Thanks to the dramatic Rocky Mountain spine along its western half, filled with awe-inspiring scenery and pristine lakes, Alberta is one of the most spectacular provinces in Canada. And, although nature is the justifiably major draw to this part of the expansive country, its built environment deserves some attention, too. From its oldest building, the Father Lacombe Chapel, only from 1861, to newer structures like the 1968 Calgary Tower (make sure you go to the top at dusk for phenomenal views and sunsets), Alberta boasts some magnificent structures, and railroads are to thank for many of them. These are my favorites.
#1 Banff Springs Hotel (Banff)
A small mountain town with huge appeal, Banff nestles beautifully amid a truly astounding backdrop that will inspire and invigorate you every time you step outside. During my hike around the town itself, complete with rivers, waterfalls, and deer sightings, I spied the sprawling Banff Springs Hotel amid the evergreen trees across the Bow River. I had already seen it from much higher up, at the top of Sulphur Mountain, accessed via one of the top five aerial tramways in the world. Now it was time to see it at eye level. Opened in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the all-wood structure was severely damaged in a fire in 1926. The current version — built with concrete and steel, and faced in Rundlestone (which has turned from its original blue-gray color when quarried to a rich brown) — rose from those ashes in 1928, and it’s positively glorious. With its angled wings, chateau-like copper roof with as many as three levels of dormer windows, balconets, turrets, gables, archways, and up to 15 floors in some parts, the hotel invites lengthy investigation before you even enter it.
Eventually, I stepped into the cavernous lobby, with its Rundlestone columns, high vaulted ceiling, a couple of massive stone stairways, and period lighting, including what could pass for medieval candle chandeliers. Handmade carpets embroidered with the Latin Semper Eadem (Always the Same) cover sections of the limestone floor. I contemplated that as I wandered around the public areas, thinking that not everything here is the same; it couldn’t possibly be, given its century-old history, including the 1942–45 period, when the hotel was shut down and silenced completely in order to free up labor for the war effort. I was sure that the elegance and service, however, had not been altered.
As I pried further into the hotel, I admired the profusion of oak paneling, stained glass, decorative plasterwork, marble fountains, cast-bronze doors, and fossil-rich stone window ledges. The dazzling two-story Mount Stephen Hall, inspired by 15th-century Gothic architecture, is embellished with grilled balconies, a cloistered walkway, carved oak ceiling beams, and leaded-glass windows. And the sumptuous Rundle Hall, with an open mezzanine level, grand staircase, vaulted ceiling, and deep-set windows, is the perfect setting for a bit of relaxation. In quieter parts of the hotel, I moseyed down the hallway with coffered ceilings to the silent baby grand piano, stopping along the way at the fireplace that looks as if it were stolen from a 15th-century castle, and the more modest one topped with a glazed panel of a Spanish galleon at full sail. I ended my exploration on one of the terraces, soaking in the sweeping views of mountains, trees, rivers, and the golf course. Being a visitor here is unforgettable, but I imagine being an overnight guest staying in one of the 757 rooms and suites (and dining in the 10 venues) is even better — but you will have to pay a bit more than the $3.50 nightly rate that was charged when the hotel first opened.
#2 Alberta Legislature Building (Edmonton)
It was early autumn, but the fountains in front of the Alberta Legislature Building were already turned off for the season and all the water had been drained from the shallow, quirky pools that Albertans can step across, or into. It was a chilly morning when I arrived — apparently too chilly, or too early, for the folks here, because I was the only one who showed up for a tour. I was already captured by the lovely 56 acres of grounds around the building, complete with hearty flowers, staircases, the Centennial Flame, the totem pole, and the Ukrainian Centennial Pioneer Monument. Amid all that stands this beautiful Beaux Arts granite and sandstone structure completed in 1913 on the site of the original Fort Edmonton. Each entrance is treated differently — one with ocular windows above Corinthian columns, one with Alberta’s coat of arms in the pediment of a portico, one with a trio of arches. Above, the massive central dome features arched windows and more ocular windows, volutes, balustrades, and a handsome lantern.
Inside, my guide led me around the seat of Alberta’s government, taking me first to the rotunda, which contains 2,000 tons of marble, with the pillars alone weighing 16 tons each. I spied the statue of Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, for whom the province is named. Past the Legislature Library, once the largest library in Alberta, we headed up the Grand Staircase to the Legislative Assembly Chambers, whose doors were hand carved from solid red mahogany from Belize. The Alberta coat of arms above the doors, also of mahogany, took 500 hours to carve. In the Legislative Chamber, we sat in the public galleries overlooking the chamber. Although nothing was in session at the moment, I tried to imagine bickering politicians amid a room decorated with green marble imported from Pennsylvania and lit by 600 lightbulbs in the ceiling. As we wrapped up the tour, past the portraits of the five women who played a key role in changing Canadian law in 1929 to include women legally as persons, one of whom was one of the first women in the British Empire to serve as a Member of Parliament, and the first woman in the empire to introduce a piece of legislation, I thanked my guide for her insights into the building that, when it was constructed over a century ago, cost a staggering $2 million.
