Must-See Calgary: “I have half a day to explore”
Where should I go and what should I see?
If you find yourself with half a day at your disposal to discover Calgary, I can provide you with a travel pack full of destinations that you can check off your proverbial to-see list. While there is a lot to see and experience in the outlying neighbourhoods, my recommendation for a half-day gap is that you focus your efforts on exploring the downtown area. This will maximize the use of your precious time and offer you the best bang-for-your-buck.
My aim is to provide you with a selection of my favourite destination options to explore. You can do further research on them, decide if you want to visit there, then customize your own half-day travel itinerary.
I have pre-sorted my recommended destinations into the following broad categories for you:
- For Everyone 👨👩👧👦
- For the Discerning Arts Enthusiast 🎨
- For the Enquiring Learner-Historian 🏛
- For the Outdoor and Activity Explorer 👣
- For the Intrepid Shopper 🛍
As I endeavour to help you gather your thoughts around planning your exploration itinerary here is a list of things to consider that may influence your destination choices.
- What type of attractions or experiences are you into?
- Do you have starting time or finishing time limits on the day of your visit?
- Do you have any mobility considerations that will limit the amount of ground you will be able to cover?
- Should you be aware of seasonality or weather-sensitive limitations?
- Do you want to be indoors or outdoors?
- Do any of the locations have limited hours of operation?
- Do any of your destinations have entry fees that you need to budget for?
- Do any of your destinations require making bookings or reservations ahead of time?
- Do your plans require you to give consideration to your choice of clothing and foot-wear?
- Do you have easy transport access to Downtown?
- Have you given thought to where your excursion will start and end and what does this mean for transport or meeting up with fellow travellers before or after your day is done?
Now, prepare to explore …
Below is a summary of the icons I have used in my destination descriptions. You might find these prompts handy when reviewing a destination for your tour planning.
- Indoors attraction 🖼
- Outdoors attraction 😎
- Summer only 🌞
- Winter only ☃️
- Mobility access ♿️
- Entry fee required 💲
- Reservations recommended 📅
- Set aside 2 to 4 hours to explore this attraction ⏳
- Observe opening / closing times 🕘
👨👩👧👦 For everyone:
- Calgary Tower 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲 | 🕘 : this downtown city icon, now dwarfed by the emerging surrounding modern skyscrapers, is a quintessential destination for your half-day visit. Ascend to the observation deck for unobstructed 360-degree views of the city beneath you, the imposing Rocky Mountains to the west and the endless Alberta prairies stretching to the horizon in every other direction. After stepping out onto the glass floor suspended almost 200m above 9th Avenue, why not treat yourself to a meal in the revolving restaurant? Read more about the Calgary Tower at this link and navigate to the Tower here.
- Devonian Gardens 🖼 | ♿️ | 🕘 : take a break from your sauntering and exploring to rest your weary feet. Spend it in the tropical haven of these gorgeous, iconic indoor gardens. Located on the 4th Level of The Core shopping centre, the fountains, fish ponds, living wall, children’s play area and dense plant foliage of the gardens are nourished by natural sunlight filtering through the remarkable glass domed ceiling. Read more about this must-see destination at this link. You can navigate to the Gardens here.
- Food: there is no shortage of restaurants, bars and bistros in the downtown core. If you’re visiting in the summer season you will want to find a spot to eat outdoors on the ever-popular Stephen Ave. If poor weather or winter conditions force you indoors, you will find numerous culinary offerings along the Plus 15 concourses or in the 4th floor food court at the CORE Shopping Mall (adjacent to the Devonian Gardens) and at Bankers Hall.
🎨 For Our Arts Enthusiasts
- Arts Common 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲 | ⏳ | 🕘 : home to Calgary’s performing arts, this vibrant theatre destination in the heart of the city’s downtown occupies an entire city block is located on the southern boundary of Olympic Plaza. Navigate to our home of the performing arts here. You can also read more about Arts Commons at this link. Be sure to book for any performances ahead of time.
- Glenbow Museum: see “For Our Learner-Historian” section below for more information.
- Stephen Lowe Art Gallery 🖼 | ♿️ | 🕘 : located inside the Bow Valley Square Office Towers on the Plus 15 level this upmarket gallery offers diverse art media by local and international artists and is a favourite of mine. Navigate to their gallery here.
