Last updated: December 10th, 2021
Canada’s first national park, which also happens to be one of the first national parks in the world, is also the country’s busiest and most popular. A “fairytale” mountain town surrounded by towering mountain peaks, there are lots of incredible things to do in Banff, Alberta. Living just over an hour away in Calgary, we’ve been to Banff well over 100 times and never get tired of visiting this beautiful slice of alpine paradise.
Attracting approximately 3-4 million visitors each and every year, it’s no secret that this is a bustling tourist town. But that’s okay. With that comes a variety of hotels, activities, bars, restaurants, and, of course, plenty of souvenir shops as well. If you’re looking for things to do in Banff, you’re in the right place.
Where is Banff National Park
Banff, Alberta is located just 125 kilometres west of downtown Calgary, Alberta. Many people, including tourists and locals, arrive from this fast-growing city but you can also come from British Columbia to the east and/or south, or from Jasper to the north. It’s easily accessible right off the Trans-Canada highway. There are no airports, so if you’re flying in, Calgary would be the best choice.
Getting to Banff
As mentioned above, there are no flights to Banff National Park. The closest airport would be Calgary International Airport (YYC), which is only 145-kilometres away. The drive from Calgary to Banff takes less than two hours and takes you from the prairies to the mountains. Edmonton is another option as they also have an international airport but Edmonton is more than 400-kilometres away, which will take approximately four hours. However, you could extend the road trip by driving to Jasper and driving the world-famous Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff.
We always recommend renting a car but there are also options for taking the bus or using a shuttle service.
Getting to Banff by Car
We love a good Canada road trip and Banff is one of the best places to go. If you can rent a car, this is certainly the best way to explore Banff and the surrounding areas.
How far is Banff from Calgary?
The town of Banff is approximately 125-km west of Calgary. You can simply take the Trans-Canada Highway all the way to Banff, passing by Canmore along the way. Another option would be to take Highway 1A, which goes through Cochrane and Morley, but I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle unless you want to see a little more scenery along the way. Once you start to approach Banff, everything is gorgeous anyway. You can expect to drive for about 1.5 hours.
How far is Banff from Edmonton?
Edmonton is much further from Banff than Calgary is. Banff is located approximately 400-km from Edmonton. The fastest way to go to Banff from Edmonton would be to take highway AB-s South followed by the Trans-Canada Highway (also known as Highway 1). This will take around four hours. Another option would be to extend your drive and go to Jasper first and then to Banff via the world-famous Icefields Parkway.
How far is Banff from Vancouver?
The drive between Vancouver and Banff is one of the nicest in the world. It takes close to 10-hours and is around 900-km in length. It passes by a variety of national parks and is also not far from BC’s Okanagan Valley. If you go this route, we’d certainly recommend spending time along the way to see Kelowna, Yoho National Park, Revelstoke National Park, and Lake Louise at the very least. This way you’ll see incredible mountain scenery, one of Canada’s most prominent wine regions, and the Pacific Coast when you’re in Vancouver.
How far is Banff from Jasper?
The road from Banff to Jasper is called the Icefields Parkway and it has often been ranked as the most scenic highway in the world. Excited yet? If you have the time, we highly recommend doing this road trip while you’re here. Banff is about 288-km from Jasper, which will take a good three hours without stopping. But trust us, you will stop a lot. It’s better to assume the better part of a day for this trip, especially if you’re thinking of doing some short hikes along the way.
Getting to Banff By Train
The only passenger train that travels through Banff is the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxurious tourist train that connects Vancouver with Banff. We haven’t done it yet, but it looks beautiful. However, we’ve also heard that it’s far too expensive for what it offers. We’ve been told it costs approximately $1,500 for the two-day trip.
Getting to Banff By Bus
There are options for getting to Banff by bus from both Edmonton and Calgary, but Calgary is the most convenient. Options include;
There’s also the Rider Express, which takes you from Vancouver to Calgary or Banff for just $122.87.
Banff National Park Weather
The weather in Banff varies quite a bit between seasons. In the summer, you can expect highs of +25 Celsius and as low as -40 Celsius in the winter. In the summer, you’ll have long nights where the sun doesn’t set until 10 PM. In the winter, the sun will set around 5 PM. Each season has pros and cons, but as long as you have the right clothes, each season is truly awesome in its own way.
