The usual Vancouver travel hype focuses on spectacular vistas and North America’s best Asian cuisine. We agree. But that’s not the whole story.
In recent years, an explosion of independent makers has resulted in arguably the most creative dining/drinking scene in Canada. Add to that a crop of concept boutiques and cutting-edge galleries, and there are many compelling reasons to venture a little farther into Vancouver’s distinctive neighbourhoods.
So enjoy our shiny, glass-towered downtown with sneaky peeks to ocean, forest, and mountains. Then keep exploring.
Here’s the ultimate 72-hour Vancouver guide for first time visitors.
The soft spot in the heart of all Vancouverites is the 404-hectare (1,000-acre) emerald green Stanley Park situated on a peninsula just off the northwestern edge of downtown Vancouver. Founded in 1888, this is not a fussy, manicured park; it’s a rugged, magical space meant to preserve the Vancouver the pioneers first encountered.
Inside, stands of old growth trees rub shoulders with BC First Nations totem poles. The Vancouver Aquarium educates visitors on 50,000 forms of marine life; a heron colony roosts near Beach Avenue.
Explore the wild beauty by renting a bike from the rental shops near the Georgia Street entrance and cruising the 8.8 kilometre seawall perimeter. The views of English Bay, North Shore Mountains and temperate rain forest will get you in that contemplative vacation mind-set.
Don’t miss the 32-million-year old Siwash Rock jutting up from the water between Third Beach and the Lions Gate Bridge. Nearby you’ll also find Hollow Tree, a 700- to 800-year-old Western Red Cedar tree stump you can walk (or drive, or ride an elephant) inside.
After a morning looking at nature, taste some. Start at Rodney’s Oyster House, a temple for bivalves, in Yaletown, Vancouver’s former warehouse district which has been thoroughly gentrified. Rodney’s low-tide specials – raw oysters from cool West Coast waters, Haida Gwaii salmon “candy” cured in maple syrup, and crispy potato-crusted scallops – go down a little too easily.
Every beach town needs a talented gelato maker. Bella Gelateria’s founder James Coleridge scoops up awards at the annual show down in Florence, Italy. Stroll over to Bella’s new cafe and gelato lab situated on the Yaletown waterfront at False Creek for a sweet finish and another stunning view.
Coleridge’s technical prowess is obvious whether you order classic chocolate, or a trend-conscious flavour like salted caramel. For sorbet, our pick is vanilla-orange, a sophisticated reinterpretation of a creamsicle pop.
Come dinner time, if you’re feeling posh, Blue Water Cafe is the five-star Vancouver seafood experience. Chef Frank Pabst has garnered a genuine following for his flawless renditions of the daily catch; think char with braised leeks, wakame, dungeness crab and trout caviar, or sable fish with miso-sake glaze. The raw bar and sushi station are also home runs. The only issue here is decision making.
If it’s comfort food you’re craving, head to The Flying Pig. The motto at this nouveau Canadian joint could be: put a pig on it. Generous servings of Caesar salad come with pork croutons. The poutine is topped with pulled pork. But the red wine braised beef short rib with roast bone marrow is their magnum opus. No porker necessary.
Head to OPUS Bar for after-dinner drinks in Yaletown’s hottest hotel, where the cool kids act nonchalant while people watching at the zebra-striped marble bar. The owners recently redid the interior and the result is a lounge as design-savvy as an “it” South Beach hotel lobby. What to order? The delicate yet potent Room Key: gin, orange, bitters, pineapple and aperol.
For a more chill end to the evening, park it at Mosquito, a sleek dessert and champagne bar on Water Street, the main drag of historic Gastown. With a selection of bubbly and elegant sweet offerings (matcha opera cake layered with yuzu cremeux and coconut matcha mousse, birch syrup chocolates, red fruit and tonka bean macarons), nothing embodies Vancouver’s obsession with food more than this frivolous destination.
