Alberta is Canada's fourth largest province by both size and population, and the second farthest west. It stretches from British Columbia at the Rocky Mountains in the west, to Saskatchewan in the east and from the Northwest Territories in the north, to Montana, U.S.A. in the south.
Alberta is huge province, about four times the size of the United Kingdom (from where many of its people can trace a heritage) or nearly as big as Texas (with which is shares a ranching and cowboy connection), and contains great, contrasting sceneries of mountains, forests and prairies. In this huge expanse of territory, only four million Albertans reside, and about half of those live in just the two main cities of Calgary and Edmonton, with most of the rest of population clustered near the main highways. The rest of the province has a tiny population, but is far from empty: on this land you will find Indigenous cultures that have survived here for thousands of years, rural settlements with a proud pioneering history, and new immigrants arriving daily from all corners of the world in one of the developed world's wealthiest and fastest-growing regions (despite a recent economic downturn).
Alberta is not well known by non-Canadians, but if you do know much about it you might associate the province with the Rocky Mountains (which in truth are only found along Alberta's western boundary), perhaps the 1988 Winter Olympics which were held in Calgary, the cowboy country of Southern Alberta, or the controversial "oil sands"/"tar sands" of Fort McMurray. But there's more here to discover, with six UNESCO World Heritage sites, preserving the the world's largest inland delta and largest protected boreal forest, one of the world's great dinosaur fossil beds, and historic indigenous rock art and buffalo hunting sites, among others. And for sports fans, this is the home one of the world's greatest rodeos every July in Calgary, two famous professional ice hockey teams, and one of the longest ski seasons in the northern hemisphere. Like colder versions of other oil towns (Houston comes to mind), the burgeoning cities of Edmonton and Calgary are constantly adding new skyscrapers, museums, art galleries, concert venues, and libraries as these cities still very much in their youth.
In a province as large and dynamic as Alberta, there shouldn't be any problem finding enough to see and do, no matter what your travel style is.
|Alberta Rockies |
World-renowned beauty and home to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Plenty of things to do for the adventurer, city-dweller and everyone in between. More than just busy tourist hubs, the Rockies are so vast it's easy to find a place where you can feel like you're the only one on the planet.
|Calgary Region |
Housing Alberta's largest city of one million or so, Calgary, and the closest international airport to the Rockies, this is the gateway to the national parks. In this fast-growing region you can experience big-city life while still being less than an hour from complete isolation.
|Central Alberta |
Where wild horses run free, this mostly rural region features rolling hills, prairie, and occasional forest. The most densely populated region of the province apart from Edmonton and Calgary, there are many towns and smaller cities. The region's centre is the city of Red Deer.
|Eastern Alberta |
Mostly forest and farms, this less-populated region features wilderness good for fishing and hunting. There is a large oil industry presence centred around the oil sands at Fort McMurray.
|Edmonton Capital Region |
Alberta's capital city of Edmonton and its suburbs together have a population of over one million and growing. Being a big capital city, there's lots to do in terms of culture (notably theatre and sports), but nearby and the wild Elk Island National Park is renowned for its abundance of hoofed animals, including bison.
|Peace Country |
In this vast, sparsely-populated region, there are numerous small towns which could serve as a base for wilderness activities, as well as Canada's newest dinosaur museum. Grande Prairie is its largest settlement.
|Southern Alberta |
This region features visually striking landscapes. It features valleys and plains shaped by thousands of years of erosion, farms, and Waterton Lakes National Park, where the Rockies suddenly emerge from the prairie without much transition. The largest cities are Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.
Below are 9 cities frequently considered to have the most interest for the visitor.
- 1 Edmonton - the capital city of Alberta and the second largest urban population (812,000 city; 1,159,000 metro region). It is home to a vibrant cultural community, the largest urban parkland system in North America, North America's largest mall, and is dubbed Canada's Festival City. Aside from that, there is a pretty good science centre and a conservatory.
- 2 Calgary - Alberta's largest city (1,096,000 city; 1,214,000 metro region). It is home to a beautiful river, nice museum, cool towers, bustling economy, world class zoo, shopping. Famous for the 1988 Winter Olympics and the annual Calgary Stampede.
- 3 Banff - vacation destination in the Rockies offering a variety of outdoor activities
- 4 Drumheller - the dinosaur-lover's mecca, site of the Royal Tyrell Museum, the largest paleontology museum in Canada
- 5 Fort McMurray - oil sands boom town deep in northern Alberta, population had swelled to 88,000 before a 2015 downturn in oil prices and a May 2016 wildfire which destroyed portions of the community
- 6 Jasper - Banff's northerly neighbour - less visited than Banff but no less stunning
- 7 Lethbridge - is a city in southern Alberta with a population of about 83,500 and most famous for its canyons
- 8 Medicine Hat - is in southern Alberta with a population nearing 60,000
- 9 Red Deer - a city between Edmonton and Calgary with about 90,000 people and a major service centre
- 1 Banff National Park - probably the most famous national park, and home to the town of Banff which holds unique shopping and entertainment. Outside that, there's Lake Louise and world class skiing, hiking, and camping
- 2 Elk Island National Park - free ranging bison ("buffalo") and wapiti near Edmonton
- 3 David Thompson Country - a series of parks, campgrounds, and rustic lodges, along the Highway 11 between Red Deer and the Rockies Mountains.