Banff Park Pass
If you visit Banff, a Banff Park Pass, or the Parks Canada Discovery Pass, is needed when visiting any national park in Canada. The fees are as follow:
- Adult: $9.80
- Senior: $8.30
- Youth: free
- Family/Group: $19.60
- Commercial Group, per person: $8.30
Parks Canada Discovery Pass (One Year Pass)
- Adult: $67.70
- Senior: $57.90
- Family/Group: $136.40
Basically, if you’re staying more than seven days in any national park in Canada within a year, you’re better off just buying the yearly pass. Plus, you’ll get entrance to all the historical sites as well.
Banff is a great place to visit at any time of the year.
Things to Do in Banff in the Summer
When the views of the Canadian Rockies aren’t mesmerizing you, you’ll probably be looking for things to do in Banff National Park. There are so many things to do, including a variety of tourist attractions, Banff sightseeing, natural attractions, hiking trails, ski resorts, and more. While the list below isn’t fully comprehensive, it does sum up the top things to do in Banff. Since summer is the most popular time to visit, we’ll start with that.
Canada’s summers are beautiful, not only because they’re warm, but because they’re very long. In Banff, you’ll have daylight until 9 PM or later, which allows you to accomplish a lot in a day. The warmth makes this season the most comfortable time to visit and also gives you an opportunity to see the many turquoise-colored lakes.
The downside is that it’s VERY BUSY and VERY EXPENSIVE. Hotels sell out months in advance, especially from July to September, and camping sells out as well. You’ll definitely want to book as far in advance as you can.
Tip: If you’re not eager to drive, check out the Banff National Park Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.
In the summer, flowers decorate all the light poles and the patios are full of life. Since Covid began, Banff has also turned its main street into a pedestrian-friendly zone where restaurants and bars have extended their patios and good vibes.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
This is where it all started. It’s because of the hot springs at the Cave and Basin that Banff became a national park. I’d go into the history here but it’s better if you visit the site and learn for yourself. The entrance is free with an annual park pass or a small fee without one. If you’re lucky, you may even spot one of the rarest snails in the world.
One of the most popular Banff activities during the summer is hiking. Since the Canadian Rockies are one of the most beautiful places on Earth and very wild, it’s home to hundreds of hikes for all levels of fitness. There are plenty of half-day hikes, full-day hikes, and multi-day hikes.
Some are easy and relatively flat while some take you to the top of the mountains. We’ll be creating a separate article just for hiking in Banff but some of the best hikes near Banff that don’t require heavy training are Sundance Canyon, Johnston Canyon, Boom Lake, Sunshine Meadows, Tunnel Mountain, and Sulphur Mountain.
Banff Helicopter Tours
Although popular in the summer, taking a flightseeing tour over Banff National Park is one of the coolest things you can do in the winter as well. If you think the mountains and lakes look spectacular from the ground, imagine how they look from the air!
Helicopter tours take place throughout the year depending on the weather and offer anywhere from 20-minute flights to a full hour. Some people even take them to the top of a mountain where you can have dinner, go hiking, do yoga, or even get married! The possibilities are endless.
If you want to feel like you’re on top of the world, a trip up the Gondola is a must. This gondola will take you up to the top of Sulphur Mountain, giving you views over the town and various mountain ranges. There’s a variety of platforms that take you to different lookout points and there’s also a restaurant, bar, and coffee shop.
It is quite expensive, but if you do want to save money, you can also hike to the top. There’s a trail that starts right where the gondola begins and it takes close to two hours to make it to the summit. From there, you can hike back down or take the gondola. Sometimes it’s free and sometimes it’s half price on the way down.
The Banff Gondola is a great activity all year-round.
Visit the Banff Castle
The Fairmont Banff Springs is often known as the Banff Castle and rightfully so. It does look like a castle. Even if you’re not staying there, it’s well worth the visit. It’s beautiful inside and out, and anyone is welcome to tour the hotel. There are also a few restaurants inside if you want to enjoy a meal in Banff’s most famous hotel. A foodie tour from here is ideal for the hungry and adventurous.
Tip: Don’t miss the gorgeous Bow Falls.
Note: The Banff Castle is a great place to visit year-round. In fact, in the winter, they also host Christmas at the Castle for everyone who loves Christmas decorations and activiites.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Winter or summer, the Upper Hot Springs is a very popular attraction. Who doesn’t like to sit in hot mineral water while relaxing amidst the views of the Canadian Rockies? My favourite time to visit is during the winter when the trees are covered in snow, and the water feels extra nice. This is a great year-round activity.
