Last updated on December 15, 2023 by Wandering our World
Banff and Whistler are known around the globe as two of North America’s leading winter resorts. Offering world-class skiing and snowboarding, as well as many other activities, they’re easily two of the top destinations if you’re seeking to escape to a magical winter wonderland. But, if you’ve only got time to see one, which should it be?
Should you head to Whistler, which has consistently ranked among the best North American ski towns for decades, drawing in millions of visitors per year? It might be the right choice, especially if you’re looking to do more than just ski or snowboard – Whistler is known for its diverse activities, from ziplining to bobsledding, and also has a super nightlife scene.
Or would you be better off in Banff, the gateway to Canada’s most visited national park? This place takes the definition of “scenic” to a whole new level, with unmatched natural beauty all around. It’s also a fantastic place to see wildlife, from bears and wolves to big-horned sheep, and the hiking in and around Banff is on another level.
As you can see, there’s lots to love about both of these brilliant destinations. And that’s why it can truly be so hard to pick just one of them to visit. Well, this guide is here to lend a helping hand. Below, we’ll dig into all the big differences between Banff and Whistler, helping you decide on the perfect resort for your next getaway.
- A Quick Overview Of Banff vs Whistler
- Which Is Best For Skiing And Winter Activities?
- Which Is Best For Summer Activities?
- Which Is Best For Nature And Wildlife?
- Which Is Best For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Banff vs Whistler: Which Is Better?
Wandering Our World’s Ten-Second Comparison:
A Quick Overview Of Banff vs Whistler
Banff: A Quick Overview
Banff is the name of a Canadian town and the national park in which the town is situated, out among the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. The town itself is a pretty small place, extending across just 1.58 square miles of land and being home to just over 8,000 people. But it also happens to be one of the most popular resort spots in all of Canada, with millions of annual visitors.
The town was settled back in the 1880s, named by president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, George Stephen, in honor of his birthplace in Banff, Scotland. The national park was established around the same time, in 1885, and it was the Canadian Pacific that helped to promote the area, building several grand hotels in the hope of creating an exciting resort with international appeal.
They succeeded. In the decades after its establishment, Banff established itself as one of the most-visited parks in all of North America, and the town of Banff also developed into a touristic hotspot, with lots of new bars, boutiques, and places to stay opening up to entertain the huge annual influx of travelers from across the globe.
Surrounded by mountains and within a short drive of three nearby ski resorts – Sunshine Village, Ski Norquay, and Lake Louise – Banff is a dream destination for winter sports enthusiasts. It’s the ideal place to go if you want to ski the day away, with jaw-dropping views all around you.
Whistler: A Quick Overview
Whistler is a resort municipality in British Columbia. Specifically, it’s located within the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, surrounded by the Pacific Ranges of the towering Cascade Mountains. Close to 14,000 people live here year-round, and more than two million visit Whistler each year from across Canada, the U.S. and beyond.
Indigenous Squamish people inhabited the area that would eventually become known as Whistler for many years. But things changed when British explorers from the Royal Navy came to the area in the 1860s. They originally called the area “London Mountain,” but it later gained the name “Whistler” due to the unique sound made by hoary marmots living in the area.
However, unlike Banff, it took a while for Whistler to develop into a touristic location. The completion of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in the 1910s greatly helped, along with the construction of the Rainbow Lodge – a weekend retreat space on Alta Lake, drawing in fishing enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers.
These days, Whistler is known as a former Winter Olympics host venue and one of the best outdoor recreation resorts in the world. It’s a sublime spot for skiing and snowboarding, but also offers many other activities, both in winter and in summer. From the adrenaline rush of a zipline to a cozy day shopping or a relaxing break at a fancy spa, this place has got it all.
Which Is Best For Skiing And Winter Activities?
