Fairmont Banff Springs is a hotel in a castle. That’s right: a castle. I don’t know what more I need to write in this review. If you have a pulse, at some point in your life, you have wanted to live in a castle. Well, here’s your chance…at least for a night or two.
Okay, it’s not technically a castle in the sense that nobility has ever lived here, but this is a castle-like hotel with a rich history. Originally built by railroad tycoon Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (and with a name like that, his only career choices were basically tycoon or Bond villain) in 1888, the hotel is a luxury hotel in Scottish Baronial style and located in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The history of the hotel closely parallels many of the grand National Park lodges of the United States, in the sense that it was also constructed by a railroad company to provide a luxurious place to stay for the wealthy passengers the railroad companies hoped to attract. There really are a lot of similarities to what occurred with the construction of Many Glacier Hotel, just south of the Canadian border in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Unlike the US National Park Lodges that are mostly operated by concessionaires focused on maintaining the history and authenticity of the hotels they operate, the Banff Springs Hotel is operated by Fairmont, one of the world’s most iconic luxury hotel brands. As such, the expectations for “The Castle” in Banff National Park are elevated a few notches.
In this review, we’ll take a look at whether Fairmont manages to live up to those expectations…
Let’s start with the room, which has rooms starting at around $250-450, depending upon the season. The first thing I noticed about the room was the size, which was relatively small by luxury hotel standards.
Now, in fairness, Fairmont is dealing with a historic structure built in 1888, and they have to work with what they have, to a large degree.
Fairmont goes to great lengths to compensate for this, with details ranging from slippers to crown molding. If you’ve ever stayed in a traditional US National Park lodge, you probably know that the mattresses often rival the parks themselves in terms of age–that’s not true at Fairmont Banff Springs, where the bedding is plush, high-quality, and commensurate with luxury hotel standards.
I do think the Fairmont Banff Springs could be a bit more aggressive with the decor of the room, which is in the hotel’s control. Perhaps they are going for understated, but I felt it was fairly bland and basic by luxury hotel standards.
I’m not saying they need to go with an ultra-modern, chic style (which would be ill-suited for this particular hotel), but a little more effort on the design and decor side would go a long way.
The size constraints were really apparent in the bathroom, which was tiny by any standards. Fairmont is obviously cognizant of the size, as the hotel did everything in its power to dress up the tiny space with upgrades, from the mirror lighting to the mid-body shower jets that took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out how to operate.
If you’ve read my US National Park lodge reviews, you probably notice a contrast here in how harsh I’m being on Banff National Park’s flagship lodge as compared to how I practically stumble over myself being an apologist for basic accommodations in the US lodges. Well, this is because I hate Canada.
I’m kidding, of course. It’s wholly because of that “Fairmont” name on the marquee. The thing is, though, regardless of Fairmont’s management, the fact remains that this is a historic national park hotel. There’s only so much Fairmont can do with the hotel to bring it up to luxury hotel standards and what they’ve done with the hotel as a whole is very impressive.
Frankly, Fairmont could have basic, Motel 6 quality accommodations, and many people would still flock to the place because of the way the exterior looks and due to the location in the heart of Banff National Park. Fairmont has done anything but rest upon its laurels with Fairmont Banff Springs, and the end product is praiseworthy.
As for my quibbles about the rooms, well, if the rooms in Many Glacier Hotel were of this quality, I would have been gushing about them. I suppose I’m hard on them for the benefit of those reading this who are accustomed to Fairmont hotels in major cities, and these rooms will not live up to many of those. However, it’s only fair to adjust your expectations accordingly when staying in any historic hotel, let alone one that’s a castle built in 1888.
Let’s be real: the castle and the location in Banff National Park are the main draw here, anything else is icing on the cake. It’s unreasonable to compare this circa-1888 hotel to a newly-constructed Fairmont in Beijing or some other modern metropolis. When viewed through that prism, the Fairmont Banff Springs is a very impressive hotel. Now I probably have gone from being harsh to an apologist for this hotel, but I think that’s only being reasonable.
