Upper Johnston Waterfalls in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Get To Know the Real Banff, From Hot Springs and Waterfalls To Historic Town Sites

Banff National Parks Insider Guides
by Alanna Koritzke Apr 26, 2023

Banff is well known as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies with its small-town charm, position as the perfect base for a trip into the backcountry, wide swath of adventure travel opportunities (skiing and otherwise), and access to wildlife and nature.

The region has played a significant role in shaping the history of not only Alberta, but Canada as a whole. Banff is rich in culture and history, from the first Indigenous peoples who have lived and hunted in the region for over 10,000 years to the arrival of pioneering railway workers and the modern tourism industry. And while no trip is complete without fully embracing the outdoors, there’s a case to be made for visiting Banff for its history.

There is a number of historic train stations and tracks, including the iconic Banff Springs Hotel which served as a key focal point for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s marketing efforts. Banff’s natural beauty and access to hot springs has drawn tourists from all over the world since the 1880s, leading to the establishment of Banff National Park as the first national park in Canada in 1885.

Beyond its stunning landscapes and natural hot springs, Banff’s human history is truly remarkable. Home to a wealth of Indigenous and European landmarks, there are numerous preserved buildings, museums, and interpretive centers waiting to be explored. Take a walk through Banff’s vibrant past by visiting the Cave and Basin Historic Site, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, and the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site.

Whether you’re interested in the history of transportation, the Great Canadian Rockies or the national park system, Banff is a fascinating place that offers a unique perspective on Canadian history that is not to be missed.

How to immerse yourself in the history of Banff

Open Top Touring

The best way to get acquainted with Banff in the warmer months is with Open Top Touring. This guided tour takes place in a custom-built vehicle, modeled after the 1930s touring cars used by the Brewster brothers, some of the most influential, original tour guides for the first waves of visitors to Banff National Park. Despite the callback to historic tours, the amenities are comfortable and modern with leather seats, blankets during colder days, and speakers so you can hear your guide nice and clear.

As the name suggests, Open Top Touring vehicles have an open rooftop where the outside meets the inside that allow the stunning views of the mountains to become crystal clear, smells of the pine infiltrate your senses, and the refreshing breeze surrounds you.

From your expert tour guide, you’ll learn about the history of Banff including tidbits about Bill and Jim Brewster who ran open top tours in the 1930s, Bill Peyto, a mountain guide, who famously entered a crowded bar with a live lynx just to clear it out and have the place to himself, and legends of each mountain around the area including Tunnel Mountain, Cascade Mountain, Sulphur Mountain, and more.

Open Top Touring: Departs from Mount Royal Hotel at 138 Banff Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1A7, Canada

Cave and Basin National Historic Site

cave and basin national historic site banff

Photo: Pawel Serafin/Shutterstock

This is where Banff National Park was founded. The story goes that railway workers who stayed behind in the winter saw steam coming up from the ground. They tracked it to a cave filled with a pool of natural hot water, which at the time was a highly marketable commodity. Due to conflicting claims over who discovered the hot springs, the Canadian Government stepped in to protect the land, and Banff National Park was designated as Canada’s first national park in 1885.

You can visit Cave and Basin National Historic Site to learn about its role in Banff’s history as well as the importance of natural hot springs to Indigenous Peoples. Take a trip inside the cave to observe the beautiful turquoise springs and see if you can spot the one-of-a-kind Banff Springs Snail, which only inhabits the thermal pools on Sulphur Mountain.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site: 311 Cave Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1K2, Canada

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Photo: Pascal Huot/Shutterstock

Continue your historical journey at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which opened in 1968 and served as an archive and art gallery. The museum has grown since then with a second wing.

The Gateway to the Rockies permanent exhibit features art and artifacts related to mountain explorers, travel and tourism, and Indigenous peoples. Among other things, visitors can see an original open top tour car used by Jim and Bill Brewster with its historic Banff National Park pass, which was a metal buffalo affixed to the front of one’s vehicle.

If you have time, consider the Heritage Homes Tour, where you can step inside two historic homes on museum property – one belonging to the Whyte family and another belonging to Pearl Brewster, sister to the Brewster brothers, Bill and Jim.

White Museum of the Canadian Rockies: 111 Bear Street, Banff, AB T1L 1A3, Canada

Banff Gondola

banff gondola

Photo: Gelu Popa/Shutterstock

For the most epic views of the Canadian Rockies and a little history, the Banff Gondola won’t let you down. The gondola takes you to the summit on Sulphur Mountain where there are several activities to keep you busy for an afternoon or evening.

Take the 20-minute walk along the boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station, a historic research station used by scientists in the 1950s to participate in the International Geophysical Year. Back at the Gondola Summit, learn about the mountains at the Above Banff Interpretive Centre, grab coffee or a snack from Castle Mountain Coffee (the cookies stocked from BARE Bistro are a favorite), and explore the two observation decks on levels one and four for 360-degree mountain views.

If you find yourself at the Gondola Summit on a winter evening, enjoy the new Nightrise experience, which transforms the space with interactive art displays, sound effects, and cozy winter activities, such as roasting marshmallows.

Banff Gondola: 100 Mountain Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1B2, Canada

Johnston Canyon

johnston canyon waterfall banff

Photo: r.classen/Shutterstock

Take a stunning hike complete with views cascading waterfalls (frozen in the colder months) and a surreal suspended pathway through the canyon. Johnston Canyon is said to have been discovered by a prospector named Johnston in the 1880s, and it was later mapped by another prospector named Walter Camp in the early 1900s. Soon after he passed, Parks Canada assumed control of the area.

