Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Jennifer Morton checks in from Banff in Canada...
Banff National Park is a magnet for those looking for iconic Canadian scenes: mountains, rivers, forests and wildlife.
Each year, thousands of visitors flock to the region’s hub town of Banff — the gateway to much of the beauty of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The peak tourist season is June through September. The weather is warm and activities include hiking, canoeing, white water rafting, horse-riding, and generally living it up in the cosmopolitan town centre. From December until March snow sports are king, and Banff boasts two ski hills — Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay. There are also shuttles to Lake Louise (an hour away).
Whichever season you choose to visit Banff, you’re guaranteed to be wowed by its beauty, charm and hospitality.
Banff is a year-round holiday destination. Summer daytime temperatures average around 20 degrees with cooler mornings and evenings. In winter, snow can fall as early as September and as late as May, but the ski hills are open from November to April or May (snow dependent). Temperatures span from 0 degrees down to -20 (but can get as low as -40). Come prepared with good quality jackets, beanies, gloves, and winter boots.
The shoulder seasons are generally April through to mid-June and then again from mid-September to mid-December, which are great times to score cheaper hotel rates.
Top cultural experiences in Banff
Banff has a work hard, play harder culture that revolves around the great outdoors.
Thousands of young people from across Canada and around the world flock to the mountains of Banff and Lake Louise every year to work in the tourism and hospitality industries. They come for the same reasons as everyone else — to climb or ski the mountains, to kayak the rivers, to gawk at elk, deer and bear (keep your distance and never feed wildlife), and to enjoy life immersed in nature — and they bring a buzz to the region that’s catching.
Art is another important part of the culture and lifestyle in Banff. For more than 85 years, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has offered programs and events that cultivate and inspire imagination, innovation, and creative power. Check the website to find out what’s on during your visit.
The internationally famous Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival is held annually in October/November. If your Banff holiday misses the week-long mountain movie fest, don’t worry, the event tours to around 40 other countries.
Banff for history lovers
The Stoney Nakoda First Nation (also called Sioux) tribes lived in the mountains and valleys of the Bow region long before Canada’s first national park was created at Banff.
It was during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Bow Valley in the late 1800s that workers discovered mineral springs on Sulphur Mountain (now the Banff Upper Hot Springs). The combination of the region’s natural beauty and the reputed healing powers of the thermal waters sent visitor numbers from simmer to boil-over fairly quickly, which prompted the designation of the Banff National Park.
By 1886, there was enough interest to build the area’s first tourist accommodation. Today, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is the region’s status symbol and renowned for its castle-like presence.
Banff has grown into more than a medicinal and vacation spot for the elite; it’s a place for all who are drawn to the charm and beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Visit the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for an in-depth look at Banff’s colourful past and railway history. You’ll also discover gorgeous nature-inspired art.
To learn about the lives and heritage of the First People of the Canadian Rockies, drop by the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum. It houses costumes, hunting gear, creative beadwork and also a traditional and very beautiful tipi.
Great places to eat in Banff
You’ll have a delicious time grazing in Banff.
There’s so much on the menu that it’s hard to narrow down the best eats. Carnivores will want to devour some Alberta beef and a good place to start is Melissa’s Missteak — a dining favourite of locals and visitors since 1978. Here you’ll find hearty breakfasts, filling lunches and mouth-watering steak dinners. Try the slow-roasted prime rib (a thick piece of beef served with au jus and Yorkshire pudding).
For fabulous Greek food and awesome service, make a reservation at The Balkan. This family-owned and operated restaurant offers to-die-for yummy Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Every Tuesday evening there’s traditional dancing and plate breaking. Opa!
If you get a hankering for a Mexican meal, go straight to the Magpie and Stump. The rustic restaurant and bar has been a dining staple in Banff since the early 1980s. They don’t take reservations, so you’ll have to take your chances and be willing to wait for a table if it’s busy. It’s worth it for the crisp, fresh tortillas with a spicy salsa, and tasty tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.
Always leave room for dessert — a deep fried sweet bread from BeaverTails — a company founded in 1978 by Canadians Grant and Pam Hooker. A BeaverTail pastry is basically a donut, but instead of being round, it’s a long, flat paddle shape (like a beaver’s tail!). Choose toppings like cinnamon sugar, maple syrup, Nutella, caramel, chocolate, and the list goes on. They’re incredibly sweet, but very moreish.