One of the coolest things we’ve ever done in the Canadian Rockies was when we went on a 6-day horseback riding experience in the backcountry. We stayed in luxury tents, ate gourmet cuisine, rode horses up and down mountains, and spent the nights singing songs around the fire.
It was an incredible experience but even if you can’t spare a week, many companies offer trips ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. Whether you’re a beginner or practically a cowboy, there’s an option for you.
With raging rivers all around Banff National Park and nearby British Columbia, river rafting is one of the most fun and exciting things to do during the summer. If you want the biggest thrills, go in the spring when the water is just starting to melt in the mountains and the rivers are extra powerful. There are also scenic and calm trips for those wanting more views than thrills.
Summer or winter, Johnston Canyon is one of the most scenic hikes in the area. It’s also one of the easiest and busiest. You’ll get to walk through the forest, right alongside a canyon and river, eventually making it to a stunning waterfall. Actually, there are multiple waterfalls and one of them is accessible through a cave! In the summer, the waterfalls are flowing like normal, but in the winter, they freeze, creating one of the most beautiful works of natural art you’ll ever see. Highly recommended!
Although the Bow Valley Parkway that takes you to Johnston Canyon is currently closed to vehicle traffic, you can go on a guided tour. In fact, the Bow Valley Parkway is now the perfect place to go biking as you’ll get a paved highway, stunning scenery, and zero traffic! One of the new tours being offered in 2021 is an e-bike tour from Banff, which we’ll talk about below.
Guided e-Bike Tours of Banff and Beyond
Banff is such a great place to see by bike, and with the current highway closures in places like Bow Valley Parkway, 2021 is the perfect year to take a guided e-Bike tour with White Mountain Adventures. They offer a number of tours, including tours of the Banff townsite, Legacy Trail and Canmore, and as mentioned above, an e-bike ride to Johnston Canyon! What makes an e-bike tour is awesome is that you can go much further without wearing yourself out. You can peddle as hard you want or not peddle as well thanks to the electric motor. Plus, your getting a tour, which will give you info and insight that you wouldn’t get on your own. We’re looking forward to trying this out this year.
Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is a scenic drive with a variety of stops along the way. It provides a nice break from the main Trans-Canada Highway and is much narrower and more scenic. This is the road you’ll take to find Johnston Canyon, but there’s also a variety of other scenic lookout points and hikes. This is a beautiful short drive in both summer and winter.
This is the second longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies, which has resulted in a power dam at the west end. This dam caused a big flood “back in the day”, leaving an old town underwater. For this reason, scuba diving in the lake is popular, even in the winter. This lake can be seen from the top of Sulphur Mountain, which is accessible via hiking or the gondola. You can also drive to the lake and go on a scenic boat cruise.
Quite possibly the most famous lake in Alberta, if not the country, visiting the lakeside area is one of the top things to do in Lake Louise. It’s a Banff must-see. The scenic turquoise lake is always surrounded by tourists looking for the best photo or paddling around in a canoe, which you can rent on-site.
There’s also the famous Chateau Lake Louise, another Fairmont hotel that sits right next to the lake. Many people simply enjoy the views while others might want to get on the lake or go for a hike. Tip: You can bring your own water vessels, such as a kayak or paddleboard, but there is no area to bring a car. So, whatever you bring, make sure you can walk with it!
Located close to Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is another beautiful mountain lake.
In fact, it’s more beautiful than Lake Louise in our opinion. The only downfall is that it has become a victim of its own success. In the summer, getting to this lake is difficult. If you’re not there before breakfast, the chances of getting your car to the lake are very slim.
Instead, you’d have to take a shuttle, which has a price attached to it. In the winter, the road is closed, so the only way to get there would be to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. However, this is an avalanche area so it’s not recommended to go right to the lake. Another option is to stay at Moraine Lake Lodge, giving you access to the lake at night and in the early morning when very few people are there.
Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper
Known as one of the most scenic drives in the entire world, the Icefields Parkway is well worth the drive. It starts close to world-famous Lake Louise and goes all the way north to Jasper, Alberta. The 230-km highway snakes its way around some of the most beautiful scenery in the whole world, including towering mountains, lush pine forest, turquoise rivers, and lakes. As well as various glaciers.
