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One of the biggest tourist destinations in Canada is Banff, and for good reason.
Banff is a charming town nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, and is the gateway to a world of adventure and exploration, from scenic hikes to relaxing in hot springs – you’ll find there are plenty of things to do in Banff to keep you occupied.
While most people visit Banff as a base for exploring the national park, we urge you to spend a few days exploring the town itself.
There are many attractions in Banff that are worthy of a visit, though they often get skipped in favor of the more iconic attractions such as Lake Louise.
So if you’re not sure what to do in Banff, in this guide we share some of the top attractions and travel tips, so you can come in armed with the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
- Is Banff in Canada Worth Visiting?
- Things to Do in Banff Town
- 1. Visit Banff Upper Hot Springs
- 2. Ride the Banff Gondola
- 3. Boat Cruise on Lake Minnewanka
- 4. Visit the Whyte Museum
- 5. Visit the Banff Park Museum
- 6. Hit the Hiking Trails
- 7. Go Skiing at the Banff Ski Resorts
- 8. Take a Trip to Johnstone Canyon
- 9. Check Out the Restaurants in Banff
- 10. Have a Pint at Banff Avenue Brewing
- 11. Go Shopping on Banff Avenue
- 12. Attend a Festival in Banff
- 13. Walk to Bow River
- 14. Visit Moraine Lake
- 15. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
- 16. Visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- 17. Check out Two Jack Lake
- 18. Climb the Mt Norquay Via Ferrata
- 19. Admire Views from Mt Norquay Viewpoint
- Getting To and Around Banff
- Best Time to Visit Banff
- Where to Stay in Banff
- Final Thoughts
Is Banff in Canada Worth Visiting?
Banff is a town known as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies with some of the finest mountain scenery you’ll find on the planet.
Banff is a charming town located within Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, and is known for its stunning mountainous surroundings, turquoise lakes, hot springs, and being one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations.
The town of Banff has a vibrant downtown area with quaint streets, boutique shops and various cultural attractions, including art galleries and museums.
The town is a gateway to numerous outdoor adventures, such as exploring the pristine lakes, taking scenic drives, or embarking on thrilling wildlife tours.
Throw in outstanding chances to see wildlife (bears, deer, and elk in particular), and loads of activities to keep you busy during the day, followed by everything from budget to gourmet dining at night, and you will find that Banff is definitely worth visiting.
Things to Do in Banff Town
It’s possible to spend 1-2 days in the town of Banff and see all the highlights, but equally you could spend a month in the general area and venture out into the national park.
However, below are attractions in Banff town that you should not miss.
1. Visit Banff Upper Hot Springs
Ease your body into the 37-40C water found at the historic Banff Upper Hot Springs, located on top of Sulphur Mountain, while you enjoy views of Mount Rundle.
The springs have been used by indigenous people for many centuries, but became popular in the late 1800s when they were used by railroad workers.
Open year round, it’s an especially soothing place to hang out on those cold, blustery days.
If you forgot to bring your bathing suit, don’t worry, you can even rent one.
2. Ride the Banff Gondola
If you want a view from a height, ride the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. The eight-minute ride takes you up an elevation of 2300 feet to the mountain peaks of Sulphur Mountain.
From here you can lookout over a panoramic, 360 degree view of Banff and the national park beyond.
Once on top, take a one-kilometer interpretive walk along the Banff Skywalk while keeping an eye out for wildlife.
It’s open daily in the summer from 8:30 am until 8.00 pm or 9.000 pm depending on the month.
3. Boat Cruise on Lake Minnewanka
Take a boat tour of Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies.
A Lake Minnewanka cruise from Banff combines stunning natural beauty with a touch of tranquility.
Not only do you get amazing scenes from the boat, but it’s also an opportunity to spot wildlife such as grizzly bears and elk, from a safe distance.
You will also see some fo Banff’s majestic waterfalls and can learn about the history and ecology of the area through informative commentary.
If you prefer to be more active on your vacation, you can also rent a motorboat, kayak or canoe and explore Lake Minnewanka this way.
4. Visit the Whyte Museum
Head to the Whyte Museum. They feature extensive archives and library, visual art with a Canadian Rockies theme and a collection of historical relics used for skiing and snowboarding, mountaineering, guiding, packing and more.
5. Visit the Banff Park Museum
Check out the stuffed animal specimens of moose, bears, foxes and birds at the Banff Park Museum.
It’s Canada’s oldest natural history museum. Built in 1903, it uses decorative log construction and makes use of natural light.
