Skip to content

Saddle Up: The Calgary Stampede Experience

Denim, plaid shirts and leather boots are de rigeur during the Calgary Stampede, the city's annual boot-stomping cowboy festival. Held in July and billed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth," Stampede is a legendary 10-day celebration of all things Western, encompassing rodeo competitions, chuckwagon races and glittering musical extravaganzas.

In the heart of downtown Calgary, the Fairmont Palliser couldn't be better placed for spotting Stetson-clad Stampede-goers and enjoying the city's buzzing festival atmosphere. It's steps from Calgary's finest shops, restaurants and bars and an easy 15-minute stroll to and from Stampede Park, where the main events take place.

The elegant Edwardian hotel has welcomed guests since 1914, when it opened as a stopover for tourists heading west to the Rockies, and assisted in connecting Canada by rail. Today, you're likely to find yourself sipping cocktails over tapas in The Oak Room Lounge or tucking into Afternoon Tea in the grand, marble-columned lobby lounge.

During Stampede, the hotel's public spaces are outfitted with cowboy-inspired décor, and rustic cocktails are served in mason jars. Be sure to visit the hotel's special booth where Stampede volunteer ambassadors offer tips on the festival's best adventures and activities.

Fuel up on Flapjacks!
Before you head to Stampede Park, take an early morning walk to work up an appetite. You'll need one, because pancake breakfasts are as big a part of the Stampede tradition as rodeo contests. From small, community-run gatherings to crowd-pulling sponsored events with entertainment and celebrity appearances, there's no shortage of spots to fuel up for the day.

The best way to get a kick-start at the pancake mayhem is the morning of Thursday July 7 between 7:30 and 10:30 a.m., where you’re invited to the ‘First Flip’ it’s an easy walk from the hotel and you can pile your plate high with pancakes, bacon, berries and cream!

Dress Like a Cowboy
Forget to pack your Western wear? No problem. Kitting up as a cowboy or cowgirl is simple. Start at Smithbilt, which has been manufacturing handcrafted hats for the better part of a century, including the official "Calgary White Hat." When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Stampede in 2011, they sported luxurious white hats crafted from rabbit fur. Or you can opt for a 3X woolen hat, wrapped with a dashing bright red band. Keep your eyes peeled for the Fairmont Palliser's own white hat behind the front desk, presented by Tourism Calgary for winning Hotel of the Year for the Centennial Anniversary Year, 2014.

For comfy feet, sink your soles into leather boots from the Alberta Boot Company. You can browse thousands of boots at its factory store or order a custom-made pair with as many extra details as you fancy, such as spur ledges, embossing or colourful hearts and stars. Looking for embroidered shirts, chunky belts and buckles as big as you can handle? Riley & McCormick is a one-stop shop for anything else you need to complete your outfit.

Stampede by Day
Now that you look the part; it's time to hit Stampede Park. The vast showground is crammed with animal displays and whirling midway rides. Afternoon rodeos feature six adrenaline-filled events, including steer wrestling and bull riding, where highly skilled competitors battle it out to win their share of over $2 million in prize money.

Aim to buy your rodeo tickets well in advance to secure the best seats. This also saves having to line up to purchase a general admission ticket when you arrive. If you're in town for the Stampede Parade on opening day, a Parade Day kick-off package gives you a bleacher seat for the downtown parade of marching bands, floats and riders, plus a ticket to that day's rodeo. Fairmont Palliser guests also have access to great seats to catch the parade go by. Make sure you're up early to snag your seat right in front of the hotel. 

Take time to explore the Indian Village, a fixture of Stampede since the original 1912 event. Amid a cluster of colourful tipis, representatives of First Nations tribes demonstrate traditional skills such as beadwork and storytelling. You can watch Pow Wow dance competitions or stop by the Bannock Booth to fill up on bannock (a lightly sweetened, biscuit-style bread) and jam. 

Stampede by Night
The Evening Show is two spectacles in one, beginning with the thundering hooves of horses pulling chuckwagons in the GMC Rangeland Derby. Singers, dancers and acrobats then perform elaborate routines for the TransAlta Grandstand Show before the evening finishes off with a fireworks display.

Stampede's busy concert calendar sees big-name acts take to the stage at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Young artists rock the Coca-Cola Stage, and a ticket is free with your park admission. Country fans can listen to established and up-and-coming musicians at Nashville North, Stampede's hopping country music venue. For VIP, no-line access, order a Buck the Line ticket ahead of time.

Just outside the grounds in a huge pop-up tent, Cowboys Dance Hall hosts its own legendary music festival featuring celebrity guests and top musical talent. A Chute Pass allows VIP entry for you plus three guests, saving waits of up to two hours.

Edible Delights
Pancakes aren't the only item on the menu here. Stampede's culinary creations become more inventive each year. Mini doughnuts are a Stampede staple, but have you tried them smothered in jalapeño poutine? Or how about a peanut butter kabob? This snack involves skewering deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with three deep-fried Reese's Peanut Butter cups.

One of the big sellers in 2015 was the $100 Dragon Dog. Infused with $3,000-a-bottle cognac, this gourmet hot dog is topped with Kobe beef, lobster tail and truffles. To taste one, you need to place your order at least 12 hours in advance.

Ready to don your cowboy hat? The Calgary Stampede takes place each July. The Fairmont Palliser offers a Calgary Stampede package that includes one night's luxury accommodation, a Western welcome amenity, a buffet breakfast and Calgary Stampede gate tickets for two adults and two children.

Susie Henderson is passionate about travelling and has written articles and travel guides for numerous publications and websites, including the World Travel Guide, Sky News online, MSN Travel, Mail Travel, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. She's lived in the UK, France, Spain and the US and is now based in Victoria, BC.



More Posts From This Category