Kelowna comes by its bona fides honestly. Its inspiration as a town—at the heart of Western Canada’s bountiful, fertile agriculture industry—is still a coveted reality today. In fact, the surrounding orchards and vineyards (oh those vineyards) have never been more prosperous and vital to the city’s sublime growth.
The traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Syilx people of the Okanagan Nation, who have lived on the shores of their 135-kilometre eponymous lake for 10,000 years, Kelowna today is the third-largest urban centre in BC (behind Vancouver and Greater Victoria). And while it was growing quickly before the pandemic, powered by a carousel of cashing-out downsizers and retirees from Vancouver and Toronto, Alberta investors riding long oil spikes and outdoor lovers not afraid of commitment, its population has popped over the past two-and-a-half years. City boosters claim that the 14 per cent population growth rate makes Kelowna the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Canada. We have it ranked at a still very impressive #5.
Following a familiar pandemic migration script, new residents (and, with a #8 ranking for Relocation, the running joke locally is that everyone here was a recent arrival at some point) are coaxed by a lifestyle that seems algorithmically optimized. The city ranks #17 for Weather, but the summers get so dry and hot that the dozens of local lakes and swimming holes become public amenities as produce grows—powering a constantly evolving agriculture industry—and grapes ripen in the heat at the more than 40 local vineyards. As long as the forest fires are kept at bay, Kelowna gets all this done while deeply breathing top 10 air quality among Canada’s small cities. If the #3-ranked parks don’t do it for you (many perched on the azure shores of Lake Okanagan), then a 25-minute stroll in any direction gets you climbing in solitude. Better yet, hop on your mountain bike and roll onto the single-track north of the city in Knox Mountain Park, or Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park on the south side. And ride in confidence. The city ranks in the top three for residents who commute by bike. Even the most egregiously sized trucks (and there are plenty here) tend to respect bike lanes and the city’s growing cycling infrastructure. For those looking for a more subdued time outdoors, an incredible 19 golf courses are a short drive away: start by getting your swings in at the Kelowna Driving Range, or working with a PGA golf pro at the Harvest Golf Club, a resort-style course offering 18 holes through a picturesque working orchard.
And that’s just the summer! Winter is equally epic, with three major ski resorts (Big White, Apex Mountain and SilverStar) an hour or less away.
While Kelowna’s advantage has aways been its natural attributes outside of town, the city’s core has been catching up for years now, as seen by its #2 finish for small cities nationally in our overall Programming category.
Increasingly, people are coming to a hometown knowing that they won’t just be able to buy anything they need, they’ll also have plenty of new finds to explore, in hot retail clusters like Bernard Avenue, Pandosy Village and Tutt Street, lined with indie shops and boutiques. Kelowna ranks an impressive #2 in our Shopping subcategory. An evening out is also becoming an equally kinetic experience, with Kelowna ranked in the top three for theatres, which range from the daring, experimental productions of the 10-year-old New Vintage Theatre to the Rotary Centre, home to the Mary Irwin Theatre and the city’s hub for arts, music, education and entertainment in the heart of Kelowna’s Cultural District.
Kelowna’s #6-ranked Restaurants have taken the pandemic slowdown as an opportunity to assess the city’s culinary needs and plan for the long term. The bounty of places to eat in this city almost matches its outdoor pursuits. Winery restaurant icons like Old Vines at Quail’s Gate Estate are being joined by new concepts, like the massive King Taps restaurant on Kelowna’s waterfront, right next door to corporate cousin Cactus Club in the old Rose’s Pub on Water Street.
The #4 Nightlife ranking will also improve in the coming years as locals and visitors fully experience the 10 local breweries, five cideries and five distilleries here, many of which launched with a mission to follow the wineries’ lead in highlighting the terroir of this incredible land in their locally sourced ingredients. Fortunately for patrons, torrid downtown development means they can increasingly walk to and from this action.
According to the City of Kelowna, there are nearly 4,000 residential units either under construction or in the permitting process in the downtown core alone, 650 of which will be in a three-tower development by Orchard Park Properties that broke ground earlier this year and will redefine the city’ skyline with the tallest tower in BC’s interior, at 442 feet. Proposals for high-density towers continue to pour into city planning offices as new cranes rise weekly on approved projects.
As much as tourism has built this city—prior to the pandemic, the Central Okanagan’s visitor economy generated $2.1 billion annually and created almost 13,000 jobs—today, the story, like everywhere, is about tech.
Over the past decade or so, long-time tech and digital media anchors like QHR Technologies, Vineyard Networks and Disney Canada (which arrived in 2005 after purchasing local game manufacturer Club Penguin for $350 million) seeded an ecosystem for startups that has since produced successful job engines like FreshGrade and Hyper Hippo. Local economic development initiatives like the Accelerate Okanagan incubator have further provided air cover for a workforce that today ranks #2 for Self-employment.
The launch of UBC’s Okanagan campus just over a decade ago keeps the young talent pipeline stocked—a vital factor in making sure Kelowna is not just growing but thriving all through the exciting years ahead. The latest phase of the university is happening right now downtown, at 550 Doyle Avenue, where a “vertical campus” is rising with 40,000 square metres that will include a much-needed medical clinic for Kelowna’s blooming urban population.