Sitting proudly as the capital of Alberta, Edmonton holds a lot more than what meets the eye. It is a common stopover for travellers who are heading to Jasper National Park, known as one of the Gateways to the North, but it is often overlooked as only that. People will often get flights to Calgary instead of Edmonton as they feel the city has a lot more to offer before they head into Jasper National Park. More than just a gateway city, Edmonton has a booming Canadian soul and is a great destination to explore and get the taste of a real Canadian city.
1. It hosts a lot of festivals
So many, in fact, it’s actually known as the festival city. The festivals cover many different interests, from the Bikeology Festival for cycling which takes place in June, to K-Days – a festival that originally adopted a gold rush theme.
If you are looking to travel to Edmonton for their International Fringe Festival, then you want to aim for about mid-August. It’s the largest Fringe Festival in North America and brings together more than 800 performers for some brilliant shows over the event. Even if you don’t make the event, there are plenty of events all year round to quench your festival thirst.
2. It’s home to the world’s largest indoor roller coaster (and one of the world’s largest malls)
Having once been the largest mall in the world, the West Edmonton Mall is still proudly the largest in North America and retains a multitude of world records. The mall itself is home to an indoor amusement park, water park, regulation-size ice rink, underground aquarium, pirate ship, and a mini-golf course as well as over 800 stores, two hotels and 100 dining venues. You could get lost in this mall for a lifetime, let alone a day.
If holiday shopping is one of your greatest joys, this is the place for you. And, if holiday adventuring is one of your favourite things, West Edmonton Mall will also provide you with all of the adventure you need! Browse some of North America’s largest stores, and surf indoors all in one day! Sit and sip a coffee before visiting sea lions all under one roof! The possibilities are endless.
We spoke to Char from Taylor Hearts Travel, a blog that has created a wonderful 10-day itinerary for Edmonton & Jasper. Char suggested West Edmonton Mall: “The mall really is massive, spanning the equivalent of 48 city blocks! We saw a seal having his teeth brushed at one end and an ice hockey rink at the other. It was a lot of fun!”
Char also suggested her favourite food joint in the city: “Head to El Cortez for some hipster tacos and make sure you try the mojito with marshmallow foam on top!”
3. There are no rats in Edmonton (or the whole of Alberta for that matter)
Norway Rats first started to arrive in North America in the late 18th century, and as you can imagine, they very quickly took over. Everywhere but Alberta that is. When the rats arrived on the Alberta border from the East, Alberta put its foot down and hatched a plan. Along the eastern border, a rat-control zone was established. That 18-mile-deep zone is still in place today with eight dedicated professionals keeping a watchful eye.
Because of this strict border, and Alberta’s perseverance to keep rats out of the province, it is illegal to have any type of rat as a pet. This means you don’t need to worry about rats when you visit Alberta but make sure you don’t accidentally bring one into the province!
4. It’s one of Canada’s sunniest cities
When you think of Canada, most people imagine bitter winds, snow and icy conditions. This, however, is only the case for half of the year, and if the cold isn’t for you, Edmonton just well could be. As one of Canada’s sunniest cities, it’s a great place to experience proper Canadian winters as well as relaxing, fresh summers.
Even through the winter months you are likely to have a sunny day in Edmonton, with the city seeing over 2,345 hours of bright sunshine a year and 325 days with at least some bright sunshine.
5. It’s a great place to see bison
If nature is your calling, then heading to Elk Island National Park is a must. It’s one of the best places in the world to see bison, and also has the second largest number of hoofed animals anywhere in the world, losing out only to the Serengeti. With over 750 bison, and it being Canada’s largest completely enclosed park, it won’t be long before you come face to face with one of these beasts.
A great trip if you are looking to take advantage of the freedom of your car hire, you can coast around the park and pull over to snap shots of the fantastic wildlife, find a hiking trail or just watch the sun go down before heading back into the city.
6. They have a neon sign museum
If you head downtown, make sure to swing by the Neon Sign Museum. Perfect for an evening stroll, this stretch of road is brightly lit by signs from Edmonton’s past. This outdoor museum is a lovely token of Edmonton’s history, and has a brilliant nostalgic feel, plus it’s is a great place to get a holiday snap.
All of the signs will be familiar to Edmonton locals, but never fear, if you come from out of town there are small signs displayed which explain the history of the lights. The signs have all recently been restored to their original glory, and the museum is open 24/7. It’s right next to Rogers Place so if you catch a game, make sure not to miss it!
