Vancouver City Guide
Things to do and see in Vancouver, BC
Vancouver is a wonderful place to live (and maybe an even better place to visit — prohibitive real estate pricing what what). It's a vibrant and multicultural city full of diverse neighbourhoods, great restaurants, microbreweries, parks, cafés, fun events, and an active cultural life. Plus it's really easy to explore: it's eminently bikeable, walkable, and has one of the most comprehensive public transit systems in the world. We get a lot of emails asking for recommendations about things to do in Vancouver, and we love answering them. It affords us a minute to pause and reflect on all the great places in our backyard, and on all the reasons we love living here. This post is a summation of all the Vancouver things we like to do and think you might like, too.
But often our most favourite thing to do is just get out of the city. Vancouver's close proximity to ocean beaches, isolated islands, temperate rainforests, and rugged mountain backcountry are really what set it apart and make it a perfect base to see some of the most beautiful landscapes Canada has to offer. If you want to get out of the city, check out our Vancouver Adventure Guide!
AROUND THE CITY
One of the best ways to get a feel for a city is to wander through its various neighbourhoods. If you only had a couple days in Vancouver we'd recommend dedicating a fair chunk of it to just walking around or hopping on a bikeshare and simply exploring, eating, and drinking in a somewhat haphazard way — I think it's sometimes best to discover a city on your own terms rather than treat it like a checklist to hurry through. But that said, visiting a new city can also be overwhelming, so here are some ideas to get you started.
GASTOWN / CHINATOWN
We obvs have to start in Gastown. One of the city's main shopping centres and a cultural hub, Gastown and the adjacent Downtown Eastside were the original city centre before downtown slowly drifted west, and the many stately old buildings attest to its importance. In those days the city was still very much a resource town (still kinda is), and drink was of such importance that they named an entire neighbourhood after the first bar proprietor. Good work, guys. On the western end are the tourist shops so unless you want some syrup in a maple-shaped bottle (and who wouldn't!) you can skip that and focus on the eastern end of Gastown towards Chinatown, where you'll find old buildings, independent and boutique shops and some of the city's best coffee. Between the two neighbourhoods lies the Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. It might seem a little rough with its open-air drug trade and homelessness, but we've never once had a problem, and it remains one of the city's more vibrant communities and an essential part of the civic and cultural landscape.
Vancouver's Chinatown is one of the largest historic Chinatowns on the continent. Once a robust and thriving community, the neighbourhood has fallen into decline as it's residents aged and younger Chinese immigrants moved to Richmond. More recently, the merchant association has been encouraging younger, multiethnic shopkeeps to move into the area to help maintain storefronts and attract younger crowds, so there is a trickling of great new restaurants and shops and plenty of reason to check it out.
One thing you might notice is that Vancouver has no real freeway system. It might make driving a bit more of a chore but we like to think that's actually to everyone's benefit. And its something you can thank community organizers for — city planners in the 1960s wanted to bulldoze large swathes of historic Chinatown and Gastown to put in connectors to a giant seaside causeway, but the residents rose up and the whole thing was kiboshed. Thank goodness — the lack of a freeway cutting through downtown is one of the things that really sets Vancouver apart from most North American cities and, to our minds, keeps it walkable and livable.
Housewares and lifestyle goods at Old Faithful Shop
Vintage and handmade leather bags at Erin Templeton
Vintage and antique wares at Duchess Vintage
Uncomplicated fashion at Oak and Fort
Trendy clothing at Nouvelle Nouvelle
Stationery and gifts at Meadow
Shop for jeans at Dutil Denim
EAT / DRINK
Sample the city's best coffee at Revolver
Coffee and sandwiches at Nelson the Seagull
Chinese small plates and cocktails at Bao Bei
Handmade Italian pasta from Ask for Luigi
Cambodian and SE Asian at Phnom Penh
Grab a drink at Six Acres or Alibi Room
Coffee and croissants at Matchstick
Mighty fine sandwiches at Finch's
Currywurst at Bestie
Lebanese at Nuba
Directly adjacent to Chinatown is Strathcona, The city's oldest residential neighbourhood. It has always been a working class and multiethnic neighbourhood, and while it has seen a lot of revitalization in the past few years it still feels very like a little community. There are a lot of quiet tree-lined streets and old heritage timber-frame houses, some better maintained than others, but almost all with character. There's also a fair amount of social housing. If you listen to Dan Bejar (you are of course on a Destroyer pilgrimage, right?) you might recognize some of the place names. This is still very much a residential neighbourhood and doesn't have many shops. If you get hungry we recommend popping in to Finch's beautiful Strathcona location for a sandwich or heading back over to Chinatown for some ramen at Harvest
For the last couple decades or so Mt Pleasant (sometimes called South Main or just Main) has been Vancouver's 'hip' neighbourhood, and is great for an afternoon stroll, with a lot of shops and restaurants and cafés to stop in at. Much of the area's lively heritage is owed to a creek that once meandered through and which fed a number of long-gone breweries, a heritage which has come full circle with a few of our favourite breweries recently setting up shop here.
