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Banff, Canada – A Rocky Mountain Highlight
Here’s a quick and easy guide to the best things to do in Banff, Canada. This gorgeous pine-scented town and national park in the Canadian Rockies has it all: wildlife, outdoor adventure, cultural attractions and breathtaking views so you’ll never run out of activities.
Where is Banff?
Banff is located in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta in Western Canada. (No provincial sales tax here! Hurrah!), Banff is 138 km (85 miles) west of Calgary, just an hour and a half drive away.
Is Banff Worth it?
You bet. There are hot springs to soak in, cable cars to ride up and fudge stores to destroy your diet in. There are lakes to cruise, canyons to visit and scenic road trips to take.
From family vacations and workshops at the Banff Centre of Arts and Creativity to romantic stays with my husband at the historic Banff Springs Hotel, I’ve seen Banff National Park from just about every angle.
Here are my top recommendations for some fantastic Banff activities and attractions to make your trip unforgettable.
Getting around Banff
If you want to pack a lot of sightseeing into one day, a Hop-on-hop-off day bus pass will get you around the top places to visit in Banff National Park including Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise and the Lake Louise Gondola. Prices from $60.
Book tickets for a Banff Hop-on-hop-off bus here.
Some of Banff’s local attractions are too far for comfortable walking, but there is also a bus system, Roam Bus, that makes it easy to get around.
- Route 1 goes to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola and the Upper Hot Springs.
- You can take the Roam Bus Route 6 to Lake Minnewanka – a 25-minute ride. Service on the 6 Route is seasonal and starts mid May.
- Roam Bus Route 9 takes you to Johnston Canyon.
- The 8, 8X, and 8S travel to Lake Louise from Banff. The 8 runs year round while the 8X and 8S are summer seasonal.
Things to Do in Banff
1. Ride the Banff Gondola Up Sulphur Mountain
Heading up Sulphur Mountain is one of the best things to do in Banff because of the panoramic views. An eight-minute ride on the Banff Gondola whisks you up to the top.
If you’re extremely energetic you can hike up this nearly 8,000-foot-high mountain but it’s a heck of a climb. I’ve hiked down Sulphur Mountain and that was enough for me.
What to do on Sulphur Mountain
Dine: There are two restaurants on Sulphur Mountain. The Sky Bistro offers Canadian cuisine focusing on regionally-sourced ingredients, while the market-style Northern Lights restaurant is more casual.
Visit the Interpretive Centre: To get a deeper appreciation of the mountain scenery, visit the state-of-the-art Above Banff Interpretive Centre.
Walk the Boardwalk: Sulphur Mountain has a fabulous walkway up top, with staggering views of the Bow Valley and surrounding mountain ranges.
Fly like an eagle: Along with your Banff Gondola ticket, you will get admission to the Above Banff Theatre, a multi-sensory film shot from the soaring angle of a bald eagle. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to fly, this is your chance.
The Boardwalk, also called the Banff Skywalk, is an easy 1-kilometre (.6-mile) interpretive trail that takes you to points of interest such as the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site and a weather observatory that dates back to 1903.
How to get to Sulphur Mountain from Banff
The Banff Gondola base is at the edge of town past Banff Upper Hot Springs. To get to the gondola from downtown Banff drive or take the Route 1 Roam Bus direction Sulphur Mountain.
Book Your Banff Gondola Ticket in Advance here.
2. Explore Banff Town
Banff is a walkable town with a fun alpine feel. The main street is Banff Avenue and it’s lined with restaurants, candy stores and shops selling everything from souvenir to sportswear.
My favourite stroll is the Bow River Trail, a paved path along the water, just a couple of blocks west of Banff Avenue.
If you cross the bridge and head left you’ll be on your way to Bow Falls and the historic Banff Springs Hotel, a majestic landmark that adds a blast of grandeur to this outdoorsy mountain town.
3. Don’t Miss the Historic Banff Springs Hotel
One of the most recognizable Banff landmarks, this 5-star luxury hotel first opened in 1888, and was built to bring in the wealthy tourists who traveled by train through the Canadian Rockies.
Rebuilt in 1928, the Banff Springs is constructed from rich Rundle limestone and looks like a grand chateau.
Inside the ‘Castle of the Rockies’ you’ll find boutiques, eateries and lovely views of the Bow Valley from its terrace. You can even do a tasting tour in the hotel that comes complete with storytelling and a guided tour.
Better yet, check in for a romantic luxury stay.
Check out prices and availability for the Fairmont Banff Springs here.
4. Get an Eyeful of Bow Falls
Okay, so it’s not Niagara Falls but visiting Bow Falls is still one of the top things to do in Banff and it’s easy to get to as it’s located within the town.
If you’re walking, you can follow the Bow Falls Trail from the south side of the Bow Bridge, a 1.2 km walk along the Bow River. There is some uphill walking, and it takes about 25 minutes.
Not far from the Banff Springs Hotel, Bow Falls is short, wide and the water twists and churns impressively as it plunges into the river. You get a real sense of how glaciers carved out the sweeping Bow Valley here.
5. Take a Boat Tour of Lake Minnewanka
Just a 15-minute drive from town, Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park, and its serene blue beauty gives you a taste of the true rugged wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains
Carved out by an ancient glacier, the lake is 21 km (13 miles) long and 466 feet deep. It was known as Lake of the Spirits by the indigenous people who camped on its shores as much as 13,000 years ago.
Hour-long boat tours take you into some remote alpine scenery towards Devil’s Gap at the east end of the lake, with commentary on the long history of the area.
Check availability for a Lake Minnewanka Cruise here. Prices from $72.
Other things to do at Lake Minnewanka include kayaking, canoeing, hiking or cycling on the Lake Minnewanka Trail.
6. Wildlife Spotting
Seeing wildlife is a highlight of a trip to Banff National Park, though in all honesty I could do without the mosquitoes or aggressive elk. (FYI, no elk has ever actually threatened me, but I can see the repressed anger in their narrowed who-do-you-think-you-are eyes. Especially during mating season.)
Just because I am not best friends with the elk does NOT mean I don’t like animals. What a thrill to catch the rare sight of a grizzly bear (from a distance) or majestic white mountain goats standing improbably on a sheer mountain face.
Other animals in the park include bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions (though you’re unlikely to spot one of these elusive creatures), wolves, marmots and eagles – and let’s not forget the ever-present chipmunks and squirrels.
Altogether, wildlife spotting in Banff National Park can be a feast for the eyes. It’s an unpredictable pleasure though and you never know what you’ll see. But remember – these are wild animals. Do not feed them, approach them or tease them.
Wildlife Tours in Banff
To go animal spotting you can sign up for an Evening Wildlife Safari Guided Tour by bus and on foot. Prices from $61.
Tour a Grizzly Bear Refuge
Fascinated by grizzlies? Check out this full-day Grizzly Bear Refuge Tour with lunch that leaves from Banff and goes to Yosemite National Park.
7. Soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs
A visit to the Upper Hot Springs near the base of Sulphur Mountain (at the end of Mountain Avenue) is an all-natural, inexpensive way to soak in mineral-rich water in a stunning mountain setting.
Bonus: The Upper Hot Springs are open year round so you can warm up after skiing or unwind after a day of hiking.
The History of Banff Hot Springs
The hot springs in Banff were found in 1883 by railroad workers. Their discovery boosted Banff’s tourism enormously. Today, a dip in the hot springs is seen as a fun family-friendly activity, but back in the mid 1800s, they were much more important.
The thermal springs were considered very curative, as hot springs still are in Europe today, and were hugely popular with health-seeking leisure travellers.
