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.

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