If you can, arrive in Edmonton at night. As you ride in from the airport, you'll see Edmonton's glittering steel-and-glass skyline rising on the far shore of the North Saskatchewan River. It's a dramatic introduction to the way oil money transformed this stretch of the north.
Founded by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1794, Edmonton today is Canada's most northerly big city, a provincial capital and an industrial center with an economy based on petrochemicals, biotechnology, engineering, forestry and agricultural goods.
Ideally situated between Canada's remote north and the picturesque Jasper National Park, Edmonton is gaining popularity as a sightseeing and tourist destination. Edmonton is Canada's fifth-largest city, with an educated and innovative workforce that fuels Canada's billion-dollar economy in its wealthiest province. The University of Alberta and the state-of-the-art National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton are setting standards in education and research, establishing Edmonton as the biotech capital of Alberta.
The North Saskatchewan River cuts across the city from northeast to southwest. A series of beautiful parks runs along both sides of the river, providing plenty of space for outdoor activities, both winter and summer. The city center sits on a hill on the north bank of the river. Old Strathcona, a well-preserved historic precinct, is on the south side of the river. It is connected to downtown by a light-rail system.
In Edmonton, streets run north-south and avenues run east-west. First Street is at the far eastern edge of the city; First Avenue is to the far south. The intersection of 101st Street and 101st Avenue (more commonly known as Jasper Avenue) is downtown, roughly in the center of the city. The main route into Edmonton (Highway 2) is known as Gateway Boulevard (northbound) and Calgary Trail (southbound).
Native tribes moved through the Edmonton area more than 3,000 years ago, but few stayed in the area for long. The Europeans began to settle the area in the 1700s. The location at the southern boundary of Cree and Assiniboine territory and near the northern range of the Blackfoot was ideal—pelts could be traded without crossing into another tribe's land. The fur trade proved profitable enough that the Hudson's Bay Company built a fort on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River: Fort Edmonton.
About 100 years later, as the fur trade was diminishing, Edmonton became a supply center for prospectors heading north into the Yukon's gold country. Coal was also discovered in the area around this time, drawing more settlers to the city. In 1891, a railway connecting to Calgary was finished. When Alberta joined the rest of Canada in 1905, Edmonton was selected as the provincial capital, putting the city firmly on the map.
By far the most important event in Edmonton's recent history was the discovery of oil at nearby Leduc in 1947. Soon, there were thousands of wells within a short drive of the city, and within a decade the population doubled to 250,000. Oil remains an important component of the local economy. North of the city, at Fort McMurray, expanding infrastructure around the oil sands has created a need for expanded processing facilities in Edmonton.
Visit downtown Edmonton's historic buildings, modern architecture and the Arts District. Across the river is historic Old Strathcona, which is filled with shopping, dining and historic homes. On the west side of town is one of Edmonton's big draws, and we do mean big. The West Edmonton Mall ranks among the world's largest shopping and entertainment centers. It has more than 800 stores and services, more than 100 restaurants, and a variety of entertainment options.
Old Strathcona is the hub of Edmonton's nightlife scene, with other concentrations of pubs and clubs in West Edmonton Mall and downtown, where a growing number of establishments are popping up along Jasper Avenue. The area's main drag, Whyte Avenue, is populated with all kinds of watering holes, but especially pubs, which have usurped nightclubs in popularity. Because of its proximity to the University of Alberta and other postsecondary institutions, Whyte Avenue is most popular with young people. Visitors should be aware that the area has experienced an uptick in crime in recent years, particularly after hours when the bars let out.
For complete listings of all that's happening around Edmonton, pick up the free Vue Weekly, published on Thursday and available throughout the city.
Like the rest of the province, Edmonton's restaurants are known for Alberta beef. It is found on most menus, but for the full effect, head to one of the excellent steak houses where it is the specialty.
Edmonton's restaurants offer a balance of international cuisine and local favorites in all price brackets. From home-style cooking at Old Country Inn to creative French fare at The Creperie, there's something to suit everyone's taste and budget.
Restaurants are concentrated in a few main areas. Downtown in the plazas are food courts that fill with office workers, shoppers and tourists at lunchtime. This part of the city also has some of Edmonton's best fine-dining establishments. Old Strathcona offers a smorgasbord of choices, with cuisine from all corners of the world. Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail, northbound and southbound, are lined with family restaurants, buffets and fast-food outlets.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$45; $$$$ = more than Can$45.
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