- 4 Jasper National Park - beautiful mountain and shopping attractions without the hustle of Banff
- 5 Kalyna Country - Alberta's Ukrainian ethnic enclave in Edmonton's eastern hinterland
- 6 Kananaskis Country - major natural recreation area in southern Alberta at the foot of the Rockies south of Calgary
- 7 Waterton Lakes National Park - a true natural gem in the Rockies in Alberta's extreme southwest
- 8 Wood Buffalo National Park - the largest national park in Canada home to the world's largest freshwater delta and and free-ranging wood bison ("buffalo")
Since Alberta gained self-government as a province in 1905, its capital has been Edmonton, which is roughly in the middle of the province, while the main centre in terms of corporate headquarters is Calgary to the south. Most of the population of Alberta lives along the "Highway 2 Corridor" between Edmonton and Calgary, although Lethbridge to the south, Grande Prairie to the northwest, and Fort McMurray to the northeast are also notable settlements of 50,000 or more.
Alberta is the richest province in Canada. Its wealth is derived mainly from oil and gas production, though historically farming and cattle raising were important. Ranching maintains a high place in the economy and culture, particularly in Southern Alberta. Seventy percent of the Canadian cattle herd is in Alberta. Alberta is subject to repeated booms and busts tied to the price of oil, since the mid-2010s the economy has struggled.
Alberta is widely considered to be the most conservative area of Canada, however this is a complicated issue. Regional politics affected Alberta significantly, including the much-hated National Energy Program in the 1980s, so the region long voted Conservative as an expression of regional preference as much as political preference. And in 2015, it elected a social democratic government for the first time in its history. This won't affect the average traveller, and many benefit as Alberta's taxes are lower than that of the rest of Canada (there is no provincial sales tax).
Located deep in the interior of North America and cut off from the coasts by the Rockies to the west and the rugged Canadian Shield to the north and east, Alberta was one of the last parts of North America explored by Europeans, last to be effectively controlled by a colonial force, and the last agricultural region to be settled by non-Indigenous people. Yet this area experienced several dramatic turns in a few short decades, from mostly wilderness in 1870 when it joined Canada (as a sort of colony) to a mostly agricultural but economically struggling full province by 1930, to the urbanized economic powerhouse of Canada by the 1970s, to major global investment hub and migration destination by the early 2000s.
The original inhabitants were (and are) the various Indigenous peoples, who belong to a number of different ethno-linguistic groups (usually called "First Nations" in Canada, not "tribes" as in the US), namely the Cree, Blackfoot, Sarcee, Stoney, Chipewyan, Beaver, and Slavey. These peoples were all nomadic hunters at the time of European contact, so travellers will not find any giant temples or monuments to see. There are however, "stone circles" (like smaller versions of Stonehenge) and rock art (painting and carvings) as well as archaeological sites of camps and hunting sites, including World Heritage sites at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.
European goods arrived, second-hand, in what would be Alberta long before the European themselves did and the local indigenous people were able to take advantage of the horse, firearms, metal tools, and so on to make their lives much easier. However, with this trade new diseases were introduced that repeatedly devastated local communities over several centuries, opening the way for European expansion. Alberta was never serious contested by any other other European power besides Britain, or more precisely the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a privately-owned British corporation that made money by selling furs in England. The HBC did have to fend off incursions from other trading companies, however, by building post further inland, reaching Edmonton by 1795. At the same time Christian missionaries from various denominations were competing to convert the natives, often setting up missions within the walls of the trading posts. Trading posts are preserved or rebuilt at several places around the province, notably Dunvegan, Fort Edmonton Park, Fort George and Buckingham House, Fort Victoria, and Rocky Mountain House.
The HBC recruited its traders mostly from French Canada and Scotland's Orkney Islands. These traders often had temporary "country marriages" with local indigenous women while posted in Canada, and from these mixed marriages by the 1810s, a new population had emerged and moved into the void left by the decimation on the original groups: the "half-breeds", known in French (and nowadays, also in English) as the Métis. Major Métis sites include the Mission Hill historic district of St. Albert, and the Métis Crossing historic site.
When the new country of Canada bought the HBC's claim to what later became Alberta in 1869, the tiny population (perhaps ten thousand) was mostly First Nations or Métis. In order to solidify Canada's claim on the region, the famous "mounties" (North-West Mounted Police) were sent to Alberta in 1874, establishing outposts at Fort Walsh, Cardston, Lethbridge, and Fort Macleod near the American border, and Fort Calgary and Fort Saskatchewan further north. Although called "police", these paramilitary forts were responsible for negotiating treaties with indigenous peoples, expelling American traders and hunters who had moved across the "medicine line" (49th parallel), and generally asserting Canada's claim to the area. The site of signing of Treaty #7 between Canada and the Blackfoot Confederacy in 1877 is commemorated at Blackfoot Crossing.
At this time indigenous people were suffering from the near-extinction of the bison, once their primary food source, so they signed treaties in the hope of getting desperately needed emergency assistance from the Canadians. When this aid didn't always arrive when and where it was needed or with out strings attached, some Cree people in Alberta decided to join a campaign of violent resistance against Canada started by a Métis community in nearby Saskatchewan. The result was the massacre of white settlers at Frog Lake in 1885, the only instance of such an attack in Alberta's history. Canada responded by sending in the military via the newly-completed Canadian Pacific Railway, crushing indigenous resistance, hanging several warriors, confining whole communities to their small reserve lands, taking away the children to be educated in missionary school and and generally beginning a long and dark chapter of indigenous disenfranchisement in Alberta.
