Compiled by the Road Trip Alberta team
Last updated on September 1, 2019
This is a town that barely needs an introduction. Banff is world-renowned and well-loved, often earning top awards like Best of the World by National Geographic Traveller, and Traveler’s Choice by AFAR.
All accolades are well deserved. As Albertans, this is a town we visit often and know well. To our benefit, we can purposefully time our trips to avoid prime tourist season, but even if immersed in a crowd, Banff still shines as a once-in-a-lifetime destination. We all count ourselves blessed for having Banff National Park on our own doorstep.
This guide will give you a taste of all the things to do in Banff, Canada. There is a LOT. From hiking and canoeing in summer to skiing and tubing in winter, and spa-ing (is that a word?) to wildlife-spotting all year round, this resort town is truly a destination for all seasons.
About the Town
Banff is located on the traditional lands of Treaty 7 Territory including the Stoney Nakoda Nations of Wesley, Chiniki and Bearspaw; three Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy: the Pikani, Kainai, and Siksika; and the Tsuu T’ina of the Dene people. Banff is also shared with the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
Banff National Park was formed in 1885 after the discovery of the natural hot springs (the Cave and Basin) in Sulphur Mountain. This, of course, happened after centuries of indigenous people living in this region of the Rockies. Initially, policies of excluding indigenous peoples from National Parks were enforced but over the last 50 years, they were reversed. Parks Canada is now focused on building stronger, healthier relationships with indigenous people and the land.
Fun Fact: The town of Banff, Canada was originally named Banffshire after a Scottish district! The town was incorporated in 1990.
After the creation of the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Lousie, roads were built to make tourism easier. The completion of the Trans-Canada Highway was the final step in creating this fantastic world-class tourism spot.
Where is Banff?
The town of Banff is located on the Bow River, just off of Highway 1, and 127km west of Calgary. With an elevation of 1,383 metres, it is the highest town in Canada!
Banff is located smack-dab in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. The townsite is surrounded by Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Norquay, and Cascade Mountain. From downtown Banff, you’ll have access to hikes, natural hot springs, horseback riding, great shopping, and of course good food. You can find more Banff tourist information at the Banff Visitor Centre: 224 Banff Avenue.
Getting to Banff
There are no direct flights to Banff National Park – the closest airport is Calgary International, and Edmonton International Airport is also a reasonable option. You have several options to get to Banff from either of those locations. You can either rent a car and drive, use a bus or shuttle service, and there are even rideshare options. If you do either of the last two, you can also rent a car upon your arrival in Banff to get you around the area.
The most direct route would be to leave from Calgary, and we have outlined detailed options in this post on getting from Calgary to Banff. However, brief details, including for other originating cities, are also available below.
How far is Banff from Calgary? Banff is 127km west of Calgary, driving there can either be done via the Trans-Canada (Highway 1), or Highway 1A. Although the Trans-Canada route is slightly faster and takes approximately 1 ½ hours, the Highway 1A route is slightly more scenic and will take you through Cochrane and Morley for only 15 minutes extra.
How far is Banff from Edmonton? Banff is 389km from the Edmonton International Airport (which is just south of Edmonton, in Nisku). The fastest route from Edmonton is on the AB-2 South and Trans-Canada (Highway 1). This will take just under 4 hours.
How far is Banff from Vancouver? The drive from Vancouver to Banff is just over 9 hours long, or 870 kilometers. It is an extremely scenic route and you’ll want to take your time – stopping in Kamloops can help you split up the drive!
How far is Banff from Jasper? Banff is 288km from Jasper, and just over a three-hour drive if you don’t make any stops. But that is nearly an impossible assumption, as the Icefields Parkway is a very popular road trip and touted as one of the most scenic in the world. Plan for lots of time to make it, and also read up on our Banff to Jasper guide for important information about this trip.
If traveling to Banff from Vancouver, Rocky Mountaineer has some amazing options to choose from. There are no train services between Banff and either Calgary or Edmonton.
There are a few bus services with routes to Banff from either Edmonton or Calgary, however, Calgary to Banff by bus has the best options with the most direct routes.
Coming from Vancouver? The Rider Express has a drop off in Banff on its Vancouver to Calgary route which currently costs $122.87.
