I love visiting national parks all over the world. Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada was at the top of my list to visit for years and luckily, I was able to take advantage of a July 4th long weekend for some long-awaited exploration. If you want to maximize your time spent sightseeing and hiking instead of driving or looking for parking, this Banff travel guide is the perfect place to start when planning your trip!
Know Before You Go
If you take anything away from this Banff travel guide, it’s these tips you need to know before you go so you’re fully prepared.
- Driving in Canada for international visitors: Make sure you have your international driver’s license squared away before leaving your home country. From the U.S? You can get your International Driving Permit (IDP) from AAA.
- Rent a car: A car for the duration of your trip will allow for the most flexibility when traveling around Banff. There are countless beautiful views you’ll see while driving and with a rental car, you can stop as frequently as you’d like! It does come with downsides, though…like parking.
- Parking: Even though renting a car is recommended, car parking is a major challenge in Banff. The best times to find parking near Lake Louise or Moraine Lake are between 6-8AM or after 4PM, so you’ll want to make sure you plan accordingly. If the lots next to the lakes are full, you may need to drive to a lot further away and take a shuttle. I still advise on renting a car so you don’t have to work around a bus schedule or other transportation.
- Unpredictable Weather: The weather changes frequently in Banff, even in summer. Be prepared for sunshine to quickly transition into clouds and rain every now and then both when you’re driving and walking or hiking aorund. Pack layers of clothes when going on longer hikes (check out my go-to packing gear here!).
Where to Eat & Drink in Downtown Banff
No Banff travel guide is complete without mentioning the best places to eat and drink in town. There are countless bars & restaurants in Banff and we did stop in to a few outside this list, but these are the favorites that I’d love to return to!
- Banff Ave Brewing: Great spot for craft beer and pub food right on Banff Ave. This was the perfect stop after a long day out sightseeing! Highly recommend the IPAs!
- St. James’s Gate: An old Irish pub right in the heart of downtown Banff, this was a cozy spot to grab a quick drink as we waited for our table at Bear Street Tavern.
- Bear Street Tavern: Be ready to have to put your name down and wait, but it’s worth it for the pizza! This was definitely our favorite casual dinner spot in Banff.
- Juniper Bistro: Eat here if you want to experience delicious Canadian cuisine with a stunning view. This is a great spot for drinks on the patio, too!
- Park Distillery: A nice place to sit outside and eat on Banff Ave.
- Tim Horton’s: Seriously! You won’t have time for a leisurely breakfast if you’re headed up to Lake Louise or Moraine Lake early in the morning. We made a quick stop by the local Tim Horton’s and ate breakfast on the daily drive up to lakes every day.
Where to Stay
Banff has so many hotels and I only stayed at a couple of them, so instead of giving you recommendations on places I haven’t stayed, I’ll offer some advice. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is really beautiful to walk around in and explore, but Lake Louise is about a 40-minute drive from downtown Banff and you’ll be limited to eating and exploring in the hotel itself since Lake Louise is fairly remote.
I did stay at Juniper Hotel Banff and loved it. The hotel is located right by the highway so it’s very quick and easy to head to the lakes and Jasper National Park without experiencing traffic downtown. It’s worth it to sacrifice the convenience of staying closer to downtown to stay at Juniper. The staff are really nice and they will lend you bear spray so you don’t have to buy your own and waste it when your trip is over. And another plus: Juniper Bistro is just inside!
What to Do In & Around Banff
Aside from eating and drinking downtown in Banff, here are a few top things to do in the area:
- Ride the Banff Gondola: One of the first things I always recommend doing when exploring a new destination is to see it from above so you can get your bearings. Take the Gondola to the Gondola Summit, explore the observation deck, and stroll the boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak to take in the aerial view of Bow Valley and the downtown Banff down below.
- Visit Fairmont Banff Springs: Swing by to bask in the historic architecture and grab a drink while enjoying the valley views. This hotel is one of the grand railway hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and is a National Historic Site of Canada.
- Tunnel Mountain drive: Taking this scenic route will take you less than 10 minutes from downtown Banff. It’s great for hiking and biking.
- Relax in the hot springs: My one regret it not soaking in the Banff Upper Hot Springs near downtown. The rain deterred me, but it looks so amazing! Warm up at the hot spring if you get the chance!
