One of the best places to embrace spring and summer in Alberta is in its capital city, Edmonton. And yes, much of its beauty and charm stems from its longtime competition with Calgary, a rivalry that began when it was picked as the province’s capital back in 1905. That mostly-friendly jousting for top-spot has worked to make both cities excel when it comes to offering destinations that are both great places to live and visit.
However, as the provincial capital, Edmonton got the advantage of beautiful and grand legislative buildings that definitely make a statement. Combine this with its natural setting along the North Saskatchewan RIver, which creates a ribbon of forest and parks that is almost 50 kilometres long (making it the longest continuous park in North America) and you can see why the city is a place to spend a weekend getaway this year.
While residents and visitors are attracted to the parks, trails and golf courses on both sides of the river. Edmonton has really worked to up its game on the foodie front, with Clementine and Cafe Linnea. Both restaurants make it to the En Route Magazine’s top 10 list of best new restaurants in Canada for 2017. Better still, the foodie haven trend has continued, with Bündok coming in No. 8 in En Route’s best new Canadian restaurant list for 2018. As food writer Nancy Natsumoto says, it’s a welcome addition to Edmonton’s “white-hot dining scene.”
If you’re looking for tips to make this year’s visit memorable, here you go.
1. Discover Alberta’s roots at the “Ledge”
A tour of the Alberta Legislative Building is a “must do” for any Albertan, but it’s also a fascinating place for out-of-province visitors. It’s a Beaux-Arts marvel of marble pillars and carved oak set on stunning grounds on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River - a gorgeous backdrop to the province’s political action.
Free guided tours are offered hourly, a great chance to learn about the bejeweled gold and silver ceremonial mace, the “Famous Five” who fought for women’s right to vote, and the fascinating stories behind the portraits hanging on the walls. Don’t forget to ask the tour guide to point out the “magic spot” on the fifth floor - an acoustical illusion created by the sound of the main floor water feature bouncing off the dome ceiling to make it sound like there is a waterfall on the upper level.
During summer months, enjoy the wading pool, perfect for children to splash around in and a great spot for adults to relax their tired feet. Just north of the Legislature Building, you'll find the brand new visitor centre on the main floor of the Federal Building. It features the Pehonan Theatre, the Agora Interpretive Centre, the Borealis Gallery, and Alberta Branded, a gift shop housing locally made products.
2. RIde a streetcar from the past and take in a spectacular view
Want to get a high-level view of Edmonton? Take a ride on a historic streetcar that not only gives you a sense of the city’s earliest days but gives you bragging rights as to taking the highest streetcar river crossing in the world.
Running from May 18 to Labour Day in September, The High Level Bridge Streetcar takes you from downtown Edmonton to Old Strathcona (with a stop at the Alberta Legislature) in beautifully refurbished trolly cars dating back to the early 1900s. Edmonton has the largest fleet of heritage streetcars in the world - each with its own unique history. All are refurbished from different parts of the world and have exotic-sounding names like Osaka #247 or the ex-Melbourne tram #930. Get off at any stop and return until you’ve ridden them all!
3. Stroll and shop the Farmers’ Markets
With more than 10 farmers' markets to choose from, Edmonton has a lot to offer if you’re looking for freshly harvested produce, interesting handmade gifts, and food to bring home or eat right on the spot.
You’re bound to find something to enjoy at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, with over 130 vendors selling everything from produce to pottery. There is a “no resale” rule for this market, so you are guaranteed that anything you buy is made or grown by the vendor who is selling it.
A trip to the Grand Market on 124 St will reveal aisles and aisles of vendors and food trucks, along with live entertainment and the Little Beans program for kids. There’s an evening market at 124th Street and 108th Avenue on Thursdays from 4-8 pm (from May 9 to October 10), and a similar Sunday market at 124th Street and 102 Avenue from June 2 to September 29.
If you’re downtown, be sure to check out the outdoor City Market Downtown (which is held indoors at City Hall in the winter) and browse the vendors as you watch or listen to talented buskers.
4. Take in the sun at City Hall and Churchill Square
If you’ve just been to the City Market Downtown, you can take your lunch fixings and head on down to City Hall and Churchill Square. Once you’ve done your lunch, splash in the giant fountain, play a giant game of chess or show off your ping pong prowess. Don’t forget to take a peek at an impressive array of statues including Lunchbox Joe, Sir Winston Churchill, Catching Neutrinos and 24 sculptural metal banners that celebrate the city’s cultural diversity. There are also formal gardens on the east and west sides, a fountain called Light Venturi, and Realtors’ Rows, with 25 panels telling the story of Edmonton’s economic development over the past 100 years.
5. Get a fresh perspective on nature
If you enjoy learning about nature, the John Janzen Nature Centre is the place to go. Especially if you have kids with you. Check out the Exhibit Room, where you can learn about the seasonal changes of plants and animals, try on a pair of wings, and see the world from an insect’s point of view. You can even crawl through a ground squirrel tunnel. At the Honeybee Hive indoor/outdoor exhibit, watch bees busy doing their thing, or head over to the Prairie Pond to see pond life up close and personal at a water oasis that attracts ducks, blackbirds and frogs. At the Compost’ S Cool exhibit, learn all you need to start composting or to compost better. During the summer, a Compost Coach is on hand to answer questions, give a tour and show you a few tricks. There’s even a working compost toilet on-site for public use.
6. Trek Edmonton’s River Valley
With more than 20 major parks and attractions spread out over 7,400 hectares of land, there’s plenty to explore in the city’s river valley. Want a place to stroll or to go for a run? There are more than 150 kilometres of nature trails to discover. Prefer not to walk? River Valley Adventure Co. rents out bikes, Segways, and roller blades. If you haven’t tried out a Segway before, there’s even beginner clinics and treks.
