Free your imagination with these night drives

review and photos by Aonan He

It’s been three months since I’ve been to a restaurant or hungout with friends. Even when I was going out for a walk, I needed to put a mask on. I am so tired of it, as is everybody else. Now the winter has come to Edmonton. The situation is quite dire! I have no way but to adapt to this situation by coming up with some creative ways to enlighten myself again.

I developed a special night routine to just remind myself that the city is still alive. My boyfriend and I started driving randomly at night to explore Edmonton, and we found some fantastic night views of the city. I no longer have to wear a mask nor bear the sub-zero temperature inside the car. If you need a little inspiration to get this Covid-19 mindset out of your mind, here are some of my favorite night driving routes to reinvigorate yourself. This is where your imagination begins to be set free.

1. High Level Bridge

Expect a rainbow at night

I don’t know why, but every time I’m crossing the High Level Bridge after dark I feel lit up by a rainbow!

From downtown Jasper Avenue all the way down to the Garneau district (vehicle traffic is only allowed in one direction southbound), you will cross the High Level Bridge that spans the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. Launched by a “Light the Bridge” campaign in 2013, the bridge is covered with LED lights for the purpose of lighting up special occasions. Being able to display a variety of colours (such as red, orange, pink, yellow, blue, green, and purple) in a fluctuating manner, the bridge gets a heartbeat. After crossing the rainbow bridge, you can easily find a cozy place to enjoy a nice dinner in the Garneau area.

The colourful High Level Bridge is such a beautiful surprise for you on a snowy mundane night. If you are driving too fast, the light show disappears quickly. The sudden shift of the many-hued ambiance is so stimulating, and that kind of excitement is exactly what you want! If you take a walk on the two sidewalks, a panoramic view of downtown and of the spectacular Waterdale Bridge that parallels the High Level bridge will unfold in front of you. Just by standing there and staring at the distance, you may forget about the pandemic for a minute. The historic streetcar route on the upper deck of the bridge can take you from May to October from the Strathcona Streetcar Barn to Jasper Plaza downtown, filling you with Edmonton’s earliest days’ streetcar vibes on the river.

2. Neon Sign Museum

Indulge in a small vintage magical world

If you are actually planning to visit this museum, you are tricked. It’s not a place where you go inside and pay admission and look around at a variety of historical or art displays. It is an outdoor attraction decorated with a bunch of neon signs that is open 24/7 and no admission is required. Located on 104 Street just before 104 Avenue, the neon signs installed on the east wall of the Telus building and the south wall of the Mercer Warehouse building tell a story about Edmonton’s neon past.

This museum was created by the Alberta Sign Association as a part of the city’s program to revitalize 104 street. The collection of the 20 neon signs marks the restoration of past landmarks and is set to preserve the historic character of that area.

The sign of the Running Room commemorates the largest chain of specialty running stores in North America that originated in 1984. The Hayden’s Furniture sign observes a successful 49½ years’ family business that was has been a landmark in the city since 1964. The Georgia Baths sign represents Edmonton’s oldest public steam bath business, founded in 1913. It tells a story of a luxurious lifestyle with its distinctive bath facilities in the past. Other iconic signs such as Pantages Theatre, Chevy Trucks, Canadian National Railways, and Canadian Furniture, are presented as a celebration of historically prevalent businesses and lifestyles.

Driving along 104 Avenue and turning left at the Ice District, your eyes will be drawn to the dazzling vehemence that they perhaps they will feel offended; but trust me, that “offense” is what you want. It gives you a sense of dizziness that makes you feel as if you are in a magical world where your imagination can go far beyond what you see. The magic of the history behind those signs is enough to make you ruminate for a while.

Parking down the street and looking up at those signs, I cannot help but think how simple life can be, just like how simplistic this museum is.

3. Ice District

A mini Manhattan street facade

Driving from 103 Avenue toward 104 Avenue, the high windows on both sides of the street and the reflection of LED lights on the ground always remind me of Manhattan in New York City.