Skip the lackluster, mainstream party district on Granville Street and make your way to Chinatown and Gastown for a more happening late night scene. At Fortune Sound Club, tucked among the Chinatown retail clutter on Pender, you’ll find Vancouver’s coolest late night venue with big dance floor and a superior sound system. The DJs and bands who show off here make it easy to dance your pants off with the horde of hipsters already doing the same.
Brunching is among Vancouverites’ top hobbies. Without the calorie splurge, they might lose their motivation to hike. Cafe Medina has been a cool brunch spot so long it’s now a classic choice, with city’s best Belgian waffles served with toppings ranging from lavender milk chocolate to peach and bourbon butterscotch. The savories are Mediterranean-inspired bistro fare; think merguez links and spicy Moroccan lamb meatballs with poached eggs.
It’s a 15-minute walk from brunch to the Canada Place waterfront, where the explorers first landed where, currently, Vancouver’s cruise ship terminal and convention centre is the main attraction. The iconic structure made up of massive white sails jutting out over the dark blue water is our equivalent of the Sydney Opera House; it makes for impressive Instagram fodder.
Nearby in Jack Poole Plaza, Digital Orca, a pixelated whale sculpture by groundbreaking Vancouver author and artist Douglas Coupland, is a must-see. The monochrome beast is jumping skyward against a rugged North Shore Mountain backdrop. Next to it you’ll find the Vancouver Olympic Cauldron, lit by Wayne Gretzky during the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies.
Make your way southeast along the Coal Harbour waterfront until it becomes Gastown, and take your time poking around Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. A lot has changed since lumberman caroused in the saloons here in the 19th century. This cobbled heritage district is now packed with concept restaurants and independent boutiques; it has even been ranked among the most stylish neighbourhoods in the world.
Perk up at Revolver Coffee, ground zero for the Vancouver coffee culture revolution. Run by four knowledgeable and passionate brothers, this beautiful wood-and-brick coffee bar offers coffee by seed-to-cup, small-batch roasters. They will manually brew it for you however you choose: siphon, Aeropress, French press or Clever.
While most tourists wait around for the Steam Clock (built 1977) at Cambie and Water Street to toot, it’s more meaningful to salute the bronze statue Gassy Jack Deighton standing on a whiskey barrel, a block or so down on Maple Tree Square. Gassy Jack built a saloon on this spot in 1867, launching the settlement that would grow up to become Vancouver.
Gastown retail spots to check out before heading to dinner? Whatever catches your fancy, you’re spoiled for choice here. If we have to pick: Old Faithful Shop for pioneer-chic home accessories, and The Block for co-ed fashion and accessories including a selection of independent Vancouver designers.
From Gastown, cut east through Chinatown (the largest in Canada) to Phnom Penh (no website, 244 East Georgia Street). This unassuming Vietnamese/Cambodian/Chinese melting pot has been praised by Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child for its crispy deep-fried chicken wings with lemon pepper sauce, butter beef, and spicy garlic squid. There’s always a wait. So put your name on the list, and head around the corner to check out the bizarre Jimi Hendrix Shrine.
Hendrix used to live in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood with his grandmother, and the psychedelic homage sits on top of the former restaurant Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, where his grandmother worked and Hendrix used to hang around the famous visiting musicians, who came to eat after their shows.
When you’re done at Phnom Penh, head a few blocks up Main Street into Mount Pleasant and Brewery Creek, the heart of Vancouver’s burgeoning craft beer movement. This is also Vancouver’s art gallery district, The Flats, and you may run into an exhibition opening, or drink beer side by side with the artists themselves.
Our picks for the combo of most talented brewers and best people watching? Brassneck, where friendly, and often bearded, employees pour a rotating selection of “dangerously drinkable” suds, and there’s usually a food truck parked out front.
33 Acres, just off Main, is another great option. This incredibly well-designed, modern, white brewery has a highly-quaffable and tightly-curated list of suds on tap, and attractive beer merch like ceramic growlers. They too have food trucks out front at mealtimes, not to mention a snack menu that reads like a who’s who of cool Vancouver artisans, all-day coffee, and waffle and beer events.
