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A Cultural City with a Lovable Split-Personality

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013


Edmonton skyline along North Saskatchewan River valley

Canada’s ‘Little Brother’ Metropolis Grows Up

The U.S.-Canada border, the longest unprotected border in the world, sees 500,000 daily crossings. Our relationship with Canada defines ally. While most Americans are familiar with Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, their sleeping gem, Edmonton, is starting to get the attention it deserves. Located in the heart of Alberta—one of Canada’s 10 provinces—and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s launch-pad, Edmonton is a young northern city of more than a million people with a lot more to do culturally than you’d expect. Their southern neighbor Calgary is a bit more of white collar oil town that’s known, ironically, for peddling Edmonton’s oil. Edmonton was recently named the cultural capital of Canada, and for good reason—there’s no shortage of galleries, symphonies, plays, concerts, and festivals. This riverside metropolis is a mellow yet savvy urban getaway if there ever was one. By the way, their river valley park, which bisects the city like a greenbelt should, is 22 times bigger than Central Park.


Edmonton’s Winspear Centre

Culture thrives here. Although across-the-river Old Strathcona seems get all the mojo buzz, downtown Edmonton teems with world class performance spaces. The Citadel is a breathtaking complex of theaters, one a 700-seat state-of-the-art thrust stage. All of the Citadel’s venues combined make it the busiest regional theater in Western Canada. The Winspear Centre’s acoustically perfect balcony-flanked venue also showcases world-class music acts. A sculpture itself when viewed from afar, the incredible Art Gallery of Alberta opened in 2010. It dazzles from inside and out.


Art Gallery of Alberta (photo: Robert Lemermeyer)

The Union Bank Inn, a resurrected old-style bank that melds bold Modern Renaissance—imagine swanky 1911—and contemporary design. The goose down bedding, fireplace, and fleece robe waiting in your room add to the understated elegance. Sturdy like an armory, the 14 vintage rooms have different themes each individually overseen by some of Edmonton’s finest interior designers. An adjacent wing providing business-style accommodation makes 34 rooms total. People make a place and their warm staff completes the luxurious Inn experience. The ground floor of the hotel features Madison’s Grill—fine dining sourcing local options—and the adjoining wine cellar-esque Vintage Room.


Madison’s Grill—ground floor of The Union Bank Inn

For a taste of grand Canadian royalty consider the imposing, river valley-hugging Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. Sample this landmark on The cheesy-but-fun Fantasyland Hotel, attached to the famed West Edmonton Mall, is themed by floor. Choices include Hollywood, Roman, and Tropical—there’s even a few igloo-themed rooms with bunk beds. The mall’s mammoth indoor rollercoaster is a savage neck-twister.


Edmonton’s Fairmont Hotel MacDonald

Edmonton’s Blue Plate Diner, holding court on downtown’s 104th Street promenade, serves uplifting diner cuisine including an elk & bison burger, vegetarian options, and a Kentucky Hot Brown (turkey) Sandwich. This cozy joint with high ceilings is a member of


104th Street Promenade—home of the Blue Plate Diner

Set in a homey building on a residential tree-lined street, the NVE Institute is a spa specializing in phyto-aroma cosmetology—translation, epic massages with a tender “you can nap now” touch, concluding with a nifty tubular-cocoon wrap. A world away from pomp, this place is a down-to-earth upscale treat.


For an entirely different urban vibe, explore life across the North Saskatchewan River. Old Strathcona, Edmonton’s Brooklyn, is a hip historic area that’s home to more than 100 eateries and pubs offering the city’s largest variety of jazz, blues, country, folk, alternative rock and dance. Also a theater district with 10 theater groups celebrating new works and innovative takes on classic material, improvisation, and children’s productions. Discover one-of-a kind offerings, from locally made crafts to treasures from afar. Amid many historic buildings, businesses are mostly owner-operated, offering whatever you’d expect to find in New York’s Soho district, minus the people-jams.


Old Strathcona

The Varscona Theatre is located in the heart of Old Strathcona, and is home to four professional resident companies as well as many independent theatres. Check out and

Visit Old Strathcona in mid-August and you’ll be in the heart of North America’s longest-running and largest fringe theatre festival. In fact, Edmonton is festival ground zero—home to 30 major festivals year-round that celebrate the arts, music, winter, and sports.

