Where To Go In Banff & Lake Louise

Spend the ultimate long weekend in (free) national parks

If you spend time in the wanderlust-porn corner of Instagram, you'll likely notice a common theme of late: photos of water so blue you think, Oh, right, Eiffel 65 wrote a song about this place. Every single photo looks Photoshopped, but the magic is real.

This magic is also called Banff, one of Canada's many national parks. This year, Canada is celebrating the 150-year anniversary of its national parks by offering free park admission nationwide. And now that the flocks of summer tourists are gone, you have more room to yourself to take in some of the most beautiful places in the world—which also happen to be a winter sport lover's paradise.

Start the day at Cajun-leaning Tooloulou's or nearby Melissa's Missteak. We're not one to pass up a good pun, and its pancakes, which span the diameter of a massive plate, rival anything else you've had.

Once you've had your breakfast fill, trek up Sulphur Mountain for 360-degree views of the valley below. Or, if it's too cold, bypass the three-mile uphill climb and take the gondola instead. Head down and dip in the hot sulphur springs, a natural wonder that was discovered in the 1880s. You can rent a hilariously awesome "historical" swimsuit, and we suggest that you do.

All that restorative soaking will surely get you hungry, so stop back in town for snacks at Wild Flour Bakery. Its inches-thick daily focaccia is not to be missed; same goes for the freshly baked cookies. And while conveyor belt sushi is certainly not a novelty Canada's known for, Banff Sushi House is one of the most fun (and affordable) options you'll find in the main town. There are only around 11 seats, but people move quickly—as quickly as the Canadian Pacific model train, loaded with just-made sushi, spins around the table.

The real reason everyone goes to Banff, though, is for Lake Louise, one of the region's many glacial lakes. It's as if the clear blue water is a mirror to a Smurf's soul. In the summer, take the Big Beehive trail, where you'll encounter a teahouse with chai tea lattes and fresh scones that are more than worth the physical effort. During the colder months, opt for ice-skating instead—especially during this picturesque ice festival.

Lodging options run the spectrum from the palatial, luxurious Fairmont to Storm Mountain Lodge, a handful of cozy cabins with a restaurant that draws visitors from all over. Pro tip: Order the charcuterie board, laden with smoked bison and venison pâté, then take it to enjoy in front of your cabin's fireplace after a day of skiing.

The Alberta town is also having a two-week-long food and wine celebration, and you'll realize there's more to Canada's cuisine than just poutine.

If you have a day to spare, we suggest the trip up to Jasper, another national park, which boasts more of a community feel.  The drive along the Icefields Parkway takes you past the Columbia Icefield, a glacier that's as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high. Stay in town long enough for pastries at Bear Paw, a beer at Jasper Brewing Co. and a quick walk through the never-ending trails. That should be just enough to convince you to stay forever.