The town of Banff, Alberta gets a lot of love and attention from local Canadian and international tourists alike, and once you get a look at the turquoise blue lake waters and perfectly snow-peaked mountain ranges it’s easy to see why. The compact town fits inside Banff National Park and, unsurprisingly, comes with many rules and regulations as to who and what can reside within the city limits. Residents can only call Banff home if they work in the town, which means that there is a dearth of vacation homes, helping to ensure the natural splendor remains pristine.
Located about a ninety-minute drive west of Calgary, the town of Banff was designed with tourism in mind. It was first settled shortly after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the Bow Valley when a handful of railway workers discovered a natural hot spring off the side of Sulphur Mountain. This resulted in the government of Canada promoting the region as a premium spa destination as a way to support the new railway project; the area was first dubbed “Rocky Mountain Park” and marked the beginning of Canada’s network of national parks.
The resort town is still one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations thanks to its natural brilliance but there’s so much more to discover beyond the lakes and mountains (although we won’t lie, the lakes and mountains are quite spectacular). Here are all the best spots to explore in Banff — from amazing views to the best place to grab a martini and unwind in style.
Where to stay
Banff was developed around the transcontinental railway, so if you’re looking for a historic property to drop your bags and soak in the sights the way the town first intended you’ll want to check into the stunning Fairmont Banff Springs. The luxurious mountain resort is perched in the middle of the Rocky Mountains just outside of the main Banff Avenue shopping and dining district (although you can easily walk to town or take a $10 cab). The châteauesque property first opened its doors in 1888 and is one of the earliest examples of a Canadian grand railway hotel, complete with fossil-filled carved Tyndall limestone, stunning stained glasswork and plenty of nooks and crannies for curling up with a good book and a strong martini.
If you’re in search of more outdoorsy-focused accommodations right in the heart of the city, you’ll want to look to the boutique hotels tucked along Banff Avenue. The cozy Elk + Avenue is set in the very center of town, which makes it ideal for travelers looking to explore the bar and restaurant scene from their backyard. There’s also the Mount Royal Hotel further down Banff Avenue, which offers a slightly more sophisticated take on the wilderness boutique hotel, complete with moody 1920s-inspired decor in the lounge area and into the small but well-appointed guest rooms.
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What to do
Whether you consider yourself an outdoorsy person or not so much, it’s your moral imperative to get out and explore some of the natural beauty that has given Banff its reputation. Even the most hardened or cynical of travelers can’t deny the expansive beauty of the Rocky Mountain skyline and sparkling turquoise blue waters. Beginners looking for a nature hike that can be done in boat shoes or oxfords should consider checking out the Bow Falls Trail. This is easily the best vantage point of Banff’s best natural attractions for the least amount of effort. If you begin at the Bow River Bridge and follow the clearly marked trails to the Bow Falls it’ll only take you between 20 to 25 minutes (or longer if you stop to take photos, which you will). The total hike is just 1.2 kilometers (about 0.75 miles) with 10 miles of elevation gain.
Looking for a slightly more challenging incline? Head to Tunnel Mountain. The first thing you’ll want to note about Tunnel Mountain is that there is no actual tunnel running through the mountain. In fact, you’ll know if your tour guide or hotel bellhop is messing with you if they ask you whether you’re planning to hike through the tunnel while in town. The mountain was named in the 1880s when Canadian Pacific Railway surveyors were considering blasting a tunnel through the mountain to continue the tracks to the Bow Valley. Despite the fact that the tracks wound up going around the mountain rather than through it, the name has stuck to this day, and although you can’t hike through the mountain, you can hike up the mountain. The 2.8-mile out-and-back trail is considered moderately challenging and should take the average person about ninety minutes to two hours to complete. Here you’ll find sweeping views of the town of Banff below as well as unobstructed views of the Rocky Mountain skyline.