There are many things to do and see along the way, including popular stops such as Peyto Lake, the Glacier Skywalk, the Columbia Icefield, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls. The highway is open year-round but is definitely safer (at least for those with no experience driving on icy roads) in the spring, summer, and fall.
This glacier-fed lake is accessible from the world-famous Icefields Parkway. The lake itself is not easy to get to but the viewpoint to see the lake from high above is only a 20-minute hike.
Due to the significant amounts of glacial rock flour that flows into the lake during the summer, it becomes a stunningly bright turquoise colour. Which has helped to make it one of the most photographed lakes in Canada. This is simply a stop to admire the view and take some photos.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains and is the most popular stop on the Icefields Parkway. Located in the Canadian Rockies along the border of British Columbia and Alberta, the icefield shares itself among two national parks, which include Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. It’s about 325 square kilometres in area and more than 365 metres deep! It’s an unbelievable sight to see and can be viewed right from the highway.
However, most people opt to take the Glacier Adventure tour, which takes you right onto the glacier aboard a massive all-terrain Ice Explorer. From there, you can step out and actually walk on the glacier, sampling some of the fresh glacier water as well. During the peak Banff tourism season, you’ll want to book in advance. If you don’t have a car, they also offer Banff tours that will pick you up at your hotel and bring you here, making it a full-day trip.
The Glacier Skywalk is a popular add-on activity to the Glacier Adventure tour mentioned above. The Glacier Skywalk is a glass-bottom cliff-edge walkway that allows visitors to step out onto a platform separating you from a 918-foot (280 metres) drop.
The views don’t change much from the platform itself but for some, it’s an incredible thrill to walk on glass, looking down at the valley below you. There’s also an interpretative storytelling format that will educate you about the waterfalls, wildlife, fossils, and more during your visit.
Things to Do in Banff in the Winter
Canada’s winters are quite cold. In Banff, the sun will set around 5 PM, giving you less time to enjoy the day. However, the winter has its own magic. The snow creates a winter wonderland, which is something people often love, especially if they come from countries with no snow. It’s actually our favourite time to visit Banff, although we do miss hiking in the summer.
The winter also brings activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Plus, outside of holidays such as New Year and Christmas, the winter season is LESS BUSY and LESS EXPENSIVE.
Many activities are also year-round. Some of the best things to do in the winter that we also featured in the summer section include the Banff Gondola, the Banff Hot Springs, the Fairmont Banff Springs, the variety of road trips, and of course, strolling around the town itself.
For more, check out our full travel guide to Banff in the winter.
During the winter, Banff is home to world-class skiing and snowboarding. There are three famous ski resorts within the national park, including Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mount Norquay. The three ski resorts are collectively known as Ski Big 3 and they often have promotions for those wanting to defeat all of them.
Mount Norquay is the smallest of three but is the closest one to the town of Banff. It’s also slightly cheaper and an all-around beautiful place to ski for all ski levels.
Sunshine is the second biggest but is also very unique in that it is located higher up than the others. Just to get to the base of the resort, you need to take a 15-minute gondola ride. They’re also famous for their powder and are open all the way into late May, which is pretty gnarly. The views on a clear day can’t be beaten and their ski-down trail that goes to the parking lot is so much fun.
Last but not least, Lake Louise is the largest of the three and the second-largest ski resort in Canada. It’s our personal favourite, due both to the number of runs and how long they are. Lake Louise also has a gondola that takes people to the top and has a variety of restaurants and bars throughout the mountain. Despite its immense size and array of runs, they also have an excellent beginner area for those just learning. Plus, right across the street is the world-famous Lake Louise.
If you’re looking to Ski Banff, we highly recommend doing all three of them. Each is unique and we really can’t decide which one has the best views. All the views are just jaw-dropping and out of this world.
While hiking is popular in the summer, snowshoeing is popular in the winter. You can rent snowshoes from a variety of shops in town or at the ski resort, and enjoy a variety of trails free of charge. This is basically the winter version of hiking and is a great way to get some exercise, enjoy the great outdoors, and see some views without breaking the bank.
Ice Magic Festival
If you can make it to Banff National Park in late January, we highly recommend checking out the Ice Magic Festival at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Not only is it incredible to see the artists create such dramatic art out of massive blocks of ice, but it also happens to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Best Places to Stay in Banff
There are so many hotels in Banff that we could create a website dedicated solely to where to stay. However, just to give you some ideas, we’re going to list some of the places we’ve liked staying in over the years. Thanks to its extreme popularity, there are all sorts of Banff accommodation options, including hotels, motels, hostels, and campgrounds. We’ve stayed at many hotels over the years and all of them are great in different ways.
