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Canada: the history and must see sights of Calgary

Kieran Meeke / 18 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The sixth installment in a series of articles, we look at Calgary.

Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada seen from the Bears Hump

Calgary was a city of cowboys and ranchers before it boomed on oil and gas, but it has never lost its spirit of Western hospitality. 

Now famous for its annual Stampede, this modern city is also a centre for exploring the iconic landscapes that first attracted those pioneers of old.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here


Calgary was founded in 1875 by the North West Mounted Police as a wooden fort where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet. 

It was named after the Scottish home of Colonel James McLeod and its role was to stop American whisky traders preying off the First Nations population.

This bleak outpost grew into a town as the cattle trade moved into the land from which fur hunters had eliminated the buffalo. When the railway arrived in 1883, bringing an influx of pioneer ranchers, its future was assured.

The early town was built of wooden houses but a fire destroyed most in 1886, leading to a rebuilding with local sandstone. Handsome buildings such as City Hall, the Grain Exchange and the Palliser Hotel are a legacy of this era.

“The Sandstone City” boomed again in 1914 when oil was discovered and again in 1924 with even bigger oil and gas finds. Oil remained the mainstay of growth right through the 1950s and beyond as the city’s population reached 325,000 by the mid-1960s.

During this time, the Calgary Stampede also grew in size and fame, helping put the city on the international map. It was started in 1912 by promoter Guy Weadick, but spluttered for a while before really taking off when merged with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition in 1923.

This new ten-day Calgary Exhibition and Stampede every July began to attract visitors from all over the country and then beyond to “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”.

The hosting of the 1988 Winter Olympics – where “Eddie the Eagle” jumped to fame – gave a much-needed boost to the city’s confidence during that decade’s economic slump.

As well as confirming its reputation for welcoming visitors and handling large-scale events, a number of major facilities also remain as a legacy: the SaddleDome, the speed skating Olympic Oval (where “Cool Runnings” was later filmed), and the Nakiska Mountain Resort.

A playground for both winter and summer activities, the Rocky Mountains to the west of Calgary bring beauty to a cityscape that can often seem more functional than pretty but whose true heart lies in its western hospitality.

Getting Around

Calgary Transit run buses from the airport to downtown and elsewhere, as well as local bus and CTrain (LRT) services that can all be accessed with a Day Pass.  

The CTrain is free as long as you stay within the Downtown zone and makes a great hop-on, hop-off service for visitors. Download the Calgary Transit App for full details.

For moving beyond the city limits, a hire car is probably essential – although there are a number of private tour companies as another option.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Major Sights

Glenbow Museum

Western Canada’s largest museum is built around an eclectic collection left by local oilman Eric Harvie.

Its 30,000 works of art feature western, wildlife and First Nations themes, while its collection of nearly a million other artefacts and books includes many fascinating military and ethnographic items. 

Must-see: Sir Francis Drake's walking stick and Captain James Cook’s sword and punch bowl.

Calgary Tower

The tallest building in the city when it opened in 1968, this tower stills bills itself as “the highest 360° observation deck in the world”. The revolving Sky 360 restaurant one floor below that is a good option for a longer viewing. 

Must-do: Look for the recreated Fort Calgary to literally see how far the city has come in 150 years.

Heritage Park

“Canada’s largest living historical village” is open from mid-May to Labour Day (September 4), with limited opening for the rest of the year. 

It recreates a pioneer village from around the turn of the 20th century, complete with costumed staff who play their roles with gusto. There is also a train and the half-size S.S. Moyie paddle steamer which sails across Glenmore Reservoir. 

Must-do: See the Gasoline Alley Museum (open all year) which showcases vintage cars and historic items such as fuel pumps.

Stephen Avenue Walk

A block north of the Calgary Tower, this pedestrianized street holds shops with the latest in fashion shops and many historic sandstone buildings, including City Hall and the Hudson’s Bay Company, a Canadian icon. 

