Calgary: A Very Unexpected Metropolis

Header: Gerald Samms

Almost my entire life I have been living in Edmonton, Alberta and until now as I write this I always considered the city just a three-hour drive south of me a bonified “rival city” and therefore psychologically Calgary always felt off-limits to me even before I went there for myself to really see what it had to offer. Overall, I have to mention, it was a great trip but I do have to say this was very, very short experience: only being there for about five hours in total.

The two large cities in the same province, both linked by one of the busiest highways in the country—much like many others around the world—share a deep-rooted competition between their sports teams: in hockey the Edmonton Oilers vs the Calgary Flames, and in football the Eskimos vs the Stampeders. Having said that, I may have had a little bit of a biased opinion going there at first but now that I’m back home, I’m very glad that I went.

Calgary is Canada’s third largest city by population. Its geography provides an urban-prairie-plateau and river-ravine landscape much like Edmonton and Saskatoon but with a close-to-The Rocky Mountains feeling that is somewhat similar to Vancouver (but without the ocean) or perhaps to a much smaller city like Banff or Jasper. I have never been to Denver before but I have heard that Calgary is very similar in its looks, though, Denver is way closer to the mountains in comparison. It would have taken about an hour to drive in traffic from where we were to the national parks.

The Calgary Tower/Gerald Samms
The Rocky Mountains in the distance, taken inside the Calgary Tower/Gerald Samms

From the observation deck at the iconic Calgary Tower—one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions—my sister Michelle and I got the most wondrous views of the ice-covered peaks and rolling hills leading up to the cliffs in the distance. The prospects that were granted to us for the low, low price of $18 each was well worth the cost, although, I’ll admit, I don’t know if I’ll ever go up there again if I wasn’t with someone who wanted to see it for themselves for the first time.

I think that it’s more of a one-time gig for the view because you can just drive to the ranges instead of looking at them, still, there is a restaurant up there which could be nice I suppose if you had an event going there. There were a lot of people sitting down around the windows, but not looking out of them, who were on their phones the whole time. I think some of the locals must bring their family up there almost like a local ritual because I could feel the suspended boredom in the room.

Inside the Calgary Tower/Gerald Samms

Hands-down the best part of being up there though was the plexiglass platform where anyone can stand and look straight down at the streets below. It personally gave me vertigo (or whatever that butterflies feeling is without the falling in love part) even though I’m pretty sure my 18th-floor apartment balcony is probably higher; there is something about hovering above certain death, being only held up by a thin sheet of plastic covered in dirty footprints and scratches that gets your heart really genuinely worked up.

Looking down at the Calgary Tower/Gerald Samms

After about half an hour sight-seeing, we took the elevator back safely to the ground and around the downtown area I was happy to find a highly walkable vibe in the commercial district. It was around lunchtime in early January and it was an exceptionally warm day: at about four degrees Celsius. Lots of office workers filled the streets, people on bicycles zipped by in the muddy, slushy roads and we weren’t the only tourists there that were taking pictures. Even though we didn’t get on the CTrain, it did look very efficient and most of the stations we passed by had a lot of people waiting and that’s usually a good sign of a good transit system—unless it’s too many people, then that’s a bad sign.

The CTrain crossing at Center St S and 7 Ave SE/Gerald Samms

It felt like a metropolis. Remarkably tall towers to look up at that were all pretty tightly packed into a small area. I know that it’s nothing like New York City or even Toronto but it was very noticeable difference coming straight from Edmonton—which is built more spread out and less dense.

Suncor Energy West Tower/Gerald Samms

Getting these kinds of pictures was the main reason that I wanted to travel to Calgary. Thankfully, Michelle was already buying a camera from someone on Kijiji, so that’s why she was driving there; I was simply coming along for the road trip. She’s the best sister ever because she let me lead the way and frantically try to capture as much as I could with my cell phone camera before it got too dark—which happens at about 4pm in the winter.

One of my favorite spots was this complex called Livingston Place; the twin buildings gave me two different good-looking symmetrical shots for my Instagram feed.

Livingston Place from the south/Gerald Samms
Livingston Place from the east/Gerald Samms

The CORE shopping center—taking up at least four city blocks—was very interesting to check out. I definitely need to go there when I need to actually buy something. We only saw maybe five per cent of the mall itself. This is where I think Edmonton and Calgary probably differ the most because West Edmonton Mall is basically a national tourist attraction whereas this city has this spectacular, high density, lavish-looking downtown shopping mall to compromise.

The mall isn’t advertised as a tourist attraction but as the title denotes: it’s the core of the city. Spectacularly clean and shiny inside (I’d compare it to Southgate Mall in Edmonton) that I recommend everyone to stop in there if you don’t end up there on your own anyway. Considering it was only a few days after the holidays had ended, there were still decorations all over the place and Christmas trees were around nearly every corner.

A three-story Christmas tree in Bankers Hall/Gerald Samms
Walking quickly in the CORE shopping center/Gerald Samms

The +15 pedway system which connects the stores and food courts to the other office buildings is more extensive than anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else. It was a labyrinth and even I got lost. Which, if you know me, is very weird! Usually, I’m very good at knowing where north is at all times and having my “bearings” but I suppose in rush and the excitement I too found myself misplaced.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually able to get any pictures of the pedways themselves but they are mentionable here because without the shortcuts through buildings we wouldn’t have been able to see so much in such little time.

A covered sidewalk near the CORE shopping center/Gerald Samms

Outside of the mall, there is a lot of historical buildings and statues that became great subjects to photograph. I particularly liked this one of two 1920’s businessmen having an intense discussion—ironically called the Conversation Sculpture.

Conversation Sculpture on 8 Ave SW/Gerald Samms
Bankers Hall from 8 Ave SW/Gerald Samms
The vehicle restricted, pedestrian-friendly streets/Gerald Samms
James Short Monument/Gerald Samms
In front of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Center/Gerald Samms

The Prince’s Island Park, located between downtown and the Bow River was very cute, to say the least. There were many couples out enjoying the weather and it was hard to get a picture without someone getting in the shot. I particularly liked the bridge that we went over to get into the city from where we parked in a nearby neighbourhood called Crescent Heights.

My only complaint (other than the rush hour traffic) from the whole trip was that it did take us a little bit of extra time to find some free parking within walking distance of where we wanted to go. That’s probably because my sister and I are cheap but really, who wants to pay $20 for a few hours when you can just walk and take pictures on the way for 15 minutes from a parking spot that has three hours for free? To each their own.

Pedestrian bridge crossing the Bow River/Gerald Samms

One of the newest and tallest towers is called The Bow and right in front of it is the Wonderland Sculpture, which is usually known as “the head sculpture in Calgary.” I’ve seen many pictures of the gloomy yet mystical head before I actually saw it in person and it still blew my mind.

The Bow tower/Gerald Samms
The Wonderland Sculpture/Gerald Samms
Front view of the Wonderland Sculpture/Gerald Samms

I can say confidently that Calgary really is a great place to spend the day exploring. We were provided with ample opportunities to escape our day-to-day lives and we felt immersed in a busy but welcoming, monolithic city center with lots to see and do for the nerdy architectural buffs like me and for everybody else. What other sights await in Cowtown? I guess that I will have to go back for longer than 5 hours next time and find out what else I’m missing.

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