The City of Calgary has been one of the favorite Canadian cities to visit for tourists from all over the world. Usually, the two major draws that make this Southern Alberta city a tourist attraction in its own right are the close proximity it has to the Canadian Rockies to the west and the annual rodeo showdown known as the Calgary Stampede. This has also been a favorite city for music fans and their favorite musicians. When taking a road trip, Calgary has no trouble keeping you entertained for at least a couple of nights. Whatever your musical taste happens to be, Calgary is sure to have it. Famous recording artists who once called Calgary their home include Jann Arden and The Stampeders.
Calgary for Rockers
If you’re into classic rock like I am, turn your radio dial to CFXL 103 FM. This is where you tune into hits from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. However, it’s not the only classic rock station in town. If you want to follow the top forty hits, then 98.5 Virgin Radio would be the station for you. As for a radio station that specializes in active rock, CJAY 92.1 has established itself as one of the most popular radio stations, not just in Calgary, but throughout Alberta. If you’re into a mix of new hard rock and classic rock gems, CJAY FM is it.
Two major highways send drivers straight into the city with ease. When traveling from east to west, the TransCanada Highway (Highway 1) makes it relatively easy to pass through the city. This is also the case going from west to east. As for approaching Calgary from the north or the south, Highway 2 is the way to do it. Within the Calgary city limits, Highway 2 is also referred to as Deerfoot Trail. Whenever touring musicians travel from one Canadian city to another, these are the routes they usually take. From these highways, it’s easy to make the turnoffs en route to the hotels they stay in and the venues where they hold their concerts.
When venturing into Calgary by car using Deerfoot Trail with the intent to take in the city’s vibrant nightlife and all the awesome music that comes with it, your best bet is to turn onto Memorial Drive, heading west. This leads you to its downtown area and, ideally, R.E.D. When entering Calgary from the TransCanada Highway, this becomes 16 Avenue. If you’re coming from the west, it’ll be 16 Avenue West until you reach Centre Street North. If you’re coming from the east, it’ll be 16 Avenue East until, again, you reach Centre Street North. You can head south on this street if you want to hit downtown Calgary but the best route to take is slightly east of it on Edmonton Trail. Along the way, it becomes 4 Street NE and this will first take you to Memorial Drive before it becomes 4 Street SE. If you’re heading for R.E.D., continue this route until you reach 1 Street SE, then turn left. It’s a one-way street that eventually becomes MacLeod Trail.
The Retail & Entertainment District (R.E.D.) sits along 17 Avenue SE and 17 Avenue SW, so as you head southbound on MacLeod Trail, turn right and your road trip has just taken you to the heart of Calgary’s vibrant nightlife. As soon as you pass Centre Street South, it becomes 17 Avenue SW. Don’t be alarmed when this happens. Calgary is set up as a grid with four quadrants. It should also be noted Calgary is notorious for its one-way streets, especially in the downtown area. Furthermore, its downtown core sits on an island where there are only a few ways in and a few ways out. When taking your road trip to Calgary, it would be advised to avoid its morning and afternoon rush hour traffic as much as possible.
Road Trip Recommendation
Along with Toronto and Vancouver, Calgary is a busy city consistently loaded with visitors from all over the world. It is a major business hub, as well as a popular tourist attraction. As is the case with most cities known to experience harsh winters, the summer season in Calgary is loaded with celebrations and festivals. Among the most popular, aside from its world-famous Calgary Stampede, are the music festivals. If your road trip to this Southern Alberta city includes staying at least a couple of nights before moving on, book your accommodations as soon as possible. Speaking as someone who lived in Calgary for six years and has worked in the hotel industry during that time, I know firsthand when people try to book a place to stay in Calgary during the ten-day celebration of the Stampede, doing so at least a year in advance would be wise. It’s not uncommon for every single hotel, including the sleazy ones, to be fully booked one full year before the Stampede starts.
