseeing
Although it’s Canada’s fourth-largest metro area, choosing where to stay in Calgary isn’t so difficult. Most of the top points of interest in Calgary lie in & around the Downtown (including The Beltline). These are the best areas to base yourself for your visit. Here are a few hotels to start your search…
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Calgary: Visiting on a tighter travel budget? Book yourself into one of these excellent self-catering suites. They’re located in the downtown area, close to all the action.
- Hyatt Regency Calgary: One of the top hotels in Calgary, this centrally-located mid-range property is a fantastic choice. It features spacious modern rooms and superb amenities. Extras include a fitness centre and an on-site restaurant.
- Hotel Le Germain: Our number one luxury pick in downtown, this lovely boutique hotel charms guests with its luxurious rooms. There’s a set of noteworthy amenities here, too. They include a relaxing spa, on-site restaurant, and a bar lounge.
When to visit Calgary
Although Calgary is year-round destination, the best time to visit Calgary is between late May and late September. The summer months are particularly good for travellers. Between June and August many of the city’s top festivals take place including the world-renowned Calgary Stampede in July.
If you’re undeterred by cool Canadian winters, winter in Calgary can be quite magical. Winter activities are abound, from ice skating to cross-skiing on the city’s plentiful trails. Winter also tends to be the cheapest time of year to visit as accommodations prices dip due to lower demand.
How to get to Calgary
Calgary is served by Calgary International Airport (YYC). It’s located about 17 kilometres northeast of the downtown core. The airport is a major hub for both Air Canada and WestJet. It’s also serviced by several other major international airlines and smaller local ones.
Calgary is well-connected by road to other major Canadian travel destinations. The most popular road routes (and approximate driving times) to & from Calgary include:
- Banff (90 minutes)
- Edmonton (3 hours)
- Vancouver (10 hours and 19 minutes)
- Regina (7 hours and 22 minutes)