Note that Banff National Park requires a pass in order to enter. The current daily fees are:
- Adult: $9.80
- Senior: $8.30
- Youth (up to 17 yo): FREE
- Family/group (up to 7 people): $19.60
- Commercial group (per person): $8.30
The daily passes expire at 4 pm the following day. Alternatively, a Parks Canada “Discovery Pass” can be purchased and used for multiple days and re-entry for one full year. The fees are:
- Adult: $67.70
- Senior: $57.90
- Family/group: $136.40
The park gates are 100 kilometers on Highway 1 west of Calgary, and passes can be purchased there. Alternatively, they can also be purchased online in advance. For more information, visit the Parks Canada website.
Banff is a small town, and if you stay near the centre, you can access a lot by foot. But there is also so much to see in the surrounding area that you want to be sure to have your transportation options figured out in order to plan accordingly!
Hire a rental car: If you arrived into Banff via a shuttle or bus service and want to rent a car while you are there, there are a few rental companies in Banff to choose from:
- We recommend booking via RentalCars.com, to select the cheapest rate or to book with whichever company you prefer.
Parking: The Town of Banff has ample of both street and lot parking. Finding parking is easy to do with Banffparking.ca. Just select your vehicle type – car, bicycle or RV – then the map gives you the location of open spots.
Transit: Roam Transit will get you around the towns of Banff, Canmore, and Lake Louise. It’s important to know the differences between the routes you’re taking – some require local fare and some require regional fare. Check their website for current fares, routes, and schedules.
Shuttles: Don’t have access to a car but want to see the sites? Don’t stress! Most attractions have shuttles that make travel easy. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Banff Gondola: Take Roam Transit Route 1, or there is a shuttle from the Elk & Avenue hotel.
- Cave and Basin: Take Roam Transit Route 4 from downtown Banff, or a short walk from the river will also get you there.
- Lake Louise: Either Roam Transit Route 8X (fast) or 8S (scenic) will get you to Lake Louise.
- Moraine Lake: Parks Canada has daily shuttled from the Lake Louise Park and Ride to the lake!
Taxi: There are two taxi services available in town – Taxi Taxi and Banff Taxi. They have everything from cars to full-size sedans so most groups can be accommodated.
Scooters: If walking isn’t your ‘thing’, you can ride around Banff in style on a Vespa or an e-bike! There are rentals by the hour or full-day rentals. Scooters are available at Banff By Scooter.
Walking Paths: The Banff townsite itself is incredibly walkable. There are many walking pathways on the main streets so exploring downtown Banff is easy! If you want to learn more about the town, join a guided walking tour. Banff Walk does tours of the town, food tours, and hiking tours!
Where to Stay – Find a Hotel in Banff
The accommodations in Banff are plentiful and varied depending on how much you want to spend.
Luxury – We cannot mention hotels in Banff, Alberta without presenting the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs. For over 130 years, this luxury hotel has been the epitome of class and a must-see destination in Banff National Park. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type stay that is totally worth the experience. (We’ve stayed once, so can say that!) Fun Fact: Marilyn Monroe stayed at the Fairmont for eight days in 1953 while shooting the film River of No Return.
Mid-Range – Rubbing shoulders with celebrities at the Fairmont is pretty pricey so a more budget-friendly option is the Canalta Lodge. Recently renovated, we really enjoyed our stay amid its eclectic design. In a small town such as Banff, the underground parking feature that this property offers is a huge perk. Additionally, this property has been recognized as the best value in Banff.
Budget – Save your budget for exploring all that Banff has to offer and stay at the Banff International Hostel. It’s located on the beautiful property of the Banff Centre, has a fully equipped kitchen for all to use, free breakfast, and is highly rated.
Home away from home. There are lots of Airbnb options available in Banff. If you haven’t signed up for Airbnb yet, use this link to get a discount on your first stay!
Sights to See in Banff
The sights to see in Banff are endless and entirely up to what you want to see. Of course, there are numerous iconic nature spots to see, but Banff also has a unique history and lively arts scene that are notable in their own right. Here are some of our favourites:
The number of possible wildlife sightings make Banff National Park one of the most exciting parks to visit. Just walking in the townsite and on some popular trails can reveal caribou, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and even bears! With more than 50 species of mammals calling Banff and the surrounding Rocky Mountains home, you are bound to catch sight of at least one of the locals during your trip. We are always game for a good wildlife tour (and Banff has some really good ones!), and remember the best time to see wildlife is early or late in the day.
It also helps to know where certain animals frequent. For example, elk can usually be found in the valleys, while caribou and deer prefer the thicker woods and meadows. Alternatively, mountain goats and bighorn sheep are found on the higher mountain slopes. Grizzly bears and black bears are a bit harder to navigate as each forage for food depending on the season but usually prefer heavily wooded areas. If you are planning on hiking during your time in Banff, we highly suggest being safe and doing your research on proper wildlife viewing best practices.
