The Calgary Tower doesn’t dominate the city’s skyline so much as hang out in it. When it opened in 1968, reaching 190.8 meters into the sky, it was the tallest structure in town, and the tallest tower in North America. It’s slipped in the rankings a bit over the last few decades, and since 1976 has been positively dwarfed by Toronto’s CN Tower, which is almost three times taller. Even in Calgary, multiple skyscrapers now stretch higher than the tower, and although its views are still tremendous, especially on a clear day, you can find similar vantage points at bars and restaurants atop taller buildings.
Still, the Calgary Tower retains a power and mystique that more towering buildings lack. It was built for one primary thing—to let people get very high and look at everything around them—and it still does that as perfectly as possible. It also has history on its side—at 54 years old, it’s a Calgary tradition, as much a part of the fabric of the city as any other structure. And the city clearly respects its status. You can’t see it from every part of Calgary anymore, but it’s not boxed in by mightier skyscrapers like the once-iconic Polaris restaurant on top of Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency hotel; diners at that revolving restaurant formerly enjoyed sweeping views of the Southern city, but today just look into the windows of all the taller buildings that now surround it. Calgary hasn’t subjected its tower to that fate, and it still stands as a notable and immediately recognizable part of the skyline—particularly at night, when its LED light shows cast it in paroxysms of color.
On clear days you can see not just Calgary but a wide swath of the province. The cement and asphalt of a modern city fade into the green prairies that helped Calgary earn its nickname of Cowtown, and beyond them loom the whitecapped mountains of the Alberta Rockies. Photo guides placed throughout the observation deck help you recognize some of the more important or architecturally interesting buildings in sight. To the south you can see the Saddledome, home of the NHL’s Calgary Flames (formerly the Atlanta Flames, of course), and the grounds of the Calgary Stampede behind it. If you’re not afraid of heights—or want to face that fear head-on—you can step into a glass-bottomed nook and stare straight down at the sidewalk 157 meters below your feet. The Tower also has its own revolving restaurant, Sky360, one floor beneath the observation level.
As impressive as it remains, the fact that the Tower isn’t quite the world-straddling colossus it once was hangs over the place. Its lobby is like a museum exhibit focused on how the world of tower-building has passed Calgary by. Plaques throughout the hallway detail the tallest structures in the world, from the gargantuan Burj Khalifa in Dubai, to the CN Tower in Toronto—at 553 meters, it’s been Canada’s record holder since 1976. What could be more Canadian than cheerfully acknowledging everybody that’s just a little bit better at the one thing you’re good at?
The Calgary Tower has accepted its fate as a very tall tower that isn’t close to being the tallest tower in the world, or even the tallest building in its own city, and that’s a good thing. It’s healthy. It’s also a big change from its earliest days. When it opened in 1968 under the objectively cooler name of Husky Tower, it was publicly billed at only 187 meters. This was a ruse—utter deceit. Knowing that other enterprising cities would quickly try to steal the “tallest tower” title for themselves, the builders of the Calgary Tower lied about its height, and were almost immediately validated when San Antonio announced its own 190 meter tall tower shortly after. Calgary came clean on its new tower’s actual height, less than one meter more than San Antonio’s, but enough to claim the record—for a few years, at least.
If you’re in Calgary it doesn’t matter that there are taller buildings elsewhere, of course. If you want to get about as high as you can in Calgary and look at all the cars and people scurrying far down below, and the vast plains and mountains that stretch out around the city, this should be your first stop. The tower might not be your only option anymore, but it remains the most ideal. And they’re currently selling a pretty cool Stampede Wrestling shirt in the gift shop, which is nice.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.