Alberta is the second westernmost of the 10 provinces in Canada. (only British Columbia is farther west) It includes parts of the Canadian Rockies and is known for its oil and natural gas fields and cattle farming.
Alberta has a lot to offer visitors. It is a surprisingly diverse province in many ways, from the beauty of the Rockies to the serene flatness of prairie to the wilderness of the northern forests. The two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton offer the amenties that most cities in North America have, and also have some unique attractions of their own.
Located in the southeast of the province, this region features visually striking landscapes. In the valleys and plains shaped by thousands of years of erosion, fossils are very commonly found. Medicine Hat is the largest city.
World-renowned beauty and home to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Plenty of things to do for the adventurer, city-dweller and everyone in between. More than just busy tourist hubs, the Rockies are so vast it's easy to find a place where you can feel like you're the only one on the planet.
Housing Alberta's largest city of one million or so, Calgary, this region is growing fast with the associated headaches of sprawl and traffic. Here you can experience big-city life while still being less than an hour from complete isolation.
Where wild horses run free, this mostly rural region features rolling hills, prairie, and occasional forest. The most densely populated region of the province apart from Edmonton and Calgary, there are many towns and smaller cities. The region's centre is the city of Red Deer.
Mostly forest and farms, this less-populated region features wilderness good for fishing and hunting. There is a large oil industry presence centred around the oil sands at Fort McMurray.
|Edmonton Capital Region
Alberta's capital city of Edmonton and its suburbs have a population just smaller than Calgary's, but it's still growing quickly. Being a big city, there's lots to do, and the wild Elk Island National Park is renowned for its abundance of hoofed animals.
|Peace River Valley
Breathtaking nature takes this region as its beauty. It has a ton of forestry and small towns. Grande Prairie is its largest settlement.
This region might be best known for how windy it is. It has many windfarms, regular farms, and Waterton Lakes National Park, where the Rockies suddenly emerge from the prairie without much transition. The largest city is Lethbridge.
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 (812,000 city; 1,159,000 metro region). It is home to a vibrant cultural community, the largest urban parkland system in North America, North America's largest mall, Canada's only Indy race, and is dubbed Canada's Festival City. Aside from that, there is so much more stuff like a pretty good science centre and a conservatory, just explore and also read our guide.
- Calgary - Alberta's largest city (1,096,000 city; 1,214,000 metro region). It is home to a beautiful river, nice museum, cool towers, bustling economy, world class zoo, shopping, and is most famous for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
- Banff - vacation destination in the Rockies offering a variety of outdoor activities
- Drumheller - site of the Royal Tyrell Museum, the largest paleontology museum in Canada
- Fort McMurray - fast growing community deep in northern Alberta, most famous as the center of the oil sands industry
- Jasper - Banff's northerly neighbour - less visited than Banff but no less stunning
- Lethbridge - is a city in southern Alberta with a population of about 83,500 and most famous for its canyons
- Medicine Hat - is in southern Alberta with a population nearing 60,000 and is interesting
- Red Deer - is a city in between Edmonton and Calgary at about 90,00 people and is a major service center
- Banff National Park - probably the most famous national park, 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
- Kananaskis Country - Major natural recreation area in southern Alberta at the foot of the Rockies south of Calgary
- Lake Louise - Major ski resort and village just to the north of Banff, noted for its very blue lake
- Waterton Lakes National Park - A true natural gem in the Rockies in Alberta's extreme southwest
- Prairies to Peaks - Rugged Rocky Mountain Back Country and Rural Small Towns
- Wood Buffalo National Park
See also: Off the beaten path in Alberta
Alberta was formed as a province in 1905. Its capital is Edmonton, located roughly in the middle of the province, while the headquarters of most oil companies are located in Calgary to the south. Most of the population of Alberta lives along the "Highway 2 Corridor" between Edmonton and Calgary, although Lethbridge to the south, Grande Prairie to the northwest, and Fort McMurray to the northeast are also major centres.
The original inhabitants were the First Nations People, but significant immigration occurred when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built and the Government offered incentives for settlers to come to Alberta. Since then the province has enjoyed steady immigration and population growth, though it is notable that there are few groups who immigrated in vast numbers such as the Chinese to Vancouver did.
This is currently the richest province in Canada. Its wealth is derived mainly from Crude Oil production, though historically farming and cattle raising were important. Ranching maintains a high place in the economy culture, particularly in Southern Alberta. Seventy percent of the Canadian Herd (of cattle) is located in Alberta. In 2003 the price of oil rose beyond $55 a barrel making the vast reserves of oilsands in the Northern part of the province economically viable. Since then Alberta has enjoyed rapid growth, but also experienced significant problems along with that growth.
It is also noteworthy that Alberta is widely considered to be the most conservative area of Canada, however this is a complicated issue. Regional politics affected Alberta significantly, including the much hated National Energy Program in the 1980s. So the region votes Conservative both as an expression of regional preference as much as politic preference. This won't affect the average traveller, and many benefit as Alberta's taxes are lower than that of the rest of Canada (there is no PST: Provincial Sales Tax).
English is the main language spoken by most people in Alberta. Significant minority languages include Ukrainian, German, Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Hindi.
