48 Hours In: Calgary

The largest city in Canada's Alberta province packs a punch with contemporary galleries, independent shops and thriving nightlife, says Chris Leadbeater

Travel essentials

Why go now?

There is more to Alberta's biggest city than the dubious spectacle of its showpiece annual rodeo, the Calgary Stampede. Despite its cowboy image, Calgary is a pocket of art and culture – not least in the warm months when it hosts a wealth of festivals.

For example, Opera in the Village (22-25 August) will make opera accessible for children – with singing contests and performances of The Pirates of Penzance in a 900-seat tent – at the Riverwalk Plaza (1) of the East Village district (001 403 262 7286; calgaryopera.com; adult tickets C$35/£23). Beyond this, Calgary is a gateway to the year-round playground of the Rocky Mountains.

Touch down

Calgary International Airport (001 403 735 1200; yyc.com) is nine miles north of the city centre. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) offer direct daily services from Heathrow.

Bus No 300 runs to Downtown in 30 minutes every half hour between 5.30am and midnight – single fares are C$8.50 (£5.50). It leaves from Bay 20, outside arrivals, stopping below the city's iconic Calgary Tower (2), at 101 9th Avenue SW. Taxis to the centre take 20 minutes and cost C$40 (£27).

Get your bearings

Calgary is in the southern half of Alberta, 160 miles north of the US border and some 50 miles east of the Rockies. A key stop on the 4,990-mile Trans-Canada Highway, it perches at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers – and is laid out in a simple grid, with numbered avenues and streets running east to west and north to south respectively.

Public transport – buses and the C-Train electric rail system – is run by Calgary Transit (001 403 262 1000; calgarytransit.com). Single tickets across the network cost C$3 (£2); one-day passes C$9 (£6). The C-Train has two lines (201 and 202), which serve most corners of the city. The central portion of the system, which runs along 7th Avenue SW, between the 10th Street SW and 3rd Street SE stations (11 stops in total) is free to ride.

The rest of this compact metropolis is easily explored on foot. Tourism Calgary (001 403 750 2362; visitcalgary.com) has a visitor centre within the base of the Calgary Tower (2), open weekdays 9am-7pm, weekends 9am-5pm.More details are available at travel alberta.co.uk.

Check in

Inglewood Bed & Breakfast (3) at 1006 8th Avenue SE (001 403 262 6570; inglewoodbedandbreakfast.com), in the easterly district of Inglewood, has doubles from C$100 (£67), with breakfast.

The smartly modern Marriott Downtown (4), at 110 9th Avenue SE (001 403 266 7331; marriott.com), offers doubles from C$201 (£134), room only.

The Fairmont Palliser (5) at 133 9th Avenue SW (001 403 262 1234; fairmont.com), is a celebrated five-star dame that opened in 1914. Doubles start at C$369 (£246), room only.

Day One

Take a hike

The central 8th Avenue SW gives a glimpse of how Calgary has developed. Start at Core (6), a mall of 160 stores, which runs between 2nd and 4th Streets SW (001 403 441 4940; coreshopping.ca). Stroll east, noting the big sandstone structures built after a fire in 1886 destroyed their wooden predecessors.

The Burns Building, a 1911 meat market, now holds the Epcor Centre (7) for performing arts and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (001 403 294 9494; epcorcentre.org), at 205 8th Avenue. It rises over Olympic Plaza (8), the main square – scene of the medal presentations at the 1988 Winter Games.

Walk south out of the Plaza on to Macleod Trail SE. Head four blocks south, turn left on to 12th Avenue SE and right into Stampede Park (9). This is rodeo HQ, but it gives another snapshot of the city from October to June when the Calgary Flames play ice hockey here at the Saddledome (10) (001 403 777 4646; scotiabanksaddledome.com).

Take a view

Enjoy a loftier view of the city (and the distant Rockies) from the observation deck of the Calgary Tower (2), which rears to 191m (001 403 266 7171; calgarytower.com). It is open daily from 9am to 9pm (10pm during August); C$15 (£10) .

Lunch on the run

Across the Elbow River, Inglewood is a bohemian enclave of shops and eateries. For a flavour of the district, get a table at the Ironwood Stage & Grill (11), 1229 9th Avenue SE (001 403 269 5581; ironwoodstage.ca) and order the Ironwood Lunch Salad – bacon, chicken and mixed greens – for C$14 (£9).