6. Hit the Hiking Trails
Go hiking and biking in Banff. There are so many trails to choose from that it’s worthwhile to have a chat with a Park Ranger and see what they recommend based on your ability and time frame.
Their office is on Banff Avenue in the heart of downtown.
A bike and hike shuttle has started up that will drop you off and pick you up from some of the nearby trailheads. You can rent mountain bikes in town from Bactrax.
7. Go Skiing at the Banff Ski Resorts
One of the reasons why Banff is so iconic for skiing is because you can ski for 7 months of the year, making it the longest open ski resort in Canada.
Lake Louise Ski Resort is another thirty minutes up the highway.
8. Take a Trip to Johnstone Canyon
I highly recommend a trip to Johnstone Canyon, about 25 minutes away – any time of the year.
It’s an easy 1.1 or 2.7 kilometer hike one way, depending on if you want to see the lower or upper falls.
In winter I’d recommend wearing crampons or Yactrax for grip on the ice.
9. Check Out the Restaurants in Banff
Probably the most upmarket choice would be Saltlik Restaurant, a place that specializes in beef though there are plenty of other choices.
Other places to try are the Eddie Burger Bar – for burgers but also poutine and deep fried pickles. You can’t go wrong with Earl’s for reasonably priced food and a great atmosphere.
Be sure to try Alberta beef and buffalo, a specialty dish in Banff.
We had a fantastic farm to table experience at this Banff Restaurant. Farm and Fire’s menu features only the freshest ingredients from local Canadian farmers, that’s slow-roasted and wood-fired.
If dining with a group, make it a shared dining experience with your meats and side dishes. We got some rotisserie chickens to share and delicious sides of mashed potato, succotash, roasted carrots, and corn bread.
10. Have a Pint at Banff Avenue Brewing
Banff Avenue Brewing is a happening spot for meals and for great beer.
This hidden gem offers a central hub where you can experience the dynamic community and draw inspiration from the majestic Rocky Mountains.
From traditional blonde ales to rich and aromatic coffee-infused brews, their craft beers are divine.
Whether you’re seeking a relaxed pub atmosphere or a cozy lodge setting, Banff Ave Brewing Co. has it all.
11. Go Shopping on Banff Avenue
Most of the shopping in Banff takes place on Banff Avenue. Unfortunately, I see it primarily as shops catering to tourists, though there are a few exceptions.
Patagonia has a store and there are a few galleries worth poking about in – Canada House and Willock and Sax Gallery. There are lots of opportunities to pick up a T-shirt and perhaps a chocolate moose.
12. Attend a Festival in Banff
The Banff Film Festival is one of the major events in Banff that takes place yearly in late October and early November.
They do have ongoing events throughout the year but it’s best to check their website for what’s coming.
The main festival draws an international crowd of writers, movie makers and adventurers.
The Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival takes place this year on the weekend of May 4th and 5th. Sample wine, scotch,beer and gourmet food prepared by local restaurants.
The Banff Summer Arts Festival takes place from June 21st to August 25th. You’ll find performing artists from across Canada and around the world including Emmylou Harris this year.
Banff National Park Dragon Boat Festival takes place on August 11th and 12th this year. With over 500 participants expected, this should be a fun weekend out on Lake Minnewanka.
13. Walk to Bow River
Wander down to the Bow River; I like the trail heading off from behind the Banff Springs Hotel.
Go park yourself down on a rock by the river and enjoy the peace and serenity of the place. You may even spot an elk.
Note from Caz: On my recent Banff trip, I had seen the Bow River all day from high above on the mountains, so when I got to Downtown Banff, I wanted to get down low to that brilliant turquoise water and it did not disappoint.
It was especially beautiful with the yellow pop of color from the trees.
I turned right as I crossed the main bridge. If I turned left on the Bow River trail, I would have come across the Surprise Corner and Bow Falls viewpoint and the Fairmont Banff Springs, another popular place to stay in Banff.
14. Visit Moraine Lake
You only actually need a few days for Banff. The beauty of Banff lies in its’ location. It’s extremely easy to explore the surrounding mountains and lakes by day and return to Banff by night.
Picking a favourite side trip is near impossible but if you’ve never been to the area then I think you should drive the thirty minutes to Moraine Lake near Lake Louise and walk to the far end of the lake – phenomenal scenery and fantastic lake colour.
15. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
This scenic drive connects Banff Town to Lake Louise and is considered a quieter road than the Trans-Canada Highway.
As you drive this 51km road from Banff to Lake Louise, you’ll be captivated by the lush forests, majestic mountains, and abundant wildlife that grace this scenic route.
Take your time to truly immerse yourself in the beauty of the Bow Valley.