The summer season also draws tourists from all over the world who use Calgary as a popular pit stop before or after visiting Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Along the TransCanada Highway, it takes about two hours to travel between Calgary and Banff’s townsite. Banff has been among the favorite getaways, even for rockers, who can’t seem to resist its awesomeness. Even in the winter, Banff and Calgary are favorite destinations for snow bunnies. While the spring and fall seasons seem a bit less busy, other motorists who wish to avoid the crowds have also clued in this is the best time to travel to avoid traffic congestion and an increased population of tourists. So, again, planning before you get behind the wheel en route to Calgary would be your best ticket to avoid disappointment and other unpleasant issues.
Among Americans, if you’re not familiar with Canadian customs and laws, it would be advised to visit the Canada Border Services Agency website. From there, you have the opportunity to maximize your potential to have an ideal road trip that has Calgary and its music scene play a role in your travel plans. You will also learn about the Canadian dollar and the nation’s metric system. Instead of gallons to measure fuel, it’s liters. Instead of miles to measure travel distances between destinations, it’s kilometers. For every mile you travel, it’s the equivalent of 1.6 kilometers. While motorists in the United States travel up to seventy-five miles per hour on the highway, in Canada it’s up to one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour.
When booking for a place to stay in Calgary, try and do so at least one full year in advance if you can. If this isn’t possible, there are neighboring communities that may be able to accommodate. Odds are, between Banff and Calgary, booking a place to stay less than a year from the start of the city’s annual Stampede may prove to be quite difficult. You may have a better chance with Airdie, which connects to Calgary from the north when you travel on Highway 2. To the south, it is Okotoks. Okotoks is where the Russian Olympians stayed during the 1988 Winter Olympics that were held in Calgary. East of Calgary is Strathmore but now we’re pushing it at an hour’s distance between the two communities. Airdrie is half an hour north of downtown Calgary while Okotoks is about forty minutes south.
Knowing Calgary as well as I do, one of the best hotels to soak up the city’s music scene would be Hotel Arts. Situated along Calgary’s infamous Beltline, the exact address of this awesome hotel is 119-12th Avenue Southwest. This puts you five blocks away from Red Row and less than one kilometer away from the Stampede Grounds. When parking there, you can either do it yourself or have a valet do it for you. For about two hundred Canadian dollars a night, not only do you have access to a great hotel but it Yellow Door Bistro and Raw Bar.
A personal favorite, even before I lived in Calgary and then after moving away, has been Hotel Blackfoot. This one sits on 5940 Blackfoot Trail Southeast and usually costs less than two hundred dollars a night to stay there. The Blackfoot constantly provides entertainment, especially at The Laugh Shop. However, the point behind a musical road trip is to check out Calgary’s music scene. The convenient location of Blackfoot makes it easy to take a short drive at any given direction to find a venue that can either jazz up your evening or help rock your night away. It’s incredibly easy to connect to MacLeod Trail as you head north to the city’s downtown core, Red Row, and the flurry of bars, clubs, and other music-friendly venues it has to offer.
Calgary’s Music History
Calgary’s pioneering music history begins with the native tribes, the Northwest Mounted Police, and the earliest settlers that turned Fort Calgary into one of Western Canada’s most prosperous cities. The diversity of Calgary’s cultural, musical, and social influences has played key roles in the surge of the city’s music scene from musical theaters to popular nightclubs and venues that make this city a wonderful place to be. After introducing the Calgary Stampede as an annual summer event that now takes place within the first two weeks of July, one of the biggest highlights for music fans is the nightly shows held at the Stampede Grandstand. As of 2022, it has since been renamed to GMC Stadium.
When the ten days of festivities that sum up the Calgary Stampede are underway, its legendary grandstand not only hosts world-class rodeos throughout the day but also sets the stage for some of the best music concerts for the evening. For country music fans, icons such as Blue Rodeo, Randy Travis, and Shania Twain have managed to rock the audience just as effectively as Mother Mother, Rod Stewart, and Theory of a Deadman. While the Stampede makes its run, it’s not only the music from the grandstand that sends fans to their feet.
