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The Calgary Stampede | Canada

Who knew that Alberta was the Texas of Canada? Well, most Canadians probably. Alberta is cattle country, full of cowboys and Western culture. And there’s no bigger, more important event in the year than the Calgary Stampede. The 10-day “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” encompasses all things rodeo and agriculture, as well as live music and other performances. And we had built the dates of our cross-Canada trip to coincide with it! After finishing up in the Canadian Rockies, we drove east from Banff and Canmore to Calgary. We spent 4 nights there, allowing for a day of city sightseeing before 2 days at the Calgary Stampede.

The Calgary Stampede second feature photo - Downtown city skyline

Day One

Calgary Stampede Pancake Breakfast

While the Stampede is super important in Calgary, there is a whole city here that exists year round. I wanted to make sure we explored outside the showground, so we set aside our first day for this. BUT, our first stop of the day was still Stampede themed. For 100 years (yes, 2023 was the anniversary), pancake breakfasts have been served from chuckwagons around the city during Stampede week. Not in the showground I should stress, but other locations around the city, spreading the Stampede spirit. And the best part, is they’re totally free! We found one nearby our flat (and near our next stop) to check out, in Olympic Plaza.

There wasn’t just pancakes; the plaza had a stage with live music performances too. We joined one of the pancake queues – which was long, but moved quickly – where some clowns were passing out napkins down the line and having general chit chat with everyone waiting. There were no less than three people working on the actual pancakes. One pouring the batter, one adding the bacon and syrup, and one flipping them. You only get one – you have to queue again for another – which keeps the line moving. We enjoyed them, but weren’t very full. We’d spied people eating ice cream though, and soon found another tent nearby, handing out free sorbet samples. For breakfast? Why not!

Downtown Calgary Walking Tour

I’m always a fan of a walking tour in a new city (I might be biased), so that was our next stop, starting right next to the plaza outside City Hall. We all went in knowing very little about Calgary, so it was a good overview of the city’s founding and the major landmarks today. The city has a lot of public artworks, so we stopped at several to hear about them – including murals on electrical boxes! Our route took us up through Chinatown, including into the Cultural Centre which resembles the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

We walked along the riverside, learning about the flooding problems, and then into the glass skyscrapers of the business district. The Wonderland sculpture is one of Calgary’s most famous, a white mesh head at the foot of a skyscraper. You can actually stand inside it! And from there, it was just around the corner to a view of the Calgary Tower. We didn’t go up it during our sty, although apparently the views on a clear day are worth it!

Stephen Avenue

The tour finished by Stephen Avenue, a central pedestrianised street of shops and restaurants. Perfect timing, since we were ready for lunch. Being Stampede week, everywhere in the city was busy. So, we picked the first restaurant with free seats, outside on the patio where we could people watch in the sun. It was very hot all weekend, which did make me little grumpy at times! Once we’d eaten our fill, we wandered along the street for a browse. We ended up going as far as the shopping centre, with its own artwork – a giant needle, spool, thread and tapestry overhead.

Almost everyone we passed was wearing a cowboy hat or boots or big, shiny belt buckle – or all of the above. My sister had also asked our parents for a hat from the Stampede as her Canadian souvenir. There’s only one place you have to go for this: Lammle’s Western Wear. It was packed, and a bit stressful, but after sending her photos of options to be sure she was happy with our choice, we got her a black cowboy hat. Mum also found a leather belt for our brother, and not wanting to miss out, I picked up a top with fringing down the sides and a desert print to wear the next day.

Prince’s Island Park

We left the skyscrapers behind to return to the riverside, this time heading a bit further over to Prince’s Island Park. As the name suggests, the river has an island in the centre, which is accessible by a couple of bridges, and is all a public park. The river is a popular spot on a hot day in general, as we saw lots of people swimming or floating downstream in rubber tubes or inflatable boats. The Peace Bridge sits at the far ened of the island, a red double-helix like design, so we popped by that before crossing on to the island.

The island was a peaceful area, full of greenery and flowers, to stroll in the shade and take a breather. There were plenty of Canadian geese around too, as there always are! We walked until we reached the last bridge, to cross back to the city proper.

Inglewood Breweries

From there, we hopped on a bus to journey over to Inglewood, a neighbourhood just east of Downtown. It’s known for its vintage shops and craft breweries and laidback, hipster vibe, so seemed like my place. Wandering down its main street, we passed plenty of vintage and second hand shops, but as I’m travelling light this year, I can’t be doing too much shopping! We headed for a brewery instead. Dad and I have been trying different multipacks from local breweries as we cross Canada and he was pleasantly surprised by the range of the craft brewing scene here!