At the same time the federal government offered incentives for settlers to come to Alberta, and hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Alberta between 1885 and the First World War, many from elsewhere in Canada, but also with significant ethnic pockets in various regions, such as Austro-Hungarian subjects (Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, etc.) in Eastern Alberta, Scandinavians in Central Alberta, and American Mormons in Southern Alberta. With this new labour, the economy shifted to the mass export of unprocessed natural resources, notably beef, lumber, and, especially, wheat. Several living history and outdoor museums interpret this era of mass settlement in Alberta, the largest of which are Fort Edmonton Park, Heritage Park in Calgary, and the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. For sites related to expansion of particular industries, try Leitch Collieries or Atlas Coal Mine for coal mining, the Reynolds Alberta Museum or Remington Carriage Museum for transportation and agriculture, or Bar U Ranch for cattle ranching.
Alberta which received self-government as a province in 1905, with Edmonton as the capital and the Alberta Legislature Building was built soon thereafter in 1913 in the midst of a major land boom in that city. Most of the "historic" buildings in the Old Strathcona neighbourhood in Edmonton date from this time.
The Great War was a tense time, with most of the British-descended majority enthusiastically backing the war effort and enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in huge numbers, while looking upon suspicion with those who did not, with many recent German and Austro-Hungarian (mostly, Ukrainian) immigrants placed on watch lists or even interned in camps. For the province's military story see the Military Museums in Calgary and the Prince of Wales Armoury in Edmonton, and for the history of internment city the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum in Edmonton or see the internment sites in person near Banff and Jasper.
As well there were tensions with the more urbanized parts of Canada, as Albertan farmers were profiting from high wartime prices. This prosperity ground to a halt when wheat prices collapsed in 1921, just as the rest of North America was enjoying the "roaring twenties". This reignited simmering political tensions and led to the election of a United Farmers party government committed to bold social and political experimentation: women's suffrage and cooperative grain exporting for example. Their efforts were all destroyed by the Great Depression, however, and Alberta defaulted on its debts in 1935, just as the United Farmers were replaced by the even more radical Social Credit party. Social Credit tried to abolish banking and replace it with government-provided loans and a universal basic income scheme, but were blocked by the courts and the federal government. This might have led to further tensions, but the Second World War intervened, and all sides rallied to the colours. For more on the turbulent politics of the early 20th century visit the Alberta Legislature or Government House.
The Second World War again resulted in suspect ethnic groups being put into camps, this time the Japanese, who worked on sugar beet farms near Taber and build roads through the Yellowhead Pass near Jasper. Besides the thousands who enlisted to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, Alberta's other major contribution to the Allied war effort was the pilot training schools and network of airfields in Alberta that help relay aircraft across to Alaska and on to the Soviet Union. This story is told at the Alberta Aviation Museum. Edmonton also served as the staging area for construction of the famous Alaska Highway, swelling its population with American engineers and soldiers.
Although natural gas had already been found in the province, the decisive date in Alberta's economic history is February 13, 1947 when a major crude oil deposit was found at the Leduc No. 1 oil well near Edmonton. Within a generation, small towns mushroomed in major cities with new institutions. Notable landmarks from the 1950s and 1960s era include the main university campuses in Calgary and Lethrbridge, the twin Jubilee Auditoria (concert halls) in Edmonton and Calgary, and the Calgary Tower and Edmonton's CN Tower. As well, much of the low-density residential suburbs ringing all of Alberta's town and cities date from this time.
During recent oil price spikes (the 1970s or 2000s) Alberta became one of the world's richest regions, attracting investment and immigrants from all over the globe, and this is reflected in the large number of skyscrapers in both Edmonton and Calgary dating from those decades (or, more often, slightly after the boom had ended). But during price falls (the 1980s and 2010s) everything went into reverse, with companies and people leaving; while many projects were finished during these times that had been started earlier, almost no new major buildings were conceived or begun during these economic busts. For example Calgary's main arena and Olympic park were planned during good times but constructed for the 1988 Winter Olympics in the midst of a otherwise depressed economy, and Edmonton's new art gallery, museum, arena, and main library, were all built in the 2010s but with money made during the 2000s. Likewise, the two tallest buildings in the province the Stantec Tower (66 stories, 250m, 2019) in Edmonton and Brookfield Place East (56 stories, 247m, 2017) in Calgary were both planned during a boom and finished during a bust. Famously Calgary's main central hospital was demolished in 1998 as a cost-cutting measure by a austerity-minded provincial government.
As cyclical as the main cities are, in resource-dependent towns like Fort McMurray or Grande Prairie, the changes from boom to bust are even more dramatic. These are problems that Albertans have grappling with for decades now, but they have grown more complicated in recent years as Indigenous people have reasserted their political influence over land-use decisions and international environmental opinion has turned against the fossil fuel industry. In the 2020s Alberta will certainly be one of the hot spots in a global debate over the future of the energy industry.
All of Alberta has a continental climate and is in the rain shadow of the Rockies, meaning it's mostly dry and there are profound differences between the seasons. Within Alberta there is considerable variation from north to south.
Northern Alberta has a subarctic climate; outside of Siberia, northern Alberta has some of the most dramatic seasonal variations in the world, with winter averages nearly 40 degrees Celsius lower than summer averages. Snow that falls in November often doesn't melt until April. Summers are brief but warm and dry.
