Alberta is Canada’s fourth largest province by size and population. It stretches from British Columbia at the Rocky Mountains in the west, to Saskatchewan in the east and from the Northwest Territories in the north, to Montana, United States in the south.
Alberta spans great, contrasting sceneries of mountains, forests and prairies. It offers the visitor six UNESCO World Heritage sites, preserving mountain vistas, the Wood Buffalo National Park (the world’s largest inland delta and largest protected boreal forest), Dinosaur Provincial Park (one of the world’s great dinosaur fossil beds), historic Indigenous rock art (at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park), and buffalo hunting sites (Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump).
Alberta is a huge province, about three times the size of the United Kingdom (from where many of its people can trace a heritage) or nearly as large as Texas (with which is shares a historic connection though the cattle and petroleum industries).
In this huge expanse of territory, only four million Albertans reside, and about half of those live in just the two main cities of Calgary and Edmonton, with most of the rest of population clustered near the main highways.
For sports fans, this is the home one of the world’s greatest rodeos every July in Calgary, two famous professional ice hockey teams, and one of the longest ski seasons in the northern hemisphere.
Top Cities in Alberta
Below are 9 cities frequently considered to have the most interest for the visitor.
- Edmonton – the capital city of Alberta and the second largest urban population. Known for the largest urban parks system in North America, North America’s largest indoor shopping mall, and is self-proclaimed as “Canada’s Festival City”. Also home to Western Canada’s largest indoor museum, a huge outdoor museum, the provincial art gallery, a science centre, and an iconic pyramid-shaped plant conservatory
- Calgary – Alberta’s largest city and home to a beautiful river, high-rise architecture, world class zoo, and shopping. Famous for the 1988 Winter Olympics and the annual Calgary Stampede
- Banff – vacation destination in the Rockies offering a variety of outdoor activities. By far the busiest resort town in Alberta and one of the most popular in all of North America
- Jasper – Banff’s northerly neighbor (less visited than Banff but no less stunning)
- Drumheller – the dinosaur-lover’s mecca, site of the Royal Tyrell Museum, the largest paleontology museum in Canada, set in the desert-like “bandlands” landscape
- Fort McMurray – oil sands boom town deep in northern Alberta. The only large settlement in the entire northeastern quadrant of the province
- Lethbridge – a city in southern Alberta most famous for “coulees” (canyons) and proximity to four world heritage sites
- Medicine Hat – is in southern Alberta with a population nearing 60,000. The main stop on the Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Regina, Saskatchewan and jumping-off point for the Cypress Hills
- Red Deer – midway between Edmonton and Calgary and, with about 100,000 people, the third largest city in the province behind those two. The main centre for tourist services in Central Alberta
A Brief History
Located deep in the interior of North America and cut off from the coasts by the Rockies to the west and the rugged Canadian Shield to the north and east, Alberta was one of the last parts of North America explored by Europeans, last to be effectively controlled by a colonial force, and the last agricultural region to be settled by non-Indigenous people.
The original inhabitants were (and are) the various Indigenous peoples, who belong to a number of different ethno-linguistic groups (usually called “First Nations” in Canada, not “tribes” as in the US), namely the Cree, Blackfoot, Sarcee, Stoney, Chipewyan, Beaver, and Slavey.
These peoples were all nomadic hunters at the time of European contact, so travelers will not find any giant temples or monuments to see. There are however, “stone circles” (like smaller versions of Stonehenge) and rock art (painting and carvings) as well as archaeological remains of camps and hunting sites, including World Heritage sites at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.
European goods arrived, second-hand, in what would be Alberta long before the European themselves did and the local Indigenous people were able to take advantage of the horse, firearms, metal tools, and so on, to make their lives much easier.
However, with this trade new diseases were introduced that repeatedly devastated local communities over several centuries, opening the way for European expansion. Alberta was never seriously contested by any other other European power besides Britain, or more precisely the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a privately-owned British corporation that made money by selling animal furs in England.
