What’s the Better Place to Visit – Whistler or Banff?

Beautiful mountain scenery on the hikes off the top of the gondola
Beautiful mountain scenery on the hikes off the top of the gondola

I’ve been asked the question numerous times. What’s the better place to visit – Whistler or Banff? It depends on what you’re looking for is my answer as they are very different despite both being mountain towns. I’ve read on forums that if you’ve been to one you don’t need to visit the other as they’re so similar.

I disagree. Both Whistler and Banff have their own unique personalities. And as someone who has lived within 75 minutes of both Whistler and Banff – and visited both frequently, I think I am qualified to opine on the matter.

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The Banff train station
The Banff train station

Whistler or Banff – the pros and cons


Pros of Whistler over Banff

If the sun is shining the drive from Vancouver to Whistler via the Sea to Sky Highway  is one of the most scenic in Canada. You can also get to Whistler via a beautiful train ride on board The Rocky Mountaineer from May until September – though it continues east now.

Views from the top of the Chief in Squamish
Views from the top of the Chief in Squamish – a great stop on the way to Whistler

Whistler and Blackcomb offer some of the top rated downhill skiing in North America – good enough to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Both mountains boast over 1,524 metres or 5,000 feet of vertical. There is a ski run for every type of skier on these mountains. And yes it can rain, but that’s usually at the bottom of the hill. Ski from mid-mountain up and you’ll end up in snow most of the time. The views are stellar too.

Gorgeous skiing at Whistler - Blackcomb on a bluebird day
Gorgeous skiing at Whistler – Blackcomb on a bluebird day

There are loads of things to do in the winter if you’re not a skier – bobsledding, ziplining, snowshoeing, tubing, shopping, spa days, and excellent dining.

In November, Whistler enjoys a wine and food extravaganza called Whistler Cornucopia.

Every December Whistler plays host to a Film Festival.

You can ski from late June to late July on the Horstman Glacier.

In the summer the mountain biking along the Sea to Sky corridor is world class and there is lots of it.

Whistler accommodation

There is a wide range of accommodation options in Whistler. As of 2018 Canada’s first pod hotel offers an excellent option in the heart of the village though it’s best for young people.

Opt for a high end full service hotel like the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside. I enjoyed many stays over the years at the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel. Renting a condo and splitting the costs is also possible.

Phenomenal views mountain biking at Whistler
Phenomenal views mountain biking in Whistler Photo credit: Mike Crane

Hiking in Whistler

There are loads of hiking options in Whistler – and lots of bears so never forget the bear spray.

To get the views quickly you can take the gondola up out of Whistler village. Or do the Elfin Lakes hike in nearby Garibaldi Park. The Black Tusk hike, the Panorama Ridge hike and the hike to Garibaldi Lake are all excellent options.

Great hiking in the high alpine above Whistler
Great hiking in the high alpine above Whistler

Swimming in Whistler’s lakes is possible in the summer.

Canoeing or kayaking on the River of Golden Dreams is an easy but fun half day outing.

You can walk the Cloudraker Skybridge – a 130 m span between Whistler Peak and the West Ridge, crossing above Whistler Bowl. To reach it take the gondola and then a chairlift. 

The Cloudraker Skybridge from the chairlift
The Cloudraker Skybridge from the chairlift
An airy walk on the Skybridge in Whistler
An airy walk on the Skybridge in Whistler

Cons of Whistler 

Whistler is frequently rainy and dreary – especially in the spring and fall. 

If you haven’t bought an Edge card or a discounted ski ticket you may suffer sticker shock from the one day ticket price. Buying at the window will set you back $189. Order your Whistler – Blackcomb tickets in advance!!

Prices can be steep in town – and you pay 12% tax on almost everything in British Columbia.

You can’t camp in Whistler. Expect to be at least 30 minutes away.

Although the hiking is good, you have to climb thousands of feet to get the views, unless you start with a gondola ride.

Wildlife sightings are a fraction of what you will see in the Banff area. You do have to be bear aware as you can run into bears – even on the city trails.

Black bear on the walking paths near Whistler
Black bear on the walking paths near Whistler


Pros of Banff over Whistler

Banff is the gateway to Banff National Park – the most visited National Park in Canada – and for good reason. Scenery is world class and accessible. Dogs are permitted on most trails too – on a leash.

If you want to see wildlife then the Banff corridor offers lots of opportunities. Elk are everywhere. And it’s a rare day that I don’t see big-horned sheep on the way up to Lake Minnewanka. Bears and wolves are around. One day while hiking to the Aylmer Lookout we saw Mama bear and three cubs.

Wildlife in Banff
Get your car cleaned on the way to Lake Minnewanka

The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival takes place yearly beginning in late October. Go listen to some of the biggest names in the outdoor field read from their books – or watch a wide range of mountain themed films – on culture, adventure, the environment, skiing, kayaking…you name it.

The Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival takes place every May over the course of a weekend.

There is a wide range of accommodation options outside of camping including the famed Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, along with numerous motels, small hotels, B&B’s and hostels.

Some I’d recommend include Canalta Lodge especially for families or groups as some rooms have bunkbeds. On the main street the Moose Hotel & Suites is a great choice. The Banff International Hostel is ideal for those looking for an affordable option.

Tax in Alberta is only 5%.

The Banff Hot Springs are amazing – especially on a cold winter day. Don’t miss out on a visit.

