The lone traveller’s guide to friendly highlights around Calgary.
By Dan Leahul
At first glance, it’s not an ideal scenario. You’re travelling alone, far from home, on business with time to burn. Now look again, this could be a one-of-a-kind opportunity.
Instead of camping up inside your hotel room, embrace the urge to hit the street and see Calgary as Calgarians do. Luckily, the place is well suited towards the solo traveller. That is, if one knows where to go.
I’ve done the work for you—I ventured through the city to discover a full day’s schedule, seeking out some of the most welcoming spots for visitors travelling alone. Consider the following guide as a basic itinerary for the unaccompanied.
Calgary is at its most vibrant first thing in the morning—many of the cafés around the city bear witness to this phenomenon with opening hours heavily skewed in favour of the early risers.
Insomnia Coffee Company, which provides a near panoramic view of Calgary’s glassy city hall building, and some of the best (and strongest) French-pressed brew this side of the Bow, is where I start my tour.
Planting myself near the window facing MacLeod Trail, I study the scene as it unfolds—rush hour in Calgary. Everything you need to know about Calgarians can be found right here: they’re a friendly bunch, showing courteousness amongst a quickened pace, all despite the gruesome weather. Any reluctance to wander the city alone is washed away with the final dregs of my coffee.
Heading outside, two blocks west on Stephen Ave towards Avenue Diner, I’m relieved to find the restaurant isn’t lined-up out the door—a sight that’s a near-miracle on weekends. I’m greeted with smiles and a long breakfast bar. I saddle up amongst the few other patrons sitting here, each pouring over their own newspapers and breakfast plates.
Avenue Diner isn’t your average greasy spoon, it serves breakfast grub with an epicurean flair. Most menu items are sourced locally from Albertan farms, even the eggs. While the fare is upscale, the portions are still hearty. Their signature eggs Benedict with organic spinach, smoked bacon and garlic-roasted shallots, is certainly deserving of its reputation as one of best Benny’s in town.
Attentive staff keep my coffee mug perpetually full as I tackle the crossword, enlisting some of the staff for help, and without a hint of irony ask: “What’s a seven-letter word for ‘stuffed’?”
Full, and a bit jittery, I continue my journey northward, in the direction of Art Central. Housing more than 50 tenants, from artists studios and galleries to unique retail shops, it is the epicentre for the city’s “intelligentsia.” Accessible from Calgary’s Plus-15 walkways, the sleek, window-lit complex is a constant buzz with art browsers, art buyers and those simply stopping in for a cup of coffee.
The Art Loop Gallery, comprised of 19 small intertwined artist studios, is a city tour in its own right, offering an unparalleled peek into the Calgary artist conscious at any particular time of visit. Like Brazilian-born Samantha daSilva’s studio, whose rich abstract landscapes recall ethereal visions of the Alberta prairies.
Feeling satisfactorily enlightened, I head upstairs to deVille Luxury Coffee & Pastries, recent winner of the Krups Kup of Excellence award, a national competition among Canadian espresso pourers. I grab a dark chocolate and candied ginger scone to go; I’m going to need the energy to scratch the surface of Calgary’s shopping scene.
Luckily, I won’t have to go far to start—the facility offers one-of-a-kind shops like Shisomiso, a fashion boutique with a focus on upcoming Calgarian designers, and Nation Toys, which sells humourous vinyl and plush toys, as well as affordable prints by renowned designer Podgypanda and local artist Tim Belliveau.
A couple blocks away, Fashion Central offers a similar concept with a three-story collective of boutiques and flagship-locale of names like Betsey Johnson, Carmen Steffans and Lara Presber.
While the downtown core boasts some of the city’s most lavish boutiques, I’ve got my sights set south, towards Uptown 17th Avenue, the home of Calgary’s cutting-edge fashions and shopping. A 15-minute stroll with the city’s skyline at my back, I’m soon at Gravity Pope, trying on a pair of boots by John Fluevog. The shop is unassuming and the attitude relaxed, despite the rows upon rows of luxury footwear.
Fortunately they have my size. Unfortunately, after some troubled deliberation, and at least a half-kilometre’s worth of pacing around the store in my not-to-be new boots, I decline to buy, and make a swift exit before I change my mind.
Further down 17th Ave resides Quorra Apothecary, and their Anthony Logistics For Men line of shaving lotions, soaps and fragrances. Imbibed and intoxicated on earthy colognes and aromatic creams, I continue my way down the avenue, poking around various shops, like the design-centric Shed, which carries quirky home furnishings; the über-cool Sloth records; the kitschy housewares at Dick & Jane’s; the frenzied vintage goods at Divine; and the edgy fashions at Purr.
While the hustle and bustle of the after work crowd begins to swell, I find myself in front of Local 510, a newcomer on Calgary’s pub scene that has amassed a dedicated following from the city’s hip-set.
Tables are in short supply at Local 510, and that’s why I’m here. Instead of sitting idly at a table for one, whiling away the time until my food arrives, I sit at one of the pub’s large tables, which are sizeable enough to seat several parties at once. With a platter their “famous” barbecue ribs, I offer some to my fellow tablemates, who, after diving-in, return the favour with an equally selfless gesture—that friendly and welcoming nature of conversation that Calgarians offer so effortlessly.
As troops of red-sweatered patrons begin piling in the bar, it’s clear there is a hockey game tonight. The Scotiabank Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames, is serendipitously just a few blocks away, so I decide to conclude my tour in the nosebleed section of the Dome, where, as long as your cheering for the home team, you’re graciously received into the fold. The atmosphere is a raucous, friendly, high-fiving cacophony of armchair experts, and it’s all too easy to get caught up in the commotion. Unfortunately for the Flames, their luck isn’t working as hard as mine, and they fall to a home loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Final score: 3 – 1.
Nevertheless, the day had been a success. If anything, I learned a valuable lesson: the best, and frankly only, way to know a city is on the soles of your feet, seeking out adventure and warmth as it falls before you. I’ve always known Calgary to be welcoming and kind, but walking the city alone, as a tenderfoot, made me feel even more home than ever. The chance to feel like a true Calgarian, even for a day.