Fairmont Banff Springs
A visit to Banff is not complete without at least setting eyes on the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, aka Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies”. There are multiple clearly marked lookout points that will help you get an Instagrammable shot of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the luxury mountain resort is also a destination in itself with a championship golf course, an award-winning spa, multiple dining experiences, art galleries, and shopping opportunities. Tip: challenge yourself to navigate through the tunnels that connect the conference center with the hotel!
The history of the Rocky Mountains is as tumultuous and jagged as the peaks that mark the land. Step into Canada’s oldest natural history museum or learn about the engaging cultural history of the area.
- Banff Park Museum
- Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
- Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum
- The Historic Luxton Museum
Bolstered by the talent that the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity bring to the area, Banff has a thriving art scene with multiple art galleries in the townsite to explore. We suggest doing a Gallery Hop to make sure you don’t miss any of them! Even if art galleries aren’t your thing, make sure you at least see one: the Carter-Ryan Gallery. This Banff art gallery has been a staple in Canmore and Banff since 2012 and showcases the work of acclaimed Indigenous artist, Jason Carter.
Prime photo spots
The iconic photo spots from Banff National Park are what put the park on the map and made it a must-see destination! Get your camera (or phone) ready for these views:
- The turquoise waters of Banff’s glacial lakes are likely what you will see first when googling ‘Banff’. The intense blue colour is a result of sunlight reflecting off of glacier silt suspended in the water, so the best time to see the stunning blue is when the glacier and subsequent silt has had a chance to melt and feed the lake. In terms of timeline, the months of July and August are when the flow of the meltwater levels are at their highest and thus when the lakes have the most intense colour. It should be no surprise that two of the most popular photo spots in Banff National Park are lakes, specifically Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Other best lakes in Banff National Park that are worth a ‘shot’ are Vermillion Lakes, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Maligne Lake. (Note that some of these are on the way from Banff to Jasper, so if you are making that trip as well, you can save them for that journey!)
- We have already mentioned the fantastic photo opportunities in and around the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, however, it is worth noting one specific lookout. Bow Falls can be found in front of the iconic hotel and lets you see the erosion caused by the Bow River on the valley throughout the years.
- The blue-green water of Lake Louise leading to a ‘V’ in the mountains is the most famous photo op in Banff National Park. Unfortunately, most people don’t know that there is also a beautiful luxury hotel called the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise just on the other side of the lens! Getting both the hotel and lake in on the photo? Magic.
- Cute and cozy but bursting with flavourful food, souvenir shops, and unique stores just begging to be explored, the Banff townsite offers great photo ops to capture your time in the Rockies.
Things to Do in Banff
For a small town, there are a monster number of things to do in Banff, Canada. Some of the best views in the country can be found in Banff National Park, and the outdoor activities are endless depending on the level of activity that you like!
It is no wonder that the Banff Gondola is the town’s #1 attraction. The glass-encased lift offers the ultimate view of the dynamic landscape of the Rockies as it ascends up Sulphur Mountain along the 1-mile line (a one-way trip takes approximately 8 minutes). At the top, take in the interpretive centre, walk along the scenic boardwalk, or dine at one of the two delicious restaurants found on the summit. It’s open year-round.
With a max capacity of 8 people, the biggest gondola can be found at Banff Sunshine Village! Conveniently, the Sunshine Village Access road is only 8 km west of Banff and they offer a daily shuttle service to and from the Banff townsite. You can ride the gondola up to the top Village terminal at 2,159 m and take in the views. From there you can take the 8 minutes Standish Sightseeing Chairlift to the Standish Viewing Deck at 2,385 m and gaze at the beauty before you.
Technically not a gondola, but still offering spectacular sightseeing opportunities, Mt. Norquay chairlift in the summer is the best seat in Banff National Park! With panoramic views that sometimes include Banff’s wildest locals (most notably black and grizzly bears), take a ride up to 7,000 ft elevation and dine at the historic Cliffhouse Bistro.
Other Rocky Mountain Gondolas that are also worth a visit include: Lake Louise Gondola and Kicking Horse Gondola (the highest gondola in the Rockies!).
Soak in Hot Springs
Marveled for their soothing and healing properties, visitors have been flocking to the multiple hot springs found on Sulphur Mountain to “take the waters” for over 100 years.
