If you have 4 days to spare and you’re looking to do an easy trip to a beautiful west coast city in Canada that has that perfect balance of drop dead scenery, adventure, culture, and culinary, then look no further than Calgary.
Expedia.ca challenged me to put together an itinerary if I was based in Calgary. I have to say that we had quite the epic weekend.
Okay, I admit, 4 days isn’t your typical weekend but if you’re able to stretch a long weekend or take two days off, anyone can easily follow this trip with not a whole lot of preparation. Just book it, pack your bags, and go!
It was literally that easy. After I picked my car rental, hotel, and flight with Expedia.ca, all I had to do was find a few activities we wanted to try, a few top rated restaurants, and few iconic sites that I knew we wouldn’t want to miss.
In this travel guide I’ll help you get the most out of your Calgary adventure.
Day 1: Exploring the City
Catching an early morning flight with Air Canada from Toronto, expect to arrive in Calgary a little past 9AM which is perfect to hit the ground running. We picked up our rental car right from the airport and made our way to our first stop, WinSport Canada Olympic Park.
It may seem like a distant memory but the 1988 Winter Olympics were held in Calgary. For a place that’s almost 30 years old, it’s definitely kept well. In the summer, ski jumping, bobsleigh, and the ski hill itself are closed for the season but what makes this a great destination are the activities that are available.
I was most excited to try the Skyline Luge which features a unique wheeled gravity ride that takes you 1.8 kilometers of twists and turns that drop in over 100 meters of elevation. As the world’s longest luge track, there was no way I was going to miss this!
The ride was thrilling all the way down where a few times along the way I thought to myself that I was going REALLY fast. Before I knew it, we were at the finish line and I was kicking myself for not buying the three ride pack but there was more to see so off we went to the top of the hill by car to take a look at the ski jumping towers.
Our next stop was the Calgary Farmer’s Market which was perfect timing because I could feel the hunger start to take over. Open all-year round, this market features a wide variety of food stalls, fresh produce, and also a lot of crafty boutique shops. The highlight here for sure was the Simple Simon Pie store which had the most delicious collection of pies imaginable. It didn’t hurt that they gave generous portions of pie for sampling.
For the afternoon, I was excited to see what downtown Calgary had in store for us. What I loved about the core was just how manageable it was. There were a few blocks where you could see most of the highlights which included the Calgary Tower, the Stephen Avenue Walk pedestrian street which is lined with shops and restaurants, Olympic Plaza, and an incredible number of modern contemporary art pieces and hipster parks that seem to just pop out of nowhere.
With a little bit of time before dinner, we managed to drive up to McHugh Bluff which has to be one of the best spots for a view of the city and Bow River that runs right north of it. With the sun setting, this made for the perfect spot to sit, relax and enjoy the scenery.
We ended off the day with our reservation at Pigeonhole. I first found out about it reading the Air Canada EnRoute magazine and this place was touted as one of the best new restaurants of 2015. It sure didn’t disappoint with each dish that came through in rapid succession tapas style. The highlight was no doubt the charred cabbage. The name itself doesn’t quite do it justice but wow were our minds blown when we had it. Somehow one of my least favourite vegetables turned into this explosion of flavours erupting from the pan-charred wedges and healthy dose of grated mimolette cheese on top.
We checked into the Hampton Inn Calgary Airport to call it a night and make it our home for the next 3 nights.
Day 2: Caving in Canmore
Calgary is not very far from the Rocky Mountains and the famed town of Banff. However, wanting to do something a little different from the conventional tourist, I thought to myself, instead of hiking above ground, why not look into something where we could slide and scramble underground. That’s when I discovered Canmore Cave Tours.
Wanting the full experience, we signed up for the Adventure Cave Tour which takes you into a cave for 4 hours and a total of 6 hours end to end. The cave we were going to traverse through was called Rat’s Nest Cave which had us a little nervous at first but our guide, Chris, put our minds at ease quickly enough. Turns out it was named after the rats that do nest by the entrance of the cave but deep in the cave there’s basically no life that can be supported. From a referenced photo anyway, it looked more like a cute chinchilla than a rat.
Without spoiling the whole experience, I have to say that this was perhaps the highlight of the whole weekend. It’s not everyday that you get to walk, crawl, squeeze and repel through a cave. With nothing more than our onesie suit, helmet, headlamp and gloves, Chris guided us through the most ridiculous of passageways that looked either non existent or completely impossible but with a simple twist here and my body sandwiched between the floor and ceiling, there was a way to make it through.
The most memorable parts of the experience was climbing the cave in complete darkness, the laundry chute which is exactly what it sounds like, and the 18m repel.
