Calgary vs Vancouver: An Honest Comparison To Help You Choose!

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Last updated on July 7, 2023 by Wandering our World

If you’re planning a trip to western Canada, you might be struggling to choose between Calgary and Vancouver. Countless other travelers have been faced with that same dilemma, and it’s certainly not an easy choice to make.

Why? Well, because both cities are simply so beautiful, with a myriad of unique advantages and attractions to enjoy, from the whale-watching tours and vast green parks of Vancouver to the famed Military Museums and unique festivals of Calgary.

Fortunately, there are plenty of big differences between Calgary and Vancouver, and once you learn more about some of those differences, the choice should become much easier for you to make.

For example the weather in these cities is surprisingly different at certain times of year, and and they have totally different locations, with Vancouver on the coast and Calgary many miles inland, beside the Canadian Rockies.

There are many more differences to discover between Calgary and Vancouver, and this guide will cover all the big features of both cities, comparing their attractions, outdoor adventures, affordability, nightlife, food, and more.

CONTENTS:

  1. A Quick Overview
  2. Which Is Best For Activities?
  3. Which Is Better For Day Trips? 
  4. Which Is Better For Nightlife? 
  5. Which Is Best For Shopping? 
  6. Which Has The Best Food? 
  7. Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
  8. Which Is Better For Couples?  
  9. Which Is Better For Backpackers? 
  10. Which Is Cheaper? 
  11. Where To Stay According To Your Budget
  12. Which Has Better Weather?
  13. Which Is The Better Choice? 
An infographic pitting Calgary vs Vancouver and showing some of the key differences that will be discovered later in the article.

A Quick Overview: Calgary vs Vancouver 

Calgary: A Quick Overview

Calgary is the largest city in the province of Alberta and is also the third-biggest city in the whole of Canada, with a huge population of more than 1.3 million people.

It was founded at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, in the southern section of Alberta, not far east from the towering Canadian Rockies.

Various First Nations people lived on the land that would eventually be transformed into Calgary, going back thousands of years. Then, in the 1870s, a fort was established in the area, and Calgary was incorporated as a town a decade later, in 1884.

It gained city status in 1894 and rapidly developed in the 20th century, thanks to the discovery of oil in the surrounding area.

Calgary famously hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988 and continued its development into a prosperous and thriving city right up to the modern day. It has a very strong economy, spread out across a range of industries, like manufacturing, energy, media, and technology, and it has been classed among the world’s most livable cities.

Unlike Vancouver, which has developed into one of Canada’s most prominent tourist destinations, Calgary looks and feels more like a typical working city.

With that said, it still has a great range of touristic attractions for visitors to enjoy, from its vast zoo to its lively Chinatown district. It’s also famed for hosting the annual Calgary Stampede rodeo festival, which first took place in 1912.

Blue toned view on Calgary at sunset
iStock.com/Canada_by_alexis

Vancouver: A Quick Overview

Vancouver is the biggest city in British Columbia. It sits on the country’s west coast, boasting a population of approximately 660,000 people, but with more than 2.6 million in the surrounding Greater Vancouver Area.

Despite having a smaller city population than Calgary, it often feels just as busier, if not busier, due to its high numbers of tourists.

Various indigenous peoples lived on the land around Vancouver far before European settlers came to the area. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the city was founded. It was first known as Gastown, later being renamed to Granville, and then Vancouver.

And with its handy coastal location, it became a prosperous port, exporting and importing across the Pacific.

Just like Calgary, Vancouver is now classed among the world’s best cities to live. It’s also one of the greenest cities on Earth, with a range of eco-friendly initiatives and vast parks.

The huge amount of greenery in the city, coupled with the clear waters and tall mountains that surround it, make it a wonderfully picturesque place, often used as a movie and TV filming location.

While Calgary is considered to be a working city, Vancouver definitely has more of a tourist vibe. It draws in travelers from all over the globe, with a seemingly endless array of activities and attractions. It’s also a very easygoing city, with friendly, laid-back people who spend lots of time outdoors.

Beautiful aerial view of downtown Vancouver skyline, British Columbia, Canada at sunset
iStock.com/heyengel

Which Is Best For Activities?

So, what is there to do in Calgary and Vancouver? Well, from museums to parks, hikes to live entertainment, these cities have both got it all.

You can easily spend several days in either location, enjoying new activities each and every day. However, there are some key differences to keep in mind.

Notably, Vancouver is generally regarded as one of, if not the best Canadian city for diverse outdoor adventures like skiing, hiking, and kayaking, thanks to its proximity to water, mountains, and forests.

