An Art and History Tour of Edmonton and Calgary

Art and history enthusiasts will be well entertained in Alberta's two largest cities

Credit: Ariane Colenbrander

You’ll marvel at the curves, glass and steel forms on the Art Gallery of Alberta building

Edmonton and Calgary offer a substantial dose of art, history and great food to boot (hold the cowboy hats and lassos)

Both Edmonton and Calgary have been on my list of Canadian cities to visit, and this summer, I had the chance to spend three days in each. It was the perfect amount of time to get a taste of each city’s historical, cultural, and culinary sides.

The verdict? These two cities don’t get enough credit as cultural destinations with top-notch food, accommodations and tourist attractions, particularly for art and history lovers.

3 Days in Edmonton

My first stop was Edmonton, where I spent two nights at the Matrix Hotel, a boutique property in the heart of the city. Wi-fi, a fitness centre, a cocktail lounge (with a tapas menu), and an evening wine hour (except on Sundays) were just a few of the amenities I enjoyed during my two-night stay.

One evening I joined the friendly lounge staff for a few wine samplings. Several Mouton-Cadet wines were being poured, with enough cheese, bread, chips and salsa to go around. Every month, a new winery is featured.

Daily continental breakfast is free for guests and served buffet style in the Matrix Hospitality Suite. I also had lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, the Wildflower Grill. This 2009 Golden Fork award winner (for Best Hotel Restaurant) serves salads, appetizers, wood fired dishes and desserts at lunch and dinner, with a focus on Canadian cuisine. A weekend brunch menu completes the picture.

I enjoyed a free-range chicken pesto panini ($15), topped with maple glazed bacon, aged cheddar, and white balsamic reduction, and served with a side organic green salad. The melted cheese together with the maple bacon and chicken was divine.

When I finally left the hotel, a 10-minute walk brought me to Alberta’s Legislature Building. The Legislature forms Alberta’s political heartbeat and this year it celebrates its centennial. The building is located on expansive and beautifully groomed grounds that reach out to the North Saskatchewan River and valley park. The government maintains 160 kilometres of multi-use trails for walking, cross-country skiing, cycling and segwaying. This area was originally used as an important meeting and seasonal dwelling place for Aboriginal peoples dating back at least 7,000 years.


I then headed to Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood, which has been ranked among the top 10 coolest neighbourhoods in Canada (as well as being named a Provincial Historic Area). This stretch of Edmonton is also known as the Old Strathcona Theatre District, housing nine theatres. I found everything from old hotels to chic boutiques and gourmet ice cream shops along its main artery, Whyte Avenue.

Next I was on to Fort Edmonton Park, Canada’s largest living history museum at 158-acres. The park is divided into four time periods: Fur Trading (The 1846 Fort), Settlement (1885 Street), Municipal (1905 Street), and Metropolitan (1920 Street and the Midway). You can take a train to the Fort and work your way to the future. Staff are dressed in period costume, adding to the fun. 

No trip to Edmonton (especially for a first-timer) would be complete without a stop at the West Edmonton Mall. It reminded me of Disneyland with its World Waterpark, ice skating rink, and amusement park, not to mention the more than 800 stores and services. A cheeky California sea lion posed for me at Sea Lions’ Rock while I hung out with a few penguins and baby stingrays (that visitors can actually pet) underneath the mall at the Sea Life Caverns.

My final day in Edmonton included a visit to the imposing Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). Although it houses an impressive variety of art collections, you’ll first want to marvel at the building’s architecture. Its series of curves, glass, and steel form twists and turns throughout the three levels of gallery space. Los Angeles-based Randall Stout Architects drew inspiration from both the North Saskatchewan River and Aurora Borealis in creating this masterpiece.

Inside, over 85,000 square feet of space is dedicated to regional, national, and international art. During my visit, I checked out the Louise Bourgeois retrospective, The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960, and a remarkable collection of Alex Janvier’s (known as the “Indian Group of Seven”).

The facility also includes the Singhmar Centre for Art Education, Zinc Restaurant and Terrace Café, an art rental and sales gallery, a 150-seat theatre, a museum shop, and rental spaces (including an awesome terrace overlooking the street action below).

3 Days in Calgary

Calgary is three hours from Edmonton by car, or 30 minutes by air, but I opted to take the Red Arrow Motorcoach instead. The company has been in the business of getting people around Alberta since 1979, and recently launched a luxury business class passenger service connecting several major Albertan cities.

I boarded in downtown Edmonton (there are two pickup/drop-off points in both Edmonton and Calgary) for a very comfortable three-hour ride. Unlike cramped buses with outdated upholstery and lack of amenities, this large bus offers 36 reclining leather seats, 30% more legroom in single row seating, and complimentary drinks and snacks.

There’s also free wi-fi, movies available (with earbuds for purchase) as well as satellite and local radio. Or you can simply snooze your way from one city to the next.

We arrived in downtown Calgary only slightly behind schedule, but I had already answered numerous e-mails, taken a short nap, and arrived ready to walk the short distance to my hotel.

I checked into my king deluxe room at Calgary’s Hotel Arts, located in the downtown core. This spacious boutique hotel offers 175 designer rooms with pillow-top beds, breakfast in the Raw Bar lounge, and close proximity to the Stampede grounds as well as to many landmark destinations and activities.

As 2012’s chosen Canadian Cultural Capital, Calgary is, in fact, a hub for culture: art, music, and theatre all thrive here. I stopped in at the Art Gallery of Calgary, a non-collecting public art gallery space that presents contemporary art exhibitions and art programs. While I was there, I took in Mary Kavanagh’s Atomic Suite exhibit, a series of photos from the atomic and nuclear industry creatively placed on one large white wall.

Not far away is the Glenbow Museum, which houses 28,000 works of art on four floors. On through September 3, Canada on Canvas showcases 130 years of works from mid 19th century up to the 1970s. It includes works by 40 of Canada’s most esteemed painters.

Another standout exhibit is Charlie Russell and The First Calgary Stampede. Born in St. Louis in 1864, Russell came to be known as one of the world’s greatest western artists, aka the “Famous Cowboy Artist”. Many of his works were sold in 1912 for a then-paltry $1,500. This collection of 20 paintings was a huge hit at the first ever Calgary Stampede held that year.

After art came the pursuit of artistic edibles, which I found at the Palliser’s afternoon tea. Dainty pastries, tea sandwiches, and traditional scones were served with both house-made jam and Devonshire clotted cream.

Later, for heartier art of the edible kind, I headed over to Model Milk Bistro, one of the latest gourmet restaurant destinations to hit Calgary’s already busy dining scene. I was lucky to have had a reservation to enjoy Vancouver transplant executive chef/co-owner Justin Leboe’s creations in a converted 1930s dairy. Model Milk was the first dairy to use delivery trucks to bring fresh milk to most of Alberta and the lounge at the entrance was originally used by Model Milk in the 1930s as a milkshake and ice cream bar.

My main course was an Ahi tuna tostada ($16) with avocado spread on the tostada shell and piled high with slaw, tuna, and paper-thin nectarine slices. I saved some room for Model Milk’s ice cream sandwich for dessert ($9). This gorgeous array of sandwiched milk chocolate ice cream is topped with crumbled bits of pecan praline chunks, shavings of chocolate, and chopped pecans. It’s a delightful way to end a meal and a visit to Alberta’s two biggest cities.

All images by Ariane Colenbrander

Learn more about travelling in Edmonton and Calgary at Travel Alberta.