Why Go To Banff
If you’re itching to experience the lifestyle of a Swiss skiing village, but don’t want to fork over the cash for a trans-Atlantic flight, consider Banff. Thanks to its location in the heart of the Canadian Rockies near the southeastern border of Banff National Park – Canada’s first national park – taking trips here will decrease not only your flight time from the U.S. but also your expenses (although only marginally). Banff caters to intrepid explorers who prefer to end the day in a nice hotel rather than roughing it at the campgrounds (though, there are plenty of those, too). Opportunities for adventure abound, so pick your sport: Ski down Mount Norquay, hike to the massive, free-standing limestone pillars known as the Hoodoos, “scramble” up the face of the Stoney Squaw Mountain or bike along Healy Creek. When you are exhausted, retreat to your cozy (and warm) resort, and replenish yourself with a hefty helping of bison meat.
Best Months to Visit
The best times to visit Banff are June to August and December to March. Nature lovers will want to get to the park when the weather is warm and welcoming (and while the hotel rates in town are at a reasonable level). The skiers, however, will want to vacation in the height of winter. Depending on what you want to do, Banff can be seen as an almost year-round destination (although fall can be a bit of a gamble). Temperatures fluctuate dramatically throughout the year; average winter temperatures range from the single digits to the low 30s. During the summer, average temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. No matter when you choose to visit, plan to wear sunglasses, a hat and plenty of sunscreen to protect you against UV exposure: The sun at these alpine altitudes is strong.
How to Save Money in Banff
Sleep outside During the summer, camping in the national park is a cost-efficient alternative to overpriced hotels and a mean to immediately access the wilderness that you came to explore.
Book in advance In addition to selecting your accommodations, purchase your lift tickets and festival passes as early as possible.
Consider the Big3 Season Pass If you know you’re going to ski at all three of the area’s resorts (Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Mount Norquay), you may want to purchase this pass, which grants you access to all three, plus discounts on rentals, dining and lessons, among other perks.
Culture & Customs
Banff residents are generally friendly to tourists. Feel free to ask for help or directions.
During the day, dress is casual, especially if you’re planning to spend most of your time skiing or exploring the park. It is common to see hiking attire in restaurants during lunch. However, if you are planning to go to dinner, it’s best to bring slightly dressier attire. Make sure you bring warm clothing, particularly during the winter. Consider packing layers for summer trips as the temperature tends to fluctuate.
The Canadian dollar to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates; plan to check it before your trip. Most hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards. Similar to the U.S., an average tip is 15 percent. Taxicab drivers, tour guides and hotel bellmen are accustomed to being tipped about 10 percent, too. However, depending on the quality and nature of the service, tips can range from 10 to 20 percent.
What to Eat
Vegetarians should be aware that Banff restaurants specialize in meat. Expensive and moderately priced restaurants alike serve up healthy portions of Canadian specialties, such as elk, bison, venison and trout (the bedrock of Canadian Rocky Mountain cuisine). But even if you’re not a carnivore, you’ll still be able to find some vegetarian-friendly restaurants, including Nourish Bistro, which diners describe as a “hidden gem.”
Downtown Banff boasts plenty of casual eateries. Favorites include The Grizzly House (beloved for its fondue) and Block Kitchen and Bar (the eatery is small and so are its plates, but travelers like its intimate atmosphere).
If you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience, stray from the main drag and explore some of the side streets. For a hearty meal and rustic, mountain-style ambiance, travelers recommend restaurants in the northern part of town, such as the Sleeping Buffalo Restaurant & Lodge, which serves regional cuisine and offer incredible views of the mountains. For an even more stunning vantage point, head to Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar, which wows visitors with its menus and alpine views – seen through floor-to-ceiling windows. Eden, a AAA Diamond award winner in The Rimrock Resort Hotel is equally lauded for its inventive menu combining French and Canadian flavors, as well as the views of Rundle Mountain and Spray Valley.
Some of the major safety issues facing intrepid explorers of Banff National Park include altitude sickness, weather-related ailments and animal encounters.
Those who are not used to mountain climates may find themselves experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, the most common being dizziness, headache, nausea and fatigue. Give your body time to adjust: Don’t overexert yourself physically for the first day. Instead of an intense hike, plan on a leisurely stroll. Also, make sure to drink plenty of water, and remember that changes in altitude will cause your body to react differently to alcohol.
Because of its location, Banff Town and Banff National Park experience cold, snowy winters. Dress in layers if you head into the park. It’s always a good idea to bring an extra set of clothing in case you get wet. Also, make sure you bring a hat, scarf and mittens to avoid getting frostbite on your ears, nose and fingers.
The park is home to many large animals, including bears. If you’re hiking on your own, make plenty of noise (talking, shuffling branches) to warn animals of your presence. Avoid getting too close to wild animals, no matter how docile they may seem. Parks Canada says that bear attacks are extremely uncommon. However, if you do encounter a bear on the trails, you should not run. Instead, avoid eye contact and back away slowly while making noise and, most of the time, the bear will lose interest. Parks Canada also recommends carrying bear spray, a form of pepper spray used to forfend aggressive bears.
Getting Around Banff
The best way to get around Banff is on foot. But when weather prevents the casual stroll, this small resort town also has a bus system that is easy to use. Even more convenient, your hotel will most likely offer a complimentary shuttle that services the town and ski areas. All three ski hills also offer complimentary shuttle between the hills and the town of Banff. The closest airport, Calgary International Airport (YYC), handles most major airlines; from there you could rent a car to drive the 90 miles west to Banff or hop on the Banff Airporter, a shuttle that transports visitors from the Calgary airport directly to their hotel.