Welcome to Edmonton. This vibrant city in the heart of Alberta is more than just a great base for exploring the Rockies – it’s also an adventurous capital in its own right, full of outdoor activities to try and cosy places to eat and spend the night. Come discover this city’s laid-back brand of Canadian cool.
If you had to sum up Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada in one word, you might pick friendly, or foodie. And, increasingly, another word might resonate with visitors – outdoorsy.
MY ACTIVE GUIDE TO EDMONTON ALBERTA
Edmonton has long been the perfect base for exploring Canadian’s mountains – it’s an easy hop to Alberta’s slice of gorgeous Rockies, including Banff and Lake Louise. But the city is also full of amazing little adventures right in the city, and in both winter and summer. Go snowboarding, cycle in the River Valley, challenge yourself on high ropes, camp out in the wilderness, canoe on a gorgeous lake. Your only problem will be how to fit all the amazing activities in my guide into just one trip.
GET ACTIVE OUTDOORS
Explore Elk Island National Park
This. Place. Is. Gorgeous. Canada is no slouch when it comes to beautiful national parks (it boasts 40, all of which are free to visit this year as a celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday) but Elk Island, a short drive from Edmonton, is special – this wild haven close to the city has its own herd of bison, and the park is key to their conservation. These huge fluffy beasts roam free (there are also moose and beavers and, of course, elk to spot) and you can drive or hike (or snowshoe in the winter) through the aspen forests and prairie meadows to try to catch a glimpse of them. In the heart of the park is huge, placid Astotin Lake, which you can canoe and SUP (see below) and next to it, a large, easy-going campsite where you can stick up a tent, park your adventuremobile or sleep in a unique cabin (see places to stay). This is a truly wild place – I got up early to run one morning and had the forest completely to myself (except for the beaver I spotted, busy carting some logs around). A magical place to escape for a weekend.
Image via Explore Edmonton
Canoe on Astotin Lake and the North Saskatchewan river
Whilst you’re in Elk Island National Park, head to Astotin Lake. Next to the aptly named Sandy Beach, Haskin Canoes rent out canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, so you can get out on the water. Staying in Edmonton? They also offer rentals and guided paddles along the North Saskatchewan as it meanders through the river valley, including moonlit nighttime tours – a totally unique way to experience the city.
Play at Snow Valley Aerial Park
From afar this may look like a kid’s dream, but get up close and you’ll realise that Snow Valley Aerial Park is also perfect for grownup daredevils, climbers and anyone keen for a challenge. There are three levels of high ropes to tackle, which is helpful for building up your confidence. The friendly, helpful staff are brilliant, too – they even got me walking across a slackline suspended two floors from the ground. Perfect for (safe) thrillseeking.
Cycle or snowshoe the river valley with River Valley Adventure
Edmontonians are rightly proud of the glorious river valley that runs through the city, a green space flanking the wide North Saskatchewan river that serves a a natural playground for the city. In the summer, run, walk or cycle along the shady, tree-lined trails. In winter, go snow shoeing or fat biking. River Valley Adventure offer rentals and friendly guides with a passion for helping visitors explore the valley’s 480km of tracks. Time to go out and play.
Image via River Valley Adventure
Catch the Northern Lights
It’s not just in Iceland where the aurora borealis likes to put on a spectacular show – the elusive and mangical Northern Lights visit Alberta in the winter months, too. Check out Aurora Watch, which predicts when the best light shows will take place, then head out into the countryside for the least light pollution and the best show.
Image via Vincent Guth on Unsplash
Go cross-country skiing at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – ever wanted to try cross-country skiing? The 550 acres of parkland and snow-clad forests around the Strathcona Wilderness Centre, half an hour from town, are perfect for exploring on skis and snowshoes. You’ll find you’re very quiet when swishing along on skis, so watch out for winter wildlife in the aspen forest.