French is uncommon but available at all Federal Governmental institutions. There is a French-language university in Edmonton - the Faculté Saint-Jean, now a part of the University of Alberta, which offers undergraduate degrees in several disciplines with instruction completely in French.
First Nations languages such as Cree, Déné, Blackfoot, etc. are spoken to varying degrees among those communities as both mother tongue and as a second language.
Both Calgary and Edmonton have international airports. Calgary's is the third largest in Canada (by passenger volume). It serves as the base of low-priced airline Westjet, which provides service to North American (mainly Canadian), Mexican and Caribbean destinations. Edmonton's is the fastest growing in Canada, with multiple expansions in place. International Service is provided by multiple carriers at both locations, including multiple direct flights to London and Frankfurt each day. Other destinations are usually connecting through Vancouver or Toronto. Both airports act as collection points, Calgary for the prairie provinces, and Edmonton for regions in the Canadian North like Grande Prairie and Yellowknife.
Alberta is quite large, as are most Canadian provinces. A rough comparison is that the island of Great Britain can fit into Alberta more than six times over. Also noteworthy is that most Albertan cities, and especially Calgary have historically grown horizontally rather than vertically and are thus really big. Car travel is essential unless you plan on staying within Edmonton or Calgary (where you can walk, bus, transit). However most towns and cities in rural Alberta are more than accesible by Greyhound Bus.
Driving regulations are the same as in most of Canada. Turning right (far right lane into far right lane) on a red light is allowed. It goes without saying that drunk driving is taken very seriously, but is disproportionally seen in rural areas--take care when driving there at night. Wildlife is another major concern. When driving on the highways, maintain a reasonable speed and look for sudden movements on the side. The most common animal hit is the deer, which is usually not fatal for the car. But running into an elk or moose could possibly be so. Elk and moose are very dark coloured so keep a close eye out for them. If you see animals on the side of the road it is common to want to slow down. Do so in a safe manner and don't needlessly impede traffic. Don't get out of your car to see the animals.
The AMA (Alberta Motor Association) is a good source of specific information and offers the most widely used driving courses. Both Calgary and Edmonton offer traffic radio stations - government funded radio that only reports accidents, construction and weather. Watch for signs featuring the frequency in these cities.
Do not heed any warning about Albertan drivers being the most aggressive drivers in Canada - a common myth. They are not more so than Toronto and certainly are nothing compared with Southern Europe. High speeds and lane changes without signaling are generally the worst it gets.
Greyhound Canada offers service between almost all centres, large and small. Be aware that Greyhound does the so-called "milk runs" stopping at almost every location, usually to drop off or pickup passengers and cargo. There are other bus lines offering service between major centres, such as Red Arrow between Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Jasper and Banff.
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. It also has other shopping, other great attractions and has Canada's only Indy.
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-traveled Old World countries visiting Alberta (or Canada) 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.
For a list of things worth seeing outside of Edmonton and Calgary, see Off the beaten path in Alberta
For a world-famous drive through the Rocky Mountains see Icefields Parkway.
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 cruisng runs. If the crowds bother you, there are a number of other ski areas in the province.
Great hiking can be had in the Rockies, and there are a few lakes that allow one to do boating, jetskiing or most other watersports despite Alberta's landlocked nature.
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. In Drumheller, the back nine of the Dinosaur Point Golf Course features several very dramatic and spectacular holes.
Dinosaur Provincial Park two hours southeast of Calgary (the closest notable city being Brooks)can be rather interesting. There is camping available and general admission is free, however to see many of the restricted areas one must pay for a guide. There are many trails and hoodoos to climb, the scenery is fantastic and it is generally just a very fun place to be. There are a few safety precautions to take into consideration if you do choose to visit however. A large abundance of rattlesnakes, scorpians, and black widow spiders call this park home so exercise caution if you ever run into them. Also it gets very hot during the summer so you should bring some sunscreen and a water bottle (if you forget there's a concession as well). Cacti can also be a bit of a nuisance if you decide to climb the hoodoos so just keep your eyes out. You should note that a very large percentage of the worlds dinosaur bones have been found here, and it's very common to find small bone fragments on the ground as you explore (however it is strictly against the rules to take any)! However most of the greatest discoveries made here are displayed at the Royal Tyrell Museum located in Drumheller.
There is a surprising array of restaurants to choose from, especially in the major cities. Tastes range from simple burger joints to haute cuisine in the finest restaurants. Alberta is world renowned for its beef and the steak can be considered the regional dish for Alberta.
The drinking age is 18 - younger than most other provinces in Canada. Alcohol is available from the many private liquor stores and beer/wine stores throughout the province. Unlike other provinces, liquor retail is privatized. Unlike most American states, you cannot buy alcohol directly in grocery stores, although many grocery stores have liquor stores located in unattached buildings nearby.
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 during 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.
Otherwise, 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.
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.
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.
Alberta has had cases of the West Nile Virus. In the spring and summer, it is wise to be protected using Deet-based repellants.
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.
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.
Though probably the most beautiful province in western Canada, neighboring provinces have much to offer. British Columbia has much great scenery as well, and also world-class cities like Vancouver and Victoria.
To the east is Saskatchewan, which has a large amount of grassland but is also home to over 100,000 lakes and offers some of the most beautiful skyline. With the more action packed Regina and Saskatoon