A place I’ve never been
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


What I take away from my conversations with the locals is that Edmonton is a city of big dreams. And I can’t help but agree with them: whether it’s 4th Street, 124th Street or Whyte Avenue, you get the feeling here that there’s a desire not to let Toronto or Vancouver take all the credit for cosmopolitan Canada. Independent concept stores, artisan coffee shops, world eateries and art galleries abound. Sure, you might get this hipsterism anywhere in the world these days, but there’s something about Edmonton’s version that comes across with greater authenticity. Ask an Edmontonian what to see and do and they’ll direct you to the world-class Art Gallery of Alberta (housed in the magnificent Randall Stout-designed building, it’s equally inspiring inside and out). They’ll try to navigate you through the biggest shopping mall in all of North America, the West Edmonton Mall. And they’ll wax lyrical about their fringe festival – ‘the second biggest in the world, after Edinburgh’.

In Edmonton, it seems, people take pride in everything being bigger and better than in the rest of Canada. No surprise, then, that as I stand under the skeleton of the Albertosaurus at the grand opening of the new Royal Alberta Museum, my guide’s opening remark is ‘it’s the largest museum in Western Canada’.

The other thing I note about Edmontonians is their love and connection to the North Saskatchewan River Valley (no kidding – ‘it’s North America’s largest stretch of urban parkland, 22 times bigger than New York’s Central Park’). In fact, so deeply is the landmark embedded into the DNA of Edmonton, I experience it three times in my few days here. That’s how keen they are to show it off. 

My introduction to the valley is by Segway from its banks, a somewhat bizarre experience, with a guide who’s high on life or perhaps high on something else (though Canada has yet to legalise the green stuff). Next, I traverse its surrounding woodlands on a pedelec electric bike, escorted by family-run Revolution Cycle. It owns the city’s biggest bicycle store and was the first to market pedelec tours in North America. My last encounter with it is the most mind-blowing: starting out from Edmonton airport in a private helicopter, I’m back above the city within minutes, as the aircraft winds its way over the river valley, then follows the North Saskatchewan River west, out to lake country and the Rocky Mountains. It’s here I grasp the magnitude and beauty of the region and its diverse landscapes. I marvel at how this city emerges from the rugged geology around it. To get me up really close, the pilot skillfully lands on a sandbar in the middle of the river.

The river itself provides much more than just fantastic tourist opportunities for Edmonton. Ask the distillers at Strathcona Spirits or the craft brewers at Situation Brewing. They’ll tell you that there’s a special quality to the water that gives their wares an edge. The river contributes to the city’s food culture too. Tam Andersen runs the agro-tourism experience Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm, just outside Edmonton. Over my first Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, served in a rustic, old barn with delicious, course upon course of food sourced from the farm, she explains the long history of growing great produce and how important the rich valley soils and easy irrigation are to that. Tam and many other local farmers are part of an ongoing drive to supply the champion breed of Edmontonian restaurants.

“Edmontonians take their drinking seriously, with concept cocktail bars of the likes of Clementine, which raises classical bartending to new heights”

Fine dining – or ‘finer dining’, as chef Daniel Costa at Italian restaurant Uccellino chooses to call it (‘all the city’s restaurants are good’) – is at its best here at the moment. Whether it’s Corso 32’s fresh Italian simplicity or the constantly evolving seasonal menu that’s redefining farm-to-fork cooking at RGE RD, Edmontonians are becoming ever more discerning in their tastes. Even in more local neighbourhoods, amazing eateries, such as The Butternut Tree (literally a stone’s throw from the river valley), ‘Mexi-Edmonton’ meat-fest Rostizado and Christine Sandford’s Biera are putting the city on the foodie map.

What I also find impressive is that the locals are taking a deep interest in fresh, high-quality food at home. Walking through City Market Downtown among the throng of Saturday shoppers browsing the bounty of local Albertan farms, I taste the best raspberries I’ve ever had. People are grazing on stereotypical Edmontonian street-food –Ukrainian pierogies introduced by the large community here and the ‘local’ Chinese green-onion cake, somewhere between a hash brown and a Korean jeon

Edmontonians take their drinking seriously too, with concept cocktail bars of the likes of Clementine, which raises classical bartending to new heights in a space inspired by 20th-century French Art Nouveau. In contrast, there’s Baijiu, with its Cantonese-inspired cocktails. Ask for a taste of ‘Little Hong Kong’ here and you’ll be whisked off to its private speakeasy bar.

I came to Edmonton looking to up-tempo from the Albertan wilderness – and in my mind, some decent sushi would have done it. But the city has taken me completely by surprise. It’s one of Canada’s best-kept secrets – hidden in plain sight, like Wakanda, home to the superhero of Black Panther. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the city the outside world might think of as ‘the middle of nowhere’; it’s totally OutThere.  

Uwern’s trip to Alberta was in partnership with Destination Canada.

For further inspiration about Edmonton, go to www.exploreedmonton.com. To find out more about Alberta, visit www.travelalberta.com

Uwern’s helicopter tour was with Edmonton Regional Helicopters.

Photography courtesy of Explore Edmonton, the Art Gallery of Alberta and Taste of Edmonton festival, Neon Sign Museum, Argent Dawn Photography and the Royal Alberta Museum. Portrait of Simon and Matthew by Eric Beliveau

Get out there


… spend time exploring Old Strathcona. Centred on Whyte Avenue, it’s my favourite of Edmonton’s trendy neighbourhoods and a must for fans of street art.

… indulge your sweet tooth with the fabulous pastries and pies on offer at Duchess Bake Shop, then stroll along gentrified 124th Street.

… time your visit to coincide with one of Edmonton’s many festivals, which range from the world-class to the quirky. Check out Explore Edmonton for the very latest goings-on.


… ignore the hype. Everyone in hospitality is talking about JW Marriott’s impending opening here, which will be just one of three of the luxury hotel brand’s outposts in Canada.

… forget to check out Evolution Wonderlounge. Open Thursday to Sunday, it’s Edmonton’s top LGBT space and the clientele are a friendly bunch.

… nurse your post-Wonderlounge hangover in your hotel room. Head to Little Brick, a charming café in the heart of the river valley.