Banff Upper Hot Springs is the highest operating hot spring in Canada and is the only one open to the public for bathing in Banff National Park. The water is geothermal heated and bubbles to the surface from a fracture in Sulphur Mountain. The temperature is dependent on the season and varies between 47°C (116°F)- 27°C (81°F). Conveniently, the Banff Upper Hot Springs facility has towels and lockers you can rent, plus a cafe! Aim to arrive at the hot springs first thing in the morning for the most relaxing experience.
Hike, hike, hike (and maybe bike)
The hiking opportunities in and around Banff are plentiful, and world-class. Parks Canada has a great resource to find out what trails there are in the park along with the distance and how strenuous each trail is.
A few of our favourite hikes include:
- Johnston Canyon is a popular and easy hike where you can see spectacular views of either the lower or upper falls depending on the distance you want to trek. Tip: We recommend following the trail past the upper falls viewpoint and see the Ink Pot anomaly! These Ink Pots are found in a meadow past the falls and are the result of water bubbling from deep below the Earth’s surface.
- For a moderate and less busy hike, Tunnel Mountain is a quick 2-hour hike that is accessible from downtown Banff. The trail switchbacks to a low summit, offering amazing views of the town, Bow Valley, and Mount Rundle along the way.
- For an adrenaline-pumping, unique hiking opportunity, Via Ferrata is an assisted climbing experience along four routes on the cliffs of Mt Norquay. This jaw-dropping hike crosses suspension bridges and climbs ladders while taking in rarely seen views of Banff. Don’t fret though, you are securely fastened in a harness attached to the mountain at all times and led by a certified guide.
Also, if you are in the mood for a different perspective, most Banff hiking trails are also great for bike riding!
For the ultimate list of Banff hikes, check out our Guide to the Best Hikes in Banff!
Have we mentioned how much we love the lakes in Banff? More than just a backdrop for a picture, we recommend getting out on the water on a canoe, kayak or paddleboard! There are even some fun guided tours available that we have added to our itinerary the next time we are in Banff.
Are you a pro and looking to head to the waters unguided? Then you can also rent kayaks, canoes, or paddleboards that come fully equipped for your adventure.
Cave and Basin Tour
As the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site has an extraordinary Discovery Tour that delves into the history of the hot springs and how the various visitors from First Nations people over a millenia ago to railway workers in the 19th century used the hot springs and subsequently shaped the area of Banff National Park into what it is today. To get a full perspective of this unique spot, we highly recommend taking the tour, but there are also options to explore the site by yourself at your own pace. Note that swimming is not allowed seeing the basin is a museum.
Hit the Slopes
One of the most popular things to do in Banff National Park during the winter months is shred some pow on the “Big Three”. The Big Three includes the three ski resorts found in Banff National Park: Banff Sunshine, the Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt. Norquay.
Conveniently, through SkiBig3, you are able to buy one lift ticket and have access to all three resorts. Between the three resorts, the Banff ski season runs from November all the way until May.
Fun fact: the Banff resorts have the longest non-glacial ski season in North America!
Tired of strapping on skis or a snowboard but still want to play in the snow? Mt Norquay also offers a tubing slope which is fun for all ages!
Take a Skate
Skating in Banff National Park is one of the most popular and picturesque winter activities to partake in. Keep in mind that Parks Canada does not monitor these locations for safety so you will be skating at your own risk. This is a helpful list of popular locations to skate and also gives some safety tips.
Snowshoe or Cross-Country Ski
These quintessential winter activities hit their prime late in the year and extend to early spring. Keep in mind, however, that this coincides with avalanche season. Before even thinking about hitting the trails, check in with local conditions and these tips to prepare yourself.
If conditions are favourable, then don’t hesitate to get out there! Winter walking and skiing can take you to places and views that you wouldn’t anticipate. There are plenty of trails for you to partake on your own, but also consider a guided tour to an elevated place like Sunshine Village where the views will be unparalleled.
If nature is not your jam, then Banff also offers some great pampering experiences that don’t require too much strenuous activity.
Enjoy a Spa Day
The pampering options in Banff are abundant! If the ultimate relaxing experience is what you are looking for, the best place to start is the Willow Stream Spa located at the Fairmont Banff Springs. For a more central option, Mountain Spa is right in downtown Banff and has a rooftop terrace with 360-degree views of the Rockies. If you prefer your pampering with a side of adventure, make your way 14km into the backcountry to visit the sauna at Shadow Lake Lodge!
