Calgary and Banff, Alberta, Canada | the ultimate travel guide


Last updated February 23, 2024.

There are a plethora of reasons to visit Calgary in Alberta Province. Maybe you’re visiting for a business trip; there are tons of skyscrapers and corporate offices in Downtown Calgary. Or perhaps you’re in town for leisure. Calgary is an adventure traveler’s haven with its amazing skiing, rafting, and hiking spots. Whatever the reason, you’re sure to have a fun-filled time in a buzzing western-esque metropolitan like Calgary.

Canada, in general, has always been a country I’ve wanted to visit since I was a kid, so I was beyond excited when the opportunity finally came to cross this one off my destination bucket list. Those of us in the states often hear stereotypes about our neighbors in the north, but the truth is that Canada is worth seeing with your own eyes for you to come to your own conclusions and enjoy.

Calgary’s the first and only city I’ve visited in Canada so far, and it’s left such an impression on me that I can’t wait to return and even stay there long-term. There’s so much to eat, do, and see, especially during the summer when the weather’s nice and warm and there’s an abundance of festivals and outdoor activities to choose from. With its meandering rivers, numerous trees, and mix of corporate heads and hipsters, Calgary reminded me so much of home in Sacramento. Except for the snow of course.

I stayed in downtown Calgary and took a day trip to Banff National Park during the summer and none of it disappointed. The weather was pretty much perfect, particularly on the day we explored Banff. Even when it rained, I had plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options because I stayed in a downtown condo. All in all, this is a trip I highly recommend and cannot be more excited that I finally made time to write a guide about it!

So First, Calgary, Alberta

View of Downtown Calgary from Prince's Island Park | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
View of Downtown Calgary from Prince’s Island Park. Photo by Bonnibelle Chukwuneta.

Calgary is a bustling cosmopolitan city in the province of Alberta in Canada. It’s the province that lies directly above the US state of Montana and is part of Western Canada. Downtown Calgary has lots of skyscrapers and was pretty busy just like any downtown city would be, though the traffic was bearable compared to what we experience in California. I learned that it’s actually the center of the oil sector for all of Canada. I saw a number of Shell and Exxon buildings and many Oil & Gas Consultants on Bumble.

Fun fact: did you know that Calgary is a 7½-hour drive from Spokane, WA (Washington) and a 5-hour drive from Great Falls, MT (Montana)? #themoreyouknow

Another fun fact: Calgary is frequently ranked as one of the most livable cities in all of North America. Honestly, can’t say I’m surprised. I actually spent the first day driving around the city and some of the residential neighborhoods and fell in love with Calgary’s vibe, layout, architecture, the fancy condos, you name it!

Awesome-looking condos near downtown Calgary.

The city lies about 50 miles away from the base of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and is often regarded as the gateway to Banff National Park.

Banff National Park, Banff, Alberta

So, the whole purpose of the trip to Canada was actually to spend a day at Banff National Park. It’s an amazingly scenic national park and happens to be Canada’s oldest park, having been established in 1885. It’s grown to become a top global destination and attracts over 4 million visitors per year. 

It took about 90 minutes to drive from the condo downtown to Banff National Park and traffic wasn’t bad for a perfectly-warm Sunday in the middle of the busy travel season. The drive up to Banff is honestly one of the most amazing I’ve ever been on. It was insane to see the mountains peaking wayyyy over the clouds. The Canadian Rockies are HUGE!

Banff National Park, the Canadian Rockies | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
Banff National Park, the Canadian Rockies.

City Tour + Adventure Guide

Calgary itself is an amazing quiet-but-big city with so much to do, eat, and experience locally. It’s also known for its adventure and leisure activities. With the Bow and Elbow rivers hugging the city, water sports like canoeing and rafting are perfect during the summertime with the nearby pathways allowing for rollerblading, biking or scootering from nearby rentals, or simply taking a troll.

Banff itself has a host of options for the adventure traveler. Along with canoeing and rafting, there are plenty of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. And with winter comes skiing!

Best Time To Visit Calgary + Banff

Calgary has two peak seasons: June through August and November through March. Banff and Calgary are very nice during the summer and as such garner a lot of people. I visited in July and the weather was between 55F and 75F. It was cold and rainy the first day, so we ate and went shopping, but the day we went to Banff, it was close to 80F!

