No matter when you visit, there is absolutely no shortage of things to do in Banff. This tiny town sits in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and is spectacularly beautiful virtually all year round. Despite its reputation as a launchpad for ski slopes and hiking trails, there’s a lot more to do in Banff than outdoor adventures to suite people of all ages and interests.
The ancient town of Melnik is nestled in the Pirin Mountains, surrounded by 100-meter rock formations, and lined with 500-year-old trees and heritage-listed structures. If the history side of things doesn’t do it for you, the 600-year-old wine culture will – there are more wineries on the main street than you could shake a stick at.
A surprisingly large amount of Australians think the Blue Mountains is just Katoomba, and they’re very wrong. While Katoomba is the main tourist hub, the whole area is actually a city with about 25 suburbs – it takes about 2-hours to get from Glenbrook at the foot of the Mountains, to Bell on the other side of the Mountains, and it’s home to a lot of people.
So how did the Blue Mountains come to be? I know you're dying to find out! Colonial Sydney-siders needed more farming space, and thought they might find it if they crossed the big blue-looking mountains in the distance (hence the name…). In the early days, rough terrain and a severe lack of resources meant the British were unable to successfully cross the mountains, but in 1831 they all decided it was time. Blaxland gathered Lawson and Wentworth to join him in this almighty task, and off they went through the bush in search of somewhere to put a cow. After 18-days of near starvation and illness, they discovered Lithgow – a small town that now has lots of farms – and each explorer had a suburb named after them.
Like the rest of Australia, the Blue Mountains were occupied by the Aboriginal people at the time of British colonisation – they were the first to cross the Blue Mountains and had done so many times before the British settler. You can still see rock carvings in some areas today, and I highly recommend taking the time to pop over and have a look.
The Blue Mountains is a world heritage-listed enclave of valleys, canyons, views, Aboriginal engravings, cosy towns, hiking tracks and eccentric locals. With sites, tours and accommodation to fit all budgets, this natural wonder is great for a weekend getaway, or a week of serious hiking, rock-climbing and site seeing.
Anytime. Since the suburbs are pretty spaced apart, the weather varies drastically, so locals tend to divided the place in to ‘upper mountains’ and ‘lower mountains’. While the lower-mountains have a similar climate to Penrith (slightly warmer than Sydney), the upper-mountains gets pretty chilly.
Summer: If you’re not in to the cold, summer in the upper-mountains is really nice. Temperatures hover from 20-29 during the day, you can sit outside without freezing to death, and it’s a lot better for bush walking. The lower-mountains can get pretty warm (25-40 during the day), so if you’re traipsing around there, bring water and sunscreen.
Trains are the most affordable option and, provided there’s no trackwork, it should be pretty smooth sailing, but Sydney Trains are fairly unpredictable so it's always a bit of a gamble. The Blue Mountains is a huge tourist destination, and most travel companies, hostels and hotels should be able to help you to get there.
NOTE: Sydney Trains like to schedule track maintenance on the Blue Mountains line on weekends. If this happens, ask a guard at Central station and they’ll tell you where to go. You’ll probably have to catch a bus at some point, but the train staff are pretty good at letting you know when to get off the train, and what bus to get on. It’s a good idea to factor extra travel time in to your trip in this scenario. You can check on the Sydney Trains trackwork page.
Tour: There are loads of tour buses that’ll take you around. There aren’t many that leave from Sydney, but there are lots in Katoomba that will take you to all the sites, like Trolley Tours and the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus.
Cafe culture is a big deal in these parts. Cafes, restaurants and bakeries line the streets of Wentworth Falls, Leura, Katoomba and Blackheath, so take your pick! Along with pub-style burgers, steaks, pizza and pasta at many of the local bars and pubs, there are also some great places to go if you're feeling fancy.
Budget: Hominy Bakery in Katoomba (pies), Bakery Patisserie Schwarz in Wentworth Falls (German pastries), The Savoy in Katoomba (breakfast until 5pm, dinner and wine after that – not the greatest food, but super cheap), Bamboo Box in Katoomba (rice-paper rolls), True To The Bean in Katoomba (coffee), Anonymous Cafe in Blackheath (coffee and baked goods).
Mid-Range: Leura Gourmet (pretty much everything), Cafe Madeleine in Leura (chocolate! So much chocolate), Station Bar in Katoomba (pizza), Old City Bank Brasserie in Katoomba (steak), La Bello Pizzeria in Faulconbridge (pizza and pasta), Arjuna Indian Restaurant in Katoomba (everything).
