If you live in Calgary or are visiting, the one hour and 20 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 one of only two municipalities incorporated in a national park, along with Jasper. It has just over 8,000 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 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 varies depending on projected visitation for the day, but usually sits around $50 to $60 for adults and around $30 for children. Kids five and under ride the Banff Gondola for free, but still require a ticket
100 Mountain Ave., Banff, 1-866-756-1904, banffjaspercollection.com
Few Banff experiences can rival that of a picturesque paddle on the Bow River. The Banff Canoe Club can help make it happen with rentals on canoes, kayaks and stand up paddle boards. Gain a new perspective on the natural wonders of the area from a calm leg of the Bow River, or paddle Forty Mile Creek into the Vermillion Lakes. While the signature Big Canoe Tours will not be operating for summer 2020 due to COVID-19, those looking for a group dynamic to paddling the Bow River can sign up for a group Kayak Experience.
Canoe and kayak rentals are $45 per boat for the first hour. Stand up paddle boards are $30/hour or $79 for the day.
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.
While much of the historic site is closed due to COVID-19 for the beginning of the summer, trailheads for the Marsh Loop and Sundance Canyon hikes sit at the site’s parking lot, making it still well worth a visit.
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 at banff.ca.
This museum is named for Catharine Robb Whyte, 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 Indigenous people, outfitters, immigrants and explorers who helped shape the area. The museum’s collection also includes homes showcasing 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.
Following a few months of closure, the Whyte Museum reopened on July 1, with public access to the Archives and Special Collections Library delayed until July 14. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students. Children under 12 can visit for free.
111 Bear St., 403-762-2291, whyte.org
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, tataki, striploin and a burger. There is also more to the menu than just bison. Try the gnocchi poutine with braised elk or the Brome Lake duck breast with butternut squash risotto and grilled asparagus. 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 are just as spectacular. The bistro’s menu takes its cues from the land and longstanding traditions of cooking in Canada.
The bistro is reopening for summer 2020 with brunch service five days a week starting July 9. Start your day in the mountains with stuffed French toast, made with stewed apples, brie, apricot coulis and candied nuts, or try a brown butter hash pulled pork poutine. Brunch is served from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Thursday to Monday.
If you plan on making your day trip an overnight trip, Juniper Hotel is a good choice.
1 Juniper Way, Banff, 403-763-6219, thejuniper.com
The food at Park Distillery, Restaurant and Bar 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 beetroot hummus with housemade flatbread. For something more, get seared B.C. salmon or rotisserie chicken.
Park also distills its own spirits. Pick up a bottle of vodka or rye to take home, or try out a pre-mixed Negroni or Manhattan ready to be served from Park’s barrel aged cocktail series.
219 Banff Ave., Banff, 403-762-5114, parkdistillery.com
Located in the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, The Vermillion Room serves Parisian brasserie-inspired fare in a room designed by Calgary’s Frank Architecture & Interiors (they also designed High Rollers bowling alley/bar, The Bison and Chuck’s Steakhouse in Banff). The Vermillion menu has been created by Springs’ executive chef JW Foster and includes steak tartare and steamed PEI mussels.
405 Spray Ave., vermillionroom.com
Know Before You Go
Following five trial seasons of cars, pedestrians and cyclists sharing the road on the 200 block of Bear Street, Banff is now spreading the approach to the whole street. Known as a Woonerff (a Dutch word used to describe a shared street, or “living street”) in the spring and summer trials, Bear Street’s reconstruction will expand the shared space. When construction is finished in late fall, centre lines and curbs will be removed, and pedestrians and slow moving cars will be on level ground, with traffic-calming features added for safety, and beautification features added to tie the whole thing together.
It was introduced as a pilot project in 2017 and this year, the On-It bus returns again to operate from June 26 to early September. 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.), the Crowfoot LRT station or the Somerset/Bridlewood LRT station and drop you off at the Banff High School. 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 Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel.
COVID-19 safety measures are in place for the On-It Bus, including mandatory face masks for all passengers and physical distancing processes during check-in, boarding, onboard and disembarking.