Cost: A visit to the Upper Hot Springs is one of the most affordable things to do in Banff at $9.25 for adults and $8 for youth.
Expect lineups, and while facilities are not upscale – more of the public swimming pool variety – the hot steaming water is divine. If you go early in the morning, you’ll avoid the crowds. For more information visit their website.
Hours for Banff hot springs: Opening hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
What do you need to take to the hot springs? A bathing suit, deck shoes, a towel. Forgot your swimsuit? No problem. You can also rent a bathing suit for a bargain $2, as well as a towel for $2.
How to get to the Upper Hot Springs from Banff
Located up the mountain from the centre of town, it’s too far to walk, but you can take the Route 1 Roam Bus towards Sulphur Mountain.
8. Visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Now that you have hot springs on your mind, you can visit the original hot springs at the Cave and Basin National Historic site, one of Banff’s most historic points of interest.
While the Indigenous people have known about the hot springs for at least 10,000 years, it was when workers from the railroad found this steamy cave of thermal springs that the outside world began to take notice.
You can no longer swim here, but it’s worth a visit for its connection to the past, and for the otherworldly atmosphere as you explore the cave and pool. Discovery tours are free with admission.
One of the more unique things to do in Banff is to take a family-friendly evening lantern tour that run Saturdays during the summer season. See more activities on their website.
9. Visit the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
The Whyte Museum is a great way to learn about mountain culture. From art exhibitions to historical displays of early explorers and mountain climbers, the museum is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the heritage of the Rocky Mountains.
The museum is super central, located in the park along the Bow River. Address: 111 Bear Street, Banff, Alberta T1L 1A3. Adult admission $10.
10. Enjoy the Dramatic Views at Johnston Canyon
The dramatic drops, plunging falls and steep cliffs of Johnston Canyon make a trip here one of the most scenic things to do in Banff National Park.
The well-maintained walkways, paths and viewpoints provide accessibility for a wide range of abilities. In winter, you can even try ice walking through the frozen canyon.
How far is Johnston Canyon from Banff?
The Canyon is about a 30-minute drive from Banff along the Bow Valley Parkway.
11. Take a Day Trip to Lake Louise
The 40-minute drive from Banff is worth it. Lake Louise is one of the most visited sights in Banff National Park and is one of those postcard perfect scenes that doesn’t seem real.
The lake is a startling green blue and has caused more than one unbelieving tourist to ask their guide if ‘they paint the bottom of the lake to make it that turquoise colour.’
Rest assured, it’s authentic Canadian nature at its best and a day trip here is one of the best things to do in Banff in summer. Actually, as it’s a world-class ski resort, it’s fantastic in the winter, too.
Activities at Lake Louise include visiting the very grand Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, hiking around the lake, canoeing, kayaking or doing a historic hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
12. Visit Moraine Lake
Beautiful Moraine Lake is an Instagram celebrity. Just over 45 km (30 miles) from Banff, this pristine turquoise lake is fed by ancient glaciers and is so scenic it’s featured in a million calendars, postcards and even on the old Canadian $20 bill.
One of the top places to visit in Banff National Park, Moraine Lake is only 14 km (9 miles) from Lake Louise, and set in the majestic Valley of the Ten Peaks.
The Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail is a popular walk because of its relatively flat elevation, while the short Rockpile Trail offers jaw-dropping views of pines, peaks and glassy water.
Visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake with a half day tour from Banff. Check prices and availability here.
13. Drive the Scenic Icefields Parkway
Many people travel the 232 km-long (144 mile) Icefields Valley Parkway en route from Banff to Jasper, but you can visit much of this dramatic stretch of the Canadian Rockies on a day trip.
The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier are the main draws on the Parkway. Located in Jasper National Park, the Columbia Icefield is 195 km from Banff, a 2.5 to 3-hour drive, or you can take a day tour from Banff.
