Banff just blue us away and I’m excited to share my travel guide to the most Instagrammable place in Alberta, Canada!
What You Should Know
- We flew into Calgary International Airport (YYC) and rented a car. From there, it’s about a 90-minute drive to Banff National Park. You can pay for a shuttle to transport you to Banff and take public transit to and from different sights, but if you’re planning to explore on your own terms, I’d rent a car.
- Upon arriving at the entrance of Banff National Park, we paid an entrance fee of $9 CAD per person per day, which expires at 4:00 PM of the last day, no matter when you purchase the ticket.
- Credit cards are widely accepted — in fact, we didn’t encounter any shops, restaurants or convenience stores that didn’t take cards.
- Restrooms are called washrooms in Canada. Not really a need to know, but thought I would share — ha!
- My tip when planning your itinerary: If you have the time, dedicate one attraction per day and go very early! During peak season (summer), popular sights get crowded fast! And it’s no fun waiting in long lines only to be stuck shoulder to shoulder with people all fighting for the same photo!
Where to Stay
Canalta Lodge: We found this hotel last minute on Travelocity and was attracted to its charming decor, modern rooms and laidback courtyard — complete with fire pits, hot tubs and a sauna. It’s on Banff Ave. — the main road through town — and just a five minute drive or 20-minute walk to downtown. I thought it was the perfect location, reasonably priced and most importantly, clean. They have free breakfast, but it’s not the best.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louis: If money was no object, I would have totally stayed at the Fairmont (there’s also another location in the town of Banff). This gorgeous hotel was right on the water at Lake Louise — you really can’t beat the location. Staying here would have cut hours of travel time to and from the lakes, but it would’ve also left us broke, so…. priorities.
What to Do
Lake Louise: Probably the most popular destination in all of Banff — you’ve probably seen photos of this crystal blue lake on Instagram at one point in your life. A blog recommended getting to the lake before 8:00 AM or after 7:00 PM to avoid the crowds. On our first night, we arrived by 7:30 PM and it was perfect. Not too crowded, plus the lighting was much softer. Most importantly, there was enough space to take photos without anyone else in the background! We came back the next day around 2:00 PM and it was complete chaos!
Mormaine Lake: Lake Louise took our breath away, but it actually pales in comparison to Mormaine Lake! About 20 minutes away, the water is a richer, deeper, more insanely stunning shade of turquoise. It even puts the Caribbean to shame! During peak season though, you need to get there incredibly early! Parking is limited and once the lot is full, they close the road and force you to take a shuttle. We arrived at 8:00 PM and parking was already full, so we parked at Lake Louise (which filled up shortly after), waited 45 minutes in line to buy shuttle tickets ($6 CAD per person round trip), and then another 20 minutes to catch the shuttle. But it was all worth it, because once we got there, we took a five-minute walk up the Rock Pile for a breathtaking vantage point. Once you get up there, go off the beaten path and climb over some of the rocks to get away from the crowd and take a shot like the one above (we used a tripod and James’ Apple Watch to take the photo!).
Canoeing at Lake Louise or Mormaine Lake: It’s a pricey activity ($120 CAD per hour), but if you can afford it, I’d say it’s well worth it to be on the water! James did most of the paddling, but my shoulders were still sore from the workout!
Johnston Canyon: Only 25 minutes away from Banff, this is an easy and popular hike. The paved path runs alongside a crystal clear creek, which culminates in two waterfalls — the Lower Falls (about 20-25 minutes) and the Upper Falls (another 40 minutes). We were trying to visit the secret cave (pictured here), but sadly the trail was closed to protect endangered wildlife.
Banff Gondola: We’ve done a few cable cars/gondolas before and were curious to see a panoramic view of Banff from above. The gondola is expensive (about $70 CAD per person), so if this is out of your budget I’d say skip it. The views of town and the river were nice, but not as stunning as some of the views you’ll find deeper into the national park.
Where to Eat
Where the Buffalo Roam Saloon: Twenty minutes outside of Banff is a cute town called Canmore. On our first day, we stopped here for lunch and drinks, and it didn’t disappoint! We ordered mussels in the most delicious red curry broth and an order of fries, because duh. For cocktails, I got the Mezcal & Mango and James ordered the Bourbon Sour — both were well-made and just what the doctor ordered after our drive from Calgary!
Park Distillery: This place was poppin’ at 9:00 PM! They distill their own vodka and gin and serve a variety of dishes — including creative cocktails and an entire menu dedicated to vegetarians. James ordered the bison steak, which came with the most amazing potatoes! I ordered tomato soup cooked with their house distilled chili cook — it made for a really interesting flavor! Don’t bother with the cornbread though — nothing special there.
Melissa’s Missteak: James and I met up with friends who happened to be in town. I read that Melissa’s Missteak was a Banff staple, but I was feeling a little meh about the food. I ordered an 8 oz New York strip and wasn’t too impressed. James had the ribs and he said it was really good, so maybe it was just me. If we had made a reservation in advance, I would’ve loved to go to Chuck’s Steakhouse (recommended to me by a co-worker who had just visited).
Cow’s Ice Cream: This cute ice cream shop loves a good bovine pun. We stopped by during a sunny afternoon and the line was out the door (always a good sign), but moved pretty quickly. James and I shared three scoops: Royal Cownadian Mint, Peanut Butter Chip Chip and Maple Walnut. They were all so creamy and flavorful, but the chocolate mint was our favorite!
Good Earth: A great stop for coffee and a snack! They have some pretty creative cold brew concoctions — I had the Cold Brew Fizz and James ordered a Pecan Caramel Cremosa, both delicious! We also ordered a Sicilian flatbread and a white chocolate berry scone for snacks.
Wild Flour Bakery: This artisan bakery is a great spot for a quick breakfast. I ordered the breakfast panini, which was an egg frittata sandwiched between two slices of fresh, crispy bread. They had some homemade hot sauce which was incredible! James ordered the granola, which came yogurt with a yummy berry compote. They had plenty of outdoor seating which is perfect during warmer weather!
Fairview at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: After spending the morning at Mormaine Lake, we came back to Lake Louise for lunch. Fairview is this gorgeous, mid-century modern inspired restaurant with large windows with views of the lake. I had the chicken parpadelle and James had the Niçoise salad.
Trailhead Cafe: Before heading back to Banff, we swung by this cafe, which is in the heart of the town of Lake Louise. They make an incredible dirty chai!