The two cities are similar in size (Edmonton at almost 1 million inhabitants and Calgary at nearly 1.4 million) and are about 300 km apart. So if you want to visit both on your trip, it is pretty straightforward. However, if you are looking to start heading west soon after you arrive, you’ll need to decide which city best suits your needs as a visitor.
Before we get into the pros and cons of these Western Canadian cities, let’s review a few quick facts. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, has a smaller population than Calgary and can have less of a big city feel, in a good way. Edmonton International Airport was voted best in Canada (39th overall) by AirHelp Score in 2019, which ranks airports on service, amenities and how often flights arrived on time.
On the other hand, Calgary is a larger city with a well-connected international airport claiming more than twice the number of arrivals per year than Edmonton. Calgary also boasts fantastic proximity to the Rocky Mountains for those looking to quickly get into the Canadian wilderness. The Calgary airport may not rank as high as Edmonton (59th overall), but if you are lucky, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains as you descend towards the city.
Now that we know a few quick facts about these two cities let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
- Closest major city to Banff and the Banff National Park with all its amazing natural wonders: just 125km away!
- Chinooks. Praised by the locals, this unusual weather pattern gives Calgarians a few warm days during the winter to get a break from the cold.
- Those looking for an authentic cowboy experience are best served by visiting Calgary, especially if you are lucky enough to see it during the Calgary Stampede!
- 17th Avenue, between 2nd and 14th streets, has a high concentration of restaurants, bars and pubs and worth visiting for those looking to spice up their evenings.
- Of course, Calgary offers top-notch tourist attractions too. With options from the Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park to the Historical Park Heritage Village, for a peek into the city’s pioneering days, as well as the Calgary Tower with its glass floor and revolving restaurant, there’s something for everyone to get excited about in Calgary.
Photos courtesy of Travel Alberta / Colin Way, Dave Lieske
- Edmonton is often referred to as the friendlier city, with a smaller population than Calgary; it has less of a big city feel.
- Closest major city to Jasper and Jasper National Park and all its spectacular natural wonders.
- Best city to start from if you are heading into Northern Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories) or Alaska. Edmonton is also the perfect starting point for those heading west to Prince Rupert to catch a ferry south through the Inside Passage.
- Edmonton is located far enough North that you can luck out and see the Aurora Borealis in the winter!
- The North Saskatchewan River winds its way through downtown Edmonton, offering a 150 km long stretch of parkland right through the city.
- Whyte Avenue is Edmonton’s answer to Calgary’s 17th Avenue, with numerous bars, restaurants and clubs for you to enjoy your night.
- Visit the world’s largest shopping mall: the West Edmonton Mall, featuring more than 800 stores, over 100 dining options, two hotels, a water park and an amusement park!
- Edmonton has some great tourist attractions, such as the Royal Alberta Museum, Elk Island National Park and Beaver Hills, and Fort Edmonton Park, an open-air museum celebrating the pioneer days of Edmonton. Also, be sure to check out the unique Muttart Conservatory with its four Pyramid-shaped buildings that house numerous plant species.
As you can see, there are many things to like about Alberta’s two major cities. They both have numerous attractions to keep visitors entertained, and both have well-connected international airports. However, when it comes to negatives, we can’t think of many – except perhaps the cold temperatures in the winter. Both cities generally experience highs of only around -5, and lows can quickly get to -30. So be prepared if you choose to visit in the winter!
In the end, when it comes to choosing your arrival city, we think your choice should come down to location. If you are looking to arrive as close to Banff, Lake Louise and Banff National Park as possible, then Calgary should be your choice. On the other hand, if you are looking to focus on Jasper and its national park, or you’re heading to the coastal town of Prince Rupert or North to Yukon or Alaska, then Edmonton is a natural choice. No matter which city you choose, we’re sure you’ll have a great time!
Photos courtesy of Travel Alberta / West Edmonton Mall, EEDC