Many of the top attractions in Alberta are a testament to the power of nature, from the ancient glaciers that can still be found on top of the Rocky Mountains to the canyons, waterfalls, and lakes formed by their predecessors. But for those of us who prefer a more urban experience, there’s no shortage of impressive attractions in the province’s two major cities.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Banff National Park is home to two of the most beautiful lakes in the world. First, Moraine Lake is a glacier-fed lake located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Rent a canoe and paddle across the bright blue lake, which gets its stunning colour from the silt brought in by the glacier water. If the weather’s nice, pack your camera and enjoy a hike around the lakeside, taking in the incredible peaks that circle Moraine. The more famous of the two lakes is probably picturesque Lake Louise; the turquoise-blue lake sits in front of a range of mountains and the Victoria Glacier, making it serious picture postcard material. You can paddle on the water, walk the trail along its shore, or simply do what tens of thousands of people have done before you—Instagram the heck out of it! Though it’s very close to the city of Calgary, and makes for a great day trip, many people choose to stay nearby at the stunning Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
The biggest lake in Banff National Park, Lake Minnewanka is 13 miles long and you’ll need to take an hour-long boat cruise to see it from every angle. Of course, there are also a number of trails around the glacial lake which provide their own beautiful views of the serene blue-green water. Beyond its natural beauty, Minnewanka is also rich in history, it was named the “Lake of the Spirits” by the First Nations who hunted and lived along its shores as early as 10,000 years ago. The elk, mule deer, mountain goats, and bears that they relied on for sustenance can still be found around the lake today.
Thousands of years ago, a glacier slowly tore through the rocks and formed the canyon that now houses the Athabasca Falls. That same glacier now provides the water which falls 23m down this Jasper National Park waterfall. That may not seem so high, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in sheer power. Take a stroll along the designated paths in the area to safe look-out spots where you can peer into the canyon, feel the spray of water on your face, and see the real force of this natural wonder in action.
In summertime, the 50m-deep Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, is a sight to behold. It’s home to fossils, waterfalls, animals, and leafy plant life. Take a self-guided tour and cross the gorge along four different bridges, each with its own unique view. But you might want to wait until winter; this attraction really becomes otherworldly when the temperature drops below freezing. Strap on sturdy spiked ice cleats to explore the frozen canyon and see if you can keep your jaw from dropping to the floor!
Icefields Parkway and Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
Once upon a time, the huge mountains of the Canadian Rockies were covered in ice. Some of that ice can still be found in those mountains, and a journey along the Icefields Parkway brings you right to its front door. More than 100 glaciers sit along this scenic stretch of road between Jasper and Lake Louise, each one more impressive than the last. The star of the show? The Columbia Icefield, which is the largest icefield in the Rockies. To see the icefield in all its glory, take a Glacier Adventure tour. You’ll board an Ice Explorer—a huge vehicle specifically designed to take on the icefield terrain—and head out onto the Athabasca Glacier. Walk out onto the glacier and see flashes of sparkling blue ice more than 20,000 years old. Then, head out onto the Glacier Skywalk, a cliff-edge walkway with only glass between you and the ground, almost 300m below.
Royal Tyrrell Museum
Around 75 million years ago, the town of Drumheller, Alberta, about an hour and a half north east of Calgary, was a hotbed of dinosaur activity. This eventually turned Drumheller into a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils and led to the creation of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. The museum is located in the Canadian Badlands, where it collects, preserves and presents the paleontological (AKA dinosaur) history of the region. With one of the biggest displays of dinosaur skeletons in the world, and over 160,000 individual specimens, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a must-see for both science lovers and fans of Jurassic Park.
National Music Centre
Calgary’s National Music Centre, based in Studio Bell, is a national organisation devoted to all things music. This, of course, includes musical performances, which are held in a 300-seat performance space, but it also takes in state-of-the-art studios to record music, the opportunity to study music and music technology, and an exploration of musical education and history—all with the help of over 2,000 artefacts across 22,000 square feet of exhibitions which help tell the stories of music in Canada. In other words, if you love music, the National Music Centre is a place to embrace your passion and find like-minded people to share it with.
Have you ever watched the Olympics and thought to yourself, “I want to try that!” Calgary’s WinSport is your chance to make the dream a reality. WinSport operates Canada Olympic Park, a primary venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics. The site now doubles as a world-class training facility and adventure park, where you can ride the fastest and longest single zipline in North America from the top of a ski jump, or grab a seat in the back of a bobsled and ride the course that made the Jamaican bobsled team famous. Luge, mountain biking, and a climbing wall round out this adrenaline-packed attraction.
Edmonton's River Valley
Edmonton's River Valley is the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America. Its 18,285 acres is 22 times the size of New York’s Central Park. Come and explore: the Valley contains 22 major parks, each of which is home to all the outdoor activities and green space you could possibly want. Cycle, walk, jog, snowshoe or ski over 90 miles of trails. For a different perspective, take a Segway tour or head out on the North Saskatchewan River in a canoe, kayak or on a stand up paddle board. Or maybe you’d rather just relax on a blanket and enjoy a picnic in the park? The public barbecues are there to be used. If you enjoy escaping the city for a day surrounded by nature, the Edmonton River Valley is calling your name.
West Edmonton Mall
How many shopping malls can boast they have the world’s largest indoor amusement park, largest indoor lake, largest indoor wave pool, a skating rink, and a zoo? Oh, and over 800 shops and 100 eating establishments? Only one. The West Edmonton Mall (at over 5.3 million square feet) is the biggest shopping mall in North America and is the size of a small city. Whether you fancy learning to ice skate, want to play mini-golf, ride a roller coaster or just shop the day away, you’re never short on things to see and do at this massive shopping centre. In fact, you could spend an entire weekend in the West Edmonton Mall, and only scratch the surface of what there is to discover.