Inglewood has a few, but I was heading for Cold Garden and Ol’ Beautiful Brewing. Situated next door to each other, each is in a large, warehouse-like building with a big outdoor patio area. And plenty of signs saying not to buy drinks at one and sit in the other! We started at Cold Garden, which is full of bright, quirky knick-knacks and art. We ended up getting two tasting flights, totalling 8 small pours of different beers, sharing them back and forth and picking our favourites, We ended up going next door to Ol’Beautiful to do the same thing. Both had a few good ones, but Cold Garden was our overall winner of the two! We had dinner nearby at The Nash too, before heading back to our flat for the night.

Central Library

So, technically I went to the library on the morning of day three, but it fits in better with the sightseeing day. I had actually meant to go take a look after the pancake breakfast, before the tour, and just totally forgot. While researching things to do in Calgary, it had popped up a few times, due to its architecture. It’s a fairly new building and there were rave reviews online about how beautiful it is. The main building is mostly wood and built in a spiralling design. When you enter the atrium, you can go up the first flight of stairs to see all the levels cascading up above you. It’s a quick stop, so worth popping in for a look! It’s also near Canada’s National Music Hall of Fame, which we didn’t have time for, but might have on a different trip.

Day Two


The next morning we were up bright and early to get into the Calgary Stampede grounds almost as soon as it opened. It was actually open earlier than other days (for Family Day) so we were packing in as much as possible. When you enter the grounds, you’re immediately in the middle of Midway, which you have to navigate to get to anything else. Midway is the huge area of the grounds devoted to the fairground rides and the food trucks. And there are a LOT of them!

I know this is a huge draw for some people coming to the Stampede, as evidence by the long queues we saw, but it wasn’t really our priority. Fairgrounds are fun, but I can go to that anywhere in the world? And the food gets some people really excited but we were sort of underwhelmed by all the sugary, fatty options, as well as overwhelmed by the sheer number of huge, colourful signs and flags. But Midway was a necessity for our lunch each day (and coffee refuelling), as well as in the middle of the grounds and en-route to everything else.

Draft Horses

Mum and Dad had sat down the day before and made a bit of a schedule of shows to go see. I had a few requests, but let them be the organised ones for the most part. First up was a draft horse pulling demonstration. It was one of the few shows on early in the day, so the tent was pretty packed! They hitched up the heavy horses to logs or to wagons, and demonstrated different manoeuvres. A horse pulling a log didn’t sound super interesting to me at first, but pulling it through a cone formation? That’s tricky! They also reverse parked and parallel parked the wagons, and given how difficult I find those in a car, I was impressed!

The venue was also next door to the agricultural complex, so we wandered through that next. The biggest part of it is the stables, for the hundreds of horses taking part in the various shows. It’s not like the Highland Show, where there are livestock competitions, though. The only other animals were a few sheep, goats, pigs, cows, an alpaca and a llama, with some educational information about each one.

Elbow River Camp

While Western culture is a big deal in Alberta, it’s not the only culture here. The First Nations have been on this land for thousands of years before cowboys came along. So, the Elbow River Camp is the area of the Stampede where they can show off their culture and traditions. Crossing the Elbow River, which flows through the grounds, we entered a grassy field encircled by tipis. There was also a stage nearby where they were just packing up after a demonstration.

A lot of the tipis weren’t open yet, but we were able to see inside a couple. It was so cool, as the owner was sat inside and all around her where personal items that she or her family had made, with incredibly detailed weaving and beading and carvings. She told us who had made what and how long it had been in her family, so it was amazing to see al this living history. In another, they also explained to us how the tipis are set up – it takes no time at all! – and a family showed us photos of the beaded regalia their grandfather wears, all made by the grandmother. There is a large Powwow event during the Stampede too, but only for two days of it and not while we were there.

Calgary Stampede Showband

Back across the river, we circled the Saddledome Stadium to find the front steps of it where the Calgary Stampede Showband were about to perform. This was when I realised we had seen them in Banff too! But there, we only caught the end of their show, while this time we got the whole thing. They’re a youth band, with like a hundred members, including dancers, who take part on a voluntary basis. But it’s a big deal to be part of the band, as they must audition, and then they tour, perform and compete all over the world. Their 30-minute showcase on the steps featured a lot of pop and country songs, with well-practised choreography (from the musicians as well as the dancers), and was just a super fun, enjoyable performance!

