Despite its comprehensive cycling path system, Calgary is a driver's city, with hundreds of acres of sprawling suburbs and freeways. Still, there are a handful of areas in and around the downtown area that draw shoppers, diners, and revelers. If not downtown itself, a couple of satellite neighborhoods near the core contain much of the action.
Downtown, which sprung up out of virtually nowhere in the 1970s oil boom, has often been criticized as an empty canyon of office towers, and for the most part, it's been a fair assessment. After 6pm on a weekday in years past, you could practically watch the tumbleweeds rolling down the street. That's changed a little in the past five to ten years, as the Eau Claire Market, in downtown's south side near the Bow River, has brought in shoppers and, more importantly, some densely clustered residents in a series of condominium towers.
The reclamation in years past of Stephen Avenue Mall (8th Avenue, between Centre St. and 7th St. SW) as a bonafide shopping and eating pedestrian stroll (it had been, in years past, a relatively derelict stretch) also gives downtown some much needed vitality. Between the Eaton Centre, Banker's Hall, and the TD Centre, a good cluster of high-end retail can be found here.
The east end, anchored by the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts and Olympic Plaza, gives it a much-needed shot in the arm after dark, too. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: In 2008, Penny Lane, a small cluster of historic buildings just west of Stephen Avenue that contained a nice complement of shops, eateries, and popular bars, was cratered to make way for a new skyscraping office tower.
Still, with population booming and some of those new towers actually being condominiums, downtown Calgary is pushing slowly toward colonization outside of business hours. Stay tuned and see.
17th Avenue SW
Undoubtedly Calgary's most vibrant, urban-feeling zone, the axis of 17th Avenue and 4th Street SW is ground zero for Calgary's social scene. 17th tends toward the younger crowd more than 4th Street (also known as the Mission -- see below) and fairly overflows with lounges, bars, and restaurants.
A good complement of boutique-y shopping is to be found here as well, especially in the streetside storefronts of tony Mount Royal Village, on 16th Avenue and 8th Street SW (here, the block between 17th and 16th avenues is a stretch of park; the shops face onto it, visible from 17th).
This was also the site of the semi-notorious Red Mile, where thousands of fans of the city's National Hockey League team, the Calgary Flames, gathered every night during the Flames' improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. The Flames have tasted nothing like that success since, but fans still gather on game nights in fair numbers.
The Mission/Cliff Bungalow
Going south of 4th Street SW from 17th Avenue SW is the Mission, a quaint cluster of low-rise buildings and shops and restaurants housed in old homes or historic 3-story brick buildings (this being Calgary, there are a couple of strip malls for good measure as well).
An urbane little stroll stretching south to the Elbow River at 26th Avenue, the Mission is a grown-up version of 17th: great and interesting restaurants, boho cafes, and relatively serene places for a drink. Decor and fashion, while not overloaded here, are nonetheless features of this strip, which quickly falls away to quiet residential zones on either side of 4th. In warm weather, there's no better place in town to sit streetside on a patio, sip your latte or pinot grigio, and watch the world go by.
Inglewood is sort of Calgary's version of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: could have been a contender, but never really seemed to get up off that mat. After decades of awaiting a wave of gentrification to wash through its historic streets and deliver it back to the center of city life, Inglewood -- the oldest part of the city, where Calgary began -- is still waiting, even as condo towers sprout all over downtown and real estate skyrockets to untold heights.
As it stands, Inglewood remains an endearingly shabby strip of historic buildings, some of them occupied with eclectic design stores, galleries, and artist studios, and some of them not occupied at all. But it's a great location for exploring downtown. Minutes away, across the river and over a bridge to the east, Inglewood remains a city unto itself -- a village just outside the urban swirl.
Just north of downtown across the Bow River sits the village of Kensington, probably the city's most earthy, bohemian quarter. There's little presence here of the city's wildly moneyed set; low-key restos and pubs are the order of the day here, along with vintage clothing, the city's venerable repertory cinema, The Plaza, and a great second-hand record store, Hot Wax.
Kensington is perhaps the most eminently walkable area in the city. Clustered around the axis of 10th Street NW and Kensington Avenue, you can find all you need within a few blocks and a short stroll -- whether it's a fair-trade organic Americano, a Guatemalan cotton pullover, or a copy of Coltrane's Blue Train on vinyl.
However, Kensington is not untouched by development -- the imposing complex at the corner of 10th and Memorial Drive, by the river, has a Red Robin chain restaurant, and pricey fashion and design can be found along Kensington Avenue -- but it remains a comfy pocket of earthiness amid the sparkle of a high-gloss metropolis.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.