If you’re reluctant to call it, finish by checking out the nightlife on Main Street with cocktails and snacks at Nomad, a spacious and modern bar that focuses on regional, seasonal inputs.
As you approach the island, keep an eye out for Sea Village, an aquatic cul-de-sac of 13 brightly-painted floating homes. Once you disembark, head to vibrant Granville Island Public Market, a cliched but worth it stop. Inside the covered shopping area you’ll find all sorts of locally-made picnic supplies, which you can take with you on your way to your next adventure.
The market can be overwhelming, and if you fear you may lose stamina before you find the best artisan eats, book a Granville Island Market Tour with Vancouver Foodie Tours. They guide you through two hours of locally-made charcuterie, small-batch cheese, doughnuts and even fermented cuisine.
The absolute must-visit on Granville Island is Edible Canada, a remarkable space dedicated to showcasing the best of BC and Canadian cuisine with their bistro and artisan food retail store. You’ll find all sorts of things you should gift, but you’ll be tempted to keep for yourself: birch syrup, wine marinated wild pacific salmon, BC-made cedar cooking planks, Beta 5 chocolate bars and locally-themed cookbooks, so you can recreate PNW cuisine at home.
Craft-minded folk should also drop in on Circle Craft Coop, a one stop shop featuring pretty pieces in clay, fibre, wood and more by 180 BC makers.
Don’t miss the playful 23-metre mural “Giants” on Granville Island’s concrete silos by Brazilian street artists OSGEMEOS before walking on the seawall to Kitsilano.
While many city museums are a tad sleepy, Museum of Vancouver has cutting-edge curators, and there’s always an interesting exhibit on Vancouver urban culture. It’s a 20 minute walk here from Granville Island. The Vanier Park location on the water between False Creek and English Bay is ideal for a picnic.
Next stop is picture-perfect Kitsilano Beach, where you’ll find folks of all ages sunning themselves, doing yoga, playing volleyball and jogging. Soak up the breathtaking views of downtown Vancouver (just across the Burrard Bridge) and the North Shore before pressing on.
Kitsilano neighbourhood and Kits Beach are named after Squamish First Nation chief August Jack Khatsahlano (1867-1971). As the First Nations people were unceremoniously pushed out of Kits in 1913, the area transitioned from a beach getaway for Vancouverites to a residential neighbourhood of Vancouver, characterized by gingerbread Craftsman-style homes. By the 1960s-70s it was a counterculture enclave for Vancouver hippies. Present day Kits is posh, pretty beach neighbourhood with locavore eats, and good shopping on West 4th.
Head up the hill from the beach to check out the retail scene on West 4th Avenue, where independents hold their own against big chains. Zulu Records is an emblem of the counterculture identity of the Kits and a cool-kids meeting place of sort. Gravity Pope has the best shoe selection in Western Canada. Next stop: dinner.
Once you’re good and hungry, make your way to Bishop’s Restaurant, also on the main artery of Kitsilano, West 4th Avenue. The cornerstone of Vancouver’s “local food” movement in 1986, Bishop’s continues to create beautiful and flavourful iterations of BC’s bountiful inputs. The tone here is more formal than other locavore joints; enjoy the elegant hospitality.
Just up West 4th, Rain or Shine Homemade Ice Cream is where you’ll find your happy ending in the form of an ice cream taco, or an ice cream tasting flight. This whimsical small-batch creamery boasts a cow with a unicorn horn as its mascot and fun design like glass milk bottle chandeliers. All flavours are made with local cow juice and, when possible, locally-sourced mix-ins such as honey and berries. Must-tries include: honey lavender, coconut salted fudge, and peanut butter.
The Burrard is a retro-chic, affordable boutique hotel with easy access to downtown Vancouver.
The Sylvia, built in 1912, is a pretty heritage hotel on English Bay right next to Stanley Park. Friendly service, rooms with kitchens, and Vancouver’s oldest cocktail hour are all draws.
The Loden Hotel in Coal Harbour is a luxury hotel with custom-designed rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and an excellent in-house French restaurant, Tableau Bar Bistro.