Visiting during the cold, wintry months is popular, especially for skiers. Ski resorts like Lake Louise Ski Resort and WinSport Canada Olympic Park begin to open up and the crowds come.

Travel during peak seasons means there may be crowds, so that’s definitely something to consider. I was there in July and the crowding and traffic were moderate to slightly heavy in my opinion.

Crowds at Lake Louise, Banff National Park in July 2019.

There was a wait for the tour bus to take us from parking up to Lake Louise, so we opted to hike, which should’ve been our plan all along! We hiked down to rivers and streams and took amazing photos of the vibrant forest and mountain tops. Unluckily no bear sightings!

Honestly, anytime is a good time to visit Calgary and Banff. This trip is full of plenty of scenery and natural wonders at any time of the year. Plenty of greenery, blue waters, and vibrant colors during the summer. The wintertime yields beautiful pure whites, shimmer, and magic.

How To Get To Calgary, AB

Calgary International Airport (YYC) was 25 minutes away from our Airbnb in Downtown Calgary. We landed at night with absolutely no traffic. It’s the closest international airport to Banff National Park; it’s about 145-km (90 mi) and roughly a 90-minute drive from YYC to Banff.

Calgary International Airport (YYC) | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
Calgary International Airport (YYC).

Transportation Options for a Calgary-Banff Weekend:

  • Rideshare
  • Rental car
  • Public transportation: Calgary actually has a great public transportation system and has busses that go to Banff every single day.
  • Shuttle (check their schedule)
  • Tours

I was traveling from Florida and had a delay on my way to Dallas because of thunderstorms, which pushed my arrival at YYC up two hours. The car rental was already closed, so we Ubered to our condo for the night and then got a new rental from Enterprise in the morning.

We rented a Chevrolet Malibu for the weekend that was great for our city drive as well as the road trip up to the mountains.

Where To Stay

There are so many options on where to stay in Calgary. I highly recommend staying in downtown Calgary because you’re a close distance to pretty much everything with all the fun that comes with the Bow River just minutes away.

I stayed in a waterfront high-rise condo that was literally just steps away from Prince’s Island Park and leads to the river. It was a luxurious, yet affordable, condo with a full kitchen and a pullout sofa. It also had great amenities including a full gym that I made use of.

Waterfront condo near Prince's Island Park, Living room | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
Waterfront condo near Prince's Island Park, Bedroom | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
Waterfront condo near Prince's Island Park, Kitchen | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide

I got in sometime after 1am and was met by the Airbnb host, Kevin. Yep! And he was working the next morning #customerserviceonpoint. I truly appreciated that he stayed up to ensure that we got to the room and had no issues. He was super quick with communication, was thorough with suggestions during our stay, and gave us tips on where to explore around the city. I can’t recommend it enough and look forward to staying there again in the future.

Panoramic view of Downtown Calgary and Prince’s Island Park.
View of Prince’s Island Park from the condo… it was well within walking distance.

Where To Eat

Galaxie Diner

Galaxie Diner is an old-fashioned Calgary diner and a local favorite. It’s a small space and pretty popular, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait a bit. Definitely worth checking out for their all-day breakfast and bottomless hash! Plus, they serve up big portions for like $10.

Omelette of choice at Galaxie Diner | Calgary | Banff | Ultimate Travel Guide | Where To Eat | Things To Do
Delicious personalized omelette, hash browns, and wheat toast at Galaxie Diner.

The Brok’In Yolk

If you’re looking for a family-owned restaurant with that farm to table experience, then look no further than The Brok’In Yolk. It’s a brunch spot that’s been serving up local fare since 2014. They’re known for their duck fat hash and have plant-based options like Beyond Meat Sweet Italian Sausage for plant-based eaters.

Tenshi Sushi

We kind of stumbled upon Tenshi Sushi on one of our multiple trips to the Safeway in Kensington. So glad we did. The sushi was pretty phenomenal. The best thing we had there was actually gifted to us. There was a bit of a hold up with our rolls, so they gave us a plate of salmon tataki. Make sure you order the salmon tataki. It’s heaven in your mouth. It was so good, it was gone by the time I remembered I should take a picture.

Tenshi Sushi… so good that you’ll forget to take decent photos.

