What is it like to travel to North America's most northern major city? Not as remote as one may think. While you have access to natural attractions and wilderness, Edmonton's urban space is home to over 1 million people and features numerous districts worth getting lost in. Simply wandering areas like Old Strathcona and Downtown Edmonton will have you stumbling upon discoveries like craft cocktail bars, coffee shops, farm-to-fork eateries and exciting events — many with an offbeat twist.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Edmonton Tourism to attend the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. I of course jumped at the chance (and was more than excited to escape NYC’s blistering heat for a few days).
Looking for things to do in Edmonton? Here are some of my favorite offbeat experiences from my recent trip to Alberta’s quirky cool capital.
Note: Any prices listed below are in Canadian Dollars.
1. Their Hotels Offer Free Wine & Cheese (As All Should)
Who doesn't love wine and cheese? That's like saying you don't like
to enjoy life chocolate or coffee. But that's not the main reason I think all hotels should offer a complimentary wine and cheese hour each night. As a solo traveler in Edmonton I loved grabbing a glass of white at the Varscona Hotel on Whyte and, within minutes, having other guests come over to chat with me. Interacting with locals and other travelers is one of the major joys of travel; doing it with riesling in hand is pure elation.
Along with the wine I really enjoyed the location of the hotel right on lively Whyte Avenue — known for its boutique shopping — in hip Old Strathcona. Other highlights were the free breakfast, complimentary robes and high-speed Wi-Fi, and luxury Molten Brown bath products.
Starting rate: $180 CAD per night.
My main reason for visiting Edmonton was the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, the largest in North America and the second largest in the world after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I spent an entire day enjoying free Fringe festivities, from getting a glimpse into other cultures (like South Africa) to watching buskers juggle swords, throw pies and wear giant plastic boobs outside their clothes (yes, you read that right). I also saw some great performances (only $13 or less per show!), including one with the most awesome title in history: Red Wine, French Toast and the Best Sex You’ve Ever Had.
My favorite show of the day was Not Enough, a one-woman performance by Megan Phillips. She did an amazing job taking a lighthearted approach to addressing anxiety, something I struggle with myself. She basically portrayed anxiety as a sort of devil on her shoulder, constantly putting unnecessary worry and doubt into her mind during a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I laughed a lot, but most of all I was blown away by how accurately she portrayed something I always have such a hard time explaining. Check her out.
Edmonton’s nickname is the City of Festivals, as along with the funky Fringe there are over 60 major festivals throughout the year. And that's not including the little guys! Some others to check out include the Blueberry Bluegrass and Country Music Festival (summer), Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival (summer), Edmonton International Film Festival (fall) and the Edmonton Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival (fall).
3. You Can Visit Ukraine Without Leaving Canada
Festivals aren't the only way to explore culture in Edmonton. A major, major, major highlight of my trip was visiting the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Now, I'm typically not a museum person, but this was really special. The living museum features over 40 buildings dating back to before 1930 when Canada saw their first major wave of Ukrainian immigration. Almost all the buildings are original, and costume interpreters play actual Ukrainian immigrants — as in, real people they extensively researched — and do not break character for anything. While wandering through a sod house from 1900, a grocery store from 1929 and a hotel from 1929 (rooms were $1 per night then) I truly felt like I’d gone back in time.
Another highlight: learning to make pierogies (pyrohy) with the women. Interestingly, in Ukrainian culture the fillings depend on what is available, so there is no "traditional" filling. While one woman made hers with potato and dill, another added blueberries. Yum!
4. You Can Eat Quirky With Conscience
And it's not just the village where you'll explore Ukrainian culture through the palate. Pierogies seemed to be on the menu everywhere I went, including RGE RD. They did theirs in a gourmet fashion stuffed with local Sylvan Star gouda, topped with a warm cabbage slaw for a sweet acidity, and gowned in a white onion cream — so good I used a spoon to drink it like soup!