We spoke to David Johnston, the Principal Heritage Planner for the City of Edmonton. He told us about how the museum started: “The idea for the museum came about from one of my colleagues, David Holdsworth, who noticed that the neon sign from the Canadian Furniture store was being taken down (this was 10 years or so ago). He inquired as to what was going to be done with the sign, and the workers indicated it was being thrown out. He asked if the city could retrieve it, and we were given permission to do so. There was no specific idea at the time what could be done with it, but he felt it was such a great example of this dying art that it had to be saved.
“In the intervening years, 6 or 7 additional signs came our way, to the point where a decision needed to be made on what to do with them. The idea of installing them outdoors in the downtown as a public art/museum installation emerged, and the search began for a suitable location. A partnership had formed between the City of Edmonton, the Alberta Sign Association, the Art and Design in Public Places Program (also known as The Works), and the Downtown Business Association to get the museum off the ground.
“We now have 23 signs in total (2 are not included on the website, as they are recent installs – Mother’s Music Guitar and Blanchett Neon). 19 of these are on the TELUS building, and 4 are on the south wall of the Mercer Warehouse building on the east side of 104 Street. The owners there have become formal partners in the museum – we use their building to display our one-sided signs. We have 2 additional signs that have just been donated and are under restoration (The Movie Studio and La Boheme), which will bring us to 25 signs.
David told us some more about why the museum is so unique, and why it is a beloved attraction not just for tourists but for locals as well: “The museum is the first of its kind in Canada and showcases both the history of some of Edmonton’s iconic neon signs, but also the businesses and people involved in building Edmonton. The signs are art pieces in their own right and represent tangible reminders of a lost age when most urban centres had neon signs all along their major thoroughfares. A consistent comment I hear from people is one of nostalgia – these signs were landmarks in people’s lives and remind them of Edmonton’s history.”
7. It’s surrounded by giants
If roadside attractions are your speed, and you are planning on driving out of the city, then you’ll be happy to know Edmonton is surrounded by giants! In fact, in Edmonton you can see the world’s largest cowboy boot, and one of the world’s largest baseball bats!
See the world’s largest duck in Andrew, the world’s largest sausage in Mundare and the world’s largest Pysanka (Easter egg) in Vegreville. So, if you are looking for a road trip, exploring some of the world’s giants is for you!
8. It has a lot of Ukrainian heritage
Edmonton embraces its deep Ukrainian heritage. As well as seeing Canadian staples around town, you will also find elements of Ukrainian culture. It is thought one of the earliest settlements in East Alberta was Ukrainian and Edmonton pays homage to that.
You can head to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village to learn more about this. Explore more than 35 restored buildings including features like working grain elevators, a black smith and a sod house. You can also sample Ukrainian food here and learn tips on things like baking breaks and shoeing a horse.
9. It is home to ‘arguably the best bakery in Canada’
If the smell of fresh baked pies and croissants is enough to bring you to your knees, then Edmonton is ready to deliver. It’s home to Duchess Bake Shop, often regarded as one of the best bakeries in the world. Its decadent and delicate bakes are renowned for their beauty and taste.
Within the first hour of business on a Saturday, Duchess serves some 300 people. This small café in Westmount has been open since 2009 and offers a blend of French classics and Alberta favourites. If you want to bring Duchess home they also offer their own home bakery provisions, and award-winning cookbook.
10. They have their own ice castle
Now, if you’ve watched Frozen whilst longing for your own ice castle, you’re in luck. Visit Edmonton during the winter months and you’ll be able to explore their own purpose-built ice castle. The castle, which sits in Hawrelak Park, is made by hand every year.
The magnificent castle includes a throne room (made of ice, of course), an ice slide, an ice maze and intricate archways. Throughout the castle hundreds of colours lights are encased in the structure, which makes it completely stunning.
We spoke to Laura from Travelling Weasels, who travelled to Edmonton during the winter months: “I was so surprised by the amount Edmonton had to offer, especially considering we visited in January when it was absolutely freezing, I would have expected Edmontonians to be staying inside, but no! There were so many cool things to do:
“The Ice on Whyte Festival, a trip to the Ice Castles – it was great to see winter being embraced rather than hidden from.
“If you can only do one thing in Edmonton I highly recommend a trip through the city (during winter) on an ice bike – extra points if you plan your tour so you end up at the Ice Castle, it’s a spectacular sight.”
Now, the only thing left to decide is how you are going to spend your time! Perhaps you are determined to visit the ice castle or hunker down in Elk Park with a warm cup of coffee watching bison. Whatever it is, you can do it in Edmonton with a holiday from Canadian Affair.