Cradled between the ocean and mountains, VANCOUVER has a dazzling Downtown district that fills a narrow peninsula bounded by Burrard Inlet to the north, English Bay to the west and False Creek to the south. Greater Vancouver sprawls south to the Fraser River. Edged around its idyllic waterfront are fine beaches, a dynamic port and a magnificent swath of parkland, together with glass-fronted skyscrapers that look across Burrard Inlet and its bustling harbour to the residential districts of North and West Vancouver. Beyond these comfortable suburbs, the Coast Mountains rise in steep, forested slopes to form a dramatic counterpoint to the Downtown skyline and the most stunning of the city’s many outdoor playgrounds. Small wonder, given Vancouver’s surroundings, that Greenpeace was founded here.
Vancouver’s two million or so residents exploit their spectacular natural setting to the hilt, and when they tire of the immediate region can travel a short distance to the vast wilderness of the BC Interior. Whether it’s for sailing, swimming, paddling, fishing, hiking, skiing, golf or tennis, locals barely have to move to indulge in a plethora of recreational whims. Summer and winter the city oozes hedonism and healthy living – typically West Coast interests that spill over into its sophisticated arts and culture scene. Vancouver claims a world-class museum and symphony orchestra, as well as opera, theatre and dance companies at the cutting edge of contemporary arts. Festivals proliferate throughout its mild, if occasionally rain-soaked, summer while numerous music venues provide a hotbed of up-and-coming rock bands and a well-established jazz scene.
Vancouver is a new, multicultural city, and much of the area’s earlier immigration focused on its Chinatown, just one of a number of ethnic enclaves – Italian, Greek, Indian and Japanese in particular – which lend the city its cosmopolitan vibe. Although a wealthy city, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with its highly visible homeless population and addicts are at odds with the glitz of more lush residential neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s youthful population has nurtured a thriving counterculture, distinguished by varied restaurants, secondhand shops, avant-garde galleries, clubs and bars. And at the top of the scale are restaurants as good – and as varied – as any in the world.
Vancouver is not a city that requires relentless sightseeing, but a handful of sights make worthwhile viewing by any standards. You’ll inevitably spend a good deal of time in the Downtown area and its Victorian-era equivalent, Gastown, a hip stretch of boutique shops and coffee houses. Chinatown could easily absorb a morning and contains more than its share of interesting shops and restaurants. The former warehouse district of Yaletown, on Downtown’s southeast fringes, is also great for exploring: a compact grid full of chic cafés, galleries and contemporary restaurants and bars. For a taste of the city’s greener side, hit Stanley Park, a huge area of semi-wild parkland, forest and beaches that crowns the northern tip of the Downtown peninsula. Take a walk or a bike ride here and follow it up with a stroll to the beach. Be certain to spend a morning on Granville Island, the city’s most tempting spot for wandering, eating and people-watching. If you prefer a cultural slant, hit the spectacular Museum of Anthropology or the museums of Vanier Park, the latter easily accessible from Granville Island.
At a push, you could cram the city’s essentials into a couple of days. If you’re here for a longer stay, you’ll want to venture farther from Downtown: trips across Burrard Inlet to Vancouver’s North Shore, worth making for the views from the SeaBus ferry alone, lend a different panoramic perspective of the city, and lead into the mountains and forests that give Vancouver its tremendous setting. The most popular sights here are the Capilano Suspension Bridge, tucked beside an old-growth forest, and the cable-car trip up Grouse Mountain, which affords staggering views of the city. Just a stone’s throw away on the Canada Line, lies Richmond, a fascinating blend of Asian-Canadian culture, where the majority of the city’s immigrants from mainland China and Hong Kong have settled and you’ll find some of Canada’s finest Asian cuisine tucked away in nondescript strip malls.
Vancouver’s vibrant Chinatown – clustered mainly on Pender Street between Carrall and Gore streets and on Keefer Street from Main to Gore – is a city apart and expanding all the time. Vancouver’s Chinatown is considered to be one of North America’s largest, and Chinese-Canadians are the city’s oldest and largest ethnic group after the British-descended majority, with a population of around 600,000. Many crossed the Pacific in 1858 to join the Fraser Valley gold rush; others followed under contract to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Most stayed, only to find themselves being treated appallingly. Denied citizenship and legal rights until as late as 1947, the Chinese community sought safety and familiarity in a ghetto of their own, where clan associations provided for new arrivals and the local poor, and helped build the distinctive buildings of recessed balconies and ornamental roofs that have made the area a protected historic site.
Vancouver’s Chinatown is authentic and lively: shops, markets, tiny restaurants and dim alleys vie for attention amid a hustle of jammed pavements and the buzz of conversation. Virtually every building replicates an Eastern model, and written Chinese characters feature everywhere. Most people flock dutifully to the 1913 Sam Kee Building, at the corner of Carrall and Pender streets; at just 1.8m wide, it’s registered with the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s narrowest building. Striking and unexpected after Downtown’s high-rise glitz, the district brings you face to face with Vancouver’s oft-touted multiculturalism, and helps explain why immigrants from china and Hong Kong continue to be attracted to the city. Yet it’s a district with a distinct edge, and visitors should avoid the area’s dingier streets at night, such as East Hastings near Main. Although Vancouver’s historic Chinatown remains an excellent place to visit, newer Chinese immigrants now tend to settle in the nearby Greater Vancouver region, especially in the cities of Richmond and Burnaby.
You soon get the hang of Vancouver’s Downtown district, an arena of avenues and shopping malls centred on Robson Street. On hot summer evenings it’s like a latter-day vision of La Dolce Vita – a buzzy meeting place crammed with bars, restaurants, late-night stores, and youths sucking down Bubble Tea or eating frozen yoghurt. At other times a more sedate class hangs out on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery or glides in and out of the three big department stores, Holt Renfrew, Nordstrum and The Bay. Downtown’s other principal thoroughfares are Burrard Street – all smart shops, hotels and offices – and Granville Street, partly pedestrianized with plenty of shops and music venues, but curiously seedy in places, especially at its southern end near the Granville Street Bridge. New development is taking Downtown’s reach farther east, and at some point you should try to see the public library at 350 West Georgia St, a striking piece of modern architecture.
Vancouver’s restaurants are some of Canada’s finest. If you want to eat well, you’ll be spoilt for choice – and won’t have to spend a fortune. Chinese and Japanese cuisines have a high profile (superlative sushi, in particular, is a mainstay, and very affordable). Vietnamese and Thai are also well represented with plenty of Korean options, and can often provide the best starting points if you’re on a tight budget. One of the biggest trends in the Vancouver restaurant scene is for nose to tail, seed to stem dining and you’ll find plenty of “West Coast cuisine”, comprised of fresh local ingredients such as salmon, oysters, and sweet local spot prawns. A food cart craze hit Vancouver in 2010 and now there are around 100 trucks around the city and regular Food Truck Festivals (wfoodcartfest.com) selling healthy, culturally diverse foods ranging from Korean-Mexican fusion to El Salvadorian pupusas. Vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-intolerant are well served by a number of specialist places.
The city also has a commendable assortment of pubs and bars; craft beer drinkers and fans of craft cocktails, in particular, will be well-satisfied.
An easy walk east of Downtown – five minutes from Canada Place and concentrated on Water Street – Gastown is a piece of city rejuvenation distinguished by cobblestone streets, twentieth-century brick buildings, stylish shops, and the city’s hippest and most exceptional cafés, restaurants and bars. The name derives from “Gassy” (as in loquacious) Jack Leighton, a retired sailor turned publican and self-proclaimed “mayor”, who arrived on site by canoe in 1867, quickly opening a bar to service the nearby lumber mills. Leighton’s statue stands in Maple Tree Square, Gastown’s heart, focus of its main streets and reputed site of this first tavern. Trade was brisk, and a second bar opened, soon followed by a village of sorts – “Gassy’s Town” – which, though destroyed by fire in 1886, formed in effect the birthplace of modern Vancouver. Over the years, the Downtown focus moved west and something of Gastown’s boozy beginnings returned to haunt it, as its cheap hotels and warehouses turned into a skid row for junkies and alcoholics. By the 1970s the area was declared a historic site – the buildings are the city’s oldest – and an enthusiastic beautification programme was set in motion.
It’s a Gastown rite of passage to snap photos with the Steam Clock, on the corner of Cambie and Water streets. Easily identified by the fog emanating from its frame, the two-tonne landmark sounds out the Westminster “chime” every fifteen minutes and was the first of its kind when built in 1977.
Vancouver is a welcoming city for the LGBTQ community. Davie Village, which runs from Burrard St along Davie St to Denman St, is where the highest concentration of long-established gay clubs, pubs and stores are, while there’s more of a lesbian scene on Commercial Drive (“The Drive”). For information on LGBTQ events, check wqmunity.ca, w xtra.ca, w gayvancouver.net and w superdyke.com. The main draw in Vancouver’s LGBTQ calendar is Pride (t 604 687 0955, w vancouverpride.ca), which usually takes place over three days during the first long weekend in August.
