As the urban gateway for road tripping across Western Canada, spending time discovering all best things to do in Calgary pops in as a must for any trip to this superlatively beautiful region of North America.
Perhaps most renowned for hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary isn’t just the biggest city in the western Canadian province of Alberta, but the fourth-largest in all of Canada. As you’d imagine, the top tourist attractions in Calgary are varied & plentiful, ranging from festivals like the Calgary Stampede to quieter moments of relaxation & contemplation 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…
What are the top attractions to visit in Calgary?
- Prince’s Island Park
- Calgary Zoo
- Calgary Stampede
- Heritage Park Historical Village
- Glenbow Museum
- Studio Bell & National Music Centre
- Calgary Tower
- Day Trip to Banff
- Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame
- Stephen Avenue
- Telus SPARK Science Centre
- Bow River Pathway System
- Fish Creek Park
- Fort Calgary
- Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
- 17th Avenue
Prince’s Island Park
Sprawling over 20 hectares amidst a northward bend in the Bow River, Prince’s Island Park is a favourite urban escape for Calgarians and a fantastic place for travellers to enjoy some of the city’s quieter moments.
There’s plenty to do here from meandering along the island’s picturesque walking & hiking trails to strapping on a pair of skates in winter and skating on the park’s lagoon.
The park is also home to a number of festivals throughout the year including the Calgary Folk Music Festival, Barbecue on the Bow, and celebrations for Heritage Day and Canada Day.
If you’re travelling with kids, the king of family-friendly attractions in Calgary is, undoubtedly, the Calgary Zoo. Visiting the second-largest zoo in Canada, you can expect a barrage of interesting animals and activities that are an absolute blast for the entire family.
Among the highlights at the Calgary Zoo are giant pandas & their cubs, penguins, gorillas, and, of course, a host of native Canadian animal species at the Canadian Wilds habitat.
If you happen to visit Calgary during the holidays, be sure to check out the zoo’s ENMAX Conservatory to catch one of Alberta’s most spectacular Christmas light shows in action.
Dubbed as “the greatest outdoor show on earth,” the annual Calgary Stampede draw visitors from all around the world to partake in its 10 days of western hijinks every July.
Even if your regular day-to-day attire doesn’t consist of cowboy boots & worn-in jeans, the world’s most famous rodeo might soon change your tune. The Stampede is a barrel-load of entertainment, showcasing everything from chuckwagon races to live country music.
The western-themed festival is also famous for rewarding early-risers with its hearty pancake & sausage breakfasts. Grab a fork & your cowboy hat and dig right in!
Heritage Park Historical Village
The largest living history museum in Canada, Heritage Park Historical Village is one of the coolest things to see in Calgary for history buffs.
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 and give visitors an interactive glimpse at the conditions & aesthetics of small-town Alberta from this bygone era.
If you’re 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 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 of over one million artifacts and 30,000 pieces of art from all around the world in the heart of downtown Calgary.
Spread out over several floors, the museum’s vast collection is split between both permanent and temporary exhibitions, with the former more focused on historical exhibits (including First Nations culture) and the latter on bold contemporary art.
Studio Bell & National Music Centre
Opened in 2016 in Calgary’s revamped East Village neighbourhood, Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre of Canada, is one of the most interesting places to visit in Canada for music lovers.
The studio rises over five floors, chronicling the history of Canadian music with interactive displays & exhibits including the Canadian Halls of Fame and one of the most diverse collections of musical instruments in North America.
While visiting, be sure to also check out the legendary King Edward Hotel, one of Calgary’s most famous performing arts venues, and the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.
Opened for Canada’s centennial, Calgary’s most recognizable landmark, Calgary Tower is 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 tower’s observation deck, offering incredible panoramic views of downtown Calgary and even as far as the Rocky Mountains on a clear day.
For experiencing the views Calgary Tower at its fullest, settle in for a meal at Sky 360, a revolving restaurant that spins views at full rotation every 45 to 60 minutes.
Day Trip to Banff
Although the topography in Calgary itself is relatively unremarkable, lying just outside the city is some of Canada’s most impressive natural scenery. Of all of the best day trips from Calgary, none is easier and more compelling than Banff, one of the most popular destinations in Canada.
Often referring to both Banff National Park and the main town within it, Banff is one of the top resort towns in Canada in both summer and winter, famous for both its ski resorts and its mountain biking & hiking trails traipsing through Canadian Rockies.
While the town itself is pleasant, it’s the Banff’s surroundings that entice visitors most. Just steps away from the town’s bustle is Canada’s most pristine wilderness in heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Heading out into the depths of Banff National Park on a day trip from Calgary, you’ll be instantly marvelled by its Rocky Mountain scenery, primeval forests, and abundance of wildlife including bears & wolves. (You might want to avoid encountering the latter!)
