There aren't many cities in the world that offer Vancouver's combination of big-city lifestyle and outdoor fun in such cheek-by-jowl proximity. Ski in the morning, sail in the afternoon and still make it back to town in time for a cocktail or three.
Vancouver is still a city of new immigrants - wander the streets and you'll hear a dozen different languages. The city also attracts young professionals and artists from the eastern provinces who come here to enjoy its recreation and laid-back sophistication.
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What To Do
The city's beaches and parks are all good places to head for cycling, inline skating, swimming and running. There's good indoor climbing to be had and the skiing opportunities are particularly fine. There's also over 70 golf courses in the region, gyms aplenty, ice-skating rinks and tennis courts.
What To See
This town was a gas right from the start.
Taking in some First Nations art and culture is a good way to begin a tour through Vancouver. Continue through its many green spaces, its countercultural and cosmopolitan neighborhoods, and Gastown, the city's original settlement, now transformed into a gussied-up historical quarter.
Vancouver's version of the Sydney Opera House – at least judging by the number of postcards it appears on – this iconic landmark is shaped like a series of sails jutting into the sky over the harbor. Now a cruise-ship terminal and convention center (the large, grass-roofed convention center expansion opened next door in 2010), it's also a pier where you can stroll out from the waterfront for some camera-triggering views of the North Shore mountains and the busy floatplanes splashing into the water. If it's raining and you have kids in tow, duck inside to the Port Authority Interpretation Centre, a hands-on showcase illuminating the city's maritime trade. Hit the convention center extension next door: its plaza houses dramatic public artworks, more great views and the tripod-like Olympic Cauldron, a permanent reminder of the 2010 Games.
Granville Island Public Market
Granville Island's highlight is the covered Public Market, a multisensory smorgasbord of fish, cheese, fruit and bakery treats. Pick up some fixings for a picnic at nearby Vanier Park or hit the international food court (dine off-peak and you're more likely to snag a table). Edible BC offers excellent market tours for the foodie-inclined.
An activity-lover's idyll, Jericho is also great if you just want to putter along the beach, clamber over driftwood logs and catch stunning panoramic vistas of downtown Vancouver sandwiched between the water and the looming North Shore mountains. It's also popular with sunset fans. Check out the nearby Hastings Mill Store Museum. Built in Gastown in 1865, this ancient structure is Vancouver's oldest surviving building. It was floated over here in the 1930s and is now home to pioneer-era and First Nations exhibits.
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art
Downtown's newest art space showcases carvings, paintings and jewelry from Canada's most revered Haida artist. Lined with fascinating artifacts and exquisite works – plus handy touch-screens to tell you all about them – this is a comprehensive intro to the creative vision of Reid and his Haida co-artists. Check out the Great Hall, where there's often a carver at work, then hit the mezzanine level: you'll be face-to-face with an 8.5m-long bronze of intertwined magical creatures, complete with some impressively long tongues.
Art deco fans should save time for a stroll through the marble-lined lobby of one of Vancouver's best architectural gems. Completed in 1936, its highlights include a mirrored ceiling, streamlined signs, cylindrical lanterns and embossed elevator doors. Duck inside one of the elevators to peruse their intricate inlaid wood design, then check out the handsome heritage homes on surrounding Yukon St and W 12th Ave. If you're on a deco roll, also hit downtown's lovely Marine Building.
One of the region's most popular family-friendly sites, this farmyard attraction includes plenty of hands-on displays plus a collection of over 200 domestic animals. Your wide-eyed kids will have the chance to pet a few critters, watch the daily milking demonstration and feed some squawking, ever-hungry ducks and chickens. The highlight is the daily (around 3:30pm) 'running of the goats,' when the starving hairballs streak from the paddock to their barn for dinner.
Museum of Vancouver
One of the three well-established educational attractions clustered together in Vanier Park, the recently rebranded MOV has upped its game with cool new temporary exhibitions and regular late-opening parties aimed at an adult crowd. It hasn't changed everything, though. There are still colorful displays on local 1950s pop culture and 1960s hippie counterculture – a reminder that Kits was once the grass-smoking center of Vancouver's flower-power movement – plus plenty of hands-on stuff for the kids, including weekend scavenger hunts and fun workshops.
Calling itself the 'Peak of Vancouver,' this mountaintop perch offers smashing views of the downtown towers, shimmering in the water below you. In summer, Skyride gondola tickets to the top include access to lumberjack shows, alpine hiking trails and a grizzly-bear refuge. Pay extra for the zipline course ($105) or new Eye of the Wind tour ($25), which takes you to the top of a 20-story wind turbine tower for spectacular views of the region. You can also reduce the gondola fee by hiking the ultra-steep Grouse Grind up the side of the mountain – you have to pay $10 to get back down on the Skyride, though. In winter, Grouse also becomes the locals' favorite snowy playground.