Huddled under the Granville Street Bridge south of Downtown, Granville Island is an agreeable “people’s place” – the title it likes for itself – and mostly lives up to its claim of being the heart of Vancouver. Friendly, easygoing and popular, its shops, markets, galleries, marina and open spaces are juxtaposed with a light-industrial setting whose faint whiff of warehouse squalor saves the area from any sense of pretentiousness.
The island, once a sand bar, was transformed in 1917 into an active ironworks and shipbuilding centre. By the 1960s the yards were derelict and the place had become a rat-infested depository. In 1972 the federal government agreed to bankroll a programme of residential, commercial and industrial redevelopment that retained the old false-fronted buildings, tin-shack homes, seawall and rail sidings. The best part of the job had been finished by 1979 – and was immediately successful – but work continues unobtrusively today, the various building projects only adding to the area’s sense of change and dynamism. Most people come here during the day, but there are some good restaurants, bars and the Arts Club Theatre (t 604 687 1644, w artsclub.com), which are all enough to keep the place buzzing at night.
Located twenty minutes from Downtown on the University of British Columbia campus, the
Museum of Anthropology
is Vancouver’s most important museum. Emphasizing the art and culture of the region’s First Nations peoples, and the Haida in particular, its collection of carvings, totem poles and artefacts is unequalled in North America.
The museum’s layout is a cool and spacious collection of halls designed by Arthur Erickson, the eminent architect also responsible for converting the Vancouver Art Gallery. Particularly outstanding is the Great Hall, inspired by Aboriginal cedar houses, which makes as perfect an indoor setting for its thirty-odd totem poles as you could ask for. Huge windows look out to more poles and Haida houses, which you’re free to wander around, backed by views of Burrard Inlet and the distant mountains. Most of the poles and monolithic carvings, indoors and out, are from the coastal tribes of the Haida, Salish, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl, all of which share cultural elements. One of the museum’s great virtues is that few of its displays are hidden away in basements or back rooms, but are beautifully presented in the Great Hall and Multiversity Galleries close by: the latter opened in 2010, part of a large renovation project that, among other things, also added a pleasant café.
Most of the permanent collection revolves around Canadian Pacific cultures, but the Inuit and Far North exhibits are also outstanding, as are the jewellery, masks and baskets of Northwest tribes, all markedly delicate after the blunt-nosed carvings of the Great Hall. Look out especially for the argillite sculptures, made from a jet-black slate found only on BC’s Haida Gwaii islands.
Housed in a separate rotunda, The Raven and the First Men, a modern sculpture designed by Haida artist Bill Reid, is the museum’s pride and joy and has achieved almost iconic status in the city. Carved from a 4.5-tonne block of cedar by five people over three years, it describes the Haida legend of human evolution with admirable virtuosity, depicting terrified figures squirming from a half-open clam shell, overseen by an enormous and stern-faced raven.
Vancouver gives you plenty to do come sunset, laying on a varied and cosmopolitan blend of live music. Clubs are more adventurous than in many other Canadian cities, particularly those on and around Main St and Commercial Drive, in the city’s eastern half. Summer nightlife often takes to the streets, with outdoor bars and (to a certain extent) beaches becoming venues in their own right. The city also hosts a range of festivals, from jazz to theatre, and the performing arts are as widely available as you’d expect in a city as culturally dynamic as Vancouver. Comprehensive listings appear in the Georgia Straight (w straight.com), a free weekly published on Thursday and available across the city. Half-price and last-minute same-day tickets are available via “Tickets Tonight” (w ticketstonight.ca) at the main visitor centre at 200 Burrard St.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to visit North Vancouver (known as North Van) is the trip itself by SeaBus, which provides views of not only the Downtown skyline but also the teeming port area, a side of the city otherwise easily missed. Most of North Van itself is residential, as is neighbouring West Vancouver. You’ll probably cross to the north shore less for these leafy suburbs than to sample the outstanding areas of natural beauty here: Lynn Canyon, Grouse Mountain, Capilano River Regional Park (the most popular excursion), Mount Seymour and Lighthouse Park. All are found in the mountains that rear up dramatically almost from the West Van waterfront, the proximity of Vancouver’s residential areas to genuine wilderness being one of the city’s most remarkable aspects.
The trip to Grouse Mountain – named by hikers in 1894 who stumbled across a blue grouse – is a popular one. This is mainly due to the cable cars – it's North America’s largest tramway – which run from the 290m base station to the mountain’s 1231m summit. A favourite among people learning to ski or snowboard after work, the mountain’s brightly illuminated slopes and dozen or so runs are a North Vancouver landmark on winter evenings. In summer, it’s possible to walk up the aptly named Grouse Grind Trail, but it’s a tough hike (known as “nature’s stairmaster”), so unless you’re feeling sporty you’d do better to settle instead for the cable car (get here early if you can).