Where to shop in Banff
Banff caters abundantly for souvenir junkies and there are countless shops along Banff Avenue where you can pick out the perfect t-shirt or memento of your holiday.
Let’s face it, most of the stores sell the same things for the same prices. For something a bit different, check out Cool As A Moose — a family business offering a unique selection of souvenirs and a range of locally made items. Hatley is the place to go for the cutest themed pyjamas and onesies. They come in all sizes, so if you’re into matching family PJs, you can get them here.
Banff Indian Trading Post is a local icon (they’ve been operating for more than a century). Here you’ll find mountains of Native Canadian handicrafts, including dreamcatchers, beadwork, moccasins, blankets and furs.
Another much-loved Banff retail experience is the Spirit of Christmas — a year-round festive wonderland. It stocks thousands of tree ornaments in an array of colours, themes and styles, as well as snow globes, mantel displays, wall hangings, tablecloths and napkins. Basically, if you can’t find what you need for the holiday season here, it doesn’t exist.
Mountain Chocolates at Caribou Corner is the only chocolate-maker in Banff that produces everything it sells on site. Shop for handmade chocolates, fudge, brittle, toffee apples, caramel corn and possibly the most delicious Canadian souvenir of all: the ‘Bear Paw’ (a puck of caramel covered in milk chocolate with cashew ‘claws’ on top).
Ways to relax in Banff
Filling your lungs with fresh mountain air is just one of the attractions of a trip from town up to the top of Sulphur Mountain.
The epic views are another. Take the Banff Gondola up to the peak and enjoy a stroll along the mountain boardwalk. There are eateries, a cafe and an interpretive centre back in the main terminal.
Almost every good hotel in Banff has a hot tub for guests to relieve aching muscles after a long day on the slopes or trails. Some hotels have outdoor hot tubs, and it’s hard to describe the feeling of sitting in an outdoor tub of hot water as snow flutters and falls around you. It’s a bucket list item.
If a long soak isn’t relaxation enough, there are several quality day spas in Banff. Top shelf is Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs. The award-winning spa has a 38-square-foot hot pool (featuring three waterfalls), an outdoor whirlpool, 23 treatment rooms, manicure stations, locker rooms, fitness rooms and a lounge with a fireplace. Access is available to the public as well as hotel guests and bookings are a must.
Aprés-ski drinks are a long-time tradition of mountain life and there are plenty of places around Banff to enjoy cocktail hour. Craft beer is large and in charge in Canada, and Banff Ave Brewing Co offers a lively and friendly vibe, a cosy brew, and also a meal if you’re hungry. Their flight of six craft beers (CAD $16) is a great way to get acquainted.
Where to stay in Banff
Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa
Your dream holiday in the Rocky Mountains may conjure up visions of log cabins and flickering, open fireplaces. If so, book a stay at the Banff Caribou Lodge. It’s situated on Banff Avenue — an easy 10-minute walk to the main shopping and dining area in the Banff town site. However, if it’s cold outside, don’t worry; as a hotel guest you’ll have free access to the town’s ROAM transit system.
Banff Caribou Lodge greets you with a rustic cabin vibe, melded with all the creature comforts of a modern hotel. Think a stylish and welcoming lobby complete with fireplace, spacious hot pool, steam room, fitness centre, free Wi-Fi and complimentary underground parking. The hotel is also home to the Red Earth Spa and The Keg — a popular Canadian steakhouse and family restaurant.
There are 184 rooms and suites in total, all with a mountain theme. With options ranging from standard to loft luxury, there’s one to suit every budget.
Do you have any tips to add to our Banff travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Banff Lake Louise Tourism. Image: Paul Zizka. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Jennifer Morton is a freelance writer and photographer. The Canadian expat has lived all over Canada, New Zealand and Australia. She also spent six months working on a cruise ship in Europe. When Jennifer is not writing about travel, you may find her lounging on the beach, fishing with her son, sipping coffee at a cafe, reading a book or zooming in on a beautiful scene. She’s also likely to be boarding a plane — or jumping out of one.