Gateway to the North
Edmonton sparkles like a bottle of well-shook lemonade. A green metropole, where you are surrounded by nature in the middle of the city, with the largest city park in North America and a culinary scene to die for. Edmonton is a feast of outdoor urban life. Time for a visit.
The trees in thousand shades of green on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River give the illusion of stretched out woods and uninhabited areas. Their branches and leaves reach towards the sky, waving a warm welcome to the passengers of the High Level Bridge Streetcar at a fifty-meter altitude. The orange-golden light of the setting sun happily gives everything a more intense colour. Singer-songwriter Travis Matthews sweetly sings about love while accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. Below us, between the wilderness on the sloping waterside, a city rises. Edmonton’s skyscrapers form a concrete valley between the green sea of trees. Outdoor urban life. Opposites melt into one in the natural city of Edmonton.
The W6 Class tram from 1947 may have started its career in the Australian Melbourne; it has been riding around Edmonton for thirteen years already. Lovingly restored and shined to perfection by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, it serves as one of the showpieces of the High Level Bridge Streetcar. “This historical and scenic tram route runs from Strathcona on the southern banks of the North Saskatchewan River to Edmonton on the Northern banks,” explains Jeremy Derksen, our local guide who is showing us the most beautiful places around the city.
“The High Level Bridge is literally and figuratively speaking the highlight. By the way, Strathcona and Edmonton were once two separate cities until in 1912 the two amalgamated. Those who asked about Edmonton years ago, sometimes jokingly heard the name Deadmonton. Admittedly, it was once a sleepy city on the Canadian prairie. Nowadays, the city, with almost one million inhabitants, is a rapidly growing metropole that sparkles like a bottle of well-shook lemonade.
North Saskatchewan River
Its location on the flat grass plains of the Canadian prairie and the presence of the Northern Saskatchewan river are among the reasons why Edmonton exists in the first place. “The river rises in Banff National Park at the Saskatchewan glacier and drains into the Hudson Bay, almost 1300 kilometres further on”, says Jeremy. “By the way, if you think Saskatchewan is a tricky name, don’t forget it derives from kisiskâciwanisîpiy, as the Cree Nation called it. Try saying that eight times in a row.”
Edmonton’s skyscrapers form a concrete valley between the green sea of trees
The river with a very strong current, which is what the original Cree name for the river literally means, was filled to the rim with beavers. Animals with a beautiful pelt which the Europeans loved to have. So they removed the animal who was wearing the skin. Different times.
But for that, you have to catch them first. Because of the beaver hunt, tradespeople from the North West Company built Fort August in 1975, a little north of the current site of Edmonton. A year later, Hudson’s Bay Company (which still exists) followed with Fort Edmonton. “The presence of the river, named Beaver River by the pelt hunters, made trade flourish. Not much later, small settlements appeared on both sides of the Northern Saskatchewan river,” Jeremy explains. “The city didn’t grow fast, though. In 1904, when Edmonton was named the capital of the province of Alberta, the town only had 5000 inhabitants. The arrival of a railway connection made the number grow to 72.500 in ten years. The number went up and down throughout the years until 1947, when oil was discovered close to the city. That is why Edmonton’s nickname is Oil Capital of Canada.
Honest local products
Do you love discovering local products? Visit the Street Farmer’s Market. It takes place every Thursday at the end of the afternoon, and every Sunday afternoon, at 108 Avenue, between 124 Street and 123 Street. Or go to Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market on Saturday, an indoor market full of even more local delicacies. Whatever you get locally in Edmonton is good.
Shop ‘til you drop. In West Edmonton Mall, that is super easy. Because, my god, this shopping centre is enormous. Did I say shopping centre? Partly. Because next to being a shopping paradise, WEM also houses an adventure park, a vast swimming pool with the most bizarre slides and is packed with restaurants. WEM is also the largest shopping centre in North America and the fifth-largest mall in the world. Make sure to take a full day to discover it, and don’t forget your swimming trunks.
Oil and Tech
The oil capital created a pull factor, and the city keeps on growing. But other sectors are thriving in Edmonton as well. “This year, Edmonton was named best Canadian city for young people to work in,” says Jeremy. “Yet another achievement of Don Iveson, who was named mayor in 2013, at the age of 34. He has been working hard to increase the quality of life in his city. He created cheaper housing, stimulated the Tech sector, invested in the arts and constructed cycle paths. We are delighted to have him.” His approach is a success. The city keeps drawing talent, and the town offers space to no less than five universities, with a total of 90.000 students. No surprise Google’s artificial intelligence department settled in Edmonton in 2017.
“This year, Edmonton was named best Canadian city for young people to work in”
Two mighty bison graze peacefully between the trees of Elk Island National Park, about 35 kilometres east of Edmonton. Their muscular bodies and wide bowed and horned heads in the wind. Their wet nostrils sniff around while their ears move around, looking for danger. Once, the prairie trembled when the gigantic herds moved around. Once, the earth rumbled below the massive number of hooves. Once, there were more than thirty million bison on the grasslands of North America. The animals defined the culture of the prairie Indians. The invasion of leather-hungry Europeans combined with a cruel attempt to break the lifestyle of the original inhabitants made the number of bison go down to a few hundred at the end of the 19th century. The end was near.