#3 Hotel Macdonald (Edmonton)
My first glimpse of Hotel Macdonald came from far below, as I was walking through the park that runs along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Above me, on a bluff overlooking the river, the hotel rises like a imposing Renaissance-style chateau in the French countryside. To get a closer view, I scaled the Hotel Macdonald Stairs in an ambitiously aerobic endeavor — just over 200 wooden steps from the river up to the hotel. Built as one of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s majestic hotels in 1915 in an area that was a squatters camp of Ukrainian-speaking migrants, the Macdonald cost a whopping C$2.25 million to build. Named after Canada’s first prime minister, the hotel has had a shaky history, starting with the Grand Trunk declaring bankruptcy only four years after opening the hotel. It subsequently operated under the Canadian National Railway umbrella. It lost its liquor license during prohibition but regained it in 1924. A massive expansion after World War II added nearly 300 rooms, but that was a short-lived endeavor: CNR closed the entire hotel in 1983 and tore down the extension altogether. Plans to create a new addition, complete with two office towers, never came to fruition, and the entire hotel was threatened with demolition until the City of Edmonton designated it a municipal heritage resource the following year. Shortly after that, another tremendous renovation was completed in 1991, and today it’s a spectacular sight. The limestone behemoth boasts balustrades, balconettes, brackets, and turrets. The main entrance is placed diagonally on the building, with a portico with five arches, gargoyles, and the crests of four western Canadian provinces. The pitched copper roof features dormer windows, finials, and multiple chimneys. Inside, guests in the nearly 200 rooms and suites can enjoy a variety of dining venues, a health club, and the restored elegance of the Wedgwood Room (named after the Wedgwood detailing on the ceiling), the Empire Ballroom (with a 21’ ceiling adorned with bas relief carvings), and the Confederation Lounge and its fireplace. It’s easy to see why King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chose to stay here in 1939.
#4 Chateau Lake Louise (Lake Louise)
Easily accessible from Icefields Parkway, one of the top five drives in the world, Lake Louise is the stuff of legend. Named for Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Lake Louise achieves its iconic turquoise color from the refraction of light off the rock flour in the water. It’s one of the most scenic lakes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and I took it all in during a stroll along the smooth 1.2-mile trail that starts at the hotel and diverges to more challenging hikes at the opposite end. From here, the lakeside Chateau Lake Louise looks positively dwarfed by the phenomenal mountains behind it. But that’s deceptive: The rambling hotel is, in fact, quite colossal. The world-class hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1890 to lure wealthy travelers into taking trains and heading west. Rebuilt and expanded over the years (the oldest part is from 1913, following a fire, and the most recent addition was completed in 2004), the hotel was originally intended solely as a summer destination. Winterized only in 1982, it now offers year-round hospitality. The understated cream-colored building with dormer windows and bluish-gray roofs gives way to a lavish interior. Luxurious rugs, unique chandeliers, beamed ceilings, stenciled artwork on the walls, and regal staircases greet lucky guests and visitors, who can stay in one of 539 rooms and suites and dine in half a dozen different venues. I was so amazed by everything around me that I didn’t want my time here to end. So, to extend my visit, I enjoyed a proper afternoon tea with scones and finger sandwiches from a table beside an arched window that framed the view just perfectly.
#5 Dominion Hotel (Edmonton)
Once a separate city in Alberta, Strathcona amalgamated with Edmonton in 1912. A stroll along its main artery, Whyte (82) Avenue, might make you think part of it hasn’t changed since, especially the striking Dominion Hotel. Built in 1903 by an early settler to the area and later a realtor (and whose son built a handsome theater across the street from it 11 years later), the Dominion may conjure up images of Miss Kitty and gentleman callers by the hour, but the hotel was actually a very respectable place that leant an air of prosperity and refinement to the growing community. Balconies with fine woodwork spread across the entire width of the first and second floors of the three-story brick structure. A smaller central balcony with matching woodwork on the top story supports a cupola that completes the Victorian picture. The most ornate structure on Whyte functioned only briefly as a hotel, with a ground-floor lobby, dining facilities, and beer parlor — Prohibition, enacted in Alberta in 1916, put an end to all the fun. Upper floors were converted to apartments and sleeping rooms, while the ground floor was given over to retail outlets. Now on the Alberta Register of Historic Places, the Dominion is in the process of starting a new life as a modern hub for office and retail space.
- Lougheed House (Calgary; 1891)
- Palliser Hotel (Calgary; 1914)
- Knox United Church (Calgary; 1912)
- Old City Hall (Calgary; 1911)
- Old South Edmonton Post Office (Edmonton; 1913)
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