Must-do: Buy a Hudson’s Bay Company multistripe blanket at “The Bay”.

The Military Museums

The Canadian forces tend not to receive the same acclaim as some of their neighbours, but they have fought alongside their British allies from the Boer War to present-day Afghanistan. 

One in three Albertans between 18 and 45 enlisted during the Great War of 1914-18 and 6,000 died. The Military Museums incorporate elements from former museums dedicated to the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force.

Must-do: See the worn “Ric-A-Dam-Doo” battle flag of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, embroidered by Princess Patricia herself.

Arts Common

One of the largest arts centres in Canada holds five theatres and the 1,800-seat Jack Singer Concert Hall that is home to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Must-do: Hear a concert featuring the 6,040-pipe Carthy Organ.

Fort McLeod

The tiny town of Fort McLeod is named for its fort, which is also its major attraction after its historic downtown area, filled with quaint buildings. The recreated fort tells the story of the frontier life of the North West Mounted Police, later merged into the famous “Mounties”. 

Must-do: Watch volunteers riders in NWMP uniforms perform a musical ride three times a day during July and August.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

This Unesco site about two hours south of Calgary was used by Native peoples for thousand of years to hunt buffalo

As its name implies, the herds were driven off a 30-foot cliff on the prairies, with the tribes setting up camp to process their meat, hides, sinews and bones. An interpretative centre tells the fascinating story. 

Must-do: See a demonstration of how to erect a tipi.

Waterton Lakes National Park

The drive down to Waterton from Calgary will throw up vistas that may seem familiar. Alberta’s scenery here and further west, where the Rockies seem to rise straight up from the prairie, has been the setting for many Westerns, from “Unforgiven” to “Brokeback Mountain”. 

Besides its majestic landscapes, Waterton itself is notable for its lakes and the historic Prince of Wales Hotel. Although named for the future King Edward VIII, he never stayed here but that was his loss. 

It borders Glacier National Park in Montana, and the pairing forms an International Peace Park. 

Must-do: Have Afternoon Tea in the hotel, which was built in the 1920s to attract Americans over the border in the age of Prohibition.

Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise

Some of Canada's most mesmirizing views can be found in Banff and Jasper National Parks - see our feature Through the Rockies to find out more.

Major Events

Calgary Stampede

This massive rodeo plus agricultural show is held every July and attracts the world’s best riders, as well as Chuckwagons racing for million-dollar prize money. 

It is also a massive musical show, performed by Calgary’s own Young Canadians, a powerhouse of young talent that often heads off to Broadway and beyond. 

Then there’s The Midway, a fairground and a gastronomic experience defined by foods such as bacon-beer-battered corn dogs, deep-fried Oreo milkshakes or mac and cheese stuffed burgers. 

More than two million visitors come over ten days. Join in by dressing like a cowboy/girl for the day, complete with cowboy hat. 

Calgary Folk Music Festival

July in Calgary is overshadowed by the Stampede but this event has been slowly gaining a passionate following of its own

Attracting musicians, and fans, from all over the world, headliners have included Martha Wainwright, Buffy Saint-Marie and Swedish singer-songwriter The Tallest Man on Earth. 

It’s held on Prince’s Island and audience participation is encouraged, so this is your chance to try songwriting or guitar 101. 

Calgary Highland Games

With a history going back more than a century, this gathering of the clans every September features all the traditional events, from the caber toss to pipe bands. 

Calgary Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival

An annual event in October celebrating the best in food and drink from Canada and beyond. Dozens of local restaurants also showcase their talents under one roof, producing food pairings for sample wines. 


The father of screen icon Kevin Bacon gave his name to this free film festival held every February in Calgary

Ed Bacon was a city planner in Philadelphia in the 1950/60s and the films have a relevant content intended to inspire debate on the subject of planning and architecture. 

Calgary Winterfest

A legacy of the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, this festival brightens February with live music and winter-related sports such as dogsledding, skiing and luge. 

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.