“In 1907, the last herd of 700 was bought with the help of the Canadian government,” explains park ranger Samantha Beaulieu-Labelle. “And this area along with it, which quickly became a national park. That herd has been used since then to breed new herds, to accommodate those all over the world. From Scotland to Russia, Canadian bison graze peacefully. Now, more than 100 years later, the number of bison in North America is back to half a million animals.” An incredible success story.
“Beavers, lynx, moose, the black bear, deer, and coyotes are just a few of the mammal species around here”
But the observant visitor won’t just spot bison in the 194 square kilometres natural reserve. “Beavers, lynx, moose, the black bear, deer, and coyotes are just a few of the mammal species around here,” Samantha says. Not to mention the bird species, of which you will find around 250 around here.
Culture and History
When you want to know more about the region’s history, the recently renewed Royal Alberta Hall, the largest museum in Western Canada, has everything your heart desires. Not only does the museum house an extensive collection of historical objects, but the architecture is also a feast for the eyes.
The River Valley
And all of that at only half an hour drive from Edmonton. Not that you need to leave the city at all to be surrounded by nature. The Edmonton River Valley is the largest park area inside a city in the whole of North America. It is massive; there are no less than twenty-five separate parks within the park area. “You will find hundred-sixty kilometres of cycling and walking paths,” our cycle guide Mike MacAnally of Revolution Cycle tells us, while we speed through the abundantly green park on e-bikes. “New York’s Central Park fits in it 22 times,” he laughs proudly. You can walk, run, kayak, bike and mountain bike in this area. Around every corner, you will find beautiful new panoramas. “In winter, you see people walking around on snowshoes, and they go cross-country skiing around here. But it’s not just the fresh air and athletic things that draw the citizens to the River Valley.
Whether it’s the middle of the summer or minus thirty degrees, you will always find something to do around here. The city is known for its many festivals, many of which are held here in these natural surroundings. Like the Heritage Festival, that draws half a million visitors in three days.
“And not just in summer!” yells Mike. “In winter too. In January, you can visit beautiful ice castles here. These ice castles are almost magical. You can sit on a throne of ice, walk underneath gigantic icicles and race on an ice-slide. Always something to do.” Whether you live on the southern or northern side of the city, the River Valley connects and is always close. Outdoor urban life.
The winter is long here. It runs from November to March. And it can be very, very cold. “But it’s easy to dress for the cold,” Mike laughs. “We are used to barbecue in blizzards.” It is also the season for ice hockey competition. “Canadians love ice hockey and us, Edmontonians, are proud as a peacock of the Oilers. However, many times they lose, hahaha. There is a lot of complaining and moaning, but by the time the next game comes around, we once again put on the bright orange shirt and go to Rogers Place en masse.” The gigantic stadium in the middle of the city opened in 2016 and is regularly the beating heart of the city. Attending a game here is an experience in itself. Especially when you try a Caesar cocktail during intermission, the Canadian variation on the Bloody Mary.
Because winters are long and summers relatively short, the city becomes extra vibrant when the sun comes out to kiss the city and her inhabitants. The terraces of the many excellent restaurants in Old Strathcona are packed. At any rate, you can indulge in the culinary scene of Edmonton.
Edmonton has a lot of culinary treats to offer. “There are three culinary hotspots,” says Jeremy. “You do have to know where to go to begin with, but Downton, on 124th Street and in Old Strathcona, you will find the finest restaurants.” Near 124th, you find Partake, the small and cosy bistro ran by Cyrilles Koppert who greets us in Dutch. In his twenties, he moved to Canada. His beef tartare and devilled eggs are so delicious; you have to watch out not to eat your fingers with them.
It is happening in Edmonton, or so it feels. A significant achievement, especially when your city had the nickname Deadmonton up to a few years ago. How did that happen? Jeremy knows the answer. “Because we are so isolated, we are self-reliant. And we have to organise our own entertainment. We became rather good at that; we perfected it.”
You've got to try this!
It took a while, but recently, Edmonton opened its very own distillery where they make fine vodka and gin. Strathcona Spirits scoops up all kinds of awards with those beautiful distillates. And, sssh, we took one with us. We are giving it away to an aficionado. Send us an email telling us why you deserve that bottle.
Walking through the city, you run into the most amazing murals. Edmonton thanks most of that art to the effort of Annaliza Toledo and Trevor Peters, organisers of the street art festival Rust Magic. They also organise a walking tour in the city past all those beautiful spots. Lots of fun.
Food and drinks
Are you a foodie? Put Edmonton on your must-eat-there list. These are the seven top places to go to.
Lovely hipster joint with a-ma-zing sandwiches.
Located in an old textile factory. French/Scandinavian kitchen.
A beer brewery serving an awesome meal on the side.
Situated in one of the oldest houses of Edmonton. Cute.
French bistro Canadian style with Dutch cook annexe owner. Try those Devilled Eggs!
Mexican street food. The tacos are brilliant.
Nice and sweet. The danger of Pip’s Eggs Benedict is that you will seriously consider emigrating after eating them.