The drive from Calgary gets better and better the closer you get to Banff. And even the prairie is interesting with its big sky views. It’s only a 75-minute drive between Calgary and Banff.

Morning drive on the way to Banff from Calgary
Morning drive on the way to Banff from Calgary

There are extensive options for cross-country skiing around Banff. They range from easy to difficult but almost all take you through glorious country.

The home stretch back to the car
The home stretch back to the car on the Cascade Fire Road

Hiking options in the summer abound. The Banff-Lake Louise corridor could provide you with enough day hikes and backpacking trips to keep you busy all summer. In the fall the larches put on a world-class foliage display.

One of the best hikes not far from Banff takes you to Taylor and O’Brien Lakes pictured below.

O'Brien Lake larches in Banff National Park
O’Brien Lake larches in Banff National Park

Cons of Banff

It can be nuts in Banff on a beautiful sunny day. Over three million people visit Banff National Park on a yearly basis – and the bulk of the visitors are in July and August. Waits to get into the park can easily be a half hour if you don’t have a permit. Go early and beat the rush is my advice.

 Here are six summer alternatives to Banff National Park to avoid the summer crowds – which are mainly a problem at the Banff townsite.

The main street in Banff feels very touristy.

Banff is glorious when it’s sunny, but it has its fair share of grey, overcast, snowy and wet days.

Downhill skiing (at Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise) is nearby but it’s not as good as Whistler. Sorry but it’s true. However, the cross-country skiing is better in my opinion.

Banff – because it’s in a national park – cannot develop some of the activities that are offered at Whistler – things like ziplining and bobsledding – which may be a con for some and a pro for others. But they do have a Via Ferrata at Mount Norquay.

The Via Ferrata at Mt Norquay
The Via Ferrata at Mt Norquay offers thrills with a view

There are lots of places to eat – and many are excellent – but I think Whistler offers diners more choice – but that’s very subjective and varies from year to year.

I’m sure I’ve missed some points on both the pro and the con side. Please feel free to leave a comment on your thoughts of which is better – Whistler or Banff.

Further reading on things to do in BC and Alberta

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What's the better place to visit - Whistler or Banff?

  1. Hi there,

    I’m from Montreal and have never ventured to the West of Canada. I am celebrating my 50th this year and thinking of ticking one of these places off my bucket list. My husband does not ski, so we are looking for a relaxing trip with a lot of walking, good restaurants and overall great ambiance. We only have about 3-4 days, so it really is to enjoy the surrounding area of one of these places. And please let me know what to expect in regards to temperature. Thanks!

    1. @Nancy I personally think the ambiance is better at Whistler and it has loads of amazing restaurants. But when it comes to hiking in the mountains I would choose the Banff area over Whistler as it’s not nearly as far to treeline. Bottom line – both will deliver an amazing experience but stay off the main street in summer in downtown Banff as its very touristy. Check out the Banff Centre for the Arts – as a place to stay and for its restaurant which is supposed to be very good.

  2. a Gal friend and myself are going to Banff from Bonnes Ferry, Wa. this Sat., then on to Whistler Sunday . We only have one day to spend each place…Other than the scenery do you have any ideas of something NOT to miss?

  3. Hello, I’m planning a trip with my family this march or april, we went to Whistler last year and it was amazing. My 2 kids are begginers at snowboarding and the rest of us also skiing rookies. Which between Banff and Whistler would you say is more accesible for skiing begginers? Thanks

  4. Do you have a favorite place/ advice (maybe) not as well known between Whistler and Banff to stay… even camp? We are Mtn. Biking in Whistler for several days and then travelling to Banff to the hostel on Lake Louise. Travelling from down south. We have a newborn and 3 older kids so want to stop somewhere in between. Herald Provincial is booked at this point and Shuswap Lake seems far out of the way… I need some local advice!! Thanks!

  5. We’re planning to go in Sept and prefer to rent a house for 4. We’d like access to farmers markets and great dining, hiking, biking and other fun activities close by. Do you recommend one over the other based on this? And suggestions on best location to rent a house so not isolated? Thank you!

    1. @Gail Sorry I’m slow to reply – traveling with lots on my plate. Canmore is the gateway to Banff and just gorgeous in the fall. I would think it would be an easy place to rent a house for for. Try VRBO. I don’t know about farmer’s markets there but I do know that Whistler has farmer’s markets as does nearby Pemberton. I think I would aim for mid – late September too catch the larches in colour in the Rockies. They are truly spectacular whereas Whistler doesn’t have that huge colour change. Both can be great and horrible for the weather so that’s a toss-up. Go with you gut feeling.

  6. Banff apparently has more storefronts than Whistler. That surprised me. I think Banff is likely a bit cheaper than Whistler, but you can find bargains anywhere.

  7. After reading it all, as you have rightly said, both places have its pros and cons! As for me personally, I would love to visit any of them 🙂

    1. @Arti If you’ve never been to Canada I do think you have to visit both places. One the entrance to the most famous National Park in Canada and one the site of the 2010 winter Olympics. You can’t go wrong with either.

  8. I’ve been skiing in Whistler and loved it but I’m yet to visit Banff. I really must put it higher on the wish list and plan a spring or autumn visit there. I’ll take your advice to stay away in July and August. Winter sounds far too cold for this gal!

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