The JW Marriot hotel on one side of the street and the Grand Villa Casino on the other side invite a sense of luxury and modernity. As they unfold before your eyes from far to near, get ready to embrace the Capitalist hedonism that Edmonton streets rarely brings about. Normally the district is inundated with a hockey vibe in the air, credited to the Rogers Place for hockey games. The Covid-19 season seems to have hushed it, but the contrast reminds us that it is totally okay to slow down a little bit.

While the light reflection still praises the modernity and vitality the Ice District presents to its people, the tranquility of the district at this moment is perfect for many who just want to chill and let things go.

4. Whyte Avenue

The very blend of the most local, youthful, and historical

There is probably no road more local in Edmonton than Whyte Avenue. As the arterial road at the south side of the river, White Avenue serves as a shopping hub for local residents and students like me at the nearby University of Alberta. I used to like grabbing a cup of chai latte at Remedy Cafe on Whyte Ave and enjoying myself with a book in hand. At times I would meet with friends at cafes like CACAO 70 Eatery or Teapsy Lab. There are so many different types of restaurants (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Italian, and so on) as options to dine in.

Covid-19 has changed Whyte Avenue from a hustle and bustle scene to a more or less gloomy picture, and wintertime has made it even more desolate. However, driving in the car at night made me see it in a way that I had never noticed when strolling on the street before.

From the Old Strathcona Antique Mall, turning left after the traffic lights, the first significant building you will notice on your right is the Dominion Hotel building, constructed in 1903. It appears significantly different from all other buildings because its ornate balcony lends the building a Victorian appearance. The structure of the façade is made of red bricks that add a Georgian flare to its architecture. There is a bronze roofed loft at the top that puts a little Neo-Gothic taste into the mixture of its architecture. The family who built this hotel later designed and built the Princess Theatre, right across the street. The Princess Theatre managed to put small lights around its sign in a square. The flashing square at night delivers a warm sparkling feeling when viewed from afar.

Further west, you will see three popular coffee chains on both sides: Starbucks, Second Cup, and Tim Hortons. Among the three, Tim Hortons marks the most distinctive location, as it is also a designated rest station for motorcyclists traveling across Canada. You would occasionally find dozens of motorcyclists sitting on their bikes and sipping a cup of coffee at the small parking lot right next to the Tim Hortons.

What you see next is the Army and Navy Department Store, which since Covid-19 has been closed permanently and boarded up with wooden panels. It started as an outlet for military supplies and then morphed into a low-cost outlet for anything that could fit into a department store catalog. Paintings are sprayed on the wall outside of the store to commemorate the business in the past century. There is nothing fancy about the store per se, but to revisit from afar made me realize how historical this store is.

The message here is, from a distance in the car at night, Whyte Ave brings some serious heritage. I used to think of Whyte Ave as simple as a social destination, but revisiting it this way reminds me of its profoundly rooted history and culture. With so many places telling you decades-old stories, there is so much to explore and to be understood.

5. 98 Avenue

One and the only city panorama

            This is probably the only route on which you can fall in love with the city immediately. Driving from the big roundabout on 98th Avenue towards downtown, the urban landscape resembles a metropolis. Savour the moment, because the panorama disappears very quickly once you get closer to downtown.

Driving down 98 Avenue, not far from the roundabout, you will see some of the riverfront buildings such as the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, emitting purple lights around the chateau. It conveys a mysterious feeling, as if there are some elves living there. Surrounding the Fairmont Chateau are several high rise office buildings with distinctively Brutalist Concrete architecture. They are robust, serious, and still. They look like a group of Hulks, but just not green. It’s really hard to tell whether the Hulks are in combat with or protecting the elves living in Fairmont. Will the elves come out of the castle and defend themselves if there is going to be a war? That is honestly so much fun to watch every time when I pass by.

            Once you pass the viewpoint of Fairmont, you are fully in the panoramic picture of the city. On your right side, you will see more office buildings with their sparkling blue and gold lights. The night view is dazzling. It tells me that the city is still alive.

If you are still wondering what you could do during the mentally exhausting Covid-19 pandemic, why don’t you check out these fantastic routes? Take your car, and grab a mug of something nice and hot with you, and drive around the city as if you have never been there before. You may be physically stuck currently due to the pandemic, but you should allow your imagination to wander free.