If you live in Calgary or are visiting, the one hour and 15 minute drive to Banff is pretty much a must-do. There is a reason the tourists love it and it is often literally used as the defining image of Canada.
Banff is the only incorporated municipality in a national park. It has just under 9,000 permanent residents, but those numbers increase and decrease with seasonal workers. Those numbers make it just big enough to have plenty of restaurants and shopping. At its core, Banff is all about the great outdoors with skiing, hiking, canoeing and cycling coursing through its DNA.
There is a lot to love about Banff and more to see, do and try than we can list here. But, if we are introducing someone new to the town or remembering for ourselves why we choose to live within driving distance to the mountains, these 8 suggestions for things to do and places to eat are some of our favourites.
126 kilometres from the Calgary Tower. | West on Trans-Canada Highway.
What to do
If you have been in Calgary for a while and are starting to feel like you are taking the mountains for granted, ride the gondola. It takes about eight minutes to get to the top of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola. Once you get there, it’s all about the views. You can look down to the town of Banff and over to the mountain ranges surrounding it. The views are spectacular.
The fee to ride the gondola is $64 for adults and $32 for kids. Kids can also ride for free before 10 a.m.
1 Mountain Ave., Banff, 1-866-606-8700, brewster.ca
Voyageur canoes were used way back in the fur trading days to help transport people and cargo. It means they are a little bigger (it fits several rows of two people sitting side-by-side) and a little more stable than the canoes most of us are familiar with. The Banff Canoe Club has a few and they will take you out onto the Bow River in a voyageur canoe for an hour and a half tour. The guide will tell you stories about the history and geography of the area. You do have to paddle, but lots of hands make for light paddling and you don’t have to have any previous paddling experience. It’s a good activity for families and groups and a great way to see the landscape from the water.
Tours are $54 for adults and $25 for kids ages six to 12.
The Banff Canoe Club, corner of Wolf Street and Bow Avenue, Banff, 403-762-5005, banffcanoeclub.com
Cave and Basin’s claim to fame is that it is where Canada’s national park system began. In 1883, a couple of Canadian Pacific Railway workers saw some steam on Sulphur Mountain. When they went to check it out, they found the natural hot spring. A reserve was put up around the spring and by 1885 Canada had its first national park. Now, Cave and Basin is a historic site and a tourist attraction where you can walk the boardwalks, go through the tunnel and see the fountain. Through the summer, there are lantern tours every Saturday night that take you to the behind-the-scene experience of the historic site. There are also 40-minute guided tours, included with the price of admission, at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily.
Entry is $3.90 for adults, free for youth under 17, and free with the Discovery Pass.
311 Cave Ave., Banff, 403-762-1566, pc.gc.ca
Walk the Bow River and Fenland Trails
You’ll be able to do this easy walk with no elevation in about one hour. The easiest place to start is at Central Park on the west end of Buffalo Street. You’ll find parking, a playground and washrooms there. From there, it is less than one kilometre on the paved Bow River Trail before you get to Fenland Trail. That section is a two-kilometre loop along Forty Mile Creek. Then you’re back on Bow River Trail on your way back to the park.
Find trail maps on banff.ca.
This museum is named for Catharine Robb, a Boston debutante and Peter Whyte, one of Banff’s early community leaders. The couple were artists, travellers and hugely supportive of their hometown of Banff.
The museum’s holdings include archives of photographs, sound recordings, newspaper clippings and other bits of historic interest. It also has more than 6,400 works of art as well as artifacts from Aboriginal people, outfitters, immigrants and explorers who helped shape the area. The museum’s collection also includes several homes showing early architecture in Banff.
Gateway to the Rockies is its permanent exhibition about explorers and adventurers, and the museum brings in work from renowned artists several times a year for exhibitions.
Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students. Children 12 and younger can visit for free.
111 Bear St., 403-762-2291, whyte.org
Located on Banff Avenue, this is Western Canada’s oldest natural history museum. It houses more than 5,000 historical botanicals and zoolofical specimens collected during the early 1900s. This summer, the museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and includes the new Banff Bison Return exhibition. The exhibition is about the 2017 reintroduction of bison to Banff and features a hands-on installation as well as a historical exhibit about the earlier attempts at bison reintroduction. The hands-on exhibition is open now and the historical exhibit launches July 1.
Admission is $3.90 for adults, free for youth under 17 and free with the Discovery Pass.
91 Banff Ave., Banff, 403-762-1558, pc.gc.ca
Where to eat
This restaurant focuses on locally farmed and sustainably sourced meats. The bison, in particular, is delicious. You can get it as short ribs, ribeye, a burger, carpaccio and in ravioli. There is also more to the menu than just bison. Try the gnocchi poutine with 24-hour braised elk or the Broek pork chops with apple jam and spatzle. If you can, sit on the terrace.
211 Bear St., Banff, 403-762-5550, thebison.ca
The Juniper Hotel is just outside of downtown Banff, which means it’s a little quieter and the views are panoramic. There is a patio, but if you prefer being inside, wall-to-wall windows make sure the views from inside are just as spectacular. The bistro’s menu takes its cues from the land and longstanding traditions of cooking in Canada.
The Juniper burger on house-made brioche with Applewood smoked cheddar is especially delicious. If this is your first stop of the day, breakfast at Juniper is a good choice. For savoury, go for the Juniper Benny with braised rabbit on bannock. For sweet, go for the stuffed French toast with stewed cinnamon apples.
If you plan on making your day trip an overnight trip, Juniper Hotel is a good choice.
1 Juniper Way, Banff, 1-866-551-2281, thejuniper.com
The food is campfire-inspired. Mostly that means it’s heavy on the wood-fired, spit-roasted and smokey flavours, and light on any formalities. You are there to eat and have a good time. For a snack, order the cornflake pulled pork fingers. For something more, get wild tinfoil trout or mac n’ cheese that comes with buttermilk fried chicken. If you are there with a friend, get the Mess Hall Standard which includes ribs, rotisserie chicken, pork n’ beans, wings, smokies, potato salad, coleslaw and cornbread.
Park also distills its own spirits. Pick up a bottle of vodka or rye to take home and reserve a spot at one of the free daily half-hour distillery tours starting at 3:30 p.m.
219 Banff Ave., Banff, 403-762-5114, parkdistillery.com
The Fairmont Banff Springs‘ new restaurant opened in May and serves Parisian brasserie-inspired fare in a room designed by Calgary’s Frank Architecture & Interiors (they also designed High Rollers bowling alley/bar and Chuck’s Steakhouse in Banff as well as Alpine Social at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise). The Vermillion menu has been created by Springs’ executive chef jW Foster and includes steak tartare and nicoise salad.
405 Spray Ave., Banff, vermillionroom.com
Know before you go
The 200 block of Bear Street turns into a Woonerff in the spring and summer. That means cars, pedestrians and cyclists all share the road. Pedestrians get the right of way and cars go slow. Somehow it all works out. And, if it doesn’t, blame the Dutch. It’s their concept.
It was introduced as a pilot project in 2017 and this year, the On-It bus is back and operating from mid-May to early October. It’s $10 each way for a bus trip from Calgary to Banff. It will pick you up in downtown Calgary (1 Street and 8 Avenue S.W.) or the Crowfoot LRT station and drop you off at the Banff High School. You can purchase additional tickets that will take you from Banff to Lake Louise or Johnston Canyon. An On-It bus ticket also gets you a transfer ticket to use the Roam bus all day. That bus takes you to destinations in and around Banff, including Cave & Basin, Lake Minnewanka, Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel.