It’s home to grandiose hotels where it costs a King’s ransom to stay, offers pricey gondolas to transport visitors to its most picturesque viewpoints, and absolutely teems with international tourists who flood here every year. No, it’s not Venice, Italy – it’s Banff National Park, Canada.
Surprisingly, this mountain jewel in the heart of the Alberta Rockies actually shares many similarities with the Italian lagoon city, especially when it comes to the kind of mass tourism that both Banff and Venice experience. In fact, a recent visit in June made me realize that Banff is essentially our ‘Venice of Canada’. Here’s why.
Banff Can’t Get Any Bigger
Both the town of Banff and the city of Venice can’t get any bigger. In the case of Venice, the city is largely built on sunken logs in a swampy lagoon, and there hasn’t been much new construction there for the past 500 years or so. So the city isn’t likely to start expanding its size anytime soon, and with rising waters threatening the existing structures, it might actually end up getting smaller.
While the city of Banff may not be built on such dubious foundations, it, too, cannot expand. That’s because Banff is a strange hybrid of a municipality existing within a National Park – Canada’s oldest National Park in fact – and the federal law that governs the Park prohibits Banff from exceeding its current boundaries of 4 square kilometres. Even the 7,800 or so permanent residents have to own a business or have a work-related reason to be allowed to live there.
But while Banff’s boundaries are finite their number of visitors is not. Which brings me to point number 2.
Banff is Super Popular with Tourists
Although it considers itself a 4-season destination, its location in the heart of the Rocky Mountains means Banff National Park really has 2 popular seasons when visitors come: skiers flock here in the winter from November until April to enjoy the slopes, and a rush of fair-weather tourists follows in the summer, peaking in July and August when Banff is at its warmest and sunniest. The numbers are pretty staggering, actually, with more than 4,000,000 visitors every year, almost all of whom will visit the town of Banff itself. Last summer (2022), the town recorded the busiest July on record, hosting almost 700,000 visitors, sometimes up to 50,000 per day.
Venice doubles that number, with an average of around 110,000 daily visitors descending on its centro storico, which is about double the number of residents in an area very similar in size to Banff (Venice is about 5 square kilometres). Meaning both places certainly share the challenges of hosting an overwhelming volume of visitors, including the toll this takes on its residents.
TIP: Because Banff is so popular in high season, it’s not really a good idea to drive within the town of Banff itself, or to Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, two of the most beautiful locations in the Park. Instead, Banff operates an efficient ROAM transit system for moving visitors around the town, and Parks Canada operates affordable shuttles that take visitors out to these lakes. It also means you don’t have to worry about looking for non-existing parking spots. Find out more information on getting around Banff National Park’s attractions, visit the Parks Canada website.
Banff National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Banff, together with six other Parks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains are recognized by UNESCO for their ‘outstanding physical features’ including ice fields, valley glaciers, canyons, wildlife, etc. In other words, they are so damn beautiful that they were designated an Historic Site in 1984.
Venice, naturally, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because well, it’s Venice! There isn’t any other place like it, and it, too, is unbelievably beautiful, and that alone ought to be enough to earn its designation.
Banff National Park Has Palace-Like Hotels
When you think about some of Canada’s grandest historic hotels, or what I like to call ‘Canada’s Castles‘, it is the great Canadian Pacific Railway hotels that come to mind, since these were designed to entice the wealthy to visit some of the most beautiful destinations in the country by offering them luxurious accommodations at the end of their train journeys. Two of these historic hotels located in Banff National Park continue that tradition of luxury and indulgence to this day, with prices that can start at around $1500/night in peak seasons.
Opened in 1888, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in the town of Banff is one of the earliest grand railway hotels to open. Even today, it never fails to impress with its castle-like turrets and gables, stellar views, and a golf course where you are just as likely to see an elk as you are a birdie (more likely in my case, since I can’t golf worth a damn). But even if you can’t afford to stay there, visitors can always indulge in a little of that luxury by enjoying a drink and those mountain views on the hotel’s expansive terrace. Or you can up the ante with a dinner in one of the hotel’s upscale restaurants.
