Whether you’re into hiking or rafting, taking the easy way up a mountain or shredding the slopes on the way down, let our list of the best things to do in Banff, Canada help you plan your next visit.
The town of Banff, as well as the surrounding national park is one of the most precious jewels in all of Canada.
The jagged peaks of the Rockies rise up in all directions, creating an awe-inspiring scene that beckons all who visit to get outdoors.
With Cascade Mountain rising above the town at one end and a number of quaint timber stores lining the streets, Banff is as close to a living fairy tale destination that you can find.
Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Banff to bask in its natural beauty, and to tackle the huge number of activities and attractions that have grown over the years.
Located right in the Banff National Park, its landscapes are phenomenal, and it’s little wonder Banff is now one of Canada’s best adventure destinations.
The Best Things to Do in Banff
There are a lot of things to do in Banff, as the natural landscapes are very accommodating for all sorts of activities, ranging from hiking, to canoeing, skiing, and so much more.
While the town is quite small and can be explored in just a couple of days, the surrounding region is much more vibrant, and the national park is where most of the magic happens.
Here is a small guide on the best things to do in Banff that will serve you as a base to help you start exploring this wonderful region.
1) Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
There’s a very unique and scenic beauty to be found in this part of the Rockies, and that gorgeousness is most accessible when looking at it from high atop the mountains.
The nearby Sulphur Mountain offers truly epic views from its summit, and thanks to the Banff Gondola that climbs its way to the top, those vistas are accessible to almost anybody.
No wonder it’s become one of the top things to do in Banff!
Riding the Banff Gondola isn’t just about getting to the top. The views along the way provide a very unique perspective of the scale of Banff and its surrounding region.
Its 7,500-foot tall peak includes interactive exhibits, a gift shop, places to eat, and even a 360-degree observational deck with views of Banff and the Bow River Valley below.
Hiking out towards Sulphur Mountain’s summit has you follow a well-built boardwalk, that can get icy, so make sure you bring proper footwear.
The short walk is well worth it though, and on a clear day you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous panoramas of the Bow Valley punctuated with soaring peaks.
While the gondola trip is a bit on the pricey side (CA$62 for adults 16 and up), it’s one of the most popular places to visit in Banff for good reason.
If you want to save some money you can also hike to the top of the Sulphur Mountain. Allow 2 hours to climb if you have a reasonable level of fitness.
2) Go Skiing or Hiking at Sunshine Village
No matter the season there’s always something incredible to do around Sunshine Village.
Just a 30-minute drive from downtown Banff, Sunshine Village is primarily a ski resort, and it often is the first resort to open up in Canada every winter, and one of the last to close – The season lasts from November until May!
3000 skiable acres and 12 chair lifts makes it world class, and there’s terrain to suit skiers and snowboarders of all levels.
Families will have a great time, and the ski school is one of the best in the country.
While it’s not an inexpensive destination, doing some excellent skiing for the day, only to relax in the lodge with a hot drink in the evening, makes Sunshine Village one of the coolest attractions in Banff.
But once the ski season it’s over, and June rolls around, the snow melts and the terrain reveals splendid hiking opportunities.
The Sunshine Meadows pop in to life, and are considered some of the best hiking trails in the entire wider region.
Hiking is completely free, and the scenery is stunning, which is why Sunshine Meadows is one of the best things to see in Banff.
3) Head to Moraine Lake for Sunrise
One of the most photographed places in all of Canada is the iconic Moraine Lake, with its 10 peaks reflecting on the glistening, mirror-like water.
The scene is so famous it even featured on the old twenty dollar bill, so it’s little wonder almost all visitors to Banff make an effort to see the place with their own two eyes.
The wonderful natural landscape and terrains means that no matter where you go you’ll be greeted by unforgettable beauty, and one of the most gorgeous destinations is Moraine Lake.
The lake itself is quite near the town, as it’s about an hour drive from there, and once you’re there you’ll come upon some of the finest trails in the region.