The central and southern parts of the province are slightly warmer and drier than the north. The far south is effected in winter by the "Chinook winds" from the Pacific that can raise the temperature 20 degrees Celsius in a matter of hours, so snow often melts there even in otherwise cold months. Summers are warm and very dry, with almost no rain showers and most summer precipitation being brought only by thunderstorms.
As Alberta is a land of indigenous peoples and immigrants, it should not be surprising some of Alberta's greatest literature is not in the English language. One of the greatest poets of the Icelandic language, Stephan G. Stephansson (1853 – 1927), lived on a pioneer farm in Central Alberta. Some of his poetry references his time in Alberta and is available in translation.
Perhaps the two most famous modern novels set in Alberta are about the struggles of ethnic minorities in this often majoritarian province. Obasan (1981) is the definitive novel of the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and is considered a classic of Canadian literature. Green Grass, Running Water (1993) is a novel of magical realism that intertwines a modern-day reworking of a Blackfoot creation story with ordinary events on the Blackfoot Indian reserve in Southern Alberta.
There are many movies that have been filmed in Alberta, but not set here (usually Alberta is masquerading as the Western United States). To see some of Alberta's best scenery, you can watch major Hollywood releases like Unforgiven (1992), The Revenant (2015), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Inception (2010), and Legends of the Fall (1994), If you want to see something actually set in Alberta, however, try the television series Heartland (2007-2020).
English is the main language spoken by most people in Alberta, and 98% of the population understands it to some degree. The main minority languages are French (6.7%), Tagalog (3.5%), and Spanish (2.6%), and although there are many other languages spoken by small communities within Alberta, you should only expect services at most businesses in English. The one notable exception to this rule is that French is available at all federal government institutions (national parks, post offices, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachments) and services at provincial and municipal government offices are available in French in a very few areas with significant Francophone communities (twelve total communities). The only other place you might find French services are in and around the one French-language university campus in Edmonton—the Campus Saint-Jean (part of the University of Alberta)— in the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood.
First Nations languages such as Cree, Dené, Blackfoot, etc. are spoken to varying degrees among those communities as both mother tongue and as a second language.
Calgary and Edmonton have international airports. Calgary's is the third largest in Canada (by passenger volume). It serves as the base of low-priced airline WestJet, which provides service to North American (mainly Canadian), Mexican and Caribbean destinations. Edmonton's is the fastest growing in Canada, with multiple expansions in place. International service is provided by several carriers at both locations, including multiple direct flights to London and Frankfurt each day. Other destinations are usually connecting through Vancouver or Toronto. Both airports act as collection points, Calgary for the prairie provinces, and Edmonton for destinations in the Canadian North like Grande Prairie and Yellowknife.
There is no passenger rail service into Calgary, except for expensive (and slow) tourist trains such as the Royal Canadian Pacific or Rocky Mountaineer; these run as nostalgia, not as practical transportation
Rider Express, toll-free: . Bus service along the Trans-Canada Highway from Winnipeg to Vancouver, twice daily, and between Edmonton and Saskatoon. Service between Calgary, Canmore, Lake Louise, Banff and Strathmore; and to Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Swift Current, and Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan); Whitewood, Moosomin, Brandon, and Winnipeg (Manitoba); and Revelstoke, Salmon Arm, Kamloops, Hope, Abbotsford, and Vancouver (British Columbia).
There are land border crossing with the United States at (form west to east) Chief Mountain, Carway, Del Bonita, Coutts, Aden, and Wild Horse. The most important of which certainly Coutts, which connects Interstate 15 to Alberta Highway 2. None of these operate 24 hours per day at all times of the year, so plan to cross the border during daylight hours or check the Canada Border Services Agency website for exact times.
To enter from British Columbia, there are a limited number highways (generally through mountain passes) that can be used, notably where BC 2 meets Alberta 43 near Dawson Creek, the Yellowhead Highway (BC Highway 16, Alberta 16) at Yellowhead Pass, the Trans-Canada Highway (BC 1, Alberta 1) at Kicking Horse Pass, Where BC 93 meets Alberta 93 at Vermilion Pass, and Crownest Higway (BC 3, Alberta 3) Crowsnest Pass.
From Saskatchewan, since there are no mountains in the way there are literally thousands of local roads connecting the two provinces but the main ones of interest to tourists would be (from north to south) the Yellowhead Highway (Saskatchewan 16, Alberta 16) connecting Saskatoon to Edmonton; Saskatchewan 14 where it meets Alberta 13 to connect either Saskatoon or Regina to Red Deer; Saskatchewan 7 where it meets Alberta 9 connecting Saskatoon to Calgary, the Trans-Canada Highway (Saskatchewan 1, Alberta 1) to connect Regina to Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Calgary.
From the Northwest Territories there is only one highway (NWT 1, Alberta 35), plus the option of using the infamous "ice roads" in the winter.
Hitchhiking is illegal and rare in Alberta, so this is not recommended, but it is possible if you're willing to take your chances.
The vast distances make cycling across Western Canada all but impossible, the lack of dedicated infrastructure also makes it relatively dangerous, and the sparsity of things to see (outside the Rockies) in the spaces between towns makes it quite boring. This should not stop you from cycling within certain parts of Alberta, which is a much more manageable project. But if you're extremely fit, have lots of time to spare and like a challenge, you can legally cycle on all of Alberta's highways or try the part of the Trans Canada Trail that crosses the province.
Alberta is quite large, as are most Canadian provinces. A rough comparison is the entire United Kingdom can fit into Alberta more than four times over.