Royal Mounted Police Musical Ride

Continuing the musical theme, we headed inside next to catch the Mounties doing their musical ride. Sidenote, this was also the first time I had actually seen Mounties in dress uniform since coming to Canada! The show consists of two dozen riders guiding their horses through a series of synchronised manoeuvres. Usually, it creates some sort of pattern, like the wagon wheel or star or bridal march. There is narration telling you all these names too! And it’s all set to music of course, featuring mainly Canadian artists.

Historic Tour

When picking what to see, I was insistent on the Stampede 101 Historic Tour. It only takes 30 minutes, during which time a couple of members of the committee take you on a short walk through the grounds. They tell you about how the Calgary Stampede began and notable people through its history – both competitors and organisers – who grew it into what it is today. The tour also took us behind some buildings, where the public normally don’t get to go, to see the old-fashioned wagons behind the stables. There are some murals up high on a few buildings, which they pointed out and explained more. And, at the end, we all got an exclusive, commemorative zip pull, celebrating 100 years of pancake breakfasts and of the chuckwagon racing.

Team Cattle Penning

So, I went into this event having no idea what to expect. Other than cows, obviously. I thought it might be a bit slow, like the horses that morning, but I was definitely wrong on that count. Turns out, it was teams of three riders trying to pen three calves out of a herd of about thirty. The catch is they have to pen the three with the same number painted on them and without any incorrect numbered calves making it past a certain point down the arena. So like any event with live animals, they can be unpredictable and it can go wrong! It ended up being pretty tense and exciting, and I was soon groaning or cheering for the riders’ outcomes. Some of those calves did not want to cooperate! I really enjoyed it in the end, and was delighted when the all-female team came out victorious!

Chuckwagon Racing

After dinner on Midway, it was time for the day’s main event. There are two events at the Calgary Stampede you have to get additional paid tickets for: the Rodeo and the Evening Show. Both take place every day, building up to their finals on the last day of the whole Stampede. We were off to the Evening Show today, the first part of which is the Chuckwagon racing.

I had no idea what that was prior to the Stampede and now I’m obsessed! It’s a bit more complicated than just horses racing pulling wagons too. Each team also has two outriders who have to hold the hitched horses as the race starts, then jump on their own horse’s back and complete the track as well! We saw teams penalised for outriders not finishing in time. One even got left behind by his horse before he could mount! And it’s a real family sport, with many of the wagon drivers having started as outriders in their younger years. One driver was the 4th generation of his family to race at the Stampede! Being the 100-year anniversary of the chuckwagon racing made it super exciting too.

There were also some more races after that from the First Nations. They did bareback relays – in which the rider is the baton! After each circuit, they jump off their horse, which is still flying by at top speed, and run to mount their next, completing three loops. One ran with such momentum to mount his next horse, he went all the way over and off its other side! They’re dressed in regalia too, all bright colours and patterns. The whole thing was wild and crazy, but so much fun to watch!

Evening Show

Once the races were complete, it was on to the Evening Show. All we knew was that were drones and fireworks, as we could see them over the stadium the night before from the apartment balcony. But oh WOW, the whole thing was so good! The Grandstand band and singers performed almost the whole way through (and it’s long!) with a few guest singers throughout. Meanwhile the Young Canadians (a youth performing arts programme in Calgary) danced to almost every number. These kids are incredible, and how they keep up that stamina for 10 days, amazing!

There were other featured performers too, including a Latin dance troupe, roller-skate dancers, and a tightrope artist. All surrounded by dazzling lights and animated backgrounds. The drones created pictures in the sky later on. Then the whole thing ends with a massive fireworks display, while they continue to sing and dance beneath it. I’ve seen some pretty incredible shows of this nature in the past, but this was definitely up there as one of the most memorable!

Day Three

Heavy Horses

The next morning we were back at the Calgary Stampede grounds, though not quite as early. Having gotten our bearings the day before, we were a bit more relaxed going into today. There are several heavy horse shows throughout the Stampede, and we hadn’t made it to one the day before, so we started with that. The thing is, there are many types of heavy horse shows and we didn’t know which this was. We were really expecting them to be riding the horses or have them pulling carriages or something, but it turned out to be dressing them. The effort that goes into dressing these horses, braiding their manes and tails with ribbons, is certainly impressive, but it’s a bit slow to watch. We stuck around though since the Show Riders were on next, but this event ran over so they ended up getting cancelled.

