An artist's guide to falling in love with Edmonton: Hidden spaces and choose your own oasis
The treasures here aren't just in shops. Dallas Curow tells us how Edmonton's charm won her heart
Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Lethbridge, Sudbury or Victoria? In CBC Arts's new series "I He(art) My City," a local artist offers an insider's guide to the city they call home. Here, photographer and makeup artist Dallas Curow shows you her Edmonton.
Edmonton welcomed me into its arms just under three years ago, and moving here really did feel like an embrace due to the startling friendliness of Edmontonians. Having previously lived in some of Canada's busiest cities such as Toronto and Montreal, I knew little of Edmonton and was slightly nervous that I would quickly grow bored in this comparatively smaller Prairie city. Oh, how wrong I was.
In addition to offering vibrant arts and cultural scenes, Edmonton has wonderful dining and drinking options, as well as attractions both world class and offbeat. Sitting pretty on the 53rd parallel, it offers seemingly endless sunshine — 18 hours per day at summer's height. Even during the frigid winter, it's usually quite sunny. And yet the sweltering humidity that plagues so much of the rest of our country is blissfully absent in Edmonton's dry climate.
As a photographer, I find inspiration in the big Prairie skies, the flora and fauna and even the strange mishmash of architectural styles. I often find myself feeling buoyed by the palpable and contagious energy of the city.
If you're visiting, it's helpful to have access to a vehicle to traverse its sprawling terrain, but public transit is available and gradually improving with the expansion of the LRT line. If you're short on time and want to get a sense of the city's most bustling thoroughfare, most people will direct you straight to Whyte Avenue, which is located on the south side of the river valley from downtown, and just east of the University of Alberta campus. In my opinion, however, part of Edmonton's charm is it has hidden gems all over the place, and sometimes they're tucked away in the most unexpected locations. If you have a little more time to explore beyond Whyte, here are some of the things you might enjoy.
The river valley
I mention this first because it's simply spectacular. The lush valley following the banks of the meandering North Saskatchewan River is the largest urban park in Canada — 160 km of maintained trails. Simply walk down one of the countless sets of stairs or paths down into the river valley and find yourself in a different world that feels totally removed from the city. You can also ride the funicular down from the foot of the historic Fairmont Hotel Macdonald.
Make the most of winter with festivals
On that note, one of the things I love about Edmonton is how it boldly hosts countless festivals in the coldest months. From the spectacular Ice Castle to illuminated skating trails, there are plenty of beautiful places to joyfully freeze your ass off. My personal favourite winter activity is the Flying Canoe Volant Festival, which takes place each February in the Mill Creek Ravine. It's inspired by a legend of First Nations and French-Canadian origins and celebrates these cultures and their rich traditions. Visit at night and follow the colourful lanterns reflecting on the frozen creek to enjoy traditional music, storytelling and foods cooked over a campfire.
Choose your own oasis
When it's winter seven months a year, you do need somewhere mild to warm your toes. Edmonton has plenty of urban oases where you can get a burst of lush greenery in stark contrast to the snow. Downtown you can visit the glass pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory, pop into the Citadel Theatre's expansive atrium filled with tropical plants or ride the long, waterfall-flanked escalators of the Shaw Conference Centre while taking in the river valley views. If you have a little more time, make the drive to neighbouring St. Albert to visit The Enjoy Centre, a sprawling complex that houses a large greenhouse as well as a cafe, restaurant, organic grocery store and more.
Favourite spaces in hidden places
As previously mentioned, many of Edmonton's best spots are tucked just out of sight in unexpected spaces, such as a cozy whisky bar (The Bothy) in a plaza off the hectic Calgary Trail, or a lovely family-run bistro (Juniper Cafe & Bistro) in a rather unsightly strip mall. One of my favourite hideaways is Little Brick, a café and general store located in a historic home juxtaposed with newer builds in the darling little neighbourhood of Riverdale, just a quick jaunt down a steep hill from the heart of downtown.
Catch a movie in a classic theatre
Another favourite historical spot of mine is the Garneau Theatre, which is home to Metro Cinema and shows a diverse selections of films in the grand yet still intimate setting of an Art Moderne style theatre. One particularly memorable experience was a midnight screening of Ziggy Stardust...after the passing of David Bowie in a packed theatre of fellow mourning fans.
A coffee lover's dream
Edmonton has made a coffee lover out of me. I was a diehard tea drinker until I began discovering Edmonton's array of coffee shops, and now I'm converted. A handful of these places (The Colombian, ACE, Transcend and Rogue Wave) actually run small-batch roasteries as well, so I highly recommend that you grab a bag of beans to take home and savour later.
After leaving Montreal, I thought I would be forever pining for the pastries of my beloved former home — but on our first apartment-hunting trip my partner slyly took me to some of Edmonton's finest bakeries to entice me to move here. It was a clever and effective tactic, and I now firmly believe Edmonton's pastry chefs can hold their own against Montreal's! One of my favourite spots for sweet treats is The Art of Cake for its charming decor, exquisite desserts and warm hospitality. Other must-see spots for those with sweet teeth include Duchess Bakeshop, District Café & Bakery and La Boule Patisserie and Bakery.
Restos in a row
If you're looking for something a little more savoury, you can make it easy on yourself and head to the Old Strathcona neighbourhood to visit one of three places in a row. There's MEAT for fantastic barbeque; one door down is The Next Act for refined pub fare; adjacent to that is Pip, a cozy 28-seat space that specializes in brunch but serves dinner and drinks until late as well. All three restaurants are run by the same team, and a common thread of comfort, style and deliciousness unites them. The dining possibilities in Edmonton are myriad, but you'll find the highest concentration of options along Whyte Avenue and its surrounding streets.
A ride through history
For a dose of kitsch and nostalgia, climb aboard the High Level Bridge Streetcar. It's a great way to travel between Old Strathcona and downtown while taking in the city sights from atop the high level bridge.
Shop for treasures
The shopping in Edmonton is quite good, and it's no secret that the West Edmonton Mall contains virtually every mainstream store you can imagine and then some — but if you're on the hunt for something special, definitely opt to visit a local business. My favourite place to shop for gifts (and for myself) is Maven & Grace. They carry an evolving selection of vintage and antique items, as well as curated home goods and gift items and fresh flowers. Just a few more of my favourite local businesses include The Artworks, LUX Beauty Boutique, Gravity Pope, Blogger Armoire, The Silk Road Spice Merchant, Poppy Barley, The Skinny, Pura Botanicals, Plum Home & Design, Workhall and Listen Records.
I have no doubt that every city is proud of its farmers' markets, but in my opinion Edmonton has some of the finest I've visited anywhere outside of San Francisco. Nearly every day of the week you can visit a market somewhere in the city and find a bounty of agrarian goods, handmade items, art and food stalls. The standout markets are City Market Downtown, Old Strathcona Farmer's Market and 124 Grand Market.
More local art essentials:
- band Purity Ring
- multidisciplinary visual artist Hayley Wright (Paper + Ink)
- rapper and former poet laureate Cadence Weapon
- Art Gallery of Alberta
Check back every week as we add new guides!