Packrat Louie is an upscale brick-walled Swiss bistro with a wood-fired oven and made from scratch international cuisine via fresh local markets. Located in the heart of Old Strathcona, the Swiss, French, German, and Italian influences are enjoyed in an open, friendly environment.

* * * * *

Via Rail has service to/from all points east and west of Edmonton—the four hour train ride west to rustic-but-hip Jasper passes through the Canadian Rockies and some of North America’s best scenery. This rail odyssey makes Amtrak tuck its tail between its legs.

For an impressive overview of what’s to do in rockin’ Edmonton visit


Edmonton twilight

Bruce Northam
Author: Bruce Northam
Bruce Northam is the award-winning journalist and author of The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons, Globetrotter Dogma, In Search of Adventure, and The Frugal Globetrotter. He also created “American Detour,” a show revealing the travel writer’s journey. His keynote speech, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. Northam’s other live presentation, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit

Reader Comments | read reactions to this article

Gary wrote on April 18, 2013

Wow, Androck you really have a pet peeve hanging about you…Maybe you should leave and live elsewhere so that way when you come back you’d see what many others see.

From your view Androck it shows your very narrow in that of your views failing to see the beauty that many others see when they visit. I grew up in Alberta and left to venture out upon the world for over 30 years and I am PROUD to say that Edmonton has much to offer -(including the pothole) where the locals here make you feel warm and welcome. Having met Bruce myself in person when he was here was the greatest pleasure with his views from around the world. His writeup gives Edmonton a boost for all to come and see. Take what he says with pride rather than jisting the beauty of what he found along with others.

To think that people from New York see Edmonton at par with the bid three is a major boost to the tourism industry and more.

I’m proud to be part of a new beginning and an eventful growth towards the future of this fine city.

Lynne Jorgensen wrote on February 15, 2013

I have thought for years that Edmonton is the best kept secret in all of North America. 
Now I am happy to see that it isn’t a secret any more.
Thanks to Mayor Mandel and other future visionaries Edmonton is a marvelous place to live.

Adam wrote on February 13, 2013

I admit the piece is perhaps too flattering, but to the naysayers here, this I posit:

If you find yourself upset by your hometown, what exactly are you doing to help change it? Are helping your town in any manner what-so-ever? Are you running for council? Are you engaging in public meetings? Are you writing into City Hall or voicing your opinions in any particularly meaningful way?

Actually, I suspect you’re watching How I Met Your Mother right now, or something equally as productive.

Edmonton is making huge strides—that dude who said 5 years and it’ll be very different? Well, I suspect 10 years. A finished and exhaustive mass transit relay will make a significant difference, as well as a modernized Jasper Avenue, an ultra-modern entertainment district and a re-densified downtown.

Edmonton chose to become a City at a weird time—the majority of our booms, of course, happening beyond WW2, when people simply didn’t build up anymore—leading to significant urban sprawl. For instance, despite having half the population of Philadelphia, we are twice the landmass. If there would’ve been a greater densification on the core, well, things could’ve been different. We’re finally pulling people back into the core now, but it was a slow process. It doesn’t happen over night. We’re building a history, essentially.

My point is, Mayor Mandel has made considerable strides to make Edmonton a “real” City, despite all the urban/suburban conservatism before him.

Sorry. I’m a fanboy of what I promise the City will become.

Megan Jones wrote on February 13, 2013

Yes, good old EEDC out making connections with the “Edmonton DNA” spread across the world to get a good comment in here or there.  I don’t think Edmontonians are involved in an irrational hate fest with their City - mostly I just don’t think Edmonton’s what it used to be: a sleepy government town with community and people interested in the outside world.  All of that’s gone now and what’s left is mostly grime, grim people and cheezy slogans about being the City Champions.

For sure, Edmonton is nothing like NYC - but here we go again - name dropping - can you say Soho Edmonton? - rating ourselves against the best when even big city Americans flat out love NYC for what an amazing place it is.

I think all the hype just does us damage - the AGA is an ugly little building with a mostly boring permanent collection that can’t afford to bring in anything decent because it’s all above our pay grade, Whyte Ave used to be a cool neighborhood during its gentrification period in the 80s and 90s because it had a strong community who saw value in the area - now, yup sleeze and cheeze, the Madison Grill is Madison Grim, the McDonald over charges and under delivers.

