Banff National Park is one of the most gorgeous national parks that I have had the opportunity to explore in Canada. Located in the province of Alberta along the border with British Columbia, this park features incredibly beautiful landscapes, unspoiled natural wilderness, spectacular snow-peaked mountains, lush green and dense forests, a variety of amazing hiking trails and lots of wildlife.
When you travel to Banff National Park, there are a few different options of places where you can choose to stay and base yourself for exploring the park, but it often comes down to either the town of Canmore or Banff.
During my trip to Banff this past summer, I made the decision to stay in Canmore and I found that this town was a perfect fit for me and my travel needs. But everybody is different and while I loved to stay in Canmore, you may prefer Banff (I loved visiting Banff though).
I will be sharing my experiences of spending time in both Canmore and Banff and the similarities and differences between these two mountain towns, in order to help you decide which town to base yourself in when visiting Banff National Park. Here is my comparison for Canmore and Banff.
Banff and Canmore are both situated fairly close to one another, with Banff being only a 15-20 minute drive north of Canmore.
The biggest difference between these two towns is the fact that Banff is situated within the national park whereas Canmore is located outside the boundaries of the park.
Banff is a touristy town that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. It has become quite commercialized and there are many chain stores and restaurants located there, like Subway, Earl’s, Tim Hortons, Boston Pizza and McDonald’s. What I loved about Banff was how compact it was and all of the stores, accommodations and restaurants were within easy walking distance from one another. It was a very pedestrian-friendly town and many of the attractions and sights could be reached on foot or a short drive from town.
Canmore on the other hand, is quaint and charming and has a more local feeling than Banff. Many of its restaurants and shops are locally-owned and it is far less commercialized than its neighbour to the north. The town is nestled in a valley among the mountains and is more spread out than Banff. Not all of the accommodations are within walking distance to the shops and restaurants and main business section of Canmore, which is slightly less convenient. Both towns have plenty of souvenir shops, convenience and grocery stores, outdoor gear stores, and gas stations.
One of the biggest benefits to staying in Banff over Canmore is being in the centre of everything and having easier access to the national park. If you are planning to spend a good portion of time hiking and exploring in Banff National Park or visiting Lake Louise and Yoho National Park (both of which are situated farther north from Banff), then staying in the town of Banff might be more convenient for you. Canmore is located about 15-20 minutes south of Banff, so it is a little bit extra driving to do hikes and exploring further north in the national park. There are also some great hikes in and around Canmore and it is situated close to the Kananaskis area which supposedly has some gorgeous landscapes and wildnerness to explore (I didn’t get around to visiting there during this trip).
I didn’t mind the extra driving time from Canmore to get into the park and explore Lake Louise and Yoho National Park.
Both Canmore and Banff have fantastic restaurant options serving a wide variety of cuisines.
There are more options for higher-end and chain restaurants located in Banff (but still a good selection of locally owned places and cafes as well) and Canmore has mostly independent and locally owned restaurants which cater to residents as opposed to tourists. I enjoyed supporting the local places and ate at delicious restaurants in both places. Both towns have plenty of options for gluten-free eaters and vegetarians as well, which is great.
I found the dining options in Canmore to be really great and slightly superior to those in Banff, with more healthy and fresh foods being served. For being a small town, I was pleasantly surprised at the diverse array of restaurants. There was more variety in cuisines and the main street through town was lined with unique restaurants and cute cafes. Banff and Canmore had both higher-end and budget-friendly restaurants, but in general eating out in both places was pretty expensive (I couldn’t find a salad for less than $14 on any menu). Both towns had restaurants serving international cuisines.
My favourite restaurant that I ate at in Banff was Nourish Bistro, which was completely vegetarian and had lots of gluten-free options (the salad that I ate there was so delicious). In Canmore, I loved the Thai Pagoda Restaurant and Aroma Mexican Restaurant.
Banff is a popular tourist destination located within Banff National Park and it is the town where most people stay when they visit the park. The landscapes around Banff are absolutely gorgeous and the town is surrounded by mountains on all sides and beautiful wilderness.
Everything that you could want or need can be found in Banff – a variety of restaurants with a range of different cuisines, plenty of souvenir shops (although they pretty much all sold the same things), a hospital, small grocery stores, gas stations, outdoor gear stores, and other services. It is centrally located in the national park and is lively and full of activity. I loved the chic yet rustic appearance of the buildings in Banff and it was very visually appealing. The town is usually pretty crowded and the main business section of town is always full of people, especially during the high season in mid-summer. The town is compact and all of the shops and restaurants are located within short walking distance from one another and from the accommodations, making it very pedestrian-friendly. There were no shortage of souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs, bars, outdoor gear shops, grocery stores, etc. lining the streets in the business section of Banff.
Banff is a busier and more crowded town than Canmore but if you want to be in the centre of things with fantastic hikes and attractions at your doorstep, then staying in Banff would be a good choice.