Albertan cities are (in)famous for their low-density "suburban sprawl" and are thus really big, area wise and difficult to walk without at least a little assistance from other modes of travel. Luckily both Edmonton and Calgary have bicycle paths, light rail transit (LRT) trains, extensive bus networks, taxi fleets, ride-hailing apps, and since 2019 rentable electric scooters. Outside of those two cities, however, options are more limited.
Car travel is almost essential unless you plan on staying within Edmonton or Calgary . It is certainly possible, though expensive, to fly bus to many of the smaller cities from Edmonton or Calgary, although those places are even more car-dependent so you would need to rent a car while there or be essentially stranded. An inter-city bus ("coach") is much cheaper than a flight but will take up a lot of time given the distances involved and still leaves you without a car when you arrive in an isolated small town.
Driving regulations are the same as in most of Canada. Turning right (far right lane into far right lane) on a red light is allowed. Drunk driving is taken very seriously, but is disproportionately seen in rural areas; take care when driving there at night. Wildlife is another major concern. When driving on the highways, maintain a reasonable speed and look for sudden movements on the side. The most common animal hit is the deer (white-tailed or mule), which is usually not fatal for the car. But running into an elk or moose could possibly be so. Moose are very dark coloured so keep a close eye out for them. If you see animals on the side of the road it is common to want to slow down. Do so in a safe manner and don't needlessly impede traffic. Don't get out of your car to see the animals.
The Government of Alberta operates 511 Alberta,a free traveller information service that may be accessed via phone, mobile device, or computer. The information covers highway conditions, roadwork, major incidents, weather alerts, availability of ferry services, and waiting times at border crossings. Users within Alberta may access the information via phone toll-free by simply calling 5-1-1, similar to the way they would call 9-1-1 for emergencies or 4-1-1 for directory assistance. Computer and mobile device users may also visit the 511 Alberta web site at www.511.alberta.ca. Likewise the Alberta Motor Association (AMA) is another good source of specific information. Calgary and Edmonton offer traffic radio stations - government-funded radio that only reports accidents, construction and weather. Watch for signs featuring the frequency in these cities.
Do not heed any warning about Albertan drivers being the most aggressive drivers in Canada - a common myth. They are not more so than Toronto and certainly are nothing compared with Southern Europe. High speeds and lane changes without signalling are generally the worst it gets.
Red Arrow Motorcoach is the main inter-city bus provider in the province serving Calgary (4 locations), Red Deer, Edmonton (7 locations), Camrose, Hay Lakes, Cold Lake, Bonnyville, Spedden, Smoky Lake, Gibbons, Namao, Radway, Boyle, Grasslands, Wandering River, Fort MacMurray (3 locations), Lethbridge (2 locations), Fort Macleod, Claresholm, Aldersyde, Grande Prairie, Valleyview, Fox Creek, Whitecourt, Mayerthorpe. Note that most of these routes do not run every day and many of the stops are by special request only.
Driving west out of Calgary towards British Columbia, the Rockies rise dramatically and quickly. The drive through Banff, Jasper or Glacier National Park can be quite spectacular. The Icefields Parkway between the towns of Banff and Jasper is definitely not to be missed.
In Edmonton, West Edmonton Mall is one of the province's larger attractions. With over 800 retail shops and the world's largest indoor entertainment centre, it's entertaining even for the non-shoppers. Also Edmonton is dubbed, "Canada's Festival City" to the exceedingly high number of festivals of every kind. The city also boasts North America's largest urban parkland system, which is very beautiful and completes the skyline over the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
Calgary offers the Calgary Stampede, the wild west-themed festival held every July complete with rodeos and fairs. One should also check out the Calgary Zoo and get a view from the top of the Calgary Tower.
It is easy for people from more densely populated and well-travelled Old World countries visiting Alberta (or Canada) to underestimate the vast distances involved, and the sparse availability of tourist-focused accommodations (as opposed to industry-focused), and other tourist services in the rural areas. Nevertheless, with proper research and planning, a pleasant trip is easily achievable.
On the way to AlaskaEdit
Many Americans pass through Alberta on their way to the famous Alaska Highway. There are numerous routes to take to get to the start of the that highway at Dawson Creek near the B.C.-Alberta border. The exact route you choose will largely depend on where in the United States you are coming from. Most people with budget and time constraints pick their route first and decide what to see along the way later. If, however, you are interested in seeing the best of Alberta, even if it takes you off the most direct path, then consult the "circle tour" below, which can easily be modified into a through route by doing either the western (Rocky Mountain) or eastern (prairie) sections.
If, however, you are mostly concerned about "making time", the most direct route from Montana would be Alberta Highway 2 (also called the Queen Elizabeth II Highway or "QE2") from Interstate 15 to Edmonton, a short bit of Alberta Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway), then Alberta Highway 43 to Grande Prairie, and a short bit of Highway 2 again to Dawson.
If time and money are no object, there is also the famous "scenic route to Alaska" (if you think the thousands of miles of wilderness you're about to pass through aren't long and scenic enough) which follows Alberta Highway 40 which provides a beautiful but isolated route from the Rockies to Grand Prairie.
Assuming you were starting in Calgary, had a week or more to spend, and didn't mind a few longer drives, this would cover virtually every major attraction in the province. It could be done in either direction, or using Edmonton or Lethbridge as the starting or end points instead.
