303km (188 miles) N of Calgary, 524km (326 miles) NW of Saskatoon
Edmonton, Alberta's capital city, is located on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, straddling the deep, lush river valley that has the looks of an oasis in high summer, with its sprawling green spaces. It was a settlement in pre-European times and later a key fur trading post in the 19th century. After the arrival of the railway in 1891, it developed rapidly.
Unlike its southern counterpart, Calgary, Edmonton is a decidedly low-key metropolis, with little of the flash that is Calgary's hallmark. Where Calgary is corporate, Edmonton is a government town. More liberal, it also has a marked no-nonsense, blue-collar feel to it. In many ways, Edmonton feels like a small town that happens to have a million people living in it -- and most residents you encounter would count that as one of its main attractions.
Make no mistake, though: Like much of the province, Edmonton is profiting mightily from the unprecedented oil boom, and it is geographically much closer than Calgary to the source.
Chief among Edmonton's attractions is likely the almost never-ending plethora of summer festivals that the city hosts. The main star is Edmonton's Fringe Theatre Festival, second only to Edinburgh in Scotland as the largest of the worldwide Fringe festivals. Theater troupes the world over debut their best new work in Edmonton every August, and critics and aficionados flock to the city, especially the Old Strathcona theater district, to catch top-end performers strutting their stuff. The festival is part of the reason why Old Strathcona, on the southern bank of the river, across from downtown, is perhaps the most vibrant neighborhood in the city.
Old Strathcona was once its own town, and its incorporation is telling of how Edmonton grew in spurts, following a boom-and-bust pattern as exciting as it was unreliable. During World War II, the boom came in the form of the Alaska Highway, with Edmonton as the material base and temporary home of 50,000 American troops and construction workers.
The ultimate boom, however, first gushed from the ground in 1947, when a drill at Leduc, 40km (25 miles) southwest of the city, sent a fountain of crude oil soaring skyward. Some 10,000 other wells followed, and in their wake came the petrochemical industry, and the refining and supply conglomerates. In 20 years, the population quadrupled, the skyline mushroomed with glass-and-concrete office towers, a rapid-transit system was created, and a C$150-million civic center rose.