Gifts and housewares at Much and Little Shop
Quality paper products at Regional Assembly of Text
Vintage clothing at F as in Frank
Antisocial Skate Shop
Front and Company
Red Cat Records
EAT / DRINK
Coffee and donuts from 49th Parallel Coffee
Casual Farm to Table breakfast at Fable Diner
Malaysian street food at Hawkers Delight
Brunch at Slickity Jim's Chat n' Chew
Innovative vegetarian at The Acorn
Crêpes and coffee at Marche St. George
Refined organic fare from Burdock and Co
Fresh cold-pressed juice from The Juice Truck
Grab a beer at 33 Acres or Brassneck Brewery
Sashimi and nigiri at the cozy Toshi Sushi
THE WEST END
Smack dab between the downtown core and Stanley Park and bordering the beaches of English Bay, the West End was Vancouver's first wealthy neighbourhood and home to all the richest railroad families. Most of the stately old mansions have been torn down to make way for 1960s-70s concrete high rises but you can still find a lot of beautiful character buildings on tree-lined streets, and the West End remains a vibrant and interesting area. Davie has long been Vancouver's main gay district and Denman has loads of good restaurants, and of course there's also Robson Street, the city's main shopping area.
Kitsilano is nice. Treelined streets, beautifully restored old houses, a great assortment of shops and restaurants, a beach. In the '60s it was the centre of the city's counterculture movement — Greenpeace was founded here, and the Green Party of Canada opened its first offices — and you can still feel that influence in pockets here and there.
There are a lot of things to do as well, such as take in some Shakespeare at Bard on the Beach, visit the Museum of Vancouver or the Maritime Museum, peruse the beautifully curated vintage and antiques at Step Back, pick up some new shoes at Gravity Pope, and tuck in at The Farmer's Apprentice, Hapa Izakaya, Maenam
Fraser. What can we say about Fraser. With potential to become one of Vancouver's next up-and-coming neighbourhoods, the Fraserhood has seen a tidy influx of gems opening up shop in the last few years. If you happen out this way we recommend stopping in at Matchstick Coffee for a coffee and almond croissant, brunch at Bows X Arrows, Sal y Limon for unpretentious Mexican food or Les Faux Bourgeois for delicious French fare, and Earnest Ice Cream for an afterdinner treat. And of course the Twin Peaks-themed vegetarian eatery The Black Lodge. All well worth a visit.
Originally a wealthy suburb, Commercial Drive fell on hard times in the Depression and never fully recovered. After WWII Italians and Portuguese moved to the area, lending the neighbourhood the name "Little Italy" and a plethora of pizza joints, though that European influence has since been offset somewhat by Asian and Central and South American immigrants as well. Since the 80s it has been the city's centre of counterculture with concentrations of activists, hippies, punks, lesbians, & artists. We feel right at home. My mom likes to say it's a perfect blend of seedy and hip. Stop in for some coffee and pizza, and you'll see what she means.
Our favourite neighbourhood pizzeria is Via Tevere and for take-away and by the slice we frequent Pizza Garden. For coffee we usually go to Prado or Bump n Grind or Moja. For burgers and beer we like Cannibal Cafe or Fets Whiskey Kitchen. For Japanese check out Tatsu or Kishimoto, for Thai try Kin Kao. or for Lebanese head to Jam Jar.