If water transport is more your style, you can rent a canoe or kayak and head down the river, and River Valley also rents out stand-up paddle boards. At Rundle and William Hawrelak parks, you can rent traditional paddle boats, and even treat yourself to a game of mini golf featuring replicas of Edmonton’s more memorable pre-1990s landmarks.
7. Pack a picnic
When the weather is fine, time to pack a picnic. Explore Edmonton has even conveniently created a blog post of best picnic spots in the city. To name a few top choices: Sir WIlfrid Laurier Park, in the west end by the Edmonton Valley Zoo (and a great place to visit in its own right, with more than 350 animals); William Hawrelak Park, considered one of the city’s crown jewels for its access to trails; the grounds of the Alberta Legislature, great for people watching; and the University of Alberta botanic garden, a few minutes drive west of the city, but worth it for its 190 acres of gardens, including the Kurimoto Japanese Garden and butterfly house, as well as the new Aga Khan Garden.
8. Go shopping - entertainment and attractions included!
When the weather gets hot and you could use a bit of air-conditioning, head on over to West Edmonton Mall. It’s the largest shopping mall in North America, and between 1985 to 2004, was the largest in the world. At 5.3 million square feet, it is the size of a small town and even has accreditation as a zoo. For shoppers, the mall boasts 800 stores for the ultimate “shop until you drop” experience. Those not so interested in hopping from store to store can check out West Edmonton Mall attractions. These include the world’s largest indoor waterpark and the world’s largest indoor amusement park, which also happens to have the world’s largest indoor roller coaster).
9. Plan a day trip - just outside the city
While the city of Edmonton offers plenty to explore, there’s plenty to enjoy just outside the city. One option is the Ukrainian Heritage Village, where staff in costumes and in character help you experience the life of early Ukrainian settlers to Alberta, dating back to the turn of the last century. Explore the different historic buildings - including a replica of the most basic sod hut that settlers built as their first home in a new land. Hear stories of solitude, survival, and perseverance as you discover how Ukrainian immigration made a huge impact on Alberta’s cultural identity. All this, and just a 25-minute drive from Edmonton along Hwy 16 E.
If animal life - specifically bison - is what you’re looking for, head over to Elk Island, just a five-minute drive from the Ukrainian Heritage Village. It’s a bison conservation area run by Parks Canada, and probably one of the only places in the country where you can get stuck in a bison traffic jam while driving inside the park. You can also go for walks along 80 km of trails where along with the bison, you’ll see a host of other wildlife including elk and 250 types of birds. There are also tours available. And if stargazing is your thing, navigate the sky of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve. Visitors are welcome to look at the sky, perhaps even see the Northern Lights, at all times of the night.
10. Frolic in Festival City
Edmonton is known for their love of festivals. In fact, they hold so many - more than 60 throughout the year - that it has been nicknamed “Festival City.” That love of festivals shines through the summer months - everything from celebrating food to Shakespeare. Chances are, there’s more than one you’ll want to go to, and here are just a few.
Things kick off with NorthwestFest, Canada’s longest-running documentary film festival, from May 2 to May 12. Not only does it showcase the best in non-fiction filmmaking, but it also highlights local music, art and media. Among the highlights this year: Memory – The Origins of Alien, which unearths the largely untold origin story behind Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece on its 40th anniversary; and Ask Dr. Ruth, chronicling the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist.
From June 21 to June 30, the TD Edmonton International Jazz Festival brings the world’s best jazz performers to the city. The headliners this year are Joshua Redman & Cécile McLorin Salvant on June 25, but jazz lovers are bound to find great performances throughout the festival run.
The 10-day Improvaganza festival from June 12 to 22, is a celebration of improv and sketch comedy. Hosted by Rapid Fire Theatre, this is the place to be if you enjoy laughing and watching the unexpected unfold right in front of you
If you want to Brush up your Shakespeare (and start quoting him now, as the song goes) take in some of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival (June 18 to July 14) Enjoy Shakespearean comedies, tragedies, and romances at this outdoor festival William Hawrelak Park,.
Be amazed by the street performers and their derring-do talents at the 35th Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, which this year runs from July 5 to July 14 at Dr. WIlbert McIntyre Park. Enjoy a variety of food from vendors while watching world-renowned street performers share their talents. And best of all, admission is free.
If you’re an art lover, Edmonton’s White Avenue is the place to be at the end of June and beginning of July. For starters, there’s Boardwalk Sand on White from June 28 to July 5. Be amazed by the sand sculptures created by Canadian sand carving artists, tell the story of Edmonton.
Then there is Art Walk from July 5 to July 7, when a section of Whyte Avenue is turned into a four-block-long art gallery featuring works of local artists. If you need to decorate your home, hang up a few pictures and support Edmonton artists, Art Walk makes it easy.
Foodies on a budget will enjoy the annual Taste of Edmonton Festival, July 18-28, where you can enjoy dishes from a variety of cultures - all in one place. Traditionally held in Churchill Square, construction of a new LRT line and renovation to some parts of the square, Taste of Edmonton has moved this year to Capital Plaza at 108 Street & 99 Avenue.
As August rolls in, so does the Edmonton Folk Festival, August 8-11) a four-day extravaganza of great music and great food in the gorgeous setting of Gallagher Park. This year’s eclectic lineup includes Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ry Cooder, Tash Sultana, The Decemberists and Lord Huron. The festival is also kid-friendly with children 11 and under getting in for free.
And the wind down to an Edmonton summer comes with the Edmonton Fringe Festival (August 15-25). It’s the oldest and largest fringe festival in North America, located in the heart of Old Strathcona. More than 1,500 local, national and international artists take part in about 1,200 performances that both celebrate and push the boundaries of theatre.
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