We often get asked by people planning a trip to the area whether they should stay in Lake Louise or Banff. They each have their pros and cons, depends what you’re looking for.
To clear up what can be confusing, Banff National Park is a massive expanse of land and mountains that most people see only a dent of. Within the park are the village of Lake Louise, Lake Louise (the actual lake) and the town of Banff. The Lake Louise village is located off the Trans Canada Hwy and the lake is located up a steep and winding road 4 km’s from the village. The Lake Louise ski hill is across the Trans Canada Hwy from the village, close enough that you could walk to it if need be. The town of Banff is approximately 45 minutes drive east of Lake Louise.
Where To Stay, Lake Louise or Banff?
Lake Louise accommodation is limited and cheap options even more limited. It books up quickly in summer, during holidays and in peak ski season. There are only a handful of places to eat which can be expensive as well. The couple of cheaper deli/cafe style restaurants in the village often have line ups to get food in the busy tourist season. They also close as early as 6pm in the evening. See our post on Cheap Eats In Lake Louise.
Nightlife and evening entertainment is virtually non-existent. There is one pub/night club called Explorers in the Lake Lousie Inn that is frequented mostly by young workers in the area. The other places of note for an evening drink are the Glacier Saloon at the Chateau Lake Louise and the Outpost at the Post Hotel.
The area is isolated with few amenities and no public transportation. Even though it is remote, be prepared to share the lakeshore with hundreds of other people and tour groups in the summer months.
After hearing all this negativity you might wonder why anyone would want to stay in Lake Louise. Well, it is a hikers paradise with a myriad of excellent trails starting right from Lake Louise itself as well as nearby Moraine Lake. It’s also a cross-country skiing mecca with kilometers of groomed trails. If you have come for downhill skiing, the Lake Louise ski hill is right there. Lake Louise can also serve as a good base for exploring Yoho National Park just minutes to the west as is the access to the Columbia Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93N). Outside of the peak tourist and ski season it is a very tranquil place. Even in the summer months you can beat the crowds by getting up in the early morning or waiting until just before sunset to have a peaceful stroll along the lakeshore.
Banff has many options and styles of accommodation. It isn’t necessarily cheap, but there are more budget choices than Lake Louise. There are more restaurants, cafes and coffee shops than you could possibly try during your stay. You can find anything from Greek, Italian, Sushi, Thai, Vegetarian, traditional Canadian fare to burgers and seafood. There are several pubs that serve great food in addition to locally brewed beer. See our post on Our Favourite Place To Eat In Banff.
Banff has a movie theatre, a bowling alley and plenty of tourist shops. There’s even a few nightclubs. The Banff Center has theatrical and musical performances. There always seems to be something going on in the way of entertainment, check the calender of events to see what might be happening during your stay.
Banff can serve as a base to explore nearby Canmore or Kananaskis Country. You have quick access to Mount Norquay and Sunshine Ski hill. If you are looking for some easier hiking there are more lower level trails and walks around the town. Due to the lower elevation the trails also clear of snow earlier than Lake Louise trails.
The downside that some people may find to Banff is the crowds in the summer, during holidays and ski weekends. On the main drag of Banff Avenue the sidewalks can be shoulder to shoulder with people. Even though there are a lot of places to eat, due to the amount of tourists in the area the popular spots can get crowded. It can be noisy and overwhelming around the amenities and attractions in the main town area.
If you’re looking for something with a feel that’s in between the two places, compare Jasper National Park versus Banff National Park and it might be just what your looking for. You can also compare nearby Canmore versus Banff as a base in the Rocky Mountains.