When we first rolled into Banff, the sun had just set and we felt like tired death after our accidentally insane hike of Big Beehive at Lake Louise. We parked on a side street and starting walking towards the sounds of people. But before we got to humans, we heard sounds in the residential garden to our right and saw a couple of mule deer just hanging out next to an Impala, noshing like it was totally normal. Didn’t even startle when we started trying to get a stable free-hand picture in the failing light. Welcome to the north?
What to expect from this Canadian Rockies town
As a couple of central Virginians, one thing we are NOT accustomed to is the absolute charm of a ski town like downtown Banff. Imagine walking along a snow-lined, two-lane road on a nippy day. Cars stop without issue when you want to cross the two-lane streets. Welcome to the CANADIAN north?
Seeing the town during the day is even better. Then you can tell that the architecture has a distinctly rustic feel – lots of exposed timbers and inspiration from chalets. People offer you help if you look lost, and twinkling lights hang from balconies and along the streets. Most stores and restaurants have colorful, often wooden, signs that overhang the street. And everything is so CLEAN. And the best part about all of this is that, anywhere you look, you’re surrounded by towering geological giants – snowcapped (or covered) mountains are EVERYWHERE.
Like any tourist-focused town (and it IS tourist-focused – in fact, it was originally designed in the late 20th century to have the best possible views of the mountains) gift shops abound. If you’re bored, just go in – some of their souvenirs are hilarious. Don’t miss the t-shirts! But just know that there’s more than just kitsch here.
Boyfriend Perspective: It is such a cozy town. None of the buildings were more than 2 or 3 three stories, giving a small town feel and leaving the view to be its astounding self. A reboot of John Denver’s The Christmas Gift would not be out of place here when it snowed.
What to do in Town of Banff
Stop by the visitor center. This sounds absurd, right? Because we all have Google. But if you haven’t ordered your park pass yet, have questions about current back-country conditions, or want to know anything about the surrounding area, this is the place to be. After all, asking real people is often a little more satisfying than the good ol’ Goog.
Talk a walk. The scenery and atmosphere are two of the best things about this town, aside from its proximity to insanely gorgeous impactful natural attractions. And, if you’re from anywhere that’s a little less polite, cross the street a couple times. It’s SO WEIRD when cars actually stop…
Go shopping. Banff Avenue has a surprisingly large number of stores for its size, so if you need to restock or simply feel like a spree, you can’t go too far wrong. Bonus, most of the stores offer Canadian-made goods.
Where to eat in downtown Banff
On that first night downtown, when we had just hiked for hours and were both hungry enough that meat on the hoof had started to look tasty (run, deer, run!), we both whipped out our phones and started looking for decently-reviewed restaurants. As we perused, a man walking an adorable pup stopped, apologized for interrupting, and asked if he could help us. We let him know we were enthusiastically in need of dinner, and he gave us several area recommendations for different types of cuisine.
Banff Brewing Company. Dill pickle fried chicken sandwich, anyone? It’s a little greasy, but if you’re feeling something hearty and filling, this is your spot. Also, their rhubarb cheesecake is CRAZY good. This very much a ski bar, and very much frequented by locals. It was actually while sitting at our corner high top that we heard a local group of snowboarders talking about a Twitter account that specifically sends out warnings when the aurora is particularly active – and wouldn’t you know that, on the way back to Canmore, we ended up pulling off the highway to grab a couple long exposures of the Northern Lights?! Nothing like a local watering hole for quality info.
Boyfriend Perspective: Good pub food, good craft beer, and very welcoming staff. This would be my first choice to eat at when we come back.
Whitebark Café. Guys, we’d literally go back to Banff just for this. Forgive the lack of food photography skills, but holy bajeezus your stomach won’t regret a trip here. The coffee is delicious, but their breakfast foods are the best. Bacon egg cups (which, thankfully for me, weren’t runny), quinoa bowls with yogurt so thick it looks like ice cream, rhubarb bars (with a few extra for the road), and super tasty quiche were all on our morning, post-Johnston Canyon menu. Speaking officially, no regrets were had!
Boyfriend Perspective: For those wondering, rhubarb bars are like date bars made with rhubarb instead. If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb, its a bit of sweet citrus flavor without bite sour bite, pair nicely with strawberry. They are delicious and….hey Meagan, did we ever get that recipe?
How to get around Banff
WALK. Seriously, it’s so small, there’s almost no reason to drive unless the weather is crap. In the fall, while we visited, sunny skies and a gentle breeze made walking around a joy during the day.
If you’re not feeling the pedestrian thing, grab a bike or a scooter. Equally easy. Cars are just kind of superfluous.
Have you ever spent time in the Town of Banff? What was your favorite restaurant, or favorite thing about the town?
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Also published on Medium.