Banff lies beneath the spectacular Cascade Mountain with the town a perfect mountain retreat to spend a day or two. Or live, for the 8,000 people who are lucky enough to reside in a national park and call this place home.
Banff is totally walkable, so once you've arrived, park up and take a break from driving while you wander on foot. The town is a great hub for exploring the outdoors with plenty of hiking, and biking as well as 3 ski resorts all close to the area. For the less-outdoorsy types, there's boat trips and gondolas to show you the sites, or the naturally heated hot springs to relax in at the end of hard, or not so hard, day!
There is no shortage of different cuisines to sample and tasty places to eat, as well as several shops for you to stock up on cool mountain gear. Unfortunately, with every popular place to visit, there are almost a dozen tourist shops along the avenue (all selling very similar merchandise), but de-tour down the side streets and the selection of local stores balances this out.
Give yourself one day to enjoy strolling around town and then add on a few nights to accommodate all the activities you want to pack in. But with over 100 restaurants, 30 places to stay, and dozens of adventures to go on, how do you decide where to go and what to do?
BEST COFFEE: Whitebark Cafe
If you ask a local where to go for the best cup of coffee in Banff and they'll shout "Whitebark" at you. Enough said! There's limited seating so opting for take-away and drifting downtown with your coffee in hand is the best option. Despite the cafe being small in size, they sell more than just hot drinks. Check out their selection of delicious baked treats and savoury dishes as well.
If Whitebark is super-busy or your staying in the south of town, Wild Flour is also worth a mention. Great coffee, plus plenty of healthy choices perfect for breakfast or lunch.
BEST RESTAURANT: Nourish Bistro
Cool, healthy, hipster vibes. All the food and cocktails served here are either vegetarian or vegan. Even if you're normally a meat-eater, you'll still enjoy the super tasty food. A refreshingly different place to grab lunch or dinner, especially in a town where there are so many steak houses. Make sure you try the delicious (and nutritious!) nachos made up of 27 different ingredients!
Block Kitchen and Bar is also a favourite, serving quirky and creative tapas. It's easy to walk by this small, cosy restaurant, so keep an eye out for it as you turn onto Caribou Street. Probably not one for the super-hungry after a day spent hiking, but more a dining experience, sharing light bites from around the world in a trendy place.
BEST BAR: Elk & Oarsman
Located on the main avenue, this kitchen and bar has a good, buzzy atmosphere, with big screens dotted around showing the ice hockey and other popular sports games. If it's too loud, head upstairs to sit out in the fresh air and enjoy the gorgeous views from the best rooftop patio in Banff. The food is good as well, serving Canadian pub style-cuisine. Try an Elk Burger on Wednesday nights for just $10!
Another popular bar, fuelled by sports games, amazing food and plenty of people is Eddie Burger & Bar. If you like to travel around looking for the best burgers, this is the place to go. Sit at the bar or hang out in a booth whilst you watch the game, order a milkshake and build your own burger.
BEST CHEAP EAT: Evelyn's Coffee Bar
For just $10 you can get yourself a big bowl of yummy soup and a sandwich. Check the menu on the door for the items on offer that day (and that the offer is on as sometimes its weekdays only). If you have some spare change, try one of their homemade cookies. They are the size of a hockey puck. If you don't have room, enjoy as a hiking snack (probably why it's called "trail cookie").
Chaya is also a good, little place to know serving authentic Japanese food. Although it doesn't look overly special from the outside, don't judge a book by it's cover. The food is full of flavour, plus the place is often full (always a good sign). The portions are large and prices really reasonable. You can get miso soup + a main for less than $15.
BEST PLACE TO STAY: Moose Hotel & Suites
Located on the corner of Moose Street and Banff Avenue with a giant moose statue outside, you can't miss this place. This new hotel is the best rated hotel in Banff and with good reason. It's super modern and luxurious with two outdoor hot tubs, a sauna and fire-pit. The rooms are also lovely with a huge walk-in rainforest shower and balconies to sit out on and take in the fresh mountain air. Another quirky feature is the house in the courtyard, that was restored and returned to its original site after the hotel renovations were complete. It is quite pricey but look online for a good-last minute deal and upgrading to a suite might just have to be done!
If you're on a tighter budget, Banff International Hostel is your best option and is probably one of the best hostels I've stayed in. It's close to downtown, you have your own ensuite bathroom even in the dorm rooms and a free breakfast is included (that serves tea, coffee and banana bread). The wi-fi is fast, the common areas are comfy and there's a handy liquor store just next door. Probably not one for your parents, but ideal for those who are happy hostel-ing for a few nights!
BEST HIKE: Tunnel Mountain
I've gone for Tunnel Mountain as it's easily accessible and not too strenuous. You can catch a bus or park your car by the lower trailhead. From there, it's just over 2km each way. Of course, it's slower on the way there as you are gaining 300m in elevation, which takes about 1 hour on average. As you hike up, enjoy spectacular views of The Banff Springs golf course and the snow-capped peaks of Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle. Once you're at the top, take a well-deserved break and have some food to refuel for the journey down!
It's worth mentioning, some of my favourite hikes are outside of town in other areas of Banff National Park. Hiking really depends on how far you want to walk, how long you have and how hard you want to climb. Bring a pair of good shoes and fill your backpack with water, a few different layers and some bear spray and you'll be good to go! Before you set off, also visit the Parks Canada visitor centre or their website for the latest trail conditions.
BEST NIGHT OUT: High Rollers
Pins, pints and pizza - High Rollers is a super fun place to spend the evening. If you want to bowl it's best to book a lane in advance, but you can still eat, drink and hang out there without a reservation. The pizzas are crispy, proper 'pizza-oven pizzas' with lots of cheese and toppings. There's also 48 craft beers to choose from and free popcorn to snack on. Beside the retro bowling lanes, there are 3 pool tables and vintage arcade games including pinball and foosball.
If you want to go out-out, head to the Dancing Sasquatch on a Sunday night (warning: chart music, sticky floors and drinks are expensive!)
BEST FREE THING: Mt. Norquay view point
Banff Gondola is voted the top attraction in Banff. And while the views are spectacular, it is pricey starting at $56 for an adult to journey up and down. If you're on a budget, instead drive the winding 2km up Norquay Drive. On the last switchback, on your right, there's a pull out and stone wall. From here you can see Banff town, the Bow Valley, Vermilion Lakes, Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle. You may even spot a big horn sheep. Venture out your car to the meadow and sit back and take in the (free) view in the iconic Parks Canada red chairs.
TOP TIP: Happy hour & food specials
Check out taximike.com when planning your next meal in Banff. It lists literally every restaurant special and happy hour going for every day and night of the week. A great resource to find the best places to go for the lowest prices.
AVOID: Banff Avenue during the day
Banff is a wonderful place but it does get unbearably busy at peak times (11am - 6pm) during the summer which can slightly detract from the beauty of the place. Explore the outskirts and go hiking in the day, returning to town later in the afternoon or early evening, once the crowds start to disperse. It will be easier to park and you can stroll down Banff Avenue with less risk of a selfie stick hitting you in the face.