Green, clean, safe, affluent, happily multicultural and lushly nestled into the craggy northern Pacific coastline: that’s Vancouver in a, well, pine cone. Home to about 600,000 residents, with many claiming Chinese heritage, Vancouver today looks to Asia as often as it looks to Europe or the United States.
Europeans first came to Vancouver in the mid-1800s, and the city was incorporated in 1886. During the 20th century, immigrants arrived from around the world in significant numbers — and that has propelled Vancouver’s evolution into one of the world’s most charming multicultural cities.
These days it’s a modern, sophisticated metropolis with a broad range of businesses and services. The film industry thrives, so much so that Vancouver has been dubbed “Hollywood North.” And while the city harbors artists of every ilk, Vancouverites are also passionate about the outdoors (free-style mountain biking was born on the precipitous slopes of the North Shore).
The Seawall — enjoying unofficial National Treasure status — extends 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) around the downtown peninsula, including Stanley Park. It then wends south along an inlet known peculiarly as False Creek to Granville Island, Vanier Park (with the Vancouver and Maritime Museums) and Kitsilano Beach Park. Walking, cycling, in-line skating or otherwise self-propelling along the seawall is a great way to experience the city (in manageable bites).
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Vancouver’s downtown peninsula — from the beach at English Bay through the city center to historic Gastown, Chinatown and Yaletown — is navigable by foot, bus and taxi. Trolleys and hop-on/hop-off sightseeing buses are usually at hand, as are yellow and black cabs.
The newly livable downtown — you’ll notice the forests of glossy apartment towers from Coal Harbour in the north to False Creek in the south — is a huge success. Streetscapes boast trees and green spaces, great lamp-lighting, comfortable benches, interesting public art, and lots of good restaurants, bars, coffee houses, theaters and clubs. City-dwellers are smitten — and we think you will be too.
A trip to Vancouver wouldn’t be complete without sampling the area’s natural beauty, from kayaking English Bay to strolling through Stanley Park. But leave time to explore the city’s varied neighborhoods.
The 1,000-acre evergreen oasis of Stanley Park, surrounded by a 5.5-mile paved seawall, is Vancouver’s most popular tourist attraction. Visitors can walk, bike or just watch the ships go by. Take a miniature train around the park or visit the Vancouver Aquarium. Other park attractions include rose and rhododendron gardens, a display of totem poles by First Nations artists, beaches, playgrounds, and picnic areas.
Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the biggest in North America. The best streets to stroll are Pender and Keefer, featuring the classic Chinese gardens of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the ancient healing wonders of traditional Chinese medicine at Kiu Shun Trading Company and many other specialty shops.
A handsome former courthouse is home to the Vancouver Art Gallery. The permanent collection includes the works of Emily Carr, a celebrated eccentric who best expresses British Columbia’s early landscape and aboriginal culture. (Note: These works are not always on display; the museum also hosts an array of visiting exhibitions.)
Vancouver’s answer to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Kitsilano neighborhood overlooks English Bay with a park, beach and spectacular outdoor swimming pool. Though the hippies have grown up, they’ve left behind a bohemian atmosphere with restaurants featuring vegetarian selections and organic shopping.
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Although it’s known for its public market packed full of local produce, homemade products and unusual ingredients, Granville Island is much more than just food. Watch artists hone their skills in glassblowing, pottery and jewelry making, or shop at a separate Kids Market featuring shops selling everything from wooden toys to glitzy costumes. There’s also an indoor play area called the Adventure Zone. Nautical buffs will enjoy the Maritime Market with shops offering books and merchandise related to boating.
For a good workout and some great sightseeing, rent a kayak or take a guided tour with Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres. Alternatively, rent a bike from Spokes Bicycle Rentals or Reckless Bike Stores. Ride the seawall that extends 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) around the downtown peninsula, including Stanley Park. Your rental shop will offer you a helmet, lock and map of the city’s bike trails.
Gastown, named for a famous early resident — loud-mouthed saloon-keeper Gassy Jack Deighton — is where Vancouver began. Today it’s a welcoming precinct of cobblestone streets and inviting shops, some featuring fine aboriginal art.
Originally Vancouver’s garment district, today the trendy Yaletown neighborhood is home to fashionable boutiques and local designers, high-end restaurants, microbreweries, and galleries. With its SoHo-style ambience, Yaletown is a place for visitors to shop, have lunch, people watch or admire the yachts at the marina at the end of Davie Street.
Located in North Vancouver, the Capilano Suspension Bridge spans 450 feet across a canyon at a height of 230 feet above the Capilano River. Visitors can test their fear of heights with the Treetops Adventure, in which you venture from one tree to another on a series of elevated suspension bridges. The Cliffwalk takes visitors on cantilevered walkways along the granite cliffs overlooking the river.
Less than one mile north of the Capilano Suspension Bridge is the Capilano River Hatchery. It is a free interpretive center where visitors can see that salmon really do swim upstream.
Open 365 days a year, the Skyride at Grouse Mountain is an aerial tram that whisks you to an elevation of 3,700 feet in eight minutes. Although the main attraction is the view, you can also visit the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, a five-acre mountaintop habitat that is home to orphaned grizzly bears. Grouse Mountain is also a great place to have lunch, with options including fine dining at the Observatory, casual fare and patio dining at Altitudes Bistro, and a few self-service venues as well.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum, located near Vanier Park, has numerous exhibits for the young and young at heart. Gain a deeper understanding of Vancouver’s maritime history through its nautical artifacts and collections.
The H.R. MacMillan Space Centre within Vanier Park is part observatory, part interactive edutainment. Live talks are given regularly on topics such as “A Day in Space” and “Space: A Dangerous Place.”
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Science World at TELUS World of Science features interactive exhibits for adults and kids of all ages. The building itself looks like a giant golf ball, as it was the home of Expo 86.
The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, with its collection of authentic totem poles from remote coastal settlements, should not be overlooked. Outdoor exhibits include two houses from the Haida people (a group indigenous to British Columbia and Alaska) and a beautiful reflecting pool.
The Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park is a huge bubble dome filled with exotic plants, tropical flowers, colorful koi fish and more than 200 birds of various species that fly free overhead. This is a good option if you get caught in Vancouver’s notoriously rainy weather but still want a dose of the natural world.
Victoria, located on Vancouver Island, is about a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver and makes a pleasant side trip. The biggest attractions are the Royal BC Museum (with its popular First Nations exhibit), the Inner Harbour (perfect for strolling) and the magnificent Butchart Gardens, which are about a 30-minute drive outside of Victoria. You can also explore Victoria by bike with a company called The Pedaler.
Art lovers should consider a side trip to Salt Spring Island, which is known for its community of artists, artisans and other creative types. You can get there via ferry from Vancouver or Victoria.
Vancouver’s rich mix of immigrants means that the city offers a wide variety of ethnic cuisine, and, as you’d expect from its coastal location, it also has some exceptional seafood restaurants. But there’s much more to the restaurant scene — see our recommendations below for a taste.
Granville Island runs the gamut in terms of where and what to eat. This culinary hot spot is popular with residents and tourists alike. Enjoy lunch on the waterfront at Dockside Restaurant and Brewing Company, featuring a seafood-focused menu, along with its own microbrewery. The Granville Island Public Market is a great spot to pick up the makings of a picnic lunch to eat outside by the water.
For an inexpensive breakfast in North Vancouver, the Eighties Restaurant serves up hearty portions of traditional favorites like Bennies (eggs Benedict) and pan-fried potatoes, or the No. 1, which includes two eggs cooked any style, four strips of bacon, potatoes and toast. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner.
The unique Salmon n’ Bannock is inspired by the culinary traditions of the region’s First Nations people, with entrees featuring not only salmon but also elk, bison and boar. Homemade bannock (an unleavened bread) is served with main dishes.
Because this popular restaurant doesn’t take reservations, you’re almost guaranteed to wait in line — but locals agree that the creative Indian fusion dishes at Vij’s are worth the wait. The menu changes seasonally, but might include such offerings as Rajasthani-style spicy goat with vegetables or grilled sablefish in tomato-yogurt broth.
For a picnic, head to the food emporium Urban Fare for supplies. (There are multiple locations around the city, including Yaletown and Coal Harbour.) Choose from more than 100 cheeses, an olive bar, fresh caviar, an extensive deli and organic produce. Or sit in the licensed cafe and sip wine while you watch patrons squeeze tomatoes.
Joe Fortes Seafood and Chophouse has been around for decades. The menu boasts more than a dozen varieties of fresh oyster, as well as steaks that have all been aged at least 28 days. The rotating blue plate lunch specials are a great deal. Visitors looking for a splurge at dinnertime can try the seafood tower on ice that includes a sampler of lobster, clams, scallops, mussels, tuna crudo and — of course — local oysters (great for sharing).
Vancouver has tons of good Japanese restaurants, but our favorite is Miku, located on the waterfront near Canada Place. In addition to a la carte sushi, nigiri and sashami options, you can also try a special Kaiseki meal, which involves a series of courses beautifully presented on plateware from Japan.
Shopping in Vancouver
Vancouver has British Columbia’s best shopping in a number of unique neighborhoods and downtown districts. You can find everything from upscale designer fashions to handmade local crafts. Food items such as B.C. honey or birch syrup (similar to maple syrup, but with a slightly different flavor) make great souvenirs to bring home.
The city’s main shopping drag is bustling Robson Street, where you’ll find designer clothes, specialty shops and some of the city’s finest restaurants.
For SoHo-style ambience, head southeast from the city center (five or six blocks) to Yaletown. Transformed from an industrial railway terminus into a funky neighborhood of eye-catching stores and ultra-hip restaurants under old warehouse canopies, the area is small and manageable. Hamilton and Mainland streets, between Nelson and Davie, are the main thoroughfares.
At Granville Island, start with the Public Market, where you can find locally made chocolate, birch syrup, vinegar, barbecue sauce, honey and much more. But don’t stop there. Amble through the Net Loft and on to Railspur Alley for more — and unusual — artisans and craftspeople.
In suburban Richmond you’ll find a cluster of interesting Asian shopping centers along No. 3 Road known as the Golden Village. And further south is Steveston, a historic fishing village with inviting shops and restaurants.
–written by Alison Appelbe; updated by Renee Ruggero and Sarah Schlichter