The real reason to visit RGE RD though is their whole animal philosophy, butchering in house and using every part — from organs to skin — so nothing goes to waste. Try the "Questionable Bits," a surprise dish for adventurous eaters (it was beef heart tartar when I was there) as well as their rotating "Kitchen Board." This elevated plate takes charcuterie to the next level, and you might encounter anything from dill gouda to roast leg of lamb.
5. You Can Gain A Deep Understanding About Bison Conservation
One unique activity I took part in was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Elk Island National Park bison handling facility. Elk Island National Park is known for its work with bison, as well as for being home to more hoofed animals per kilometer than any other wild area in the world. According to my guide Morgan, as recent as 200 years ago there were 30 million bison in North America — literally so many the lands looked completely black. Sadly, by 1890 there were only 1,000 left due to habitat loss from farming, diseases brought by cows and overhunting.
Today there are about 40,000 wild bison left around the world, making it a threatened species. Elk Island is passionate about keeping their 1,000 bison safe within the park, but also sending bison around the world to other conservation projects to ensure the species' safety in case of natural disaster and to encourage mating of different types of bison to breed out weak genes.
On the tour I saw exactly how staff move the bison from the park in the least stressful way possible through a grid system to get checked out and moved to other places. It was very interesting, and outside of summer you'll likely see bison in the flesh, too!
6. There Are Gourmet Long Table Dinners Under The Stars
Edmonton is full of delicious restaurants, but one of the most special experiences was dining al fresco in Elk Island National Park with Chef Brad Smoliak. Tickets are pricey at $160 per person and you need to join his mailing list to find out about events, but the thoughtfully-prepared multi-course meal, unlimited wine, park naturalist Q&A before dessert and lake sunset are worth it if you have room to splurge. Before dinner take a canoe, kayak or stand up paddle board trip on Astotin Lake. Even though the food is gourmet, the ambiance is casual (and you can totally wear sweats; I did!).
7. National Parks Are Also In The Sky
"Dark Sky Preserve" — an area kept free from artificial light pollution — was a term I hadn't heard until visiting Edmonton. Canada has an extensive network of these preserves, and they're excellent for star gazing and full moon kayaking, an activity offered at Astotin Lake within Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve. This is the spot I visited, with an idyllic beach and 14 islands making it all the more beautiful.
8. You Can Explore The City Before Getting Out Into Nature
As stated above, Edmonton is a hip urban city surrounded by wilderness, meaning outdoor adventure is very accessible. I spent an amazing few hours in in Elk Island National Park — only 45 minutes from Edmonton — where you can enjoy water sports and beaches as well as hiking, geocaching, camping, birdwatching and more. Tip: If you want to spot wildlife at Elk Island National Park, your best chances are around dawn and dusk.
Jasper National Park is also only 3.5 hours away from Edmonton. Moreover, this city itself is home to North America's largest stretch of urban parkland at 18,286 acres, the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
9. There's An Up-And-Coming Coffee Scene (With Shops Serving Ice Cream For Breakfast)
One mission I always give myself when exploring a new city is finding a great coffee shop. Not only should this shop serve high-quality and interesting caffeinated beverages, but it should also have an inviting atmosphere that makes you want to stay awhile. Oh, and some treats to give me a sugar rush when necessary.
In Edmonton, Da Capo Caffe fit the bill perfectly. This spot offers a trip to Italy through traditional espresso, homemade gelato (that also goes into their affogato drinks), wine and a menu that clearly disdains American coffee ("Caffé Americano, weak & diluted"). I opted for the Caffé Canadese (hey, when in
Rome Edmonton), a Da Capo creation featuring a full bodied and complex hot drink with two shots of espresso and a technique that pulls maximum flavor out of their Da Capo Cinque blend.
I also ordered a scoop of homemade apple and cinnamon gelato with real chunks of caramelized fruit. I didn't even feel bad that it was 9am!