This outrageous place has been known to rent out its vintage stock to visiting film crews. It's best known for its collection of '70s clothing, but there's also a fascinating selection from the turn of the century to the 1950s. Consider donating to the '24-hour free box, ' where donated clothes are left outside for anyone who needs them.
Meinhardt Fine Foods
The culinary equivalent of a sex shop for food fans, the narrow aisles at this swanky deli and grocery emporium are lined with international condiments, luxury canned goods and the kind of tempting treats that everyone should try at least once. Drop by for Christmas goodies or build your perfect picnic from the tempting bread, cheese and cold cuts selections. If you're salivating too much, check out Picnic, Meinhardt's adjoining eatery for lunch.
Twigg & Hottie
Just across from Smoking Lily and named after owners Glencora Twigg and Christine Hotton, this wood-floored nook showcases distinctive garments (plus idiosyncratic jewelry) for women from Canadian designers: it's the place to find something that nobody else is wearing back home. If you're in a budgeting mood, peruse the Steals and Deals rack at the back.
This wood-built community hall – which has the ambience of a worker's club without the edge – is popular with East Vancouver hipsters and old-school hippies who have been coming here for years. Along with its eclectic roster of quiz and darts nights in the Tiki Lounge, there's a popular filmmaking club in the main hall plus regular DJ and live-music events – check the website for calendar details.
If you’re lucky enough to catch a show at the Orpheum Theatre, be prepared to gasp when you enter the auditorium. Built in 1927 and now designated a national heritage site, the sumptuous Spanish baroque interior of multiple arches topped by an ornate painted dome harkens back to a time when theaters offered a fantasy escape from reality. But the beautiful old gal isn’t just a well-preserved relic. In fact, she’s steeped in theatrical history. Originally part of a Chicago-headquartered chain of vaudeville houses, stars who have hit the boards before the near-3,000 seats here have included Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine and Harry Belafonte – check out the commemorative wall plaques around the stage door out back and you’ll find an A-Z of names from entertainment history.
Just about any month you visit Vancouver there will be a festival of some sort taking place. The city kicks off the year with an icy dip in English Bay called the Polar Bear Swim, a New Year's Day event since 1920. The city's thriving Chinatown is the center of February's Chinese New Year celebrations, which feature dancing dragons, parades and the constant crackle of firecrackers. June heats up with the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. July starts with Canada Day Celebrations on the 1st and mid-July's Vancouver Folk Music Festival is three days of concerts and workshops with some of North America's best musicians. There's also Dancing on the Edge, Theatre Under the Stars, Vancouver International Comedy Festival and the highly regarded Vancouver Chamber Music Festival.
From mid-August through Labor Day, the Pacific National Exhibition offers a little bit of everything - parades, livestock shows, concerts, sporting events and carnival rides. Gay Pride Day happens the first Sunday in August. The Vancouver International Fringe Festival, held from early to mid-September, is a mix of drama, musicals, comedy and dance from around the world. Vancouver International Film Festival gets it all happening for the celluloid community. October hosts the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, and the uniquely Vancouver tradition of the Christmas Carolship Parade brings Christmas cheer on boats.
Polar Bear Swim - Jan 1
This chilly New Year's Day affair has been taking place annually in English Bay since 1920, and it might just be the ultimate cure for a hangover. At around 2:30pm more than a thousand people charge into the ocean... and most usually leap out shivering a few seconds later.
Chinese New Year - mid Feb
Depending on the calendar, this multiday celebration in and around Chinatown can take place in January or February, but it always includes plenty of colour, dancing and great food. The highlights are the Dragon Parade and firecrackers.
Vancouver International Jazz Festival - Jun
Now more than 25 years old, this giant, nine-day music party is second only to Montréal in the gargantuan jazz fest stakes. It combines superstar performances (Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall are past masters) with smile-triggering free outdoor shows in Gastown and Yaletown, and on Granville Island.
Vancouver Folk Music Festival - mid-Jul
Kitsilano's Jericho Beach is the venue for this sunny, weekend-long festival of alfresco shows, covering folk, world music and beyond. Wear your sun block and join the 30,000 hippies and hipsters at one of Vancouver's oldest and most popular live music events.
Pride Week - early Aug
A week-long kaleidoscope of gay-, lesbian- and bisexual-friendly fashion shows, gala parties and concerts culminating in western Canada's largest pride parade. Typically held on the first Sunday of August, this saucy mardi gras-style street party draws up to 500,000 people to its West End route: expect bands, disco-beat floats and plenty of gyrating, scantily clad locals.
Pacific National Exhibition - mid Aug
This smashing country fair has evolved way beyond its original 1910 farm focus. Locals now come every year for music shows, family-friendly performers (check out those Superdogs), retail halls of oddball products (it's ShamWow time!) and an artery-clogging menu of food stands: miss the mini-donuts at your peril. Don't forget the fairground, with its kick-ass wooden rollercoaster.