The magic is that there are trails of varying difficulty, so even beginners will have an easy time adjusting to the terrain that surrounds the lake.
While the easiest hike is the flat Lakeshore Path, which lasts about 45 minutes round trip, a much more popular hike is Consolation Lakes trails, which is quite longer at about 2 hours.
No matter which way you pick, however, you’ll come across alpine beauty and well-marked trails, so you’ll be good in any case.
Just make sure to arrive earlier in the morning to catch a parking spot.
4) Go Whitewater Rafting on the Kicking Horse River
For those of you out there that love to do your sightseeing with adrenaline flowing through your veins, one of the most exciting things to do in Banff is go whitewater rafting!
The famous Kicking Horse River is a short distance from town and is known to have the best rafting opportunities in the entire country.
Charging through class 5 rapids, over waterfalls and between narrow gorges is guaranteed to get your blood pumping, but if this sounds a bit too much for you there’s always an option to take it slow and simply soak in the views.
There are numerous tours that operate in the region, and some fo the more mellow options are the Kananaskis River, or the intermediate Horseshoe Canyon.
Whether you’re an experienced rafter or a complete newbie, you’re bound to fall in love with what is arguably one fo the best ways to experience Banff’s stunning nature.
5) Drive the Legendary Icefields Parkway
An experience that no person visiting Banff will ever want to miss, driving the Icefields Parkway is heralded as one of the best road trips on the planet.
Stretching 230km from just outside Lake Louise all the way to Jasper, this iconic highway weaves its way through the best scenery in all of Canada.
Starting in the south you traverse through Banff National Park past some of the most picturesque landscapes imaginable, including the impossibly blue Peyto Lake.
Eventually you hit Jasper National Park, with the glorious Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier (more on that below), and the insanely impressive Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls.
Jagged peaks surround you on all sides and you’ll pass by more mirror-like lakes and rivers than you can count.
You may also have the pleasure of seeing some of the Canadian Rockies’ most amazing wildlife, such as bear, moose and caribou.
The drive is seriously mind-blowing, and can be done either with your own rental car (which we recommend), or by joining a tour from Banff.
Even though it’s only 230km long, you can easily spend 5 (or more) hours driving this road, especially if you stop off at all the highlights along the way or do any hikes.
If you prefer to make the most of your time, you can book a one-way sightseeing tour of the Icefields Parkway here, picking you up in Banff, taking you to all the main spots along the drive, then dropping you off in Jasper.
6) Go Hiking on the Athabasca Glacier
The most visited glacier in all of North America, the Athabasca Glacier is a part of the majestic Columbia Icefield, which is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies.
Located nearly halfway along the Icefield Parkway, this magnificent glacier can be explored a number of ways, with the most popular one being a tour on the Ice Explorer, a specially designed expedition bus that drives directly on the glacier.
This trip lasts just over an hour and can be a great way to experience the glacier if you’re short on time or have some mobility issues.
But if you want to really have an adventure, then you need to hike on the glacier itself!
Athabasca Glacier Icewalk has been leading hiking trips for years, and run an epic tour called the Ice Cubed where you don crampons and walk for 5km on the huge frozen river.
It lasts for 3 hours, starts in either the morning or afternoon, and you do need a standard amount of fitness to take part.
Have some more time? Check out their Icewalk Deluxe tour, which goes for 5 hours. Definitely one of the best things to do near Banff!
7) Go Ice Climbing with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures
If you love adrenaline and trying something new, then one of the best things to do in Banff in winter is to go on an ice climbing tour with local experts Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.
When the temperatures drop in the Rockies, the waterfalls freeze, creating a new world of possibilities for those who love being active.
Summer is for rock climbing in Banff, and winter is for ice climbing, which is one of the funnest (and most badass) activities you can do.
Armed with ice axes and crampons, you climb vertically up frozen falls, hammering your ‘tool’ into the ice and kicking the points of your crampons in, meaning with strength, technique and a little bit of trust, you can ascend to dizzying heights.