Saddledome and Stampede Park’s Coca-Cola Stage
There is also the infamous Saddledome and Stampede Park’s Coca-Cola Stage. While the outdoor Coca-Cola Stage has been known to host rock groups such as Honeymoon Suite and Nazareth, the Scotiabank Saddledome is the venue of choice for the hottest acts whenever they come to Calgary. Aerosmith, Nickelback, and the Rolling Stones are among the elites who’ve rocked the house down with their string of hits and other all-time fan favorites. For Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger and Mike Kroeger, as well as Ryan Peake, playing in Calgary is almost like playing in their backyard. The Kroegers are from Hanna, which is two hours northeast of Calgary. Peake is from Brooks, which is two hours southeast of Calgary.
Seeing R.E.D. Bars, Clubs, And Restaurants
R.E.D. is an acronym for the Retail & Entertainment District, which is loaded with bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops along 17th Avenue between 2nd Street SW and 14th Street SW. For music fans wishing to soak up the nightlife, this is the place to go. Among the best eateries to fill your bellies along this stretch of road, Alumni Sandwiches on 725 17 Avenue SW is incredible. For jazz music fans, Betty Lou’s Library is worth your time to eat, drink, and listen. It’s the closest thing to the Great Gadsby experience you’ll find in Calgary.
It’s easy enough to drive around, park, and walk around within the R.E.D. district. There are plenty of parking lots in the area. Access to street parking is free in the evenings, during the holidays, and all day Sunday. Even north of 17th Avenue SW are some fantastic bars and nightclubs such as Habitat Living Sound on 1217 1 St SW and the Milk Tiger Lounge on 1410 4 St SW. These two have consistently been listed as the hottest nightclubs in Calgary that feature music from house bands and DJ mixes. For travelers looking for that night on the town that has lots of awesome music and bar hopping in mind, R.E.D. is the place to go.
However, R.E.D. offers a fraction of the vibrant music scene Calgary has to offer. Aside from this district, Stampede Park, and the Saddledome, there are many venues throughout the city that offer access to great live music. The Blues Can is awesome and the food is great, too. For a taste of the south, Calgary style, this awesome spot on 1429 9 Ave SE makes for a great pit stop. Your belly and your ears will thank you. Another great hangout for rockers is The Back Alley. Several rock legends have entertained the audience from this venue’s stage such as Lee Aaron, Honeymoon Suite, and Allannah Myles. Speaking from personal experience who knew this place well, if you’re looking for a great place with great rock memorabilia in Calgary, The Back Alley is hard to beat.
For many years, Calgary has been a favorite destination for travelers who love their road trips. Between its lively music scene and diverse culture, the city is far from boring. Among country music fans, the city nicknamed Cow Town is a hands-down favorite. Calgary sports a special brand of country rock that played a role in iconic groups such as Nickelback to rise up as one of the most popular rock bands today. It was the city that sparked The Stampeders to become one of the most popular Canadian rock bands after making its recording debut in 1965.
Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre
When taking your road trip to Calgary, visiting the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the National Music Centre is a must. Every year, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences holds the Juno Awards as it recognizes the best recording artists Canada has to offer. This is the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards presented in the United States. The fifth level of the museum’s Studio Bell is dedicated to the collection of Canadian music stars who made their mark as the biggest influencers who continue to shape the Canadian music industry today.
Located at 850 4th Street SE, this is a non-profit museum and venue that features a collection of over two thousand rare musical instruments and artifacts such as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, the TONTO synthesizer, and an Elton John piano. The National Music Centre is the home of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Studio Bell is the venue that hosts musical performances before a crowd of about five thousand people. This facility is attached to the historic King Edward Hotel. After it was dismantled and rebuilt, the old hotel has since become King Eddy, a popular venue that hosts live music every night. This venue’s address is 438 9th Ave SE.
Calgary Road Trip Guide for Music Fans article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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