Banff vs Canmore • Which Town is Better For Your Vacation?

If you have plans to visit Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies, you’re probably considering whether to stay in Banff or Canmore. It’s a valid question, and both towns have many pros and cons. I like to think that one town is not better than the other, much like any travel destination, but it all depends on what you seek.

We love Canmore, and it’s where we live; however, we certainly see the appeal of Banff, a town that many love. Let’s compare the two towns so that you can decide which town is best for your vacation in the Canadian Rockies, whether that’s Canmore or Banff.


Is it Better to Stay in Canmore or Banff?


Town Atmosphere


Banff

Banff in October
Downtown Banff

Banff is a resort town with a population of around 8,000 people. It’s situated in a beautiful setting, with the iconic Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle visible from most of the town. The setting is arguably one of the most beautiful in the world. In all our travels, it’s tough to argue otherwise.

Due to its location inside the park, a pass is required to visit. Of course, if you plan to visit the park anyway, you’ll have to buy a pass. Since its location is within the national park, Banff has operated under strict laws to minimize the town’s footprint on the wilderness.

That being said, Banff has still become very commercial over the years, and you’ll notice some large brands here, such as Chilis, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Lululemon, and name-brand outdoor stores. There are also a large number of Knick Knack shops selling cheap and cheesy souvenirs. With 8,000 residents, the town also has several facilities, such as a hospital, multiple churches, schools, one large grocery store (IGA), and a Nesters grocery store.

Banff Pedestrian Bridge
Walking around Banff

Banff is far more popular compared to Canmore, and the sidewalks are crowded in the high season. It can almost feel like a big city street when walking on the sidewalk, but this is also because it is easy to walk around Banff. The town has also turned Banff Ave into a pedestrian-only street the past few summers since 2020, which we love as it creates more space, encourages walking, and provides many awesome patios.

The strict laws in the national park have created a compact town with a clear downtown area full of shops, restaurants, and bars. When combined with Roam Public Transportation, it means it is entirely possible to enjoy a holiday in Banff without a vehicle.

The Town of Banff itself is still very charming and you won’t find any large commercial buildings or skyscrapers. Banff has tons of options for accommodation, and you can find a wide range of places to stay. Most notable is the famous Fairmont Banff Springs, a historic hotel that resembles a castle, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue in November

Despite the millions of visitors to the town each year, Banff still retains the sense of a compact mountain town surrounded by the wilderness. That wilderness very much still exists, with frequent sightings of bears, elk, and deer around town. If you’re fortunate, you may spot a cougar or wolf, but even most residents who live here all year have never seen one.

Banff is the center of tourism in the Canadian Rockies, which means it’s very popular. In the summer months, the crowds can put some people off, but the lively atmosphere all day long may be a draw for some.


Canmore

Downtown Canmore

Canmore sits just outside the gates to Banff National Park and is surrounded by the National Park to the West and Kananaskis Country to the Southeast. It’s a larger town than Banff, and around 15,000 people call it home, including ourselves.

The setting differs from Banff, and the town sprawls out through the narrow Bow Valley. Gorgeous mountains surround the town, including the iconic Three Sisters, Grotto Mountain, Mount Rundle, and Ha Ling Peak. That being said, the sprawl of the town, narrow valley, and proximity to the Trans Canada Highway means it doesn’t feel quite the same as Banff.

Canmore Engine Bridge

Canmore was a coal-mining town until the 1970s when the mines shut down. Afterward, the town struggled for decades and wasn’t much more than a few extra beds when Banff filled up. However, this changed during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics when the Nordic Center was built in Canmore to host the cross-country ski events. With the international community in Canmore, the town’s secret got out and has been growing ever since.

Canmore has a nice downtown area, but overall, the town’s amenities, including the accommodation, are much more spread out compared to Banff, which makes it not as good for walking. However if you stay anywhere downtown, you’ll be able to easily walk to Main Street in Canmore. It’s also possible to bike to many beautiful sights around Canmore, like Quarry Lake and the Canmore Reservoir. Like Banff, Canmore Main Street is also pedestrian-only in the summer

Canmore Spring Creek Bridge Banff vs Canmore
Policemen’s Creek Boardwalk in Canmore

Canmore is, in general, a more livable town. Buildings, homes, hotels, and apartments all tend to be more modern and up to date. It also has two large grocery stores, a Canadian Tire, a Hardware Store, a large community center (Elevation Place has two pools, a rock climbing gym, a fitness center, and a public library), several liquor stores, and a good health food store. There are also some great restaurants and bars in Canmore, along with a few awesome breweries. Canmore also has fewer chain restaurants, stores, and tacky tourist shops. While it still caters to tourism, it isn’t all about tourism, if that makes sense.

