One of the world’s great urban spaces, Stanley Park is Vancouver’s green heart, helping lend the city its particular character. At nearly four square kilometres, it’s the largest urban park in North America – a semi-wilderness of dense rainforest, marshland and beaches. Ocean surrounds it on three sides, with a road and parallel cycleway/pedestrian promenade following the Seawall all the way round the peninsula for a total of 8.8km. From here you get exceptional views of the city and across the water to the mountains. Away from the coastal trail network and main draw – the aquarium – the interior is lush scrub and forest, with leafy paths and few people. There are also plenty of open, wooded or flower-decorated spaces to picnic, snooze or watch the world go by around the park, particularly near its eastern entrances.

The peninsula was partially logged in the 1860s, but in 1886 the newly formed city council – showing typical Canadian foresight and an admirable sense of priorities – moved to make what had become a military reserve into a permanent park. Thus its remaining first-growth forest of cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir, and the swamp now known as Lost Lagoon, were saved for posterity in the name of Lord Stanley, Canada’s governor general from 1888 to 1893.

The Lost Lagoon

Taking time in the park, especially on a busy Sunday, gives a good taste of what it means to live in Vancouver. The first thing you see is the Lost Lagoon, a tranquil lake that started life as a tidal inlet, and got its name because its water all but disappeared at low tide. Dozens of waterfowl species inhabit its shoreline. Just east are the pretty Rose Garden and Vancouver Rowing Club, before which stands a statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns. From here you can follow the Seawall path all the way, or make a more modest loop past the totem poles and round Brockton Point. The nine poles here are mostly from Vancouver’s Alert Bay region and date to the 1920s, although some of them are loaned replacements, the originals having been moved to museums for preservation purposes.

Seawall path

A brisk walk around the Seawall path takes about two hours. Odd little sights dot the anticlockwise promenade, all signed and explained, the most famous being the Girl in a Wetsuit statue, a lascivious update of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. For a more focused walk, the Cathedral Trail, northwest of the Lost Lagoon, takes you past immense first-growth cedars. The banks of Beaver Lake, whose water is carpeted with water lilies, are a peaceful spot for a sleep or a stroll. Lumberman’s Arch, near the aquarium, was raised in 1952 to honour those in the lumber industry, a surprising memorial given that the industry in question would probably give its eye teeth to fell the trees in Stanley Park. Its meadow surroundings are a favourite for families and those looking for a good place for a nap. Prospect Point, on the park’s northern tip, is a busy spot but worth braving for its beautiful view of the city and the mountains rising behind West Vancouver across the water. There’s a café-restaurant here, popular for its outdoor deck and sweeping views. Southwest of here lies Siwash Rock, an outcrop which has defied the weather for centuries, attracting numerous First Nations legends in the process, and which is distinguished by its solitary tree.

Vancouver Aquarium

Ranked among North America’s best attractions of its kind, the Vancouver Aquarium is the park’s most popular destination. Home to over seventy thousand animals including penguins, sea otters and beluga whales, and with state-of-the-art exhibits, it is undergoing a major revitalization project to add a new entranceway, restaurant and larger galleries by 2014.

The Arctic section concerns the fragile world of the Canadian North, offering a chance to see whales face to face through glass and peer in at cod, char, cucumbers and hot-pink sea anemones, all indigenous to this icy domain. The steamy Amazon gallery displays the vegetation, fishes, marmosets, sloths and other creatures of the rainforest in a climate-controlled environment, which includes an open enclosure with flying macaws; while the Pacific Canada habitat performs a similar role for otters, harbour porpoises and other animals of the waters of BC.

Annually, the aquarium sees nearly a million visitors, and at times it seems like they’re all stopping by at once. To avoid cramming in like a sardine, aim to visit on a weekday or during morning hours.