Ok, so you’ve decided on visiting Western Canada. You’ve done the research and decided on the Rockies over Niagara Falls – great choice! But now you’ve got to decide between the two of the best cities in the west, Vancouver or Calgary. Calgary is closest to the Rocky Mountains, Banff, Lake Louise, basically all the images floating in your head as you dream about visiting Canada. Vancouver, however, has the Pacific Ocean, local ski hills and a reputation for being Canada’s prettiest city.
Let’s take a closer look at these two great Canadian cities and see which one is best for you – perhaps, in the end, you’ll decide you need to visit both!
What’s the better Choice: Vancouver or Calgary?
For comparison’s sake, we’ll focus on the city centre of each town and put a limit of a 90-minute drive from the city centre when comparing attractions and activities.
VancouverVancouver is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the North Shore mountains (part of the Coast Mountain range). So outdoor activities abound here. In the summer you can kayak in English Bay, go for a walk along the seawall in Stanley Park, or hike up Grouse Mountain to name a few. In the winter, there are Grouse, Seymour and Cypress mountains for skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing, as well as Whistler, an easy 90-minute drive away, for all types of outdoor adventures.
CalgaryCalgary is just 90 minutes from the mountain town of Banff and the Rocky Mountains, so outdoor activities are just as popular in Calgary as they are in Vancouver – it’s just a little bit farther to get there. Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay along with nearby Lake Louise are popular options in the summer and winter. Closer to town, there are plenty of walking and biking trails along the Bow River, along with rafting, and Winsport, which operates the facilities from the 1988 Winter Olympics for locals and visitors alike.
ResultsSimilar activities are available in both towns, but we’ll give the win to Vancouver for having more options closer to the city centre. Photo credit: Tourism Vancouver/Sewell’s Marina/J.Haydahl
Transportation Options / Getting AroundAlways an important factor when deciding what town to visit; let’s look at how easy or difficult it is to get around these two cities.
VancouverAlong with the usual bus options, Vancouver operates four SkyTrain lines to get around the city and to nearby neighbourhoods and towns. The Canada Line gets you to downtown Vancouver from the airport (in the city of Richmond) within 30 minutes. The other three lines, Expo, Millennium and Evergreen, get you to various suburbs of Vancouver and nearby cities, such as Surrey and Burnaby. They are also an excellent way to get around the downtown core quickly if you get tired of walking. Vancouver, with its goal to be the greenest city in the world, has numerous bike paths throughout the city as well as the seawall that runs around Stanley Park, which is popular with joggers, walkers, bikers and rollerbladers. The city is also very compact, making walking a popular option. Other transportation options are the typical Taxis and Uber and Evo (a great car-share company) but Vancouver also features mini-ferries travelling around False Creek and the Seabus which crosses the Burrard Inlet, to and from North Vancouver. There are also BC Ferries, (operating car ferries) and Harbour Air floatplanes, both of which will get you to nearby islands, including Vancouver Island as well as the Sunshine Coast.
CalgaryThe city of Calgary is spread out more than Vancouver and extremely flat, so walking and biking is an easy experience, but the distance to travel is farther. Calgary transit offers buses as well as the CTrain (light rail) which offers an excellent way to get across the city quickly and easily, like Vancouver’s SkyTrain. Calgary is a bit more car-dependent than Vancouver and you’ll find taxis and car rentals to be a more popular option here.
ResultsFor its bigger variety of transport options as well as its compact size, making walking and cycling easier, we’ll give Vancouver the win here. Photo credit: Destination BC/Albert Normandin
Early Bird vs Night OwlAre you an early-bird or more of a night owl partier? Let’s look at which city gets up and going earlier and which offers more options for late-night experiences.
VancouverVancouver has more condos in the downtown core and therefore has more restaurant and bar options in the city centre than Calgary. It was also the 2nd city in the world to get a Starbucks location after Seattle, so it’s definitely a city that likes its early morning (and all-day) coffees. You’ll find Vancouver also has a big breakfast culture, with many popular, breakfast-focused, restaurants with long lines first thing in the morning.
