Few places in Canada are easier on the eyes than Banff, Alberta. Located in Banff National Park, the resort town boasts piercing glacier-fed lakes and an endlessly dramatic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. An all-season go-to that fuels passions for the outdoors, Banff is filled with some of Canada’s best hiking, biking and skiing. Meanwhile, its soothing natural hot springs and award-winning spas offer unmatched unwinding to counterbalance active days (or, for closer to home exercise, check out these close-to-Toronto day trip ideas).
Banff houses thoughtful food and drink options that accommodate varying cravings and budgets, from comforting fondue to fine dining with a side of unforgettable views. The town’s now-vibrant culinary scene has evolved in recent years, and – despite the COVID pandemic – a handful of new wining and dining additions gave the town something to talk about this summer.
Banff is small and condensed, making it simple to navigate your way around its lively restaurants, boutiques and château-style hotels by foot (and if you like that, check out Quebec City and the Fairmont Château Frontenac – the most photographed hotel in the world). For those who forego cars, many of the surrounding attractions – like the Banff Gondola, nearby ski resorts and Lake Louise – offer a shuttle service that departs from the town centre.
A stop at Lake Louise is mandatory on a Banff trip. The breathtaking hamlet is also located in Banff National Park, 57 kilometres from Banff, and is a popular travel bucket list staple. The star of the show is the glacial lake, which gleams a vibrant turquoise hue in the warmer months. Come winter, the frozen lake offers one of Canada’s most scenic skating rinks thanks to the surrounding snow-covered peaks. Though they undoubtedly shine in the beauty department, Banff and Lake Louise offer much more than just their looks.
Banff: What to do
Willow Stream Spa
At a time when wellness and relaxation are essential, Banff’s Willow Stream Spa is in fine form to deliver both thanks to a $3.5 million dollar expansion completed earlier this year. Located in the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – a castle-like property at the base of Mount Rundle – the award-winning spa offers a scenic and instantly soul-soothing alpine sanctuary. An outdoor whirlpool with a backdrop of the Rockies, restorative mineral pools and a fireplace-focused resting lounge are all part of the experience. The spa offers a variety of treatments, including couples’ services now enjoyed at a new couples’ suite.
For a memorable wintertime adventure and a sweeping display of natural art, hike to Johnston Canyon to explore its breathtaking frozen waterfalls, where a winding trail in the pristine wilderness opens onto the must-see destination. Adventure seekers can climb the Upper Falls – an activity that sounds more daunting than it actually is – or ice-walk up the canyon with a guide. Alternatively (and shamelessly), visit just for the photo ops.
Banff: Restaurants and breweries
Farm & Fire
Banff Avenue’s Elk + Avenue Hotel switched things up in spring 2020, when its Farm & Fire restaurant opened for business. Here, a well-rounded menu relies on the best fresh, local ingredients, from berries that make their way into chia seed and granola parfaits, and free-range eggs found in their eggs benny to Certified Angus Beef used for tartare. Slow-roasted and fire-based cooking techniques are the resounding themes in chef Scott Hergott’s offerings. A beverage programme that draws heavily upon local brews and spirits produced at Alberta’s micro-distilleries complements the comforting fare.
Banff Avenue Brewing Co.
Those with a soft spot for craft brews should add a stop at the Banff Avenue Brewing Co. – Banff’s only brewpub – to their travel itinerary. Here, all beer is brewed in-house with true Rocky Mountain water, complete with its enriching minerals. The decade-old, two-storey brewpub has a heated patio (making it a solid spot for après) and offers beer options from blonde ales to black pilsners and a raspberry hibiscus kettle-soured gose. Meanwhile, the cocktail-sipping set can enjoy an assortment of craft cocktails that include innovative options and beloved classics.
The Radiant – a personality-rich restaurant, parlour and lounge on Banff Avenue – is another 2020 addition. Housed within the historic Harmons building, the space underwent an extensive renovation. Going beyond its artistically curated food menu and creative cocktail offerings, it provides a platform for artists with a stage that’s had some (safe) use by everyone from cover bands to burlesque dancers, despite the spot’s mid-pandemic launch.
Luxurious fine-dining spot Eden adds French flavour to the Rimrock Resort Hotel. With a dining room overlooking a stunning mountain vista, the repeat Five Diamond-designated restaurant provides delicately crafted cuisine, with things like fresh scallops, prairie rancher grass-fed beef and artisan cheese. The elevated fare is accompanied by optional wine pairings drawn from an inventory of over 17,000 bottles.
Banff: Where to stay
Fairmont Banff Lake Louise
As one of the most iconic hotels in Canada, the Fairmont Banff Lake Louise overlooks the perpetually postcard-worthy Lake Louise. The sprawling, fairytale-like hotel’s rich history dates back over 100 years, when it was a base for outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists. With lake or mountain views, the rooms are well worth their first-class price tag. A photogenic ice bar and seven on-site restaurants mean guests don’t have to venture far for a quality meal or cocktail after a day on Lake Louise’s world-class ski slopes. Meanwhile, non-skiers can happily lose track of time in the indoor swimming pool, in the soothing full-service spa or simply gazing at the snow globe-like scenery out the window.