A lot of people are new here, and many of them have bought into the little city with big city attractions - but it’s all falling apart - we lost Jazz City to Calgary, which was such a shame, the Folk Festival just doesn’t bring in the exciting names it used to, the Fringe is at best a gamble, at worst a rat race to snap up tickets for the few good plays that actual appear ...

It all just used to be little - it was what it was and it had heart - just like any decent community in NA. All that’s gone now.  And who cares about a river valley park stemming from Devon to Ft. Saskatchewan.  We meanwhile are boarding up our inside space down in the LRT station - just more dark, grim corridors that we all have to travel through to make it through the mid-winter freeze.  Nope - the vision off in la, la, land Soho instead of with the people where it should be.  Nope.

Maureen wrote on February 08, 2013

Do you allow sumissions from outside your magazine other than your staff personel?

Colin wrote on February 08, 2013

Regardless of the typical and hopefully dieing perspective of Androck, I have always missed living in Edmonton and look forward to relocating back there to enjoy more years in a city which always punches WAY above it’s weight. Edmonton is an outstanding city with amazing festivals and beyond it’s often overly exaggerated cold city status’ i.e. check comparable temperatures in the American midwest during the winter months, this city will always welcome me home.

Go Oilers.

Shirley Lowe wrote on February 07, 2013

Thanks, Bruce. I am glad that you made it back to Edmonton. As someone who lives and used to work in Old Strathcona - right on! I have had many people express how much cultural activity there is in Old Strathcona and Edmonton. We take it for granted. Not everyone has this much. As a theatre, music and festival junkie, I can tell you it is true.

As for cold weather, Bruce’s first trip to Edmonton was on a day in January where the temperature hit 21 below. He walked over a mile to do an interview with Yardley Jones. Obviously, New Yorkers are tougher than some of us.

Doug wrote on February 07, 2013

Great article. John Richardson, you’re bang on in terms of this irrational hate fest but I feel very much that that conversation is changing. People here are waking up to realize what the author did that this is a great place to live, work, travel and call home. There will always be Androck’s in Edmonton and in every city but at least here, I know they’re a dying breed.

John Richardson wrote on February 07, 2013

Great piece on a great city.

Please take with a large lump of salt Androck’s comments above. I was surprised that a person who claims such familiarity with the place and so long resident here would confuse, as he seems to, the Varscona live theatre venue with the Princess Theatre cinema. Clearly Androck read and wrote in haste.

Unreported in the piece was a sad fact about Edmonton: far too many Edmontonians are involved in a perpetual irrational hate-fest toward their wonderful city.  Fortunately, there are large numbers of insightful and brave artists, business people and political leaders who see the truth and make Edmonton a great place to live and to celebrate.

Thanks for finding us and telling the world.

CJ wrote on February 06, 2013

So nice to see my hometown getting the shout out it deserves.  As an expat who lives in Jersey, it is hard to spread the word about how great Edmonton really is.  Funny, I saw no reference to cold weather though…...

John T. wrote on February 06, 2013

Proud to be Edmontonian!

Androck wrote on February 06, 2013

Surely whoever wrote this must have been paid by the City of Edmonton somehow.
Cultural capitol of Canada? A bowl of yogurt has more culture than Edmonton does. As someone who has lived in this city my whole life I found some of the comparisons that the author made completely laughable.

Old Strathcona is Edmonton’s Brooklyn?? I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone who has actually spent time in Edmonton why that is so hilarious. What does this even mean? I would love to see some sort of explanation for this because the two areas literally have nothing in common whatsoever. I’ve spent time in Brooklyn. It’s an amazing borough with some of the most amazingly varying cultures all in the same space. Old Strathcona?!

The area of “Old Strathcona” he keeps referring to is also known as “Whyte Avenue”. Whyte Ave is a strip lined with sleazy nightclubs and donair joints. The area near the Varscona Theater is literally a 20 foot strip stuck next to a Hudson’s taphouse, and right across the street from the Strathcona Hotel (a notoriously run down hotel and bar).

If anyone wanted I could literally write a fifty page rant about why Edmonton is devoid of any sort of city life, and trying to say that it has any sort of culture is just depressing.

“...offering whatever you’d expect to find in New York’s Soho district, minus the people-jams”
It wasn’t until I read this sentence when I realized that this entire article is, in fact satirical.

I was born here, raised here, and think of this city as my home. As much as I would love it if these things were true, this article is insulting, and it paints Edmonton out to be something it isn’t.

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