The assumed reason for hopping on a plane to Alberta is for an up-close look at the Canadian Rockies, with their cascading waterfalls and silky mountain streams.
Given that Alberta has over 600 lakes and five national parks made up of encompassing mountains, fresh greenery, and awe-inspiring wilderness trails, its popularity is of little surprise. Banff and Jasper, two of the world’s oldest national parks, are here – you’ve probably stored both in a travel folder on Instagram for future #holidayinspo.
While such scenes are worthy of a Wordsworth poem, Alberta is not somewhere reserved exclusively for nature enthusiasts. Lovers of concrete and culture will equally be charmed by the flourishing city streets of Calgary and Edmonton, the two largest urbanised areas of Alberta that, until recently, have been treated as transit points for the parks. The combination of an innovative culinary scene and cool brunch spots has been drawing in young folk who flock in bulk to 17th Ave for lazy lunches and hip cocktail bars, come Happy Hour. The same applies to Whyte Ave in Edmonton, the place to be for gastropubs and buzzy nightlife. But best of all, both cities are in close proximity to the national parks, making Alberta an eclectic destination that caters to the city junkie with a soft spot for solitude.
The Packing Edit
Situated in the heart of downtown Calgary, Hotel Arts is a hotspot for lazy afternoons lounging by the pool, especially given that it’s home to the only outdoor pool in Calgary. Aside from the (delicious) tacos served poolside, the hotel’s Raw Bar and Yellow Door Bistro offer alternative dining options in a stylish setting. Head to the top floor and enter into the spacious Luxury Suites; sleek and modern, featuring lamps with in-built charging ports, the roomy lounge area is a winning attribute.
Hotel Le Germain
Originally founded by a French family in Quebec, this property is just one of six scattered across Canada. With a boutique feel, HLG’s 143 rooms are kitted out with eco-friendly technologies to keep up with savvy travellers. Don’t skip out a visit to the ‘RnR Wellness Spa’, located on the penthouse level. With sweeping views of Calgary’s downtown skyline, recharge in the clouds, choosing from a selection of exquisite treatments.
Metterra Hotel On Whyte
Contemporary elegance with a laid-back vibe defines the overall atmosphere at Metterra Hotel. Earthy tones offer maximum relaxation, whilst splashes of eye-catching Indonesian art adorn the walls to contrast the otherwise muted palette. Complimentary cheese and wine evenings are on the agenda for hotel guests from 5PM daily, and the library is a cosy nook away from the buzz of Whyte Avenue and the Entertainment District.
JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District
Business travellers bump heads with lovers of luxury at the JW Marriott in downtown Edmonton. Being located in the ICE District makes it ideal for the former. Whether stopping to enjoy a spa weekend or a leisurely stay, be sure to make good use of the indoor pool and, later in the day, the Alchemy Bar – a swanky but intimate cocktail lounge that features a heated patio. The 346 rooms are spread across 56 floors, making it the second tallest building in Edmonton after the Stantec Tower. Guests should expect views aplenty!
EAT + DRINK
Start the morning at Pigeonhole on 17th Avenue for a nutritious breakfast. It’s one of Calgary’s latest breakfast hangouts and is known for its inventive small plates and international flavours. The décor screams Parisian chic, especially the green-tiled breakfast bar and stylish wine racks. Go-to options include: vegan coconut yogurt with granola, or the classic soft scrambled eggs served on mismatched china.
In Alberta, it’s the norm flitting between Calgary and Edmonton for pizza. Despite a hockey rivalry between the two cities, both parties can agree that UNA is the place to be for artisanal pizza. The Californian-style pizzas have a Mediterranean influence, incorporating flavours from the south of Spain, Italy, and France and a thin crust. ‘The Veggie’ is a highlight, topped with sun-ripened vegetables and aromatic herbs from the local urban garden. Pair with a side of their simple green salad drizzled in Albertan honey.
Inglewood has an assortment of cool restaurants founded by genre-defying chefs playfully merging different types of cuisine. Gorilla Whale is the perfect example, branded as a “Japanese-ish” lounge that combines the classics with an American kitsch twist. Inventive plates display a mix of creative cooking techniques and high-brow ingredients meticulously prepared by chef Dirk McCabe, formerly of Catch and Mercato. Feeling adventurous? Try Dr. Pepper as a marinade – and a sake cocktail while you’re at it!
The first thing you might notice about Baijiu is how mysterious it is. The restaurant is located in an old warehouse downtown, right opposite the Neon Sign Museum. Inside, everything suddenly becomes dark and cool. There’s likely to be a Missy Elliott track playing in the background, and shelves of liquor bottles bedeck the exposed brick walls along the bar. The menu is divided into snacks, small plates, and large plates – the pillow-soft mushroom bao is a top contender. Elaborate “tiki” cocktails are also on the list, best enjoyed in the restaurant’s speakeasy concealed behind a nondescript bookcase.