Even when not grading it on a curve, the Fairmont Banff Springs scores really well in terms of its common areas. The lobby is absolutely stunning, and looks like an authentic gothic castle that has been pristinely maintained for centuries. I assume the reality is that Fairmont has extensively refurbished it over the years.
Regardless, it simultaneously feels both authentically old and regally modern. I was really impressed by all of the stonework, lighting, and texture throughout these common areas, and could’ve seen myself grabbing a coffee and enjoying a few hours in a rocking chair in a quiet alcove above the lobby.
This idea of relaxing in a rocking chair underscores the internal struggle of staying at Fairmont Banff Springs. On the one hand, you are staying in a luxurious castle–arguably one of the coolest hotels in the world. On the other hand, that hotel is located in one of the greatest places in the world, that you feel compelled to explore. Resolving this very real, very #firstworldproblems struggle is difficult.
What I would probably recommend doing is booking a 1-2 night stay here after staying a few nights somewhere basic around Banff National Park, and having Fairmont Banff Springs serve as a relaxing recovery after an exhausting time hiking and exploring. Although this is not what I did, in retrospect, I think this would be the most satisfying way to enjoy both Banff National Park and The Castle.
If you do opt to stay in and enjoy the hotel, you’ll find that it has a spectacular slate of amenities. From fine dining to a luxury spa to high-end shopping and more, the Fairmont Banff Springs impresses. It felt like a waste to be staying here on a photography-centric trip, as I wasn’t able to enjoy these amenities.
What I did think, upon wandering the halls and seeing all that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy, was that this would be the perfect place for a weekend getaway with a significant other who may not enjoy exploring nature as much as you (or, for a couple that doesn’t enjoy ‘roughing it’ at all, but likes observing nature). Say you want to run off and take photos at sunrise or sunset…well, just book a little spa time for the spouse.
Fairmont Banff Springs is a nice way to “compromise” and spend time together even if you and a loved one have different interests. (Although…I’m far from a “spa guy,” but hearing about the world-renowned Willow Stream Spa with views of the mountain vistas made me wish I would have had the opportunity to give it a try.)
Then there’s the location. Now is the time for that gushing you might’ve expected. Fairmont Banff Springs is located within Banff National Park, which is one of the most breathtaking places in the world. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site (only a handful of national parks in North America have this distinction, placing Banff National Park in good company among Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and a few others) which should speak volumes about it.
Within Banff National Park is the quaint city of Banff, where the hotel sits. Or should I say, towers over. In looking at the photos of “The Castle” exterior in this review, you might be led to believe it sits alone perched among the mountains. This is half-true, but in reality, it’s at the edge of the city, towering over the smaller shops adjacent to it, which disappear among the trees when viewed from a distance. Suffice to say, it’s a tall castle.
Overall, there’s a lot to love about Fairmont Banff Springs. First and most importantly, you are staying in a gothic castle-like hotel, dating to 1888. How cool is that? Second, you’re staying in the heart of one of Canada’s crown jewels, Banff National Park, and have views of its mountains from the hotel. Third, see 1 and 2. Considering those two things, quibbles about the rooms falling (slightly) short of luxury standards seem immaterial. If budget allows and if you’ll have the time to actually enjoy the hotel, you should not hesitate to book Fairmont Banff Springs. You won’t be disappointed.
For more of my tips and thoughts about Banff, please check out my Canadian Rockies posts. If you’re planning a trip to Banff National Park, I recommend the Canadian Rockies Moon Handbook. To see more of my Banff National Park photos or to purchase prints, check out my Banff National Park Photo Gallery. For licensing inquiries, please contact me.
Have you stayed at Fairmont Banff Springs? If so, what did you think of it? If you haven’t stayed there, would you consider it as part of your trip to Banff National Park? Please share your thoughts in the comments!