There is more to Alberta's biggest city than the dubious spectacle of its showpiece annual rodeo, the Calgary Stampede. Despite its cowboy image, Calgary is a pocket of art and culture – not least in the warm months when it hosts a wealth of festivals.
For example, Opera in the Village (22-25 August) will make opera accessible for children – with singing contests and performances of The Pirates of Penzance in a 900-seat tent – at the Riverwalk Plaza of the East Village district (calgaryopera.com; adult tickets C$35/£23). Beyond this, Calgary is a gateway to the year-round playground of the Rocky Mountains.
Get your bearings
Calgary is in the southern half of Alberta, 160 miles north of the US border and some 50 miles east of the Rockies. A key stop on the 4,990-mile Trans-Canada Highway, it perches at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers – and is laid out in a simple grid, with numbered avenues and streets running east to west and north to south respectively.
Take a hike
The central 8th Avenue SW gives a glimpse of how Calgary has developed. Start at Core, a mall of 160 stores, which runs between 2nd and 4th Streets SW (coreshopping.ca). Stroll east, noting the big sandstone structures built after a fire in 1886 destroyed their wooden predecessors. The Burns Building, a 1911 meat market, now holds the Epcor Centre for performing arts and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (epcorcentre.org), at 205 8th Avenue. It rises over Olympic Plaza, the main square – scene of the medal presentations at the 1988 Winter Games. Walk south out of the Plaza on to Macleod Trail SE. Head four blocks south, turn left on to 12th Avenue SE and right into Stampede Park. This is rodeo HQ, but it gives another snapshot of the city from October to June when the Calgary Flames play ice hockey here at the Saddledome (scotiabanksaddledome.com).
Take a view
Enjoy a loftier view of the city (and the distant Rockies) from the observation deck of the Calgary Tower, which rears to 191m (calgarytower.com). It is open daily from 9am to 9pm (10pm during August); C$15 (£10).
Lunch on the run
Across the Elbow River, Inglewood is a bohemian enclave of shops and eateries. For a flavour of the district, get a table at the Ironwood Stage & Grill, 1229 9th Avenue SE (ironwoodstage.ca) and order the Ironwood Lunch Salad – salami, chicken and mixed greens – for C$14 (£9).
Glenbow Museum, at 130 9th Avenue SE (glenbow.org), peers into Alberta's back-story, with exhibits on First Nations groups such as the Tsuu T'ina and Niitsitapi, and paintings by 19th-century pioneers who "settled" the region. Open daily except Monday; C$14 (£9). Nearby, at 104-800 Macleod Trail SE, the Museum of Contemporary Art (mocacalgary.org) covers 21st-century Canadian painting, featuring works by Calgary artist Chris Cran. It is open Tuesday to Saturday; free entry. Next, Fort Calgary, at the meeting of the two rivers at 750 9th Avenue SE (fortcalgary.com), has a museum and (reconstructed) barracks on the site where the city was founded in 1875 as a Mounted Police base. Daily 9am-5pm; C$12 (£8).
Dining with the locals
Charcut, at 101-899 Centre Street SW (charcut.com), is a stylish carnivore heaven, where roasted meat belly with cheddar grits is C$27 (£18). Catch (hyatt.com/gallery/catch), in the shell of the 1910 Imperial Bank of Canada at 100 8th Avenue SE, has tuna with chickpea purée for C$37 (£24). In Inglewood, there's Rouge, a gourmet French eatery in an 1891 mansion at 1240 8th Avenue SE, that serves prairie pheasant for C$35 (£23) (rougecalgary.com).
Go to church
Tucked just off Olympic Plaza at 604 1st Street SE, the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer is a stocky sandstone bastion of Anglicanism, a reminder of Canada's Commonwealth ties. It was built in 1905 to replace an earlier wooden church – though the bell in its tower also hung in the precursor. Sunday mass is at 8am and 10.30am (anglicancathedralcalgary.ca).
Apart from the four busy storeys of the Core mall, there is more intriguing shopping away from the centre. Inglewood shows off its arty vibe with 4 Cats, at 1218B 9th Avenue SE (4cats.com/inglewood) – a studio which sells canvases and brushes, and offers painting classes. Bite, at 1023 9th Avenue SE (bitegroceteria.com), is a delicatessen with olives, cheeses, pepper sauces and aromatic flavours of coffee. Hot Wax, at 114 10th Street NW, is an old-school record emporium stuffed with CDs and vinyl (hotwax.ca).
Out to brunch
River Café, in the middle of the Bow River at 25 Prince's Island Park, is an idyllic spot for lunch (river-cafe.com). A bison burger with coleslaw costs C$19 (£12).
A walk in the park
Connected to the rest of the city by a series of bridges, Prince's Island Park is where Calgarians pause to breathe. The park is also a setting for the city's summer gatherings.
Expo Latino is slated to fill the park with food, music, dance and art from 23-25 August.
Day tickets are C$20 (£13); three-day passes C$35 (£23) online – or C$30 (£20) and C$45 (£30) at the gate (expolatino.ca).
Icing on the cake
Calgary's booming nightlife zone – the "Uptown" stretch of 17th Avenue SW between 4th and 8th Streets SW – has possibilities that include Ming, at 520 17th Avenue SW (mingeatdrink.com) – a bar and restaurant with Far Eastern food and powerful cocktails from C$10 (£6.50). If heading to the Rockies, halt at Canada Olympic Park (winsportcanada.ca) – that was the cornerstone of the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Try the zipline that drops 500m from the Olympic ski-jump tower (weekdays noon-7pm and weekends 10am-7pm until 2 September, then restricted daily hours to 6 October; C$65/£43). Non-drivers can reach the park by catching bus 408 at Brentwood C-Train station.