Unique Wedding Venues in Calgary

These days, going to the chapel doesn’t necessarily mean going to the hotel ballroom afterward.

More and more Calgary couples are thinking outside the big square box when it comes to their wedding receptions, opting instead for unconventional venues like art galleries and restaurants. In doing so, they’re eschewing longstanding traditions like the sit-down-banquet-with-head-table format and paring down their guest lists in order to fit into boutique-sized spaces.

More couples looking more wedding spaces with character

According to Lisa Hanslip, owner and operator of The Wedding Planner Inc., “The more character you’re looking for, then, ideally, the fewer guests.” 

But for the couple that comes prepared to throw convention to the wind, location options are nearly limitless.

Those seeking an urban-contemporary vibe for their big day are behind the rise in popularity of art-gallery receptions, says wedding planner Amira Harris of Posh Productions.

An art gallery offers a chic lounge environment

“People are going for a lounge effect, bringing in lots of furniture, cocktail tables and cruiser tables, and doing a fully catered, à la carte-style cocktail reception — food all night instead of a sit-down dinner, but still having lots of seating,” says Harris, who has staged weddings at Art Gallery of Calgary, Endeavor Arts & Event Space and the Gerry Thomas Gallery.

While this smart, sophisticated style might come across as effortlessly chic, the gallery wedding has its own unique set of challenges, starting with, well, the art. Potential gallery-wedding couples need to understand the elegant, black-and-white landscape photography that was on display during the location scouting tour might have turned into a brash series of oversized nudes by the time the wedding rolls around. Art galleries are also not the best choice if the wedding guest list has a lot of young kids, who may not understand the art is for looking at and not for touching.

“Many galleries have a very strict contract to protect the art,” says Harris. “You have to take out additional liability insurance in case something does get damaged, so that is another cost factor to think of.”

Aside from the art, the blank-canvas aspect of the gallery space means extra costs will be incurred from having to create an environment from scratch.

“If you have a tight budget, I wouldn’t recommend it,” says Harris. “Better to go for something more traditional, like a hotel that includes chairs and tables. When you do [your wedding] at a non-traditional venue, you’re bringing everything in, absolutely every single thing, from catering to glasses to decor to furniture, everything under the sun.”

Restaurants are perfect for foodie couples

This isn’t necessarily the case with upscale restaurant weddings, which are also becoming an increasingly popular choice, especially among foodie couples that would rather call the whole thing off than serve their guests banquet-hall chicken cordon-bleu.

“My clients who opt for a restaurant venue may sacrifice having a large number of guests due to size restrictions but the tradeoff is a more intimate setting with amazing food, wine and ambiance for their guests,” says wedding planner Terra Law of Inspired Occasions, who knows of events done at Rouge, Teatro, River Café and The Ranche.

Unlike galleries, which require a lot of outside furniture and accoutrements, restaurants come pre-furnished and pre-decorated. There’s also an expectation a restaurant will bring a high standard of food, wine and service to the table.

If there’s a downside to using restaurants as wedding venues, it’s that the layout isn’t usually planned with unobstructed sightlines in mind, meaning some guests at a sit-down dinner likely won’t have a very good view of the happy couple. One way around this is to use the restaurant space to host a cocktail party event, but then the issue becomes the flipside of the gallery wedding  — that is, what to do with all the tables and chairs, which need to be moved out and stored for the evening.

“You can’t have the character and the service and the food necessarily with the easy-to-work-with floor plan,” says Hanslip. “You just have to change your expectations of the dynamic of what the event might look like, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be fabulous and memorable and the perfect thing for you.”

An outdoor wedding offers connection to the land

One thing that’s guaranteed not to be perfect is the weather in this part of the world. Even so, outdoor weddings are still in high demand, often against wedding planners’ advice. “I think that’s something that lots of brides dream of, but in southern Alberta, I will not take an outdoor wedding unless there is a reasonable backup that won’t make the bride cry,” says Hanslip.

Still, the reasons to have an outdoor wedding often have more to do with the extended family’s connection to a particular piece of land than with the whims of the bride. The logistics of staging an outdoor wedding are almost as formidable as the weather  — everything from toilets to tables and chairs have to be carted to the site, not to mention the challenges in preparing and serving food in an area far removed from kitchen facilities, which, depending on the meal, might have to be created in an adjacent tent.

