The storybook town of Banff — just an hour’s drive from Calgary — is somewhere you could spend many a season, and many Australians have done just that.
While international travel is yet to return to a complete sense of normalcy, this is the perfect time to visit somewhere like Banff before the world rushes back to its doorstep in force.
It’s little wonder Banff has been a tourist town as far back as the 19th century, given its bewildering natural beauty. Nearby hot springs, breathtaking lakes and soaring, white-tipped mountains make it a spectacular spot, even for the average Canadian.
There are about 9,000 residents in Banff, many of whom work in tourism and hospitality on its charmingly named main roads, including Beaver, Caribou, or Bear Street.
More than anything, this town really does seem like something from a fairy tale — or maybe a Christmas movie — with the quaint buildings lining the main street and signs swinging on their awnings beckoning you inside.
If you want to lean into the storybook feel of the town, you can book yourself a ride on a horse and carriage around town or — if you’re so bold — get up on horseback yourself.
There are plenty of horse riding shop fronts in Banff, but of course, it pays to call ahead for those busier months. After all, seeing the breathtaking mountain ranges from the car window is one thing, but doing it on horseback as you ride through the rugged countryside is entirely another.
Check out the art
Even a short stay in this town will make you want to take a part of it home with you, and thanks to a core group of passionate artists in the region, you can.
Whether you want a few prints from Paper Denn on Bear Street or hand-crafted blue quartz earrings that remind you of the crystalline lakes nearby from Quest Gallery — there’s so much shopping to do in town that you’ll definitely need to leave room in the suitcase.
Cave and Basin
The warm waters of the Basin, enclosed in a beautiful cave on the outskirts of Banff, have been used as a site for Indigenous storytelling for thousands of years.
Entering through a short tunnel, you might find this spot a little smaller than you’d expect compared to the vast lakes and river systems that dominate the region. But the Cave and Basin are the very reason that the Rocky Mountains became a national park. All it took was a couple of railroad workers to find this geothermal pool in the 1880s, and within just a few years, the national park was born.
About half an hour from Banff’s town centre is one of the most incredible sights in Canada.
Lake Louise is a huge freshwater lake, skirted on either side by gigantic mountains and home to the iconic Fairmont Chateau. It’s one place in the region you absolutely can’t miss, providing an incredible amount to do whatever the time of year.
Whether you’re ogling its unbelievably blue waters in the summer months or walking across its frozen surface in winter, there’s just no explaining the majesty of this spot until you visit.
The Fairmont is just a ten-minute drive from the ski fields and smack bang in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to stay there and experience this wonderland fully.
Near the broad open waters of Lake Louise is a canyon — a jaw-dropping attraction in its own right.
Many waterfalls run down the cliff faces at Johnston Canyon, where there’s a carefully mapped walking trail. It can get very icy in the winter months, but if you’ve got the right shoes, this spot is still worth the hike as the waterfalls freeze midway through their descent down the cliff faces to create their own spectacular sight.
It mightn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Rockies, but there are plenty of hot springs to experience in the region. There’s nothing quite like sitting in the mineral-rich, naturally heated pools as you overlook the mountains.
The closest hot springs to Banff are (no surprises here) the Banff Upper Hot Springs, just eight minutes from the town centre. If you’re up for the drive, there are other hot springs to explore, including the famous Radium Hot Springs in the Columbia Valley, about 90 minutes drive away.
Eat and drink
Perched at the very top of Sulphur Mountain is the iconic Sky Bistro. Reachable only by gondola (an attraction on its own), this is a fine dining experience that’s literally thousands of metres above sea level.
Marketing itself as a world-class taste of the Rockies, Sky Bistro offers a range of delicious fare from the fish that fill the surrounding lakes to the beef Alberta is so well known for.
Eden is famous throughout Banff and beyond as the only five-diamond restaurant in Western Canada.
With menus that change seasonally and 1400 different wines in the cellar, there’s no matching this venue when it comes to the fine dining scene in the area. Every detail is carefully curated, from the thread count of the tablecloths and napkins to the Austrian crystal — and that’s all before you take your first bite.
Proudly making all of its dishes from scratch, Juniper Bistro is not only the perfect place for dinner, but it also serves a sumptuous brunch complete with fresh salmon, stuffed French toast, and smoked ham.
This restaurant is masterful in turning the Canadian favourite — for example, a good old-fashioned burger or ribs –—into something a bit special, particularly with the mountain range views right outside the window.
The Grizzly House
Taking a step away from the fine dining scene, the Grizzly House is an institution in Banff and a favourite, particularly in winter, given the rich cheese fondue that’s become a restaurant staple. If you’re feeling adventurous, they also have an “exotic fondue dinner”, not for the faint of heart. It’s complete with alligator, rattlesnake, and buffalo.
The whole venue exudes log cabin ambience, and, yes, you’ll find the odd stuffed animal bust, too.
Where to stay
Fairmont Chateau and Fairmont Banff Springs
One of the icons of the Banff region, the colossal Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is right at the edge of Lake Louise and steeped with heritage and class. The Fairmont’s location, history and size make it unlike almost anywhere else in the world.
While a 40-minute drive from Banff, it’s worth spending at least a night at the Chateau, where you can enjoy views that thousands flock to see daily.
With spa treatments, in-house restaurants and activities that include canoeing in the summer and skiing in the winter — the Fairmont is an attraction unto its own.
For somewhere closer to Banff, Fairmont Banff Springs has the same degree of elegance and old world class as its cousin in Lake Louise but is just a short walk from the charming streets of town.
The Rimrock Resort Hotel
Home to the famous restaurant Eden, the Rimrock Resort Hotel is one of Banff’s favourite five-star establishments. The hotel blends style with earthy finishings to remind you that you’re in the very heart of the Rocky Mountains. Slightly elevated, the Rimrock overlooks the town, surrounding forests, and mountain vistas beyond.
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Lead image: SurangaLK