Must-See Calgary: “I only have 2 hours to explore”
Ok, so the truth of the matter is you haven’t left yourself anywhere near enough time to do justice to a whistle-stop sightseeing visit of Calgary. The reality is you barely have sufficient time to get from the airport to the downtown core and back again! But, for the sake of giving you something to work with, I’m going to assume you’ve found yourself in the downtown area. I’m going to propose meeting at the iconic Studio Bell at the intersection of 4th Street SE and 9th Avenue SE. This location is easily accessible by transit and has ample paid street parking facilities in the nearby trendy neighbourhood of the East Village. I am also going to assume you’ve read two of my very informative blogs on understanding the lay-of-the-land and how to get around Calgary. If not, don’t start your 2-hour countdown until you’ve familiarized yourself with these articles.
Our 2-hour fly-through of downtown Calgary will give you a glimpse of iconic city structures, historical buildings, public outdoor art, geographic landmarks and city parks. Don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate the neat folk you may get to rub shoulders with and who get to call this city “home”!
Starting at Studio Bell we will traverse downtown and end your high-speed walking excursion at the Peace Bridge. Excluding any selfie-stops, snack attacks, comfort breaks or disorientation dilemmas this walk will take you an estimated 1 hour and covers ~4.8km.
Are you ready to rock ‘n roll? Ok, start your clock!
Studio Bell is home to Canada’s National Music Centre. At an estimated $191-million CAD completion cost the externally and internally breathtaking structure opened its doors to the public on July 1st, 2016. Loosely resembling the shape of a guitar that straddles 4th Street SE and incorporates the historic King Eddy, this National gem is definitely worth setting at least 3 hours aside to explore at a later occasion. Covering an expansive 160,000 square feet over five floors, enjoy guided or self-guided tours of displays featuring Canadian musical icons and bands, memorabilia, unique and historic instruments, interactive exhibits and ever-changing temporary exhibitions. Read more about Studio Bell here.
For your comfort and for the sake of time you may choose to use the public washroom on the ground floor just beyond the reception while you’re here. As you leave the building grab yourself a fresh brew of Rosso coffee to-go. Capture your prized selfie outside the building and then head north on 4th Street SE. Turn west on 8th Avenue SE which will lead you right up the side steps of the profoundly beautiful New Calgary Central Library.
The New Calgary Central Library opened its doors to the public on November 1st, 2018. Constructed at a cost of $245-million CAD it boasts an impressive 240,000 square feet of space over four floors. Touted as one of a handful of highly acclaimed global architecturally iconic new buildings of2018 the external structure does not disappoint. The same can be said for its beautiful yet highly functional internal facilities. Sadly, your walking tour won’t afford you much time to stop and appreciate this new gem that the City has invested in. Another selfie with the building – or at least part of it, because it’s unlikely to fit into your camera frame – in the background will remind you to return here as a priority on your next extended visit to our city. Don’t forget to recognize the gently rocking pendulum-like street art structures located near the east and west steps to the Library that gently beckon you to visit.
Proceed across 3rd Street SE, up the stairs of the Calgary Municipal Building, through the lobby and out the doors onto the plaza that faces Macleod Trail SE. The historic Calgary City Hall will be on the northern boundary of the plaza. At the time of writing this article City Hall was under restoration and is expected to reopen in July 2020. Until then City Officials who work here have been temporarily relocated to the adjacent Municipal Building. Read more about City Hall here.
Continuing your journey west, cross over Macleod Trail SE and you will find yourself at Olympic Plaza. Built to house the medal ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games this plaza is a festive bustle of cowboys and girls, food vendors and country music when the City hosts the annual Calgary Stampede, the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, for 10 jam-packed days in July! In the winter the fountain plaza is transformed into a winter wonderland aglow with fairy lights, hot chocolate vendors and a generous outdoor skating rink, the only refrigerated outdoor surface in the city. We have more information about Olympic Plaza here.
Calgary’s Theatre District is located on the southern boundary of the Plaza and is home to Arts Commons, the Jack Singer Concert Hall and Theatre Calgary, amongst others. You can read more about Arts Commons here.
At this point you may wish to turn south on Centre Street and head to the base of the Calgary Tower. Since time might be against you, you may just choose to capture your mandatory selfie with the 191m tall structure in the background. On a clear-weather day you would do well to return to the tower and head up to the Observation Deck for 360 degree panoramic views of Calgary beneath you, the Rocky Mountains to the west and the prairies extending to the distant horizon in the east. Since time is not in your favour you can read up more about the tower here and then ensure you return on your next extended visit to the city.