Located just ten minutes outside of the main drag, a visit to Lake Minnewanka is another great way to take in the natural splendor of the area. The stunning glacial lake offers those postcard-perfect turquoise blue waters as well as plenty of exploration options suitable for all fitness levels and interests. The lake is a popular spot for visitors to stroll around the perimeter on foot while taking in the sights and sounds, but there are also guided boating tours and even scuba diving experiences that allow curious travelers to get a look at the infamous sunken city that lies below the water’s surface.
If you’re keen to experience Banff the way well-off travelers would have in the early twentieth century, you’ll want to book a ride with Open Top Touring. The custom-made vehicles were designed to look exactly like the tour busses used in the 1920s and ‘30s to transport wealthy travelers between the best vantage points in the city — and it’s anything but gimmicky. The skyblue tour busses are roofless, which grants travelers 360-degree views of the mountain tops and stunning skylines. The hour-long bus ride will help you get acquainted with the city sights the same way the very first tourists did in Banff over a century ago.
Before you tuck in for the day, it’s worth checking out some of the small but mighty museums in the city. The west coast of Canada has made leaps and bounds in truth and reconciliation while aiming to honor its Indegenous population, and the Buffalo Nations Museum on Birch Avenue is a great way for travelers to educate themselves and pay respects to Treaty 7 territory and its people. Here you’ll find authentic artifacts and stories directly from the Canadian First Nations, including quillwork, regalia, tipis and many other pieces of history on display for the public to learn from.
Where to eat and drink
Banff is in a unique position as both a century-old resort town and national park, meaning that its food and drink scene is a combination of contemporary, hyper-local and sustainable, and well-versed in the whims of travelers from around the world. This combination means that the city is ripe with really good restaurants and has an even better bar scene.
You’ll want to start the day grabbing a coffee at Good Earth Coffeehouse. The family-owned coffee shop first opened its doors in 1991 and has since expanded to fifty location across Canada — but the ethically-sourced coffee and views of the mountainscape from the outdoor patio make it worth your while before heading out to explore. The cafe also has decadent housemade pastries and fresh smoothies if you need an extra pep in your step.
For lunch, head to the new Brazen restaurant tucked into the Mount Royal Hotel. This contemporary property was loosely inspired by the mountaineers and figureheads who made Banff what it is today and the hearty pub menu is hard to beat, but note that the robust cocktail menu can easily eat away the entire afternoon if you’re not careful. If you’re into theatrics we suggest trying the Garden Tea Party or the Smokin’ Warden which are served tableside with condiments like dry ice and cotton candy. Looking for something a little more toned down or low ABV? Brazen also has a rotating beer menu with local brews from Banff and neighboring Canmore.
The Sky Bistro was rated one of the top restaurants in all of Banff and it’s easy to see why. The mountainside restaurant requires taking the Banff Gondola all the way to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you’ll be greeted by panoramic views from 7,510 feet in the air. Chef Scott Hergott carefully curates the high-end Canadian-inspired tasting menu which boasts hyper-local ingredients including Arctic Char, Certified Angus Beef Tenderloin and Bison as well as a selection of local wines. We suggest trying the Hee-Hee-Tel-Kin Red Blend from Indigenous World Winery; the only 100% Indigenous-owned vineyard in the country. You’ll also want to keep in mind that the tables with the best views of the mountainscape are reserved for parties of two, so this restaurant is best for date night if you’re partial to scoring a window seat.
If you’re looking for a night cap, you’ll want to head to Rundle Bar at the Fairmont Banff Springs. The opulent off-lobby bar offers sweeping views of the mountains below and a rotating menu of high-end liquor and champagne. Note that the exterior terrace isn’t serviced year-round but you can still grab a drink inside and bring it onto the terrace to enjoy the views and the mountain breeze. Looking for a more casual spot for sips? Check out Banff Ave Brewing Co. The two-story brewpub offers ample space to spread out and kick back with friends over a pint (or a growler) or local beer and bar snacks.
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