Located in Alberta, Banff sits on the Canadian stretch of the Rocky Mountains. It is a national park and small town but Banff as it exists in my mind also encompasses some smaller neighboring communities. If you are a skier or snowboarder Banff is a place you’re likely very familiar with. But you don’t have to be either to enjoy its magical spirit. So here are 5 things to do in Banff for non-skiers. You will notice, Lake Louise and such are not on the list, but only because I am certain you are already aware of those 🙂
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See it all at night from the Banff Gondola with Nightrise
Sulphur Mountain gondola is an absolute must-do when in Banff. Going up there during the day will take you through multiple weather changes, tree colours, and breathtaking views. At night, however, it is all that and more. The evening gondola reopens at 5:30 PM and ascends to the top for a very special, ganging experience: The Nightrise. Done in collaboration with Pursuit Collection, Montreal’s Moment Factory, and the Stoney Nakoda Nation the experience is an audio-visual adventure that takes you closer to the region’s roots.
There are “Four Wonders” at the Nightrise: Cosmic Rays, Diamond Dust, Alpenglow, and Frosted Waves. As you wander through them, you see the mountains and the boardwalk illuminated by dynamic lights. You hear original soundscapes and voices of the people setting the scene and inspiring self-reflection. The overall experience exposes you to the stories of the Stoney Nakoda Nation and that in itself is a one-of-a-kind journey. Here is a quick video teaser.
Book ahead on banffjaspercollection.com, tickets average $50 to $61 per person.
Enjoy the food and drink
The town of Banff has quite a few options for dining and depending on where you are staying you might even be able to cook. For a casual outing, there are two fun breweries: Three Bears Brewery & Restaurant and Banff Ave Brewing Co..
Three Bears Brewery & Restaurant is right in the center of the village. It is a rather large spot, with multiple floors, and an expansive menu. There are of course also cocktails and wines available for non-beer drinkers. On the food, menu are pub favourites like pizza, burgers, hearty salads, and some vegetarian/vegan options. There is also an actual tree inside. So that’s cool.
Banff Ave Brewing Co., on the other hand, is a bit smaller and spread out across the pub and the lodge. The pub is a fun spot with a tasty menu and daily specials (except Saturday). There’s even a “pre-game” happy hour. The lodge is up the stairs and is equally casual. In addition to house beers here you will also find Detroit-style deep-dish pizza, pasta, and other sharable small plates.
For a fancy dinner and late-night fun, there is Hello Sunshine Sushi & Private Karaoke Rooms. The restaurant is fine dining, modern Japanese cuisine served in a carefully designed, upscale environment. There is a massive fireplace in the center, a long sushi bar, and tables spread around the room’s edge. On a good weather day, you can also sit out on their mountain-view patio. The menu consists of a carefully crafted sushi selection, bay buns, maki rolls, and a fantastic cocktail menu. And yes, I am committed to the word fantastic here. At the least get a Watermelon Sake Slammer slush. There are quite a few non-alcoholic pitons available as well. Fun fact, there is a daily happy hour offering half-priced sushi 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM (4-5 on Saturdays). You will need reservations.
A quick tip: Always pay attention to the surrounding environment when driving, you might spot some wildlife.
Enjoy the view from a spa
There are a few spas in the area but the most scenic and memorable is Kananaskis Nordic Spa. In true nordic tradition, the spa has a full Hydrotherapy Circuit. Their wide range of amenities includes mixed-temperature pools, different saunas, fire pits, resting places, and a cafe. On arrival, you get a long and very cozy robe with a fleece lining that will keep you warm in the mountains. The restaurant, which does get rather busy, feels like a slumber party, everyone casual in their fleece robes. Great place to spend a day in and the drive here is also quite lovely. In addition to hydrotherapy, you can also request a massage at an additional cost.
Access hours: 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Wednesday – Thursday: $149
Saturday – Monday and holidays: $169
The prices exclude HST and might change so double-check. You can make reservations 3 months ahead.
Visit Abraham Lake
It is a bit of a drive, but it will be worth it. Abraham Lake is actually an artificial lake and Alberta’s largest reservoir. What draws people here, aside from the stunning mountain views, of course, is the bubbles. Methane gas gets trapped in the ice creating frozen bubbles across the lake’s surface. They are seen everywhere, layered across the thick sheet of ice, in different colours and shapes. A truly unique experience I must admit. The best time to visit is mid-January to early February. Map link here but Preacher’s Point offers a nice view from a distance. Here is a short video.
Plan ahead: rent states, pack warm drinks, and bring a scotch.
Learn something new, while you’re here
You are here so you might as well learn – or try to – how to ski or snowboard. Sunshine Village Ski and Snowboard School have very well-priced packages for beginners of all ages. The adult First Timer Package includes a full-day lesson, lift pass, and equipment rental for $250. All things considered, this is actually a really good deal because a single-day lift pass alone is $156.
A quick fun story on the topic: I did decide to learn something new and signed up for the adult First Timer Package. My instructor was great, and the group was quickly thinning out as people got upgraded to higher levels. Myself and another student, however, were not the quickest learners. The morning started off fine but as the very adult fear of falling begin to stiffen my scared body it all went down the hill. Literally. I had to negotiate the toddler temper tantrum out of myself after lunch and nearly forced myself, with an occasional “You’re a grown-up who paid for this” pep talk. When the day came to an end I stormed into the pub and immediately began doing pickle backs. So that was that.
Cool places to make home
There is a rather wide variety of accommodations across Banff including hotels, cabins, and owner rentals. Naturally, they are on the higher end but you pay for proximity and often, luxury. Here are a few ideas:
Fairmont Banff Springs: As expected with any Fairmont property, Fairmont Banff Springs* is basically a castle. Located in the Banff National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site the hotel has spectacular views of the Rockies. It is a world-class resort and spa. Willow Stream Spa is a mix of indoor and outdoor experiences.
VRBO private homes: Fully private and all yours for the stay VRBO* homes span a range of accommodations including those with a hot tub, because why not. There are a few properties directly in Banff and some nearby in more secluded, scenic locations. For example, here is a 2-bedroom Mountain Getaway condo* with hot pool access, or a 3-bedroom Private Mountain Chalet* in The Heart of Banff.
Explore and compare with TripAdvisor: I generally always start here: set my budget and see previous guest reviews on TripAdvisor*. Once you found a few places that catch your eye and fit your wallet you can see where the best deals for them are. For example, Royal Canadian Lodge* is located near the gondola and has 4.0 average reviews, which honestly seems to be the average in the region, with not many full fives.
Getting to Banff
We fly off course. You land at Alberta International airport. The prices for the winter season can get quite high so compare prices on CheapOair*. To book, if not direct with the airline or on points, I prefer to go through Expedia* because that will give me an additional discount on accommodations. Getting to Banff proper is best by car, which you can also get through Expedia with an additional discount if that is where you booked your flight. But if driving is not an option there are a handful of shuttles available:
In the gear bag: Fujifilm X-T100 with an XF50mmF2 R WR lens. To see the trip on Instagram look up#xoalberta22