Banff is a beautiful resort town in the province of Alberta, Canada. Banff is most famously known for its national park (Banff National Park) with a rocky mountain skyline that can be seen from every direction. The town itself is lined with boutiques and restaurants, and it makes for a great vacation spot any time of the year since Canada’s 4 seasons each offer something different.
I visited Banff last September for the first time. We were visiting during shoulder season since tons of tourists flock to the area in the summer, but we got there right before the weather turns wintery and were still able to enjoy weather that wasn’t too hot for hiking, but wasn’t too cold that we just wanted to curl up inside.
It’s important to note the time of year I visited as your 2-day itinerary can look a lot different depending on the season. People love this area in the heart of winter for winter activities such as skiing and snowshoeing. I, however, am not a winter person so I prefer to visit in any of the other 3 seasons.
Without further ado, here is how you can spend a short 2 days in Banff:
Wake up early to head to Lake Moraine
In terms of breakfast, we found it easiest to just have some easy breakfast stuff in our hotel room like bagels, or yogurt to avoid also needing to make time to stop or find breakfast super early in the morning before we headed out to hike.
You are likely going to want to start your day off at an ungodly hour. I know you’re on vacation but I promise that waking up early is key for visiting some of the popular hiking spots like Moraine Lake or Lake Louise. Not only to beat the crowds so you can get the best views, and less busy trails, but also waking up early can help you with the whole parking situation if you plan to drive yourself.
The lots around these areas (especially Moraine Lake) fill up almost before sunrise and once they’re full, they’re full. Personally, I recommend that if you don’t want to arrive before sunrise only to potentially be disappointed, book the national parks shuttle service. For a fee, you can book your spot on the shuttle in advance and you will park your car (or cab) in a car park on the side of the highway where you’ll catch the shuttle to take you to Moraine Lake and/or Lake Louise. This is what we did and it was 110% worth it. Much less stressful and very easy.
We chose to do Lake Moraine on our first day, and Lake Louise on our second. Dependent on how much time you have, and if you want to just see the lake and leave vs. actually hiking, you can definitely fit these both into one day but let’s go with Lake Moraine for day one.
When you arrive at Lake Moraine, obviously take in the views of the lake from the Moraine Lake Viewpoint. You can also do the Shoreline Trail too as it’s family-friendly and easy for all levels. However, if you want to add on a more challenging hike, there are a ton of trailheads here to choose from of varying lengths and levels. We did the Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Trail but if you’re looking for more recommendations, there are a ton here.
A park pass is mandatory for visiting Banff National Park. There are several stations along the highway to purchase one or you can purchase and print one online in advance
In terms of lunch, we packed sandwiches that we made in our hotel room before we left. This way we could bring them (along with snacks) on the trail with us and have easy fuel when we got hungry. At Lake Moraine there is a small café serving very basic snacks and drinks that you can also grab something from, or if you choose to not spend too much time at Lake Moraine, you can head back to Banff’s town and get a good lunch here. Here are some recos for that:
- High Rollers: A fun, casual pizza spot that has a huge list of local craft beers. You can even make a reso to bowl at their bowling alley!
- Fairmont: I didn’t have a chance to dine at either of the two Fairmont’s in Banff but it came highly recommended. They each have a variety of restaurants, and bars, and even serve Afternoon Tea with a view if that’s of interest.
- Park Distillery: A local distillery with a lengthy list of cocktails but also a great restaurant. I had their tuna salad and it was so fresh and delicious!
- Hello Sunshine: Sushi, Japanese BBQ, and karaoke. What more could you need? This was recommended to me by a friend but unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go while we were there.
We spent the bulk of our day hiking at/around Lake Moraine but if you are tired and want something easier to visit, you can opt to go to Johnston Canyon. This is a very easy, family-friendly walk with some beautiful views of natural waterfalls. Some other ideas are:
- Upper Hot Springs: A relaxing natural pool experience. I opted out of this as it looked a little touristy for me, however, it’s an incredibly popular activity and a great one for a rainy day or for those not wanting to hike.
