Spectacular vistas of soaring, snow-capped mountain peaks as far as the eye can see. Charming main streets featuring art galleries, storefronts bursting with souvenirs and local vendors selling fresh-baked organic treats. A small town feel, despite being a destination that lures visitors from as far as Asia and Australia year-round.
Where am I describing? Well, two places actually: Banff and Canmore, Alberta. The towns nestled in the heart of Canada’s Rocky Mountains are only 26 kilometres apart, and amazing spots to visit whether you only have time for a day trip from Calgary or plan to enjoy a weeklong getaway.
But how do you choose between them? Here’s a rundown of Banff versus Canmore, for those trying to decide where to base themselves.
When it comes to accommodation, Banff is home to most of the hotels while Canmore boasts the resorts.
Stunning properties in Banff include the Rimrock Resort which is perched halfway up a mountain affording unbelievable views of the surrounding peaks from its outdoor verandas, as well as the Fairmont Banff Springs. The historic Banff Springs (which is said to be frequented by ghosts!) is nestled into a valley, earning it the nickname “The Castle of the Rockies.” It also has a fantastic golf course where it’s not uncommon to spot deer or bears just off the fairway.
While those both run at the top end of the budget, there are many affordable options in town such as the Fox Hotel and Suites which has a wide range of room types to fit all group sizes, along with a grotto-like soaking pool. Another great pick is Hidden Ridge Resort on nearby Tunnel Mountain, which has a massive outdoor hot tub overlooking the entire valley sprawled out below.
Meantime, Canmore’s resorts are solid options for those planning to stay longer than a night or two, as most offer modern suites with full kitchens, living rooms, fireplaces and laundry facilities. The Grande Rockies Resort, Basecamp Resorts and the Solara Resort and Spa are all popular, with amenities including hot tubs and gyms.
And the winner is…
Canmore! It’s always nice to stay in a place that feels like a home away from home, and the large suites mean there’s lots of room to spread out. Being able to prepare your own meals is a good way to save money and eat healthier, plus the cost of a night in one of the resorts is usually significantly cheaper than rooms in Banff.
Both mountain towns have great dining options, as there are very few chain restaurants in the area meaning much of the food is locally sourced.
While Canmore does have some higher-end restaurants, it’s the town’s cafes that really shine. A crowd favourite is the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co., which has dozens of fresh-baked bagel varieties, which you can enjoy with a just-brewed coffee for breakfast or get made into a delicious sandwich for lunch.
Another good pick is Communitea Cafe, a coffee shop which also has vegetarian and vegan fare such as salads, chickpea wraps and a Buddha Bowl with tofu. Did I mention the cafe itself also looks like it fell right off of a Pinterest board? Adorable!
If it’s beer you’re after, there’s no better spot than the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company found on Main Street. Open since 1996, the pub is actually a microbrewery that makes its own beer, and distributes to other restaurants throughout the province. It also offers tasting tours.
Up the road in Banff there are dozens of dining options, with everything from sandwich shops and cafes to high-end restaurants offering five-course tasting menus. Don’t miss Bear Street Tavern, which makes piping-hot pizzas served with house-made chilli sauce and honey for an extra flavour kick. It also offers “shot-skis,” which are four shot glasses affixed to a ski to kick off your night out! Upstairs, The Bison is more of a traditional dining experience, and has a fantastic brunch.
One spot you won’t want to miss is Grizzly House, which is like something out of a 70s swingers movie thanks to the phones at each table for diners to call each other on and the dated decor. While that’s an experience on its own, it’s the food that’s worth coming in for. The menu is focused on fondue, and servers bring a sizzling hot pot of oil to each table to dip exotic meats like rattlesnake and shark into. Don’t worry if your palate isn’t up for it—Grizzly House also has traditional fondue offerings such as steak, lobster, cheese and fruit.
And the winner is…
Canmore! There’s just something to be said for a place where everything tastes fresh and healthy, and dining out is more about meeting friends in the community than keeping up appearances.
They may be small towns, but both Banff and Canmore have lots to keep visitors occupied—as long as they enjoy the great outdoors. That’s not to say a day spent shopping in Banff’s Cascade Shops or at the spa isn’t lovely (I recommend Red Earth Spa in the Banff Caribou Lodge or Rapunzel’s Day Spa and Salon in Canmore), but let’s be honest—a trip to the Rockies is all about getting outside.
Both towns are wonderful places for aimlessly wandering around the downtown areas or finding somewhere quiet to sit down and enjoy the view, perhaps of the winding Bow River. A great spot in Banff is near Banff Avenue and Cave Avenue, where the perfectly manicured Cascade Gardens make for a fantastic photo op before wandering back across the river to check out the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site.
For those craving adventure, both towns offer rental shops with gear for activities like snowshoeing or skiing, and bikes are available for those looking to tackle one of the nearby pathways. My favourite is the Legacy Trail, a 40 kilometre pathway which links Banff and Canmore.
Alternatively, hop in the car and enjoy a nature walk. Those in Banff will want to drive 30 minutes to Johnston Canyon, where an easy trail sandwiched between rock faces passes over aquamarine-hued water before ending at the base of a waterfall. If you’re in Canmore, it’s a quick drive from town up towards the Nordic Centre, and from there you can hike up to Grassi Lakes which has sparkling turquoise pools.
In terms of ski hills, resorts such as Sunshine Village and Lake Louise are just a short drive away. Banff does have the upper hand on this one though, as the town is pretty much at the base of Mt. Norquay.
READ MORE: Alberta’s best ski resorts
If you need some R&R after all that exploring, check out the Banff Upper Hot Springs. The steamy mineral water will soothe those aches and pains, and the pool just so happens to boast an epic view of the surrounding valley and Mount Rundle.
And the winner is…
Banff! With no shortage of people watching opportunities and quick access to some of the best hiking spots and ski hills, Banff wins when it comes to activities.
This is an easy one. Other than being home to a few pubs, Canmore has no nightlife to speak of, so this category goes to Banff. The Dancing Sasquatch is a fun spot for dancing, as there are great DJs and the option to spring for bottle service. If you keep an eye out, you may even see the dancing sasquatch roaming around! For more of a country feel, head over to Wild Bill’s Saloon which has a restaurant, massive dance floor, live bands and even a mechanical bull.
Bowling is always a fun way to spend an evening, which you can enjoy at High Rollers in Banff. The venue boasts six bowling lanes and bocce, along with pizza, beer and slushy drinks guaranteed to give you a buzz. Does it get any better than that?!
So…which Alberta mountain town is better?
We have a tie! It just goes to show that there’s no right answer to whether travellers should stay in Banff or Canmore, as it all comes down to the type of trip you’re looking to experience, along with timing and budget. My advice? Find a way to stay in both, and discover your favourite for yourself.
How to get there: Fly into the Calgary International Airport (YYC). Canmore is about a one-hour drive away while Banff takes an extra 15 minutes. Rent a car, or book transportation from a company like Brewster, which offers shuttle service between the airport and Alberta’s best mountain towns as well as sightseeing tours.
There’s also a regional bus service that runs between Banff and Canmore all day long, which takes 30 minutes and only costs $2 each way.
Currency: Canadian dollar, although American dollars are accepted at many hotels and restaurants.
When to go: Anytime! Banff and Canmore are both spectacular all year round. Just remember to pack some warm clothes if you’re travelling during winter.
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