High-End: Darleys in Katoomba (hatted restaurant – I went there and it was amazing), Pins On Lurline in Katoomba (fusion restaurant with a fantastic reputation), Ashcrofts Bistro in Blackheath (fine dining at one of the best restaurants in the mountains), Vesta in Blackheath (food cooked in a 120-year-old scotch oven...what's not to like?), The Avalon in Katoomba (set in an old movie theatre, this place has been around forever and has amazing views).
Vegan: The mountains aren't exactly crawling with vegan options, but they're definitely there! I have a few options here, but things are popping up all the time – take a look at Nabo Blog for new additions. Papadino's Katoomba allows you to mix and match pizza toppings, and swap regular cheese for vegan cheese, and it's actually pretty good (it melts!).
There's also a vegan pasta option, but I recommend the pizza. Rubyfruit in Leura very popular vegan bakery and cafe, complete with burgers, burritos, pasta, cheesecake, and a bunch of other options. The Baker's Wife in Springwood is a go-to choice for the lower mountains, with salads, smoothies, wraps, and a range of other breakfast and lunch options.
There’s a range of souvenir shops in Katoomba, especially if you go to Scenic World or Echo Point, but apart from that it really depends what you’re after. With the closest major shopping mall in Penrith, you won’t find generic shops up the mountain – small businesses rule supreme in these lands, so don’t expect to find H&M lying in some arcade.
For home wares, jewellery and nick-knacks, head to Leura. For antiques, head to Leura, Blackheath or Hazlebrook. For Nepalese-style jumpers, knitted beanies and gloves, head to Katoomba. For a one-of-a-kind giant hippy emporium, head to Springwood.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay that’s nice and touristy and scenic, Katoomba is your best option. Of course there’s other accommodation in different suburbs, but I recommend staying in Katoomba and day-tripping out to see everything else. Alternatively, if you’re looking for somewhere nice and quiet and pretty, go to a holiday house in Blackheath or the newly-renovated Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath.
Budget: Blue Mountains Backpacker Hostel – With a range of dorms, single rooms, double rooms, and family rooms, this place is very affordable (double rooms are about $35/night in winter), really close to then main street and station, and they’ll help you find your way around. There’s also a really nice common room with pool tables, TV, kitchen, and outdoor roof area. I’ve stayed here, and I was really impressed.
No. 14 – While still a hostel, this place has more of a hotel feel to it. It’s a bit more expensive (around $58/night for a double room in winter), and with only 11 rooms there’s no space for cheap dorms, but travellers comment on the friendly atmosphere and excellent location.
Mid-Range: Katoomba Town Centre Motel – With a range of double rooms, family rooms and spa suites, this place is seriously close to town and gives you somewhere to park your car. A classic double room will set you back about $140/night in winter, but they do big buffet breakfasts in the morning, and there’s a games room! I’ve stayed here, and it was great – it’s especially great for families.
The Carrington – This hotel towers over the main street like a palace. With red carpets, ornate sculptures, detailed furniture, fireplaces, views, a restaurant, and an old-school cocktail bar, stepping inside feels like you’ve stepped back in time – you want to stay here just for the experience. A regular double room with cost about $150/night in winter, but you can get family rooms, suites, balconies and views for an extra cost. I’ve stayed here, and you feel so ridiculously regal walking downstairs in the morning that you just want to laugh. Rooms are nice, beds are comfortable, I was impressed.
High-End: The Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa Retreat – Located within walking distance to the town centre, this hotel has a very old-fashioned feel to it (think tea party) and offers views, a restaurant, a pool, fitness centre, cocktail bar and spa. A regular double room will cost about $260/night in winter, and a room with a view will cost upwards of $290.
Echoes Boutique Hotel & Restaurant – The best views Katoomba has to offer come at a whopping $800+/night, but if you’ve got the cash, it’s well-worth the expense – literally every room has a view. With access to all facilities at Lilianfels next door, you’ve got a spa, fitness center, two pools, tennis court and a pool table at your disposal. It’s a 5-minute walk to Echo Point, so if you want to go in to town you’ll have to drive or taxi, but with panoramic views and designer martinis at the hotel restaurant, you probably won’t need to leave.
If you go to Katoomba, you can’t leave without going to Echo Point and seeing the Three Sisters (pictured above) – it’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. There are around 29 major attractions in the area, and you can either do a few yourself, or go all out and do it in a day with one of the hop-on hop-off services floating around.
Trolley Tours is the cheapest ($25 for all-day use), but for $44 you can get paraded around everyday for seven days in the Blue Mountains Explorer London-style double-decker bus…the choice is yours.