Banff or Canmore? Tips for choosing which town to stay in

Canada-Alberta-Banff-Mt-Rundle

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.

The Three Sisters in Canmore, Alberta

The Three Sisters in Canmore, Alberta

Accommodation

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.

The Fairmont Banff Springs

The Fairmont Banff Springs

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, Stoneridge Mountain Resort and the Solara Resort and Spa are all popular, with amenities including hot tubs and gyms.

Lodging in Canmore. Courtesy of Shutterstock

Lodging in Canmore. Courtesy of Shutterstock

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.

Dining

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.

beer-tap

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.

RELATED: The ultimate list of après-ski spots in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains

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.

Grizzly House

Grizzly House

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.

Activities

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.

RELATED: Best spring activities in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains (that aren’t skiing)

Banff

Banff’s town centre

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.

canada-alberta-legacy-trail Cycling the Legacy Trail between Banff and Canmore, Alberta

Cycling the Legacy Trail between Canmore and Banff, Alberta.

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

Mt Norquay banff alberta canada

Mt Norquay

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.

Nightlife

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.

Bottle service at Dancing Sasquatch

Bottle service at Dancing Sasquatch

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?! 

High Rollers in Banff

High Rollers in Banff

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.

A sunset in Banff, Alberta

A sunset in Banff, Alberta

PRACTICALITIES:

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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

The ultimate guide to the best of Banff, Alberta

Cycling the Legacy Trail between Banff and Canmore, Alberta

Alberta’s best ski resorts

The best things to do in Calgary, Alberta

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21 Responses

  1. Tamara, thank you for clarifying the differences between the two towns. We are planning to head to that area of Canada in a few years time so it is great to know that there is a good option other than Banff – as a family with three children affordable and with room to spread out is a must!

  2. I’ve heard of Banff (hasn’t everyone?!) but never Canmore – so thank you for introducing me to the cheaper and nicer option for accommodation in the area. We love having our own kitchen wherever we go – its such a good way to save money by not having to eat out all the time.

  3. Tonya says:

    I’ve heard a lot about Banff, but never Canmore and based on your reviews, for me the winner would be Canmore for the resorts and dining. Looks like a fun area to explore, even if you’re not into skiing!

  4. Carla Abanes says:

    I want to do both! hahaha thanks for sharing this, but for me I think I want to do both as I have never been to any of the 2 and I have never tried going for a ski trip.

  5. Erica says:

    Amazing comparison. Banff is definitely on my list and since its your winner when it comes to easy access for activities, I think it just might be my winner too!

  6. Ibazela says:

    Lovely place! I’m not sure I will be able to choose between Canmore and Banff, so most probably I would decide to stay 2 nights here and 2 nights there 😉 But I love mountains. Rocky Mountains are still on my list (so far I only discovered some of the European mountains and Japanese Alps). Can’t wait to go there! What’s funny, I can not ski! So thank you for the link to the “best spring activities in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains (that aren’t skiing)” ;)))

    • Perfect, glad you found the other article too 🙂 There are plenty of Canadians who don’t even ski, so there are definitely a lot of activities here to keep everyone satisfied (I’m partial to the snow tubing- so fun!)

  7. Great Post!!
    You convinced me, I have to go to the Alberta as soon as possible. We have been living in Southeast Asia for the past year, and I´m craving for some winter and snow activity…. Those mountains and those hotels… OMG!!! Love the post, you manage to give all the necessary information about the two towns, and as you said: better visit both of them and choose our favorite!
    Cheers,
    Nat

    • Thanks Nat! So much to experience in southeast Asia for sure, but a bit different than what we have to offer here in Alberta 🙂 Hope you can make it out here soon!

  8. Dariece says:

    Both such beautiful towns. You’ve given a great rundown of the benefits of both places….seems like a pretty difficult choice! 🙂 It might be fun to stay in Banff for a little, then cycle the Legacy Trail to Canmore and stay there for a little. Sounds like a fun adventure to me!

  9. Dave Briggs says:

    Like many people (I guess), I had heard of Banff but not Canmore. As you describe it though, I would probably choose Canmore, as beyond somewhere to eat and having a drink, nightlife is not such a major issue for me.

  10. Nisha says:

    Oh I was thinking Banff would win! 🙂
    Love the views and the mountains. I’m not sure which one I would have chosen between the two. In that situation, I leave it to my husband to decide. And he would have decided 2 nights for each place. 🙂

  1. March 28, 2016

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  2. April 4, 2016

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