Is Edmonton on your travel radar? Here's why the cool Canadian capital should be.
EDMONTON, Canada – Most travelers have only one reference point for the Canadian province of Alberta: the awe-inspiring mountains and dazzling, turquoise lakes of Banff and Jasper national parks.
Here are a few more: Note the incredible culinary scene, miles of idyllic nature trails, and overall laid-back, alternative vibe of Edmonton, the provincial prairie capital that has taken the country by storm.
Edmontonians, though, would be the last to admit it. The humble, blue-collar town, known as the Oil Capital of Canada due to its proximity to Alberta’s massive tar sands, keeps a relatively low profile — especially when compared to its executive neighbors down in Calgary, where many large oil companies are headquartered. This is all despite a major uptick in urban development, a music scene with far-reaching acclaim, and a number of bars and restaurants that rank among the nation’s best.
So how did Edmonton go from a place only hockey fanatics fawned over (the great Wayne Gretzky won four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers) to an upstart, food-centric travel destination that has made it on multiple Where-to-Go-Now lists?
Municipal efforts to beautify the city over the last two decades culminated with the lustrous Rogers Place sports arena and the surrounding ICE entertainment district. The North Saskatchewan River Valley, North America’s largest stretch of urban parkland (yes, bigger than Central Park), was cleaned up and outfitted with a new funicular, which connects downtown to the trails below and added a new level of accessibility to the already very bike-, hike-, and jog-friendly woodland.
The oil crash of 2015 also played its part, prompting many to diversify their portfolios and invest in new endeavors spearheaded by young creatives, the lot of whom were chefs returning home from honing their craft abroad. They were lured back by the promise of a burgeoning economy, a blooming city, and a chance to showcase to the country (and the world) the bounty of their backyard.
And that they did. The food scene, perhaps the most compelling reason to visit Edmonton (though they're also well-known for festivals), has come a long way since the days of standard steak dinners. (All things considered, this province knows few things better than a good piece of meat.)
Menus are as on-trend and diverse as those in Toronto or Vancouver, packed with all manner of things pickled and preserved and neatly prepared, but without nearly as much pretension. Experimenting — with local ingredients, with beverage pairings, with the look of one’s dining room — is the name of the game. Here’s where I took it all in — and burned it all off — in the cool Canadian capital.
Where to Eat + Drink
This airy, forest-inspired French restaurant on the west side of town is a breakfast-lover’s dream. From the oeufs-en-cocotte served with house-made sourdough and sausage and an additional side of schmaltz (always opt for a side of schmaltz) to the fragrant lemon and banana crepes, everything that came out of the kitchen when I went looked as beautiful as the space it was served in. (Get used to it: Edmonton is a city of great dining rooms.) From the look of the bar program, this place ain’t bad come evening either.
Got a sweet tooth? I didn’t make it here, but Duchess Bake Shop, Caffe Linnea’s sister restaurant, is a few blocks down. It’s considered one of the best bakeries in Alberta, if not the whole country.
Edmontonians love brunch just as much as you do. It's a cute, on-trend eatery from the folks behind MEAT and Next Act (both great restaurants conveniently located just next door). The avocado toast is tasty (though if you’re asking me, the baked eggs in tomato sauce steal the show). The brunch cocktails are cute (expect espresso and amaro and Prosecco with elderflower concoctions).
The name may reference an off-the-beaten-path locale, but the food feels right at home in Edmonton’s chef-driven, locally focused food scene. The space is cozy, dominated by an open kitchen and a bookshelf-backed bar serving a tight selection of cocktails and wine from France and the Okanagan. The food is eye-catching, highly shareable, and bursting with flavor — try the sea bream crudo with Thai basil, citrus, chili, and apple; the fried chicken skins with honey mustard, grilled hen with potatoes and leeks, and a fruit tartine for dessert. It’s one of Canada’s best restaurants, and it’s located two blocks from a sports arena.
