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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so why not enjoy it in the most wonderful place in Canada? Banff, Alberta is easily one of the most beautiful places in all of Canada (and the entire world for that matter!) With the mountain peaks dipped in white and Christmas lights lining the streets, Banff is even more magical during the holidays.
Banff is the perfect place to visit this Christmas season! During this festive time of year there are tons of seasonal events as well as fun winter tours and activities!
But planning a holiday to one of Canada’s most popular destinations during one of the busiest seasons is a big task. That’s right, there is a lot of planning that you need to do in advance if you want to visit Banff in the month of December.
Which is exactly why we wrote this blog! We are hoping that this complete guide to visiting Banff at Christmas (or during the entire holiday season) will ensure you have the best time possible!
Why Visit Banff at Christmas?
As I said, Banff during the Christmas holidays is magic. Think of snow, Christmas lights, Christmas markets, carols, parades, cozy fireside glasses of wine, skiing, and hot springs! To me, Banff is the ultimate Canadian Christmas destination as there is just so much to do and see in Banff around Christmas!
Going to Banff for Christmas is also a great choice for all types of travelers. There are lots of events for families, and the snowy romantic atmosphere is perfect for couples or even those honeymooning in Banff!
The truth is, visiting Banff during the holidays is sure to get you into the Christmas Spirit.
Banff Christmas Events
One of the best things about Christmas in Banff is all of the annual events that are held. These events are spread out across the month of November, December, and January, so no matter when you’re planning your Banff Christmas visit, you’re likely to attend an event or two.
Banff Christmas Markets
Of course, one of the best Christmas traditions around the world is seasonal Christmas-themed markets. If you’ve ever wanted to experience a traditional “European-style” Christmas Market then you’re in luck, because the Christmas markets in Banff are very similar. At the Banff Christmas Markets, you can wander different stalls of vendors selling Christmas crafts, foods, and more all while listening to Christmas music surrounded by lights.
There is also a large outdoor patio with a fire where you can enjoy everything from mulled wine to hot chocolate! Expect lots of family-friendly entertainment including photos with Santa!
This popular event is held on the last two weekends of November as well as the first weekend of December this year (Nov 17-19, Nov 24-26, and Dec 1-3 in 2023).
Tickets are required for this event and cost $15 CAD per person. Tickets must be purchased in advance and you can do that here.
Christmas at the Castle
Every year Banff’s historic castle becomes the center of Christmas celebrations. The Fairmont Banff Springs is one of the most luxurious hotels in Banff and during the holiday season, they really get into the Christmas spirit with decorations everywhere, daily events, and Christmas-themed meals.
The Christmas at the Castle calendar of events changes daily, with some events open to the public and some open for only hotel guests. Some of their most popular events include caroling performances and meet and greet sessions with Christmas Characters (Santa Claus and his elves!) The Christmas tree light up is also lots of fun!
Christmas at the Castle is an annual event that starts at the end of November and goes until early January. To experience it the best, you should book a stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs.
A Christmas Carol
Who doesn’t love the classic story of A Christmas Carol?! In Banff, you can see a live rendition of this class story during the month of December! This version is also family-friendly and a whole lot of fun.
The show is held nightly at the Fairmont Banff Springs at 7:30 pm. Tickets start from $25 CAD and must be purchased online in advance here.
Christmas Day FREE Lift Passes
During the month of December, ski fields are open daily, even on Christmas Day! In fact, Mt Norquay Ski Resort, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Banff Sunshine offer a full-day FREE lift pass for those who dress in a full Santa outfit on Christmas day (Mrs. Claus, elves, and reindeer count too!)
Related Read: Looking for more free activities? Check out our blog about 33 FREE things to do in Banff!
Santa on the Mountain
At Sunshine Village in Banff, they have special days in December where you can find Santa skiing on the mountain. Get a once-in-a-lifetime photo with Santa in ski gear!
You can find Santa at Sunshine Village on Dec 9, 10, 16, and 17 in 2023.
