Your Banff Guide on a Budget
Banff is a beautiful town in the middle of the Canadian Rockies with plenty of travelers, countless outdoor activities and breathtaking views which don’t get old no matter how often you see them. Located in a National Park you will see deer wandering between the houses, with the occasional elk or – in rare cases – bear and even cougar sightings. This Banff Guide on a Budget will help you to make the most of your time here.
Banff holds a special place in our hearts as it is the place we met and fell in love with each nearly 3 years ago. We have lived in this mountain town from early fall (if you can call it that with snow starting to cover the mountains from mid-October on) to late winter; and again returned in the middle of summer for a short visit. Having experienced different seasons in this town, we can’t decide which time of year is best to visit as heaps of activities are offered all year round and the landscape is stunning in all seasons.
Keep reading to find out how to see Banff on a budget- no matter which season you decide to visit!
What is included in this Banff Guide on a Budget?
- Best hikes starting in the town of Banff
- Low budget activities
- Where to eat
BEST HIKES STARTING IN BANFF
When planning your trip to Banff you will soon notice that it is not the cheapest location to visit. However, the best way to explore the area and fully take in its beauty is completely for free! What better way to experience Banff’s breathtaking nature than by going for a walk? To start off with our Banff Guide on a Budget we have created a summary of our favorite hikes for you. Please stay on the paths to keep the area as untouched as possible and read up on behavior towards wildlife beforehand, especially when hiking in spring and summer.
See the official Banff Trails Map for reference.
Bow Falls Trail
|Starting Point||Pedestrian Bridge|
|Duration||15- 25 minutes|
Let’s start with the most popular and shortest hiking trail in Banff. Cross the Banff pedestrian bridge over the Bow river to reach the southern part of Banff. Now simply turn left and follow the trail leading along the river. While the Bow Falls Trail is mostly flat, be prepared for a steep flight of stairs just before reaching Bow Falls Viewpoint. At the Bow Falls viewpoint you not only get a beautiful view of the falls, but of the broad river bed, and the breathtaking mountains on each side. This is a popular tourist hotspot with many buses arriving regularly, so you’ll most likely have to share this view with others.
In winter you can extend this path through the golf course. Attaching cleats to your shoes or bringing poles is recommended as the path and especially the stairs can get very icy: we were struggling to get up and down, and landed a few times on our bums.
Tunnel Mountain Walk
|Starting Point||Tunnel Mountain Trailhead on 107 Tunnel Mountain Dr|
|Duration||1.5-2 hours return|
You won’t find a tunnel leading through Tunnel Mountain. The plan of building the Canadian Pacific Railway through the mountain was replaced by building the railway around it. The name remained. Among the Nakoda people – local natives – the mountain is known as ‘sleeping buffalo’. Looking at the mountain from a distance you can definitely see the resemblance.
Tunnel Mountain is the smallest of Banff’s surrounding mountains and hiking to the summit takes only 45 minutes to an hour. The Tunnel Mountain Walk is a favorite amongst locals, as it can be easily done before or after work and offers beautiful panoramic views over the town and surrounding landscape. We hiked this mountain a few times and could not get enough of the view!
This popular trail is easily accessible from downtown. You can either drive or walk up Tunnel Mountain Drive until you reach the starting point. From here, simply follow the trail up to the summit. Two red Parks Canada chairs have been placed on top for you to sit in and enjoy the view in front of you – not an option in winter though. You wonder why? See the picture below.
Sulphur Mountain Trail
|Starting Point||Banff Hot Springs parking lot|
|Duration||1.5- 2.5 hours one way|
Have you heard of the Banff Gondola? It is a popular tourist attraction which brings you to the top of Sulphur Mountain for a stunning 360 degree view over Banff town and the surrounding mountains. Good news: you can hike up to this spot and enjoy the same scenery for free!
The trail is well paved and slowly winds upwards. Hiking Sulphur Mountain requires good fitness as 655m elevation is gained in 5.5km which means it is a steep walk. Once at the top, pass the upper terminal of the gondola and continue on the scenic boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak.
If you don’t feel like hiking back, you can take the gondola down for half price (it doesn’t work the other way round). During the winter season which starts mid October you can ride the gondola down without having to pay. We went in late October and used this option of a free, comfortable ride back to the parking lot.
Fenland Trail and Vermillion Lakes
|Starting Point||Fenland Trailhead|
|Duration||Fenland Trail only 30-45minutes||5-10 minutes add on to the lakes (one way)|
The Fenland Trail is a short and flat forest walk. You can easily walk to the starting point from town as it takes only 15 minutes on foot. We recommend combining the Fenland Trail with a walk to the Vermillion Lakes. From the docks leading out to the water you have an amazing view of Mt Rundle mirroring in the lakes. It is also a fantastic sunrise and sunset spot!
From the starting point, simply follow the well noticeable circuit through the forest. To continue to Vermillion Lakes, look out for a tiny path leading off the circuit and connecting the Fenland Trail to Vermillion Lakes Road. If you are walking the Fenland Trail clockwise, the connecting path will appear to your left about three quarters into the walk. Once you reach Vermillion Lakes Road turn left and walk along the side until you get to the lakes. There are benches and docks you can sit on. To get back, simply return to the Fenland Trail and continue where you left off.
|Starting Point||Surprise Corner Viewpoint|
|Duration||0.5-1hr return to Manu’s favorite spot||2-3hrs return to Hoodoos viewpoint|
While Dan has walked the complete trail, Manu has never made it all the way to the hoodoos, but did the first part plenty of times. This is where Manu’s favorite spot in Banff is located. “I (Manu) loved coming here in company or even more so by myself to reflect and simply be in nature. Feel the breeze, hear the wind blow through the branches and the water move below, smell the scent of the forest and see all the beauty around. This spot made me feel like Pocahontas singing ‘Colors of the wind’- the perfect song for this location!”
So where is this special place and how to get there?
Walk or drive to the ‘Surprise Corner Viewpoint’ and start from there. At this viewpoint you have a fantastic view of the castle-like building of the hotel Fairmont Banff Springs revealed to you. The Hoodoos Trail starts on the other end of the car park. You will see a root-strewn path leading down into the forest. Follow this trail through the woods and partially along the river’s bed. The path is walked by many locals and is well noticeable. It is mostly flat with some hilly bits in between. If you are here in winter, it is best to bring poles and wear shoes with a good grip (attaching ice cleats would be the smartest) as the trail gets very icy. We had to slide down on our butts a few times because walking downhill was just not possible.
Eventually you will reach some steps leading upwards. On top there is a big rock to your right- you made it to Manu’s favorite spot! (Coordinates: 51°10’21.0″N 115°32’50.0″W). Sit down, overlook the valley and simply enjoy your surroundings. You’ve now completed about a third of the trail and can either continue for about 40 minutes – definitely takes longer in winter- to reach the Hoodoos Viewpoint or return back to Banff.
Banff Guide: LOW BUDGET ACTIVITIES
Learn about the Natives at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum
Being interested in indiginious cultures visiting this museum felt really special to us. It is one of Alberta’s oldest museums and is located in an authentic wooden building next to the Bow River. The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum invites you to learn about the cultures and traditions of North America’s first Nations. It focuses especially on the Blackfoot, Cree, Blood and Stoney nations. Reading through the information, and seeing original artifacts accompanied by tribal sounds the spirit of these tribes can be felt.
Entry fee: $10 per adult*
Visit Art Galleries
Scattered around town you will find many little Art Galleries where you can admire local art for free – great for your Banff Budget! As you can imagine the National Park’s beauty and wilderness makes up for endless motifs. Be invited to experience the Rockies through the eyes of artists and their creative interpretations. Our personal favorites are the expressive paintings of Canada’s wildlife such as bears, moose, elk and wolves. We especially recommend the Canada House Gallery for a browse.
Cave and Basin National Historic site
You can smell this historic site from far ahead. It is a smell of rotten eggs- not the most inviting we have to admit. The smell is coming from natural sulphur rich water which is located in a cave. This mineral rich water is the birthplace of Banff National Park, and with that, the whole Canadian National Park system. You wonder why? Pay the Cave and Basin a visit and learn all about it!
Important note: please make sure not to touch the water as it is home to the endangered Banff Snail and touching it disturbes their habitat.
Entry fee: $3.90 per adult*
Relax in the Upper Hot Springs
After having learned about the historical importance of the Banff Hot Springs at Cave and Basin National Historic Site, you should feel their ‘healing powers’ for yourself. Relaxing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs was definitely one of our favorite things to do in Banff and therefore made it to our ‘Must Do’s in Banff National Park’. Under number 4 we have outlined everything you need to know for a visit. (Blog post pending!)
