It’s got the beauty of Banff, but isn’t Banff. It’s better.
The untamed beauty, wildlife encounters, and plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities make Banff National Park a top attraction for any avid outdoor adventurer, no matter the season. With the town of Banff being the obvious place to stay, it’s been experiencing overtourism in recent years, drawing an influx of hikers and paddlers in the summer months and powderhounds in the winter ones. Its bars and restaurants are perpetually crammed, and a night in an entry-level deluxe room at the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs commands over $1,000 per night at the height of summer.
Banff—both the town and the national park—are still must-sees, though another nearby mountain town offers better-valued accommodation and dining options. Fifteen miles southeast of Banff town in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Canmore is slightly further from the main attraction of Banff National Park and the three iconic ski resorts within its grounds–Mount Norquay, Lake Louise, and Banff Sunshine Village.
Still, Canmore teems with hip restaurants, trendy galleries, and cool places to stay. Plus, you can see the craggy summits of the Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak from just about anywhere in this scenic town. But the real perks of making Canmore your base? It’s cheaper, more laid-back, and boasts a more authentic feel compared to Banff.
“There are people walking down the street with a jug of milk and a loaf of bread because they actually live here. It helps offer a more genuine experience, like a live-like-a-local-type thing,” says Andrew Shepherd, general manager of The Malcolm Hotel. While Banff town has been compared to the likes of Disney where the majority of activities—and even staying in town—attracts a fee, Shepherd points out that staying in Canmore doesn’t require a national parks pass, plus the quieter atmosphere means there’s less traffic when you’re trying to get to the parks and hills, or just across town.
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Main Street Isn’t Mainstream
“There’s a level of tourism that supports the shops, but the shops here support the locals first,” says Lonny Middleton, owner of A Bear and Bison Inn. Though there are stores typical of a touristy mountain town, like those dedicated to selling outdoor gear, Canmore has a more diversified portfolio of shops. From bigger grocery stores instead of tiny corner stores with few product options to several dealerships in town that’ll help you get your car fixed, these shops and services are first and foremost dedicated to those who live here.
A walk down 8 Street, a.k.a. Main Street, reveals only a couple of souvenir shops and brims mostly with restaurants, indie shops, and galleries like Avens Gallery and Fallen Leaf Gallery that support Canadian artists.
Rest Your Head
For a long time, Canmore has been operating in the shadows of Banff and is mostly visited by nearby British Columbians, local Albertans, and some longer-haul Canadian travelers. But Canmore has been steadily gaining recognition as an outdoor destination by international travelers. Much of that is due to its short 1.5-hour drive from Calgary International Airport and because it is the first mountain town international travelers pass when coming into the Rockies from the airport. Canmore’s range of accommodation choices, which already included budget inns and self-contained units, was met with a new luxury hotel opening in 2018, giving even more options to travelers looking for a place to call home.
The four-star Malcolm Hotel is Canmore’s first luxury property and an easy five-minute walk from downtown. Its 124 chic rooms at this serene creekside location provide a place for a restful night’s sleep and invite you to wake to views of the Three Sisters and Lady MacDonald Mountain Ranges. Relax in your deep soaker tub or head to the heated outdoor pool on the rooftop after a day in the mountains. Though Shepherd sees mostly Canadians at the property right now—with 75% being road trippers from an eight-hour drive radius in the winter months—he anticipates an increase in international travelers over the next five years, as word about Canmore continues to spread.
Those who want a more intimate B&B experience should consider the family-owned A Bear and Bison Inn at the base of Lady MacDonald Mountain. Each of its 10 cozy and cabin-like rooms comes equipped with a rustic gas fireplace, a generously sized king bed, and a private balcony with panoramic mountain views.
Fuel up for Adventures
There’s no shortage of dining options in Canmore, and restaurant choices run the gamut from pubs rife with après-ski action to hipster cafes and fine dining establishments. In line with the outdoors-loving ethos of both its residents and visitors, its culinary offerings are uber-trendy and sustainable.
Start your morning with a nourishing breakfast at CommuniTEA Cafe, a local fave for its rice bowls, veggie wraps, and loads of superfoods sandwiched between toasted sourdough bread. Then, after a day in the mountains, hit up Tank310 to join the rest of the ski bums for happy hour. Situated on the third floor of The Grizzly Paw brewery, its floor-to-ceiling windows and the small patio show off sweeping views of the Three Sisters, Ha Ling Peak, and Mount Rundle. Gorge on saucy wings and burgers crafted with signature Alberta beef while sipping full-bodied IPAs and blonde ales. For the non-alcoholic imbibers, savor Grizzly Paw’s own line of six locally crafted sodas.
For dinner, head to Sauvage for a fine dining experience. With a deep focus on sustainability, this establishment creates seasonal menus with ingredients from local farms and foraged by the restaurant’s knowledgeable staff. Helmed by chef Tracy Little, Sauvage translates the ruggedness, vastness, and abundance of Canmore’s natural landscape into creative dishes which can be sampled through the three, five, or seven-course tasting menu.
Aside from its anything-but-ordinary restaurants, dining, and accommodation options that contribute to Canmore’s genuine vibes, its residents also play a big part in creating that experience for visitors. Home to Olympians and retired professional athletes, Canmore tends to attract the doers, explains Middleton.
“There’s this competitive culture that leaks from the Olympians that are here, who train so hard to shave off a quarter of a second off their best time. And that energy translates to everything about Canmore,” says Middleton of the visitors who come here to engage in local experiences like the Triple Crown challenge, where hikers conquer three peaks in three days.
But those who want a more laid-back time in the mountain town will still have much to do. Shop local produce at the Canmore Mountain Market every Thursday between May and October, and join the residents on leisurely strolls along the 2.5-mile Policeman’s Creek Trail, which affords the opportunity to spot deer and elk.
“If you want to say you’ve been to the Canadian Rockies, go to Banff, but if you want to do the Canadian Rockies, come to Canmore,” urges Middleton.