- Brotherhood of Mankind Statues 😎 | ♿️ : standing tall – up to 6.5m tall, to be more precise – this family of 10 aluminium statues, created by Spanish sculptor Mari Armengol, have been basking in the city’s downtown since 1967. Navigate to these naked statues here.
- Famous Five Statues 😎 | ♿️ : these 5 polished bronze sculptures, located on the southwest corner of Olympic Plaza, honour the accomplishment of the five key women who fought to have females recognized as “persons” under British Canadian Law in 1929. Navigate to their tea party here.
- Udderly Art 🖼 | ♿️ : this unique collection of fibreglass cows, painted and decorated by various artists, was part of an initiative by Bonnie Laycock that captured the curiosity of the Calgary community over a 14-month period in the millennium year, 2000. 125 of these cows joined the herd that were on parade throughout the city. A few of these remain on public display today. Visit the Udderly Art Legacy Pasture on the first level of the 9th Avenue Parkade here.
- Wall art and Graffiti 😎 | ♿️ : refer to our blog about wall art in the downtown area. Enjoy the outdoor displays of larger-than-life public art as your absorb the hustle and bustle of the downtown city life.
- Consider exploring these and some of our other favourite outdoor art sculptures (and ice cream go-to spots) around the downtown area by bicycle. Read more on our blog.
🏛 For Our Learner-Historians:
- Studio Bell 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲 | ⏳ | 🕘 : calling all music aficionados … you will not want to miss out on visiting Canada’s National Music Centre. This extraordinary, modern building in the East Village that traverses 4th Street SE is home to over 2,000 musical instruments, costumes and other collectibles, including Canada’s Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Country Music Hall of Fame memorabilia. Explore at your own leisure or participate in an insightful, guided tour of the four floors. Find more information at this link. You can navigate to Studio Bell here.
- Glenbow Museum 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲 | ⏳| 🕘 : located on 9th Ave SE across the road from the Calgary Tower this museum is home to a wealth of artworks, literature and history. With historical displays ranging from minerals to the Mounted Police, and from Native North America to world cultures there is something for everyone somewhere across the four floors of artefacts. Find out more at this link. Navigate to the Glenbow Museum here.
- Central Library 🖼 | ♿️ | ⏳| 🕘 : the newly opened Calgary Central Library has been touted as the 20th most noteworthy structure to see in the world in 2019. Open to the public, visitors can access this exceptional facility without charge or the need to be a member. Pre-book a 45-minute orientation or architectural tour to explore this unique gift that the City has given to her residents. You can find the Central Library here.
- Fort Calgary 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲 | ⏳| 🕘 : the original fort was built in 1875 by the Northwest Mounted Police, giving rise to the origin of what is now recognized as modern-day Calgary. Located at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers you can explore the grounds and enjoy tours of the museum exhibits. Discover more at this link. Navigate to the site of Fort Calgary here.
- Olympic Plaza 😎 | ♿️ : constructed to commemorate Calgary’s hosting of the 1988 winter Olympic Games, the Plaza was the site for the medal ceremonies for the Games. Soak up the bustle of activity around here in the warm summer months, particularly over the infamous Stampede week, or don your rented skates and enjoy some family time on the outdoor rink in the winter. Discover more about Olympic Plaza at this link. Navigate to this destination here.
- Lougheed House 🖼 | ♿️ | 💲| 📅 | ⏳|🕘 : although not quite in the downtown core, a little detour to this National and Provincial historic 14,000 sq.ft sandstone mansion may be up your alley. Home to Senator James and Lady Isabella Lougheed this restored mansion was built in 1891 and provides visitors with insight into the life of this family and life in early Calgary. Enjoy the gorgeous gardens in the spring through fall. Meet for brunch at the restaurant where bookings may be essential. And take in a self-guided or audio tour of this preserved site. You can navigate to Lougheed House here.
👣 For Our Outdoor & Activity Explorers:
- St. Patrick’s Island Park 😎 | ♿️ : this is my favourite downtown park. With fabulous views of the downtown skyline, easy access to the Bow River, beautiful walks, a child-friendly wading pool and playground, this reconstructed park was one of many casualties of the devastating 2013 flood that decimated the low-lying areas of downtown. Today it is a jewel in the city’s crown and well worth exploring. Read more about the park at this link. Navigate to the park here.
