Calgary’s summer Stampede attracts a million visitors, but there’s more to this Canadian city than cowboys and oil
Calgary has been given a few monikers in its time, with Cowtown and Stampede City among the most common. For much of the year, walking the Alberta city’s neat grid of streets between skyscrapers in shades of beige and grey, the Rocky Mountains just about visible on the horizon, there’s little evidence of the rustic identity those names suggest.
Each July, however, it is put firmly on show for a huge rodeo that attracts more than one million visitors. The ten-day Calgary Stampede takes place at a site near the Elbow River, with a funfair and concerts alongside televised events, including chuckwagon racing, which involves thoroughbred horses and covered wagons hurtling around a track. There are also displays of bucking bull and bareback horse riding, and “steer wrestling”, in which riders chase a young cow and attempt to bind its legs in the quickest time.
The event consumes the entire city. Those not clad in cowboy hat and boots or traditional indigenous dress look out of place. Hay bales and cattle skulls decorate every restaurant and bar. Waiting at a crossroads, it’s no surprise to see dozens of people pass in horse-drawn wagons rather than cars.
As a visiting Brit, it’s an entertaining experience. There are impressive and, at times, bemusing sights – crowds roaring as dogs jump through hoops into a giant ball pit; the tension of the national sheepdog herding finals; men sliding into the mud while grasping a bull by the horns. But you also can’t fail to be struck by the sense of orderliness and civility around town, even as people line the streets in the summer sun drinking.
A view from above
This city of 1.4 million people might commonly be used by tourists as a gateway to the Rockies, but there’s plenty to see even outside of the July Stampede. The 191-metre Calgary Tower has kept a watchful eye over the surrounding plains and mountains since 1968, and on a clear day the view is stunning. It’s a good place to orient yourself, especially if you pick up the audio guide. Look out for the Saddledome stadium, home of the Calgary Flames hockey team; the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers at Fort Calgary, where the city’s first buildings were erected; and the Canadian Pacific Railway, which crosses Canada from Vancouver in the west to Montréal in the east. In the distance is the ski tower from which Eddie the Eagle jumped at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Next to the tower, the excellent Glenbow Museum tells the history of Calgary from the lives of indigenous people and their displacement by settlers, through to the arrival of the railway in 1883 and its growth as a centre of agriculture and commerce, to the discovery of oil in 1914. It also puts on brilliantly curated exhibitions.
You exit on to Stephen Avenue, where lovely sandstone buildings house lively bars, shops and restaurants. On sunny days the activity spills outside, with live music. The weather is notoriously changeable – in summer it’s often balmy, while in winter the average temperature is -11°C.
The newest star on the cultural scene is the Calgary Central Library. Designed by Norwegian architects Snohetta, the building artfully curves at the bottom to create both public areas and room for a light railway. Inside is a performance space, café, sculptures and nearly half a million books. The library is a few steps from the music museum at Studio Bell, which houses the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (inductees include Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Shania Twain).
The dining scene has also evolved. Food writer Carmen Cheng says when she moved here in 2003 the choice of restaurants was fairly limited. Chefs such as Connie DeSousa, John Jackson and Roy Oh elevated the options, although the economic downturn sparked by the oil price drop in 2014 hindered growth. Many small businesses now co-share spaces – for example, famed pizza outlet Noble Pie and beer taproom Eighty-Eight Brewing Company share premises on Portland Street. (See below for Cheng’s recommendations.)
Growth in choice
The city saw eight million visitors in 2018, contributing CA$2 billion (£1.1 billion) to the local economy, according to Tourism Calgary. Set to boost numbers further is the expansion of the BMO Centre on the grounds of the Stampede. The convention venue is undergoing a CA$500 million (£290 million) refurbishment that will double its size, making it the second-largest centre of its kind in Canada.