Despite being much larger than Banff, the wilderness remains at its doorstep. Animals frequently appear in and around town, and herds of elk live in town and its neighborhoods.

In comparison to Banff, Canmore is more relaxed and has fewer crowds. However, it’s still quite lively in the busy summer months, and gets more popular every year, but you won’t get the crowded feeling on the sidewalks quite like in Banff.


Drive Times


Banff

Cascade Gardens
Downtown Banff from Cascade Gardens

Banff has a clear advantage over Canmore in terms of drive times and access to the main tourist attractions. Banff is straightforward to walk around and has incredible sights just outside the town center.

You have attractions such as Bow Falls, Surprise Corner, Vermilion Lakes, the Banff Gondola, Sulphur Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, Banff Hot Springs, Cave and Basin Historical Site, and much more. All of this is walkable from the town center or easy to access via the Roam Transit. In addition to the tourist attractions, the restaurants and bars are all within walking distance around town.

The biggest draws lie in Banff National Park to the West and North of Banff, such as Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, the Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake, Jasper, and Yoho National Park. Yoho National Park is just fifteen minutes West of Lake Louise and has some tremendous highlights, such as Takakkaw Falls and Emerald Lake. Banff is about 20 minutes closer to all of these sights than Canmore, which may not seem like much to some, but to others, it may make a world of difference.

Emerald Lake

If you have plans to ski in the area, Banff is in a much better location. Mt Norquay is just outside of town. Banff Sunshine Village is a twenty-minute drive from Banff, and Lake Louise is around forty minutes.

Then Nakiska Resort in Kananaskis is around an hour’s drive. If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, it’s also possible to visit the BC town of Golden. You will find Kicking Horse, one of the most extreme ski resorts in Western Canada, just a two-hour drive from Banff. In the winter, you’ll find convenient shuttles that run from Downtown Banff to ski resorts saving you a drive on the winter roads. There aren’t any ski shuttles running from Canmore.


Canmore

Airbnb in Canmore
Downtown Canmore

Canmore is a 15-20 minute drive east of Banff. To visit most of the attractions in Banff National Park, you’ll find yourself driving an additional fifteen minutes there and then back. However, the extra drive time does ensure a more relaxed mountain town atmosphere and it is probably unlikely to phase you on vacation.

Canmore does have the advantage of being closer to Calgary and the provincial park, Kananaskis Country. Kananaskis Country is a fantastic park and has some true hidden gems and fantastic hikes that are well worth exploring. Though keep in mind that you’ll need a separate pass to visit Kananaskis, called the Kananaskis Conservation Pass, which will add to your travel budget.

On weekdays the region sees far fewer visitors than Banff National Park, and it’s easy to find yourself alone in the wilderness. However, on a lovely summer weekend, many Calgarians head to Kananaskis, and it can be just as busy as Banff National Park.

Smutwood Hike Kananaskis Banff vs Canmore
Hiking Around Smutwood Peak in Kananaskis

If you’re looking to ski, Mt. Norquay is a twenty-minute drive, Banff Sunshine is 30 minutes, and Lake Louise is around 50 minutes. Nakiska Ski Resort is the only resort closer to Canmore at a forty-minute drive. Like Banff, you can also make a long drive to Kicking Horse for the day.


Activities


Banff

Looking up at Cascade Mountain

As far as mountain towns go, there are many things to do in Banff other than spending time in the mountains. Banff has a movie theatre, bowling alley, a few museums, and plenty of shops if you end up with bad weather. Of course, Banff has better access to all of its sights and attractions around town.

On a nice day or even a bad one with the right clothes, you’re spoilt for choice with the things to do. Golfers especially love the wonderful golf course at the Banff Spring Hotel, designed by Stanley Thompson.

Vermillion-Lakes-Mt-Rundle
Vermilion Lakes

If you’re looking for a hike that’s easy to access outside of town, you have several great options around Banff. The highlights for hiking close to town would be Tunnel Mountain, Sundance Canyon Trail, Sulphur Mountain, Cory Pass, the Cascade Amphitheater, and C-Level Cirque.

The Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive, which takes you past Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, and Cascade Ponds is also just a 5-10 minute drive (or bike ride) away from Downtown Banff. If you have bikes, you can tackle all of this road and see all these sights by biking there.


Canmore

Canoeing in Canmore

Canmore has a little less to do if you want to spend the day indoors. However, they do have Elevation Place, which is a community center with two indoor pools, a lazy river, slides, a rock climbing gym, and a fitness center.