Given that the Rockies are 90 minutes from Calgary, it’s still a good spot for outdoor fun, but most visitors will spend their time enjoying the city’s museums and landmarks instead.

Calgary: The Activities

Most first-time visitors to Calgary will want to head up the Calgary Tower. Standing at 626 feet, it’s one of the tallest structures in the city, with amazing views in every direction.

Then, with your feet back on the ground, you can set off to see the city’s other sights, like the historic Fairmont Palliser, artistic Peace Bridge, and WinSport Olympic Park, a top spot for all-season activities.

Calgary also has an excellent array of museums, including both indoor and open-air experiences.

Fort Calgary and the Heritage Park Historical VIllage offer deep dives into the past, while the Military Museums provide a fascinating look at Canada’s navy, army, and air force.

Or, if you simply want to immerse yourself in nature, head to Fish Creek Provincial Park.

Of course, we also have to highlight the iconic Calgary Stampede. This ten-day rodeo festival is held every July and ranks among the world’s greatest events, with parades, live music, and more.

It’s a show you’ll never forget, and the city feels much livelier and busier during this special time of year – this also makes it harder to find a hotel, so it’s best to book in advance.

The Stampede is a stunning spectacle, but it’s not the only show in town. Calgary also hosts many other festivals you might like to check out, depending on the time of your visit, like the Calgary Folk Music Festival and FunnyFest Comedy Festival.

Even during the quieter times of year, there’s lots of live entertainment here, like concerts, comedy clubs, and sporting events.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Calgary Tower is located downtown. It is one of the most famous landmarks.
iStock.com/Bird-Lee

Vancouver: The Activities

Over in Vancouver, there’s less focus on historic buildings and museums, as the city is so oriented around the outdoors.

It has vast, expansive parks, like Stanley Park, with around 1,000 acres, filled up with walking trails, bike paths, charming beaches, playgrounds, sports courts, and so much more.

With the water right beside the city, another great thing to do in Vancouver is take a boat tour. You can hop over to nearby islands or set off on a wildlife-watching adventure, seeking out orcas, whales, and other creatures of the sea.

Or, if you prefer to keep your feet on dry land while admiring aquatic animals, the city also has a massive aquarium.

Vancouver also has some fun and funky neighborhoods, including former-industrial areas like Granville Island, which has been converted into a trendy dining and culture hub, with galleries and craft beer bars.

Gastown is a lot of fun to explore, too, and the city has some decent indoor attractions for its many rainy days, like the Vancouver Art Gallery and Museum of Anthropology.

However, when the weather allows, you’ll most likely want to spend most of your time outside, wandering through the gorgeous VanDusen Botanical Gardens, enjoying a picnic in Queen Elizabeth Park, braving the breathtaking Capilano Suspension Bridge, or taking in the views as you ride the Sea to Sky Gondola.

Overall, there’s plenty to do in both cities, but it’s Vancouver which has the widest and biggest range of activities and attractions.

The BC city also has more appeal to lovers of the great outdoors, but Calgary is best for museums and cultural events.

A panoramic drone view of Vancouver downtown.
iStock.com/Aolin Chen

Which Is Better For Nightlife? 

If you enjoy evening entertainment, like bars, clubs, and live music, you’ll find lots to do after-dark in both Calgary and Vancouver.

Neither of these cities are among the rowdiest in Canada, but they both have lots of decent places to drink, dance, mingle, and have fun before heading back to your hotel.

In Vancouver, it’s best to head to places like the Granville Entertainment District and Gastown when the sun sets. You’ll find a nice mixture of comedy clubs, cabaret bars, themed pubs, and other nightlife hangouts.

Just don’t come to this city hoping to find wild raves that continue until 6am the next day – that’s not really Vancouver’s style.

Over in Calgary, you also won’t necessarily find the craziest clubs or thumping techno beats, but you will be able to choose from some super bars and live music spots.

Stephen Avenue Walk and the surrounding streets are the top spots for drinks and fun, and Calgary also has some hidden speakeasies and underground basement bars to seek out.

Overall, both cities are pretty similar in terms of nightlife. Vancouver just about has the edge for clubs and dancing, while Calgary is better for speakeasies and casinos.

Crowd applauding at club
iStock.com/bernardbodo

Which Is Better For Day Trips? 

Even though there’s lots to see and do in Vancouver and Calgary, you might be tempted to plan a day trip or two out of these cities, giving you a chance to see some more of Canada before heading home.

Vancouver is an ideal place to base yourself for day trips, with great links all across British Columbia. You can take a 90-minute ferry ride over to Vancouver Island to see Victoria and historic Nanaimo, for example.