In Search of Christmas Spirit
This is the perfect event for anybody who loves Christmas lights. But this display is more than just Christmas lights – you’ll also get to see a Christmas story as told by the animals that call Banff home. It really is a family-friendly event to get you in the Christmas Spirit.
This event is on each night from 4:30 pm to 9:30 pm from Nov 17 – Dec 31, 2023. It is completely free to visit but tickets are required. You can get your tickets online here.
Related Read: Jasper is also a great Christmas desination. Read our blog about visiitng Jasper in December!
Things to do in Banff at Christmas (during the Holiday Season)
There are some really great things to do in Banff during the Christmas season. So, make the most of winter and get out and experience some of Banff’s best Christmas activities!
Skiing and Snowboarding
Of course, the most popular thing to do in Banff in the snow is hitting the slopes! With numerous ski fields in the area, there are tons of choices when it comes to skiing or snowboarding. Sunshine Village and Mt Norquay are the closest ski fields to Banff, however, Lake Louise Ski Resort is pretty close too and also very popular.
During the holiday season, ski fields are open daily, even on Christmas Day! In fact, Mt Norquay Ski Resort, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise Ski Resort all offer a full-day FREE lift pass for those who dress in a full Santa outfit (Mrs. Claus, elves, and reindeer count too!)
If you’re trying to decide where to go skiing, here is some info about your options:
- Sunshine: Sunshine Ski Resort is located in beautiful Banff, only a few minutes from town. As the name suggests, they’re known for the sunny weather and have a wide variety of runs for beginners and experts alike. A lift ticket costs $165 CAD for the day.
- Norquay: Norquay is another ski hill in Banff, located not far from Sunshine. It offers some of the best views out over Banff and also is open for night skiing. The price for a full-day lift ticket is $124 CAD. This is my top choice for beginners.
- Lake Louise: As the furthest ski hill from Banff town on this list (about an hour away), Lake Louise might be a bit of a trip. Good thing there is a lot to see and do around Lake Louise! Make a full day of it and enjoy the amazing views from this awesome ski hill. Prices are $129 CAD for a full day.
Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride
There are few activities as Christmassy as riding in a horse-drawn sleigh through the snow around Banff National Park. It’s a beautiful and unique activity that is especially suited to Christmas time in Banff.
In Banff, this group horse-drawn sleigh ride is the perfect way to enjoy the winter wonderland that is Banff. It’s also an activity that kids will enjoy, too.
The sleigh ride starts from these stables just on the edge of town. It’s a 40-minute ride that offers stunning views of the Canadian Rockies as you wind your way through snow-covered pine trees. Don’t worry about getting cold either because there are wool blankets on the sleigh!
After your sleigh ride, you will return to the stables for a fire, hot drinks, and s’mores for a quintessential winter day in Banff.
This experience is available from mid-December to mid-March so there’s enough snow on the ground. You can reserve a spot for $49 CAD per adult and $38 CAD per child aged 4-12 and little ones 3 and under are free. Tours are offered on the hour in the late morning and early afternoon, so check your schedule and secure your spot for an unforgettable horse-drawn sleigh ride!
Hot tip: The horse-drawn sleigh is completely open-air so be sure to dress accordingly!
Day trip to Lake Louise
Lake Louise is an alpine lake located within Banff National Park. Surrounded by mountains and wildlife, the lake and village nearby have become one of the most popular places to visit in Canada. In fact, because of all the amazing things to do, Lake Louise is a winter destination all on its own.
During winter, the lake freezes over and becomes one of the most beautiful places to ice skate in the world. The ice skating area is maintained by the Fairmont Château Lake Louise – one of the most luxurious hotels in the Rocky Mountains. Because of this, the ice is usually in great condition.
The best part is that if you have your own skates this activity is entirely free. If you don’t, be sure to rent them in Banff or at Alpine Social Rentals at the hotel. The ice skating rink usually opens in mid-December until mid-April, but of course, this is weather-dependent and changes each year.
