A first-timer’s guide to Alberta


Alberta is home to some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the planet: rugged snow-capped mountains, massive glaciers, thick forests, impossibly blue lakes, vast prairies and other-worldly badlands filled with dinosaur bones. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, but that’s only one side of this remarkable destination.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples have lived on and cared for these lands for thousands of years and are still present here – Alberta is home to remarkable Indigenous places and experiences. Its two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, are extremely multicultural, each with its own unique cosmopolitan flare. Meanwhile, cowboy culture lives on in small towns, farms and ranches that dot the prairie regions.

There’s much to love about Alberta. It’s a destination so packed with possibilities that it can be difficult to decide where to start. Here’s how to make the most of a visit to this extraordinary Canadian province.

How many days do you need in Alberta?

Ideally, you’ll spend at least two or three days exploring Calgary or Edmonton. It won’t give you enough time to see everything, but it’s enough to hit the highlights. Tack on extra time if you’re visiting the Calgary Stampede, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival or any other iconic festival in the area.

If you don’t mind moving fast, you could explore the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper in about a week. That would give you two or three days in the Banff and Lake Louise area, one day to drive the Icefields Parkway and two or three days to explore Jasper. Add at least two more days to explore the Canadian Badlands region of the province, where you’ll discover a mind-blowing, arid landscape filled with dinosaur fossils, hoodoos and other land formations.

Why not extend your trip and fully explore excellent Edmonton? Our first-timer’s guide has everything you need to know.

Jumping into the cool refreshing turquoise water of Lake Moraine
Dive into the incredible beauty that is Lake Moraine © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

What is the #1 tourist attraction in Alberta?

Established in 1885, Banff National Park was Canada’s first national park (and the world’s third) and is one of Canada’s top travel destinations. More than four million people visit this incredible park every year. Banff has something for hardcore adventurers, the bus tour seniors crowd and everyone in between. The discovery of Banff Hot Springs and a subsequent dispute over their ownership prompted the park’s creation, and you can still soak in their healing waters.

The park is filled with breathtaking mountain scenery, including two of the most beautiful lakes on the planet: Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. As you drive, ski or hike through it, you’ll see rugged mountains, glaciers, lakes, valleys and abundant wildlife, including deer, elk, moose and bears. It’s the busiest and most developed park in the Canadian Rockies, with wonderful hotels and restaurants, three world-class ski resorts, a challenging golf course and a bustling town with loads of amenities for tourists.

When should I visit Alberta?

The short answer is anytime – Alberta is a four-season destination. The weather is warmest in the summer months with average temperatures of 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F) from June through September. Summer is the busiest travel season when hotel prices are at their peak.

Winters are cold with average daytime highs of -5°C to -15°C (23°F to 5°F), but temperatures can dip as low -30°C (-22°F) for shorter periods of time. If you’re a fan of winter sports and hiking, this is a great time to visit, though accommodation prices go up during the Christmas season.

You’ll find lower prices in the Rockies and elsewhere in the province during the shoulder seasons in fall (October through November) and spring (May to June). Crowds are smaller in the shoulder seasons but some facilities and trails are closed.

Where should I stay in Alberta?

There are many options when it comes to accommodations in Alberta. Many hostels have private rooms with private bathrooms for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. Parks Canada and Alberta Parks both offer comfort camping sites that range from fully equipped tents with beds in them to fully equipped cabins. B&Bs are a comfortable mid-range option that allow you to meet locals and usually include breakfast. Hotel accommodations range from budget family-owned motels to high-end luxury properties like the Fairmont Banff Springs, also known as “the castle in the Rockies.”

Backcountry lodges are one of the more unique accommodations in the Rockies. You typically need to hike, ski, ride on horseback or take a helicopter in to reach the property, but these comfortable lodges offer delicious, home-cooked meals and an escape from the crowds. A ranch or farm stay is another unique option that offers a glimpse into cowboy culture.

In Edmonton, the Fantasyland Hotel at West Edmonton Mall has a variety of themed suites, from an igloo room to a Western room to a Polynesian room. At Métis Crossing, guests can stay in a comfortable lodge, a fully equipped trapper’s tent or in a circular Sky Watching Dome that lets you observe the night sky while you lie in bed.

The local farmers market in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is busy with locals and tourists looking to buy fresh local food and designed clothes.
The streets of Edmonton are a pleasure to explore on foot © Getty Images

Is it easy to get around in Alberta?

Alberta is a big province, and you’ll need a car to visit more remote places, small towns and provincial and national parks. Public transit is excellent in Edmonton, Calgary and Banff, and taxis and Uber are available there and in other larger cities. All three destinations are also very walkable. Several companies offer shuttle services between Calgary and Banff. Between Edmonton and Jasper, Via Rail offers train services, and Sundog Tours offers a shuttle bus service.