Banff Guide: WHERE TO EAT on a Budget
Whitebark Cafe for great coffee
Let’s start with coffee – as we do most mornings. If you love a good cup of coffee, pay the Whitebark Cafe a visit. Not only does the coffee taste amazing, it is also fairly sourced and organic. Tea lovers, don’t feel left out! The cafe serves loose-leaf teas created by the Banff Tea Company with beautiful taste.
Homemade goodies such as quiche, different pastries and cakes can be enjoyed with your beverage. Manu can still taste their delicious vanilla cheesecake with strawberry coulis in her mouth: the softness, the lightness, the subtle sweetness. Please do me a favor and try it!
This local coffee shop is located on the corner of Moose and Banff Avenue away from the main tourist area. In front of the Whitebark Cafe is a nice patio where you can sip your drink while enjoying a great view of the mountains.
Wild Flour Bakery
The Wild Flour Bakery is the best place for bread in town for you to take home or enjoy in-house in the form of a sandwich with fresh and organic fillings. Artisan breads made out of whole wheat, sourdough or rye and a variety of pastries are baked every day. You can smell the scent of freshly baked goodies all around the Bison courtyard. The bakers like to get creative with their creations and different varieties are sold depending on the day. Check out the ‘bread schedule’ mentioned on their homepage.
This authentically local bakery also serves great barista made coffee, breakfast muffins and amazing desserts. Our favorite was the vegan chocolate tart – rich in flavor we savored every single bite. For a quick coffee on the go you can visit Little Wild – the little sister cafe of Wild Flour Bakery.
Tooloulou’s for brekkie
Get there early and be prepared to stand in line to enter this quaint, locally owned restaurant. Reservations are not taken for breakfast, but unless you have a fully packed itinerary it is definitely worth the wait! There are soooo many options to choose from: varieties of french toast, waffles, crepes, egg dishes and hearty breakfasts. We recommend having a look at the menu before you go or while waiting for a seat to not be too overwhelmed by the choices.
Aardvark for Poutine
Is there a more typical Canadian dish than poutine? If so, please let us know – we might have missed out on something big! Simply said poutine is french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. To be honest, it didn’t sound the best to us but once tried we got hooked. While many places around the world offer this dish, nothing compares to the authentic poutine you get in Canada.
Our favorite place for this iconic food in Banff is the little imbiss Aardvark – it’s also the place to go for late night/ after party cravings. They serve poutine with original Montreal Cheese curds, which is the real deal! You can add different toppings to your poutine, but we’d say you should try the traditional version at least once.
Have a ‘beaver tail’ ‘at Beaver Tails
Don’t worry, we’re not telling you to eat the actual tail of a beaver, but a pastry which is shaped similar to a beaver tail. This popular Canadian dessert consists of fried dough and is topped with various spreads and toppings. Our favorite is APPLE PIE (apples, caramel sauce and crumble). This option, like many others, can be made vegan.
Rose & Crown for dinner, drinks and dance
The Rose & Crown rooftop patio is a great budget place in Banff for dinner on a summer evening. From here you have a beautiful view of Cascade Mountain. It is Banff’s oldest pub and an iconic place to have a chilled beer- or cider in Manu’s case. Check out their website for daily food & drink deals!
From 10pm on you can listen and dance to some life music. The genre varies day to day between country – oh so Canadian! – classic rock, alt and more. There is no entrance fee on weekdays and a small charge Fridays & Saturdays. Besides music and good drink deals, you can find pool tables inside the pub to challenge fellow travelers.
Rocky Mountain Bagels in Canmore
For this food recommendation, you’ll have to visit the nearby town Canmore (by car or bus). Even though not in Banff, we simply had to mention this place in this ‘Banff Guide on a Budget’ as it has the best bagels Dan has eaten in his life and we really don’t want you to miss out on this great bagel experience!
Here mostly everything is made from scratch: the bagel buns, the cream cheese varieties, the sweet treat and so on. There are alone 10 bagel bread options to choose from and many more fillings. Vegan options are available.
If you have a few months to spare, we recommend living and working in Banff for a while (see if you’re eligible for a Working Holiday Visa here: Probably the biggest perk of working in this mountain town – besides having incredible views at your doorstep – is the possibility of getting the ‘Banff ambassador pass‘. With this little sheet of paper you get to do heaps of awesome activities for free or minimal costs! A great way to fully experience Banff on a Budget 🙂
If you visit Banff in winter check out these Top 8 Banff Winter Activities.
*prices last updated in October 2019