One way to get the outdoor country wedding vibe without having to start from the ground up is to go with a seasonal tented venue, such as the one Great Events Group has been running for the past two years at the Anderson Ranch equestrian farm just south of Calgary, or the new permanent tent which opened at Spruce Meadows last summer. The Spruce Meadows tent remains up through the spring and summer, and has beautiful touches like chandelier lighting and elegant draping, as well as less-graceful, but much more important features like permanent washrooms.

Another option is to choose a venue with an adjacent garden, such as Rouge Restaurant. It’s one way to have your outdoor wedding and your fancy dining reception, too, plus, if and when the wind whips up and the hail starts crashing down, it’s easy to get everyone inside tout de suite.

In the end, the perfect venue may be the one that requires the least amount of planning and tweaking and bending, which is why the hotel ballroom remains a wedding reception staple.

“Honestly,” says Hanslip, “it’s rare that a venue is going to check off every single box.”

8 hot wedding venues in Calgary

1. Endeavor Arts + Event Space

This second-floor art gallery-wedding darling gets high praise from planners for its elegant hardwood floors and large skylight. “It’s kind of a blank canvas, but it’s got beautiful architectural details. It’s an old building, but you can bring in a lot of modern esthetic, or play up the more-vintage details in the space,” says Terra Law. One downside: no elevator, so it’s not wheelchair-accessible. (200, 1209 1 St. S.W., 403-532-7800, endeavorarts.com)

2. Local 522

Couples who would rather quaff a microbrew than sip a fine wine, and who are looking for a laid-back pub vibe for their reception can always go downtown. Pubs like Local 522 and other establishments that cater to the weekday working crowd are more likely to give up a Saturday night for a reception than those located in the city’s weekend hot zones. (522 6 Ave. S.W., 403-244-6773, localtavern.ca)

3. The Grand

For the couple whose taste is more boho than classic, the restored Grand theatre is rife with edgy touches, like broken-bottle chandeliers and exposed brick, providing a wealth of interesting photo backdrops. In-house Velvet Restaurant has a dramatic, loungy vibe and can accommodate a smaller, cocktail-party style affair, while the cavernous theatre space can be cleared out for larger, sit-down banquet receptions. (608 1 St. S.W., 403-205-2922, theatrejunction.com)

4. Aero Space Museum of Calgary

The Aero Space Museum offers a cavernous open space with the vibe of an old-school Hollywood movie set, perfect for the modern couple looking for a vintage feel. Plus, the museum’s collection is guaranteed to be a hit with the war history buffs in the family and there’s plenty to keep kids occupied while adults dance and socialize. (4629 McCall Way N.E., 403-250-3752, asmac.ab.ca)

5. Horizons Pavilion at Spruce Meadows

The tented country wedding is a lot easier to deal with when someone else supplies the country and the tent. When it’s not being used for equestrian-related events, the Horizons Pavilion can be booked for private functions. The tent holds up to 200 guests, has a dance floor, chandelier lighting and a draped ceiling. (18011 Spruce Meadows Way S.W., 403-974-4264, sprucemeadows.com)

6. Calgary Zoo

A great choice if the guest list includes a lot of the very young and the very young at heart — all guests receive zoo admission, so there’s something fun to do during the down hours when the bride and groom are out doing their photos. (1300 Zoo Rd. N.E., 403-232-9300, calgaryzoo.org)

7. Lougheed House

This historic mansion on park-like grounds in the heart of the Beltline oozes old-money class and regal charm. Like most houses of its era, the inside is segmented into a series of rooms, making sit-down dinners for large groups difficult, although it’s an elegant option for those looking to throw a classic cocktail fete. The basement ballroom can accommodate groups up to 96 for a seated reception in two rooms. (707 13 Ave. S.W., 403-244-6333, lougheedhouse.com)

8. Bonterra Trattoria

One of Calgary’s favourite Italian eateries is fast becoming one of Calgary’s most-desirable wedding venues. The lovely back terrace is an ideal spot for a small ceremony, weather permitting. Inside, the room will fit up to 70 people for a sit-down dinner. Larger guest lists can be accommodated with a festival-food-style cocktail party set-up. (1016 8 St. S.W., 403-262-8480,  bonterra.ca)

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