The quaint heritage buildings lining Banff Avenue appeared to shrink as we drove into the buzz of the town; the iconic crags of the Rocky Mountains rising up behind them. We divided our stay in this beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies between the two; hiking the forested ridges in the mornings and getting to know the history, culture and culinary delights of Banff town centre, each afternoon. This ultimate travel guide to Banff features a few of the travel tips and unique treasures we discovered while getting to know and quickly falling in love with Banff in the Canadian Rockies.
Arriving in Canada
- The entry rules for Canada have recently changed and you may now need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) or a visa. Find out whether you need either here.
- High Season runs between May and October and Low Season from October to May
- We touched down in Calgary very late at night from the US, so we booked a hotel for the evening so we could start fresh with the drive to Banff the following morning. Airport hotel shuttles are located opposite Gate 4 at Calgary International Airport and you simply need to use the courtesy phone to call one. You may have to wait 15-20 minutes for them to come to collect you.
Travelling to Banff
Banff is just a 90 minute from from Calgary and once you first catch a glimpse of the mountains, you’ll immediately understand why the area became Canada’s first National Park, a UNESCO site and now attracts more than 4 million visitors annually.
- By bus: Greyhound is the main bus company operating between Calgary and Banff. Buses leave from the Calgary Greyhound Bus Terminal three times per day and will drop you off at Banff KWT Bus Terminal, which is just a few blocks from the centre of town. The Banff Airporter and the Brewster Banff Airport Express shuttle services are two other options.
- By car: I highly recommend you hire a car as you will want to explore beyond Banff village and a car is the most efficient way of doing that. If you are staying in Calgary overnight the airport shuttle will drop you back to the airport to collect your car in the morning. If you have time, avoid the main highway and take the Bow Valley Trail. It will take you longer but it is much more scenic and well worth the detour.
- Parking in Banff: Search for your nearest car park and the time limits using Banffparking.ca.
What to See and Do in Banff
Your first stop in Banff should be the Banff Information Centre. You can pick up information, maps (town, regional and hiking) and local advice for your visit. The staff were extremely helpful. Banff and Lake Louise Tourism kindly gifted us with a Park Pass and VIP Attractions pass during our stay so we could easily experience everything on offer.
There is great news for visitors planning a trip to Canada in 2017. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. For visitors that means admission to national parks, national historic sites and marine conservation areas is free for the entire year.
The Banff Gondola is a must. Get up early and arrive at the ticket office before 9am as the lines only get longer from then on. A free shuttle runs about every 30 minutes between 9am and 6pm and leaves from outside the Banff Visitor Centre. There is a Starbucks across the road or one on site at the gondola ticket office if you need a heart starter for the gondola ride. Wear warm clothing and comfortable shoes with good grip as the wooden walkway at the top of Sulphur Mountain can get slippery. Don’t forget your camera. It is one of the most picturesque places I have ever been to.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Just up the road from the Banff Gondola are the Hot Springs. This is also a very busy tourist spot so it’s best to get there early in the day. The highest in Canada at 1585 metres, the springs are filled with 100 percent natural mineral water. The water temperature is maintained between 37ºC and 40ºC so you can stay warm and ease your hiking pains to the beautiful natural backdrop of the Rockies.
Mt Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift
The Mount Norquay sightseeing chairlift was recommended to us by a local as a quiet alternative to the Banff Gondola. Drive the switchbacks up to the parking area and jump in the open-air chairlift over the valley with views of Mount Rundle. Make sure you rug up as you are really out in the elements. You can also eat at 7,000 feet at Cliffhouse Bistro (June – October) and we are told the food is delicious.
Banff Canoe Club
The Bow River is breathtaking. So there’s probably no better way to take all of that beauty in than by gliding across the water in a canoe. Hire a canoe from the Banff Canoe club at the end of Wolf Street (two blocks from Banff Avenue) and push-off for an hour to explore the area from the water.
Yes you read that correctly. Despite the slightly unfortunate name, Lake Minnewanka is absolutely breathtaking and should be added to your list while you are staying in the area. Walk the boardwalk and take a seat at the solitary bench, explore the rocks on the water’s edge on the point, hire a canoe or join a boat tour and hit the water for a different vantage point. Dress warmly as there is an icy breeze that comes off the water.
Museums and Historic Sites
Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum
The Luxton Museum contains artefacts and information on First Nations history. It really is a very local museum with a few interesting exhibits, but not a great deal of explanation as to their history, so get some brochures or read up on the website here, before you visit.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
At the Cave and Basin National Historic Site you will find the thermal springs that the Banff National Park was built around. Railway workers discovered the springs in 1883. As the first National Park in Canada, it was the beginning of the whole Park system. Visitors can see the springs (you can no longer swim there) and learn about the history of the Parks .
Founded by two local artists and philanthropists, the Whyte Museum houses art and archival collections, bringing together history through art and photography exhibitions, events and a shop.
The Banff Park Museum
The oldest natural history museum in western Canada, The Banff Park Museum is set in a beautifully restored 1903 log building. Today, the museum houses a collection of more than 5,000 natural history specimens.
Tours in Banff
Discover Banff Tours offers tours around the area on smaller buses and a more “local” feel. Book into their Evening Wildlife Tour to see and learn about the local wildlife and how they are protected. In winter, they also offer snowshoeing and an ice walk tour through Johnston Canyon, among other outdoor adventures.
Brewster is the biggest tour operator in the area. Book into one of their many tours tailored to suit each of the local attractions. You can also book gondola passes, a Minnewanka boat tour and Athabasca Glacier tours through the Brewster office in Banff Avenue.
Hiking around Banff
The hiking around Banff was some of the best we’ve done in the world. For those who aren’t yet acclimated to the elevation and thinner air, the Tunnel Mountain hike is a great starter hike.
Tunnel Mountain Trail
I’m told locals often do the Tunnel Mountain hike as a daily workout. We actually passed a few when we did the climb – they stuck out as they were usually jogging the inclines at pace, with nothing but flushed cheeks to show for it. The 2 hour return route is bound to keep you fit. It also offers amazing views back over Banff to one side and the lakes running the valley to the other. Just a few minutes from downtown Banff, this trail is particularly busy so I would recommend you get there nice and early. There are two car parks, an upper and a lower. If you have a heart condition or you don’t undertake regular exercise the incline may be a little too much for you. The best option would be to start at the upper car park, take it very slowly and see how you feel on the first few climbs.
Shopping & Entertainment in Banff
Whether you’ve left something at home, you need some warmer gear or you are in search of souvenirs to take home to the family, the Banff town centre has everything you need. Think big name technical brands like Patagonia, North Face and Helly Hansen, health and wellness names like Lululemon, jewellery stores, gift stores, The Trail Rider store to take a mountain memento with you; they all sit side-by-side on Banff Avenue.
Need some fashion basics from GAP, your nails done a quick bite or a post-hike massage? Cascade Shops is a shopping centre, conveniently located on the corner of Banff Avenue and Wolf Street and has all the amenities you might be missing from back home.
Banff Center for Arts and Creativity
If the cute galleries on Banff Avenue only whet your appetite for taking in some local culture, book a ticket for a show at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity. With everything from music to theatre and fine art, this is a melting pot of creativity for talent from Banff and far beyond.
Lux Banff is the very cute local cinema. We went to see a movie one afternoon and it was a lovely way to relax without hitting a restaurant or bar. The tickets are very cheap and it is located on Bear St, just a block from Banff Avenue. There are also many great bars and restaurants in Bear St should you be hungry after the film.
SHOP FOR YOUR BANFF HOLIDAY