A Local's Guide to Banff

What’s almost better than being able to travel to every destination in the world? Hearing about them from the people who know and love them best. Check out these tips for seeing Banff through a local's eyes.

Scottish travel writer AILSA ROSS left big-city life for small-town Banff to be with her mountain guide boyfriend. Two years later, all she can say is, “Multiplexes, skyscrapers … Who needs ‘em? Here I can find the perfect croissant and scale a mountain, all by 10 a.m.”

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is Wild Flour Bakery for coffee and a house-made almond and chocolate croissant.

Early November is the best time to visit my town because that’s when the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival takes place. Nine days of some of the world’s greatest adventurers, authors, filmmakers, and photographers telling their stories, guiding hikes, and leading photo walks is pretty epic. You can volunteer to get free tickets to the biggest shows.

You can see my town best from the top of Tunnel Mountain. The scenic drive brings staggering views of the surrounding 9,000-foot mountains—all chiseled angles and crevasses—at every turn.

Locals know to skip the commercial hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain and check out the undeveloped warm springs near the Cave and Basin instead. Okay, so you can only dip your feet in the latter, but at least it’ll just be you and the forest.

Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum Shop is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. Think handmade native carvings, jewelry, ceremonial objects, and clothing.

In the past, notable people like Olympic skier Karen Percy, landscape artists Peter and Catharine Whyte, and early female adventurer Mary Schäffer Warren have called my town home.

My town’s best museum is the Whyte Museum because it’s a wonderful place to learn about Banff’s heritage of artists and pioneers. I like to check out the museum archives: The black-and-white photos of petticoat-clad women feeding black bears are just surreal. Banff Park Museum is also brilliant. Here you can gawp at over 5,000 specimens, including taxidermy bears, lynx, and deer.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my town, it’s that Banff is really bike friendly. There are cycle paths everywhere, and they’ll take you right to the trailheads of some of the most glorious mountains in Canada.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my town is Central Park. On spring and summer evenings, groups of friends spread out on the grass for barbecues and beer drinking by the Bow River.

My town really knows how to celebrate Canada Day because it’s a famous party town. Give the town a huge bunch of fireworks and there will be a show. Add a parade full of mounties, a pancake breakfast big enough for a whole town, then hire a bunch of bands to play for free, and you have July 1 in Banff.

You can tell if someone is from my town if they have an Australian accent. (Kind of) just kidding. This is a seasonal town, so you’ll definitely find international ski bums and backpackers rolling through town to work for just a few months. You’ll find the locals looking straight out of a Patagonia ad and grinning from ear to ear because they know how lucky they are to live in a beautiful spot like Banff.

For a fancy night out, I head to the Banff Centre. Billed as "the largest arts and creativity incubator on the planet," it hosts world-class events, including spoken word readings and film screenings, often for free. Check the calendar to see what’s on for the evening.

Just outside my town, you can visit some of the most beautiful spots in the Canadian Rockies. Nearby Castle Mountain’s Rockbound Lake is a two-to-three-hour hike, where, on reaching the slope’s plateau, you’ll find yourself towered by mountainsides, larch trees waving under the sun, polished rocks smooth as ostrich eggs covering the ground. At the edge of the lake, the boulders stretch 10 feet tall and mountain walls curved as an amphitheater cradle the turquoise water—it’s like being in a Dali painting, totally surreal. And you likely won’t bump into more than a dozen other hikers on the way there.

My town is known for being touristy, but it’s really easy to sidestep Banff Avenue and head over to the next block, Bear Street, for more alternative stores and places to eat.

The best outdoor market in my town is Banff Farmers Market. Open every Wednesday from summer till early autumn, there’s live music and local vendors selling great local food and crafts.

The Whitebark Cafe is my favorite place to grab breakfast and Nourish Bistro is the spot for late-night eats. Do as the locals do and order the Num Num Nachos for starters, then, on eating, wonder how a topping that mixes a weird combo of 27 items—including sliced strawberries, beans, yogurt dressing, and melted cheddar—can taste so good.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read local weeklies Rocky Mountain Outlook and the Crag and Canyon.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I choose a pastry from Wild Flour’s $1 "Vintage" selection of yesterday’s leftover goodies. Then I flip through the magazine rack of Banff Library, where old magazine issues go for 50 cents, before heading over to Rundle United Thrift to look for bargain ski gear.

To escape the crowds, I bike over to Bow Falls for sunset and to enjoy the solitude while the rest of town is out to dinner. Or, on rainy days, I head to Banff Library to browse aisles filled with Himalayan travel guides, organic cookbooks, tales of Canadian adventurers. Such an awesomely curated selection of books represents exactly what Banff is all about: the good life and the great outdoors.

The dish that represents my city best is buffalo sausages and Bow River Pilsner is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at Banff Farmers Market and Banff Ave. Brewing Co. respectively.

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Wild Bill’s is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out Dancing Sasquatch.

Two wolves killing a deer in the middle of town could only happen in my home.

In the spring you should buy a slice of banana bread from Jump Start Coffee, then head through Central Park, following the river footpath toward the Fenland Trail. Choose a bench by the water, say hi to the morning joggers, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.

In the summer you should rent a bike and take the trail past the Cave and Basin over to Sundance Canyon. Hike alongside the canyon waterfall. Smile as you realize that this is how life should always be—outdoors, in nature.

In the fall you should go and see the larches turn golden at Lake Louise. It’s about forty minutes’ drive northwest of Banff, and it’s an area of the Rockies so pretty you can’t help but wolf whistle when you see it.

In the winter you should drive over to Lake Minnewanka for a night of stargazing. You never know, you might just catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Oh, and you should ski. Ski as much as you can.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the chance to go canoeing on the Bow River. The water’s that silty blue the Bow Valley’s famous for, and the pines look straight out of a Bob Ross painting ... pretty dreamy.

The best book about my city is Paul Zizka’s Summits and Starlight because his photos of the mountains we call home are incredible. But the most invaluable book is a local bible, Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies. I must have read the section on what to do when facing a grizzly on the trail at least a dozen times.

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