Cultural afternoon

Glenbow Museum (12), at 130 9th Avenue SE (001 403 268 4100; glenbow.org), peers into Alberta's back-story, with exhibits on First Nations groups such as the Tsuu T'ina and Niitsitapi, and paintings by 19th-century pioneers who "settled" the region. Richard Barrington Nevitt's First Whiskey Spilled shows bootleg booze being dumped in the Oldman River in 1874. Open daily except Monday; C$14 (£9).

Nearby, at 104-800 Macleod Trail SE, the Museum of Contemporary Art (13) (001 403 262 1737; mocacalgary.org) covers 21st-century Canadian painting, featuring works by Calgary artist Chris Cran. It is open Tuesday to Saturday; free entry.

Next, Fort Calgary (14), at the meeting of the two rivers at 750 9th Avenue SE (001 403 290 1875; fortcalgary.com), has a museum and (reconstructed) barracks on the site where the city was founded in 1875 as a Mounted Police base. Daily 9am-5pm; C$12 (£8).

An aperitif

The north-westerly district of Kensington is another intriguing sliver of Calgary life. The Kensington Pub (15), at 207 10A Street NW (001 403 270 4505; kensingtonpub.com), has a merry local vibe and a long cocktail list that begins proceedings at C$5.50 (£3.50).

Dining with the locals

Charcut (16), at 101-899 Centre Street SW (001 403 984 2180; charcut.com), is a stylish carnivore heaven, where roasted pork belly with cheddar grits is C$27 (£18).

Catch (17) (001 403 206 0000; hyatt.com/gallery/catch), in the shell of the 1910 Imperial Bank of Canada at 100 8th Avenue SE, has tuna with chickpea purée for C$37 (£24).

In Inglewood, there's Rouge (18), a gourmet French eatery in an 1891 mansion at 1240 8th Avenue SE, that serves prairie pheasant for C$35 (£23) (001 403 531 2767; rougecalgary.com).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Tucked just off Olympic Plaza at 604 1st Street SE, the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (19) is a stocky sandstone bastion of Anglicanism, a reminder of Canada's Commonwealth ties. It was built in 1905 to replace an earlier wooden church – though the bell in its tower also hung in the precursor. Sunday mass is at 8am and 10.30am (001 403 269 1905; anglicancathedralcalgary.ca).

Window shopping

Apart from the four busy storeys of the Core mall (6), there is more intriguing shopping away from the centre. Inglewood shows off its arty vibe with 4 Cats (20), at 1218B 9th Avenue SE (001 403 206 0110; 4cats.com/inglewood) – a studio which sells canvases and brushes, and offers painting classes. Bite (21), at 1023 9th Avenue SE (001 403 263 3966; bitegroceteria.com), is a delicatessen with olives, cheeses, pepper sauces and aromatic flavours of coffee. Hot Wax (22), at 114 10th Street NW, is an old-school record emporium stuffed with CDs and vinyl (001 403 283 0055; hotwax.ca).

Out to brunch

River Café (23), in the middle of the Bow River at 25 Prince's Island Park, is an idyllic spot for lunch (001 403 261 7670; river-cafe.com). A bison burger with coleslaw costs C$19 (£12).

A walk in the park

Connected to the rest of the city by a series of bridges, Prince's Island Park (24) is where Calgarians pause to breathe. The park is also a setting for the city's summer gatherings. Expo Latino is slated to fill the park with food, music, dance and art from 23-25 August. Day tickets are C$20 (£13); three-day passes C$35 (£23) online – or C$30 (£20) and C$45 (£30) at the gate (001 403 271 2744; expolatino.ca).

Icing on the cake

Calgary's booming nightlife zone – the "Uptown" stretch of 17th Avenue SW between 4th and 8th Streets SW – has possibilities that include Ming (25), at 520 17th Avenue SW (001 403 228 1986; mingeatdrink.com) – a bar and restaurant with Far Eastern food and powerful cocktails from C$10 (£6.50).

If heading to the Rockies, halt at Canada Olympic Park (26) (001 403 247 5452; winsportcanada.ca) – that was the cornerstone of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Try the zipline that drops 500m from the Olympic ski-jump tower (weekdays noon-7pm and weekends 10am-7pm until 2 September, then restricted daily hours to 6 October; C$65/£43). Non-drivers can reach the park by catching bus 408 at Brentwood C-Train station (27).

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