Chateau Lake Louise dates back to the late 1800s as well, but at that time the original structure on the site was a humble log cabin built by CP Railway’s General Manager Cornelius Van Horne.
Over the years, and due in part to several fires, the property was rebuilt, expanded and even changed its architectural style, until the present Renaissance Revival style we see here today.
Like the Banff Springs, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is no bargain, but its location at the end of one of Canada’s most beautiful and iconic lakes does give it a one-of-a-kind rationale for its pricing. And there’s probably no better view to accompany Afternoon Tea than the one you’ll get from this hotel’s dining rooms.
Similarly, Venice is known for its palace hotels, in this case actual former palaces that have been converted into hotels. Take the Gritti Palace and the Hotel Danieli, for example, which were built in the 16th and 14th centuries respectively and represent some of the most iconic accommodations in this one-of-a-kind city. The views may be of a lagoon, not Lake Louise, but they are incomparable.
TIP: There are obviously less expensive hotels than Banff’s historic beauties that won’t set you back an arm and a leg,. One of these is the Dorothy Motel where Henk and I stayed, a modest property that has received a bit of a boutique upgrade in recent years. But be prepared that even the less luxurious hotels are in high demand in high season, so they can command higher prices than you may be used to.
5. Banff Has Expensive Gondolas
Of course everyone knows about Venice’s famous gondolas, and the (sometimes) singing gondoliers with their signature striped shirts and flat-brimmed hats. Everyone also knows that even a brief ride in one of these iconic vessels will set you back a pretty penny.
But did you know that Banff National Park has its own sightseeing gondolas as well – the kind that usually take you up into the mountains to ski – and they’ll set you back a fair amount too for an even shorter ride. Some also operate with ‘dynamic pricing’ that fluctuates and becomes more expensive during the peak summer season, especially the closer to departure that you make your reservation.
There are four gondolas in Banff National Park but two of the most popular are the ones in the town of Banff itself and another at the Lake Louise Ski Resort.
The gondola at the base of Sulphur Mountain is right in the town of Banff, which takes visitors up to the Gondola Summit at over 7,400 feet of elevation. Here there are 360-degree views of the town of Banff and the surrounding mountains, plus there’s a boardwalk, interpretive centre, and a restaurant where you can enjoy a meal. Prices are dynamic here, and typically fluctuate between $50 and $60 per person.
TIP: To get the most bang out of your gondola buck for the Sulphur Mountain gondola, try to book your visit midweek and as far out as possible date-wise. This will give you the least expensive price for your ticket.
At the Lake Louise Ski Resort gondola, aside from the amazing views, and upscale restaurant at the top, there’s a chance you might see grizzly bears in the wild – but not to worry: there’s a secure area at the top that protects visitors with an electric fence if you are lucky enough to see a grizzly or other wildlife while walking around.
So, Should I Visit Banff National Park? Abso-freakin’-lutely.
Despite some of the negative aspects that come with being Canada’s ‘Venice’, it is still absolutely worth it for you to visit Banff National Park. The breathtaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains can’t really be described unless you experience it in person, and Banff has places that are unlike any others in Canada – or the world….
Google ‘Canadian Rockies’ images, and I can guarantee you that Moraine Lake will be in the top 5 search results. There’s good reason for that: situated at the bottom of the Valley of Ten Peaks, and circled by mountains that illuminate like lanterns with the first hit of morning light, Moraine Lake glitters like a turquoise jewel. It may just be one of the most beautiful locations in all of Canada, and that’s saying a lot, because this country is no slouch when it comes to scenery. It’s probably the reason why it ended up not just in the top Google searches, but on the back of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, too. It’s that iconic.
It’s almost impossible to describe just how impactful the view here is. Having been there in person, I realize now that every photo I’ve seen of those Ten Peaks at Moraine Lake has been shot with a wide angle lens in order to fit them all into frame, and as a result they seem like they are far away. But in person, those mountains are RIGHT THERE in your face! They dominate the view, and beside them the lake appears almost tiny. No photograph can do justice to that physical reality, and this alone is worth a visit at any time of the year.
