This is Not the City We Knew

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

It started on our last visit to Calgary, just over a year ago, when we noticed a change. Led by a dear friend, we wandered from Kensington across to Prince’s Island and back. It was a leisurely stroll as the leaves were changing and many families were out enjoying the riverside on a warm day.

Pete and I had lived in and around Calgary for over fifteen years but had neglected to enjoy the city in this way. What we had previously known of the downtown core was solely the maze of lofty skyscrapers that loomed just to the south. We never thought much of visiting the city’s heart outside of office hours – we were like so many others who served their cubicle time and then retreated to the suburbs. To us, being downtown meant only the stress of looming deadlines, navigating networks of overground tunnels to move from one meeting to the next, of congested traffic in getting to work, and the vacant streets seen when leaving the office far too late. We rarely witnessed this charismatic side to it – we never observed the core so carelessly pleasant and alive.

As we aimlessly sauntered on that sunny day last fall with our local friend, getting our own personal Calgary tour, we talked often about the city’s vibrant music scene, which we had not been apart of when we lived there. Other friends were raving about the diverse foodie paradise the city had become, of which we also knew nothing of.

Was Calgary changing, or were we?



“Is that wind?” I asked Pete about the faint rushing sound heard even from behind our thick window on the 26th floor.

It wasn’t. It was instead the flow of traffic, a slew of commuters pouring into the downtown to begin their day in Canada’s second largest home to corporate headquarters. That was the Calgary we knew, a sound that was all too familiar to us from having been one of the cars in that stream for many years.

But this time, our experience was to be different. Instead we rested inside, letting the traffic dissipate before embarking onto the streets. Armed with itineraries to guide us through the food and art scene, we were striking out on our own to hopefully see our old home city in a new way.

Calgary Bokeh

The food scene in Calgary is new (we know this much for sure).Gone are the days of choosing between a couple of steakhouses for dinner. In the past five years new restaurants have popped up at an enthused pace, with a strong focus on local ingredients, drawing big attention from across the globe for the renewal.

We couldn’t keep up with the choices offered on our itinerary and by local readers who enthusiastically wanted to show off their city. We suffered on four to five meals a day, and indulged heartily on local craft beers. While Alberta was previously (and very disappointingly) barren of all but a few breweries which could be labeled as local crafts, new easement on rules for brewing has opened the door for smaller start-ups.

Keeping up with its Olympic history, Calgary has now become a city where chasing down local flavours could be declared sport.

Dinner at Market
Preparing for dinner at Market, one of the newer and most renowned restaurants on 17th Ave.

And the commitment to public art, that which existed but was definitely ignored by us previously, was noted by the New York Times in their declaration of Calgary as one of the 52 places to discover in 2014.

We tramped through snow to find Cracked Pot Foundations, one of the province’s first modern art installations in 1964, and wandered the enormous and interactive mesh head (named Wonderland) installed last year. We hunted down an upside down church, the controversial Device to Root Out Evil, but it sat under cover for repairs. Several years ago it was first erected in Vancouver but was disputed as blasphemous, and on its move to Calgary, perhaps moved the city closer to being regarded as a major city for the arts.

Calgary's First Public Art
Cracked Pot Foundations
Wonderland by Jaume Plensa

And it looks like the city is just going to keep getting better.

Evolving Art Space

On a hot tip via Instagram (thank you, Calgarians, for being so active and forthcoming on social media!) we tracked down this, a replica of the world-famous Banksy, under the otherwise blank 10th street bridge.

Banksy in Calgary

Nothing good ever stays here, was a comment left by another local Instagrammer, speaking to the graffiti which quickly overtook the simple stencil.

This is a statement we hope holds no truth. Distance, as always, allows for fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, and considering that both us and Calgary have changed in the years since we left, we’ve returned to find new appreciation. Turns out there are many reasons to love Calgary and many reasons to be in Calgary.

And we hope that these reasons are there to stay.

Which leaves us with the million dollar question – could we live there again?

Well, no, for two reasons:

(a) That would require settling down, and
(b) See (a).

But Calgary has definitely become a much more enjoyable place to visit.

(Click through to see our full Calgary travel guide.)

Calgary Peace Bridge

where we stayed

While from our 26th floor room we could hear the faint stream of heavy traffic below, we listened in the comfort of our studio suite at the International Hotel. We had all the quality amenities we could ask for, fast wi-fi, and a great location in the downtown core. The diverse and delicious complimentary breakfast was a big bonus.Many thanks to Travel Alberta and Tourism Calgary for their assistance during our stay. As always, all opinions are our own.

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  1. I always try to explore locally when I am not traveling. However, I will be honest and say I usually hate the crowds the city brings. Out of the cities I have lived in, I realize I have not experienced some of their famous museums or tourist or “local” things to take it. If I am ever visiting friends in those cities now, I try to be a tourist and take a look back on what I didn’t do.

    1. I’m like you, I’m typically not a city person either. Thankfully, most Canadian cities now appear pretty small and uncrowded compared to other places we’ve visited in the world!

  2. I was impressed by how much public art I saw when I was in Calgary. Definitely wasn’t expecting that. I also get the sense that there’s a blossoming design and fashion scene to go along with the food scene. I also saw some great theatre. Not what you think when you think of “Cowtown”.

  3. A lot of the recent campaigns by Tourism Canada and local tourism offices have made me realize that I really do not explore my city, province or even country nearly enough. You really do not view where you live like outsiders do.

    I honestly had no idea there were any of these things in Calgary – in my mind, it was a boring place where oil companies had headquarters, and other businesses set up for better tax benefits. I’d never bothered to look it up.

    This post definitely makes me want to read up on it more, and visit soon(-ish)!

  4. I suppose familiarity does breed contempt. I’ve been reminded many times that home is just as beautiful as places we travel to–we just sometimes forget after seeing it day after day (and being reminded of the things we do not like about it).

    That said, great post and photos!

  5. I do food photography for Chef John Nidua at the International Hotel! 🙂 Great place to stay and an even better place to eat!!

    Aiofe and I are also rediscovering Calgary after moving inner city. We explored the +15 walkway system Saturday night finding many hidden gems along the way.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. That was on our list of things to do (exploring the +15) but we never had time to do it all! A lot of art in there. Glad you are enjoying the inner city!

  6. Aw 🙂

    Not sure if you heard that the “Device To Rule Out Evil” was ordered removed from Inglewood, something about not renewing permits.

  7. Hi, I have immensely enjoyed your blog, thank you for continuing to make yourself vulnerable in your writing – it’s what keeps us all coming back for more, I believe.

    Anyway, I had two questions. 1) what kind of camera are you using here, and 2) how much did you have in savings or acquire from the sale of your home to start your journey?

    We’re counting down the months. . . 23, 22. . . .

    Thank you.

  8. I’ve never really thought of visiting Calgary – but it looks like it would be worth a trip! I find I can appreciate my old home city a lot more now, and I still can’t decide if it’s improved, or if I’m just more generous with a place I don’t have to live in.

  9. I’m so glad you both got to see a different side of Calgary! It’s funny, growing up I thought “I never want to live here”. I was sure I’d be outta here as soon as the diploma hit my hand, and I was… but then I came back and it’s a different city. There are festivals galore, culture, art, amazing food, amazing running pathways to work off said food, and just so much to explore.

    As a Calgarian, I’m sad that most people only think about the city as a stopping-point on the way to the Rockies or for Stampede. There is so much more to be seen and I intend to make it my mission to share that!

    Phenomenal photos, guys. Isn’t the peace bridge stunning? Next time you come back make sure to see it at night.

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