After two lurches over the cables’ twin towers you reach the summit, which despite its restaurants, wooden carvings and tourist paraphernalia, retains a sense of being immersed within nature. The views are astonishing, sometimes stretching as far as the San Juan Islands 160km away in Washington State.
Walk up the paved paths away from the centre in summer and you come to the scene of the “World Famous Lumberjack Show” (three daily; free), with a crowd-pleasing show of climbing, sawing and wood-chopping. Other attractions include a grizzly bear habitat where orphaned bears Coola and Grinder live, and an impressive birds of prey display. Also here is the Peak Chairlift (included in your ticket), which swings you high above the trees to the mountain’s summit. There are plenty of add-ons to take your day to daredevil status, such as five zip lines which give a heart-pumping exploration of the old growth forest ($109), tandem paragliding which swoops you over the mountain to a 3300ft descent ($229), and the Eye of the Wind tour ($19.95), which heads to the top of the world’s only glass-enclosed wind turbine with an observation deck, giving spectacular views from an enclosed observation deck. Check with the office at the lower cable-car base station for details of long hikes – many are down below rather than up at the summit proper. The best easy stroll is to Blue Grouse Lake (at the summit; 15min); the Goat Ridge Trail is for experienced hikers.
Just 25 minutes south of Downtown Vancouver on the Canada Line lies the city of Richmond, which offers an unexpected voyage into the Far East; street signs and advertisements are in Chinese characters and you’ll hear Cantonese spoken. Up to 60 percent of Richmond residents identify as Chinese – many of them immigrated in the late 1980s from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. The sweeping mountains that surround the city don’t disguise the admittedly unlovely architecture of somewhat tatty strip malls, but what the city may lack in suburban beauty it more than makes up for with its dining scene, acknowledged as the Asian food capital of North America. Food Street (as Alexandra Road is called), makes up three blocks of some two hundred dining options of every kind of Asian cuisine from Cantonese to Korean and Thai. It’s also a fun place to shop, with a trio of Asian malls: Parker Place, Yaohan Centre, and the Aberdeen Centre in Golden Village. You’ll find both screamingly modern and traditional Asian goods at all of these; if you’ve time for only one, go to Aberdeen Centre (4151 Hazelbridge Way; waberdeencentre.com) where you can browse high-tech toilets and aromatic herbal teas, beautiful chinaware and the budget Asian “dollar store” chain, Daiso (wdaisocanada.com). After the thrills of shopping, head for a peaceful retreat to No. 5 Rd, aka the Highway to Heaven, where you’ll find some twenty different places of worship from global religions and just a little beyond that, North America’s largest Buddhist temple.
Richmond Night Market (wrichmondnightmarket.com) is one of the summer highlights for Vancouver foodies; it has some 20,000 visitors a night on busy weekends and is the only market of its kind in North America.
Most of Vancouver’s smartest clothing stores and other shops – and several upmarket malls (notably the Pacific Centre) – are found on or around Burrard St and the central stretch of Robson St. Gastown has the city’s best clothing boutiques, many located in beautiful heritage buildings. Yaletown boasts many design and homeware stores, along with plenty of interesting one-off shops. Edgier galleries, vintage and fashion stores are found on East Vancouver’s Main St and Commercial Drive. Vancouver has launched two international brands of footwear, John Fluevog, and Native Shoes, which can be found across the city.
Apart from the obvious culinary temptations, Chinatown’s main points of reference are its shops. Some of the best boast butchers with delicious roasted duck, barbecue pork with crispy skin and fragrant Chinese sausages. Keefer Street is bakery row and it’s worth dropping in to one of the local herbalists to browse their panaceas and learn more of their passed-down ancient wisdom. Ming Wo, established in 1917, is a fantastic cookware shop that probably carries every utensil ever devised.
Explore in-depth on a cultural and culinary walking tour around the area with A Wok Around Chinatown (w awokaround.com).
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 one of the largest urban parks in North America – a semiwilderness of dense rainforest, marshland and three beaches: English Bay which has a waterslide during summer season, Second Beach with its pool and concession stands, and the quieter Third Beach which allows barbecues. Ocean surrounds the park on three sides, with a road and parallel cycleway/pedestrian promenade following the Seawall all the way round. A brisk walk of this coastal path takes two to three hours and 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. There’s a café-restaurant at Prospect Point, a busy spot on the park’s northern tip, popular for its outdoor deck and sweeping views. Southwest of here lies Siwash Rock, also known by its indigenous name Slhxi7lsh, 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.
