A Tiny Town that Delivers a Big Canadian Experience
Take all the wonderful Canada stereotypes - friendly people, scenic landscape, accessible wildlife - and bundle it into one lovely little town and you have Banff, Alberta.
No wonder Banff is one of Canada's most popular attractions. This Rocky Mountain town is a gateway to gorgeous countryside, including Canada's first national park and continuing national treasure, Banff National Park.
With Canada being such a big country, getting from one place of interest to the next often is time-consuming, but once in Banff, you have oodles of attractions close by, many even walking distance.
Banff, Canada's highest town, sits at an elevation 4,537 feet or 1,383 meters, and with a little effort, you can put yourself at the treeline to frolic amidst glaciers, wildlife, and meadows.
A haven for cycling, hiking, and skiing, at any given time, Banff has significantly more tourists than residents, so planning your trip and booking ahead is important.
Getting to Banff is easy, with the easiest route being from Calgary, less than two hours away.
Get Sky High on the Banff Gondola
The Banff Gondola is more than just a ride to a better view. Totally transformed in 2015, Banff's number one attraction takes visitors 2,900 feet up Sulphur Mountain to restaurants, a theatre, exhibits and a 360-degree rooftop observation deck where you can soak in the Rocky Mountain panorama.
Once at the summit, a boardwalk and several hiking trails allow people to do an easy scenic stroll or more ambitious mountain ridge walk.
Don't be surprised if you run into a bighorn sheep or hoary marmot on your trek. Both these and other types of wildlife make their homes close to the tree line and will not bother you if you show them the same courtesy.
Getting your tickets online is recommended as this will speed up your entry. Another option is to make reservations at Sky Bistro and choose the Sky Experience package, which is $65 and includes your gondola ride ($49) and two courses. Prices are in Canadian dollars, as of 2017.
Learn a Thing or Two at the Whyte Museum of Banff
There's lots to love about the splash and splendour of a big national institution but sometimes we learn the most at a local, more manageably sized museum, like the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Permanent and rotating exhibits examine not only the history and beauty of Banff and the surrounding area but also the Canadian character and history overall through video, photography, artifacts, vintage items, paintings and more. The museum chronicles Canada's national railway, which allowed the tourist explosion in Banff and growth of the hiking, climbing and ski industries.
Visitors will come to appreciate the hardships of the early pioneers and indigenous peoples who developed this rugged region.
Perfect for an hour or two, especially on a rainy Banff day.
Commune with Nature on Tunnel Mountain Trail
Tunnel Mountain Trail is a beautiful, straightforward hike that rewards you with stunning views of Banff and Bow River. At less than an hour up, you don't have to turn over your whole day to get the elevated panoramic perspective.
Because of the trail is so accessible and well maintained, it is popular, even with locals, so be prepared to share the space, especially in summer and on weekends.
And don't be too disappointed when you don't come across a tunnel. Tunnel Mountain got its name when railway surveyors mistakenly thought they would have to blast through it for the most efficient route. They found a better option skirting around the mountain but the name stuck.
Soothe Your Weary Bones
One of the reasons people were drawn to Banff in the first place was the hot springs. Although first discovered and used by First Nations, it was in 1883 when Canadian Pacific Railway workers stumbled across the sulfurous hot water source that Banff's reputation as a holiday haven grew, in turn becoming the country's first national park.
Today, the Banff Upper Hot Springs invites visitors to soak in the natural hot mineral waters pool year-round, with a little help from pumped in city water. A family of four can get in for under $25, which seems reasonable. What may strike seekers of peace and quiet as unreasonable is the crowds. Expect to share the magical waters with a bevy of other bathers unless you arrive right at opening or on an inclement day.
Explore Canadian Art at the Canada House Gallery
If you're in the market to bring home some authentic Canadian art - or even if you're not - the Canada House Gallery is an excellent place to peruse a collection of paintings, etchings and sculpture that revere and reflect the country's natural landscape and wildlife.
Since 1974, the gallery has been promoting Canadian artists, including several who are local and many Inuit. In 2016, the building got a makeover and was transformed into a bright, airy space that ideally showcases the colourful paintings, soapstone pieces, and jewellery.
The gallery is right in downtown Banff, on the corner of Caribou and Bear streets. Can't get much more Canadian than that.
Get an Early Start to the Day at Bow Falls
Many of the world's most famous waterfalls are known for their height, but Bow Falls is wider than it is tall. Though not exactly looming the falls are still impressive in their aquatic power and mesmerizing to watch.