Image via Explore Edmonton
Go urban snowboarding
Show off your snow skills with the city’s spectalar skyline as a backdrop. When the first flakes fall, the Edmonton Ski Club set up ski and snowboard areas in the city’s river valley, including a mogul run and a terrain park. The Ski Hills are not just for pros, though – beginners can get tuition from on-site instructors, too. There’s even a chilled alfresco apres-ski bar to warm up in afterwards.
Image via Explore Edmonton
WHERE TO EAT
Saturday Downtown Farmer’s Market
I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a Saturday than strolling around this wonderful market with a hot cup of coffee and a hearty appetite. In summer the streets are a riot of colour and tasty smells as local farmers pile stalls high with fresh veggies and craftspeople sell artisanal ice cream, honey, wine and the Edmontonian speciality, green onion cakes. I defy you not to be tempted by the lovely things produced by local makers, too, including soaps, terraniums and local designer Salgado Fenwick’s whimsical prints. In winter, the whole thing moves indoors to City Hall.
District Cafe and Bakery
I love the all-hours vibe of this serene, white-walled cafe. Early morning coffee? Lazy weekend brunch? Cosy dinner? The District cafe will do you proud for all of those, dishing up fresh ingredients and lots of options for vegetarians and vegans (plus seriously good coffee). If you do nothing else, get a bowl of the insanely delicious coconut rice pudding here.
Image via District Cafe and Bakery
Little Brick Cafe and General Store
An old-fashioned, homey haven. Little Brick may be a stone’s throw from the city centre but grabbing a coffee in this 100-year-old redbrick house feels like popping into someone’s (gorgeous) kitchen for a cuppa. inside is all white walls and fresh plants, and the delicious soups, bread and coffee will feed both your body and your soul on a chilly day.
Vegetarians, look away now. MEAT makes no bones about it – this is carnivorous delights at its best. The menu is simple: beef brisket, pulled pork, ribs, smoked chicken and more toothsome delights are sold by weight and dished up with plenty of sides, plus pecan pie (if you can manage it) for pudding. Come here hungry.
Central Social Hall
The clue’s in the name – this is an eatery to meet or make friends in. Chow down with the locals at the big wooden table in the middle of the Central Social Hall, which is super lively after dark when the post-work crowd pop in for cocktails and gyoza and a boogie. A real pick-me-up of a place in winter.
Image via Central Social Hall
WHERE TO STAY
Metterra on Whyte
Metterra oozes a smart but relaxed vibe. This city slicker of a hotel has huge, comfy rooms to crash in, plus a gym and a slick lounge, and is in the perfect location (it’s right on Whyte Avenue, the main road through super-hip neighbourhood Old Strathcona). Walk out the door and you’re in Edmonton’s coolest quarter, spoilt for choice as to where to eat tasty street-inspired food or shop for vintage treasures.
Where the rock and roll kids stay when they’re in town. Rooms at Crash Hotel are quirky and comfortable and the big main lounge is a good hangout spot in its own right, with a vintage cocktail bar for that late-night tipple. A great choice if you’re planning a party weekend – this beautiful old building has survived two fires, two world wars and the prohibition and come out the other side with its own on-site liquor store, so you know you’re in for a lively one.
Image via Crash Hotel
Camp in an oTENTik at Elk Island National Park
The perfect balance between cabin and bell tent, oTENTik’s are spacious, heated tents you can rent for a night in Canada’s national parks. This is camping, but not as you know it – each tent includes bunkbeds and a table and chairs, plus a porch to sit out on, a barbeque, firepit and firewood. Each oTENTik sleeps six, making them perfect for escaping to the woods with your mates – grill some sausages, roast some marshmallows over the fire and watch the sun set through the trees.
Don’t fancy splashing out on a hotel or sleeping in a tent in the wild? Edmontonians have a very nice design eye for smart city apartments, and you can rent a gaggle of them via AirBnB, an affordable way to have your own sweet pad in the city centre for a weekend. The biggest struggle is deciding where you want to live for a few days – brick-walled condo, slick loft, cute little garden cottage?
Image via AirBnB
VISIT EDMONTON: Itching to explore this charming, chilled-out city?
Find out more at Explore Edmonton, including great guides to what to do in the city in each season.