I loved exploring the town of Banff for an afternoon, going for a delicious lunch, buying some souvenirs, wandering the residential streets and admiring the incredible mountain scenery but the town was pretty touristy and I found all of the activity and crowds to be overwhelming at times. Banff felt very upscale and trendy with lots of classy boutiques and shops and well-dressed international visitors.
Canmore is a quaint and cute town situated just outside of Banff National Park. It still sees a lot of tourists but definitely not the same volumes of people that visit Banff, making it a quieter and pleasant place to stay. The town has a more laid-back, peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, which I loved. Canmore is set in a narrow valley of mountains but the wilderness and mountains don’t feel as close to you as they do when you’re in Banff. It doesn’t feel like you’re directly in the mountains, even though there are still beautiful views and a gorgeous mountainous backdrop around the town. Canmore has fantastic dining and shopping options and it is a really charming and lovely little town. The appearance of the buildings in Canmore was similar to those in Banff and the main street through town was lined with plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants.
During my visit to Canmore, there seemed to be more Canadian travelers and locals and less of an international presence than in Banff, where you would hear lots of different languages and see many nationalities of people while walking down the streets. I preferred the relaxed and laid-back vibe in Canmore as opposed to the trendy and classy atmosphere in Banff.
Canmore was not quite as compact as Banff and the town was more spread out as it extended through the valley of mountains. Many of the accommodations were located in a separate area of town from the main business section where all the shops and restaurants were situated, making it slightly less convenient to get around on foot as not everything was just outside your doorstep like in Banff. I stayed at The Bear Hostel which was located along Bow Valley Parkway (where there were many other hotels and lodges as well) and was about a two minute drive to the main area of Canmore and probably would have taken ten minutes or so to walk there.
Both Banff and Canmore were charming mountain towns that shared a small-town vibe. Their main streets were lined with many souvenir shops, cute cafes, a variety of restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, grocery stores, and more.
Banff and Canmore both have a diverse selection of excellent shops that are unique and locally owned.
Banff had lots of stores and shopping options including trendy boutiques, outdoor gear shops, plenty of souvenir shops, name-brand clothing stores and more. Because Banff is geared primarily to tourists, I found the prices to be generally more expensive in Banff than in Canmore. The shops were also pretty crowded and busy in Banff.
Canmore also had a impressive number of shops. The main street was lined with souvenir shops carrying some different items than what you could find in Banff. There was an adorable and charming bookstore and cafe where I enjoyed browsing and I also loved the O’Canada Soapworks shop with locally homemade soaps in many amazing smells (they even had a special scent for my province of Manitoba)! My shopping experiences were more relaxed in Canmore and I felt like the staff could provide more personal attention because the stores weren’t always so crowded.
Both Banff and Canmore both offer a lot of accommodation options for a variety of different budgets.
Banff has more options for upscale hotels, luxurious lodges and backpacker hostels to choose from. Canmore also has these types of accommodations but they tend to be more reasonably priced and affordable than in Banff, which is great for those looking for a budget-friendly place to stay. There are also more bed and breakfasts in Canmore, which you can find listed on Airbnb (sign-up for Airbnb using my link and get a discount on your first stay).
Banff is more of a tourist hotspot than Canmore and as a result, the accommodations get booked up well in advance of the busy summer season (except for the hostels, which you can usually book a few weeks in advance). Because the accommodations are generally more affordable in Canmore, you can get more value for your money by staying there.
The only disadvantage to staying in Canmore for some people might be the fact that many of the hotels and hostels are located in a different area than the shops and restaurants in downtown Canmore and getting there requires a 2-minute drive or approximately 10-minute walk. The town is situated in a narrow valley and it is more spread out than in Banff, where everything is close together and compact. Many of the accommodations in Canmore are located along the Bow Valley Parkway which is a short drive to the business area of town. In contrast, many of the accommodations in Banff are centrally located within steps from all the restaurants and shops, making it more convenient to get around on foot.
I stayed in a private room for $90 CAD per night at the Hostel Bear in Canmore and absolutely loved it. The hostel was super clean, cozy and comfortable; the room was spacious and has two large wooden bunk beds and a private ensuite washroom; there was a large and fully equipped kitchen for guests to use; and the Wi-Fi was fantastic. The only downfall to the location along Bow Valley Parkway was the busy train track situated directly behind the hostel with lots of trains passing by throughout the nighttime.
In terms of accommodations, I would personally choose to stay in Canmore again. I liked that there were more affordable options for budget-conscious folks like myself and the short driving distance from my hostel to the shops and restaurants didn’t bother me.
Activities and Hiking
Both Banff and Canmore are located very close to a variety of fantastic and scenic hiking trails, activities and attractions. Although they are both small towns, there is no shortage of interesting and fun things to do in the area.