- Princes Island Park 😎 | ♿️ : this iconic park has been the go-to escape from downtown for Calgarians for decades. It hosts concerts and outdoor theatre productions in its beautiful gardens throughout the summer. In winter the paved pathways remain a welcome refuge for walkers and runners to escape the busy downtown streets. Discover more at this link. You can navigate to the park here.
- Bow River Pathway Network 😎 | ♿️ : I would highly recommend setting some time aside to rent a bicycle or don your active shoes and explore some sections of the pathway. This network spans 48km of mostly paved pathway that connects walkers, runners, roller bladers and cyclists to parks and popular destinations on both banks of the Bow River. It also links commuters to one of the most extensive urban pathway and bikeway networks in North America, covering 905km of regional pathways and 95km of trails. We dare you to explore! Find out more at this link.
- Calgary Zoo 😎 | ♿️ | 💲 | ⏳|🕘 : for the outdoor and wildlife lovers you would do well to visit this world class facility. The 120-acre location is divided into 6 distinct zones and is home to over 1,000 animals (excluding fish and insects). Read more about the zoo at this link. You can navigate to the Zoo here.
- Float the Bow 😎 | 🌞 | ⏳| 🕘 : if you’re a moderate adventure-lover and enjoy time on the water you may want to consider “floating the Bow”. Whether in inflatable rafts or kayaks this is a fun-filled family-friendly activity that enables you to see Calgary from a very different but memorable vantage point. There are numerous launch sites for you to safely enter the river upstream of downtown. You should be sure to read up on river safety, equipment requirements and rules prior to embarking on this adventure. Information gleaned from our experiences of floating the bow by kayak are available at this link. You would do well to orientate yourself with requirements and guidelines found on the City of Calgary website.
- Olympic Plaza skating 😎 | ☃️ : should you find yourself visiting Calgary in the winter months you may wish to do some skating at the free, outdoor rink that is maintained by the city at Olympic Plaza. Skate rentals are available here too. Navigate to this popular city-centre location here and read more about this location at this link.
🛍 For Our Intrepid Shoppers:
- Stephen Avenue Walk 😎 | ♿️ | 🕘 : this pedestrian mall, located on the portion of 8th Avenue South between 4th St SW and 1st St SE, is a must-see for any visitor to Calgary’s downtown. Home to some of the city’s finest food destinations it is also the address of some upmarket retailers as well as the Telus Convention Centre, Glenbow Museum and popular hotels. Read more about Stephen Ave here. You can navigate to this destination here.
- The Core 🖼 | ♿️ | 🕘 : explore Canada’s oldest Department store – Hudson’s Bay – or peruse the plethora of designer-wear clothing and accessory stores in this four-level Mall that spans 3 city blocks and is home to more than 150 retailers. Find out more about The Core here. Navigate to the Core here.
- Plus 15 🖼 | ♿️ | 🕘 : explore shops, eateries, galleries and unique perspectives of the city by discovering Calgary’s iconic interconnected elevated maze of walkways. Read more about this here.
- 17th Ave South 🖼 | ♿️ | 🕘 : if it’s street explorations that you’re looking for then you need to hit 17th Ave South’s Retail and Entertainment District, between Macleod Trail and 14th Street SW. Although somewhat removed from the Downtown core, this area is regarded as a must-visit destination for any shopping fans when visiting Calgary. Enjoy the buzz of the bustling street life seasoned with eclectic retail stores and cool eating spots. We have more information for you here. Click here to locate this destination.
Helpful travel hints:
- Most of the tourist sites don’t open before 9am or 10am, so don’t expect to start your downtown detour too early in the morning without checking destination opening times on-line first!
- Riding the LRT trains along 8th Ave in the downtown free-fare zone is FREE!
- Access to the Glenbow Museum on the first Thursday of the month is FREE from 5pm until closing time!
- Rent a bicycle through Rath bicycles. Pick-up and drop-off at their East Village location along River Walk.
- When you visit the Calgary Tower and verify that you are going to be eating a meal at the observation deck restaurant your access fee to go up the tower is waived.
- For some added inspiration, and if you’re on a tighter time schedule, read my blog titled “Must-see Calgary: I only have 2 hours to explore“
Please leave your helpful comments and feedback in the section below so we can learn from your experiences and insights. Happy exploring!!