CalgaryHistorically the city centre has been for businesses only and people mostly live in the suburbs and drive into work. Due to this, some restaurants and shops will only be open typical business hours (9-5) and you’ll have to head a little outside the city centre to find late-night activity options, such as 17th Ave, with its numerous pubs, restaurants and bars. This is changing, however, and you’ll find the city centre having more and more options for late-night activities.
ResultsWhile both cities have numerous bars and restaurants, with Granville Street in Vancouver and the Red Mile in Calgary (all closing at 2 am) we’ll give it to Vancouver for having more late-night options closer to the city centre and having a stronger breakfast culture. Photo credit @ScubaJaysBar / Instagram
WeatherYou can’t compare these two iconic cities of Western Canada without comparing the weather. Cold or rain, you decide.
VancouverOffering the mildest weather in Canada, it is rare to get any snowfall, or for the temperature to drop lower than a couple of degrees below zero, in the winter. However, Vancouver is in a temperate rainforest so be prepared for rain, a lot of rain, and be sure to pack your umbrella (or a Gore-Tex jacket like the locals) when you visit. In the summer, Vancouver can really come alive – when it isn’t raining. Enjoying highs of 28-30 degrees Celsius, Vancouver rarely gets too hot but when the sun does come out, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier city anywhere in the world. If you visit in the shoulder seasons be prepared for mostly clouds and rain with mild temperatures.
CalgaryCalgary is a bit more extreme with its seasons. In the winter you can easily find yourself walking through snow downtown, with temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius. The nice thing about Calgary though is the amount of sunshine it gets, even in the winter. Some people will take -20 with clear, sunny skies over 10 degrees and rain any day – if that’s you, then Calgary is a great choice. In the summer, it can get above 30 degrees more frequently than in Vancouver. However, due to the Chinook weather phenomenon, you can get cold, snowy days any time of the year, even in July and August, Though typically it only lasts for 24-48 hours and then you get +25 degrees again.
ResultsFor the summer holidays, Vancouver wins for its amazing scenery and not too hot weather. For winter, Calgary wins if you prefer cold and sunny weather over wet and mild temperatures. Overall, we’ll give it to Vancouver if you don’t mind some rain.
VancouverVancouver’s most popular city centre attractions include the Vancouver Lookout and Science World as well as Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium. Also, downtown, you’ll find Granville Island, known for its unique shops and eateries. The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in North Vancouver is a must-see along with Grouse Mountain. Are you able to conquer the mighty Grouse Grind? Outside of town, a visit to Whistler is always exciting for mountain biking and skiing as well as numerous other outdoor adventures. While it is a little further from town than our 90-minute rule, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a trip to Victoria. This is an extremely popular day trip from Vancouver. It requires a 45-minute drive from downtown, followed by a 90-minute sailing with BC Ferries, followed by a 30-minute drive to downtown Victoria. Victoria is an amazing outing as can be seen here.
CalgaryLocated within the city limits are great attractions like the Calgary Zoo, Telus Spark Science Centre and the Calgary Tower. Not too far from town is Winsport, which operates the venues from the 1988 Winter Olympics. These venues are open to the public for recreational use. Farther afield, you have numerous attractions within our self-imposed 90-minute driving time. The most popular option would be the mountain town of Banff, with its nearby ski hills, glaciers and glacier-fed lakes. For dinosaur fans, you can visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, in Drumheller. Here you will find the largest collection of dinosaur skeletons in the world. For those looking for insight into the local indigenous culture, a visit to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a can’t miss event.
ResultsWhile Vancouver has the edge with more attractions in the city centre. Calgary gets the nod if you are happy to spend time on the road (on your own or on a tour) with numerous great options between 30 and 90 minutes from Calgary.
ConclusionSo, what city should you visit? This article stacks a lot in the Vancouver column, but that isn’t because I am biased. Ok, maybe a little, but both cities are incredible and very different. It all depends on your interests and what activities you want to do. Both cities are great and offer a lot of things that are important to different people. If you want an amazing winter experience and don’t mind the drive to get to some attractions then you might be leaning to Calgary. If you want to go kayaking in the morning and skiing in the afternoon, Vancouver might be your choice. And if you can’t choose why not visit both on one of our Western Canada adventures: Hidden Gems or Western Highlights or do both and make it a round-trip.
Get more ideas on what to do on the Vancouver Travel Guide.