From Calgary International Airport, drive 80 km (1 hr) to find Black Diamond and Turner Valley twin towns hosting Alberta's early energy industry history at the Turner Valley Gas Plant historic site (seasonal May to September). From there you can see two other times and industries from Alberta's heritage at Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (35 km, 30 min) to learn about cowboy culture, then 129 km (1.5 hrs) to Crowsnest Pass to see the coal mining history of the region at Frank Slide and Leitch Collieries historic sites and a restored police barracks at the Crowsnest Museum. Camp or rent a cabin in Crowsnest.
The next day, drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (140 km, 1.5 hrs) to learn about ancient indigenous hunting practices and then continue to Waterton Lakes National Park (100 km, 1.5 hrs) to see the Rockies up close and stay there a day or two to hike or take the lake ferry into Montana (USA) and back.
On the next travel day, drive to Cardston (55 km, 45 min) to see the grain elevators, Mormon temple, and Remington-Alberta Carriage Museum, then on to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (155 km, 1.5 hrs) to see the petroglyphs (rock carvings). This is the southernmost point, where you could continue into Montana if you like. You can also camp here or drive to Lethbridge (130 km, 1.5 hr) for your choice of hotels and see the Japanese gardens while you are there. An extension is possible here to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park as well.
From Lethbridge, it's 200 km (2.25 hrs) to Dinosaur Provincial Park where you can have a guided bus tour and walk in the "badlands" and see the dig site where many of Alberta's dinosaur fossils have been found, and another 170 km (1.75 hrs) to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller where those same fossils are displayed in one of the world's greatest dinosaur exhibits. Camping and hotels are both available in "Drum".
The next day drive 30 km north to the ghost town of Rowley (Alberta) to sight-see (or nearby Big Valleyto see the "creation museum") before continuing to Wetaskiwin (190 km, 2 hrs), to see the Reynolds-Alberta Museum with its huge collection of automobiles, aircraft, and machinery. The following day, drive 110 km (1.25 hrs) to Elk Island National Park to explore the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village outdoor museum explaining Alberta's Eastern European heritage (seasonal May to September) and see the famous bison (buffalo) herds, then camp here or drive (50 km, 1 hr) to Edmonton, the capital, to stay. While there get lost in Canada's largest shopping mall and entertainment complex and see the new (since 2010) art gallery, museum, and arena. This is the northernmost point on this itinerary, but only the centre of Alberta. Continue north from here if you are going to the Alaska Highway, for example.
Edmonton to Jasper is the longest stretch on this itinerary at nearly 4 hours, so consider stopping at Wabamun Lake or Pembina River Provincial Park for a picnic, or go to in Edson or Hinton for a restaurant meal, or shorten the trip and stay in a cabin or tipi (indigenous-style tent) in Brule. At Jasper, you are back in the Rockies with lots of hikes to do or a gondola if you prefer.
From Jasper the world-famous Icefields Parkway (230 km, 3 hrs) takes you to Lake Louise, reputed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. If you can afford it, the Chateau Lake Louis hotel is one of Canada's most famous, otherwise proceed to Banff (55 km, 45 min) or Canmore (an additional 25 km, 20 min) for more reasonable accommodations but still in the beautiful setting of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There are more hikes and drives from here and the town of Banff is also home to several historic sites and museums and lots of touristy shops. From here, you can make side trips to Kananaskis Country for more mountains or Cochrane to get back to cowboy country.
Finally from Canmore to Calgary's airport is 120 km, or 1.25 hours in good traffic.
Considered one of the world's most scenic single-day drives, from Lake Louise to Jasper, you drive right past the edge of the Columbia Glacier, the largest glacier in northern hemisphere outside of the Arctic.
This can easily to turned into a circle tour (see above) by adding stops in Edmonton and Calgary. It can also be part of a route to Alaska by linking with Alberta Highway 40 (see above).
Big stuff tourEdit
During the mid twentieth century there was a mania for building roadside attractions in Alberta, especially if it could be called the "world's largest". For example:
- 1 World's biggest Baseball Bat - Edmonton (North Edmonton)
- 2 World's largest Baseball glove - Heisler
- 3 World's biggest Beaver - Beaverlodge
- 4 World's biggest Bee - Falher
- 5 World's biggest Chuckwagon - Dewberry
- 6 World's biggest Dinosaur - Drumheller
- 7 World's biggest Dragonfly - Wabamun
- 8 World's biggest Golf Putter - Bow Island
- 9 World's largest Golf Tee - Trochu
- 10 World's biggest Mallard Duck - Whitford Lake Bird Sanctuary (Andrew)
- 11 World's biggest Mushrooms - Vilna
- 12 World's largest Oil Lamp - Donalda
- 13 World's biggest Perogy - Glendon
- 14 World's biggest Piggy Bank - Crowsnest Pass (Coleman)
- 15 World's biggest Pysanka Easter Egg - Vegreville
- 16 World's largest Railroad Spike - Hines Creek
- 17 World's biggest Sausage - Mundare
- 18 Susie the World's largest Softball - Chauvin
- 19 World's biggest Star Trek Enterprise Replica - Vulcan
- 20 World's biggest Sun dial - Lloydminster
- 21 World's biggest Tipi - Medicine Hat
- 22 World's first UFO landing pad - St. Paul
- 23 World's largest Weather Vane - Westlock
- 24 World's largest Western Boot - Edmonton (West End)
For more, visit: Large Canadian Roadside Attractions
The major year-round places to learn about indigenous culture would be the Royal Alberta Museum in Central Edmonton, Fort Edmonton Park in West Edmonton, the Glenbown Museum in downtown Calgary, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum in Banff, Blackfoot Crossing on the Siksika reserve near Strathmore, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Heritage Park in Calgary, Tsuut'ina Nation Culture/Museum just outside Calgary. Seasonal sites include Metis Crossing in Smoky Lake and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park near Milk River, and the Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel near Bassano.