10. The Farmer's Market Gets Creative
There are 20+ markets in Edmonton, though there were two main farmer's markets I kept hearing about, Old Strathcona and City Market. I opted for the latter after a number of locals touted it as their favorite, and I wasn't disappointed. The market has a festival feel with live performers and tons of local purveyors giving out free samples of peanuts, pickles, body butters, cookies and more. Bodie Brothers Root Beer was one of my favorites, as their old fashioned root beer samples came straight out of the barrel. I also recommend getting homemade Ukrainian crepes at Luba Tortes, Instagram-worthy treats at Moonshine Doughnuts (hello strawberry black sesame!) and bourbon brown sugar-candied bacon at the Bacon Boss.
11. You Can Nibble Like Royalty On A Budget
On my hunt for an amazing bakery I was told over and over that I had to try Duchess Bake Shop. I debated because it was a bit far from my hotel, but in the end I sprung for the 20-minute Uber ride because of all the acclaim. Wow, am I glad I did! Even if I didn't like the baked goods I would have loved this space, which felt like the type of place Queen Elizabeth might frequent (though I’ve never met her and have no idea if she even eats sweets). The classic French bakery features a whimsical atmosphere with marble tables, antique couches and patterned fabric chairs in browns and royal blues, with dainty pastries to pair. While everyone said I had to try the macarons ($1.50 each), I couldn’t resist the literally gorgeous Ancient Grains Tart ($6.50), filled with almond frangipane and almond cream and gowned in fresh market plums, ancient grain crumb, violets and marigolds.
Near the bake shop are also a bunch of design and comic shops if you want to spend more time in the Westmount neighborhood. RGE RD Restaurant, mentioned above, is also nearby.
12. You Can Satiate Your Sweet Tooth Like A Kid
For something less refined, Gummi Boutique is a fun candy and soda shop in Old Strathcona with a retro vibe. Along with fun house mirrors and weird painted portraits there are jars of make-your-own-bag candy, unique sodas you won’t get at your typical convenience stores, novelties like Pez dispensers and French fry lip balm, and lots and lots of gummies! Fun find: Jelly Belly sodas in flavors like Sour Cherry and French Vanilla.
13. They Know How To Brunch (And Wash It Down With Bourbon!)
While boozy brunch may not be the most popular dining trend in Edmonton, the few restaurants that do it do it really well, featuring creative menus paired with special boozy concoctions. I easily fell in love with MEAT and their boozy coffee, morning bourbon cocktails, slow-cooked BBQ meats and homemade sauces. If you want to really drink like a Canadian order a "Ceasar," a cross-the-border take on the Bloody Mary featuring Clamato juice. The menu ranges from $13-$16 for a huge and delicious meal, like my corn grits crafted with slow-cooked brisket, sausage gravy and a poached egg that was amazing when broken open and stirred into the dish.
14. Mexican Fusion Meets Art Gallery
El Cortez is such a funky space! Brick walls boom reggaeton and Sublime, while a black bar is backed by a gold wall featuring 100% agave spirits peeking out through shallow archway openings lined with skulls and owls. There's a mix of laid-back luxury meeting edgy culture through candelabra chandeliers, neon signs touting "find what you love and let it kill you," a projector showing black and white clips, and giant Virgin Mary murals adding to the mish mosh of cool. Not only is the decor quirky, but the tacos are creative (loved the juxtaposition of textures in the fish tacos with the fried shrimp, as well as the cinnamon in the pulled pork), and the the cocktails are craft! Oh, and they have El Tucateco hot sauce, which my fellow hot heads know is very exciting news!
Not surprisingly there is some great street art on the building's exterior, mentioned below.
15. It's Fun To Go On A Public Art Hunt
Unlike in some cities, Edmonton's street art is spread out, so you'll need to be on the lookout. This photo features the "World on Whyte" mural at 10443 82 (Whyte) Avenue, created to show people the vibrant culture that makes up the area. If you head to El Cortez Restaurant you'll find an 80-foot black and white mural that looks at themes of "human brutality and violence, power and submission" through a bloody sword fight battle.