We had never done this before, so signed up for an introductory course with Yamnuska. We met our guide Jesse in Johnston Canyon, and he gave us all of our gear before hiking out to the distant falls.
Once at the end of the boardwalk we climbed down the approved-climbers-only section and got kitted up.
Jesse ran up an easy route, drilling anchors into the ice and connecting the rope before heading back down and giving us some detailed instructions on how to ice climb.
Then it was time to put the theory into practice!
We climbed up and down the same route 4 times, getting better and faster each time, and Jesse would constantly monitor our technique and give advice on how to improve.
Slamming the tool into the ice and feeling it grab hold was immensely satisfying, and we quickly fell in love with this sport. It was tiring though, and once we’d burned all our strength up it was time to head back to the carpark.
The guys at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures run a bunch of different tours, from small introductory ones for beginners like us right up to intensive courses. If you’re wondering what to do in Banff in winter, we highly recommend this!
8) Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
What was once considered a place of holy healing waters by the First Nations is today a place for resting and relaxation.
The unique properties of these springs make them one of the finest tourist attractions in Banff, and they’re a great spot to visit all year round.
The Springs are akin to a public swimming pool, in that they’re equipped with all of the latest modern amenities, such as railings, ladders, lockers, and even a café.
What sets them apart though is that the pools are fed by natural hot springs, and this is the main reason they’re so relaxing.
Coupled with the fact that the surrounding scenery is stunning, these hot springs can easily relax both the body and the soul.
All of this makes the springs one of best places to visit in Banff.
9) Check Out the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
One of the most fascinating aspects about Banff and its surroundings that goes beyond its obvious natural splendour is its history.
There’s evidence of humans occupying the area of Banff for around 10’000 years, which goes to show that there’s a lot more to this place than meets the eye.
Being able to interact within a historical setting and context is always amazing, which is exactly what the Cave and Basin site offers to visitors.
This is the place that first put Banff on the modern map, and the reason it was designated as Canada’s first national park.
Inside the cave is a natural thermal hot spring, which is now closed to public swimming, and nowadays it’s an educational, but also gorgeous spot.
There are plenty of interactive displays that teach travellers about the importance of this location, and there’s a Discovery Tour designed specifically to help you immerse yourself in this place.
The cavern is utterly stunning, and definitely one of the coolest places to visit in Banff.
10) Enjoy S’Mores and Live Music at the Alpenglow Festival
During the winter months the top of the Banff Gondola comes alive with the fun and vibrant Alpenglow Festival, and spending a few hours up here is a wonderful Banff winter activity.
The alpenglow refers to when the tops of the mountains turn red just after the sun sets, a phenomena that is truly beautiful (and makes for some awesome photos).
The Alpenglow Festival is a great event to check out in the late afternoon, as a variety of local musicians take the stage, delicious food is available and visitors are even given s’mores to cook up on the outdoor fires.
We went up on a cloudy day and weren’t blessed with the famous alpenglow, but that didn’t make the festival any less awesome. Definitely try some cocktails while you’re up there.
11) Hike Around Lake Louise and the Nearby Teahouses
One of the true gems of the region, Lake Louise is almost as iconic as Banff itself.
Found an hour east from town, it’s an absolutely spellbinding location, surrounded by scenery that’s can barely be matched by any other place in the world.
Lake Louise is a turquoise jewel placed in the centre of a crown of peaks, and while the lake itself isn’t the best for swimming, it’s completely idea for canoeing!
Canoeing in Lake Louise while Mount Victoria majestically looms to the west is one of the best things to do close to Banff.
Hiking and exploring are also amazing options, and something that shouldn’t be missed is walking up to the nearby teahouses.
A popular and fairly easy trek is to Lake Agnes, which will only take around an hour to reach and is well worth it to admire its alpine location and have a cup of coffee on the edge of it.
If you have more time you can head out to the teahouse at the end of the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail. It can take up to 7 hours, but the views are simply unreal.
