Free things to do in Calgary

calgary peace bridge and view across to downtown in early summer

Calgary can be a expensive city, but for the frugally-inclined, there are more free things to do than you might think. Here’s a list to get you started.

Find peace on a bridge

Although only completed a few years ago, the Peace Bridge designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava has quickly become a sleek new city icon. It’s been praised as one of the world’s top public spaces because of its innovative design. It features a glass roof, no piers in the water and wide segregated lanes for both cyclists and pedestrians. The bridge crosses the Bow River heading north out of downtown and forms part of Calgary’s extensive river pathway system.

Gaze up at giants

There are some impressive large-scale public art pieces throughout Calgary’s downtown that make for perfect photo opportunities. Along Stephen Avenue (8th Avenue SW), you’ll find the towering white metallic Galleria Trees and the historic Women are Persons! group of sculptures. A few blocks away, you can walk through a giant white steel head.  Nearby, the 21-foot high Family of Man — a grouping of ten elongated bronze figures — will have you feeling dwarfed.

family of man and wonderland, large public sculptures in Calgary

Explore the hidden secrets of the +15 walkways

If the streets of downtown Calgary look a little empty, look up — 15 feet up — and you’ll notice enclosed glass walkways connecting many of the office towers and shopping centres. The mezzanine levels of the connected buildings allow Calgarians to walk around in weather-protected comfort any time of year. They’re also packed with cafes, shops, public art pieces and essential downtown services.

Admire the art at a gallery or four

If you enjoy modern and contemporary art, check out Contemporary Calgary’s programs, which are always free and held at various locations throughout the city. The exhibits of contemporary Canadian works at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries are free too, and there’s even more free contemporary creativity at the Esker Foundation’s 4th floor space. For a mix of 19th century art, edgy new works, design showcases and historical exhibits, visit the Glenbow Museum — it’s free the first Thursday evening of every month.

Go western on the Stampede Art Walk

Many visitors know about the Calgary Stampede, an annual 10-day rodeo and exhibition, but few know about its tradition of commissioning public art. This self-guided walking tour showcases 19 sculptures and murals located in and around Stampede Park. It’s a colourful way to learn about Calgary’s western heritage and the history of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”. Look for the brochure at the airport information kiosk or download it here.

two murals that are part of the Calgary Stampede Art Walk, one of the best free things to do in Calgary

Step back in time on a historic walking tour

The City of Calgary offers an interactive map to help you explore downtown Calgary’s historic buildings and landmarks. It includes a description and brief history for over 50 different sights throughout the city centre. If you don’t mind walking among the departed, consider taking a cemetery tour where you’ll learn about Calgary’s history through stories of its former citizens.

Find a hill with a view

Hiking through native grasslands in Nose Hill Park, you might spot squirrels, porcupines, gophers, hawks, and even deer and coyotes. Climb to the top of the hill and you’ll to enjoy expansive views of the city and surrounding prairie. You can see the Rockies to the west on clear days.

If you’d rather take an easier route to a view, drive the length of Crescent Road. It runs along a ridge north of the river across from downtown, providing stunning views of the skyline. Park and talk a walk on the ridgeway to snap your photos.

For a broader perspective, drive to the top of Scotsman’s Hill for a panoramic look at the Stampede Grounds, downtown and the magnificent Rocky Mountains in the distance.

view from Nose Hill Park in Calgary with Rocky Mountains in distance

Fill up on free food

Calgary’s Farmers’ Markets are a great source of free nibbles. Many vendors offer a taste of their goodies to shoppers, with no obligation to buy. It’s a scrumptious way to try out locally grown and produced food items. The Hillhurst-Sunnyside Market happens every Wednesday evening. Find it indoors in winter and outdoors in summer, with bonus Saturday morning markets in the summer months. The Market on McLeod  and Calgary Farmers Market both operate indoors all year long, Thursday to Sunday.

If you’re visiting in July, your chances of scoring a free pancake breakfast are almost guaranteed. Griddles are fired up all over town during the Calgary Stampede, and a few days before and after too. Some are official Caravan Breakfasts hosted by Stampede organizers. Others are put on by local businesses to demonstrate their western hospitality. Use the Flapjack Finder website to find a breakfast convenient for you.

Stroll through a downtown oasis on Prince’s Island Park

This huge downtown island park is well loved and used by locals, who enjoy the mature trees, riverside pathways, walking trails and picnic spots. In summer they’re tossing Frisbees and footballs, kicking soccer balls and hacky sacks, riding bicycles, practicing Tai Chi or just lounging on the grass. In winter you’ll see cross-country skiers gliding silently across snow-covered trails.

fall colour in princes island park in Calgary

Skate away at an outdoor rink

It’s the ultimate Canadian winter activity, and Calgary has over 40 outdoor skating rinks to choose from. It’s free if you have your own skates. If you don’t  you can rent blades rink-side at Olympic Plaza or Bowness Lagoon.

Get thee to Shakespeare by the Bow

From June through August, one of the city’s largest theatre companies stages free Shakespeare productions in a beautiful park setting. The plays feature recent theatre grads who are expertly coached by local stage veterans. The performances are always well received. Best enjoyed with a picnic blanket and your beverage of choice.

Find your groove at the Stephen Avenue Summer Stage

The Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall in the middle of Calgary’s downtown office towers makes for good people watching any time of year. In summer, the city’s free noon-hour music program provides another reason to head down. It features local musicians, dancers and other performers from June through September.

Frugally yours,

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