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Here’s my guide for how to spend two days in Banff, including the best things to do and where to stay on a budget.
Australians in Banff – they’re everywhere! It was like British Columbia’s ski town of Whistler, which the locals have nicknamed Whistralia due to the amount of Australians residing there over the ski season. I can’t think of a catchy name for Banff, but my fellow countrymen were definitely everywhere I turned. Buying and selling in the shops, staying and working in the hostel, and walking the streets beside me.
I spent two days in Banff last fall after spending 15 months living in Vancouver. The weather was warm without being hot and the leaves were yet to change. Here is a glimpse at what I saw and where I stayed.
The best things to do with two days in Banff
1. Walk to Bow Falls
The first thing I did with my two days in Banff was walk to Bow Falls. I do enjoy a tourist town that has signposts along the main street directing you to the best attractions. I spent my first morning following the signs to Bow Falls. Once you cross the bridge on Banff Avenue, you turn left and walk along a dirt path that is parallel to the Bow River. It was very peaceful walking along the track, surrounded by pine trees. The only noises I heard were my feet crunching the dirt and the flowing river beside me. A tour guide told me later she had seen a bear along the path only a couple of weeks before, so keep your eyes open!
I didn’t see too many people until I made it to the falls themselves. Honestly, I think a better name for them would be the Bow River Rapids, as that’s more what they resembled. But I guess tourists would be more inclined to visit a waterfall than a powerful, sloping rapid.
Nevertheless, at the end next to the falls/rapids is a calm, shallow part of the river. It curves to the left and flows towards a snowy mountain. The water was clear at the shore before turning turquoise in the middle. At the river’s turn, a white-water rafting company was preparing two raft loads of people that were heading towards the snow in September.
Check out my solo and budget travel guide to the Canadian Rockies
2. Admire Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
From Bow Falls I could see the Fairmont Banff Springs castle atop the hill to my right, but I didn’t know how to get there for a peek. So I followed the road upwards, passing the golf course until I found a set of stairs. Curious and hopeful they would take me to my destination, I headed up. Eventually, I did find myself at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which resembled the castles illustrated in fairy tales. The towers were tall, rocky (like the mountains) and tan. Colourful flower beds even greeted you at the entrance.
There was a roundabout outside the entry with a statue of a man in the centre. I followed the signs and the footpath that took me back to Banff Avenue. I turned around before the path curved and the hotel disappeared to capture the entire premise, backdropped by the Rockies. Fairytale, much?
It’s about a kilometre away from the town’s centre. Just make sure you cross the Bow River Bridge once more. I walked back along the bridge on the opposite path to when I crossed, for a different mountain and river perspective.
3. Wander down Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue is the town’s main thoroughfare, where you will find most of the shops, eateries and accommodation. You will spend a lot of your two days in Banff along the avenue. I thought the Billabong store was a reflection of the Australian presence. There are plenty of souvenir stores selling the usual t-shirts, jewellery and postcards as well. As a Christmas elf, I was delighted to visit the Christmas store and purchase a poinsettia ring to add to my December jewellery collection. I glimpsed inside a lot of the restaurants, but they were quite pricey for a budget traveller. Instead, I turned to the two S’s: Safeway and Subway. The Safeway supermarket is on Banff Avenue, whilst the Subway is just off it on Caribou Street.
On the Saturday during my stay, Banff Avenue was partially closed down for the Banff Triathlon. As the presenter announced each finished competitor, I realised there were participants from around the world. The footpaths were full of spectators and cheerleaders too. A Canadian Rockies triathlon must be one of the most picturesque competitions in the world.
Here are the other places I recommend visiting on a Canadian holiday
4. Relax in the Square
There is also a square, which I think was aptly named Banff Avenue Square, right in the middle of town. I sat there one afternoon to write and people watch. I love being able to just sit and soak up some Vitamin D without burning, which is a rarity in Australia. My view was away from the street, looking at a snowy mountain I had probably taken a hundred photos of earlier that day. The crisp breeze was blowing a Canadian flag and all I could hear was the sound of a passing car sometimes, or the trot of a horse pulling a carriage. A group of smartly dressed friends walk past, making me think there must have been a wedding occurring somewhere close by. What a perfect day for a wedding.
5. Visit Banff Upper Hot Springs
On my last morning in town, I decided to check out the Banff Upper Hot Springs, which is located just on the outskirts. Fortunately, it’s accessible via a public bus on Banff Avenue. It is currently $7.30 CAD to enter and you can rent a retro circa-the-20s swimsuit, towel and locker. It was quite busy when I was there with an assortment of participants, including young families, travellers and older couples.
The hot springs pool, fortunately, had ledges inside and outside for you to sit on during submersion breaks. The mineral water is kept between 37 and 40°C. I am a little bit weak so couldn’t stay in for long periods, but I nonetheless enjoyed it. It would be a great winter activity.
6. On your two days in Banff, do a tour to Lake Louise
During my two days in Banff, I also spent half a day touring Lake Louise with Discover Banff Tours (Viator has a full day option as well). Yes, it was a tad overpriced for me. But as a solo traveller, there was just not another way for me to get to Lake Louise in such a short timeframe. Thankfully, I’m so glad I did the tour as Lake Louise was even more breathtaking than I imagined.
Another option is hiring a bike while in town to see some of the neighbouring lakes, including Vermilion Lakes on Banff’s outskirts. Or if you have a car you can check out Johnston Canyon, which I heard was worthwhile too.
Where to stay in Banff
I feel an affinity to the Samesun chain as I stayed in the hostel for two and a half weeks when I first arrived in Vancouver. It turns out Samesun Backpackers Banff used to be a hotel, which I noticed immediately as I stepped into my large six-bed female dorm and found a dresser, vintage armchair and fireplace. The ensuite bathroom had a shower and bath that must have been used as a spa in its past life.
There is the Beaver Bar located onsite. However, a door separates the rooms from the entertainment so I couldn’t hear anything. The bar turns into the breakfast area each morning, with a spread of cereals, juice, toast, fruit, muffins and pancakes. It was in an accessible location for the shops and the Greyhound terminal as well. I’d highly recommend staying there for a budget Banff accommodation option.
I hope you enjoy your two days in Banff!
Banff is the kind of place that just being in its presence and breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air makes you feel instantly better. I loved spending two days Banff in the fall. I don’t know how I would cope with it being blanketed in snow, but for now, I will enjoy the sunny Banff memories. Even if the main thing I recall is the sound of Australian accents!