Jaillan Yehia

24 Hours In Calgary – A Day Horsing Around Cowtown

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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Stephen Avenue Calgary

Old and new architecture in downtown Calgary

Of all the clothes I own (in case you’re wondering, it’s a lot) those I buy on impulse, in a supermarket-sweep stylee, are the things I end up loving.

Maybe it’s the fact that when you’re in a hurry pure instinct takes over, but I’ve shopped for an outfit in 30 minutes in Manila and made better boutique choices than with a whole day at my disposal back home.

Sometimes travel works on the same principle; the less time you have to plan, the lower the expectations; the more you let your intuition be your guide, the better the outcome.

So I decide to try out the theory that when it comes to holiday planning less really is more, by heading to the Canadian city of Calgary armed with some pounds to spend but zero plans as to what I’ll do.

During the world famous Calgary Stampede I would want to head for the 100 year old rodeo like everyone else, but on this foray into the place they call Cowtown I decide to make like a horse, and just follow my nose.

I’ve always enjoyed impulse trips – like when I nipped over to Nicaragua knowing nothing more about it than the fact the food looked good (rice and beans and plantain anyone?) and that British Airways had a deal on flights to Managua.

So when, at the last minute, I jumped at the chance to join a friend on a road trip to Calgary I decided that rather than let my lack of prep be a problem, I’d embrace the unknown with open arms and deliberately rock up randomly in the city and sniff out stuff to do.

I’d heard good things about Canada’s so-called Cowtown. In fact when I first wrote that last sentence, my spell checker – in a precognitive slip worthy of Minority Report – changed the phrase ‘good things’ to ‘food things’. Perfect because a lot of the good things I’d heard were about Calgary’s food scene – and once I know somewhere has good grub, I’m sold (remember Managua?)

So this is how my hastily hacked holiday in Calgary came together – feel free to follow along if you want to spend 24 hours in Calgary and don’t know where to start…

10 am  – Imbibe & Internet

Centre street Calgary

Where I alighted the C-Train – because you don’t need to see a picture of my coffee

Going with my gut I start at Centre Street which sounds like it might be, well, Central. It is.

First stop for me, like all urban city breakers, is to get caffeinated for my 24 hours in Calgary – and like all good bloggers, to seek out wifi.

I start in the epicentre of the city because that seems sensible, and stumble on Core Shopping Centre, which offers free wifi (#winning) and a string of food and drink outlets. I treat myself to a soya latte and a tiny bit of research before setting off.

11 am – Pianos & Plants

Devonian garden's Piano Calgary

The best accompaniment to lunch? Chopsticks of course

I discover an immediate downtown delight; The Devonian Gardens, an indoor rooftop botanical garden on the 4th floor of the shopping centre, completely encased in glass.

The tropical plants, waterfalls, bridges, koi ponds and First Nations art are all interspersed with tables for local families and workers to take a breather and tuck into lunch or snacks, and there’s even one of the city’s public pianos to play, for a surprisingly calm moment of introspection considering we’re in a city centre mall.

So far having no plans hasn’t mattered a jot, and I haven’t spent any pounds yet either.

12 noon – Views & Vertigo

Calgary Tower

I think I prefer glass floors to glass ceilings

I’ve now seen the city’s iconic buildings from a rooftop, but what about seeing the rooftops from the city’s most iconic building? As soon as I find Calgary Tower (there’s really little chance of not noticing it) I know that’s my next stop.

I don’t expect to win any prizes for journalism here: going to the top of the tower is clearly tourism 101.

But it turns out that the audio guide I’m handed as I enter the elevator to ascend 1228 metres is absolutely packed with interesting little anecdotes – including one about people abseiling (that’s rappelling to you North American readers) from the top, which I conclude only an idiot or drunk person would agree to do.

I can see all the landmarks, like the saddle-shaped stadium that’s home to local ice hockey team the Calgary Flames but I can’t stop thinking about how the horse apparently soiled itself in worry as his master stepped onto the glass platform that seemingly suspends you in mid-air, and which really does add an extra element of enjoyment to the whole tower-ascending experience. Unless you’re a horse of course.

1 pm – Beer & Beef

Beer in Calgary

But I ordered the crafty bastard…

It may seem a little early for a beer but I’ve only got 24 hours in Calgary and on touching down from the world’s highest 360 viewing platform, a celebration seems in order. Despite seeing The Glenbow across the street, which looks like a museum from which I’d struggle to emerge before dusk, I scurry off in search of libation.