Top things to do in Alberta

Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There are six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Alberta, and each one is a unique experience:

  • Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks include Banff and Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia. These parks protect a striking mountain landscape.
  • Dinosaur Provincial Park was recognized for its remarkable landscape and the huge number of high-quality Cretaceous fossils found here. This includes about 35 species of dinosaurs, dating back 75 million years.
  • Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, most extensive and best-preserved buffalo jumps in the world, and it was used by the Indigenous Plains People for nearly 6000 years.
  • Waterton Glacier International Peace Park includes Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana, which together formed the world’s first international peace park. These parks are situated at the Crown of the Continent and protect stunning scenery and many plants and animals.
  • Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest park containing some of the largest undisturbed grass and sedge meadows left in North America. It’s also home to North America’s largest herd of wild bison and the only breeding habitat in the world for the endangered whooping crane.
  • Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai’pi is a sacred landscape that provides exceptional testimony to the living cultural traditions of the Blackfoot People. This site contains the largest concentration of Indigenous rock art on the North American plains.

Hike, cycle or ski along a trail in Kananaskis Provincial Park

You drive right through Kananaskis when you are traveling from Calgary to Banff, and it’s worth a stop. This stunning park has beautiful mountain scenery and lovely hiking trails – two of my favorites are the Ptarmigan Cirque and the Grassi Lakes Trail. Rent mountain bikes in summer or cross-country skis in winter at Kananaskis Outfitters, or you can book trail rides and dogsledding at Boundary Ranch.

Nakiska offers exceptional downhill skiing and was the host of the alpine ski events at the 1988 Winter Olympics. If you want to experience the thrill of a whitewater rafting trip in Banff, it will probably happen in Kananaskis. Rest and treat your tired muscles after all your outdoor adventures at the Kananaskis Nordic Spa in Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, Alberta’s only Nordic Spa.

An overview of Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Canada
Get the best possible views of Lake Louise from its summer gondola service © Ron Caimano / 500px

Explore Banff National Park

Canada’s first national park is a vast area with incredible scenery and activities in every season. In winter, you can skate on a frozen lake, go on a guided ice walk of Johnston Canyon, enjoy fat biking or spend your day skiing at one of the three world-class ski resorts.

In summer, you can take a boat cruise on Lake Minnewanka, stretch your legs on a hike, watch for grizzly bears while you ride the Lake Louise Summer Gondola, test your head for heights and climb a via ferrata, paddle a canoe on Lake Louise and many more activities. Banff Upper Hot Springs, top-notch spas and the fantastic food and drink scene can be enjoyed year-round.

Drive the Icefields Parkway

The 230km (143-mile) Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper is one of the prettiest drives in the world. You’ll pass more than 100 glaciers and other incredible sites along the way, including the Columbia Icefield area and the Athabasca Glacier, Tangle Falls, Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls.

There are some incredible day hikes along the parkway, including Mistaya Canyon, Peyto Lake Viewpoint, Parker Ridge and Wilcox Pass. Some visitors stop at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre near the Athabasca Glacier to enjoy a Columbia Icefields Adventure Tour that takes guests in a special vehicle onto the surface of the ancient glacier. Experience the Icefields Parkway without the crowds by booking an overnight stay at the Glacier View Lodge.

Have an Indigenous tourism experience

Alberta is filled with amazing Indigenous tourism sites and experiences right across the province, including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you’re attending the Calgary Stampede, make sure to visit Elbow River Camp and attend the Calgary Stampede Powwow. Southeast of Calgary, Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park has exhibits and tours that offer an authentic Blackfoot cultural experience.

In Edmonton, you shouldn’t miss the Indigenous People’s Experience at Fort Edmonton Park, a multi-media exhibition that tells the stories and shares the cultures of the Indigenous Peoples of this region of Canada. Visit Métis Crossing, northeast of Edmonton, to learn about Métis culture and enjoy fun activities like paddling a voyageur canoe and taking a wildlife tour to see sacred white bison.

Have an epic adventure in Jasper National Park

Jasper National Park is filled with epic adventures, and the Maligne Canyon hike is one of them. In summer, you can feel the mist on your face from roaring waterfalls, and in the winter, it becomes a wonderland of fascinating ice formations that can be experienced on an ice walk tour.

Other park adventures include taking a cruise on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island, riding the Jasper Sky Tram to the top of Whistlers Mountain, paddling a canoe or skating on Pyramid Lake and viewing the stars in one of the world’s largest and most accessible dark sky preserves. The annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival is one of the highlights of visiting Jasper in October.

The Hoodoos (sandstone pillars) during summer near Drumheller, Alberta, Canada
The ancient landscape of the Canadian Badlands contains surprises around every corner © David Butler / Getty Images

Hunt for fossils in the Canadian Badlands

The Canadian Badlands in southeast Alberta feature arid landscapes like nowhere else on earth and some of the world’s largest deposits of dinosaur fossils. Join in on a bus tour, a hike or a fossil excavation with real paleontologists in Dinosaur Provincial Park or visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, one of the top dinosaur museums in the world.

When you’ve had your fill of dinosaurs, take a trip through Horseshoe Canyon and experience the unique landscape of the badlands up close, then explore ghost towns like Wayne and coal mining history at Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site.