Explore the Townsite
For a small town, the Banff townsite has a plethora of shopping opportunities for all different price points. From clothing to candy and all the way from art galleries to tacky souvenirs, shopping is a fun thing to do in Banff National Park in any season.
Food to Eat
Banff is a foodie paradise with a little something for everyone, from fine dining to classic Canadian comfort food.
- The best fine dining in Banff (in our humble opinion) is found at Three Ravens. Tucked away in the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Three Ravens has a seasonal menu that utilizes fresh, sustainable, and local ingredients. The creativity and unique flavour combinations is a must experience for any foodie coming to Banff. There’s a good reason why it is consistently one of Banff’s top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor.
- Perched on Sulphur Mountain, Sky Bistro is a fantastic cherry on the top of your Banff Gondola ride! Beyond the obviously exceptional views, the food is top-notch. However, perhaps the most notable feature of Sky Bistro is outside at the Instagrammable rooftop fire pits where you can roast marshmallows and kilometer-long boardwalk.
- Serving exceptional vegetarian and vegan fare, Nourish Bistro may be plant-based but their food is a favourite in Banff! Nourish Bistro’s food is extremely thoughtful and satisfying while also sustainable, local, seasonal, GMO-free and served in an intimate and unique setting. Located two blocks off Banff Ave, we urge you to step outside your comfort zone and give it a try.
- As the tagline for Grizzly House Banff says, it’s “for lovers & hedonists”. Many are taken aback by how much of a time warp stepping into this restaurant is but they have been an institution in Banff since 1967! Famous for their fondue and sizzling rock selections and one-of-a-kind protein choices (anyone for rattlesnake?) the decor may be dated but the experience is a must-try!
- Being featured on the Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here” put Bear Street Tavern on the map. But regular Banff visitors and locals already knew where to go to find the best pizza in the Rockies. With a relaxed atmosphere and great food, Bear Street Tavern is the perfect spot to recharge after a day of hiking. Tip: pair your pizza with a bear-sized cocktail!
- Known for its legendary family breakfast, Melissa’s Missteak has been an iconic restaurant in Banff for over 40 years. The unique building started off as a restaurant and tavern to serve guests of the Homestead Hotel in the 1920’s. The restaurant now is known for their breakfast but they also serve a mean steak from top of the line Alberta beef.
Bonus: A trip to Banff is not complete without satisfying your sweet tooth with a treat (or two) from the Banff Candy Store. We also recommend trying a famous Canadian beaver tail during your visit!
In the Area
People lump Banff and Lake Louise together so commonly that you would think they are only a street apart. Alas, there are almost 60 km apart, but don’t let that stop you.
This hamlet is famous for its turquoise lake fed by a glacier against a backdrop of jagged peaks and anchored by a large but elegant chateau. In summer, the colour of the lake causes sheer awe, but when it’s frozen in winter, the area becomes a pure snowy playground. In summer, canoe the lake or hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House for bird’s-eye views. In winter, you can also enjoy one of the largest ski resorts in North America. While it can all be taken in via a day trip, at least one night at the Chateau Lake Louise will prove a memorable one.
Just 20 minutes down the highway from Banff is Canmore! This adventure-filled town is full of art, food, culture and the great outdoors. Visit the Canmore Nordic Centre in all seasons for world-class skiing, mountain biking and more. Another great adventure from Canmore is Mount Yamnuska. This large picturesque mountain on the edge of the Rockies is a popular (but difficult) hiking spot. Stay overnight at one of the Canmore hotels to give you more time to explore.
Kananaskis Nordic Spa
Another popular stop is the Kananaskis Nordic Spa, the first of its kind in Alberta. This Nordic Spa has a more relaxed atmosphere than other similar facilities and its bistro is licensed. Follow along the spa’s five-step relaxation process: hot, warm, cold, rest and repeat!
A beautiful stretch of highway between Banff and Jasper, the 288km road has plenty of sight-seeing opportunities and is often ranked one of the most breathtaking road trips in the world. It’s important to plan your day carefully, as there are plenty of stops to make along the way. We’ve done it for you in our Banff to Jasper guide!
You may start your trip here by flying into the Calgary International Airport, and “Cowtown” is definitely worth some of your time. Being the largest city in Alberta, it offers many activities for many tastes! Explore the city’s growing foodie and brewery scene, experience local art projects, and take in the brand new National Music Centre or the award-winning Public Library. We’ve covered all the options for you in our guide of things to do in Calgary.
ALSO, don’t forget that while you’re on the road, you can download our FREE Road Trip Alberta bingo cards, to make it just that much more fun!