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.
Exploring 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 feathered species inhabit its shoreline from great blue herons to urban bald eagles. You can find out more at the Stanley Park Ecology Society (wstanleyparkecology.ca) who have a small nature house on Lost Lagoon. To the northwest is the Cathedral Trail, which takes you through beautiful West Coast forest, and just east are the pretty Rose Garden and Vancouver Rowing Club, before which stands a statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns.
If you’re following the Seawall or taking a more modest loop of the most easterly point of Stanley Park, you’ll pass Brockton Point Visitor Centre, where three carved red-cedar portals welcome visitors to the traditional land of the Coast Salish people, and you’ll see the park’s totem poles. The first poles were at Lumberman’s Arch, and originally came from Vancouver Island’s Alert Bay in the 1920s, and then more were added in 1936 from Haida Gwaii and BC’s central coast Rivers inlet. In the mid-1960s they were moved to Brockton Point, and then sent to various museums for preservation. Some of the remaining poles are loaned replacements, others specially commissioned; the last, carved by Robert Yelton of the Squamish Nation, was added in 2009.
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 Wild Coast 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.
Dine Out Vancouver From mid- till late Jan wdineoutvancouver.com. Canada’s largest food and drink festival, with hundreds of restaurants across the city offering three course prix-fixe menus at three price points. Special culinary events also take place throughout the festival, such as guest chef lectures, street food markets and food photography urban safaris.
Vancouver International Wine Festival Mid-Feb t 604 873 3311, wvanwinefest.ca. One of Canada’s best wine festivals with nine days of seminars, special winery dinners, galas and a grand tasting room with hundreds of wines on offer.
Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival June–Sept t 604 739 0559, t 1 877 739 0559, w bardonthebeach.org. Western Canada’s largest not-for-profit Shakespeare festival offers plays and special events throughout the season in Vanier Park; the harbour and distant mountains help set the scene.
International Jazz Festival Late June to early July, t 604 872 5200, w coastaljazz.ca. Puts on 300 shows across the region (half of which are free), with names like The Avett Brothers and Jill Barber.
Vancouver International Film Festival Late Sept to mid-Oct t 604 685 0260, w viff.org. Many of the city’s art-house cinemas join forces to host the annual showcase for more than 150 films.
Vancouver International Folk Music Festival July t 604 602 9798, w thefestival.bc.ca. Three days of folk, food and festivities at Jericho Beach park.
The Fair at the PNE Late Aug to early Sept; gate passes from $16 wpne.ca. A 100-year-old Vancouver end-of-summer tradition with free concerts from crowd-pleasing artists such as the Beach Boys and Pointer Sisters, a host of entertaining shows and a heady mix of fairground rides and deep-fried foods.
A little to the west of Granville Island, Vanier Park conveniently collects most of the city’s main museums: the Vancouver Museum (museumofvancouver.ca), the Maritime Museum (vancouvermaritimemuseum.com) and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (spacecentre.ca). Vanier Park sits on the waterfront at the west end of the Burrard Bridge, near Kitsilano Beach and the residential shopping and dining centres of Kitsilano and West 4th Avenue; it’s a fine spot to while away a summer afternoon. You could easily incorporate a visit to the museums with a trip to Granville Island using the ferry, which docks just below the Maritime Museum. Coming from Downtown, take the #22 Macdonald bus south from anywhere on Burrard or West Pender streets – get off at the first stop after the bridge and walk down Chestnut Street to the park. The park itself is pleasant, with a few nice patches of sandy beach on its fringes.
A small, hip, captivating grid of shops, cafés and restaurants, Yaletown is centred on Homer, Hamilton and Mainland streets between Drake Street to the south and Smithe Street to the north. It takes its name from the many Canadian Pacific Railway workers who settled here in the 1880s, having followed the line west from the town of Yale 180km away in the BC interior. At the time, it had a greater density of saloons than anywhere in the world and was considered one of North America’s most lawless enclaves.
For most of the twentieth century it was a warehouse and packing district, but over the last decade or so has been transformed, helped by the spread of a booming Downtown south and east, and the ranks of condominiums that have sprouted on the north shore of False Creek. At street level, the broad, raised walkways provide the perfect stage for café terraces, while the narrow, lofty or otherwise unusual old warehouse spaces have become often dramatically designed bars and restaurants.
You can get here on the SkyTrain using the Yaletown-Roundhouse station, but it’s an easy walk from central Downtown and you can take a pleasant walk along the Seawall to get there from Stanley Park.