- Spa Day: Relax at one of the many spas in Banff. Here is a complete guide to the hot springs and spas you can visit.
Head to dinner at Grizzly House. This is one of the most popular spots in Banff and you’ll want to make a reso well in advance. Grizzly House is a fondue spot that has been in operation since the 60’s. It is definitely a must-do for your first time in Banff. You can even opt to have exotic meats for dinner like alligator!
Wake up early to head to Lake Louise
Another day in Banff means another early morning. Again, you don’t have to wake up before sunrise, but if you don’t, just recognize it’ll be a lot busier during the high season when you arrive at Lake Louise. I’d opt for the shuttle, but there is more parking at Lake Louise than at Moraine Lake.
Once you arrive at Lake Louise, are greeted by the beautiful views at the base of the lake. Lake Louise is known for its turquoise, glacier-fed water surrounded by high peaks and the gorgeous Fairmont Chateau. It’s a great base for a whole bunch of hiking trails, and you can also rent a canoe to canoe around the lake (for the hefty price of $135 CAD an hour). I will say though, canoeing at some point during your time in Banff is worth it. You can do it slightly cheaper at Moraine Lake for $115 CAD an hour. Canoeing is seasonal and busy, so it’s recommended to go right at opening time.
TIP! If you’re driving from BC into Alberta, you can canoe at Emerald Lake just outside of Banff for $75 CAD an hour for an identical experience
At Lake Louise, choose from a variety of hikes depending on what you’re looking for. The easy trail around the lake (Lakefront Trail) is family-friendly and is great if you’re not looking for something challenging. However, if you want something with better views and more challenging, you can select from a wide range of trails. Check out my guide to some of the most popular ones. We opted for Little Beehive via Lake Agnes. You get to stop at a cute teahouse at the top to warm up, and you then have the option to extend the hike to Big Beehive, which we really wanted to do but it was SUPER rainy this day and they told us at the teahouse we’d have 0 visibility at the top.
Again, we packed lunch with us, but you can either head back into Banff town to enjoy a proper lunch at a restaurant, or you can make a reservation at the beautiful Fairmont Chateau at one of their restaurants.
Afternoon in Canmore
Another option for your afternoon is to drive to Canmore for the afternoon. Canmore is another resort town in the rocky mountains and is a cute little tourist town full of shops and great restaurants. This can make for an awesome afternoon when you are over hiking for the day and just want something chill to do.
Some places to check out in Canmore:
- Crazyweed Kitchen: Make a reservation for lunch or dinner at this delicious upscale (but not too upscale) restaurant
- Brewery Hop: Pop by some of the Canmore breweries such as Sheepdog Brewery, or the Grizzly Paw (the Grizzly Paw also has a great restaurant that’s separate from the downstairs upstairs you can try out called Tank310)
- Distilleries: Wild Life Distillery and Blakes Brewhouse & Distillery are great places to stop in for cocktails
- Shop: There are a ton of local shops that you can pop in and out of for some local shopping
Make a reservation at Sky Bistro in Banff. Sky Bistro is located on the top of the mountains with gorgeous panoramic views of the area. You take the Banff Gondola up and you can book a combination ticket that includes both a multi-course dinner and the gondola for one price, or you can just book the gondola itself and go out and scope out the views before heading back down the mountain for dinner in town.
If you plan to do dinner, make sure you ride the gondola up earlier so you have time to walk around the boardwalks and check out the view. I will caveat this by saying if it’s a shitty day, you won’t have much of a view so if you have the luxury to do this either day 1 or day 2, maybe be flexible and pick the best day in terms of weather. It was a snowstorm when we went up and there was 0 visibility, unfortunately. However, the dinner was still delicious!
Now before I leave you with this guide for 2 days in Banff, I want to say that there are SO many outdoor activities other than hiking that you can do in Banff. From mountain biking to white water rafting, Banff is an adventure/outdoor lover heaven. So don’t think that if you aren’t into hiking you won’t have fun here. There is something for everyone!