For now you need to remain focussed on your 2-hour mission. Instead, dash north up Centre Street away from the Tower towards 6th Avenue SE and The Bow tower. Until 2017 this was the tallest structure in the City. Completed in 2012, boasting a height of 236m, housing 58 floors totalling 1.7-million square feet of floorspace, and supporting 900,000 square feet of glass it cost $1.4-billion CAD to build over 5 years. Enjoy the captivating beauty of this crescent-shaped skyscraper and marvel at the unique Wonderland sculpture sheltered on its south plaza. You will discover several selfie-worthy shots to be taken here!
Enter through the front revolving doors of The Bow, ascend the escalators to the first floor food court, then head west across Centre Street via the elevated glass walkway, also known as the Plus 15 Skywalk. The Plus 15 is a network of above-street walkways that interconnect numerous downtown buildings, enabling pedestrians and Office workers to move throughout the downtown core in climate-controlled conditions. This is particularly helpful during the harsh winter months. As you cross Centre Street on the Plus 15 look south to see the Calgary Tower and look north to see the Centre Street Bridge that crosses the Bow River.
This leg of the Plus 15 will allow you to access the Suncor Energy Centre East Tower. Continue to the main food court where you will be fascinated to discover a fantastic display of a historic Norseman V suspended from the ceiling in the bustling foyer of the Suncor Building.
After photographing yourself with the indoor aircraft, descend the escalators to street level and exit the Suncor Building where you should find yourself on 5th Avenue SW. Head east to the intersection with Centre Street then turn northwards up Centre Street towards the Centre Street Bridge and the Bow River. If you walk onto the bridge and stand above Memorial Drive you would be at the figurative centre-point of Calgary, the location where the city’s 4 quadrants meet. Read more about the Centre Street Bridge here.
If you made it to the Centre Street Bridge for a few more selfies you will need to back-track along Centre Street a few blocks then head west along 2nd Avenue SW. This little detour will immerse you into the rich culture of Calgary’s Chinatown. Discover more about this neighbourhood here. 2nd Avenue SW will take you right up the steps and into the Chinese Cultural Centre. Proceeding through the ornate domed building and exiting on the west side, continue along 2nd Avenue SW.
At 3rd Street SW / Barclay Parade, turn north and pass by the historic Eau Claire Market. Learn more about Eau Claire here. Continue northwards across the suspended pedestrian bridge and find yourself in Prince’s Island Park, one of Calgary’s most popular parks and an easily accessible escape from the downtown busyness. You may wish to invest a few of your precious minutes here exploring the Park’s diverse habitats, views, flora and perhaps even look out for some elusive fauna, like beavers that might be seen frolicking in the Bow River’s waters. Read more about the Park here.
Wind your way westward through the Park where you will come across the controversial yet iconic Peace Bridge. You will likely find yourself becoming snap-happy with your selfie stick here as your walking tour comes to an end and your2-hour timer likely starts to tick to a standstill. Take a few moments to read about the Peace Bridge here as you enjoy panoramic vistas of the downtown skyrises while the currents of the Bow River rush beneath you.
Below is a summary of the highlighted attractions you will have seen during this walk. Should you wish to return for a more detailed visit we have also indicated which of the attractions require an access fee as well as a recommended time that you might need to set aside to explore them more thoroughly.
|Studio Bell||Yes||3 hrs|
|New Calgary Central Library||No||1.5 hrs|
|Calgary City Hall||No||Closed|
|Olympic Plaza||No||30 mins|
|Stephen Avenue Walk||No||Variable|
|Calgary Tower||Yes||1.5 hrs|
|The Bow||Limited access||Variable|
|Wonderland Sculpture||No||5 mins|
|Plus 15 Skywalk||No||Variable|
|Suncor Energy Centre East Tower||Limited access||Variable|
|Centre Street Bridge||No||10 mins|
|Eau Claire Market||No||Variable|
|Prince’s Island Park||No||Variable|
|Peace Bridge||No||15 mins|
If you discover that you have more time explore than you thought then read my blog “Must-see Calgary: I have half a day to explore” for some more options that can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, depending on your destination preferences.
Discover more downtown exploring options and some great outdoor art in the following popular articles:
- Wall art and graffiti detour;
- Outdoor sculptures (including our favourite ice cream shops!);
- Awesome bicycle circuits, each including a favourite coffee shop of ours, that are great for exploring downtown and beyond as a family, as a couple or alone
Please leave your feedback and recommendations of your experience of this deTour for us in the comments section below.