Two of the main activities here are taking an Ice Explorer Tour on a specially designed ice-terrain vehicle, and visiting the Skywalk, a glass walkway that curves out over the side of the mountain.
The Columbia Icefield is one of the top attractions in the Rockies, so it’s best to buy your ticket beforehand. You can get a double ticket for both an Ice Explorer Tour and doing the Skywalk, or separately.
Book a Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure: Ice Explorer & Skywalk ticket here.
14. Visit Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake may be the best photo op in all of Banff National Park. Like Lake Louise, Peyto Lake is one of those brilliant turquoise colours that seems too vivid to be real.
Here’s why the water is so blue: the heavy weight of receding glaciers grind rock into rock flour (don’t bake with it!), the flour refracts the light and boom, you have wonderful neon nature.
The lookout at Peyto Lake is right off the Icefields Parkway, 40 km north of Lake Louise, and gives you a bird’s eye view.
15. Relax at the Willow Stream Spa
The Willow Stream Spa in the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is one of Canada’s top spas. Its centrepiece soaking pool is infused with mineral salts from Europe, it has an outdoor whirlpool and stellar views of the Bow Valley.
To connect with the Western Canada environment consider a treatment with a local edge, such as a Rose Scrub with rose-flower oil from the interior of British Columbia or a Majestic Blue Body Wrap with mountain lavender. It’s one of the most relaxing Banff activities you can do.
16. Visit the Banff Centre of Arts and Creativity
A hub for musicians, writers, artists and creative brainiacs from around the world, the Banff Centre is its own cultural universe part way up Tunnel Mountain. It hosts a constant stream of workshops, conferences and events.
You can walk up from town, it takes about 20 minutes, but be warned, it’s an uphill climb so you may prefer to drive. Covering 42 acres altogether, this sprawling woodsy ‘campus’ has a couple of restaurants, an art gallery and arts theatre.
I’ve done workshops at the Banff Centre in both painting and writing, and the atmosphere is international and eclectic. If you’re visiting Banff, it’s well worth the trek or drive to see a film, play, art show or concert. You can check out the latest events here.
Address: The Banff Centre, 107 Tunnel Mountain Drive. Banff, Canada T1L 1H5
What to Do and See at the Banff Centre
- The Walter Phillips Gallery is the best place in Banff to see contemporary art shows and the latest in alternative art practices.
- The Three Ravens Restaurant & Bar offers high-end dining featuring seasonal dishes, while the Mclab Bistro on the first floor of the Kinnear Centre is much more laidback.
- See a show or a concert at the Eric Harvie Theatre.
17. Check out the Ski Resorts in Winter or Summer
Three of Canada’s best ski resorts are located near Banff townsite: Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay and Lake Louise.
They’re all great ski resorts, but I’m partial to Lake Louise because my favourite ski moment of all time was doing a looong green run there, surrounded by Douglas firs, fresh air and tranquility. Bliss, I say. Bliss. (People who ski well will likely have different top ski moments of all time.)
In summer the three big ski resorts are great hiking destinations. Think alpine meadows bursting with wild rose, Indian paintbrush, bronze bells and Labrador tea, and – possibly – the odd bear.
You can check out views of Mount Rundle from a chairlift on Mount Norquay, the closest ski resort to Banff town.
You can also visit Sunshine Meadows at Sunshine Village; or watch out for grizzlies from the summer gondola at Lake Louise.
18. Climb the Via Ferrata on Mount Norquay
If your idea of Banff sightseeing includes outdoor adventure, check out the Via Ferrata.
The Via Ferrata is an assisted mountain climb on Mount Norquay that even inexperienced hikers can do. Ever since I tried the Via Ferrata at Montmorency Falls in Quebec, I’ve been a fan of these guided hike, climb, tour and adventure combos.
The Explorer Route is a 2.5 hour adventure while the more ambitious Ridgewalker is 4 hours.