If you’re visiting in the summer, booking in advance is highly recommended, as the entire town does sell out. In fact, prices can quadruple in the summer months, so it can be expensive. During the winter, prices drop and availability is much better, except for popular times such as New Year’s Eve.
Some of our favourite places to say are below:
Dorothy Motel (Budget)
One of Banff’s newest accommodations, the Dorothy Motel is the best budget option (other than a hostel) in the area. It’s beautiful, modern, and has big open rooms with all the needed amenities such as a fridge, microwave, TV, and more. They also have a beautiful courtyard in the middle of the motel, which is something we haven’t seen in Banff before. In the winter, rates are often below $100 but in the summer, you’ll be looking at closer to $250 per night.
Other options include Big Horn Motel, the Drake Inn, Homestead Inn Banff, YWCA Banff Hotel, King Edward Hotel, and many more.
Best Western Plus Siding 29 Lodge (Mid-Range)
If you follow our YouTube channel, you probably know that we work quite often with Best Western hotels. We love them. They’re located almost everywhere and provide very good service and amenities for a decent price. Not only do all Best Western’s offer great value but this one was also very recently renovated. Located on Marten Street, a short walk from all the action, this hotel includes a hot buffet breakfast and free parking.
Other options include Banff Park Lodge, Mount Royal Hotel, Buffalo Mountain Lodge, and many more.
Fairmont Banff Springs (Luxury)
For a date night, we once stayed in the Fairmont Banff Springs. This is a very expensive hotel with rates normally starting around $500. The rooms are not all that big and the windows are quite small, but the hotel itself, as well as the amenities, are amazing. (update: The hotel has recently gone under renovations and some of the rooms are now very spacious and modern.)
Just staying in the famous “Banff Castle” is an experience in and of itself. It has its own massive outdoor hot spring, which makes it a nice place for a quiet evening. There’s also a variety of restaurants on-site, shops, and a spa. From the back, there’s also the beautiful Bow Falls, which can be seen with a short hike. For a fancy date night, the Fairmont was great.
Other options include Chateau Lake Louise and the Rimrock Resort Hotel.
There’s also camping in Banff with some of the most popular options being Tunnel Mountain Village 2 Campground, Two Jack Main, Johnston Canyon, Castle Mountain, Lake Louise, and many more. For those who RV in Canada, some of these campgrounds offer full hookups. For more information, check out our article about camping in Alberta.
Want more? Check out our complete guide for Where to Stay in Banff!
Where to Eat in Banff
Although Banff is technically a small town of fewer than 10,000 people, it receives millions of visitors each year and has thus become quite the destination for food and drinks. There are lots of incredible Banff restaurants, and we highly recommend clicking on our Banff restaurant guide to learn about our 15 favourite restaurants, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, and much more. Our top recommendations as of now are Block Kitchen + Bar, Masala Authentic Indian Cuisine, Coyotes Southwestern Grill (also amazing for breakfast), Shoku Izakayu, and Nourish Bistro Vegan Restaurant.
Videos about Things to Do in Banff
Below are some of the videos we’ve made about Banff. For more, check out our Youtube channel, which features the best of Canada!
What’s Next? Things To Do Near Banff
Whether you’re visiting Banff for the first time or coming for a weekend away from Calgary, we hope this article helped you plan the best trip possible. Once you’ve exhausted these things to see in Banff, there are also many things to do around Banff National Park. So, if you’re looking for more things to do that aren’t so far away, you might want to consider:
- Visiting Canmore and camping in Spray Lakes Provincial Park, one of the popular Alberta Parks.
- Spending time in Calgary. For a city with more than a million people, there are many things to do in Calgary.
- Exploring Jasper National Park. This park is just as scenic as Banff National Park but a little more isolated. Considering it makes up half the Icefields Parkway, I’d recommend doing that road trip and spending time in Jasper as well.
- Exploring Yoho National Park. This is the first national park you’ll drive through in British Columbia if you head west from Banff. It’s gorgeous.
- Driving to the Kootenays. Calgarians love the Kootenays because they are quieter than Banff and just as scenic. There are many gems in the area, including Panorama Ski Resort and the famous Radium Hot Springs.
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