Afterwards, we found some lunch and went for a wander around one of the indoor arenas we had missed the day before. We had gone into the food hall one, where I was expecting a farmer’s market and artisan goods, but ended up being a series of food stalls instead. This time, we found ourselves surrounded by a slightly random array of goods for sale – like everything from temporary tattoos to cleaning products. But the second room of the centre was filled with artwork, live music and a wine bar! This one was nice to wander around, and browsing the art made for a peaceful moment in the midst of the Calgary Stampede craziness.

The Rodeo

Next up was our main event for today, the Rodeo. I’ve only ever seen rodeos in movies, so I was expecting bull riding and bucking broncos, but seeing it in person is a different experience! I have to applaud the reverence they have for the animals too, because I did have some welfare concerns before learning more. These are not animals; they are athletes, as they consistently refer to them as. Each bull or horse is only ridden 2-3 times during the entire Stampede, and well rested and looked after inbetween. Seriously, how do I get a job that requires 24 seconds of work over the course of 10 days? Though again, anything involving live animals is unpredictable. Some cowboys suffered poor scores because they just didn’t get a good animal athlete, who didn’t kick the way they ought to.

It’s not just broncs and bulls, either. There’s also the tie-down roping to show off lasso skills on cows and the steer wrestling, where cowboys literally fling themselves off their horses to grab and pull down the running cow! The ladies get a turn in the barrel racing and wow, they were fast! And the kids get to try wild pony racing, which is adorably hilarious, watching en eight-year-old being dragged around the arena by a tiny pony, stubbornly not letting go! The bronc (both saddle and bareback) and bull riding were still probably my favourite events, as they were the most exciting. I totally enjoyed every minute of the whole rodeo though!

Motocross Show

We continued on the adrenaline theme after the rodeo too. In a slight departure from all the horses and cattle, we went to check out the motocross show. It’s sponsored by Monster Energy and so everything is black and green. They have a bar selling energy drinks, plus a DJ and a very enthusiastic announcer. There were five riders taking part, including one female which we always love to see! They took turns revving up to the ramp and performing various stunts as they flew through the air. They certainly know how to build an atmosphere too, as the tricks got progressively more impressive. Towards the end, two or three of them would take to the ramp seconds apart, until all five were flying over at almost the same time! With flames in the background of course.

Live Music

The Calgary Stampede has several live music stages, boasting some fairly big country music stars (varies if I’ve heard of them, though!). They’re all included in your entry ticket, so I thought it’d make a nice change of pace from the agricultural shows to check something out. The outdoor Coca-Cola stage only has evening acts, so we headed to the Nashville North stage, which is more enclosed. It’s adults-only too and you have to go through another security check to enter.

Once inside, we grabbed drinks at the bar and milled about near the stage. The artist on at that time was Devin Cooper, not someone I’d heard of before, but he played a very rock-edged style of country music, that I enjoyed a lot. I’ll have to check out more of his music soon! Unfortunately, we only got a couple of sings before his set was cut short. A storm was blowing in, and the organisers deemed it necessary to stop the music for safety, covering up the tech on-stage with plastic sheets.

Cowboy Up Challenge

We definitely weren’t staying in the grounds as late tonight as the previous day, but we decided to check out one more show before we left. There was something on called the Cowboy Up Challenge. We had no idea what that was, but we were intrigued! It turned out to be a sort of equestrian agility course. Each horse and rider had to navigate a series of obstacles, in a set pattern. It certainly showed off good horsemanship – like, getting a horse to stop and stay, like a dog? Impressive. It was also kind of silly and funny at times – the horse has to stay, while its rider goes and knocks down a fake bear! Truly Canadian.

I also quite liked that it was an event open to men and women equally, with no separate categories, and there were riders of all ages, from a teenager to someone in their 80s. It got a little bit repetitive, watching the same pattern on repeat. But it was something different and a light-hearted way to end the day. We headed out of the grounds in the early evening, and went along 17th Avenue, with its many restaurants, to get some dinner. And that about wrapped up our Calgary Stampede weekend, before we flew east to Quebec the next morning!

The Calgary Stampede

Prior to moving to Canada, I had never heard of the Calgary Stampede. But I’m so glad we were able to organise Mum & Dad’s trip around it, because it was absolutely worth seeing! Being from the UK, rodeos and cowboy culture have always been something from movies for me. So, it was very cool to see it in reality. Especially since I didn’t know Canada even had Western culture! There was such diversity in the events too, from the rodeo and the agricultural events, to the motocross and the live music. Meaning even if you aren’t a rodeo fan, there is something entertaining to see or do. All in all, an excellent way to spend our weekend!