If you're into funky tours, there's also this DIY Edmonton public art tour for download.
Also don't miss the rainbow-colored sidewalks, originally supposed to be a temporary exhibit to celebrate Pride Festival in Old Strathcona; however, the city decided to make them permanent. You can find them at:
- 108 Street and 82 Avenue
- 106 Street and 82 Avenue
- 104 Street and 84 Avenue
- 104 Street and 84 Avenue (looking north)
16. Offbeat Enthusiasts Can Enjoy Neon Signs
The Neon Sign Museum is a funky al fresco museum at 104 Street and 104 Avenue in Downtown Edmonton. It’s best visited at night, when vintage signs from historic businesses like Cliff's Auto Parts, Colonel Mustard's and Northern Alberta Railways are lit up in bright neon colors. Bring your camera!
17. The Government Buildings Are Playful
Many cities have beautiful government buildings, though Edmonton kicks it up a notch at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta by having what feels more like a play park. I actually stumbled upon the 57 acres of grounds on accident while walking across the Riverbend Bridge into Downtown Edmonton. Picture a gorgeous wading pool with reflections of the grand Legislature Building, especially beautiful at night when it's all lit up (shown above). There's also a fountain, smaller wading pools, an interpretive center, gardens, monuments, memorials, interactive outdoor art and more.
They offer guided and self-guided tours, though I just loved wandering around with my camera at night.
Fun fact: The Alberta Legislature sits on quicksand, though concrete piles made the construction possible.
Here is a map for your reference.
18. Their Craft Cocktail Bars Put You In Touch With Your Inner Child
The first thing I noticed when walking into the candle-lit Woodwork bar was the wooden bar with homemade tinctures and bitters as well as under-lit wooden shelves showcasing myriad quality spirits, so tall they have a ladder to reach the top. Their food menu features tasty housemade eats like caramelized Brussels sprouts with house-cured bacon and an Alberta flank steak in chimichurri sauce, though because it was late I stuck with the cocktails. Libations showcase unique infusions like hibiscus syrup and thyme, as well as lesser-known digestifs and aperitifs. I went for a dessert-like "Cantina Most Icily" made with Borsci S Marzano, Herbsaint, cream, egg, firewater bitters and Gochugaru chili flakes; sort of like alicorice-laced spicy Mayan chocolate shake.
I particularly liked this bar for the social atmosphere. Sitting alone when traveling solo isn’t always easy, but both the bartender and multiple patrons engaged me in conversation (as soon as I put my phone down).
Food prices range from $7 to $28, and cocktails range from $11-$15.
Getting There: Edmonton is served by the Edmonton International Airport. I found this airport to very clear, comfortable, manageable and organized. There is free Wi-Fi, though it didn't work well when I tried to use it (that being said it was stormy out). Edmonton is also serviced by Via Rail Canada.
Getting To Your Hotel: A taxi to/from the airport to Old Strathcona cost me about $40 Canadian and took about half an hour. You can also take the Skyshuttle, a shared shuttle bus which costs $18 one way or $30 round-trip for South, University, Downtown, Kingsway and West End locations. You can call them at 780-465-8515.
Getting Around: If you're just going to stay in Edmonton city you can get by on trolley, foot and with Uber (there's no bike share); however, the destination has so many attractions worth driving to within an hour. My recommendation would be to rent a car.
Where To Hangout: There are many great districts/neighborhoods to hangout in, mainly:
- Westend: Filled with urban adventures and shopping at the West Edmonton Mall, home to the world's largest indoor roller coaster and wave pool.
- Downtown: Culture carnivores will love the many restaurants, markets, bars, coffee shops, museums and galleries.
- Southside/Old Strathcona: This area is known for its nightlife as well as its boutique shopping
Source / Credit: Jessica Festa - BusinessInsider.com