Usually I like to discover a craft brewery but I soon learn that the big players on Calgary’s brewing scene are outside the city centre (Minhas, Wild Rose and Big Rock being prime examples) and so, now accustomed to the benefits of getting an overview, I decide to settle into Craft Beer Market, a modern restaurant and bar with 104 different hoppy offerings, including everything from imports to local micro-brews.

I opt for the house lager, brewed in Red Deer Alberta, and craftily named – it’s literally called Crafty Bastard which seems strangely enticing.

Described as ‘pure glacial water from the Rocky Mountains, the finest Noble hops, and a unique blend of Alberta barley’ it goes down well but if I’d wanted to sample the work any of the local breweries there were options on tap, as well as all my favourite international stalwarts from Sapporo to Carlsberg.

Keeping the Alberta 101 theme going it has to be local beef for lunch – a focaccia-encased steak sandwich, served with beer butter, what else?

3 pm – Walk & Water

Bow River Calgary

My shadow is ready for a rest…but I’m not

Now it’s time to walk off lunch by exploring on foot. Calgary’s downtown is exceptionally pedestrian friendly and the C-Train stops are frequent and free (until you reach the ‘burbs) – so you can hop on and off at will.

I have notions of visiting various areas outside the city centre such as The Mission and Inglewood, but with only 24 hours in Calgary I discover that there’s enough to keep me interested right here in the downtown core, and appropriately for a place famous for horses I stick to using shanks’ pony today.

I spend the afternoon meandering along pedestrianised Stephen Avenue which is thronging with buskers and businessmen and has another one of those public pianos and I potter my way to the open air park at Olympic Plaza where kids are splashing about in the sun.

Next I pop to pint-sized Chinatown and check out Sien Lok Park and decide to simply follow the Bow River east, all the way to Fort Calgary.

I’m not alone – there are a smattering of other walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists on the path with me, but the water is where Calgarians really want to be come summer, and just as many float alongside me on this balmy evening, enjoying post-work river rafting excursions.

It turns out that everything in Calgary, as with so many new cities seen through the eyes of a European like myself, appears startlingly obvious and easy to navigate; the boardwalk that takes you along the river is called River Walk, the new up and coming area to the east is called East Village, you get the idea.

7 pm – Dinner & Drinks

A load of tripe? Tasty Tripe Chips at Charbar

A load of tripe? Tasty Tripe Chips at Charbar

But East Village really is an interesting one. Just as east always seems to denote, this is the once skanky now swanky part of town, popular with the hipsters and liberally scattered with street art, except here everything looks like it was just built this morning. And given the amount of regeneration in evidence, it probably was.

So it’s a startling juxtaposition to spy Calgary’s culinary flagship The Simmons Building among all this newness. A beautiful relic which was once washed up on the banks of the Bow River, the 100 year old mattress factory has been delicately and lovingly restored to create an atmospheric and historic home to three artisan food businesses – a coffee roasterie, a Middle Eastern bakery, and the Argentinian asado restaurant which is my destination for dinner. What was I saying about hipsters?

My first thought is how at home this beautiful building (and the accompanying artisanal suppliers) would be in my own home of Kings Cross, London. My second is that if the same attention to detail and integrity in evidence in the architecture is applied to the food here at Charbar, then I’m about to have a feast.

I’m a sucker for authenticity and am as impressed by the display of aged beef that sits behind the hostess stand as I am by the sight of the far more aged feather chute which had once shot mattress fillings down to the factory floor during that bygone era before tripe became trendy.

But somehow despite multiple courses of delectable wafer thin jamón crudo, and delicate, moist sturgeon it’s the self-selected amuse-bouche of what amounts to a creation of bovine stomach-lining crackers which unexpectedly transform my trip to Cowtown into a full-blown foray into flavour town – a perfect illustration that the chef’s’ intention to use every bit of the animal, with absolutely no waste, creates flavours the rest of us wouldn’t be able to dream up in a lifetime. Reader, tripe chips are totally tasty. Who knew?

Calgary Street Art

Finally a more cliched idea of what Calgary is all about

So with a belly full of beef, and a head spinning with cocktails and Calgarian inspiration, I jump back on the C-Train and head for home, having made the most of my 24 hours in Calgary but succumbing to the ultimate cliche of vowing to return – with more time to plan, and far higher expectations.

For more information check out Visit Calgary and Travel Alberta.

I was lucky enough to have friends to stay with in the city but I heard wonderful things about Hotel Arts, Calgary’s downtown boutique hotel and that’s absolutely where I would have stayed. They give guests bicycles which is just about one of the best things a city hotel can do to make me smile, and I even met a trio of young gentlemen peddling them happily around the city as I walked.

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