Located just 20 minutes from Banff along Bow Valley Parkway, the Johnston Canyon hike takes you to the Lower and Upper Falls at distances of 0.5 miles and 1.5 miles from the parking lot, respectively. On a lucky winter day, you may even witness ice climbers scaling the Upper Falls. More avid hikers, can continue another 1.85 miles beyond Upper Falls to Ink Pots.

Note that in winter, you absolutely need ice cleats or crampons so don’t attempt the trail without them.

Johnston Canyon: Bow Valley Pkwy, Improvement District No. 9, AB T1L 1K2, Canada

Where to eat and drink in Banff


For bold flavors, Brazen is the perfect choice for dinner and drinks. Located inside the Mount Royal Hotel, Brazen’s décor and dishes are inspired by Banff’s spirit of adventure and the explorers responsible for that spirit. The menu is focused on dishes inspired by Canadian classics and classics with a twist and rotates seasonally. For example, a recent winter option included crème brûlée styled and served in an ashtray with chocolate cigarettes and a hazelnut powder posing as ash. For drinks, local beers are on tap and there’s a long list of original and classic cocktails

Brazen: 138 Banff Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1A7, Canada

Farm and Fire

With a focus on local Canadian ingredients cooked in a wood-fired kitchen, Farm and Fire will satisfy and leave you wanting to return for more. The dinner menu includes hearty steaks and whole chickens as well as a variety of innovative pizzas. For earlier eating, the brunch bowls are popular, but consider yourself lucky if you get a chance to try their “sold out” cinnamon bun. Sold only on Saturdays, this monstrous cinnamon roll can feed 2-3 people. Be sure to pre-order as they really do sell out.

Farm and Fire: 333 Banff Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1B1, Canada


Popular for happy hour specials with half price pizza and pasta, you can’t go wrong with the classic pepperoni pizza or the favorite Uncle Morty, a white pizza with pistachios and truffle honey. Be sure to make reservations and ask about window or patio seating, as their location also serves up great views of Sulphur Mountain and Bear Street.

Lupo: 208 Wolf St #201, Banff, AB T1L 1B3, Canada

Three Bears Brewery and Restaurant

Not only does Three Bears Brewing have a variety of craft beer made onsite available, the menu also features ciders, gluten-free beer, mulled wine, and a full dining menu with “food for every mood.” The million dollar onion is a tasty side to share and the Atlantic Salmon will hit the spot for a light, but filling meal.

Three Bears Brewery and Restaurant: 205 Bear St, Banff, AB T1L 1A1, Canada

Whitebark Café

Whitebark Café is one of the most highly recommended coffee shops by locals (try one of the mochas if you have a sweet tooth). Don’t skip the freshly baked goods either, with options like the pork fennel roll with mango chutney, bacon and cheddar scone, or the delicious coffee cake.

Whitebark Café: 401 Banff Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1A9, Canada

Sky Bistro

Located at the Gondola Summit, Sky Bistro is an easy choice for a date night spot thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows that provide one of the most stunning backdrops for your dining experience.

Here, the food rivals the views. Try the duck wings with honey chili glaze and the beef entrée with decadent truffle mashed potatoes. Cap off your meal with a hot spiked drink like spiked hot chocolate or blueberry tea with amaretto and cognac.

Sky Bistro: 100 Mountain Ave, Banff, AB T1L 1J3, Canada

Where to stay in Banff

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Mount Royal

banff mount royal hotel

Photo: Expedia

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Located in the heart of downtown, Mount Royal Hotel opened in 1908 and was soon under the ownership of Jim Brewster. The hotel has absorbed neighboring buildings over the years, including the Cascade Hotel, creating a distinct personality to each of its wings.

Filled with modern touches, enjoy the free, locally sourced coffee and tea each morning, a fully stocked library, and intimate rooftop jacuzzis. This hotel is especially great for light sleepers because despite its location downtown, the hotel provides ear plugs, a white noise machine, and effective light-blocking curtains.

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Moose Hotel and Suites

moose hotel and suites banff

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Best suited for families, groups, and couples, Moose Hotel and Suites provides a cabin-feel with multi-room suites with wood detailing, fireplaces, and balconies. The rooftop hot tubs with unobstructed mountain views are large and accommodating for larger groups (dress warm, as the walk back to your room will take you outdoors).

Located on the edge of downtown, Moose Hotel and Suites is a quiet stay with convenient access to Whitebark Café and Farm and Fire.

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Getting around Banff

The closest airport is Calgary International Airport, which is an hour and a half drive from the city of Banff. While you can rent a car, shuttle services are very convenient. Pursuit’s Brewster Express shuttle runs frequently and has comfortable seats with footrests, charging ports, and bathrooms onboard. However, if you have a late-night flight, consider Banff Airporter, as they have shuttles that run later into the night.

Once in town, Banff is very walkable with over 50 restaurants and shops in a few square blocks. You can easily get to services around town like the post office, Banff Visitor Centre, grocery market, and hotels all on foot. In the winter, be sure to wear the proper footwear because it can get slippery with snow and ice.

For anything beyond your comfortable walking distance, the public transit system, called Roam, runs through town and can take you to some of the top attractions around Banff including the Banff Gondola, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Lake Minnewanka, and Johnston Canyon. Some hotels provide free bus passes, so be sure to ask upon check-in. Otherwise, fares cost $2 CAD each way, with options for one day and multi-day passes.

In the warmer months, shuttle services, such as Brewster Express, operate throughout Alberta and can take you to the major attractions including Lake Louise, Icefields Parkway, and more.

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