Ah, Banff. It’s the Aspen of Canada; surrounded by rugged mountains that take your breath away. As a Coloradan, I’ve seen my fair share of nice ski towns and beautiful mountains. But, Banff and its majestic landscape is far better than anything in Colorado (ooops, hope I don’t offend anyone with that!).
Banff’s mountains are still part of the Rocky Mountains, with an emphasis on rocky. That’s because of it’s glacial history. Much like the Great Lakes in the USA, glaciers carved and shaped the mountains surrounding Banff. Leaving rugged, rocky tips that are dramatic and breathtaking.
Gazing out at the mountains isn't the only thing you can do while exploring Banff. There are 10 other fun things you can do to get to know this gorgeous Canadian town—from above and below.
1. Go skiing at SkiBig3
When in the area, you have to go skiing. So, why not go to the best ski resort in the area? SkiBig3 is the local ski resort that's in the ranks of Aspen, Zermatt and any other fabulous ski resort you can think of.
The best part of skiing this area is that it's not incredibly busy. Yeah, shocking, I know. If you're from Colorado like me, you're probably imagining long lines to the slopes. That's not the case here. If you ski on weekdays, there's virtually no one. Even in high season. My ski-lover boyfriend had the time of his life completing almost 40 runs throughout the week.
So, what are the big three mountains in the area? First, you've got Mount Norquay which is the closest mountain to Banff. It's the most family friendly, too, with tons of bunny slopes and beginner-friendly terrain. Then, you've got Lake Louise, which is the second furthest from town. This offers more nature scapes with tall pine trees and a lake view. The last one, which was my boyfriend's favorite, is Sunshine Mountain. This is the furthest from the city, but offers the best views stretching as far as the eye can see. If you've only got one day to ski in Banff, do Sunshine Mountain. You won't regret it!
2. Wander the town of Banff
Not much of a skier? Me neither. If you're a city slicker (like me), you'll love exploring downtown Banff. It offers you typical mountain town sights like unique outdoor shops and boutiques, cozy coffee shops and fabulous restaurants (more on my recommendations in #9).
Downtown Banff is charming. It's tiny European-inspired buildings are sprinkled everywhere and are incredibly warm inside. Scurrying from shop to shop is a local exercise as temperatures in town can get below -0 degrees Fahrenheit. Spend your time cozying up in a cute coffee shop or eating your heart out in one of their fantastic restaurants.
3. Soak in the Banff Hot Springs
What’s better than soaking in a 100 degree hot spring while the outside air is below zero? The answer is nothing. That is the greatest thing on earth. And you can have that experience in Banff. About three miles from downtown is a natural hot spring that’s absolutely epic. It’s fun to waddle in your winter coat to the warmest natural mineral waters around. Relax and soak with someone you love spending time with and talk for hours under the rocky cliffs overlooking the stars.
4. Spot the Wildlife
One of the coolest experiences I had while in Banff was sharing a sidewalk with a deer. According to the local taxi driver (who seemed to be an expert on all things Banff), the deer love to come to town. They walk around like they’re one with the locals, and I'm here for it. Other animals visit town, too, and the best way to interact with them is to exchange blank stares until one of you blinks first. That’s what I did. I think I made a friend. Oh, word of advice, don't do this with moose.
5. Take the Banff Gondola
For the best view of Banff (without jumping on your skis), take the Banff Gondola.
The famous local gondola with a world-class view is only 3 miles outside of town and is very easy to access via car.
If you’re a fan of getting a view the lazy way, this is for you. The gondola takes you up into the sky and offers you a breathtaking view of the mountain range.
Expect to pay around $50 USD per person for a 360 view of the snowy mountain tops.
6. Get lost in the Cave and Basin National Park
A must-see in the Banff area is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. The name is a mouthful, but this natural area will leave you speechless. The historic site was a place of spiritual significance for indigenous people for thousands of years. It wasn't until the 1880’s when a group of railway workers discovered these hidden thermal pools, that they transformed it into a national park. Climb down into the depths of the cave (if you’ve ever been to Mexico and visited a cenote, these are very similar), and get lost in the warm, dim thermal atmosphere.
