Ask your fellow travellers about Edmonton, and they’ll likely draw a blank. Ask some Canadians about it, and they might say that say this city, the most northerly metropolis in North America with a population of over 1 million people, is cold, dangerous, boring, ugly, full of rednecks with jacked-up pickup trucks with fake balls hanging off the bumper, etc.
Due to a heated rivalry that exists between those in Calgary/Southern Alberta and Edmonton/Northern Alberta, many of these derogatory comments may be heard as you decide whether to head north to visit Alberta‘s capital city.
Please, don’t listen to the naysayers.
While it is true that Edmonton is too far from the Rocky Mountain front for peaks to be visible, the city has developed attributes and has many hidden/underpromoted assets that make this city worth a visit of 2-3 days if you are en route to Jasper National Park, or heading to Saskatchewan on a Cross-Canada road trip. While many of the best aspects of this city are most apparent to slow travelers or full time residents, there are attractions here that nonetheless uncover yet another unique corner of the endless diverse nation that is Canada.
After checking this place out for yourself, the lesson that you will take away from this experience will be: don’t take what negative people say to heart. Do heed any advice you receive on potholes though: there are some massive craters lurking on some Edmonton streets (seriously).
Being the capital of Alberta (much to the chagrin of Calgarians), Edmonton is home to the Alberta Legislature, where the issues that Albertans face everyday are discussed, debated and (sometimes) resolved. While many of houses of government are unremarkable, Alberta’s is nothing short of stunning, constructed in the early 20th century in the mold of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
The main difference here is that the Alberta Legislature is made of sandstone sourced from the Rocky Mountains, giving it its distinctive tan colour, and the grounds are covered in greenery and bursting flower beds out front (and tons of lights in the lead up to Christmas), and the area behind the structure has a series of fountains that will wow fans of waterworks (especially since there are precious few water features in Prairie cities, especially compared to places like Victoria and Vancouver). Tours are given regularly inside the impressive atrium, including a “magic spot” where the sound of the interior fountain refracts off the domed roof, making it seem like water is pouring down from above you!
A recent addition to the tourism scene in Edmonton is the new post modern structure for the Art Gallery of Alberta. Housed in an incredibly unremarkable building before, the new twisted and curving metal form of the new art gallery is a befitting place to host the works of a collection that is the largest in Western Canada. Regular functions with wine, fine spirits, and high art are held regularly throughout the year, so if you are a slow traveler and love culture, make time to check one of these events.
The nightlife and entertainment hub of the city for the many young people that attend the nearby University of Alberta are the neighbourhoods of Old Strathcona and Garneau. The primary focus of most of these venues are along Whyte Avenue (82nd Ave) between 114th Street and 97th Street, where countless bars, pubs, and nightclubs host popular bands and DJ’s from across Canada and the US, restaurants both low-brow and high couture serve up delectable meals to eager diners, and independent movie houses show movies that actually rock (but lack the explosions and cheap Hollywood schlock that multiplexes demand).
The largest living history park in Canada awaits you southwest of downtown at Fort Edmonton Park. Nestled deep in the confines of the River Valley, this park hosts the transplanted fort (built in 1846) that used to be a trading post for pioneers and native peoples, and a staging point for voyages of exploration further west, as well as for those who were seeking riches in the Klondike in the late 19th century. Three additional streets chronicle the city’s growth in the early days (1885, 1905, and 1920 Street), making it the park an intriguing look into the development of a frontier city that still isn’t that far from the events of its past.
Finally, note well when you are visiting Edmonton that this burg is known as Canada’s festival city, as it boasts a wealth of incredibly well-run festivals that see a large amount of attendance throughout the year.
Starting with NextFest and The Works Arts and Design Festival and continuing through the summer with highlights such as K-Days (Calgary Stampede lite – much less crowded than its southern counterpart), the Heritage Festival (an orgy of mouthwatering food and cultural presentations from over 85 cultures/countries), and the Edmonton Fringe Festival (2nd largest in the world after Edinburgh’s version of this celebration of offbeat theatre), you won’t lacking for things to do here, especially on the weekends. Keep an eye on the local paper for details!
In addition to Edmonton’s surprising cultural pedigree, there is much to do for those who are fans of slightly less cultural pursuits. Located just south of the Edmonton city limits on Highway #2 is a monument to Leduc #1, the rig that ushered in the modern oil industry in Alberta. While there were functioning wells in Southern Alberta during this time, yields were diminishing, and no other major plays were being found in the province … until they struck the monstrosity that was the Devonian formation.
The rig is a national historic site, and Discovery Centre not only tells the story of the strike in 1947, but of the overall history of the oil industry in Alberta from its humble beginnings, to the cash printing machine that it has become today.
Tons of locals with those cash-flush oil industry jobs flock to North America’s premiere temple of consumerism, West Edmonton Mall on a regular basis, as do tourists looking to indulge in some retail therapy. Situated in the suburban west side of the city, it hosts over 800 stores, an amusement park that features a triple loop roller coaster, the largest indoor wave pool in the world at its massive water park, an NHL sized rink where the Edmonton Oilers occasionally practice, a nightclub, a comedy club, a casino, multiple restaurants, and much, much more.
If you saw a series of glass pyramids when you first traveled through the centre of Edmonton and wondering was the heck it was, the Muttart Conservatory is likely what you were gawking at. This complex of four pyramids hosts different biomes, and within it, flora that is typical for those environments. An arid, temperate, and tropical pyramid are the three climates shown here, with the fourth environment saved for special exhibitions that rotate on a regular basis.
Finally, at this point, you have no doubt noticed the North Saskatchewan River Valley, a river canyon that bisects the city from southwest to northeast. All along this green corridor, trails and bike paths trace a path through a gorgeous canyon and ravine system that completely envelops you at some points, making you forget that you are indeed well within the capital city of Alberta, and not in some wilderness outside city limits.
Crossing the iconic High Level Bridge in the downtown area, look down – way down. At its highest point, you are more than 200 feet above the base of the River Valley, with spittles launched over the bridge railing disintegrating well before hitting the surface of the river below!