Arts·I He(art) My City

All-day book bliss and all-night karaoke: An artist's guide to falling in love with Calgary

A thriving cultural scene enticed writer and art critic Maeve Hanna to move here, and she's sharing some of her favourite findings with you.

A thriving cultural scene enticed writer and art critic Maeve Hanna to move here

(CBC Arts)

Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Calgary, Yellowknife or Saint John? In CBC Arts's continuing series "I He(art) My City," a local artist offers an insider's guide to the city they call home. Here, writer and art critic Maeve Hanna shows you her Calgary.

Calgary might be getting a lot of attention right now because of the ongoing annual Calgary Stampede, but there's so much more to it than that! I didn't grow up in the city, but since I first started visiting years ago, I have found a considerable soft spot for its vibrant art scene, bookstores, cafés, bars and urban nature. It's what really informed my decision to move here last May, and I'm proud to share some of my findings with you.

Take in some art

Stride Gallery. (Maeve Hanna)

Calgary's art scene is thriving. The exhibitions and programming never cease to amaze or disappoint me, and for someone who has dedicated their life to the visual arts, this was essential in the search for a new home. Three favourite spaces that I frequent are TRUCK Contemporary Art on 10th Avenue SW, Untitled Art Society on 11th Ave SW and Stride Gallery on Macleod Trail SE. They host a range of exhibitions from local, provincial and national artists — including group exhibitions — and offer extensive programming. At these galleries, you can also catch performances by artists, readings, book launches, events in partnership with other local organizations and even karaoke fundraisers. Glenbow is another notable space that offers four floors of exhibitions, some permanent and some rotating. Esker Foundation in Inglewood also features an incredible roster of exhibitions year-round (in fact, it was one of the gallery's exhibitions that inspired me to write and publish my first piece of art criticism back in 2013). While you're at the Esker, check out the Lantern Library and Little Lantern Library, publicly available reference collections for adults and children that complement the exhibitions. And speaking of libraries...

Browse the shelves

Calgary Central Library. (Maeve Hanna)

The Calgary Public Library system is extensive, with branches located in communities across the city. But the most beautiful and awe-inspiring, hands down, is the new Central Library branch. Architecturally, it is stunning, featuring a reflective, hexagon-covered exterior and spiralling interior lit by skylights. Designed by international architectural firm Snøhetta in partnership with Calgary's Dialog design group, Central Library offers a place for quiet reflection and educational pursuits while being open and welcoming to everyone. It is located in the East Village — a neighbourhood with a nice vibe, many historic buildings and an apiary named The Hive in East Village, which can be found along the river by the historic Simmons Building. Another one of my favourite branches of the CPL is the Memorial Park Library in Calgary's Beltline district. This branch hosts many of the events associated with the Wordfest festival in its original sandstone building, which is surrounded by a beautiful flower-filled park.

If I'm not at the library, I enjoy visiting Shelf Life Books. This delightful little bookshop is situated next to Memorial Park and has an excellent selection. The poetry section includes classics and new essentials, there is an extensive philosophy and cultural section and there's also a comprehensive selection of books by Indigenous authors and zines by local artists. Pages on Kensington, which I discovered shortly after moving to Calgary, is two floors of book bliss where I have found some excellent titles in poetry, in particular on their sale shelves out front.

Cool down with some ice cream

I have been an ice cream aficionado since I spent a summer in Quebec working at an ice cream shop. Lucky for me — and all those out there who love this cold summer indulgence — Calgary is rich with unique ice cream shops. Lukes Drug Mart in Bridgeland is one of them. Besides serving delicious ice cream, Lukes is also a café, record vendor and grocery store. Another find is Uzu Taiyaki. Located in Chinatown, this shop serves Asian-inspired flavours such as pandan, ube, Thai milk tea and black sesame. I always go for their signature taiyaki cone — a fish-shaped waffle cone which is then lined with filling and dressed with confectionary treats. Enjoy your cone by the river just steps away from the shop and keep your eyes peeled for a beaver. This summer, I was lucky enough to discover the Inglewood Drive-In. It might seem ordinary at first sight, but stop here for a hard-to-locate, refreshing and never disappointing treat: Dole Whip. This summer delight is vegan, gluten-free and inexpensive.

Get your nature fix

McHugh Bluff. (Maeve Hanna)

One of the many delights of Calgary is the extensive network of bike paths, in particular those that follow the Bow and Elbow Rivers. You'll bike around the city, making the trip not only eco-friendly and healthy but beautiful, too. Cross the river via bridges that extend under the vehicle bridges for a different perspective on the city. Make your way to Prince's Island Park, tour the island, sit by the river in an Adirondack chair and watch for a beaver building its dam. Farther east is St. Patrick's Island Park. Here, you may spot an osprey that has been nesting in one of the light fixtures for years. One of my favourite things to do here is watch the osprey by the river's edge while the sun sets over the city. If you are visiting and don't have a bike, Calgary has a bike share program. Pick up any Lime bike you see around the city (just be sure to bring your own helmet). It's $1 to start and 30 cents per minute as you continue your ride. They're e-assist bikes, which is helpful in case you come across a particularly big hill. 