One of the best ways to see indigenous culture up close is to take in a "powwow" (a festival centred and around dancing, drumming, and singing competitions). Most reserves and have at least one each summer, and their are also two famous ones attached to the Calgary Stampede and Edmonton's "K-Days" fair in July. Several stand-alone powwow are also found cities now as well, often around National Indigenous Day on June 20th. Events are also common during National Métis Week during the first week of November. Increasingly indigenous themes are integrated in other types of festivals, such as the arts, notably the Dreamspeakers International Film Festival in Edmonton the last week of April and the Rubaboo Arts Festival the following week.
Indigenous-inspired cuisine is surprisingly difficult to find in Alberta, partly due to strict (overly?) regulations on using wild-harvested meats and plants. Compared to the Nordic countries, there is comparatively little emphasis on using wild foods among Albertan chefs. It is possible to find farmed bison and elk meat but it is much more expensive than beef for a similar taste. The one indigenous food than every Albertan knows, bannock (fry bread or flat bread), is very recent in origin. To be sure, for thousands of years indigenous people here made various kinds of flat bread from flours made of corn, nuts, roots, and so on. But the modern recipe of wheat flour, lard, and baking soda, is entirely based on goods introduced by Canadian fur traders in the last 250 years. Nevertheless, bannock is considered thoroughly nativized, and you will find it at every museum and powwow.
Shopping for indigenous souvenirs typically means leather clothing, especially moccasins (slippers) and mittens, decorated with glass beads. Other handicraft could include tobacco pipes, saddles, parkas (fur coats) and ribbon skirts. Nowadays, however, many indigenous artists prefer to work in media like sculpture and painting and their work can be found more often at art galleries than at souvenir shops on the sides of highways.
The main attraction in Alberta (outside of the two big cities) are the open spaces and the proximity to nature. This is a good place to visit if you like the idea of outdoor life.
Horse riding is a major attraction here, especially in the south and west: cowboy country. Guest ranches and trail rides are plentiful.
The ski resorts of Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Norquay, all in Banff National Park dish up almost every kind of terrain for the hardcore skier, yet allow novice skiers to have fun through green runs and long cruising runs. If the crowds bother you, there are other ski areas in the province.
There are a few lakes that allow one to do boating, jetskiing or most other watersports despite Alberta's landlocked nature.
There are many excellent golf courses available to the public across the provinces. Areas of particular interest include the mountain parks where Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, Kananaskis Country, Stewart Creek, and Silver Tip are recognized as some of Canada's best courses. Central Alberta also offers several excellent courses, including Wolf Creek and Alberta Springs. In the Edmonton area, popular courses include the Northern Bear, Cougar Creek, The Ranch, and Goose Hummock. In Drumheller, the back nine of the Dinosaur Point Golf Course features several very dramatic and spectacular holes.
Offroad driving using "quad" bikes, trucks, dirtbikes, and even snowmobiles is practically the official sport in Alberta. If it is loud, fast, and spews noxious emissions, it can be bought or rented in Alberta.
The biggest festivals in the province are the Calgary Stampede in July combining rodeo and carnival and Edmonton's Fringe Festival in August showcasing avant-garde theatre and street performers. However, hosting festivals has become the unofficial provincial obsession, especially in the short summer months, so expect local media and social media to have lots of suggestions every day from May to September and at least weekly the rest of the year. Notable genres of festival include modern folk music (Calgary, Edmonton, Canmore), film (Edmonton, Calgary, Banff), food trucks (Edmonton, Calgary), multi-ethnic food and dance (Edmonton, Calgary), rodeo (Calgary, Red Deer, Ponoka), as well as street festivals for each of the provinces main ethnic communities, notably the Ukrainians (Edmonton, Ukrainian Village museum, Vegreville, Andrew), indigenous peoples (province-wide around summer solstice), and in Edmonton and Calgary: Caribbean peoples, Latin peoples, Filipinos, and more.
Alberta is one of the world's heartlands of ice hockey. Not only are two of world's top professional teams located here, but so are elite amateur and university teams. Alberta is also hosting the under-21 Men's World Championships in Edmonton and Red Deer in December of 2020 and January of 2021.
Winter sports more generally are easy to try here, with Calgary's Canada Olympic Park being a good place to try bobsleigh, for example. And every small town and city neighbourhood will have a skating rink with public skating times and a curling rink, where locals can show you how to throw and stone if you're willing to ask.
Rodeo is a major sport here as well, often tied in to the main fair of many towns, including even big-city Calgary. See the "events" section above for more.
Alberta is a popular destination for international students, primarily at the university level, but also at colleges and high schools. There are dozens of institutions that are designated as international student ready, so the best idea is to consult the provincial government's website on the topic.
The most popular choice would undoubtedly be the University of Alberta in Edmonton which which has one of Canada's largest medical schools and teaching hospitals as well as schools of dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, business, and others that are popular with foreign learners. Classes in all these disciplines are available in English and sometimes also in French. The University of Calgary also has a similar offering of faculties.