Or you can sail across to local islands like Bowen and Salt Spring for romantic vineyard tours, hiking, and other outdoor activities.

Calgary, meanwhile, is a three hour drive from the big city of Edmonton, which has fun family attractions and massive malls.

Or, for an escape into nature, travelers can head west to the Rockies, stopping off at mountain towns like Golden and ski resorts like Banff. Lake Louise is another magical spot, with jaw-dropping views and shimmering blue water.

Overall, both cities have potential for fun and varied day trips, but Vancouver is slightly better, with more interesting locations nearby and impressive public transport links, like the various ferry services.

When you’re day tripping out of Calgary, you usually need to travel a little further to reach the best places.

Young male skier skiing in fresh snow
iStock.com/Marcin Wiklik

Which Is Best For Shopping? 

When you’re not hiking, mountain biking, or enjoying the museums and parks of these charming cities, you might like to do a little shopping. Luckily, both Vancouver and Calgary have plenty of boutiques, stres, and malls to keep you busy.

In Calgary, Fourth Street is the top shopping destination, with almost every kind of shop imaginable. There are fashion brands, homeware stores, bookshops, and more.

17th Ave has a great mix of quirky and speciality stores, while malls like the CF Chinook Center, Core Shopping Center, and CF Market Mall provide family-friendly spaces for long shopping days.

Vancouver also has plenty of big malls, filled with stores. The Metropolis mall, for instance, is the biggest in the whole of British Columbia, while the CF Pacific Center has plenty of stores selling everything from clothes and accessories to electronics and cosmetics.

There are also some fun markets in Vancouver, like the Richmond Night Market, held every summer.

Overall, Vancouver is slightly better for shopaholics, with a few more options to choose from, but you can happily spend hours in stores, malls, and boutiques in either one of these cities.

A look into the Vancouver downtown and snow mountain across the strait.
iStock.com/Aolin Chen

Which Has The Best Food? 

One of Vancouver’s best features is its culinary scene. As one of the most diverse cities in all of Canada, it has lots of different restaurants, specializing in all sorts of food styles.

You can find sushi bars, pizzerias, American steakhouses, gourmet European-style restaurants, Indian curry houses, and so much more. 

Calgary’s restaurant scene is a little less diverse, but there are still plenty of great spots to eat in this big Alberta city, including family-friendly diners, Italian eateries, and more.

Many of the restaurants in Calgary source ingredients locally, and there are some super craft bars and breweries to sample Canada’s best beers.

Overall, you’ll find tasty food in both of these cities, but Vancouver has a few more options to please every palate.

Friends with beer doing a cheers
iStock.com/DisobeyArt

Which Is Better For A Family Trip? 

If you’re planning a family vacation to one of these two cities, Vancouver will probably be the best choice.

Not only does Vancouver have popular family attractions like the Vancouver Aquarium and Stanley Park, but there are also so many outdoor activities to try, from wildlife watching boat rides to hiking trails, island hopping adventures, and even beaches to soak up the summer sun.

With that said, Calgary also has some decent family attractions, like its zoo, which is home to more than 1,000 animals, and the Heritage Park living history museum, where kids can see and feel what it was like to live more than a hundred years ago.

Children may also enjoy some of the educational museums in Calgary, like the TELUS Science Center.

Overall, we think Vancouver is the better choice for most families, especially those who love the great outdoors.

However, if you’re traveling with very young children who might get worn out with all of those activities, the quieter and calmer nature of Calgary may be better for you.

Empty Kitsilano beach with benches in Vancouver BC Canada.
iStock.com/Oleg_Mayorov

Which Is Better For Couples? 

Couples can have a tricky time choosing between Calgary and Vancouver. But ultimately the right choice for you and your partner may depend on your personal preferences and what type of experience you’re looking for.

For a relaxing city break, Calgary is a good choice. Despite its large population, this city feels quite calm to walk around, with landmarks like Calgary Tower and various museums to keep you busy each day.

It’s less touristy than Vancouver, so you won’t have to worry as much about long lines and crowds of noisy tourists around every corner.

At the same time, in terms of pure romance and beauty, Vancouver is the better choice. It’s such a gorgeous city, with its mountains, gardens, parks, and glistening blue waters.

Couples can simply roam around places like Stanley Park and admire the majestic views all around, before enjoying a romantic dinner at one of the city’s many fine restaurants.

Overall, for romance, food, and outdoor fun, head to Vancouver. For a quieter and more cultural experience opt for Calgary instead.