There are also many shops and restaurants, but nowhere near as many in Banff. Canmore also has more golf courses, such as the Silvertip Golf and Country Club, Canmore Golf and Curling Club, and Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club.

Banff Vs Canmore East End of Rundle Spray Valley
Hiking EEOR

Canmore has many great hikes that are not within walking distance outside of the center of town, but they are close. The popular trails include Grassi Lakes, Grotto Canyon, Ha Ling Peak, Lady Macdonald, East End of Rundle, Grotto Mountain, and Policemans Creek Boardwalk in the town center.

You also have some excellent mountain biking opportunities around the Canmore Nordic Center and various sections of the town. If you like to mountain bike, there is no comparison between Banff and Canmore, as there are better mountain biking trails in Canmore, with several options for rentals in town.

Fall in the Canadian Rockies
Biking in Canmore

Of course, for those who love to cross-country ski, there are dozens of maintained trails around Canmore in the winter. The Canmore Nordic Center has 65 km of trails, 20 km of which are supported with snowmaking capabilities. It is where many teams, including the Canadian Olympic team, train.


Accommodation


Banff

Elk+Avenue
Elk + Avenue Hotel on Banff Avenue

There are a wide variety of hotels, lodges, and even hostels in Banff. Prices in Banff tend to be higher and of lesser value. This is due to the higher demand and strict laws that leave many buildings more dated, as Parks Canada has to approve nearly all construction that happens in Town. While it seems a new accommodation option pops up every year or two, most hotels are older in Banff.

That being said, there are tons of properties in Banff with lots to offer visitors. Most of the accommodation in Banff is in the center of town on Banff Avenue, which makes walking to restaurants, bars, and shops very easy.

If you’d like a vacation rental in Banff, you are more limited, and only a number of self-contained units with kitchens are available for rent on sites like Airbnb. Short-term rentals that are available are typically around Tunnel Mountain, which is a little way outside of town. If you have a car and are willing to drive, Banff has more options for log cabin rentals. Our favorites are Storm Mountain Lodge and Baker Creek near Castle Junction.


Canmore

Policemen’s Creek Boardwalk in Canmore

Accommodation in Canmore is often slightly better value with larger and more modern rooms. Canmore also has a wide variety of properties and more short-term rentals. If you’re a family or like to cook your own meals, then there are some great rental options in Canmore. Many rentals include a large kitchen, washer and dryer, a living room, and a fireplace.

There is one disadvantage to many properties, and that is their location. Due to strict zoning, most short-term rentals are limited to less desirable locations. They’re on a busy street not far from the highway and train tracks, and a fifteen-minute walk or more to downtown, though on a nice summer day, it’s a beautiful walk!

The-Malcolm-Hotel-Canmore
The pool at The Malcolm is my favorite!

In addition, there are a number of great hotels and resort-style properties in Canmore, although there are fewer than in Banff. Our absolute favorite is The Malcolm as it’s tucked away enough to avoid the crowds of Downtown Canmore, but still only a 5 minute walk away.


Festivities


Banff

Banff Christmas
Enjoying the Banff Christmas Market at Warner Stables

Both Canmore and Banff are pretty festive small Alberta towns – population and all things considered. Almost every month of the year, you can find something fun in Banff. Even more so during the winter months, as the Town of Banff and the tourism board try to draw in more visitors. Banff at Christmastime is our absolute favorite, with plenty of amazing activities during late November and December.

SnowDays is also a fun extravaganza that takes place for a few weeks in January and December. Between November and March, the Banff Gondola puts on a fabulous experience throughout the winter called Nightrise. Summertime in Banff doesn’t yield a ton of festivals as the town is busy enough – trust me. However, Banff puts on a pretty good Canada Day celebration (July 1st), and the weekly Banff Farmers Market is always reliable.


Canmore

Canmore Highland Games
Canmore Highland Games

Canmore is not as festive as Banff, as Banff is a town more geared toward tourism. That’s not to say there are no festivals or fun events though! Like Banff, Canmore puts on a few Christmas events and the whole town is typically decked out in lights. During winter in Canmore, there’s the Canmore Christmas Market, and the Malcolm Hotel hosts the Festival of Trees and A Canmore Christmas Eve.

Canmore also celebrates New Year’s Eve pretty well at the Canmore Recreation Centre, with live music, ice skating, crafts, photo booths, and food vendors. While Banff has its own New Year’s Eve shenanigans, Canmore puts on a midnight fireworks display at Millennium Park, while Banff does not. (No fireworks are allowed in Banff as they disrupt wildlife.)

