Wildlife casually meanders throughout town. Mountain peaks rise thousands of feet into the air. Over 2,500 square miles of protected wilderness feature almost 1,000 miles of defined trails.
This is what you’ll encounter when you journey to Banff, Alberta, a small town nestled high in the Canadian Rockies—and so much more. No trip will ever be long enough to explore this natural wonderland, but here’s how to make the most of your 36-hour stay.
Check in at the Fairmont Banff Springs, dubbed the “Castle in the Rockies,” which has been in operation for more than 125 years.
Begin your journey at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which commemorates the birthplace of Canada’s National Park system, which was founded in 1885 after railway workers discovered thermal springs that led to the creation of Banff National Park. Catch the Discovery Tour (every day at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., May through September) before watching a giant-screen movie about Canada’s protected areas. Finally, leisurely stroll the interpretive boardwalk trails, which lead to cave vents, marshlands and bubbling springs.
Back at the Fairmont, enjoy a cocktail at Grapes Wine Bar, which first opened in 1926 as a writing room, before dining at Waldhaus Restaurant, a Bavarian-themed restaurant in an atmosphere designed to resemble an old hunting cottage. Favorites like schnitzel and fondue are regularly featured on the menu.
Fuel up in the morning at the hotel’s Castle Pantry before renting a bike to ride along the Legacy Trail, a paved pathway that runs roughly 16 miles through beautiful Rocky Mountain terrain from Banff to the town of Canmore. Plan to have lunch at Communitea Cafe; healthy items like the salmon pesto wrap or kale and avocado quinoa bowl are the menu’s mainstays. Or, head to Tavern 1883; sit on the patio and order poutine—Canada’s traditional French-fry dish—which locals say is the best in town.
Return to Banff via the Roam transit bus (buses offers spaces for bikes at no extra charge). Next, head to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to revel in the emerald hues and glacial backdrop of the hotel’s namesake lake. Opt for a canoe ride or go for an exhilarating hike on the Lake Agnes Trail. This hike generally takes one to two hours each way, so plan your time accordingly. You’ll climb nearly 1,300 feet in elevation as you wander past Mirror Lake to a hanging valley. Stop for a snack and tea—there are over 100 varieties—at the Lake Agnes Tea House, serving loose-leaf teas since 1905 (open early-June through mid-October).
Cap your evening with dinner at the cozy Maple Leaf Grill & Lounge. The lodge-style restaurant, which features rock and stone in its design, serves typical Canadian cuisine like elk meatballs and West Coast halibut. After dinner, stroll through town and enjoy the numerous art galleries, sports outfitters, jewelers and gift shops.
After checking out of the Fairmont, head into town for brunch at the Bison Restaurant & Terrace, which specializes in regional, seasonal cuisine. Try the bison breakfast sandwich or the duck confit and goat cheese benny.
If time allows, drive north along the Icefields Parkway, which stretches 144 miles from Banff to Jasper, Alberta, along the Continental Divide. The parkway gets its name from the 100-plus glaciers that line the route. A not-to-miss site is the Columbia Icefield, where you can experience the recently opened Glacier Skywalk, a glass-bottomed oval structure that hangs 918 feet over the Sunwapta Valley. You can also tour the Athabasca Glacier via a snow-equipped vehicle or explore the area by helicopter. Stop at the Glacier Discovery Centre for ticket information.
As you’ll soon learn, 36 hours isn’t nearly enough time to give Banff the attention it deserves, which means only one thing: it’s time to chat with your Travel Leaders agent about planning a return trip as well.
Banff is known for its world-class skiing during the wintertime, though spring and summer offer unique ways to explore one of the world’s most beautiful parks.