You come here for one reason: To eat really good meat, in all its glorious forms. Borscht sausages. Scotch eggs. Bacon-stuffed pirogies. Decadent pâté and tartare. Locally sourced bison. Majestic charcuteries boards. Questionable bits, or animal parts you’d rather not know cooked in ways you really shouldn’t miss out on. There’s a set menu with optional beverage pairing that gives the kitchen full control over your dinner experience (unadventurous diners, beware). And there’s a butcher shop in the back of the restaurant. Vegetarian options are available — and they’re quite good (this place prides itself on sourcing from top Alberta farms) — but meat is the star of the show.
The folks at Blind Enthusiasm opened a beautiful, light-drenched restaurant next to their brewery in Ritchie Market — home to a butcher shop, a coffee roastery, and bike shop — with the goal of making innovative, market-driven meals to pair with their delicious rotation of beers. Local chef Christine Sanford, who worked through kitchens in Edmonton and across Western Europe, dishes out mouthwatering creations like house-made sourdough served with kefir butter and luscious lardo; Belgian endives packed with preserved pear, pistachio creme, and quince honey; bone marrow toast topped with grilled hen of the woods mushrooms; and perfectly grilled meats sourced locally, some from the meat shop across the hall. You’d be hard-pressed to find better bar food anywhere.
The latest from Daniel Costa, the chef responsible for bringing great Italian food to Edmonton. The sleek, two-story space is bigger than next-door neighbor Corso 32, Costa’s head-turning first act, which still requires reservations weeks out, but it’s none the emptier. Locals pile in for dressed-up plates of coppa and carpaccio, crostini (get ‘em topped with chicken liver, ricotta and roasted guanciale, or Sicilian anchovy and butter), and pasta (don’t miss the ricotta gnocchi with spicy ’nduja, mint, and pecorino and the tagliatelle with sage and butter from Quebec). Bar Bricco, the middle child, is a great place for a drink and a plate of shaved prosciutto while you wait for your table — it’s also next door.
If an evening inspired by Hemingway’s A Movable Feast is on the cards, this tiny Art Nouveau-inspired cocktail bar should be your final stop. (Final because you’ll never want to leave.) It’s beautifully designed, to the point where you forget you’re in Edmonton and think you’re in Paris in the ‘20s after a few drinks. Speaking of which, the drinks — from the classic house cocktails and various absinthes on offer to the wine, which comes from a select few family vineyards — are all delicious. Get them with one (or two or three) of the exquisite share plates coming out of the kitchen and let the good times roll.
The hip-hop-inspired Asian cocktail bar and restaurant is all about the unexpected. It’s located in the historic Mercer Warehouse, a century-old building near the sports arena packed with startups and small shops. The cocktails have names like A$AP $ake and Cardi Bee and come with exotic ingredients like toffee-infused Japanese whiskey, green tea-infused Hennessy, and Thai basil lemongrass. There’s even a sixteen-seat speakeasy called Little Hong Kong tucked away somewhere inside (I won’t give it away.) I didn’t eat here, but the food looks eclectic — kale salad with coconut curry vinaigrette sits next to comfort items like pork baos and a cheeseburger with kimchi ketchup and Kewpie mayo.
Ace Coffee Roasters
It’s a bit off the beaten path, but this cafe, attached to a coffee supply shop in a giant timber-lined warehouse in Old Strathcona, is worth the trek. The coffee is excellent — the beans are roasted on site and are used in cafes across the city — and the donuts are delicious. If you’re so inclined, you can go home with one of the state-of-the-art espresso machines they used to make your latte. They’re for sale in the back.
A great place to pass the time waiting for a table at one of its next door sister restaurants. Also a great place to come for a few glasses of wine and a light dinner of cured meats, cheese, a fresh fennel salad, and maybe an egg yolk raviolo. An intimate and dimly lit date spot. Their Negronis are some of the city’s best.
The space is small. The vibes are funky. The coffee is good. And the breakfast sandwich, the Grick Middle, will keep you full for hours. I stopped by on a morning bike ride through the River Valley and Old Strathcona and loved how low-key it was.