EAST VILLAGE / HASTINGS SUNRISE
Maybe not the highest on the list of places to visit, but Hastings Sunrise deserves a mention all the same. Just 15 minutes from downtown, The East Village has a couple restaurants worth checking out: feast on crispy Baja-style fish tacos and growlers of Vancouver Island beer at Tacofino, inspired Italian at Campagnola Roma, and the cozy atmosphere and diner food at the Red Wagon.
STANLEY PARK & THE SEA WALL
Stanley Park is a must visit. It's the crowning jewel of Vancouver, and there are many reasons to check it out: you can walk the trails through the woods, visit the lawns for sports and picnics or the beaches for a snooze, stroll through the gardens, catch views from Prospect Point and the Lost Lagoon. But our favourite thing to do is bike or walk the Sea Wall and go for a sunset swim out at Third Beach. And of course grab a hot dog or ice cream.
While the most popular section of the Sea Wall is around Stanley Park, you can ride from the Convention Centre in downtown's Coal Harbour all the way to Science World, then on to Granville Island and Kitsilano. From there you can continue on mostly separated bike routes to Jericho and the Spanish Banks and all the way up to UBC. It's a good ride and a great way to see some of the city's best sights. So grab a bike! Vancouver has a bikeshare program called Mobi, and you'll likely see the bikes parked all over the city. But there are plenty of traditional rental places too, especially near Stanley Park and the Convention Centre.
Vancouver has a lot of nice beaches, each with a somewhat different scene. The two most well known are probably Sunset Beach and English Bay, as they are the closest to downtown and very busy in the summer. These two beaches have a pretty young and sporty urban vibe, alongside crowds enjoying the sunset.
If you like to swim we'd recommend skipping English Bay in favour of Stanley Park's Second or Third beaches. Second Beach is something of a family beach, replete with pool and playground and picnic tables. Third Beach is a more austere affair, surrounded by the forests of Stanley Park and popular with the East Van crowd (yes, it's our favourite too). You'll know you've reached Third when you see a tangle of bikes and tattoos and people covertly sipping beer.
On the west side is Kitsilano Beach for the yoga pant and university bro crowd, and where you'll probably get dinged with a rogue frisbee or volleyball. Further west is Jericho and then the Spanish Banks, both great family beaches popular with people coming in from the suburbs. Spanish Banks is particularly interesting, with an off-leash dog section and warm, shallow water going out for miles and miles (watch for the drop!) where you can see fantastic views of the city.
And then at UBC there's Wreck Beach, a more remote-feeling clothing-optional beach with people walking back and forth selling beer and magical treats out of fanny packs and coolers.
QUEEN ELIZABETH PARK
In marked contrast to the wooded wilds of Stanley Park are the cultivated grounds and gardens of Queen Elizabeth Park. Perched atop one of the highest points in the city, Queen E commands decent views of downtown and the North Shore mountains. Explore the sunken gardens, the abundant springtime cherry blossoms and the vibrant coloured leaves in fall, or take a tropical vacation inside the Bloedel Conservatory any time of the year.
PACIFIC SPIRIT & THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA
Surrounded by forests and coastline and home to some of the city's best museums and gardens, the University of British Columbia is worth a visit. Go for a stroll in Pacific Spirit Park, wander though the exquisite Nitobe or Botanical Gardens, sunbathe in the nude at beautiful Wreck Beach, and visit the sprawling and expansive collections of West Coast art and culture at the Museum of Anthropology.
STEVESTON & FINN SLOUGH
Tucked away on the southern shores of Richmond's Lulu Island is the old fishing village of Steveston. Long since swallowed up by the encroaching city, it still retains some of its nautical charms. Check out the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum, the Britannia Shipyards historic site, and grab some fish n chips near the pier.
Richmond is surrounded by dykes to keep the ocean and flooding river at bay, and these are great for biking or walking. We like Terra Nova Park to the north, and especially especially especially old Finn Slough to the east. Originally a squatter fishing community founded by a group of Finnish settlers, the sleepy village is made up of picturesque decaying wooden buildings on stilts and tumbled-down boats washed up in the reeds.