The HBC did have to fend off incursions from other trading companies, however, by building post further inland, reaching Edmonton by 1795. At the same time Christian missionaries from various denominations were competing to convert the natives, often setting up missions within the walls of the trading posts.
Trading posts are preserved or rebuilt at several places around the province, notably Dunvegan, Fort Edmonton Park, Fort George and Buckingham House, Fort Victoria, and Rocky Mountain House.
Best Time To Visit Alberta
All of Alberta has a continental climate and is in the rain shadow of the Rockies, meaning it’s mostly dry and there are profound differences between the seasons. Within Alberta there is considerable variation from north to south.
Northern Alberta has a subarctic climate; outside of Siberia, northern Alberta has some of the most dramatic seasonal variations in the world, with winter averages nearly 40 degrees Celsius lower than summer averages. Snow that falls in November often doesn’t melt until April. Summers are brief but warm and dry.
The central and southern parts of the province are slightly warmer and drier than the north. The far south is effected in winter by the “Chinook winds” from the Pacific that can raise the temperature 20 degrees Celsius in a matter of hours, so snow often melts even in otherwise cold months.
Summers are warm and very dry, with almost no rain showers and most summer precipitation being brought only by thunderstorms.
Things To Do In Alberta
The main attraction in Alberta (outside of the two big cities) are the open spaces and the proximity to nature. This is a good place to visit if you like the idea of outdoor life.
Horse riding is a major attraction here, especially in the south and west: cowboy country. Guest ranches and trail rides are plentiful.
The ski resorts of Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Norquay, all in Banff National Park dish up almost every kind of terrain for the hardcore skier, yet allow novice skiers to have fun through green runs and long cruising runs. If the crowds bother you, there are other ski areas in the province.
Great hiking can be had in the Rockies or on Alberta’s sections of the Trans Canada Trail.
There are a few lakes that allow one to do boating, jetskiing or most other watersports despite Alberta’s landlocked nature.
Offroad driving using “quad” bikes, trucks, dirt bikes, and even snowmobiles is practically the official sport in Alberta.
Most Popular Destinations
- Banff National Park – the oldest and most famous of all of Canada’s national parks, and home to the town of Banff which holds unique shopping and entertainment. Outside that, there’s Lake Louise and world class skiing, hiking, and camping
- Jasper National Park – beautiful mountain and shopping attractions without the hustle of Banff
- Elk Island National Park – free ranging bison and wapiti near Edmonton
- David Thompson Country – a series of parks, campgrounds, and rustic lodges, along Highway 11 between Red Deer and the Rocky Mountains
- Kalyna Country – Alberta’s Ukrainian ethnic enclave in Edmonton’s eastern hinterland
- Kananaskis Country – major natural recreation area in southern Alberta at the foot of the Rockies south of Calgary
- Waterton Lakes National Park – a true natural gem in the Rockies in Alberta’s extreme southwest
- Wood Buffalo National Park – the largest national park in Canada home to the world’s largest freshwater delta and and free-ranging wood bison
- Dinosaur Provincial Park – one of the world’s great dinosaur fossil beds
- Historic Indigenous Rock Art – at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
- Buffalo Hunting Sites – Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
The biggest festivals in the province are the Calgary Stampede in July combining rodeo and carnival and Edmonton’s Fringe Festival in August showcasing avant-garde theatre and street performers.
However, hosting festivals has become the unofficial provincial obsession, especially in the short summer months, so expect local media and social media to have lots of suggestions every day from May to September and at least weekly the rest of the year.
Notable genres of festival include modern folk music (Calgary, Edmonton, Canmore), film (Edmonton, Calgary, Banff), food trucks (Edmonton, Calgary), multi-ethnic food and dance (Edmonton, Calgary), rodeo (Calgary, Red Deer, Ponoka), as well as street festivals for each of the provinces main ethnic communities, notably the Ukrainians (Edmonton, Ukrainian Village museum, Vegreville, Andrew), Indigenous peoples (province-wide around summer solstice, as well as sporadically the rest of the year), and in Edmonton and Calgary: Caribbean carnivals, Latin American fiestas, Filipino street parties, and more.
There are many excellent golf courses available to the public across the provinces. Areas of particular interest include the mountain parks where Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, Kananaskis Country, Stewart Creek, and Silver Tip are recognized as some of Canada’s best courses.
Central Alberta also offers several excellent courses, including Wolf Creek and Alberta Springs.
In the Edmonton area, popular courses include the Northern Bear, Cougar Creek, The Ranch, and Goose Hummock. I
n Drumheller, the back nine of the Dinosaur Point Golf Course features several very dramatic and spectacular holes.
Alberta is one of the world’s heartlands of ice hockey. Two of world’s top professional teams located here in Edmonton and Calgary playing from September to April, and if they qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, possibly as late as June.
But if you’d just like an inexpensive taste of the game without overpriced beer, laser light shows, and deafening music that have infected the professional game, there are dozens of elite amateur and university teams found across the province.
Winter sports more generally are easy to try here, with Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park being a good place to try bobsleigh, for example.
And every small town and city neighborhood will have a skating rink with public skating times and a curling rink, where locals can show you how to throw and stone if you’re willing to ask.
Rodeo is a major sport here as well, often tied in to the main fair of many towns, including even big-city Calgary. See the “events” section above for more.
Driving west out of Calgary towards British Columbia, the Rockies rise dramatically and quickly. The drive through Banff, Jasper or Glacier National Park can be quite spectacular. The Icefields Parkway between the towns of Banff and Jasper is definitely not to be missed.
In Edmonton, West Edmonton Mall is one of the province’s larger attractions. With over 800 retail shops and the world’s largest indoor entertainment centre, it’s entertaining even for the non-shoppers.
Also Edmonton is dubbed, “Canada’s Festival City” to the exceedingly high number of festivals of every kind. The city also boasts North America’s largest urban parkland system, which is very beautiful and completes the skyline over the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
Calgary offers the Calgary Stampede, the wild west-themed festival held every July complete with rodeos and fairs. One should also check out the Calgary Zoo and get a view from the top of the Calgary Tower.
It is easy for people from more densely populated and well-travelled Old World countries visiting Alberta (or Canada) to underestimate the vast distances involved, and the sparse availability of tourist-focused accommodations (as opposed to industry-focused), and other tourist services in the rural areas.
Nevertheless, with proper research and planning, a pleasant trip is easily achievable.
On the way to Alaska
See also: Driving between the contiguous United States and the Alaska Highway
Many Americans pass through Alberta on their way to the famous Alaska Highway. There are numerous routes to take to get to the start of the that highway at Dawson Creek near the B.C.-Alberta border. The exact route you choose will largely depend on where in the United States you are coming from.
Most people with budget and time constraints pick their route first and decide what to see along the way later. If, however, you are interested in seeing the best of Alberta, even if it takes you off the most direct path, then consult the “circle tour” below, which can easily be modified into a through route by doing either the western (Rocky Mountain) or eastern (prairie) sections.
If time and money are no object, there is also the famous “Scenic Route to Alaska” (if you think the thousands of miles of wilderness you’re about to pass through aren’t long and scenic enough) which follows Alberta Highway 40 and which provides a beautiful but isolated route from the Rockies to Grand Prairie.
Assuming you were starting in Calgary, had a week or more to spend, and didn’t mind a few longer drives, this would cover virtually every major attraction in the province. It could be done in either direction, or using Edmonton or Lethbridge as the starting or end points instead.
The Bar U Ranch National Historic Site gives and introduction to the ranching history and lifestyle of southern Alberta.
From Calgary International Airport, drive 80 km (1 hr) to find Black Diamond and Turner Valley twin towns hosting Alberta’s early energy industry history at the Turner Valley Gas Plant historic site (seasonal May to September). From there learn about two different historic industries at Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (35 km, 30 min) to learn about cowboy culture, then 129 km (1½ hr) to Crowsnest Pass to see the coal mining history of the region at Frank Slide and Leitch Collieries historic sites and a restored police barracks at the Crowsnest Museum. Camp or rent a cabin in Crowsnest.