If you decide to stay the night in Banff (which, let’s be honest, you probably should!), you’ll have the opportunity to check out more of Banff National Park including 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 at one of the country’s most famous sporting sites.
The Sports Hall of Fame isn’t your typical museum. Besides hosting a collection of 100,000 items highlighting some of the most important contributors and contributions to Canadian sport, the museum is chock-loaded with dozens of interactive exhibits covering sports as varied as wheelchair racing to Canada’s favourite national sport of hockey.
Once you’ve filled your brain with Canadian sporting history, head over to the Olympic Park, site of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, and spike your adrenaline with a luge run in winter or a ziplining experience in summer.
WinSport (Winter Sport Institute)
A leftover from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, WinSport (Winter Sport Institute) is a world-class training facility for Canada’s top winter athletes. It’s set on the site of what was formerly known as Canada Olympic Park, one of the main outdoor venues used during the 1988 Winter Games.
Besides being the site of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, WinSport offers locals and visitors alike 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 with some pro lessons before hitting some of Canada’s best ski resorts elsewhere in Alberta and Western Canada.
If you happen to visit Calgary in summer, test your will on the 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 along with 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 for travellers looking to shop and eat to their heart’s content.
The pedestrianized section between 4 Street SW and 1 Street SE is home to some of the city’s best restaurants, cafés, and bars along with several high-end boutique shops and shopping malls including The Core Shopping Centre and Bankers Hall.
Besides admiring all the historic buildings, browsing the modern shops & taste-testing eateries, keep your eyes peeled for eclectic street art and street performances as you stroll leisurely along the Stephen Avenue Walk.
Telus SPARK Science Centre
One of the best family-friendly activities in Calgary, the new TELUS Spark Science Centre is an innovative science & technology museum with over 200 interactive exhibits that are a boatload of fun for kids & adults alike.
Some of the most interesting and popular galleries at the centre include the temporary exhibition Body World: Animal Inside Out, an exploration of the inner workings of various animals (even humans!); the Creative Kids Museum; and the year-round outdoor Brainasium park. TELUS Spark also hosts the largest dome theatre in Western Canada, playing everything from animal documentaries like Great Bear Rainforest to 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. Comprised of 48 kilometres of walking & biking paths alongside both banks of the Bow River, this pathway system is one of the most extensive in North America. It’s excellent place to take a breather from your typical Calgary sightseeing itinerary.
Stretching from Bearspaw Dam to Fish Creek Provincial Park, the Bow River Pathway criss-crosses the river over various bridge and connects to the Elbow River Pathway and through some of Calgary’s most popular parks including Prince’s Island Park and Edworthy Park.
Fish Creek Provincial Park
Located just 25 minutes south of downtown Calgary, Fish Creek Provincial Park stretches 19 kilometres along its snaking namesake waterway. The park is accessible year-round and is a favourite getaway for Calgarians looking to escape the bustle of the city.
There’s a whole array of activities to enjoy at Fish Creek including 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.
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 and is the most important historical attraction in Calgary.
Beside tracing the city’s founding, Fort Calgary also sits upon sacred native lands. The river confluence was once a traditional meeting place, 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 that weaves together stories of Calgary’s ancient beginnings along with its modern history.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
For another look at Alberta’s ancient history, head over the curiously-named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, this interpretive centre is set unto one of the world’s oldest & best-preserved buffalo jumps, bringing to life the nearly six millennia-old custom.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you’ll not only learn about the ancient cultures & customs of the area, but 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, unfortunately, closed indefinitely to visitors.
17th Avenue SW
Gaining instant notoriety as the “Red Mile” during the Calgary Flames’ 2004 Stanley Cup run, 17th Avenue SW has long been a favourite shopping & entertainment destination for Calgarians.
Branded as the 17th Ave Retail & Entertainment District, this lively road features over 400 shops, restaurants, bars & cafés in the stretch between between 2nd and 14th Street SW.
Whether you spend the morning caffeinating at a coffee shop, the afternoon browsing boutique, or the evening slinging happy-hour cocktails, 17th Avenue SW is among the most interesting hangout spots and 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. As most of the top points of interest in Calgary lie in & around the Downtown (including The Beltline), this is the best area to base yourself for your visit. Here are a few hotels to start your search…
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Calgary: Visiting Calgary on a tighter travel budget? Book yourself into one of these excellent self-catering suites, located in the downtown area.
- Hyatt Regency Calgary: One of the top hotels in Calgary, this centrally-located option features spacious modern rooms and superb amenities including 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 and noteworthy amenities including 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 in Calgary 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.
Getting there & away
By air: Calgary is served by Calgary International Airport (YYC), located about 17 kilometres northeast of the downtown core. The airport is a major hub for both Air Canada and WestJet and serviced by several other major international airlines and several smaller local ones.
By road: Calgary is well-connected by road to other major Canadian travel destinations. Some of 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), and Regina (7 hours and 22 minutes)