Alberta, Canada has more to offer than Banff

When people talk about visiting Alberta, Canada, they’re often talking about the Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park. In fact, that’s the only part of Alberta that was on my radar and must-visit list for quite some time. So, when Travel Alberta invited me to visit Calgary and Edmonton, the province’s two major cities, my first thought was, “Sure, but why?” Once I arrived, it didn’t take long to answer my own question. Both cities are rich with history, culture, scenery and some of the best food and shopping I’ve experienced in a long time.

While there, I called Calgary’s trendy Hotel Arts and Edmonton’s sleek Matrix Hotel home, my starting points for each day of exploration. Here’s what I discovered:

The culinary scenes rival any big city

In both Calgary and Edmonton, there are enough tasty, trendy and unique restaurants to keep you eating from sunup to sundown. If you’re into brunch — and equally into Instagramming your brunch — you can stop by The Beltliner in Calgary, a modern diner with charm (and flavor — Beltliner Benedict 2.0 and a White Chocolate Matcha Latte, please) for days. In Edmonton, stepping into Café Linnea feels like being transported to a chic, Scandinavian gathering spot with mid-century modern furniture, lush green plants and bright natural light everywhere you look — and the food is just as impressive. I still dream about the cast-iron baked eggs dish, Oeufs-en-Cocotte, and the “Shakerato,” a shaken iced latte with demerara syrup and orange zest. Little Brick offers just as tasty bites, as well as a range of Canadian gifts, in an adorable brick house.

And the cocktail and dinner scene in Alberta is enough to impress any foodie. “For a city with a metropolitan population of around 1.5 million people, [Edmonton has] a culinary scene that you think would belong to a city that has a population of 3 or 4 million people,” said Nancy Gordy, travel media market lead for Edmonton Tourism. “We’re now seeing new restaurants pop up monthly, all with diverse and exploratory themes and concepts.”

Consider hitting up the posh Clementine or Little Hong Kong (the latter is a tiny speakeasy inside the swanky Baiju) for creative cocktails in Edmonton, and Bündok or RGE RD for dinner. RGE RD’s chefs source their ingredients from farms and small-scale producers throughout Western Canada, a common theme in Edmonton restaurants. “With so many local ingredients readily available to Chefs — [like] honey, produce, farm meat and more — the farm to table concept is often naturally integrated into restaurants,” Gordy said. “Chefs work directly with many of the farmers, often times even putting in hours at the farm themselves.”

Calgary’s dinner options are plenty — from Korean tapas at Anju to pizza on the patio at Cibo — but my favorite was Calcutta Cricket Club, a modern Indian eatery that’s worth visiting for the colorful, eclectic design alone (pink and mint-green walls, rattan bar stools, tropical plant motifs and accents like a gold leopard wall decoration coexist perfectly).

Source: Courtesy of Calcutta Cricket Club

There are a lot of incredible local shopping opportunities

“Calgarians pride themselves on being entrepreneurial and as such, we prefer to buy and support local merchants,” said Jeff Hessel, senior vice president of marketing for Tourism Calgary. And there’s no lack of opportunities to do so, especially when it comes to supporting Calgary’s indigenous communities. Melrene Saloy, a member of the Blood Tribe of Southern Alberta and creator behind Native Diva Creations, makes contemporary Native-inspired jewelry which she sells at pop-ups throughout Calgary (you can see where she’s selling on her Facebook page); and the Native-owned Moonstone Creation offers a vast collection of authentic, Native-made clothing, artwork and other gifts. You can also head to spots like The Livery Shop or The Raven’s Room for even more unique souvenirs from Canadian makers.

Edmonton is also home to countless locally owned businesses (check out EdmontonMade.com for an exhaustive list), including many in the picturesque Old Strathcona and Whyte Avenue historic district. “[The district] holds a place in the heart of our city and in the heart of Edmontonians,” Gordy said. “The trendy area is filled with coffee shops, yoga studios, great restaurants, festivals every other weekend, and last but not least, the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market,” which she noted includes 130 vendors. “This is where you can capture locals in their element, grabbing anything from produce for dinner, flowers for a friend, craft beer for the weekend, or green onion cakes — the “official dish” of Edmonton.” I spent an entire afternoon strolling the area, checking out local jewelry and accessories at The Plaid Giraffe, drooling over shoes at Gravity Pope and indulging in purple yam, or Ube, ice cream at Yelo’d (it’s delicious, and I think about it regularly) — but the spot that stole my heart was the Wee Book Inn, a storied used bookstore with a live-in cat named Fleur, who I spent a solid 30 minutes hanging out with.

On the other side of the North Saskatchewan River, two female-owned Edmontonian businesses share a gorgeous pink, gold and white storefront that’s basically an Instagram dream come true. There, you can stock up on luxe skincare products and design your own bespoke perfume with Pura Botanicals and treat yourself to unique, handcrafted jewelry with So Pretty Cara Cotter. And if you want to continue your spree, head over to another female-owned local business, Poppy Barley, to get fitted for a pair of custom-width boots.

Old Strathcona and Whyte Avenue
Source: Courtesy of Emma Sarran Webster

There are enough activities to fill a weeklong — or longer — itinerary

While you could spend your entire visit shopping and eating, there are other ways to enjoy these Alberta cities. In the summer, you can grab a gourmet picnic basket from River Café in Prince’s Island Park and nosh while watching an outdoor performance of Shakespeare by the Bow. I’m admittedly not a Shakespeare fiend, but the performance I saw of “As You Like It” with an ‘80s spin was truly hilarious and held my attention the entire time. When you’re not taking in the theatre, you can stroll the rest of Prince’s Island Park or the lush indoor oasis, Devonian Gardens; stroll the up-and-coming East Village neighborhood and tour the Canadian National Music Centre; and pretend you’re an Olympian at Canada Olympic Park. (After three runs on the Skyline Luge, I’m pretty sure I’m ready to compete at the professional level.)

Edmonton, which Gordy noted is “one of Canada’s sunniest cities,” offers urban attractions like the Neon Sign Museum (which has the feeling of a movie set), 100 Street Funicular and the Royal Alberta Museum, as well as opportunities to get active and experience nature at its finest. “Our river valley, right in the heart of the city, is 22 times the size of Central Park and the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America,” Gordy said. You can explore the area during the day with an extensive bike tour or during the day with a sunset canoe ride down the river (don’t worry, the boats are equipped with lights). And if you’re up for a drive (about 40 minutes from the city), you can head to Elk Island National Park to search for bison or do some evening stargazing.

Both cities are also home to countless festivals and events throughout the year, like the Calgary Stampede, EDM Chasing Summer festival and Edmonton Folk Music Festival in the summer; and Winefest Calgary and Edmonton’s Ice Castles in the winter.

Shakespeare by the Bow
Source: Courtesy of Emma Sarran Webster

Banff who?