The moment you’ve been waiting for is the moment you see the lakes in Banff for the first time. You won’t forget it. I have to reiterate it: arrive at Lake Louise early! It will get very crowded and parking is a huge pain point. Get in early to save yourself the time and trouble of parking further away or taking the shuttle. Aside from taking photos of the lake, there lots of other fun things to do:
- Explore Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: You’ll undoubtedly end up at the Fairmont Lake Louise at least once or twice on your trip to Banff. The hotel itself is beautiful. When you’re not photographing the lake or hiking around, take some time to walk the visitors’ areas, grab something to eat or drink at the bars and restaurants and get some souvenirs to take home.
- Lake Agnes Tea House hike (4.7 miles roundtrip): Start from the right side of Lake Louise and work your way up the switchbacks to the Lake Agnes Tea House, which dates back to 1901 when the Canadian Pacific Railway built it as a rest stop for hikers. Expect a long line for tea when you reach the tea house — you may want to bring snacks with you just in case. And don’t forget: the tea house is cash-only!
- Little Beehive (5.6 miles roundtrip) or Big Beehive trails (6.4 miles loop): If you’re looking for more adventure and elevation after arriving at the Lake Agnes Tea House, continue on to the Little Beehive or Big Beehive trails, and prepare for some steep hiking!
- Canoeing or Kayaking: A must on either Lake Louise or Moraine Lake! The cost is about $55-65 CAD an hour for non-guests of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise depending on whether it’s low or high season. I do think this is worth the experience despite the cost if you don’t have your own canoe or kayak, especially on a sunny day.
- Ice skating: I visited Banff in July so this almost slipped my mind, but you can skate the ice on Lake Louise in winter! It looks like a truly amazing experience that I’d love to try on another visit.
Keep in mind that if it’s raining, it only gets foggier as you ascend while hiking. We ended up heading back down to Lake Louise after hiking up to the Lake Agnes Tea House instead of continuing onward because we couldn’t see anything beyond the thick fog after the rain. If views are what you’re after, you won’t get them as you ascend in the rain or fog.
- Rockpile Trail: This short and easy trail will take you up to the most popular viewpoint of Moraine Lake.
- Shoreline Trail: Walk around Moraine Lake to see the canoes, floating logs, and rocks along the shoreline.
- Canoeing: Prices are a bit more steep at Moraine Lake at about $120 CAD per hour. It’s an unforgettable experience worth the money if you want to glide along the glacier waters that are so blue it looks like you’re floating on Gatorade.
- Larch Valley, Sentinel Pass, and Tower of Babel: Try these longer hikes above Moraine Lake if you have the time and energy. These are just a few of the long hikes you can venture on. The next time I’m in Banff, I plan to do one of these!
- Johnston Canyon: One of the most beautiful spots in Banff that isn’t one of the lakes is Johnston Canyon. The blue-green water of Johnston Creek ebbs and flows through the dramatic canyon walls and into stunning waterfalls. This is definitely a short hike that you must do in Banff with lots of places to stop and take photos of the waterfalls.
- Icefields Parkway: This drive between Banff and Jasper is of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on. Take it slow and be prepared to stop for views of all the lakes, including one of my favorites: Peyto Lake! Keep your eyes peeled; you may even bump into some black bears.
- Peyto Lake: This milky blue glacier-fed lake is so worth the 40-minute drive from Lake Louise (it’s a one-hour drive from Banff). Hike to the viewpoint for a breathtaking aerial view of Peyto Lake. This is sure to be one of your favorite lakes
- Athabasca Glacier: Take a walking tour on the most-visited glacier in North America. It’s a beautiful glacier (and special for me, I got engaged here!) and feels very surreal to be walking on a glacier. Truthfully, it pales in comparison to Perito Moreno in Argentina, but if you’ve never seen a glacier, you should go. Dress warmly in waterproof gear in summer, the weather can change quickly to rain.
- Jasper National Park: Continue driving north on the Icefields Parkway and you’ll land in Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. This is one place I’d love to explore more next time I visit Banff, we only visited the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper.
- Columbia Icefield Skywalk: A glass floor walkway with views over Sunwapta Valley and surrounding glaciers.
It was a challenge to create a Banff travel guide because there is so much to do that I didn’t get a chance to experience myself. I covered a lot of ground on my trip, but there are countless other activities to do in Banff that I didn’t list here like rafting, fishing, and horseback riding. Banff really is a haven for adventure enthusiasts. Whatever you want to do, you will find your adventure in Banff!