Banff, both the town and the surrounding national park in the Canadian province of Alberta, see more than four million visitors each year. Most of those visitors, though, never see snow on the facade of Cascade Mountain. Banff is better in the winter, in part because of the legendary slopes but also because it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and quite tranquil to boot. You don’t have to be a skier to have a memorable trip to Banff in winter. There’s plenty to do, plenty to see, and more than enough mountain peaks to crane your neck at while aiming for the perfect photo. Here’s the breakdown, including where to rest your head afterward.
Editor’s note: Some restaurants and attractions may be closed or operating on reduced schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hit the museum and hot springs.
The Bow Valley has been home to the Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina, Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, Dene, and Mountain Cree First Nations as well as the Métis, for thousands of years. Among the ways to honor the original inhabitants of the land you are on is to visit the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which celebrates First Nations history in the area by preserving historical artifacts and knowledge. The museum features art exhibits, crafts, First Nations relics and information, and celebrates the history of Banff and the Canadian Rockies in everything from transportation and industry to tourism and mountaineering.
The museum is a perfect pre- or post-town stroll activity. Walking through downtown Banff, you’ll see shops including outdoor gear staples like Helly Hanson and Patagonia and more localized options like Atmosphere Canada and House of Angelica.
Regardless of your activities of choice in and around town, relax at the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Located mountainside and away from central Banff, the towering peaks surrounding you look surprisingly calm from the springs and thermal waters of the spa. You can even save yourself the hassle of driving into the high country by taking public transit from the Banff town center.
Spend at least one day at Lake Louise.
Lake Louise is worthy of an entire day. First, there’s the lake itself, at which you can rent a pair of ice skates for a casual skate or even a game of pond hockey with your mates. Check out the ice sculptures, watch the on-ice scene develop into what is basically a full-on village over the course of the day, and see who among your crew can take the best photo of themselves with the Devil’s Thumb, Pope’s Peak, and Mt. Victoria, across the provincial border with British Columbia, in the background. Whether or not you win, note this key bit of information: Each of you just took a photo of two Canadian provinces at the same time.
The most unique on-lake activity is curling, but not the type you’d expect on a frozen body of water in the Canadian Rockies. The preferred method of the sport practiced here is called Eisstockschießen. Call it Bavarian Curling, for short. If you’ve ever played Bocci Ball, this low-key rendition of Canada’s second most popular sport is essentially a frozen version that’s harder to do with a drink in your hand. Rent a setup from the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and test your skills at sliding a puck across the ice towards a target. Afterward, warm up with a cocktail or hot chocolate from the hotel’s on-ice bar (if open) or at the adjacent Lakeview Lounge.
And then there’s the snowshoeing. Fairview Mountain, just south of the lake, and the forested terrain around it are lined with snowshoe trails that can take you as far into the backcountry as you want to go. Banff Adventures offers snowshoe rentals and info on local trails and conditions.
Hang out with the animals.
Whether or not you know the difference between a sled and a sleigh, there’s something about a horse-drawn sleigh ride that conjures the ultimate in mid-winters’ satisfaction. For 42 Canadian dollars ($32) per person, Banff Tours will tow you through the meadows painted white while you do your best to snap photos of the rocky peaks while not spilling the hot chocolate from your thermos. Package options include a sleigh ride combined with a gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain or an ice walk through Grotto Canyon. Oh, and to clarify: a sled becomes a sleigh only when pulled by a horse.
The more Canadian thing to do is to sign up for a dog sledding tour. Multiple outfitters including Kingmik Dog Sled Tours and Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours run regular routes through the high country starting at about $250 CAD ($193). Tours take guests through the mountains surrounding Lake Louise and often include a visit to the Columbia Icefield, as close as you can get to touching a glacier. If you thought you were stoked the last time you skied a few inches of fresh powder, wait until you see the faces of these dogs as they plow through the snow with their buddies by their side. The best things in life really are that simple.
Let loose during apres-whatever.
It’s not every day you get to crack open a cold one or sip a hot cocktail inside a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Banff provides that opportunity and doesn’t take it lightly. Pull up a stool at Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar, Banff’s only distillery restaurant. The distillery makes everything from vodka to gin, but it’s the Rye whiskey that is most deserving of a straight pour after a day on the slopes. The kitchen makes a wicked rotisserie chicken that’s better with the gravy. Bourbon or whiskey drinkers can dive even deeper at Alpine Social inside the Fairmont Chateau. More than three dozen varieties are on offer including many Canadian whiskeys, along with mountain dishes such as a wild game pot pie. A modern mountain town isn’t so without local beer. Three Bears Brewing fills that charge with gusto, with the Summit Stout or Happy Trails Pale Ale ideal for a post-adventure toast.
Stay in (mountain) style.
Of course, there are the legendary Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and Fairmont Banff Springs (known as “The Castle” for its Harry Potter-esque look and vibe), both of which offer complete luxury experiences to include dining, gear rentals, tour booking, and even on-site boutiques. But you don’t have to go high-end to stay comfortably in Banff. Have a more stripped-down resort experience at the Banff Park Lodge, with rooms starting around $85. For a classic but chic mountain town hotel experience, try the Elk & Avenue Hotel, which starts at just over $100 per night. Or go the bed and breakfast route at the Blue Mountain Lodge, about $75 per night. No matter where you stay, the sloped face of Cascade Mountain gazes over you from up high, making it impossible to not know where you are the second you step outside in the morning.