Calgary Downtown Public Art Walk

public art installation on Memorial Drive in Calgary

Here’s a self-guided walking tour covering some of the Calgary’s most dramatic downtown public art. You’ll also find insider tips on where to eat and drink along the way.

Starting the walk

red and yellow glass panels above a train platform

Image: City of Calgary

Begin at the C-Train platform on 7th Ave SW, between 5th & 6t Streets (the green grass icon in the map above). Look up – way up – and you’ll see a bright grid of red and yellow etched glass squares. The pattern of small shapes on the panels represent a flock of flying birds, giving the piece it’s name: Swarm. Now look down, and you should notice the glow of the colours on the pavement. The piece is one of many recent projects commissioned by the city to spruce up C-Train stations.

Next, walk a block East for a tip of the hat to Calgary’s cowboy culture. You’ll soon spot a set of 8 bright stylized steel horse cut-outs running through the park. This fairly new work by Joe Fafard is titled Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do. It’s one of many western-themed pieces sponsored by a group of private and corporate donors via the Calgary Stampede Art Committee. The brightly coloured horses  represent a ‘symphony of sound and movement’, a metaphor for Canada’s diversity. Perhaps they also provide some hope and cheer to those on their way in to face the courts.

Larger than life figures

giant metal sculpture of a girl's head in front of dowtown office towers Two blocks east sits the dramatic Wonderland. You’ll be able to walk right through this 12 metre-high representation of a girl’s head. It’s placed prominently in an open plaza in front of one of The Bow, one of Calgary’s newest, shiniest and tallest office towers.

Continue east for another two blocks to see the giant Family of Manan arrangement of ten 21-foot elongated bronze figures. They were originally created for the British pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal and later transplanted to Calgary. It must have been quite a convoy.

Walk two blocks south to Olympic Plaza, built for the Calgary-hosted 1988 Winter Olympics. The fountains keep things cool in summer, and in winter the pool is turned into a refrigerated ice rink for skating. At the southern edge of the plaza look for the Women are Persons sculpture grouping. It was unveiled in 1999 as a tribute to the ‘Famous Five’ Alberta women who fought and won the battle to have women recognized as ‘persons’ under the law.

2 sculpture groupings - family of man and the Famous 5Head west along 8th Avenue, the street that runs along the south edge of the plaza. It’s also called Stephen Avenue – a pedestrian mall lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and access to a connected string of shopping centres. Live bands and buskers often perform, and if you’re on the mall around a weekday lunch hour, you’ll see office workers pouring out from their towers for some fresh air.

Just to the west of 1st Street, you’ll come across a bronze of two super-sized businessmen in hats and topcoats, shaking hands to seal a deal. Titled The Conversation, it’s one of the city’s most familiar and endearing art pieces, recognizing the Calgary’s ever-present entrepreneurial spirit.

Continuing west along Stephen Avenue, you can’t miss the gigantic 26-metre-tall Trees sculptures. They’re lit up at night for even more dramatic effect.

2 sculptures - the conversation and treesIf you’d like to see a few more pieces, download the city’s Civic Art Circuit app (iOS only) or PDF covering 11 additional sculptures downtown.

A museum worth mentioning

History buffs and art lovers will enjoy a visit to the Glenbow Museum, a non-profit gallery/museum with a huge collection. It gets some notable traveling exhibitions, so check to see if the current show interests you. Of the permanent exhibits, my favourite is the Art of the North American Great Plains and Pacific Northwest. The gift shop is also worth a visit – they’ve got beautiful first nations carvings, jewelry by local artists, wool blankets, books, and lots more to coax your credit card out of your wallet. Access the museum through the Convention Centre.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to visit the museum’s exhibits, at least check out the concrete murals on the outside south wall of the building, created by local artist Bob Oldrich in 1976. They depict multiple facets of the city and its surroundings, including first nations culture, oil & gas exploration and the Rocky Mountains. They’re an interesting example of the types of public art projects funded by governments in those years.

Eating & drinking on Stephen Avenue

If you’ve had your fill of art and need to fill your stomach, here are some local favourite places to eat and drink along Stephen Avenue (from East to West):

  • Good Earth Coffee House – Inside the Convention Centre, next to the Glenbow Museum entrance, you’ll find one of the many Good Earth locations scattered around Calgary. It’s great for a caffeine fix, and even better for the delicious baked goods. They also offer hearty oatmeal, sandwiches, soups, and a daily hot lunch special. This location has limited seating, so it’s best for takeout.
  • Saltlik Steakhouse – A good option for your requisite Alberta beef experience, serving up excellent steaks, ribs, seafood and hearty “rancher salads”.
  • Original Joe’s – At OJ’s, the tasty and reasonably priced burgers and sandwiches always come with two sides, so you never have to choose between salad and fries.
  • David’s Tea – Warm up with a steaming cup of hot tea, or cool down in summer with flavoured iced tea. This successful and growing chain of Canadian shops makes the tea-drinking experience fun, accessible and flavourful. They steep dozens of creative tea blends to go, and you can buy loose leaf teas and gorgeous tea accessories to take home.
  • National Beer Hall – To find it, you’ll have to go inside the office and shopping complex to what’s known as the +30 level – 30 feet above the ground. Their huge rooftop patio is hopping in summer, and the indoor space is cozy in winter months. National has 50 or 60 beers on tap ranging from local to international, and an eclectic menu of upscale pub food gone global.
  • Double Zero Pizza & Wine Bar – Excellent Neapolitan pizza. You’ll find both traditional and modern pies on the menu. Great appies and wine list too, plus awesome photography on the walls. Oh, and $5 happy hour from 3 to 5 pm on weekdays, including a selection of beers, wines by the glass and snacks.
  • Food trucks – Calgary has a vibrant food truck scene, and you’ll often find one or more of them parked along Stephen Avenue during the daytime. Local favourites include the Perogy Boyz, The Naaco Truck and Red Wagon Diner. Download Calgary’s food truck app to see who’s where.

Riverfront public spaces

There are two more artistic outdoor structures along the Bow River that you really should see. It’s a brisk 15 minute walk to get to the next spot, but you can shave five minutes from that by taking the C-Train (LRT). Ride two stops west to the 7th Street stop and then walk north to the river. The train is free within the downtown zone.

calgary peace bridge and view across to downtown in early summerThe red and white Peace Bridge has become a new icon for the city. It spurred controversy when the design contract was awarded to a foreign (although famous) architect – Santiago Calatrava. But now that it’s complete, the sleek pedestrian crossing is well used and has been praised as one of the world’s top public spaces. Its innovative design features a glass roof, attractive curves and segregated lanes for both bicycles and pedestrians. The lack of piers in the water is another notable design feature, a notable feat for the size of the span.

Cross the bridge and turn left to walk west along Memorial Drive until you come to the 10th Street pedestrian and transit bridge. The top level is strictly for the LRT, and there is a pedestrian level underneath. Before going back downtown, follow the walking path underneath this bridge towards the larger bridge a little further west.

Here you’ll find Poppy Plaza, a public space dedicated to the memory of Canada’s veterans. Weathered steel wall panels bear quotes and inscriptions of tribute, while over-sized word sculptures inspire contemplation. Modern aluminum benches are positioned to offer views of the river and across to downtown.

Wherever you are, enjoy the walk,

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