Vancouver Comedy Fest - Sep
Ten days of rib-tickling mirth, with Canadian and international acts raising the roof at various venues around town. Improv events feature heavily but there are tons of stand-up comedians doing their thing, too. Book ahead for headline acts, which have previously included Steve Martin and Flight of the Conchords.
Vancouver International Fringe Festival - Sep
One of the city's biggest arts events, this lively 11-day roster of wild and wacky theatrics draws thousands to large, small and unconventional Granville Island venues. Expect short plays, stand-up routines and satiric comedy revues from local, regional and international performers. The shows usually cost around the $10 mark, so you can afford to be adventurous.
Vancouver International Film Festival - late Sep
Lacking the star-studded glamour of its Toronto rival, this giant, highly popular film fest celebrates smaller, artsy movies. Its 17-day roster covers hundreds of screenings of local, national and international films, plus gala events and industry schmoozes. Book ahead.
Vancouver International Writers (& Readers) Festival - mid Oct
Despite the mouthful of a name - with all those writers around, can't they think of something catchier? - this five-day literary event is highly popular. Local and international scribblers turn up for seminars, galas and public forums; past guests have included Salman Rushdie, Irvine Welsh and Douglas Coupland. It's held at venues around Granville Island.
Food and Drink
A rare and evocative relic of Kitsilano's hippie past, this vegetarian restaurant has the feel of a comfy, highly chatty farmhouse. It's not unusual to have to wait for a table here at peak times, but it's worth it for the hearty stir-fries, Mexican platters and sesame-fried potatoes with miso gravy. This is the kind of veggie spot where carnivores are also happy to dine. There's nightly live music, an array of great organic beers and a popular patio – it's covered, so you can cozy up here with a bowl of broth and still enjoy the rain.
Arrive early or late to avoid the queues at this locals' favorite eatery. The dishes here are split between Cambodian and Vietnamese soul-food classics, such as crispy frogs legs, spicy garlic crab and prawn and sprout filled pancakes. 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. This is the kind of place that makes Vancouver Canada's most authentic ethnic-food city.
A funky chrome-and-vinyl '50s diner with a twist, Templeton chefs up plus-sized organic burgers, addictive fries, vegetarian quesadillas and perhaps the best hangover cure in town – try the 'Big Ass Breakfast' and you won't need to eat for days. Sadly, the mini jukeboxes on the tables don't work, but you can console yourself with a waistline-busting chocolate ice-cream float. Beer here is of the local microbrew variety. Avoid weekend peak times or you'll be queuing for ages.
A local-legend, pub-style music venue, the upstairs 'Rail' is accessed via an unobtrusive wooden door next to a 7-Eleven. Don't be put off by the grungy-looking entrance: this is one of the city's friendliest bars and you'll fit right in as soon as you roll up to the bar – unusually for Vancouver, you have to order at the counter, since there's no table service. Expect regional microbrews from the likes of Tree Brewing and Central City (go for its ESB) and hit the hole-in-the-wall kitchen for late-night nosh, including burgers and quesadillas.
This romantic, brick-lined cave – atmospherically lit by candles at night – is a great place for a lively chat among Vancouver's urban professionals. The sophisticated Euro menu includes perfectly prepared highlights like pan-seared scallops and velvet-soft lamb shank, but the delectable moules et frites (mussels and fries) are the way to go. An impressive wine and cocktail list (try a Blue Fig Martini) is coupled with a great Belgian beer menu, including its own Chambar Ale. For more casual fare, check out Medina Café, Chambar's daytime-only sister next door.
If you want a seat at one of the dinged old dining tables, arrive off-peak at this ever-buzzing, often sunny corner cafe that has a 'granny-chic' look combining creaky wooden floors and junkshop bric-a-brac. You'll be joining in-the-know hipsters and creative-types who've been calling this their local for years. They come for the well-priced breakfasts (egg and soldiers is from $2.50) and a range of fresh-prepared baguette sandwiches and house-made soups. A quirky little hangout, this is a great spot for an afternoon cake and coffee, but be prepared to wait for a perch to call your own.
Vancouver's best craft beer tavern, this brick-walled bar stocks an ever-changing roster of around 50 drafts from celebrated BC breweries like Phillips, Driftwood and Crannog. Adventurous taste-trippers – hipsters and old-lag beer fans alike – enjoy the $9.50 'frat bat' of four sample tipples: choose your own or ask to be surprised. And always check the board for guest casks.
Perfect for a shared plate of finger food, it's just as easy to cover all the necessary food groups with the extensive beer selection here (at least that's what you should tell yourself). There's a small, animated patio out front but inside is great for hiding in a chatty, candlelit corner and working your way through an exotic array of bottled brews, often including London Porter and the rather marvelous Draft Dodger from Phillips Brewing. Possibly the city's coziest tavern-style bar, you can pull a board game from the shelf for an extended stay.