People on the Seawall around Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada, at Sunset. Some Ships Anchored in English Bay are Visible in Background. Lens Flare.
iStock.com/AlbertPego

Which Is Better For Backpackers? 

If you’re planning a backpacking adventure in western Canada, you’ll need to choose carefully, as cities like Vancouver and Calgary can be quite expensive, with high costs for hotels, food, and activities.

However, with a bit of planning and preparation, it’s possible to have a budget-friendly stay in either one of these cities.

Of the two, Vancouver is generally the more expensive city. However, you might actually spend less here, compared to Calgary, as there are so many free things to do, like visiting the parks, hiking the trails, riding bikes, and enjoying nature.

Plus, since Vancouver is quite touristy, there are multiple hostels to stay at, where you can mingle and meet other travelers from around the world.

Calgary, meanwhile, is less tourist orientated, with fewer hostels and not quite as many free activities, although its average costs are a little lower. So you should be able to visit bars and restaurants or sign up for tours and activities without spending quite as much.

The only downside is that you may run out of things to do after a few days, as there’s not too much to do here.

East Downtown Calgary Summer Sunset Aerial in Calgary, AB, Canada
iStock.com/Cavan Images

Which Is Cheaper? 

As mentioned in the previous section, budget is something you’ll need to keep in mind when visiting either Calgary or Vancouver, as average costs in Canadian cities can be quite high. Booking in advance is a good way to save money.

In terms of which city is the cheapest, Calgary generally has lower living costs than Vancouver, but average vacation prices are similar in both cities.

This is mainly due to the fact that Vancouver, despite being more expensive, has more free things to do.

East Downtown Calgary Summer Sunset Aerial in Calgary, AB, Canada
iStock.com/Cavan Images

Where To Stay According To Your Budget

Calgary

Budget: Alt Hotel Calgary East Village is a fantastic accommodation set in the city’s downtown area close to many of the main attractions. They cater extremely well to those with allergies too, which is a big bonus. See photos and rates!

Luxury: Situated just steps from the Bow River, Hotel Arts Kensington is a luxurious accommodation where you’re guaranteed celebrity treatment. The rooms are elegant, the location exceptional, and the on-site restaurant one of the best in the city. See photos and rates!

Vancouver

Budget: Quaint, cozy and budget-friendly sums up O Canada House. The rooms are stylish, it’s near many of the main sights, and the outside garden is the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring. See photos and rates!

Luxury: With a full-service spa, sauna, fitness centre and celebrity service, it’s hard to beat the five-star Wedgewood Hotel & Spa. The location is pretty unbeatable too. See photos and rates!

evening glow, Downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
iStock.com/JamesVancouver

Which Has The Best Weather?

Given the fact that they’re hundreds of miles apart with totally different geographic conditions – Vancouver is right by the water and only 501 feet above sea level at its highest point, while Calgary is hundreds of miles from the coast, at an elevation of more than 3,400 feet – these cities have quite different weather conditions.

Notably, the weather in Vancouver tends to be more consistent, with only gentle changes in temperature from month to month and season to season. It has warm summers, cold winters, and relatively mild conditions during spring and fall.

Vancouver, jokingly nicknamed “Raincouver” by some locals, also gets a lot of rain, especially in the shoulder seasons.

In contrast, Calgary’s weather can be a little more extreme, with slightly higher peaks in summer but much colder lows in winter.

There’s also much more chance of seeing snow in Calgary if you’re planning a winter trip, and it has way less rain compared to Vancouver in general.

A large male orca (killer whale) breaches in Vancouver Harbor
iStock.com/jonmccormackphoto

Calgary vs Vancouver: Which Is The Better Choice?

So, which of these two cities should you visit?

Well, if we look back through the various categories listed above, a clear winner emerges: Vancouver. The BC city wins in many areas, including food, nightlife, outdoor activities, romance, and even day trips, too. 

Overall, Vancouver is easier to recommend to most people. It’s a genuine haven for those who love the outdoors, and there are few cities in the entire world as beautiful as this one.

The dining and nightlife scenes in Vancouver are also very impressive, and there are plenty of top spots to shop, play, and make memories with your family and fellow travelers.

With that said, Calgary is still worth considering, especially if you’re looking for something a little different and less touristic.

Calgary is a vibrant and energetic city with a wonderfully mellow vibe, friendly people, good food, and some fantastic events, like the unmissable Calgary Stampede.

Author

  • Wandering our World

    Hi and welcome to Wandering our World! This article was written by one of the Wandering our World team - a team of travel enthusiasts who live around the globe.