7. Spend Christmas in Banff
We missed Christmas time in Banff (darn) but we hear it’s LIT in all the right ways. Christmas in Banff is full of festivities like the Christmas Market. If you love the European-style Christmas markets as found in places like Germany, you’ll get a similar holiday fix in Banff. The market opens its doors in the last week of November and features endless amounts of local cuisine and knick-knacks from artisans. If you love beer, Christmas time is also a good time to visit the Banff Craft Beer Festival. This happens in the first and second week of December and features as much local craft beer as your heart (and liver) can handle. If you’re not much of a drinker, there’s something for everyone: the Hot Chocolate Trail. Different shops in downtown Banff will have signs in their windows that say,“we’re on the Hot Chocolate Trail". Pop into one of those shops and try some of best hot cocoas Banff has to offer.
9. Take a helicopter ride
Okay, who doesn’t want a helicopter right through the Canadian Rockies? I do! Much like the gondola ride, this is a great (lazy) way to get the view without skiing. There are several tour companies that offer an incredible view of the mountains, but the one that I recommend is Banff Tours. Expect to pay $200-$480 per person for a 25-45 minute flight with up to 5 people. Take the tour that goes through the ice fields. It’s stunning!
9. Eat your heart out
When I say Banff has the best. food. ever, I mean it. I don't know if it's the French culinary influence that's prevalent all over Canada or what, but everywhere we went, the presentation and flavors were superb.
Although I can't speak to every restaurant in Banff (I can't eat that much—are you kidding?!), I can recommend a few places that I visited.
Definitely check out Ticino's for the best fondue of your life, Nourish Bistro for plant-based food that'll warm your soul and stomach. And the Wild Flour cafe for amazing homemade breads, coffee and pastries.
10. Ditch the mountains and head to Calgary
Not everyone is a nature lover, I get it. If you want to get out of the mountains and find the nearest city ASAP, definitely check out Calgary. It’s 1 ½ hours away by car from Banff and it’s worth the drive. It has all of the big city vibes you’re looking for. Big skyscrapers, busy bodies walking around, and delicious food. The gorgeous skyline reminds you of New York City while the subway runs like veins throughout the city. The culinary scene is also very impressive. Just like Banff, all of the restaurants are not only delicious, but beautiful in their presentation. Some of the best restaurants in Canada are in Calgary, like Bridgette Bar. You can't go wrong with any restaurant in the downtown area. Also, when in town, you should definitely check out the Calgary Tower. You’ll get a glass bottom view of Calgary that's dizzingly stunning. As far as accommodations go, we stayed at Marriott Residence Inn Downtown which offered a stellar (Instagram worthy) view of downtown Calgary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Got questions? I've got answers.
How cold is Banff in winter?
We arrived during a cold spell (a week of horribly frigid temperatures), and found ourselves walking home from dinner in -24F. December is known as the coldest month in Banff, so be prepared with your warmest clothes.
Is it safe to drive?
Yes, if you have 4WD. The roads in and around Banff are icy and slick. We saw several cars (including big trucks and RVs) stuck on the side of the road without any ability to pull themselves out. If you plan to drive to Banff, I recommend a heavy-duty SUV or truck with 4WD. Throw some snow tires on it, too. You won’t regret it.
Where should I stay?
We stayed at the Canalta Lodge. It came with a full kitchen, balcony view, and California king bed. They also had two outdoor hot tubs, a sauna, and fireplaces sprinkled throughout. We really enjoyed it. But, there are tons of great lodging in Banff. Whatever you choose for accommodations, I recommend booking something in Banff proper. It’s similarly priced as accommodations out of town, the benefit is you don’t have to risk your life getting in and out of the city and ski resorts on those icy (and treacherous) highways.
What's the COVID situation?
Well, as much as I hate to say it, if you're not vaxxed, you're not coming to Canada. We drove to Canada and at the border the first thing they asked for was proof of full vaccination. And it's not just the border, you've got to be vaccinated to sleep at hotels, eat at restaurants and visit tourist sites like the hot springs.
Sometimes they ask for a negative PCR test to enter these spaces but often times, unvaccinated people aren't afforded the full amenities or have to wear masks the entire time.
So, be prepared to show proof of vaccination to everyone from the border patrol agent to the barista at the coffee shop.
Wow, look at you. It seems you're an expert on all of the fun things to do in Banff. Definitely pay a visit to this sweet mountain town next time you're in the Canadian Rockies. And don't forget to subscribe to stay up-to-date on the latest travel blogs.