Moving to Canada but not sure whether to choose Vancouver or Calgary as your new residence? It’s a common conundrum, especially for people heading to Canada on a working holiday. This comparison may help you make your decision.
Though I don’t currently live in either Vancouver or Calgary, I have spent considerable time in both cities as a tourist and also as a temporary resident.
I’ve seen the sights but have also lived regular day to day life in each location, something that may offer you a different perspective and help get that decision made!
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Vancouver vs. Calgary: Location
Surrounded by ocean and backdropped by mountains, Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city.
The downtown area is located the very end of what is known as British Columbia’s ‘Lower Mainland,’ with neighbouring cities (Burnaby, Surrey, Abbotsford) spreading out to the east.
Ferries depart from Vancouver to the gorgeous Sunshine Coast in the north, Vancouver Island in the west as well as numerous Gulf Islands in the middle.
In addition to all of the natural wonders of British Columbia, living in Vancouver also offers easy accessibility to Seattle and the rest of Washington State.
Located on the western edge of Alberta, Calgary is the gateway to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Indeed, a formidable line of peaks can be seen in the distance in higher areas of the city.
In the other direction is seemingly endless flat farmland. Without geographical limits, the city sprawls in every direction. Both the US border and the next nearest city, Edmonton, are over three hours away.
Vancouver vs. Calgary: Lifestyle
Vancouver is the perfect destination for anyone who likes their cities on the relaxed side. Think Melbourne, San Francisco or Brighton (if you’re British like me!).
Vancouver is laid back, progressive, health-focused, a little bit bohemian and, above all, green (in a few different ways).
The city itself has all the essential conveniences you would hope to find (festivals, shopping malls, theatres, sports arenas) plus plenty more opportunities you typically would not.
For example, it is possible to kayak, ski, scuba dive, climb a mountain and more within a short drive from downtown.
Sometimes nicknamed ‘Cowtown,’ Calgary has much more of a western country feel than Vancouver. Calgary is modern, dynamic and ambitious, with an optimistic ‘go getter’ attitude.
Alberta is one of the most conservative provinces in Canada, but this vibe is not necessarily felt in Calgary itself.
Founded at a traditional meeting place where two rivers join, there are plenty of green spaces to be found around the city.
Banff National Park, the Kananaskis Valley and many other naturally spectacular places are only 90 minutes drive away.
On top of all the city essentials you expect, the city hosts the Calgary Stampede every July, a world famous 10 day showcase of live music, rodeo events and pancake breakfasts.
Vancouver vs. Calgary: Cost of living
There’s no question about it, Calgary definitely beats Vancouver when it comes to cost of living.
- Accommodation is considerably cheaper to rent, taxes are lower and the minimum wage is higher in Calgary
- On the other hand, Vancouver is one of the most expensive places in the entire world to live. But for some, this ‘life tax’ is worth it
When considering the economy, it is also important to compare the job market.
- The energy sector is the primary driver of Calgary’s economy and, as such, the job market can be volatile. Calgary has been experiencing a ‘mild recession’ in the last few years due to the price of oil dropping
- Vancouver is more steady, with some of the main industries being trade, tourism, construction and film/television
Things to do in Vancouver and Calgary
Both cities tick all the boxes when it comes to entertainment, shopping and culture, with a large choice of festivals, restaurants, theatre productions, shopping malls and more.
Calgary does have the edge with the Calgary Stampede when it comes to events but my personal feeling is that Vancouver has more going on all year round. It may have to do with the milder weather.
If you like the outdoors, both Vancouver and Calgary have a lot to offer.
- Calgary is an easy drive (90 minutes) from Banff National Park, world famous for turquoise lakes, magnificent mountains, exciting ski resorts and more. The other Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks are also easily accessible, as is the beautiful Kananaskis Valley. In the other direction, you can explore fascinating fossil rich areas like Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park
- Vancouver may not have any National Parks in the vicinity, but spectacular nature can be found even closer to downtown. Within easy reach of the city are dozens of provincial and regional parks providing hiking, biking, camping and skiing experiences to rival those in the Rockies
People of Vancouver and Calgary
Vancouver is the larger city, with around 2.4 million people living in the metro area. Calgary’s metro population is 1.4 million. About 3% of Vancouverites have some First Nation ancestry, with this number being just a little higher (4%) in Calgary.
Vancouver and Calgary are multicultural cities, with ethnically diverse populations. Both cities celebrate this diversity with festivals and other cultural events.
- In Calgary, one in three residents were born outside of Canada
- In Vancouver, more than half of the local population speak something other than English as their first language.
- The predominant ethnic communities in Calgary are Filipino, Indian and Chinese.
- Vancouver is home to the second largest Chinatown in North America, after San Francisco.
Vancouver vs. Calgary: Weather
Weather is probably the biggest differentiation between Vancouver and Calgary for most prospective residents.
- Located at sea level, Vancouver has a mild climate featuring warm to hot summers (up to 30c) and cool winters with temperatures hovering around 0-5c. Snow is rare, happening once or twice during the winter
- Rain, on the other hand, is common and consistent in Vancouver. After summer, the rain descends and it can be grey and gloomy for weeks on end. Humidity is high, which can make temperatures feel colder than the thermometer reading
- Being 1,048 metres above sea level, Calgary has a much more varied climate. The climate is dry, with very low humidity. There are four distinct seasons, with cold (sometimes absolutely freezing) winters and warm to hot summers
- Calgary is one of the sunniest cities in Canada and temperatures can reach 30c in summer. The annual rainfall is low, with most precipitation falling as snow in the winter months
- One of the most unusual aspects of Calgary’s weather is the Chinook, a warm wind that can blow in from the Rockies during winter. It can raise the temperate by as much as 20c!
In conclusion, choose Vancouver if you like:
Mild winter weather, anything outdoors, exploring beautiful British Columbia, cheap sushi, coastal scenery, relaxed vibe, rain!
Pick Calgary if you want:
To be closer to the Rockies, to experience a ‘real’ Canadian winter with snow and freezing temperatures, cheaper living costs, to work in the energy industry
Which will you choose, Vancouver or Calgary?
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Canada. Jean Robert (JR) is up for anything, but you’re most likely to find him either snowboarding, fishing or building something. Gemma and JR are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.