The next day, drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (140 km, 1½ hr) to learn about ancient Indigenous hunting practices and then continue to Waterton Lakes National Park (100 km, 1 hr) to see the Rockies up close and stay there a day or two to hike, or take the lake ferry into Montana (USA) and back.
On the next travel day, drive to Cardston (55 km, 45 min) to see the grain elevators, Mormon temple, and Remington-Alberta Carriage Museum, then on to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (155 km, 1½ hr) to see the petroglyphs (rock carvings). This is the southernmost point, where you could continue into Montana if you like. You can also camp here or drive to Lethbridge (130 km, 1½ hr) for your choice of hotels and see the Japanese gardens while you are there. An extension is possible here to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park as well.
From Lethbridge, it’s 200 km (2 hr 15 min) to Dinosaur Provincial Park where you can have a guided bus tour and walk in the “badlands” and see the dig site where many of Alberta’s dinosaur fossils have been found, and another 170 km (1 hr 45 min) to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller where those same fossils are displayed in one of the world’s greatest dinosaur exhibits. Camping and hotels are both available in “Drum”.
The next day drive 30 km north to the ghost town of Rowley (Alberta) to sight-see (or nearby Big Valley to see the “creation museum”) before continuing to Wetaskiwin (190 km, 2 hr), to see the Reynolds-Alberta Museum with its huge collection of automobiles, aircraft, and machinery.
The following day, drive 110 km (1 hr 15 min) to Elk Island National Park to explore the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village outdoor museum explaining Alberta’s Eastern European heritage (seasonal May to September) and see the famous bison (buffalo) herds, then camp here or drive (50 km, 1 hr) to Edmonton, the capital, to stay. While there, get lost in Canada’s largest shopping mall and entertainment complex and see the art gallery, museum, and arena. This is the northernmost point on this itinerary, but only the centre of Alberta. Continue north from here if you are going to the Alaska Highway, for example.
Edmonton to Jasper is the longest stretch on this itinerary at nearly 4 hours, so consider stopping at Wabamun Lake or Pembina River Provincial Park for a picnic, or go in to Edson or Hinton for a restaurant meal, or shorten the trip and stay in a cabin or tipi (indigenous-style tent) in Brule. At Jasper, you are back in the Rockies with lots of hikes to do or a gondola if you prefer.
From Jasper the world-famous Icefields Parkway (230 km, 3 hr) takes you to Lake Louise, reputed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. If you can afford it, the Chateau Lake Louis hotel is one of Canada’s most famous, otherwise proceed to Banff (55 km, 45 min) or Canmore (an additional 25 km, 20 min) for more reasonable accommodations but still in the beautiful setting of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
There are more hikes and drives from here and the town of Banff is also home to several historic sites and museums and lots of touristy shops. From here, you can make side trips to Kananaskis Country for more mountains or Cochrane to get back to cowboy country.
Finally from Canmore to Calgary’s airport is 120 km, or 1 hr 15 min in good traffic.
Considered one of the world’s most scenic single-day drives, from Lake Louise to Jasper, you drive right past the edge of the Columbia Glacier, the largest glacier in northern hemisphere outside of the Arctic.
This can easily to turned into a circle tour (see above) by adding stops in Edmonton and Calgary. It can also be part of a route to Alaska by linking with Alberta Highway 40 (see above).
The major year-round places to learn about Indigenous culture would be the Royal Alberta Museum in Central Edmonton, Fort Edmonton Park in West Edmonton, the Glenbown Museum in downtown Calgary, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum in Banff, Blackfoot Crossing on the Siksika reserve near Strathmore, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Heritage Park in Calgary, Tsuut’ina Nation Culture/Museum just outside Calgary. Seasonal sites include Metis Crossing in Smoky Lake, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park near Milk River, and the Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel near Bassano.