Since Alberta was settled after the industrial revolution was already well established, it completely lacks a regional food culture based on millennia of peasant traditions as one would expect in the Old World or even many local specialties based on a few generations of adaptation and hybridization as you might expect in longer-settled parts of North America. What it does have is an abundance of quality beef (and bison!), raised on its rich grasses and finished on local barley (not corn [maize], as in the US) and a high tolerance for international influences, going back right to the beginning when men from China's Fujian province often worked as cooks in railway-building camps. To this was added the British influence, American cowboy traditions, and continental European dishes. As a result the smallest towns will have a "Chinese café" usually serving an odd assortment of hamburgers, spring rolls, won ton soup, "perogies" (Ukrainian dumplings), and poutine. In the bigger towns and suburban neighbourhoods this quirky eclecticism has sadly been largely replaced by an assortment of chain restaurants. However, in the main resort towns of the Rockies one can find fine dining, and in the two major cities it is possible to find a number of more experimental restaurants as well as variety of ethnic dishes from every corner of the globe, due to recent immigration (Calgary has the province's only Uzbek restaurant, for example). The only thing truly hard to find is good seafood; but when in Rome do as the Romans do, and when in Alberta, go for beef. If you're vegetarian, you will still be distinctly in the minority and might suffer from a lack variety outside the major cities, though even the big chains are much better than in years past.
Drink (and smoke)Edit
The drinking age is 18 - younger than most other provinces in Canada. Alcohol is available from the many private liquor stores and beer/wine stores throughout the province. Unlike other provinces, liquor retail is privatized; unlike most American states, you cannot buy alcohol directly in grocery stores, although many grocery stores have liquor stores in unattached buildings nearby.
Since 2018, possession of 30 grams of recreational cannabis has been legal everywhere in Canada. You can find cannabis retail stores in most towns and cities in Alberta, which has the most of any province.
Production of craft beer and spirits were significantly deregulated in 2015, leading to an explosion of new microbreweries and distilleries. The province is now home to a burgeoning craft scene. Even small towns like Lacombe are now home to breweries making once-obscure brews like fruited kettle sours.
The main attraction is West Edmonton Mall, which was the world's largest shopping centre from 1983 to 2004 and includes over 800 shops, an ice rink, an indoor waterslide park and wave pool, a bowling alley, a gun range, a minigolf course, an amusement park, a multiscreen cinema, a casino, two hotels, over 100 restaurants or food kiosks, several bars and nightclubs and and parking for more than 20,000 vehicles. This is really more of an enclosed neighbourhood than a "mall" as typically conceived. It is Alberta's most visited attraction with over 32 millions visitors each year.
Besides that, there other smaller malls, typical "high streets" in Edmonton and Calgary and two notably large "power centres" (outdoor malls), South Edmonton Common in Edmonton and CrossIron Mills in Balzac near Calgary.
Uniquely among the provinces, Alberta does not have a provincial sales tax, although the federal 5% sales tax still applies and is added to the price at the till and is not shown on price tags.
The following areas of Alberta are considered higher risk areas with respect to crime.
- Calgary - walking during night hours should be avoided in the East Village, Victoria Park, and the Bow River Pathway between Eau Claire Market and the Calgary Zoo. These areas are prone to drugs and prostitution. There are panhandlers on various downtown streets.
- Edmonton - an area northeast of downtown is a prostitution stroll. There is also a stretch of Whyte Avenue that can be a problem after 7PM, given its high bar concentration.
Otherwise, Alberta as a whole is a relatively safe area. However common sense should be applied. Do not leave valuables visible in vehicles and lock all vehicle doors.
Growth in urban centres in Alberta has led to increased traffic. Allow plenty of time to reach a destination, especially during rush hour or during adverse weather.
Alberta's weather is very changeable and volatile, especially in the mountains and the foothills and also during the spring season. Driving conditions can deteriorate quickly. Before going out, always check the local forecast. Road conditions are available through the Alberta Motor Association.
During winter strong Chinook winds in the foothills, especially south of Calgary, can blow a vehicle off the road. Highways 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22 and 23 south of Calgary are the most vulnerable to these conditions, with Highway 22 usually being the worst. Extra caution is advised, particularly for higher-height vehicles such as trucks and SUVs.
Alberta has had cases of the West Nile Virus. In the spring and summer, it is wise to be protected using Deet-based repellents.
The area within and around the mountain parks is bear country. Hikers, hunters and campers in these areas should follow all bear safety tips. Campsites should be kept clean, all dishes properly washed, and all tables wiped clean after a meal. Never leave any food or garbage loose or unattended. Hikers should travel as a group, make noise regularly and stay on established trails. Pets should be kept out of bear country.
Taxis can be in short supply in Calgary and Edmonton at times, especially during holidays, poor weather, and on weekends. It is advisable to phone ahead in the daytime for a reservation if you realize you may need a taxi. In most cases, taxis are easily available at the airports.
During summers tornadoes are not uncommon and happen most in central Alberta. Edmonton has been hit by many tornadoes, the biggest of which was an F4 in 1987. Hail is very common during these storms — usually very small but sometimes as big as softballs. Check Environment Canada about risks.
Though one of the most beautiful provinces in Canada, neighbouring provinces have much to offer, as well. British Columbia has much great scenery as well, and also world-class cities like Vancouver and Victoria.
To the east is Saskatchewan, which has a large amount of grassland but is also home to over 100,000 lakes and offers some of the most beautiful skyline.