It’s perfectly possible to visit Whistler and Banff at any time of year, but these two locations are undoubtedly best-known for their winter-related activities. Whistler famously hosted the Winter Olympics, after all, and Banff is surrounded by stellar snowy slopes. But which one is best for skiing, snowboarding, and those kinds of activities?
Banff: Winter Activities
If you’re a passionate skier or a seasoned snowboarder, you simply have to visit Banff at least once in your life. It’s easily one of the best places in the world for winter sports, being located near to no less than three terrific ski resorts. With so many slopes to hit, the options in Banff are unrivaled – it’s no wonder this place draws in such big crowds each year!
Unfortunately, one of Banff’s biggest strengths is also one of its downsides – all three of the surrounding ski resorts are worth visiting, but each one has its own separate ski lift, located around 15-30 minutes from the town itself. It’s not exactly easy to hop between them, like it is in Whistler’s Whistler Blackcomb resort.
However, if you don’t mind the minor inconvenience of having to travel to each resort separately, you’ll have a fantastic time skiing the slopes around Banff. Mt. Norquay tends to open up earliest, with approximately 60 runs. Lake Louise is bigger and more diverse, with over 135 runs to suit different abilities. Then, there’s Sunshine Village, which is good for spring skiing.
Whistler: Winter Activities
If you’re heading to Whistler for winter fun, you’ll be doing most, if not all of your snowboarding and skiing on the two main mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb, both of which make up the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. And what a resort it is, ranking as the biggest in North America by most metrics and also one of the busiest, with some of the best downshill skiing in the world.
Prefer other winter activities? Well, one of the best things about Whistler is that it’s got so much more to offer than simply snowboard runs and ski slopes. From tubing to snowshoeing, bobsledding, and more, the options go on and on, ensuring that Whistler can appeal to all sorts of travelers – this is a big plus point for Whistler when compared to Banff.
Whistler also gets much more snow compared to Banff, with many more powder days helping to shake up the slopes and provide fresh, varied experiences, day after day. At the same time, one of the downsides to Whistler is that it can get a little rainy near the base of the slopes, and there aren’t quite as many cross-country skiing opportunities as you can find in Banff.
Overall then, the best option depends on what kinds of winter experiences you’re looking for. For hardcore, Olympic level skiing, lots of fresh powder days, and more diverse activities, pick Whistler. For a more varied array of slopes and runs to suit all abilities, as well as terrific cross-country routes, opt for Banff.
Which Is Best For Summer Activities?
Even though most people think of snow and skis when they heard the words “Whistler” or “Banff,” you don’t necessarily need to hit the slopes to have a good time in either one of these locations. In fact, you can visit right in the peak of summer and still find plenty to do, but which town has the better summer activities?
Banff: Summer Activities
Despite being famed for its skiing and snowboarding opportunities, Banff actually draws in its biggest crowds during the warm summer months. That’s when countless people flock to the national park in order to enjoy some fun in the sun, and there’s lots to do here outside of the snowy season.
Arguably the best Banff summer activity is hiking. The national park is replete with trails, from beginner-friendly loops to hardcore multi-day treks, and the scenery is simply sublime. Whether you’re walking the shores of O’Brien Lake or clambering your way to Cory Pass, the views on offer are some of the best in Canada, if not the world.
There are also plenty more ways to pass the time in Banff during the warmer periods of the year. You could take a ride on the iconic Banff Gondola, for example, or hit the water with a Lake Minnewanka cruise. The town itself has a couple of fun attractions, like the Buffalo Nations Museum and romantic Cascade of Time gardens.
Whistler: Summer Activities
Just like Banff, Whistler also attracts some big crowds during the summer season. And, even if you have no interest in winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, and tobogganing, you can still have a terrific time in this stunningly beautiful resort, thanks to its remarkably diverse range of attractions and activities.
From swimming in the local lakes to kayaking along the famed River of Golden Dreams, there’s plenty for fans of outdoor recreation to enjoy. And, while Whistler can’t quite boast of the same number of hiking paths as Banff, it’s still a super place to hike, especially along trails like the Panorama Ridge or Black Tusk.