Calgary is also home to many urban parks. I love visiting the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, where I wander the many paths through Saskatoon bushes, watch deer and spot red-winged blackbirds and swallows dancing among the trees and over the water. Fish Creek Provincial Park is a short distance outside the city centre but accessible by public transit. This natural wonderland is the second largest urban park in Canada and one of the largest in North America. Take a walk along any of the more than 80 kilometres of trails and you might spot deer, coyotes and more than 200 species of birds, including owls and great blue herons. Weaselhead Flats is a stunning park stretching 237 hectares, and McHugh Bluff is another great spot. Choose a bench and take in a vista of the city below (if it's a clear day, you will see the Rocky Mountains in the distance — a sight that never gets old). One of my recent discoveries since becoming a dog walker is Lindsay Park. Located in Mission, it may seem like a fairly regular park when you first enter, but keep your eyes peeled because this park is full of bunnies!

J is for java

I recently picked up a copy of M Train by Patti Smith. While NYC and Calgary are disparate worlds, reading about Smith writing in her notebook every morning at her favourite café reminded me how vital this practice is to my own existence. When first getting to know the city, I too began to frequent certain cafés where I could sit and read or write. One that lives large in my psyche is Lina's Italian Market. What I love about Lina's is its no-fuss atmosphere and dedication to delicious coffee. It also sells pastries and groceries. If you love coffee and cats, you're in luck because Calgary now has a cat café. The Regal Cat Café in Kensington has some of the best gluten-free cookies in town — and you get to pet and play with cats, too (make sure to plan ahead as you must make an appointment to visit the felines). If this is not your style, check out The Roasterie across the street. Here, they roast their own beans and brew their own coffee, and the aroma as you walk in is to die for. This café is especially lovely on a sunny day. It's small but quaint, and there is plenty of seating inside and out. Lastly, recently opened, fully licensed and rocking vinyl all day and all night is I Love You Coffee Shop in the Beltline. Located close to Shelf Life Books, this café also serves Montreal-style bagels. 

Brunch and bevvies

Blackfoot Truckstop. (Maeve Hanna)

One of my favourite things to do in Calgary is brunch — and Calgary knows how to do brunch well. A staple and all-time classic is the famed Blackfoot Truckstop Diner in Inglewood. A mainstay that has been on the diner scene since 1956, the Blackfoot Truckstop is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their all-day breakfast options include the Trucker's or Cowboy Breakfasts, daily specials and Flapper Pie — a prairie classic with a foot-high meringue. Stop here for the classic diner food and the decor: there is a train that runs around the ceiling, a jukebox at every table, Route 66-themed upholstery and pink walls. Galaxie Diner is another favourite, located on 11th St SW in the Beltline. Often with lines out the door, Galaxie is popular among local brunch aficionados. It offers an assortment of inspired omelettes, classic milkshakes and bottomless hash browns, and your bill is accompanied by nostalgic Dubble Bubble bubble gum. Once you're finished brunch, wander down the street to Peacock Boutique, a charming consignment shop. Make sure to check out their $5 bin! Or head to Kalamata Grocery — here you can pick up fresh feta cheese right out of the barrel, as well as olives and breads.

Sing your heart out

I've always loved to sing, though not particularly in front of an audience. That all changed when I moved to Calgary and fell in love with karaoke. I have never visited a city that caters to lovers of karaoke quite as much as Calgary. The city is full of quirky and fun karaoke bars, my favourite being Texas Lounge. Tucked away behind some defunct shops off 17th Ave SW, it might be a little difficult to find, but Texas Lounge (or as locals like to call it, Texass) is well worth it. Selling cheap beer and offering karaoke on Tuesdays and Saturdays — hosted by Carl, who also appears in drag as Karla — this bar is underground, a little grungy and a lot of fun. Galaxy Karaoke Bar on 10th Ave SW is a Korean-style karaoke bar. Here, you can rent a room with your friends, browse the catalogue and sing your favourite tune with all your besties. Nanta Karaoke & Bar on 6th St SW offers the choice of a private room or a traditional karaoke bar.

More local essentials

About the Author

Maeve Hanna is a writer based in Calgary, AB (Mohkínstsis, Treaty 7 Territory). She holds degrees in Visual Art and Art History specializing in Icelandic contemporary art from York University and Université du Québec à Montréal. She writes art criticism for a number of Canadian and international publications and has taken part in writing residencies in Banff, AB and New Orleans, LA. She can be followed on Instagram @maeve_hanna