Participants are harnessed to a steel cable pathway for safety and tours are led by an ACMG-certified guide. The experience involves climbing, scrambling, ladders, suspension bridges, and stunning views away from the crowds.
You can get more info or book the Norquay Via Ferrata experience here.
19. Hike Up Tunnel Mountain Trail in Banff Town
An easy hike located right in town, the Tunnel Mountain walk takes about 30 minutes. It’s not as high as Sulphur Mountain and it’s more than a hike, it’s an obsession.
A number of locals consider a hike up Tunnel Mountain a must-do daily Banff activity. They do it before breakfast. They run up. It’s a sickness.
While it will still make you out of breath – it’s a mountain after all – the views at the top, and the sense of accomplishment (you just climbed a mountain!) are worth the workout.
You’ll find the Tunnel Mountain trailhead on Tunnel Mountain Drive.
20. Hike in Banff National Park
Still wondering what to do in Banff? Hike more! Alpine meadows, waterfalls, pristine blue lakes and amazing views – exploring nature here is an outdoor lover’s delight.
There are so many great hikes in the area that it’s impossible to name them all, but Parks Canada has an extensive list. Hiking is one of the best things to do in Banff National Park when it comes to summer activities. Here are a few of the best:
- Another local hike on the easy scale is the one hour 3-km (2-mile) hike at Johnson Lake off Lake Minnewanka Road.
- Or try the 40-minute Fenland Trail, a 2.1 km interpretive trail off Mount Norquay Road.
- More difficult is the Healy Pass hike from Sunshine Village parking lot behind the gondola station, which takes 6 to 7 hours.
- A beautifully scenic hike is the 12-km (7.5-mile) hike to Helen Lake. The trailhead starts from the Columbia Icefield Parkway outside Banff. It’s steep at first, then you reach an alpine meadow. It’s the most ambitious, and probably the most rewarding hike I ever did in Banff.
If you’re an inexperienced hiker, it’s best to go up with a guide. Check out these Signature Guided Hikes for a selection of day hikes.
For something really exciting, consider a 90-minute Rocky Mountains Helicopter and Exploration Hike to the Twin Falls Waterfall.
Banff Hotels – Where to Stay
Banff has a lot of hotels and motels but they fill up fast, especially in high season.
There is a wide range of accommodation types, from grand luxury to basic hostels. In fact, the YWCA and the most luxe hotel of all, the Fairmont Banff Springs are practically next door to each other on Spray Avenue.
Here’s a quick rundown of where to stay in Banff, divided by area.
Hotels on Banff Avenue
When you drive into Banff, you’ll probably come in along Banff Avenue. On the long stretch before reaching the town centre, you’ll find rows and rows of mid-range motels. It’s convenient if you’re traveling by car, and often some of the best value accommodation is here.
I find a lot of the motels pretty similar, but a few options are the Banff Aspen Lodge, the long-standing Banff Ptarmigan Inn or the Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa.
I like some of the smaller hotels right downtown, the closer to the Bow River the better. These are good options if you’re traveling by public transportation. The Bow View Lodge has a great location in the park, clean basic accommodation, balconies and a low-key vibe.
I’ve also stayed at the Banff Park Lodge on occasion – it’s the largest hotel in the downtown area.
Across the Bow River – The Fairmont Banff Springs
The Fairmont Banff Springs is Canada’s ‘Castle in the Rockies,’ a perennial favourite if you want to bring back the good old days of genteel train travel.
It’s pricy but it sells out, especially in high season, so book early. Check prices and availability here. Address: Fairmont Banff Springs, 405 Spray Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1J4
On Tunnel Mountain – Buffalo Mountain Lodge
If you’re traveling by car and want to stay apart from the downtown hustle, the Buffalo Mountain Lodge on Tunnel Mountain is a hidden gem in the rustic luxury department. It’s very peaceful and rooms have their own wood-burning fireplaces.
The dining room has an excellent curated wine list, a menu that includes roasted wild game, root vegetables and local berries, and a design that focuses on natural materials such as leather and granite.