While you’re there, be sure to enjoy the ice castle sculpture – it’s so neat! There is also a bar made of ice, too. Both the ice castle and ice car are located right near the skating area, you can’t miss them!
On top of that, you can cross-country ski around the lake (also free if you have your own skis, or rent them at the hotel for $30 CAD for 3 hours), enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride ($52 CAD for adults and $45 for children), have a coffee or meal at the hotel, or just enjoy the magnificent views.
It takes around 40 minutes to reach Lake Louise from Banff but the drive itself is beautiful. In fact, why not take the scenic route there and drive the Bow Valley Parkway – another epic thing to do on this list!
There is a lot of parking available at the Lake Lousie foreshore, though it can fill up during busy times (weekends and public holidays) although that’s not particularly normal during the winter. It is free to park here during the winter months.
If you don’t have a car or would rather just have an epic day planned for you, you can’t pass up this guided tour from Banff. Not only will it take you to Lake Louise, but you’ll also get to hit some other iconic attractions on the Icefields Parkway as well as enjoy some time at Lake Minnewanka.
We love this tour because it takes care of the details and logistics of your day. These areas of Banff can get rather busy, even in the winter, and parking, entrance fees, and driving can easily put a damper on your vacation. Having a tour that plans the route and takes care of the logistics frees you up to simply enjoy the beautiful Lake Louise and surrounding areas.
This full-day tour includes transportation from Banff and entrance fees. It doesn’t include lunch, so bring some extra cash for food and souvenirs! You can reserve this tour to Lake Louise here for $180 CAD.
Dog sledding is one of those once-in-a-lifetime activities I have always wanted to do. Finally, after years of thinking about it, Dan and I finally signed up for a dog sledding tour – and we couldn’t be happier with our choice!
On our tour, our guide and six beautiful dogs took us by sled on a 10-kilometer-long adventure in Spray Lakes Provincial Park in the stunning wintery Kananaskis Country. At the halfway point we got out to bond with the dogs as well as enjoy a delicious hot chocolate. We learned all about dog sledding and of course, the dogs themselves (our favorite part!)
We did our tour with Howling Dog Tours located in Canmore. Although not in Banff, it was their ethics that made the drive worth it. Howling Dogs Tours adopts the majority of their dogs and take in any Alaskan and Siberian Huskies no matter what they look like (it’s actually funny because some of them don’t look like huskies at all!). On top of that, the dogs work a schedule with plenty of days off and only run to their ability.
The tour we did cost $270 CAD per person and lasts for around 2 hours. Howling Dog Tours also offers a half-day tour if you want a longer experience.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
One of my absolute favorite things to do in Banff is to visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs. These are some of Alberta’s best hot springs with spectacular views of the mountains. It makes for the perfect place to relax in warm water after a cold winter day exploring Banff National Park.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are located only a short 5-minute drive from Banff town and they are open daily with entrance fees of $16.50 CAD per adult. The hot springs do get very busy sometimes, so my best advice is to visit an hour before close which is when it starts to slow down.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are open daily from 10 am to 10 pm with the last entry at 9:30 pm although these hours do change sometimes, so check the website before you go.) The springs are located up Sulphur Mountain near the Banff Gondola and although there is a large parking lot at the springs, it can fill up during busy periods. Regardless, this is a must-do in Banff!
Note: The Banff Hot Springs are open during regular hours over the Christmas Holidays!
Spirit of Christmas Store
Located right on Banff Ave, you’ll find the perfect store for all of your Christmas-themed shopping. The Spirit of Christmas store is a huge 2-level store that features an endless amount of Christmas-related items including ornaments, decorations, gifts, and more. It’s quite literally the best Christmas store I’ve ever been to.
During the holiday season, the Spirit of Christmas store also has Santa Claus for meet and greets!
Wandering Banff Ave and stopping at the Spirit of Christmas is a must-do in Banff for the holidays!