One of the best ways to see Indigenous culture up close is to take in a “powwow” (a festival centred and around dancing, drumming, and singing competitions). Most reserves and have at least one each summer; for a listing see https://windspeaker.com/powwows or https://www.travelalberta.com/ca/things-to-do/cultural-heritage-arts/indigenous/events/.
There are also two famous ones attached to the Calgary Stampede and Edmonton’s “K-Days” fair in July. Several stand-alone powwows are also found cities now as well, often around National Indigenous Day on June 20th. Events are also common during National Métis Week during the first week of November.
Increasingly, Indigenous themes are integrated into other types of festivals, such as the arts, notably the Dreamspeakers International Film Festival in Edmonton the last week of April and the Rubaboo Arts Festival the following week.
Indigenous-inspired cuisine is surprisingly difficult to find in Alberta, partly due to strict (overly?) regulations on using wild-harvested meats and plants. Compared to the Nordic countries, there is comparatively little emphasis on using wild foods among Albertan chefs.
It is possible to find farmed bison and elk meat but it is much more expensive than beef for a similar taste. The one Indigenous food than every Albertan knows, bannock (fry bread or flat bread), is very recent in origin. To be sure, for thousands of years Indigenous people here made various kinds of flat bread from flours made of corn, nuts, roots, and so on.
But the modern recipe of wheat flour, lard, and baking soda, is entirely based on goods introduced by Canadian fur traders in the last 250 years. Nevertheless, bannock is considered thoroughly nativized, and you will find it at every museum and powwow.
Shopping for Indigenous souvenirs typically means leather clothing, especially moccasins (slippers) and mittens, decorated with glass beads. Other handicrafts could include tobacco pipes, saddles, parkas (fur coats) and ribbon skirts.
Nowadays, however, many Indigenous artists prefer to work in media like sculpture and painting and their work can be found more often at art galleries than at souvenir shops on the sides of highways.
Since Alberta shares the Rocky Mountains with British Columbia (to the west) and several American states (to the south and southwest), travelers interested in skiing, camping, hiking and other outdoor pursuits not need not limit themselves to just the Albertan section of the mountain chain.
The other major cities with notable attractions and international air connections near to Alberta—relatively, but still many hours drive away— would be Vancouver, Seattle, or Denver, though there are intra-U.S. connections via smaller airports like Billings or Spokane as well.
A less common path is to the east or southeast, into the wide open spaces of the Great Plains. Here there are no rail connections and few major airports, so driving is virtually a must. When traveling across Saskatchewan or the northern tier of the neighboring states, you are far from the usual tourist trail, but you can find little-known natural gems here like Grasslands
National Park or the Great Sandhills. For urban destinations, the only other main city on the Canadian Prairies to rival Calgary or Edmonton is Winnipeg, with its historic centre, Canadian Museum of Human Rights and an international airport. A little further to the south, major attractions like the Badlands and Black Hills region of South Dakota are accessible with enough time, and from there on to more commonly-travelled parts of the U.S.A.
The most adventurous next step from Alberta is certainly to the north, where literally millions of square miles of boreal forests are to be found. The Alaska Highway through the Yukon is the obvious choice in terms of routes to the great north country, but consider also the Northwest Territories for those who truly want to be off the beaten path.
Of course, once you’ve mastered the rugged-mountains-and-vast-arid-plains combination of Alberta perhaps you’d like to compare to similar experiences on the other side of the globe. Consider Australia’s Great Dividing Range and Outback, Russia’s Urals and Steppes, South Africa’s Drakensberg and Veld, or Argentina’s Andes and Pampas.
English is the main language spoken by most people in Alberta, and 98% of the population understands it to some degree. The main minority languages are French (6.7%), Tagalog (3.5%), and Spanish (2.6%), and although there are many other languages spoken by small communities within Alberta, you should only expect services at most businesses in English.
The one notable exception to this rule is that French is available at all federal government institutions (national parks, post offices, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachments) and services at provincial and municipal government offices are available in French in a very few areas with significant Francophone communities (twelve total communities).
The only other place you might find French services are in and around the one French-language university campus in Edmonton—the Campus Saint-Jean (part of the University of Alberta)— in the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood.
First Nations languages such as Cree, Dené, Blackfoot, etc. are spoken to varying degrees among those communities as both mother tongue and as a second language.
Taxis can be in short supply in Calgary and Edmonton at times, especially during holidays, poor weather, and on weekends. It is advisable to phone ahead in the daytime for a reservation if you realize you may need a taxi. In most cases, taxis are easily available at the airports.
The Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton is place for a more urban dining or drinking experience.
Since Alberta was settled after the industrial revolution was already well established, it completely lacks a regional food culture based on millennia of peasant traditions as one would expect in the Old World or even many local specialties based on a few generations of adaptation and hybridization as you might expect in longer-settled parts of North America.
What it does have is an abundance of quality beef (and bison!), raised on its rich grasses and finished on local barley (not corn [maize], as in the US) and a high tolerance for international influences, going back right to the beginning when men from China’s Fujian province often worked as cooks in railway-building camps. To this was added the British influence, American cowboy traditions, and continental European dishes.
As a result the smallest towns will have a “Chinese café” usually serving an odd assortment of hamburgers, spring rolls, won ton soup, “perogies” (Ukrainian dumplings), and poutine. In the bigger towns and suburban neighbourhoods this quirky eclecticism has sadly been largely replaced by an assortment of chain restaurants. However, in the main resort towns of the Rockies one can find fine dining, and in the two major cities it is possible to find a number of more experimental restaurants as well as variety of ethnic dishes from every corner of the globe, due to recent immigration (Calgary has the province’s only Uzbek restaurant, for example).
The only thing truly hard to find is good seafood; but when in Rome do as the Romans do, and when in Alberta, go for beef. If you’re vegetarian, you will still be distinctly in the minority and might suffer from a lack variety outside the major cities, though even the big chains are much better than in years past.
The two biggest dangers in Alberta are the weather and the wildlife. Other people aren’t much of a problem. Alberta as a whole is a relatively safe area. However common sense should be applied. Do not leave valuables visible in vehicles and lock all vehicle doors.
The following areas of Alberta are considered higher risk areas with respect to crime.
Calgary – walking during night hours should be avoided in the East Village, Victoria Park, and the Bow River Pathway between Eau Claire Market and the Calgary Zoo. These areas are prone to drugs and prostitution. There are panhandlers on various downtown streets.
Edmonton – an area northeast of downtown is a prostitution stroll. There is also a stretch of Whyte Avenue that can be a problem after 7PM, given its high bar concentration.
Growth in urban centers in Alberta has led to increased traffic. Allow plenty of time to reach a destination, especially during rush hour or during adverse weather.
Alberta’s weather is very changeable and volatile, especially in the mountains and the foothills and also during the spring season. Driving conditions can deteriorate quickly. Before going out, always check the local forecast. Road conditions are available through the Alberta Motor Association.
During winter strong Chinook winds in the foothills, especially south of Calgary, can blow a vehicle off the road. Highways 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22 and 23 south of Calgary are the most vulnerable to these conditions, with Highway 22 usually being the worst. Extra caution is advised, particularly for higher-height vehicles such as trucks and SUVs.
West Nile Virus
Alberta has had cases of the West Nile Virus. In the spring and summer, it is wise to be protected using Deet-based repellents.
The area within and around the mountain parks is bear country. Hikers, hunters and campers in these areas should follow all bear safety tips. Campsites should be kept clean, all dishes properly washed, and all tables wiped clean after a meal.
Never leave any food or garbage loose or unattended. Hikers should travel as a group, make noise regularly and stay on established trails. Pets should be kept out of bear country.
During summers tornadoes are common and can happen anywhere in central Alberta. Edmonton has been hit by many tornadoes, the biggest of which was an F4 in 1987. Hail is very common during these storms — usually very small but sometimes as big as softballs.
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