Old Red Barn
Old Red Barn is situated just outside Edmonton in a former dairy barn south west of Leduc, and is a secret spot loved by the locals. Once a month in the summer season, Melissa and Matt Schur host a family style meal on an elongated table, serving up organic homely meals in a relaxed setting. The local produce is prepared by talented chefs from Edmonton, including an outstanding farm-to-table menu prepared by Brad Smoliak of culinary studio KITCHEN by Brad. Expect the finest seasonal ingredients and the chance to speak to local farmers with views of cows and horses basking in the warm prairie breeze.
You can find Little Brick nestled behind a residential road in the River Valley neighbourhood and a discreet sign that leads the way into a spacious grassy patio. The old brick house was built in 1903 and resembles a homely nook that was formerly a brickyard to Edmonton’s most historical buildings. Pick from a selection of artisanal sandwiches and light lunch options made from local produce, then linger between the different rooms to enjoy a quiet read with a comforting cup of coffee.
Penned as the “Greenwich Village” of Calgary, strolling through Kensington will have you running into independent bookshops, family owned businesses, and French brasseries. Jump on a Lime scooter for a swift journey over Louise Bridge from downtown. Then, amble through the bohemian streets, passing quaint buildings and intimate drinking holes en route. Peasant Cheese Shop is a highlight, offering over 100 different cheeses, including Époisses fermier, a rare creamy cheese that’s difficult to get hold of in your average supermarket. The Craving Kensington Food tour explores the area’s history and culinary scene, including Calgary’s most tantalising poutine.
Visit Calgary’s Central Library
Exquisite design abounds in Calgary’s monumental central library. The four-storey building is a gateway to the city’s developing East Village neighbourhood, featuring a crystalline exterior and snowflake-shaped windows. Natural light pours in from the windowed ceiling above the sloping staircase. A spectacular project – and a marvellous reading spot!
Canmore is the quieter and more relaxed alternative to Banff and is just an hour’s drive from Calgary. Arrive early for a hearty breakfast (and bottomless coffee) at Rocky Mountain Bagel. Hiking around Quarry Lake is a must, boasting a wide stretch of water ideal for dipping and swimming, or hike further out to Grassi Lakes for stunning glacial waters. The town is backdropped by layers of mountains, so stopping for a crisp local beer and a light lunch at Hitch Half Brewing in the afternoon sun is top-notch. The honey-hued Farmer’s Daughter pale ale hits just the right spot post-hike.
Explore 17th Ave
Other than delicious pizza, the rest of 17th Ave is worth exploring for its array of shops and bars. The street is 12.5 km long, so start at the top and wander down past Ollia Macarons & Tea for fresh Moroccan mint tea, or Analog Coffee for a quick morning boost. Happy Hour at Royale is equally enjoyable, a vibrant bar serving up eclectic cuisine and all of the rosé you could ask for on their sun-drenched patio.
Try Pedal Pub
This one’s for the craft beer lovers. The Pedal Pub is your personal bar on wheels, stopping off at breweries around Inglewood to mingle with the locals. The combination of music, sunshine, and great company makes it an unforgettable experience that will likely take you into the night.
Venture to Elk Island
Elk Island is another soothing escape from the city and a 35-minute drive east of Edmonton along the Yellowhead Highway. The large forested park has played a key role in conserving American bison after hunting and illness caused them to disappear in large quantities in the 19th century. This peaceful oasis is open for overnight campers, and a number of trails have been mapped out for hardcore hikes or gentle strolls. At night, bring a blanket for stargazing.
Attend the Folk Music Festival
Just about everyone looks forward to Edmonton’s annual Folk Music Festival scheduled for a weekend in August each year come rain or shine. Tickets sell fast and colourful tarps are pegged down in front of the main stage like a patchwork quilt. This tarp system harks back to traditional Canadian music festivals to secure a spot for the day, hopping from one stage and workshop to the next. Enjoy classic festival treats like ketchup-smothered hotdogs and local beers on tap.
Tour the Distilleries
Strathcona is the smallest distillery in North America, tucked behind Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. The building was once used as a space for local bands to perform and the ceiling still has pieces of polystyrene stuck to it for sound insulation. Little quirks like this make the tasting sessions a cheerful and charming hangout. Alternatively, pop over to Blind Enthusiasm’s brewery just down the road for a detailed tour of their inventive brewery-restaurant space.
Take a trip to Valley Park
Get lost in one of Edmonton’s 20 major parks by bike, or hop on a trail in the expansive river valley. The urban parkland stretches for 160 kilometres, offering natural wonder in Edmonton’s concrete jungle. It’s the longest stretch of urban parkland in North America where locals go to jog and canoe in the summer and cross-country ski in winter. Find a river trail for an experience that feels completely detached from the city — just before dinner somewhere typically city chic!