But that’s not all. Ziplining and mountain biking are also possible in Whistler for thrill-seekers, while those who prefer a more relaxing experience can try some retail therapy in the town’s stores or soak their troubles away in one of many spas. The wonderful Skybridge is another Whistler must-see, and the town also has breweries and its own movie theater to enjoy.
Overall, when it comes to the sheer range of activities, Whistler is quite a distance ahead of Banff. Banff’s still terrific for hiking and nature, but Whistler’s the place to be if you want to enjoy something different every day and night.
Which Is Best For Nature And Wildlife?
Another wonderful thing about Banff and Whistler is the incredible wildlife you might be lucky enough to see while visiting either of these locations. All sorts of animals live on these lands, from mighty bears and wolves to majestic elk and more. But which location gives you the best chance of spotting some of these amazing creatures?
Well, given that both of these resorts can get pretty busy, you aren’t guaranteed to have lots of wildlife experiences in either one, as the noise and crowds can scary away many animals. However, you’ll definitely have a better chance of spotting elk, sheep, bears, and more over in Banff, as it’s surrounded by hundreds of square miles of pristine natural park territory.
Cougars, lynx, elk, deer, otters, coyotes, wolves, frogs, snakes, salamanders, and lots of beautiful birds can be seen while hiking and adventuring around Banff, making it a dream location for those with a passion for nature. You can also spot bears, pikas, grouse, and beavers in Whistler, but they’re notably harder to find, with much smaller populations.
Which Is Best For Nightlife?
Nightlife might not be the first thing on your mind when planning a trip to a resort like Whistler or national park like Banff. Plus, if you’re planning to spend most of your time skiing, hiking, and exploring, you may not even have the energy for any nighttime activities, simply preferring to head back to your hotel and rest up.
However, if you are looking for a little excitement and entertainment in the evenings, Whistler is the better place to be, with a dynamic, electric scene and an impressive array of nightclubs, bars, and lounges to relax in at the end of a long and tiring day. Whether you want to sing karaoke, dance the night away, enjoy a live DJ performance, or sip cocktails, it’s all possible.
Banff isn’t a bad place to party, either. For such a small town, this place has quite a lot of decent bars, breweries, pubs, and even a couple of dance clubs, too. Several Banff restaurants also stay open late if you’re looking for a tasty snack before bed or a romantic meal with your partner. However, the scene isn’t quite as animated as in Whistler.
Which Is Best For Food?
Of course, after a long session of skiing, hiking, or adventuring in the wilderness, you’ll most likely want to sit down for a delicious and filling meal to replenish your energy stocks before the next day begins. So, which of these two mountain towns has the best set of restaurants and the yummiest food?
Well, when it comes to food, Whistler steals the show. This place has over 150 eateries to pick from, and the options are almost never-ending. Whether you want fast food, pizza, Mexican, burgers, sushi, Mediterranean dishes, or something entirely different, you can find it here. Foodies also won’t want to miss Whistler’s annual food and drink festival: Whistler Cornucopia.
While Whistler has such a diverse and surprising culinary scene, with everything from cheap comfort food to Michelin star gourmet meals, Banff’s restaurants are a little simpler. There’s still some excellent farm-to-table cooking to be found here, but you won’t find quite as much diversity. So, if you’re a big food fan, consider Whistler over Banff.
Which Is Best For Families?
If you’re looking for a fabulous family adventure, Banff and Whistler are two of the best destinations to consider. They’re both idyllic environments for families who love to be outdoors, enjoying the open air and engaging in fun activities like skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and so on. But which one is best for the average family?
Well, Whistler has the benefit of a broader range of activities to keep the whole family entertained. Whether your kids are into skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking, ziplining, shopping, or something else entirely, you should be able to give them a magical and memorable vacation in the Whistler area.
However, Banff is also a fabulous family vacation destination, particularly for families who like being active and getting out into nature. If your kids are keen on wildlife, for example, they’ll have a decent chance of spotting some in Banff National Park, and it’s also the better destination for family hikes, as well as being a little more affordable and laid-back.
Overall, there’s no clear winner here. Whistler is best for variety, but Banff is best for nature. It all depends on what kind of experience your family prefers.
Which Is Best For Couples?
Couples, too, can have a spectacular getaway in either Banff or Whistler, and both of these destinations have their own unique features and advantages to offer. Whistler, for example, has the more luxurious food and accommodation options, as well as soothing spas, active nightlife, and romantic hotspots like the Skybridge.
Banff, meanwhile, can appeal to couples who enjoy getting out into nature and feeling thousands of miles from civilization. The town itself may not have as much to offer as Whistler, but the skiing and hiking opportunities here are fantastic, just right if you and your partner love to while away the hours on the slopes or trails.
Overall, once again, it all depends on tastes and preferences. More active, nature-loving couples will probably have a better time in Banff National Park, while those who prefer indulgence, relaxation, and diverse activities should head to Whistler instead.
Which Is Cheapest?
Of course, it’s also important to consider the cost of your trip when weighing up a choice between Banff and Whistler. And we couldn’t possibly end this comparison without looking at the average costs of visiting each of these spectacular ski resorts. So, which one works out cheapest?
Well, both of them are pretty pricey, but Banff is a little cheaper overall. You should be able to find a place to stay, food to eat, and fun activities to fill your days in Banff for slightly less than you’d have to spend in Whistler. So, if you’re on a tight budget and want to maximize the value of your visit, head to Banff.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: The Royal Canadian Lodge in Banff, Canada, epitomizes refined elegance. Embraced by the Rockies, the lodge enchants with its stately architecture and grand interiors. A symphony of luxurious design, ambient lighting, and mountain views create an opulent retreat, blending natural beauty seamlessly with timeless sophistication.
Luxury: In the heart of Banff, Moose Hotel and Suites exudes rustic elegance. Towering pines frame the lodge’s exterior, blending seamlessly with the rugged mountain backdrop. Inside, a warm ambiance prevails, combining modern luxury with nature-inspired design, creating a haven of beauty and tranquility.
Budget: In the heart of Whistler, the Adara Hotel exudes contemporary charm. A harmonious blend of sleek design and mountain warmth, the hotel captivates with its inviting ambiance. Expansive windows frame breathtaking views, while modern aesthetics and alpine-inspired details create a truly beautiful retreat in Whistler, Canada.
Luxury: Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside, a pinnacle of alpine luxury. Perched in the heart of Whistler, this resort harmonizes elegance with breathtaking mountain vistas. Towering pines frame a haven of sophistication, where expansive windows unveil nature’s grandeur. A beautiful escape, seamlessly blending opulence with the rugged allure of Whistler, Canada.
Banff vs Whistler: Which Is Better?
So, which location comes out on top in this clash of the world-class winter resorts? Well, before we announce the grand winner, it’s important to note that both of these locations are truly special, and if you love snowy mountain scenes and fun winter excitement, you’re sure to have a super time, no matter which one you pick.
With that said, we have to select a winner. And, in this comparison, it has to be Whistler that just about takes the win. Both of these mountain towns are terrific to visit, but Whistler just has more going on. It feels livelier and more engaging, with a wider range of activities and lots of options to cater to all kinds of guests, ensuring that everyone – not just the skiers – has a great time.
Still, Banff has plenty of plus points which might make it a slightly better choice for you. It’s a little cheaper than Whistler, for example, and the range of ski and snowboard slopes is second to none, with dozens upon dozens of options to suit all skill levels. Hiking is similarly world-class is Banff, and it’s an unbeatable destination for lovers of nature and outdoor recreation.