1. Defy gravity at the top of the Calgary Tower
The city’s most iconic landmark has soared 191 metres above the downtown skyline for the past 50 years. Though it’s no longer Calgary’s tallest building, Calgary Tower is still the best place to come for a 360-degree view of the city, prairie and Canadian Rockies. Kids will love standing on the glass floor inside the Observation Deck for a vertigo-inducing view. Plan your visit for Sunday brunch at SKY 360. The restaurant completes a full revolution every 45 minutes (yes, it spins!) affording everyone in the family a changing view as they eat banana bread French toast or eggs Benny. Bonus: tower admission is waived with a restaurant reservation.
2. Admire the panda cubs at the Calgary Zoo
Two giant adult pandas and two adorable panda cubs are the newest arrivals at the Calgary Zoo, an urban oasis that is home to over 100 animal species. To beat the crowds and guarantee an audience with these gentle giants, sign up for the Panda Breakfast that includes zoo admission, a breakfast at Grazers Restaurant where families learn all about the pandas, and a private viewing of the pandas’ morning routine. Afterwards, be sure to visit the new lemur habitat, where kids can walk amongst these playful animals that hail from Madagascar. Almost as exciting is the popular Penguin Plunge, where four species of the flightless birds cavort in a space that mimics their southern hemisphere home.
3. Lie down on a bed of nails at Telus Spark
Calgary’s science centre has all the hands-on exhibits that kids love. They can digitally paint with light in the Open Studio, experiment with flotation at the Creative Kids Museum, and see (and help) erosion happen inside the Earth & Sky area. And then there’s all the other cool and unexpected stuff, such as a drinking fountain shaped like a toilet that challenges children to take a sip, or the bed of nails that proves you can’t get hurt if your weight is equally distributed over a lot of sharp objects.
4. Birdwatch at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary
In a quiet corner of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood, wedged up against the Bow River, is a 36-acre protected area that provides refuge to some 270 species of birds, many of them just passing through on their migration north or south. Begin your visit in the Nature Centre, with kid-friendly displays that show what birds you might see. Depending on the season, it could be bald eagles, great horned owls, a great blue heron or, the more common, chickadees and robins. Then, walk the loop of maintained trails that cut across prairie grasses and into a riparian habitat of cottonwood trees and Saskatoon berry bushes alongside a slow-moving tributary of the Bow River. Silence is everything, so tell the children they have a better chance of seeing animals such as deer, muskrats and perhaps even a coyote if they quietly appreciate this pretty slice of nature in the city.
5. Grab burgers and milkshakes at Peters’ Drive-In
The throngs in line at this hamburger joint in northeast Calgary—no matter the season or weather—immediately mark the 1960s-era drive-in as a fast food institution not to be missed. If your kid can handle the wait, hop in line for a hamburger made from fresh Canadian ground beef, chased down with giant milkshake that combines ice cream with real fruit for flavour combinations such as, banana pina colada or maple peach. You’re welcome. (Belch!)
6. Cycle the Bow River pathway network
A little known fact about Calgary? It boasts the most extensive urban pathway and bikeway system on the continent, which is pretty impressive for a city north of the 49th parallel. There are 850 kilometres of maintained pathways and many of them happen to pass some of the city’s best parks and attractions. Rent bicycles from Eau Claire Rapid Rent downtown (or ask if your hotel lends them out), download a pathway and bikeway app, and then pedal off for some fun. Sights near downtown not to miss include the Peace Bridge, Prince’s Island Park (with a western-themed tot lot), Chinatown, and the refurbished Riverwalk. Cycling further east on the south side of the river, you’ll come to the East Village. The brand new Central Library is located here, as well as the historic Simmons Building where you can stop to refuel with a sweet treat from Sidewalk Citizen Bakery.
7. Take a dip in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
Visiting Calgary and skipping Banff is like flying to Cairo but taking a pass on the pyramids. The crown jewel of the country’s national park system is just a 90-minute drive west of the city, nestled deep in the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies. The mountain scenery is pure eye candy, but the kids will want to head straight to the source—the natural hot springs that flow into this pool-with-a-view are what put Banff on the map when they were discovered in 1883. After soaking in the 27 to 47 degrees Celsius waters, ride up the nearby Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain for more gob smack views and a hands-on interpretive centre that tells the park’s story through interactive exhibits.
8. Explore a forest of behemoth trees on the Douglas Fir Trail
Walk among 500-year-old giants on a trail that ascends from the river valley up a steep escarpment to take in fantastic city views. This urban hike begins in Edworthy Park and is noteworthy for the tree genus that lives here—these Douglas firs are the most easterly in Canada and form a dense wood that’s another example of Calgary’s ability to preserve nature in the middle of the city. Kids who tackle this trail (it’s 2.5 kilometres each way) should be rewarded with an ice cream cone from nearby LICS.
9. Take a trip back in time at Heritage Park
This historical park in southwest Calgary features a replica 1910 pioneer town, complete with a main street, old-fashioned midway rides, farm animals and pastures, a settlement fort and an aboriginal encampment. The full park is open seasonally (May-October), with a smaller portion, including the Gasoline Alley Museum, open in the off-season. There’s a real steam engine train just inside the gates that you can board to ride into town. When you disembark, it will feel like you’ve travelled a century back in time. Kids will like trying their hand at chores and pastimes of yore, such as churning butter or playing a game of croquet. They also will get a kick out of the seasonal workers who are dressed up like extras from Little House on the Prairie—it helps to authenticate the olden days experience.
10. Search for dinosaur fossils in the Drumheller badlands
Drive east for 90 minutes toward Drumheller and the prairie suddenly drops away to reveal an eroded landscape of rock formations called hoodoos and water-carved gullies called coulees. The badlands scenery is unique in Canada and made even more impressive because the land catches some serious treasures, including the fossils of dinosaurs that used to roam the Earth. These giant reptiles can be viewed in reticulated glory inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Dinosaur Hall contains one of the world’s largest displays of dino remains, including all the favourites—stegosaurus, T. rex and even a fearsome mosasaur. The museum is open year-round, but summer visitors (from May to September) should plan enough time to take part in some family programming. Kids can make a fossil replica, search for real fossils on a guided interpretive hike, or have a dig experience in a realistic quarry.
11. Get your adrenalin fix at Winsport at Canada Olympic Park
This all-season recreation park on the city’s west side is one of the legacies left over from the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games. The site, where ski jumpers took to the air and the Jamaican bobsleigh team slid into history, is now a place where families can be active year round thanks to a range of unique activities. In winter go skiing or snowboarding, ice skate on the indoor rink, or rocket down the original icy Olympic track inside a four-person bobsleigh. When the snow melts, there’s chairlift-assisted mountain biking, ziplining and mini golf. The most popular summer pastime, though, is the addictive Skyline Luge. After riding the chairlift up the hill, parents and children race wheeled go-carts down a twisty, purpose-built course that descends around 50 turns over a distance of 1800 metres.
12. Visit Granary Road, a farmers’ market and kids’ play zone
Dubbed a public market and active learning park, the new Granary Road, south of town, offers a unique experience for families. Spend time sampling food from a selection of unique vendors, and stock up on artisan cheese, charcuterie and wine. Then, pay admission to get into the park (weather permitting), where kids can learn about frogs by jumping on the in-ground trampolines in the Frog Pond Fun Pad zone or learn about the differences between poisonous and tasty fungi along The Mushroom Meander, a giant-size mushroom forest. More interactive exhibits feature a giant climbing web and bat maze to teach kids about spiders, bats, bees and other beneficial critters. Granary Road does a great job connecting the dots between where food comes from, and the delicious eats available inside the public market.