Being such a lovely spot to linger or pull out a picnic lunch, Bow Falls gets busy, especially in the afternoon, so try to get an early start. Arrive before 11 am and the light is beautiful for picture taking. Keep in mind that in the winter, the falls are frozen; still scenic, but potentially underwhelming, so tweak your expectations.
Another great thing about Bow Falls is how easy it is to get there by foot. Just take Bow River Trail from Banff across the Bow River and walk along its south side for about 15 minutes. Lots of benches and spots to rest and take in the view.
Explore the Beauty of Lake Minnewanka
Just a short drive from Banff, Lake Minnewanka is the poster child for how stunningly beautiful the Banff region can be: turquoise glacial waters, rugged mountain landscape, plethora wildlife and dancing skies. Lake Minnewanka attracts visitors for its beauty but also for the availability of lake cruises, pedal and motor boating, fishing, maintained hiking trails and even scuba diving (there is a submerged resort village in the lake).
Treat Yourself at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Whether you stay the night or just pop in for high tea, don't miss this historic, iconic hotel while in Banff. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is sublimely located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, walking distance from downtown Banff.
Opened in 1888, the "Castle in the Rockies" was part of an elite network of hotels that connected major cities on Canada's national railway system. The hotel is a grand mishmash of architectural styles, from French chateau to Scottish baronial. The overall effect is impressive and stately, a startling vision amidst the mountainous backdrop.
The hotel's illustrious history is tangible as you meander the hallways and take note of the paintings, artifacts, and photos that adorn the walls. Though upkeep of the sprawling structure could have led to its demise, major renovation projects beginning in the 1980s has ensured the hotel's continuing reputation as a world-class accommodation.
Cruise the Strip
Banff has a charming, pedestrian-friendly downtown. The town is unique in that it was originally intended to be a tourist town and designed accordingly. For one of Canada's top attractions, it is amazingly compact, with just under 5 square kilometers of well laid out streets all with exceptional views of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade. Strict bylaws prevent overgrowth and sprawl, ensuring this Rocky Mountain town maintains a character in keeping with its remote, rustic location.
The shops and boutiques are anything but backwoods though in downtown Banff; visitors can find any number of ways to spend their money. High-end shops, galleries, and restaurants line the streets and tempt visitors with Canadian goodies at every turn.
Don't be surprised if you have to share the roads with meandering herds of caribou. The wildlife is an integral part of Banff life, even downtown.
Take a Scenic Drive
With so much beauty surrounding Banff, getting into your car to see as much of it as possible is irresistible. Get going on any road out of Banff and you are pretty much guaranteed views of wildlife, mountains, glaciers, rushing waters, sparkling lakes and more.
Take the day for a more in-depth exploration of the region or just do a quick, calculated tour. The most popular include the Icefields Parkway, which connects Banff to Jasper and passes centuries-old glaciers frozen in time; the Bow Valley Parkway, which parallels the Trans-Canada highway at a lower speed limit; and the Vermilion Lakes Road, a quick jaunt from Banff that affords lovely views of three lakes and Mount Rundle.
Hit the Slopes
Banff is situated in prime ski territory, amidst three of Canada's best ski resorts, known as the Big 3, Norquay (pronounced Nork-way), Banff Sunshine and Lake Louise.
The three resorts boast nearly 8,000 acres of skiing, 2 gondolas, 26 chairlifts and 30 feet of feather-light, dry Canadian Rockies powder annually.
The beauty of the Big 3 set up is that skiers can purchase one tri-area pass and ski at whichever resort they like during their stay. Shuttles regularly run skiers between the resorts.
Sunshine Village is located 15 km, or a 20 minute drive, southwest of town. Once there, a gondola takes you to the ski area, which is 1,358 hectares of terrain suitable for a range of skiers. Due to its high elevation, Sunshine generally has the most reliable quanitity and quality of snow.
Lake Louise is the farthest of the Big 3 ski hills outside of Banff. The 57 km drive takes about 40 minutes but those that make the extra effort are rewarded with 1,700 hectares of skiable terrain, making it the second biggest ski resort in Canada, next to Whistler. Lake Louise is particularly family friendly and includes some deliciously long runs. With its close proximity to Calgary, Lake Louise can be quite crowded.
The closest ski resort to Banff is Mount Norquay. A mere 6 km away, a ten-minute drive, Norquay is only 77 hectares of skiable terrain making it a small fraction of the size of either of the other two. Nevertheless, for first-timers or beginners, and families with young kids who don't want to be hauling them over massive distances, Norquay can be a great place to get started. Often overlooked for being so small, Norquay can be a much more peaceful experience compared to the mayhem at Sunshine and Lake Louise.