The main advantage to staying in Banff is the fact that it is situated within the national park and the hiking trails and sights are more easily accessible with less driving involved. Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are all located within a 20-45 minute drive from Banff and are stunning places to go for a day trip to hike and explore among such gorgeous nature. In town, you can get amazing views of the Bow River and the surrounding mountains by walking across the bridge heading south on Banff Street or check out the serene Cascade Gardens overlooking Banff Avenue. It doesn’t even feel like you’re in town, being surrounded by this natural beauty! There are even a few short hiking trails located right within the town (like the Fenland Trail). You can also spend time browsing the unique shops and looking for a good souvenir or head to the hot springs to relax.
Canmore also has a few beautiful hikes and scenic walks located right in town however in order to access the hikes within Banff National Park, an extra 15-20 minute drive is required than if you are staying in Banff. This means that taking a day trip to Yoho National Park, Moraine Lake, or Lake Louise will take slightly longer because of the extra driving time.
Both towns had very pretty-looking downtown areas with lots of wood buildings housing unique independent shops and I enjoyed exploring the charming streets in Banff and Canmore.
I didn’t mind the extra driving time from Canmore to Banff National Park and was still very easy to access all of the attractions and hikes within the park.
Overall Assessment: Where Should You Stay?
Both Banff and Canmore are charming mountains towns surrounded by such incredible and awe-inspiring natural beauty and landscapes.
I loved exploring Banff and the town was absolutely beautiful, but I was really happy with choosing to base myself in Canmore. I loved the quieter and more relaxed atmosphere and laid-back vibe; the fantastic selection of delicious restaurants; the more affordable prices for accommodations; and the unique independent souvenir shops. The town was close enough to Banff National Park and the town of Banff (only a twenty minute drive) and it was still super easy to access all of the activities and hikes in the park.
I enjoyed visiting the town of Banff to browse the shops, eat out for a meal, go for a short hike, photograph and admire the incredible scenery around it, and check out the Cascade Gardens, but it was it was very bustling and touristy. Still, I loved Banff and the surrounding mountain views were amazing and the landscapes and nature were more dramatic and beautiful than those in Canmore. I did love the feeling of being right in the mountains in Banff and it didn’t quite feel the same in Canmore. But overall, I enjoyed exploring Banff during the daytime and coming back to Canmore for the evenings and night. It was the perfect fit for me.
As you can see, there are differences between choosing Banff or Canmore as a place to base yourself while visiting Banff National Park. Which town you decide to stay in, all depends on your personal preferences, travel style, budget, time of visit, and type of experience you are looking for. One town is not inherently better than the other. Whichever town you do decide to base yourself in, I recommend still spending time in the other town so that you can experience the best of both worlds.
So in Summary…
Stay in Banff if… you are planning on going on day trips to Yoho National Park, Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake and Lake Louise for easier access and a shorter driving time to these areas of Banff National Park; you enjoy a bustling and lively atmosphere with lots of activity; you want to be in the centre of all the action; you are planning to do lots of shopping; and you want to be surrounded by the gorgeous mountainous landscapes, have amazing views wherever you go in town, be close to incredibly beautiful nature, and feel like you are directly in the mountains.
Stay in Canmore if… you are looking for a town with a quaint and charming atmosphere; driving 15-20 minutes extra to get to Banff and the surrounding attractions and hikes doesn’t bother you; you are looking for budget-friendly accommodations; you would prefer a more relaxed and laid-back vibe to a bustling and lively atmosphere; you want to get away from the crowds and experience a friendly local feeling; and you like to support local restaurants and unique souvenir shops.
How to Get There – Both Banff and Canmore are easily accessible from Calgary and it’s international airport. Canmore is located approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes west of Calgary and Banff is an additional 15-20 minutes from Canmore. You can rent a car in Calgary or embark on a Canadian road trip and drive yourself there from wherever you are in the country!
Planning Your Next Adventure?
Here are some helpful links if you are currently planning your next travel adventure!
Compare prices and book your flights using Momondo. I love the user-friendly design of this website and how easy it is to filter your flights by price, duration, etc. It’s a great place to find the best flight deals!
Use Hostelworld to book a private room or dorm bed at a budget-friendly hostel and browse through listings across the globe. Use Booking.com to find a huge inventory of independent hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, hostels and chain hotels around the world and for every budget. And if you’re looking for a more authentic and unique experience of staying in a local’s home at your destination, then book your stay using Airbnb (sign-up using my link and get a discount off your first stay).
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a travel booking on any of the websites I have recommended, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I use all of these websites for booking my own travels and would never recommend something that I don’t already love.
I hope you enjoyed reading my comparison between the towns of Banff and Canmore and I hope that my analysis helps you to choose which town would be a perfect place for you to stay and base yourself while visiting Banff National Park on your next Rocky Mountain adventure!
Have you stayed in the towns of Banff or Canmore? What did you enjoy or dislike about each town?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
For more of my posts about Canada, click here.
Thanks for reading!