Edmonton has Mexican food. (God bless.) While it's certainly not up to par with what you'll get in places like Chicago or Los Angeles, the food here is surprisingly good for a city so far from the source. Tacos are a plenty and come in wild forms, like filled with bulgogi or butter chicken. A safe bet are the platos tipicos, which come with rice, beans, street corn, and a protein of your choosing doused in mole or a smokey red sauce. The appeal of margarita happy hours are not lost on Edmontonians either — this place is fun, and on a hot day, you'll find its various spaces (a back courtyard, a front patio, a cool basement) crowded with locals.
I didn’t make it here, but no Edmonton food and drink roundup is complete without it. The sleek cocktail bar and restaurant — which features an open kitchen with a custom wood-fired grill, one of Alberta’s most extensive spirits collection, and now a new chef with experience at Noma — became a leader in the city’s downtown culinary revolution when it opened in 2013. It’s still going strong.
Where to Burn It All Off
North Saskatchewan River Valley
The river valley park system, also known as the Ribbon of Green, is Edmonton's defining feature. Its lush hiking trails, paved biking paths, golf courses, ski slopes, and more than twenty major parks snake through the center of the city, forming a green haven visible from many a rooftop. Other ways to take it in: on a mountain bike from River Valley Adventure Co. (the most versatile way), on an e-bike from Revolution Cycle (the easiest and breeziest way), or on a sunset paddle tour down the Saskatchewan River with Haskin Canoe (the longest but most informative way).
Kinsmen Pitch & Putt
Grab your buddies. Get a six pack. And bogey your way through the course’s eighteen under-a-hundred-yard holes. It’s a local favorite pastime not to be taken seriously, though some certainly do — be respectful, pick up after yourself, and let people play through if they’re on your tail (this is, after all, a family establishment).
If the weather’s warm, plot a course for Canada’s first public, man-made, natural swimming pool. You can get here by car, but biking or hiking here is the way to go — you’ll appreciate the cool, refreshing waters, which are cleaned by plants, granite, and ultraviolet rays from the sun rather than chemicals. Bring snacks if you anticipate feeling peckish, otherwise plan to bike or cab it to OTTO Food & Drink for a post-swim bratwurst and beer.
82nd Avenue NW, otherwise known as Whyte Avenue, is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops of all kinds, and deserves a walkthrough on your first time in town. Make stops at Poppy Barely for a cute new outfit, Maven and Grace for home goods, Kent of Inglewood Edmonton for beard products (or a haircut), The Black Dog Freehouse for a drink or two, and Yelo’d Ice Cream & Bake Shoppe for Filipino-inspired soft serve. If you’re exploring on a Saturday, pop into the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market — it’s a great place to sample green onion cake (basically a scallion pancake) if you haven’t already on a night out (it’s an Edmonton post-drinking favorite). Also note the colorful mural across the street — it’s by big-time Spanish street artist Okuda San Miguel.
Tip: Whyte Avenue is long. Biking it is a good idea. Biking on it isn’t. It’s very crowded. Instead, bike along 83rd Avenue NW if you’re heading east or 81st Avenue NW if you’re heading west. Both are usually quiet.
Where to Stay
Despite its indie-cool sensibilities, Edmonton doesn’t have the best boutique hotel scene. That said, Union Bank Inn and Matrix Hotel are both solid options for those looking for small hotels with character. The former is more old-school; the latter on the sleek, contemporary side. If you’re accustomed to design-forward boutiques (the kind you read about on Gentedimontagna), you won’t be blown away here, but both are well-priced and located. If you’re looking for something grand, Fairmont Hotel Macdonald — the place that looks like a castle looming over the riverfront — is your best bet.
When to Plan Your Trip
Edmonton rocks during the late spring and summer, when the weather is warm and being outside without having to wear a bunch of layers is doable. (Also, the sun doesn’t set until 10 p.m. starting in June, which is cool.) Edmonton Folk Festival is the second week of August and draws a crowd. You’re either really into this or not. I'm not usually a festival-goer, but went when I was in town and loved it.