BACKSTORY: Henk and I had never been to Moraine Lake, so it was an absolute must-do for us in 2022 and I put a lot of time into researching how and when to get there for our best opportunity to photograph it. As it turned out, Mother Nature had other plans for us because of a very late spring, and the road wasn’t even open when we first arrived in Banff. When it did open, we were able to get to the lake, but most of it was still frozen and we only caught a glimpse of the famed blue waters where the ice had started to break up. I’m not going to lie: I was beyond disappointed with our bad timing, (read ‘pouting’) and kicking myself for not having planned a visit later in the summer. But even the wintry views of Moraine Lake would put most others to shame, and this just gives us an excuse to go back again for another visit! (Plus there were waaay fewer people there!)
Lake Louise is like the big sister to Moraine Lake in many ways, and may actually be even more iconic, even if it hasn’t made its way onto any Canadian currency. It’s one of THE most photographed sites in Canada, and with the historic Chateau Lake Louise sitting beside it, is one of the most visited as well.
Situated where mountains and glaciers descend into turquoise waters, the first view of Lake Louise inspires the same reaction in all of its visitors, regardless of what part of the globe they come from: a jaw-dropping, eye-popping expression of awe, and the equivalent of ‘Whoa!’ uttered in every language.
Lake Louise also has one of the easiest, most beautiful hikes you can do in Banff National Park: a lakeside walking trail that takes you all along water’s edge to the end of the lake, offering stunning views of the water and the surrounding mountains with every step you take.
We happened to come when it was a particularly still day, and the mirror-like lake was absolutely gorgeous. You could fill up a memory card in your camera just walking this trail alone – I know because we did!
Whether you decide to stay right in the town of Banff or venture a little farther afield, there are great hiking trails throughout Banff National Park that offer wonderful views and diverse scenery. One of the most popular hikes close to the town of Banff is the Johnston Canyon trail, a relatively easy one that includes a pretty impressive cantilevered walkway that follows the contours of the canyon walls and literally hangs over the river.
Continuing upstream as you climb in elevation, there are a series of rapids and waterfalls, the highest being “Upper Falls’ which takes you to a great view of the 30 metre-high cascade.
But even if you don’t want to go the extra distance to the highest point, there is also a really popular waterfall lower down where you can walk through a short rock tunnel and get right beside the cascade!
TIP: High season at Johnston Canyon means having to line up to go through the tunnel waterfall, so best bet is to get here as early as you can in the morning.
Wildlife Viewing in Banff National Park
Wherever you go in Banff National Park, there’s always the possibility to see wildlife, especially because they are protected here and many animals have become accustomed to people and cars as a result.
Driving along any of the highways or roads around Banff is a great opportunity to spot elk, moose or bears, including Grizzlies.
TIP: The Trans Canada highway that goes through Banff National Park actually has fences to keep animals from ending up on the highway. and animal bridges to allow them to move through the Park Smaller roads, however, including the Bow Valley Parkway do not have this fencing protection. So be aware, especially at dusk, and if you do spot an animal on or near the road and need to stop for it, put on your four-way flashers to alert other cars that there is an animal. And remember to always stay in your vehicle, and never feed any animal you encounter.
There’s Only One Venice, and There’s Only One Banff
One-of-a-kind destinations like Venice and Banff National Park definitely share some similarities: limited size constraints; a need to preserve what makes each so unique; and the struggle to manage the overwhelming number of people who want to visit. But despite some of the downsides that come with this global popularity, the unique beauty of a place like Banff National Park sets it apart in the world and makes it worth the extra effort or the extra cost to experience it in person. It will leave an impression that you aren’t likely to forget any time soon.
I still remember my first time seeing the Rocky Mountains: it was decades ago from an airplane where even from 30,000 feet up, I was blown away by the rugged beauty of these majestic peaks and the glittering, turquoise glacial lakes nestled like jewels amongst them. Just knowing that this was actually part of MY country made me unbelievably proud to be Canadian.
I feel the same way about Banff National Park. a place that leaves me wide-eyed and awestruck every time I visit, and a place that I feel extremely lucky not just to visit, but to call our own.
TIP: If you are planning a visit to Banff National Park, a great resource is the Banff/Lake Louise Tourism website. We found it really useful.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.