Ride the Banff Gondola
Riding the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulpher Mountain is another popular activity in Banff that you can do during the winter season. The gondola takes you on an 8-minute-long climb up 698 meters in elevation until you reach the top of the mountain.
At the top of the gondola, you’ll find a restaurant and cafe, a gift shop, lots of information on the area and wildlife, as well as my personal favorite, the boardwalk!
During Christmas, the Banff Gondola also gets into the holiday spirit by offering special Christmas events including Santa meet and greets and other family fun events. These special events are free to those who already purchased the Banff Gondola admission ticket, and run daily from mid-November to Christmas.
The best place to buy Banff Gondola tickets is online in advance here. That way you can skip the ticket line when you arrive and can cancel up to 24 hours in advance if the weather isn’t looking great. Clear days have the best views!
The Banff Gondola hours of operation have been changing recently, however, in winter the gondola opens at 10 am and closes at 9 pm on weekdays and 10 pm on weekends during. They are also closed this year from November 6-17 for annual maintenance. You can check their updated hours here before you go.
And yes, the Banff Gondola is open during the holidays, including on Christmas Day!
Why We Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Hiking in the snow can be a challenge – that is if you don’t have snowshoes on! Snowshoeing is a classic Canadian winter experience that makes hiking fun and easier in the deep snow you get in and around Banff.
If you’ve never snowshoed before then going on a guided tour is best for learning.
From Banff, you can join a couple of different snowshoeing tours that include your gear and an experienced guide. This particular tour takes you to Kootenay National Park’s famous Paint Pots. I love this tour because it actually takes you out of Banff and into a less-explored park. Transport is included, and the drive out there is gorgeous. You’ll snowshoe at the Paint Pots, which is a stunning and fairly easy trail.
Alternatively, you can head to the Nordic Centre in Canmore and explore the many trails there. Snowshoeing at the Nordic Centre is one of the best things to do in Canmore in the winter months.
Related Read: For another epic winter adventure, be sure to drive from Banff to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway then do the Maligne Canyon Icewalk – it is truly amazing and one of the best things to do in Jasper in winter!
Go ice skating
Ice skating is one of the classic Canadian winter experiences. Of course, you can simply go to Lake Louise (mentioned above), however, there are a lot of places much closer to Banff too.
One of the closest is the Downtown Rink at Banff Community High School. The outdoor rink is completely free to visit, located right in Banff, and with Banff’s views, you’ll feel like you’re wild ice skating. At the Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, you can also go ice skating indoors if you want to avoid the cold. Entry to the rink is $7 CAD.
On top of skating at the official rinks, you can also go wild ice skating during certain conditions. Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Cascade Ponds are popular choices. Of course, heavy snowfall can interrupt this, but early in the season, or if people have cleared some of the snow, these lakes are perfect.
Important: Skating on frozen lakes is dangerous if the ice isn’t thick enough. Only skate on ice thick enough to hold your weight and skate at your own risk. If unsure, it’s better not to go on the ice. I always ask at the Banff Visitor Center before I go to skate on any frozen lake.
Johnston Canyon Icewalk
Another way to take in the spectacular scenery in Banff during the holidays is to visit Johnston Canyon and go on an icewalk – you will literally walk on the ice in the canyon, it’s very cool! This famous attraction is open all year round but without a doubt, winter is the best time to go.
The drive from Banff to Johnston Canyon is about 30 minutes on the Bow Valley Parkway. From the parking lot, you’ll walk a 2.5-kilometer (1.6-mile) trail to the Upper Falls (ice cleats/crampons are recommended.)
You can also do the shorter option of just walking to the Lower Falls before turning back. The trail to the Lower Falls is 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) one way.
For those who want to learn more or don’t have their own gear, you can book a Johnston Canyon Icewalk tour. This specific tour is 4 hours long and includes transport to and from the canyon as well as an expert guide, ice cleats, and hiking poles. You’ll enjoy the views of frozen waterfalls and icicles while walking along the steel walkway.
