WHAT TO DO
Vancouver is a bustling metropolis surrounded by both the ocean and the mountains. It is located in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada. Indigenous settlement of Vancouver began more than 10000 years ago, and the city is on the traditional and unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh (Burrard) peoples. It takes its name from George Vancouver, a British officer of the Royal Navy, who explored the inner harbor of Burrard Inlet in 1792. The beginnings of the modern city, which was originally named Gastown, grew around the site of a makeshift tavern on the western edges of Hastings Mill that was built on July 1, 1867, and owned by proprietor John Deighton - better known as Gassy Jack. The city was renamed Vancouver in 1886, through a deal with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Today, Vancouver is one of the most livable cities in Canada and in the world. With its excellent museums and outstanding restaurants, plus exciting cultural and outdoor activities framed by striking natural vistas, Vancouver is sure to please.
Start your journey by wandering the Gastown neighborhood. The city's oldest district still retains its historic charm and independent spirit. Here, Victorian architecture houses a thriving fashion scene, impeccably curated boutiques, unique galleries and several souvenir shops. Stroll along Water Street where you'll find a picture perfect collection of old buildings, cobblestones, vintage lampposts and the popular Gastown Steam Clock. Halfway down Water Street, this landmark lures the cameras with its tooting steam whistle. Built in 1977, the clock's mechanism is actually driven by electricity - only the pipes on top are steam fueled. It sounds every 15 minutes and marks each hour with little whistling symphonies. Once you have taken the required photo, make your way up to the Vancouver Lookout. Perched 550 feet in the air, it provides commanding views of the city.
From there, head to the Marine Building at 355 Burrard Street. Vancouver's most romantic old school tower block, and also its best art deco building, this elegant 22 story edifice is a tribute to the city's maritime past. Check out its elaborate exterior of seahorses, lobsters and streamlined steamships, then pop in to the lobby, which is like a walk through artwork. Stained glass panels and a polished floor inlaid with signs of the zodiac await. Also check out the inlaid wood interiors of the brass doored elevators. Note: the Marine Building was the tallest structure in the British Empire when it was completed in 1930. Nearby at 750 Hornby Street is the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). Combining blockbuster international shows with selections from its striking contemporary collection, the VAG is a magnet for art fans. There are often three or four different exhibitions on its public levels but save time for the top floor Emily Carr paintings, showcasing swirling nature themed works from British Columbia's (BC) favorite historic artist.
Next, check out the Chinatown neighborhood and the Dr Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden at 578 Carrall Street. A tranquil break from bustling Chinatown, this intimate 'garden of ease' reflects Taoist principles of balance and harmony. Entry includes an optional 45 minute guided tour, in which you'll learn about the symbolism behind the placement of the gnarled pine trees, winding covered pathways and ancient limestone formations. Look out for the colorful carp and lazy turtles in the jade colored water. Another lovely garden is the VanDusen Botanical Garden, found at 5251 Oak Street in the Shaughnessy neighborhood. This highly popular 55 acre oasis offers a wandering web of pathways weaving through specialized garden areas: the Rhododendron Walk blazes with color in spring, while the Korean Pavilion is a focal point for a fascinating Asian collection. Save time to get lost in the hedge maze and look out for the herons, owls and turtles that call the park and its ponds home. Note: informative guided tours are also offered here daily from April to October.
Vancouver has a number of scenic parks to stroll. Queen Elizabeth Park - the city's highest point (550 feet above sea level and with panoramic views over the mountain framed downtown skyscrapers), this 130 acre park claims to house specimens of every tree native to Canada. Sports fields, manicured lawns and formal gardens keep the locals happy and you'll likely also see wide eyed couples posing for their wedding photos in particularly picturesque spots. This is a good place to view local birdlife: keep your eyes peeled for chickadees, hummingbirds and huge bald eagles whirling high overhead. Check out the synchronized fountains at the park's summit - home to the Bloedel Conservatory, where you'll find tropical trees and plants bristling with hundreds of free flying, bright plumaged birds.
Located in North Vancouver is Grouse Mountain. The self proclaimed 'Peak of Vancouver,' this mountain top playground, accessed via Skyride gondola (included with admission), offers spectacular views of downtown glittering in the water below. In summer, your ticket also includes access to lumberjack shows, alpine hiking, bird of prey displays and a grizzly bear refuge. Note: Grouse lures visitors from downtown from May to September by offering a free shuttle from Canada Place. And in winter, it's all about skiing and snowboarding at this popular powdery playground. Also in North Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. As you inch gingerly across one of the world's longest (460 feet) and highest (230 feet) pedestrian suspension bridges, swaying gently over Capilano Canyon, remember that its thick steel cables are firmly embedded in concrete. Added park attractions include a glass bottomed cliffside walkway and an elevated canopy trail through the trees. Note: this is a hugely popular attraction - try to arrive early during peak months so you can check out the historic exhibits, totem poles and tree shaded nature trails on the other side of the bridge in relative calm. On your way out, peruse what must be BC's biggest souvenir shop for First Nations artworks.
Vancouver's most famous playground is Stanley Park. One of North America’s largest urban green spaces, it is revered for its dramatic forest and mountain oceanfront views. But there’s more to this 990 acre woodland than looks. The park is studded with nature hugging trails, family friendly attractions and sunset loving beaches. Built in stages between 1917 and 1980, the park's 6 mile Seawall trail is the town's favorite outdoor hangout. Encircling the park, it offers spectacular waterfront vistas on one side and dense forest on the other. You can walk the whole thing in roughly three hours or rent a bike to cover the route far faster. The Seawall also delivers you to some of the park's top highlights. About 1 mile from the West Georgia Street entrance, you'll come to the ever popular Totem Poles. Remnants of an abandoned 1930s plan to create a First Nations 'theme village,' these bright painted poles were joined by some exquisitely carved Coast Salish welcome arches a few years back. Continue on to the nearby Nine O’Clock Gun, Brockton Point Lighthouse and Lumberman's Arch, which is a good spot to see Alaska cruise ships sliding past. From here, you can cut into the park to the popular Vancouver Aquarium or continue around the Seawall - it gets wilder and more scenic as you pass under the Lions Gate Bridge and face down the Pacific Ocean. Second Beach is a family friendly area on the park's western side, with a grassy playground, an ice cream serving concession and a huge outdoor swimming pool. For a little more tranquility, try Third Beach. A sandy expanse with plenty of logs to sit against, this is a favored summer evening destination for Vancouverites. Note: a fine way to reach Stanley Park is a bike ride or stroll along the Coal Harbour Seawall from Canada Place.
Other top notch beach spots include: English Bay Beach, Kitsilano Beach and Wreck Beach. Wandering south on Denman Street, you'll spot one of Vancouver's most popular public artworks - a series of oversized laughing figures that makes everyone smile. Across the street is English Bay Beach, where a summertime party atmosphere has locals catching rays and panoramic ocean views. It's also where the city's wildly popular Polar Bear Swim takes place on January 1. Facing English Bay, Kitsilano (Kits) Beach is one of Vancouver's favorite summertime hangouts. The wide, sandy expanse attracts frisbee tossers and volleyball players. The ocean is fine for a dip, though serious swimmers should consider the heated Kitsilano Pool, one of the world's largest outdoor saltwater pools. Rest on a log on a summer afternoon and catch the breathtaking view of one of the region's signature panoramas. You'll be treated to shimmering seafront backed by the twinkling glass towers of downtown and the North Shore mountains beyond. To reach Wreck Beach, follow Trail 6 into the woods and down the steep steps to find Vancouver's only official naturist beach - complete with a motley crew of counterculture locals, independent vendors and sunburned regulars. Note: the clothing optional crowd are a generally welcoming group, so long as you're not just there to gawk.
The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) is located at 1100 Chestnut Street in the Kitsilano neighborhood. This history museum serves up cool temporary exhibitions alongside in depth permanent galleries of fascinating First Nations artifacts and evocative pioneer era exhibits. But it really comes to life in its vibrant 1950s pop culture and 1960s hippie counterculture sections - a reminder that Kitsilano was once the grass smoking center of Vancouver's flower power movement. Note: don't miss the shimmering gallery of vintage neon signs collected from around the city. Nearby at 1905 Ogden Avenue is the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Teeming with salty seafaring artifacts, dozens of intricate ship models and a couple of walk through recreated boat sections, the prize exhibit at this waterfront museum is the St Roch - a 1928 Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arctic patrol vessel that was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage in both directions. Note: entry includes timed access to this celebrated boat and you can also try your hand at piloting it via a cool wheelhouse simulator. The Museum of Anthropology can be found on the campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) at 6393 NorthWest Marine Drive. The city's best museum is studded with spectacular indigenous totem poles and breathtaking carvings - but it's also full of artifacts from cultures around the world, from intricate Swedish lace to bright Sri Lankan folk masks. A new gallery here is filled with brilliantly crafted aboriginal creations from the area - look out for the carved tobacco pipe shaped like a baby bird. Note: take one of the free daily tours for some context, but give yourself at least a couple of hours to explore on your own.
Conclude your tour of Vancouver with a walk along Robson Street or take the Aquabus water taxi over to Granville Island. In the 1970s, Granville Island began its successful transformation from an industrial wasteland to one of the most beloved public spaces in town. As the city's premier artistic and cultural hub, located in an urban, waterfront location and steeped in a rich maritime heritage, this unique destination attracts millions of visitors each year from around the world. The charm of Granville Island lies in its unexpected mix of uses - the famous Public Market, open daily from 9a-6p, is home to more than 50 independent food purveyors and contributes to the Island’s appeal as a renowned culinary destination. In the Net Loft Shops and Railspur Artisan District, many of Canada’s best artists and designers can be found. Some of my favorite vendors on Granville include: Beadworks, Benton Brothers Fine Cheese, Celine's Fish and Chips, ChocolaTas, Granville Island Tea Company, Granville Island Brewing Co, Kasama Chocolate, Lee's Donuts, Oyama Sausage Co, Postcard Place, Siegel's Bagels, Rogers' Chocolates, The Liberty Distillery, The Lobster Man, Tribal Rugs & Art and White Ocean Gallery.
WHERE TO EAT
Vancouver has many great places to eat, drink and indulge. Start your day at 49th Parallel Cafe & Lucky's Doughnuts, located at 689 Thurlow Street. This casual spot does locally roasted, small batch gourmet coffee and delectable donuts. Go with the organic breakfast roast and maple nut ring, topped with maple glaze, candied pecans and walnuts. Another dynamite spot is East Van Roasters at 319 Carrall Street. This charity focused coffee shop roasts its own beans and makes its own chocolates and sweets. Be sure to stock up on salted chocolate chunk cookies to take home.
For lunch, head to Phnom Penh at 244 East Georgia Street in Chinatown. The dishes at this bustling, local legend joint are split between Cambodian and Vietnamese soul food classics. The menu is enormous, so save yourself from the agonies of choice and order up the deep fried crunchy chicken wings (with their amazing pepper sauce), butter beef and spring rolls. Don't leave without sampling a steamed rice cake - stuffed with pork, shrimp, coconut and scallions, and washed down with an ice cold bottle of Tsingtao beer. Hello Nori can be found at 1165 Robson Street. It is the first Japanese hand roll bar in Vancouver. It does mouthwatering crispy hand rolls filled with warm rice and the freshest, locally sourced and sustainable seafood. I went with the 6 hand roll set menu (toro, yellow tail, king salmon, scallop, crab, truffle lobster) and an iced matcha to drink.
If you fancy ramen, there are 2 places that will get the job done. Marutama Ramen is located at 780 Bidwell Street in the Westend neighborhood. There usually is a long line at this noodle joint, but it is worth the wait. Each day this small ramen shop makes 500 balls of noodles which rest for 24 hours before being cooked and slurped up. Hailing from Japan, Marutama favors a silky rich chicken broth over the heavier pork based tonkotsu. Do try the Tamago Ramen (creamy chicken broth, soft boiled egg, pork chashu, green onion, seaweed, thin noodle). Jinya Ramen Bar is at 541 Robson Street. The two key ingredients in ramen are the broth and the noodles - Jinya makes sure they both take center stage. I destroyed the Tonkotsu Black (rich pork broth, pork chashu, kikurage, green onion, seaweed, seasoned egg, garlic chips, garlic oil, fried onion, thin noodle).
Vancouver has several notable seafood spots. The Sandbar can be found at 1535 Johnston Street on Granville Island. This hot spot offers waterfront views, oysters, sushi and the freshest seafood from BC's coast. The Sandbarge Platter might tempt you (fresh chilled seafood, four jumbo prawns, 1/2 dozen oysters, ahi tuna poke, 1/2 dungeness crab). Pair it with a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Its sister restaurant Cardero's is at 1583 Coal Harbour Quay in Coal Harbour. This location on the marina provides spectacular mountain and inlet views, plus cocktails, classic comfort food, freshly grilled fish and items from the wood burning oven. I enjoyed the shrimp dumplings with hot mustard, the signature wok fried squid with chili caesar sauce and washed it all down with a few pints of Granville Island Hefeweizen.
Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar is located at 845 Burrard Street in the Sutton Place Hotel. There are hotel restaurants and there are restaurants in hotels, and Boulevard is definitely the latter. Pedigreed chef Alex Chen and team’s inventive take on West Coast seafood brings diners into some excitingly experimental territory, but never strays far from harmony and balance. It’s a bright, beautiful room to enjoy crowd pleasing seafood towers or steak frites - while the service, cocktails and wine list are all on point. Note: there’s a great daily happy hour from 3p-6p with cocktails on tap, oysters and an incredibly good wagyu beef Korean galbi dog. An additional superb restaurant in a hotel is the Lobby Lounge RawBar, found at 1038 Canada Place in the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. Splurge on the nigiri omakase set menu or snack on one of the Lobby Lounge rolls stuffed with silky local albacore tuna and sweet Dungeness crab. Note: pair them with creative cocktails from the Lobby Lounge bar team, under the helm of Canadian World Class cocktail competition winner Grant Sceney.
For dinner, make your way to Kissa Tanto at 263 East Pender Street in Chinatown. This rad place does Japanese Italian fusion cuisine in a stylish space inspired by 1960s Tokyo jazz cafes. The food and drinks menu at this 'house of plenty' is second to none. Try the fish crudo with shiso vinaigrette, radishes, pickled almonds, capers and olives or the mezzi rigatoni with nut fed pork ragu, tomato xo butter and sesame crumbs. To drink, you can't go wrong with the Dark End of the Street (Suntory Toki whiskey, Cynar, Takara plum wine,
Boker’s bitters, lemon oil, Amarena cherry). Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Nearby at 163 Keefer Street is Bao Bei. Reinterpreting a Chinatown heritage building with hipsteresque flourishes, this Chinese brasserie is totally awesome. Sharing plates are pleasingly well sized and the cocktails thoughtfully crafted. Do not miss the handmade dumplings, mantou buns, pork ribs, nor the appropriately named kick ass house fried rice. The Koji Cure (Suntory Toki, lemon, miso, ginger, islay mist) cocktail was especially tasty. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Miku is located at 200 Granville Street (main entrance on Howe Street). Situated along the Burrard Inlet next to Canada Place, this superb sushi joint is the best in town. I recommend the Kaiseki multi course set menu featuring signature Aburi style cuisine, served on beautiful handmade Arita plateware from Kyushu, Japan. The Waterfront Kaiseki selection with sake pairing included lobster ceviche, chef's selection sashimi, miso sablefish, miku signature sushi selection and the Green Tea Opera (dark chocolate ganache with matcha ice cream) for dessert. Note: reservations are advised. Vij's can be found at 3106 Cambie Street. Spicy aromas scent the air as you enter this warmly intimate dining space for Vancouver's finest Indian cuisine. Exemplary servers happily answer menu questions, while bringing over snacks and chai tea. There's a one page array of tempting dishes but the trick is to order three or four to share (mains are all available as small plates and orders come with rice and naan). Alongside popular meat dishes, including the legendary lamb popsicles, there's an excellent array of vegetarian options - cauliflower in coconut curry is a highlight. Note: reservations are encouraged.
Nightingale is chef David Hawksworth's informal restaurant, serving modern Canadian fare and classic cocktails. It is located inside the Marine Building at 1017 West Hastings Street. Set over two floors, this space boasts an upscale ambiance along with an appealing seasonal menu. I enjoyed the spring greens salad with avocado, radish, basil and lime vinaigrette then moved on to the grilled asparagus with hazelnut, brown butter, pecorino and truffle. Their pizzas are tremendous - I put away the chorizo with pepperoncini, honey and mozzarella. To drink, I went with the Jas Mint (Absolut vodka, apple, mint, jasmine, ginger lemon). Chef Hawksworth's crown jewel restaurant is Hawksworth, found within the Rosewood Hotel Georgia at 801 West Georgia Street. This unmissable eatery is perfect for a special occasion. The decor, from the Damien Hirst art on the wall of the outstanding cocktail bar to the gleaming oversized crystal chandelier in the main dining room, set high expectations for what’s to come. Go with the tuna tartare and Hokkaido scallop with grilled rapini, chorizo and romesco sauce. A classic Tanqueray gin and tonic was crisp and refreshing. Note: reservations are recommended.
Blue Water Cafe is located at 1095 Hamilton Street. Raw from the sushi bar or cooked from the open kitchen, seafood is the star at this Yaletown institution. Widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s leaders in sustainable seafood, chef Frank Pabst and team will excite your taste buds. The service is superb, the wine list is wonderful and the BC seafood tower is a splurge meal you’ll adore. Note: the restaurant is very popular so plan ahead. My most memorable dining experience was at St Lawrence, found at 269 Powell Street in Japantown. Since opening in 2017, under the experienced hand of Montreal’s Toque restaurant alum chef JC Poirier, this casually elegant venue has been one of the city’s toughest reservations to score. Step behind the velvet curtain of this intimate dining room where old school French technique meets Quebecois cuisine. The monthly Table d'Hote three course menu includes a choice of starter, main and dessert - with an optional wine pairing. I thoroughly enjoyed snails with a garlic and parsley butter and puff pastry - duck with olives, croquette, tomato concasse and foie gras - creme caramel with basil syrup and raspberries. Note: be sure to book well in advance.
Vancouver has a number of cool places to have a drink and see a show. The Keefer Bar is at 135 Keefer Street in Chinatown. This dark, narrow and atmospheric spot has been claimed by local cocktail loving coolsters since day one. Drop in for a full evening of liquid tasting and you'll have a blast. Try the Forager's Martini (Botanist gin, Dry Vermouth blend, foraged hydrosol, served 20 below zero with house pickled vegetables, olives, lemon twist). The Alibi Room is located in a heritage building at 157 Alexander Street in Gastown. The city's finest craft beer tavern pours a legendary roster of 50 plus drafts, many from celebrated BC breweries including Four Winds, Yellow Dog and Dageraad. Guilt & Co can be found at 1 Alexander Street, Underground. This cavelike subterranean bar, beneath Gastown's brick cobbled sidewalks, is also a brilliant venue to catch a tasty side dish of live music. Drinks wise, there's a great cocktail list plus a small array of draft beers - and many more in cans and bottles.
Nearby at 203 Carrall Street is Six Acres. Gastown's coziest tavern, you can cover all the necessary food groups via the carefully chosen draft and bottled beer list here. It seems right and proper to also have a whiskey, since you are only a few steps from where Gassy Jack started the city with his first tavern in 1867. Note: the history doesn't end there, though. Six Acres is located in the Alhambra Building, one of the city's oldest structures. Just across the square at 6 Powell Street is The Diamond. Head upstairs via the unassuming entrance to discover one of the city's warmest little brick lined cocktail lounges. A glowing, wood floored heritage room studded with sash windows - try to score a seat with a view and enjoy a smashing hand crafted cocktail. The Hendrick's gin Old Fashioned with grapefruit and lavender bitters was quite good.
Vancouver has a cool music scene and some of the best venues in Canada. There are 2 in particular that stand out above the rest. The Vogue Theatre is located at 918 Granville Street. A 1940s heritage venue - check out the retro art deco figure perched on top of the streamlined exterior - the Vogue was bought and refurbished a few years back. Happily it hasn't changed much and it's a great old school venue to see bands. A few doors down the road is one of my favorite venues anywhere in the world. The fabulous Commodore Ballroom is at 868 Granville Street. Bands know they've made it when they play the city's best mid sized venue (capacity 1000), a restored art deco ballroom that has a bouncy dance floor - courtesy of tires placed under its floorboards. The historic Commodore has been entertaining locals since 1929 and everyone from Duke Ellington to Nirvana has played here over the years.
WHERE TO STAY
Vancouver offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Loden Hotel, located at 1177 Melville Street. This contemporary boutique hotel is a short walk from the Coal Harbour Seawall and not far from Stanley Park. Stylish rooms featuring modern decor and furnishings include free WiFi, flat screen TVs and floor to ceiling operable windows. Upgraded quarters offer terraces overlooking a reflection pond, complimentary yoga mats and Nintendo Wii gaming systems. Amenities include a French bistro, free bicycles, private car service in the Loden cab and an upscale spa.
A second option is the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa, located at 845 Hornby Street. This elegant boutique hotel is across the road from Robson Square and close to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Plush rooms featuring European style decor include furnished balconies and marble bathrooms, as well as Nespresso machines, flat screen TVs, iPod docks and complimentary WiFi. Upgrades add separate sitting areas, antique furnishings, whirlpool tubs, wet bars, fireplaces and terraces. Other perks include a French restaurant with a piano bar, a steam room and a relaxation room stocked with free refreshments.
Vancouver has an abundance of natural beauty, wonderful museums, delicious cuisine, rich history and polite citizens. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.