Explore Calgary on bike and on foot

Rent an e-bike from Bow Cycle and explore the most extensive urban network of pathways and bikeways in North America. Along the way, check out the spectacular architecture of the Peace Bridge and the Calgary Central Library, beloved city landmarks. After your bike ride, head to Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre. Five floors of interactive exhibits tell the story of music in Canada, and you can sing your heart out in vocal booths and play a variety of musical instruments.

Calgary is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada, and residents come from 240 different ethnic origins, which you’ll see reflected in the city’s restaurants and festivals. The biggest celebration of all is the Calgary Stampede, which happens annually in July and has been a staple in the city for more than a century.

Explore the North Saskatchewan River Valley in Edmonton

Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River Valley is the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America. There are many attractions and more than 99 miles (160 km) of trails to explore by running, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or taking a guided Segway tour. River Valley Adventure Co is the place to go for Segway tours, mountain bike rentals, stand-up paddle boarding and other sports equipment rentals.

Rent a canoe or kayak with Edmonton Canoe and paddle your way through the river valley. Outdoor adventures are all around, and adventure travelers are spoilt for choice, with options including Snow Valley Ski Hill, Snow Valley Aerial Park, Fort Edmonton Park, the Valley Zoo, Muttart Conservatory and the John Janzen Nature Centre.

Scenic Red Rock Canyon, Waterton National Park Alberta Canada
Hiking through Waterton Lakes National Park brings you up close to incredible flora and fauna © BGSmith / Shutterstock

My favorite thing to do in Alberta

My Alberta highlight is Waterton Lakes National Park. I grew up nearby, and when I was in high school, I spent a summer working at the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. A piece of my heart will remain in that small mountain park in the southwest corner of Alberta.

When I visit, I almost always stop for a photo op on the bluff behind the Prince of Wales Hotel. While walking or cycling through the townsite, I make stops at Cameron Falls and the Parks Canada red chairs that sit near the edge of the lake. Waterton was the world’s first international peace park, and Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co offers boat tours that cross the lake into the United States and Glacier National Park.

I always watch out for wildlife on the drives to Cameron Lake and Red Rock Canyon, and I’m never disappointed. Three of my favorite hikes are Bear’s Hump, Blakiston Falls and Crypt Lake, and that last one is an incredible experience that involves a boat ride, hiking up a mountain, climbing a ladder, crawling through a tunnel and hanging onto a steel cable on the side of a mountain. The reward: a gorgeous blue lake that is worth the effort of getting there.

How much money do I need for Alberta?

Accommodation prices vary depending on the location and the season, but they will always be higher in major cities and the most popular tourist destinations. Book early and avoid peak-season travel for the best deals. You need to purchase a pass to explore Kananaskis Provincial Park or Banff and Jasper National Parks, but once inside, there are plenty of hikes, scenic drives and other free activities to enjoy. Restaurants vary in price depending on the establishment.

Here are some average costs:

  • Hotel: $100-375 CAD per room per night
  • Private double room in a hostel: $65 CAD per night
  • Coffee (Tim Hortons or similar): $2 CAD
  • Entrée at a midrange restaurant: $25-40 CAD
  • Glass of wine: $8-10 CAD
  • Museum admission: $14-21 CAD
  • Public transit single ticket: $3-5 CAD
  • Admission to Banff or Jasper National Parks: $11 per person per day
  • Admission to Kananaskis Provincial Park: $15 per vehicle per day

Where are the major airports in Alberta?

The two largest airports in Alberta are in Calgary and Edmonton. Calgary International Airport (YYC) is the closest airport to Banff National Park – it’s about a 90-minute drive from YYC to Banff Town – and Edmonton International Airport (YEG) is the closest airport to Jasper National Park. It’s about a four-hour drive from YEG to the Jasper Town.

If you’re visiting both Banff and Jasper, you can shorten the drive time and avoid backtracking by flying into one airport and out of the other. Some car rental companies may charge a one-way drop fee to rent a car in one city and drop it off in another. Drumheller, one of the key destinations in the Canadian Badlands, is about a 90-minute drive from Calgary.

The glass-ceilinged roof of the Rocky Mountaineer train carriage
Treat yourself to a luxury travel experience aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train © Getty Images

Is there a train service in the Alberta Rockies?

Via Rail offers a train service between Edmonton and Vancouver that stops in Jasper. Edmonton to Jasper takes about six-and-a-half hours on a night train and starts at $135 CAD, and Jasper to Vancouver will take nearly 24 hours and starts at $208 CAD, but the views of the Canadian Rockies during the daylight hours are amazing. Sleeper cars are available starting at $715 CAD.

Rocky Mountaineer also offers luxury train journeys from Vancouver to Banff that take a full day and start at $2049 CAD with sleeper car service and meals included. The company also offers multi-day journeys that include Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Calgary and combines rail and motorcoach services.

Bring lots of layers, no matter the season

As the old saying goes, if you don’t like the weather in Alberta, just wait five minutes. Conditions can change rapidly in the area, especially in the mountains. It’s a good idea to pack lots of layers, no matter what season you’re traveling in.

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