The tour is $95 CAD and includes a hot chocolate and a maple cookie snack at the end! You can check availability and book this Johnston Canyon Icewalk tour online here.
Grotto Canyon Icewalk
Another awesome hike that is better in the winter than the summer is Grotto Canyon! The Grotto Canyon Icewalk is a 4.4 km (2.7-mile) trail, and in the winter, you’ll actually walk right on a frozen river through the canyon!
To begin the trail, drive out to the parking lot at Grotto Mountain Pond. From here, it takes around 1.5 hours each way if you allow time to explore the canyon and take some photos. It takes 30 minutes of walking until you reach the canyon and from here on out you’ll follow the frozen river up the canyon to frozen waterfalls and an Inukshuk Garden. Along the way, there are also indigenous pictographs (but you’ll need a keen eye to spot them!)
If you’re worried you’ll miss the hard-to-find attractions in the canyon such as the pictographs you can actually join this tour through Grotto Canyon. You’ll explore all the cool rock formations, frozen waterfalls, and learn about the history and geology of the area.
IThe tour is also very handy because it includes return transport from Banff as well as all of your gear (ice cleats/crampons are essential!) They even provide hot chocolate so you can stay toasty warm! The tour costs $98 CAD and can be booked online here.
For more ideas, check out our blog about the 33 best things to do in Banff!
Tips for Visiting Banff at Christmas
There are a few little things I want to remind you about before heading to Banff at Christmas:
- Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year in Banff. And as such, you need to book your hotel, tours, and even dinner reservations well in advance!
- It can be realllllyyyyyyy cold! You will 100% need a winter jacket, boots, mittens, hat (beanie or toque), and likely even snow pants if you plan on spending much time outside.
- Allow for road closures and winter driving conditions. When snowy or icy conditions affect the roads it is possible to experience delays, and sometimes it may even be best to stay put for a day or two longer than planned. Also, have winter tires on your vehicle.
Related Read: Banff is also amazing in the autumn with gorgeous trees everywhere. Check out our complete guide to visiting Banff in fall for more info on the best things to do and see!
Where to Stay in Banff for Christmas
Fairmont Banff Springs – Luxury Hotel
The Fairmont Banff Springs is the most luxurious place to stay in Banff. Featuring 11 onsite restaurants and 14 stores, this hotel is an experience above and beyond just a beautiful stay. With a heated outdoor pool, indoor pool, and day spa it is perfect for relaxation. Plus, they have their annual Christmas in the Castle event with tons of festive daily activities!
You can check prices and availability for the Fairmont Banff Springs on Booking.com!
Banff Inn – Great Value Hotel
The Banff Inn is the perfect hotel for those who are budget-conscious without wanting to sacrifice comfort. The location is central right on Banff Ave and they have an onsite restaurant and bar as well as a hot tub! The affordable rooms come in various layouts to suit families or couples traveling to Banff for the holiday season! The great value of this hotel means it is almost always fully booked, so be sure to book in advance!
You can check prices and availability for the Banff Inn on Booking.com!
Samesun Banff – Budget Hostel
The Samesun Banff is Banff’s best-located hostel for those on a tight budget. They offer lots of different dorms to keep your costs down while in Banff, as well as a really social atmosphere. The onsite bar and restaurant have great deals and daily happy hours with events – and Christmas events too!
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to some of the best places to visit in Alberta requires transport. Although you can use public transport, on some occasions, it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Renting a car will definitely make exploring all of the fun things to see and do in Alberta easier.
Car rental in Canada isn’t super cheap, but it isn’t overly expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year and the type of car that you rent. For car rentals, I use the website DiscoverCars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Before you go…
I hope this blog helps you prepare for having an amazing Christmas in Banff! It truly is a great place to spend the festive season and I’m sure you won’t regret it!
Be sure to check out the rest of our Canada blogs if you’re looking for more inspiration for traveling one of our absolute favorite countries! Also, we’ve some of our personal favorite related blogs below: