Ok, I admit it. With the exception of year-round sunshine, Vancouver really does seem to have it all: A cosmopolitan feel, the Pacific Ocean, sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains and coastal rainforests — all within a 30-minute reach from the downtown core. I love my hometown of Toronto, but I can’t hide my envy.
I recently spent a week in Vancouver and, while my friends worried they might lose me to the west coast forever (“You will come back, right?”), I begrudgingly returned home.
If you find yourself out there, I hope my list of 10 things to do in Vancouver gives you some suggestions for experiencing the best the city has to offer.
1. Stanley Park
Every city should have a green space – and it should look like Stanley Park. Situated just north of the downtown core and surrounded by the Pacific ocean, this 1,000-acre Canadian National Historic Site is an urban treasure. I walked the seawall past the landmarks and beaches, but you can also ride the paved pathway devoted to cyclists and rollerbladers. Enjoy the scenic views; hike the trails around the lakes amidst the 500,000 cedar, hemlock and fir trees; or admire the Native-themed artwork at Brockton Point.
If your preference is to stay indoors, dine in one of the park’s restaurants or visit the Vancouver Aquarium.
2. Granville Island
There’s a lot to love about this cultural enclave of local artists, theatres and unique shops that give Granville Island its distinct, colourful character. The biggest draw though is the public market, where you’ll be tempted by crafts, fresh produce and seafood vendors. Make sure you take your appetite – it’s a perfect location for snacking and a quick lunch.
If the market doesn’t appeal to you, at least go to Granville Island for the cocktails or dining. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, the Dockside Restaurant offers gorgeous views of False Creek and, during warmer temperatures, a patio with a heated cabana and outdoor fireplace. It was too cold for the outdoors during my visit, but I enjoyed my dessert and coffee overlooking the water from inside.
3. Vancouver Lookout
To be honest, I didn’t expect much from this 593-foot viewing structure, which is eclipsed in height by Toronto’s 1,815-foot CN Tower – but my assumption was misguided. The observation deck at the Vancouver Lookout offers a splendid, 360º aerial view of Vancouver.
Bonus: Admission is good for an entire day, so I suggest visiting during daylight, then returning in the evening for a twilight and night-time experience. I must have circled the deck six times as I watched the city fall into darkness.
If the cobble-stoned streets, heritage buildings and lamp posts of this neighborhood make you feel like you’re walking through history, that’s because you are. Once filled with merchandisers and saloons, Gastown is the birthplace of Vancouver but, today, it’s the revitalized epicentre for style, dining and nightlife. Just don’t be fooled by the antique appearance of the steam-powered clock, the focal point of the district. Not only does it partially run on electricity, it’s less than 40 years old.
5. Tour With the Vancouver Trolley Company
Instead of public transit, how about a hop-on, hop-off tour through the city on a classic, San Francisco-style trolley? With 32 stops (six in Stanley Park alone), the Vancouver Trolley tour was a convenient and easy-to-use mode of transportation that allowed me to visit the city’s top attractions at my own pace. Besides, public transit wouldn’t have provided live commentary by informative and entertaining guides. Don’t forget to ask for the coupon book, which includes (among other deals and discounts) a free ride on the False Creek Ferries.
6. Capilano Suspension Bridge Park
Both visitors and locals come here to explore the coastal rainforest with trees over 1,000 years old — and it’s only 10 minutes away from downtown Vancouver.
But the real stars of the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park are, of course, the 450-foot suspension bridge and its newest addition: The Cliffwalk, a narrow walkway that juts out from the cliff face to give those brave enough to walk it panoramic views of the Capilano River Canyon. With my fear of heights, I couldn’t know for sure whether I’d be able to walk across either one but, to my surprise, I made it across both of them – panic-free!
Tips: Consider using their free shuttle service from Canada Place, and be the first to arrive at the park to avoid the crowds and groups of school children. An alternative to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is the nearby Lynn Canyon Park, with hiking trails, waterfalls and its own smaller suspension bridge. Not only is it free, it’s quieter – but it doesn’t boast anything that resembles Capilano’s Cliffwalk.
7. Grouse Mountain
What an adventure centre. While I didn’t participate in any of the winter activities except eating, there really is something for everyone at the most visited attraction in Vancouver. Ears will pop on the way up as you travel 3,700 feet over snow-covered forests on the Skyride, the largest aerial tramway system in North America. At the summit, visitors enjoy spectacular views of the city – but only on a clear day. Otherwise, you may get a white-filled, misty scene that looks something like this (which actually made for some interesting photography):
So what’s there to do at Grouse Mountain? In the winter: Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, sleigh riding and skating. In the summer: Ziplining, paragliding and the Grouse Grind (a.k.a. “Nature’s Stairmaster”), the popular but challenging hike over steep mountainous terrain.
Year-round, visitors can say hello to the wolves and grizzly bears in the wildlife sanctuary (but when the grizzlies are hibernating, they can only be seen on the bear cam, which can be entertaining in itself).
And, of course, you can always eat in one of the three restaurants, no matter the season. I missed out on the world-class view from The Observatory (Mother Nature had other plans for me that day) but my beef tenderloin didn’t disappoint.
Tip: A meal in The Observatory includes a Skyride ticket.
8. Vancouver Urban Winery
Now here’s a perfect rainy-day activity: Sip glasses of wine, but do it in a 7,700-square-foot heritage building surrounded by wine tanks, oak barrels and wood beams. Located in the heart of historic Railtown, the Vancouver Urban Winery offers tasting flights of B.C. wines and food pairings. And, if you have yet to sample wine on tap, this is the place to do it.
9. FlyOver Canada
Vancouver’s newest attraction is a flagrant tourist trap, but I wish I could get stuck in it more often. And I’m not ashamed to say it. Sure, the actual flight simulation ride at FlyOver Canada is only eight minutes long so I understand why some guests question the cost of the ticket but… wow. This 4D virtual journey had my seat moving, feet dangling and hands clutched to the arm rests. After you inhale the fresh scent of the forests, feel the mist over Niagara Falls and experience the thrill of soaring over Canada’s most spectacular scenery, I’ll let you be the judge.
10. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
In Chinatown you’ll find this oasis of tranquility designed by Chinese artisans and craftsmen using traditional techniques and materials from China. Based on the four main elements of plant, rock, water and architecture, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a carefully thought out sanctuary of balance and harmony where visitors can reflect amongst winding pathways and jade-green ponds. For the full experience, sip a cup of tea and join one of the free, 45-minute guided tours.
What have I missed? I welcome your feedback. Help me and my readers out by leaving your suggestions below.
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With the exceptions of 2, 4 and 8, I received complimentary admission to the above attractions courtesy of Tourism Vancouver, but all views, as always, are entirely my own.