With so much to see, you can easily spend a couple of days unearthing the nooks and crannies around the lake.
Want an experience like no other? Consider staying a the Fairmont Lake Louise, one of the most famous hotels in the entire world!
12) Explore the Falls at Johnston Canyon
By far the most popular day hike in Banff is through the phenomenal Johnston Canyon, only 30 minutes from town.
The easy 5km long jaunt to the Upper Falls and back will take you along the narrow gorge formed by Johnston Creek, part of the famous Bow River, and up to a collection of large cascades and pools.
Alternating between well-groomed trails and a boardwalk, it’s accessible for people of all ages and abilities. Don’t let the high number of visitors put you off though – its beauty is well worth dealing with the crowds.
If you happen to find yourself in town during the colder months you should definitely consider taking a mission out to Johnston Canyon, as seeing the place covered in fresh snow and ice is a truly memorable experience.
Strapping ice cleats and going on an icy hike to Johnston Canyon is a fantastic activity, as the entire region is one of the most beautiful things to see in Banff in winter
The frozen waterfalls create a specific type of drama that makes them seem as if they’re straight out of a fairy tale.
13) Shred the Slopes at Lake Louise Ski Resort
Towering mountains, high snowfall, long winters and amazing infrastructure makes Canada one of the world’s most famous skiing and snowboarding destinations.
Home to some of the best ski resorts on the planet, like Whistler Blackcomb and Revelstoke Mountain Resort, people travel from far and wide to carve turns on the legendary slopes.
Alberta has a number of world-class resorts, and the pinnacle of them all is Lake Louise Ski Resort.
With 4200 skiable acres and 10 chair lifts servicing 145 runs, there’s little wonder that people flock to Lake Louise to shred the terrain.
The slopes caters to skiers of all skill levels, and whether you’re learning on the bunny hill or hucking back 5’s off of cliffs, you’re guaranteed to find something to keep you satisfied.
14) Sample the Liquor at Park Distillery
If you love the taste of a fine gin or tasty rye, then you simply can’t miss Park Distillery when wondering what to do in Banff!
Located right downtown on Banff Ave, this awesome local distillery makes some of the best liquor in the country, and they’re not afraid to experiment either!
Chilli vodka? Hell yea. Maple rye? Of course! Want a gin infused with Canadian spruce? Well why not?
Park Distillery have been experimenting with various liquors for the last few years and have proudly become one of the best Banff attractions around.
They have an excellent restaurant and a fully-functioning bar (boasting delectable cocktails), but if you really love their liquor make sure you sign up for the free distillery tour.
15) Rent Some Ice Skates and Hit the Lakes
Once winter rolls around and the temperatures drop, many of Banff’s wonderful waters freeze over.
Those seeking true adventure amongst the mountain peaks might not find this favourite local past time of interest, but when it comes to winter activities in Banff, ice-skating is hard to beat.
Ice skating on the frozen lakes of Two Jack, Johnston Lake, Lake Minnewaka, and even the legendary Lake Louise, while you’re surrounded by majestic alpine peaks is nothing to scoff about.
Lake Louise itself is considered the safest of the bunch to ice skate on, as it’s regularly maintained and cleared of snow.
You can freely bring your own gear with you, but if you want you can also rent decent equipment from local shops.
16) Hang Out at Lake Minnewanka
It’s hard to write a list about the best Banff tourist attractions without talking about Lake Minnewanka, the 21km long spectacle just outside of town.
This is the kind of place you could get lost for days. People who love being active will find solace in the kayak and canoe rentals down at the main pier, or you can take on any one of a number of gorgeous hikes in the area.
Rather relax with friends and family? Lake Minnewanka is the perfect place to come down for a picnic, or you can take a boat cruise, which is arguably one of the best things to do in Banff in summer.
The fun doesn’t stop there. It’s also a popular fishing destination, with large trout and whitefish waiting to be hooked by the keen angler.