Keep an eye out for the wildlife bridges. They blend in with the mountain scenery, (although easily noticeable) and provide a safe crossing cross the highway for wildlife.
See what it looks like in the reel below:
16. Visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is a mesmerizing underground cavern filled with thermal mineral waters that gave birth to the national park system.
Visitors to this natural phenomenon have the benefit of learning about the significance of this site and its connection to the natural wonders of Banff.
Be sure not to miss this site to experience the unique blend of culture, conservation, and natural beauty.
17. Check out Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is one of the lesser known lake near Banff, which is exactly why you should visit it.
With its emerald-green waters and a backdrop of Mount Rundle, this picturesque lake offers a tranquil escape from the crowds you see in the town.
It’s also connected to Lake Minnewanka, so you can combine a trip to both lakes in one hit.
18. Climb the Mt Norquay Via Ferrata
Looking for more adventurous things to do in Banff? Then enjoy the unique climbing experience of the Via Ferrata on Mount Norquay.
As you ascend the cliffs along one of the four thrilling routes, you’ll be immersed in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, with panoramic vistas of Banff and the valleys below.
The Via Ferrata is a thrilling way to conquer the summit, though it’s not for the faint hearted.
Those who have a fear of heights may not enjoy this experience. See more about Caz’s experience on the via ferrata in her post on top things to do in Banff National Park
19. Admire Views from Mt Norquay Viewpoint
If you didn’t get enough views of the Bow River Valley and Downtown Banff while hanging off Mt Norquay, there is a viewpoint on the drive back down from the Mt Norquay area.
After a few switchbacks, you’ll reach a stone retaining wall and a large grassy area, known casually as the Green Spot.
This is where you’ll pull over to park and walk out onto the grass to reach the lookout point. If you’re lucky, you might be sharing the grass with a herd of bighorn sheep that frequent the area. We saw them on the road just before we reached this Banff viewpoint.
From the parking area, you can walk out onto the green meadow for some stunning views of the Banff townsite, the Bow River, Vermillion Lakes, and the Bow Valley.
We timed it right as an extremely long freight train moved through the valley with its bright red cargo boxes. It was so striking against the yellows, greens, and blues of the natural Fall landscapes of the valley.
I’ve also heard near here is the Jupiter Hotel which is a great place to stop for a drink with a view on their patio, a meal, or even as a place to stay in Banff.
Getting To and Around Banff
The drive from the airport to Banff takes about 1¾ hours. Banff really isn’t close to any other major city. It would be close to a 5 hour drive from Edmonton or a 9-hour drive from Vancouver.
It’s easy to get around Banff on foot or by bike – should you have one. Here are some ebike rentals.
But there is a transit system in place and for $2 you can move around the entire town – from the gondola on Sulphur Mountain to the Tunnel Lake Campground.
Buses start running at 6:15 am and the last pickup is at 11:30pm.
Best Time to Visit Banff
Banff is actually a year round destination though my personal opinion is that it’s at its prettiest in July, August and September.
Ski season lasts from late November until May.
Where to Stay in Banff
There s plenty of choice for places to stay in Banff across the full budget spectrum. Plus there is nearby camping at Tunnel Mountain once the snow disappears.
If money isn’t an object then I’d recommend a stay at the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
The present 778 room hotel was built in 1928 and styled after a Scottish baronial castle.
It’s only minutes away from the hot spring spas too.
You may like this castle and history food tour within the Banff Springs hotel.
Buffalo Mountain Lodge is another pricier lodge features post and beam construction. It’s about a 15 minute walk from downtown Banff.
They have dormitory rooms available for a good price (for Banff) with bedding provided.
They do have private rooms too, including a family room. And the manager tells me one-third of his clientele are from Australia.
Although Banff is the most popular destination in Canada, it still boasts a relaxing atmosphere and beckons you to unplug from your computer.
I never get tired of the views and I love the variety of activities available out of one small town.
It’s all about savoring the day outside and then rewarding yourself with a great meal at the end.
We hope this guide helped you plan what to do in Banff and gave you some inspiration for your visit!
Read more: Don’t miss one of Canada’s most scenic drives, the Icefields Parkway, which takes you to Columbia Icefields and Athabasca Glacier. Here are some of the best places to see in Jasper National Park and best things to do in Banff National Park and 6 hikes not to miss in the Canadian Rockies. And if you pass through Calgary, you can check out these things to do!
Tours in Banff
For those how like multiple day tours, with a splash of luxury, consider the Canadian Rockies tours offered by our preferred tour company, Globus. See their Western Canada tours here.
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