Check prices and availability for the Buffalo Mountain Lodge here. Address: Buffalo Mountain Lodge, 700 Tunnel Mountain Rd, Banff, AB.
Sulphur Mountain – The Rimrock Resort Hotel
The views alone are enough to recommend it, but the Rimrock Resort Hotel also offers convenient access to the Upper Hot Springs and the Banff Gondola. When it comes to luxury, the Rimrock Hotel is second only to the Fairmont Banff Springs. The 4.5-star hotel has 343 rooms and is perched on the edge of Sulphur Mountain like an elegant hawk.
Its lounges have a dark wood clubby feel, its Primrose Dining Room offers casual sophistication and the hotel has a full-service spa. It’s a fair walk to town, but you can take the Roam Bus.
Address: The Rimrock Resort Hotel, 300 Mountain Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1J2
You will be forgiven for going off your diet in Banff. The main street is prime candy and fudge store territory. Do not miss Naked Bear Claws, which are caramel and cashews or, if you insist on a well-balanced meal, opt for a caramel apple covered in peanuts because then you get protein and pectin along with your million grams of sugar.
Aside from the fudge stores? The Grizzly House is a picturesque tourist stop on the main drag, but if you want a serious steak like a Dry Aged Benchmark Farms porterhouse splurge at 1888 Chop House at the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Magpie & Stump The first time I went to Magpie & Stump was more than 20 years ago (eek, I’m so old), but their rooftop patio will tempt me anew. If you like a casual atmosphere, Mexican food and are craving a margarita this is a good choice just off Banff Avenue at 203 Caribou Street.
Park Distillery + Restaurant Wood-fired, spit roasted and smokey. Those are a few of the flavours you’ll find at the Park Distillery + Restaurant on Banff Avenue. From beetroot humous to a Benchmark Brisket Sandwich or Tinfoil Trout, the Park Distillery takes its regionally-sourced produce seriously, and its distillery is known for its small-batch craft spirits. Fancy an Alberta rye with Canadian glacier water?
Banff Guide – Essential Travel Info
Do You Need to Pay to Visit Banff?
Yes. Since it’s a national park, it means you will pay a park entrance fee – even for a quick visit to town. You can buy a pass at the park entrance if you’re driving in. A day pass is $21 for a family or group, $10.50 for an adult and under 17s are free.
You’ll need to pay for each day you plan to stay in the park. It might be cheaper to buy an annual Parks Discovery Pass, which is $145.25 per family or group, or $72.25 per adult.
What is the Altitude of Banff?
At an elevation of 1,383 metres (4,537 feet), Banff is the highest town in Canada.
Is Banff a Town or a National Park?
It’s both. The town of Banff, population about 9,000, is located inside Banff National Park. Banff National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Established 99 years before that, it’s the oldest national park in Canada.
Getting to Banff from Calgary
To Banff from the Calgary International Airport
You can rent a car at the Calgary airport. It’s a 90-minute drive to Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Or you can take the Banff Airporter shuttle from the airport right to your Banff hotel.
Other common gateways to Banff National Park include the Edmonton International Airport, which is 4.5 hours away, or Vancouver, which allows you to tour both the West Coast and the Canadian Rockies in one spectacular vacation. Driving time from Vancouver to Banff is at least 9 hours.
By train: You can really only get to Banff by train on the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver. It’s a deluxe rail experience that travels from Vancouver to Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper, or vice versa.
Banff, Canada – It’s Worth the Trip
That wraps up my list of the best things to do in Banff. I hope you now have some ideas on where to stay, what to do, how to get around, and why it’s such a wonderful destination in the Rocky Mountains of Canada.
But don’t take my word for it. Visit this unique mountain town and fall in love with it for yourself.
Touring the Rockies by train? You’ll find plenty of Rocky Mountaineer route reviews on this site.