Blowers & Grafton | Halifax Street Food + Bar

Blowers & Grafton is a hip street food eatery and bar with Halifax flare. They’re known for their donair (the official food of Halifax), a type of meat used in snacks reminiscent of a gyro. They’ve got amazing pizzas and the fish and chips are delicious. Make sure to give their drinks menu a gander. They have yummy sangrias.

Tim Hortons

Yes, that Tim Hortons. I’ve watched enough How I Met Your Mother to realize that not stopping at a Tim Hortons while in Canada is a cardinal sin. For those out of the loop, Tim Hortons is the Canadian equivalent to Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a fast-food chain known for coffee and donuts, and truly a must-visit. The Timbits (donut holes) are addicting and I couldn’t get enough of the Beyond Meat Breakfast Sandwich.

Tim Hortons | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide
Beyond sausage breakfast sandwich at Tim Hortons… yum!

Things To Do

Leisure Day At Prince’s Island Park

Calgary has a lot of parks worth visiting, but there’s no park like Prince’s Island Park. We were lucky to stay in a condo that’s just feet away from the park’s entrance and spent plenty of time there. Prince’s Island Park is an island on the Bow River just north of Downtown Calgary and hosts a number of celebrations and festivals throughout the year, including the Canada Day celebration. It’s picturesque and the sound of the rushing river is like music to your ears.

Shop At CrossIron Mills

It was raining our first 24 hours or so in Calgary, but we didn’t want to stay in the condo, so we went to the nearby shopping mall. CrossIron Mills is one of the newer malls in the area and the biggest one-level mall in Alberta. It’s also home to Alberta’s largest Toys-R-Us, which I made sure to visit and relive childhood memories.

Visit Calgary Zoo

Calgary Zoo is massive and home to over 1,400 animals, including animals from faraway like kangaroos and ostriches and locals like the American black bear and wood bison. The zoo has the Centre for Conservation Research team and relies on science to protect species that are at risk of endangerment. It also has a beautiful botanical garden as well as a Prehistoric Park that features how dinosaurs used to roam the region.

Explore Kensington Nightlife

Kensington is considered Calgary’s village in the city and reminds me so much of Sacramento’s Midtown. The district is over 100 years old but is full of trendy, modern shops, bars, restaurants, and more. It’s a popular place for tourists and has several great date night options for locals and traveling couples.

Take A Trip To Banff National Park

If you’re staying in Calgary, then you have to take a day trip (at the very least) to Banff National Park. Calgary is regarded as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies with Banff being the highlight. There’s so much to do and see at Banff National Park, including hiking, canoeing, skiing during the winter, plus all the wildlife and natural scenery. We ended up taking a hike up to the stunning and Instagram-popular Lake Louise and spent an hour canoeing across the lake.

Budget Tips

Go grocery shopping.

The condo had a full kitchen stocked with cooking supplies, so we picked up a few items from the nearby Safeway that were light and easy to prepare. For our Banff hike, we packed some granola bars and brought reusable water bottles to keep us going for the day.

Take in the scenery.

There’s a lot going on in Calgary, from the many restaurants and breweries to numerous events, museums, and more. The best way to enjoy Calgary, in my opinion, is also the cheapest and in most cases, free. Calgary has a lot of scenic parks that are perfect for daytime adventures. You can take a casual stroll or rent nearby bikes or scooters at the parks and let it all soak in.

Practicing mindfulness at Prince's Island Park | Calgary-Banff, Alberta, Canada | 
The Ultimate Travel Guide
Prince’s Island Park is a great place to explore nature and be mindful.

Budget-Friendly Dining

Canada’s conversion rate is friendly towards the USA traveler. Get more bang for your buck and look for wallet-friendly dining options when you’re eating out. Galaxie Diner was a great budget option. Visit during restaurant happy hours and take advantage of local specials too.

Calgary + Banff = The Perfect Pair

Take Calgary’s buzzing city-feel and nightlife and couple it with the abundant scenery and natural wonder that comes with Banff National Park, and you have one amazing weekend. It’s the vacation you didn’t know you needed. I certainly can’t wait to go back.

Have you been to Calgary or Banff? What’s your favorite thing to do when you go?

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Calgary + Banff, Alberta, Canada | The Ultimate Travel Guide | Bonnibelle Chukwuneta
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