11 Best Things to Do in Banff (Besides Skiing)
There are many reasons Banff is the ultimate skiing destination: ample snowfall, gorgeous mountains and a plethora of lodging options. But there’s so much more to do in this famous resort town off the slopes. Here’s what you can do in Banff—without snow.
Why Banff Should Be at the Top of Your Bucket List
Canada’s first national park has it all: breathtaking mountains and lakes, incredible nightlife and—thanks largely to the many local chefs, farmers and distillers who work closely with one another—a rising, enviable food scene. It’s true that Banff is a world-class winter sports destination, but would you believe us if we told you that life off the slopes is just as fun as life on them? Put your parkas and toques back into storage: our guide of things to do in Banff will help you see another side of this legendary Rocky Mountain town.
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1. Explore Banff’s Food and Arts Scene
Banff may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of “world-class culinary destination,” but the town’s food scene is booming. In fact, the Cochon555 Signature Competition (shown above)—a nose-to-tail culinary event dedicated to heritage breed pigs and featuring North America’s top chefs, sommeliers and bartenders—was hosted in Canada for the first time last April at the Fairmont Banff Springs. There’s plenty to do in Banff for every kind of traveller: for starters, the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival begins on Oct. 27, while the Banff Craft Beer Festival runs from Nov. 22-24.
2. Brunch at Juniper Hotel Bistro
One common thread that runs through the restaurants in Banff: Alberta-sourced ingredients. There are plenty of brunch spots around town, but few serve meals as delicious as the ones offered at Juniper Bistro. Boasting a panoramic view of the mountains near Vermilion Lakes and modernist architecture (think wall-to-wall glass), the dishes at Juniper are the perfect way to kick off a day of cycling, hiking or canoeing. Hearty eaters will want to order the hanger steak with sunny side eggs, red pepper relish, oven-dried tomato and brown butter hash. Keep an eye out for the elk and coyotes on the habitat corridor behind the hotel!
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3. Marvel at Lake Louise
Although a frozen Lake Louise has its own charms, you haven’t seen how beautiful this place really is until you’ve witnessed its crystal-turquoise waters. Rent a canoe from the Fairmont Chateau next door, or better yet, take a paddle board lesson for a truly memorable experience. A 10-minute drive east is Lake Louise Ski Resort, which features some of the best skiing terrain in North America. Past the thaw, however, and it becomes a premier hiking destination. Book a guided half-day hiking tour and discover the Bow Glacier Trail.
4. Ride the Banff Gondola
No view encapsulates the majesty of Banff National Park like the 360-degree outlook from the summit of Sulphur Mountain. Four-person gondolas take riders to the top—7,486 feet above sea level—in just eight minutes, with plenty of wildlife to be spotted below. The glass-and-steel terminal building features two restaurants, an interpretive centre and theatre. Have more time on your hands than originally planned? Check out the Banff Gondola Boardwalk: a one-kilometre trail leading from the terminal building to the summit of Sanson Peak (named after park meteorologist Norman Sanson, who hiked up the mountain over 1,000 times!)
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5. Feast on a Mountaintop at Sky Bistro
Sky Bistro is where mountaintop dining and Banff’s farm-to-table cooking philosophy collide. Located on the third floor of the Banff Gondola terminal building, it’s one of the most revered restaurants in town. Sustainable eaters need not worry: Chef Scott Hergott sources many of his products from local ranches, including Bear and the Flower Farm, and the restaurant is a partner of seafood conservation program Ocean Wise. Although the twice-baked pork belly and trout Niçoise are highly recommended, our top pick would have to be the stout-braised Alberta beef short rib with foraged B.C. mushrooms and pomme puree. A trip to Banff wouldn’t be complete without a meal at Sky Bistro.
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6. Delve Into the Cave & Basin National Historic Site
In 1883, three Canadian Pacific Railway workers discovered hot springs in a cave at the base of Sulphur Mountain. A log cabin was built to mark the entryway, and soon, Banff National Park was born. Guided tours to the heart of the hot springs reveal the fascinating role the area’s thermal waters have played for Canada’s Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Save yourself the embarrassment and don’t take your swimsuit to this site, however: the sulphur-scented waters are home to the endangered Banff springs snail and swimming is punishable with a hefty fine. (For public bathing, head to the Upper Hot Springs.)
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7. Go Beef or Go Home at Chuck’s Steakhouse
Located on Main Street in downtown Banff, the menu of Chuck’s Steakhouse reads like a greatest hits of the best beef Sunshine Province has to offer: steak tartare with bone marrow, Alberta-raised Wagyu bone-in striploin, and natural angus ribeye from Benchmark Farms in nearby Lethbridge. The cattle that form the backbone of Chuck’s Steakhouse are raised eating Alberta’s long sweet grass, grown from mineral-rich soil. A laid-back vibe and dark wood paneled walls conjure ranches and saloons of the old. Need more convincing that Chuck’s is the best beef experience in town? It’s the only restaurant in Banff to dry-age its meat in-house.
8. Soak Up the Scenery at Vermilion Lakes
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of Main Street and stop by Banff’s most underrated spot: Vermilion Lakes. Located 2.4 kilometres from town and easily accessed by car or bike, these three lakes comprise a lush network of marshlands in the Bow Valley. Relax along the shores of the lake and marvel at the spectacular views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain. Explore the leisurely hiking trails near Vermilion, or paddle across their serene waterways. Wildlife such as elk and moose can often be spotted in the surrounding woodlands.
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9. Sample the Spirits at Park Distillery
A distillery in the middle of a Canadian national park? Sounds unlikely, but Park Distillery is a perfect fit for Banff. Using water culled from six glaciers high in the Rocky Mountains and premium grains sourced from family farms in the Alberta foothills, the spirits at Park Distillery are hand-milled, hand-mashed and hand-distilled. There are many to choose from: Glacier Rye, Barrel Aged Gin, Alpine Dry Gin and Vanilla Vodka, among others. Dinner menu highlights include a smoky, wood-fired rotisserie chicken, cornbread with maple whiskey butter, and prime rib with horseradish and roasted garlic.
10. Go on an Indigenous Interpretive Walk
When Canada’s First Nations people needed to differentiate poisonous fruits from edible ones, they observed the diets of bears—after all, humans and bears have similar physiologies. That knowledge of plant medicine was passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years, and now is in the hands of people like Brenda Holder. Enter Mahikan Trails. Founded by Holder, a Métis guide, this Indigenous company offers visitors a deeper understanding of the land that comprises Banff National Park. Learn how to survive in the wilderness by taking Mahikan’s plant medicine and first aid tours, or craft authentic Indigenous clothing through their bead-work and moccasin-making classes.
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11. Unwind at Buffalo Mountain Lodge
For the perfect blend of luxury and coziness, book your stay at Buffalo Mountain Lodge. Situated on Tunnel Mountain and surrounded by nine acres of spruce, pine and fir trees, this peaceful mountain retreat is just a 15-minute walk away from downtown Banff. Room amenities include a fieldstone wood-burning fireplace (stocked daily with fresh firewood) and Blu-ray player. Whether you’re looking for the deer and elk that can be regularly spotted on the grounds or ending your day in the lodge’s outdoor stainless steel hot tub, Buffalo Mountain Lodge makes an ideal home base for your Banff adventure. For a truly lavish stay, book a Premier Room with heated slate floors, clawfoot tub and a spacious patio.
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