One thing that few people know about is that you can actually go scuba diving in Lake Minnewanka as well. Yes, the water is cold, but the underwater flora is quite amazing.
17) Climb Cascade Mountain
The overwhelming majesty of Cascade Mountain looms over the town of Banff like a guardian angel, and its presence has been wowing visitors for decades.
It’s hard to not stop and take thousands of pictures of Cascade Mountain from every angle of town, but if you’re feeling up to a challenge you can even consider climbing to its summit!
The top of Cascade Mountain sits at 2998m above sea level, and the trail to the top is definitely no work in the park.
The 18km return hike to the summit climbs a total of 1325m in elevation, and while you don’t need mountaineering skills to conquer the peak, there is a fair amount of scrambling at times, and the trail can be sketchy.
The trailhead starts at the ski lodge on Mt Norquay. Start early and allow yourself a full-day to reach the top and descend safely.
Do not attempt this hike if conditions are wet or snowy, and monitor the weather before you start and as you are climbing.
18) Keep an Eye Out for Banff’s Epic Wildlife
Banff is home to a lot more than just busloads of tourists and a sizeable working holiday crowd. The most famous residents of Banff are the wildlife!
Home to animals of all shapes and sizes, spotting a critter is a highlight of many people’s visit to town, and often it isn’t that hard.
Deer are commonly seen wandering around the village, and on occasion caribou also make an appearance.
If you head out into the Banff National Park your chance of seeing some wildlife goes up drastically, and you may have the chance to cast your eyes on moose or even black bear.
Some of the most elusive creatures though are grizzly bears, wolves and cougars, and you should consider yourself very lucky if you see one.
It’s very important to keep in mind that these are wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. If you see one in the wild do not approach it, and if you come across one when driving do not get out of your car.
Give them plenty of space and chances are they won’t be spooked, meaning you can observe them safely from a distance for quite a long time.
19) Brush Up on Your First Nations History at Buffalo Nation Luxton Museum
No trip to Canada is complete without learning about its fascinating First Nations culture, and this amazing museum in Banff does a great job at it.
It’s been open since the 1950s, and since then the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum has dedicated itself to teaching everyone about all of the contributions of the native people to the surrounding lands.
This museum is a great Banff attraction especially to those interested in history and culture, but it’s not a very large museum and can be explored in about an hour.
The museum is open every day of the week from 10 am to 7 pm, and the entry fee is CA$10.
Where to Stay in Banff
Being such a tourist hotspot, Banff has a huge number of great accommodation options for all travellers.
As a complete disclaimer, hotels in Banff are very expensive, so before you come make sure you have enough room in your budget to accommodate your stay here.
Luckily there’s a whole range of free things to do in Banff when you get here to help keep the rest of your costs down.
Best Hostel in Banff – Samesun Hostel
The Samesun Hostel has become a bit of an institution across western Canada, and in Banff it’s no exception.
Having moved to a new location closer to downtown a couple of years ago, it has some of the best facilities of any hostel in the region.
Clean dorm rooms with lockers, an amazing common area, fast wifi, the famous Beaver Bar and discounts on all kinds of Banff activities makes it the best cheap accommodation in town.
Best Mid-Range Hotel in Banff – Moose Hotel and Suites
If you have the money to splurge out we highly recommend the Moose Hotel and Suites.
We stayed here on our last visit to Banff after taking the Rocky Mountaineer train journey from Vancouver, and loved our stay.
This traditional style lodge has a great bar and restaurant, and the rooms are spacious and stylish.
Best Luxury Hotel in Banff – Fairmont Banff Springs
The Fairmont Banff Springs is one of the most iconic luxury hotels in Canada, and if you can afford it, you won’t regret staying in this world famous accommodation.
Located just outside of town near Bow Falls, this towering complex is over 125 years old and is a truly beautiful place to see.
The property can best be described as decadent, and the rooms are stately and tastefully decorated.
The bars and restaurants are some of the best in the country too, so even if you can’t afford to stay here, it’s worth coming out for a drink or a bite to eat.