Beyond winter, one of the biggest festivals in Canmore is the Canmore Highland Games, typically in late August/early September. In Scotland, the games’ strenuous events tested local men’s physical prowess to determine who would make the fittest and most suitable royal messenger. In Canmore, while we don’t need a royal messenger, these strenuous games are still demonstrated every year.


The Final Verdict

Cascade Ponds
Cascade Ponds in Banff

Banff is geared more toward tourism, with more shops, hotels, activities, and sights. The town is surrounded by the National Park and provides amazing access to outdoor activities. Of course, all of this draws in a massive crowd, and there are several kitschy things like cheap souvenir shops, Chilis cheesy candy shops, a fancy Canada Goose Down store…you get the idea.

There are also some great independent retailers and restaurants, and they have some big brand-name outdoor shops hard to find, like Fjallraven, Patagonia, The North Face, and Helly Hansen.

Canmore is the more liveable town, with two large grocery stores, drug stores, Canadian Tire, and independent retailers—everything that regular residents need for daily life. Many also prefer the food scene in Canmore, as it is geared more towards locals and Calgarians. That’s not to say Banff doesn’t have great restaurants, as some of them are pretty darn fancy.

Downtown Canmore is popular on summer weekends but more manageable than Downtown Banff, with fewer crowds. If you want a low-key vibe and relaxed holiday, then Canmore is a great choice. Also if you like to self-cater, Canmore is where you can find several apartment rentals that are perfect for larger families and groups.

With all that in mind, Banff serves many first-time visitors wonderfully for a short stay. And, of course, Banff has that internationally known reputation. When we travel and say we live in Canmore, people give us a confused look. When we say, “It’s near Banff,” they go ooooh yeah, I’ve heard it’s beautiful!

We hope that helps you decide between Canmore vs. Banff. In all honesty, no matter what you choose, we are sure you will enjoy it! If you’re really concerned about making the wrong choice for you, stay in both!


How Far is Canmore From Banff?

things-to-do-in-canmore
Canoeing the Bow River

It will take you about 15-20 minutes to drive from Canmore to Banff, as it’s 25 km via Trans-Canada Hwy/AB-1 W. We make the drive frequently when heading to Banff for some awesome hikes or to go skiing. However that extra 20 minutes can really add up if you are driving it a lot.


Banff to Canmore – No Driving Option!

Legacy Trail
Biking the Legacy Trail

Our favorite way to get from Banff to Canmore or Canmore to Banff isn’t with a car – it’s with a bike! The Legacy Trail is a paved path dedicated to bikes that connects the two towns. It’s typically snow-free come May and a fantastic way to get the heart pumping.

Depending on what kind of bike you are on and how experienced you are cycling, you can cycle one way in under two hours, have a beer in town, and cycle back! You can rent bikes at Rebound Cycle in Canmore or Banff Cycle in Banff!


Our Recommended Canmore Hotels

the malcolm

The Malcolm: The Malcolm Hotel is the nicest hotel in Canmore and sits right along Policemen’s boardwalk just far enough away from the hustle of Downtown. It’s a fantastic place to stay and have a unique experience in Canmore.

lamphouse hotel

The Lamphouse Hotel is right on Main Street, just steps away from anything you could want in Canmore. They have very comfortable rooms in a convenient location.


Our Recommended Banff Hotels

Banff-Springs-Hotel

The Banff Springs Hotel is easily the most luxurious and sought-after hotel in Banff, but it does come at a high price point. If you can swing a night here, it’s likely to be worth it as the grounds are beautiful, and you are staying in history.

The Moose Hotel is located in the center of the action on Banff Avenue and is our favorite hotel in downtown Banff. Rooms are comfortable, spacious, and their rooftop hot tubs have some of the best views in Banff.


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About Cameron

Cameron is a resident of Canmore, Alberta. After traveling the world for six years, he settled down in the beautiful Bow Valley with Natasha. He has been featured as a travel expert with numerous publications worldwide and has spoken on several occasions about the power of travel. He has a passion for all things in the Canadian Rockies and loves to spend his time snowboarding, scrambling, camping, biking, and trail running. Conservation is a deep fundamental in his life, and he aims to inspire others to care about our natural world. You can learn more on the about us page.

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1 thought on “Banff vs Canmore • Which Town is Better For Your Vacation?”

  1. This was *so* helpful, thank you! My wife and I tentatively reserved a small, dark space in Banff and a roomier, brighter space in Canmore and were tearing our hair out trying to figure out which we should select for our 6-day trip. I finally thought to do a Google search, which brought me to your post, which helped us make the decision. For many reasons, we’ve decided to stay in Canmore. 🙂

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