By the end of it we came out with our jumpsuits plastered in dust and exhausted but we couldn’t help but smile cheek to cheek having done something so wildly different and physically challenging. You really have to watch the video to see what it was like.
Having some time to spare until dinner, we stayed in the Canmore area and drove our way over to Grassi Lakes. While we could’ve done the full trail, Chris told us about a shortcut from the top of the hill where there’s an alternate access point to Upper Grassi Lake. You can get to it by taking Three Sisters Parkway, park by Whitemans Pond and make your way down through a rocky pass where you’ll see rock climbers all over.
To wrap up our day, we made our way into downtown Canmore and had dinner at Rocky Mountain Flat Bread Company. There was a bit of a wait but it was worth it. Their flatbread pizzas made in a traditional wood burning oven are hearty, locally sourced, artisanal pieces of thin crust goodness.
Day 3: From Horse Riding To the Mountains
For our third day, we hit the road in the morning and made our way to the Griffin Valley Ranch for a relaxing guided horse ride. Calgary is known for the Stampede and overall love of horses.
After getting our helmets and a brief introduction, the ranch’s guides walked each one of us in the group to our designated horse in the giant stable. I was introduced to my mare, Bernice who was a beautiful Sorrel colour. As a female, she definitely had a bit of an attitude but that was just fine by me.
For the next hour we were guided through the ranch which switched between flat plains and shaded forest. The pace itself was slow so this is the kind of thing that is intended for beginners. If I were to change anything, I wished we could’ve gone at a faster pace and done a little bit of a canter at least.
Once we wrapped up at the ranch, we rushed into the Rocky Mountains to take advantage of the rest of the afternoon. Wanting to get a little above-ground hiking in, we drove along the scenic Bow Valley Parkway and parked off the side of the road since the small parking lot was completely full.
Johnston Canyon is composed of two main waterfalls – upper and lower, and has a trail that I would consider to be pretty touristy. That being said, the crowds certainly didn’t diminish the beauty that surrounded us as we hiked through well paved path. I would definitely recommend the extra effort to get to the upper falls which is absolutely stunning. If you have extra time and energy, you can also go further in (extra hour) to see the ink pots which are a set of emerald pools that bubble and swirl like a witches’ cauldron.
With a few hours to spare, we decided to drive up to Lake Louise since my girlfriend has never been. While a haven for tourists, there’s something majestic about the glistening emerald water and imposing Victoria Glacier that provides the backdrop. As the sun set, we just grabbed a seat on a bench and watched in awe.
To round out the night, we made our way over to Banff town which very much had a cute ski-town vibe. We had a quick stroll along the main street and then headed over to the Juniper Bistro for dinner.
Day 4: The Journey Home
All good things must come to the end right? For our final day, we had the morning to sleep in a little and also head back into downtown Calgary one last time to pick up a few souvenirs.
Horsing around was also in order. I couldn’t resist.
Since the flight back to Toronto is about 3 hours 45 minutes and we wanted to be back home by dinner, we booked a 2:10PM flight out of Calgary.
One of the tradeoffs of basing yourself in Calgary is that you’re going to end up doing a lot of driving especially if you head into the mountains for the day. When planning your trip, remember to account for the hour and a half drive. It’s honestly not that bad though. Oh and remember to bring a few chargers for the car to keep your devices all charged!
Parking in downtown Calgary
Parking downtown is flat out a pain. We circled quite a number of times and a few lots we initially looked at were ridiculously expensive. After doing a bit of researching, we learned that Fridays are a bit special. In the Centennial, McDougall, City Centre, James Short, and City Hall (this is the most convenient) Green P lots, the price is only $5 from 11AM to 6AM in Saturday which is amazing. There are a number of other tips on cheap parking downtown but most of them were for evenings and weekends.
Banff Entry Fee
When you’re driving along the main highway into Banff, you’ll encounter a fork where on the left you can get in a toll-looking line to pay for a park entry fee or you can bypass this on the right if you’re just passing through. If you’re planning to do anything in the park, buy the entry permits here because they DO check. When we got off the highway after to go to Johnston Canyon, there was an adhoc check-point set up. If you’re only doing Lake Louise, you don’t need to pick up permits.
Now I’m not sure if this this was a unique year but there were a ton of bear warnings all around Canmore and Banff. When we talked to several locals, they told us that most backcountry hikes such as Lake Morraine and Lake Minnewanka require you to travel in groups of 4 and to carry bear spray. We didn’t know this and definitely helped us choose Johnston Canyon ultimately because it did not have these restrictions. Do a little planning beforehand to make sure you’re prepared.