Hotel room supply rose 6.8 per cent to 3.7 million last year. New options include the biggest-ever Residence Inn by Marriott (read our review here), which opened in March 2019 in the Beltline District with 390 rooms, the Alt Hotel from Le Germain Hotels, and a Hyatt Place at Calgary airport, located 17km from the city centre.
Passenger numbers at the airport have increased significantly since a new terminal opened in 2016. Another boost came last year through the growth of Westjet. The Calgary-based airline was launched as a low-cost carrier providing regional connections but in 2019 took delivery of three B787-9s with economy, premium economy and business class cabins. The aircraft have been flying to destinations including Gatwick, Paris and Dublin (Gatwick-Calgary goes daily on April 14 – read our premium economy review here).
Air Canada flies daily to Calgary from Heathrow, or you can connect via Canada’s east coast with low-cost carrier Air Transat.
Calgary is Canada’s fourth-largest city but tops several cross-country rankings, including income and spend per capita, and population growth. It was judged to be the world’s fifth-most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year, beating Vancouver in sixth place and Toronto in seventh. With 100 points marking the study’s version of “ideal”, Calgary scored a perfect 100 for stability, healthcare, education and infrastructure, brought down to a 97.5 average only by its score of 90 for culture and environment.
Yet for all this, in some ways it is in the midst of a winter of discontent. At the time of writing, the Conference Board of Canada had predicted that the combined GDP of Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta’s second-biggest city, would contract by 0.4 per cent in 2019. This is being blamed on weak investment levels, a downturn in construction and the impact of oil production quotas, local newspaper Calgary Herald reports.
Canada is the world’s fourth-largest oil-producing nation (behind the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia), but if Alberta were a country, it would rank fifth on its own. Following the oil price drop, Alberta’s unemployment rate soared to more than 9 per cent in 2017. There are signs of improvement, with that figure now down to about 7 per cent. Financial services company ATB Financial is predicting GDP growth of 0.9 per cent in 2020 and 2.1 per cent in 2021.
Despite economic diversification into tech, financial services and clean energy, this is still very much an oil town. Of more than 200 corporate head offices in Calgary, over two-thirds are in the energy and oil field services sectors. “I heart oil” can be seen on T-shirts and bumper stickers.
The national government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been walking a tricky line. Trudeau promotes tackling climate change and protecting indigenous people while approving projects such as the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which has been heavily criticised. Although his Liberal Party formed a minority government last October, all but one of Alberta’s 34 parliamentary seats went to the Conservative party.
There is now a movement calling for “Wexit”, or Western independence from the rest of Canada. According to the BBC, Alberta contributes billions a year to a federal tax pool but has not received a payment since 1965 and there was no financial help forthcoming for the province after the 2014 economic downturn. Some Wexiteers accuse the eastern provinces of treating Alberta with a “colonialist mindset”, benefiting from its resources while failing to address its concerns. There have been calls for lower taxes and less regulation and, while still a fringe movement, there are signs of an impact. Toronto-based tech company Wattpad cited Western separatism and cuts to Alberta’s tax credits for tech companies in its decision to choose Halifax, Nova Scotia, over Calgary for its second HQ.
Still, for the most part Calgary is beloved by its locals. In a 2018 city survey, 83 per cent of respondents said their quality of life was “good”. Residents I spoke to extolled the thriving artisan markets, arts scene and hiking opportunities. But there’s more than mountains to this compact, friendly city. Visitors who linger are likely to be pleasantly surprised.
Where to eat
Food writer Carmen Cheng recommends a “breakfast poutine” (pictured below) at OEB Breakfast Co, which adds items such as lobster or pork belly to the quintessentially Canadian dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds. Or try Sidewalk Citizen, a popular bakery that also serves Israeli-inspired meals. For lunch, she suggests the good value of steakhouse Charcut. For dinner, a stand-out option is Bar Von Der Fels, a wine bar with a seasonal menu renowned for its hasselback potatoes with brown butter sauce, and crab with white truffle shavings. Follow Cheng’s recommendations on Instagram: @foodkarmablog