Yoga, Pot, Rainy Days: A Mini-Guide to Vancouver’s Charms
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
The key to having a good time in Vancouver? Pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes. The downtown core is flat and walkable; good shopping requires taking a stroll; and the best itineraries include a lot of wandering – in Stanley Park, on the UBC Endowment lands, at Granville Island’s markets, or steeply up the Grouse Grind. There’s an added bonus, too; you may not need to change footwear at night. Super-casual dress codes at most nightclubs, bars and restaurants mean that the day’s uniform of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers will still be okay long past dinnertime. Vancouver’s citizens may grumble about traffic (congested), weather (rain), and the government (scandalous), but they secretly believe that the relaxed, easygoing environment and outdoor playgrounds make it the best city in the world.
Things might be even better for visitors. Come to the city between late May and mid-September; chances of hitting one of the marathon rainy stretches are far lower. During the summer, warm sunshine without overheating is the order of the day. Visitors don’t need to worry about traffic problems, either. Transit, in the form of buses, SkyTrain, and a number of small ferries plying the local waters, is quick and covers most sites. In some cases, like a ride on the SeaBus with its fantastic views or the zippy, multi-colored aquabus that plies False Creek, public transport is a fun destination in itself. And scandals in government – as well as the other things that Vancouverites get worked up about, like the Canucks hockey team, marijuana and real estate prices – just add to the city’s allure.
The Need-to-Know Basics
Visas & Papers
Canada is fairly easy to visit. Many countries – the US, most of Western Europe, a lot of places around the Pacific Rim – don’t require a visa to enter, just a valid passport and evidence of sufficient funds. Visit this pagefor the list of countries that do require visas as well as those exempt. There are a number of consulates in Vancouver, with the majority downtown.
For visitors whose home currency is the Euro or US dollar, Vancouver will be an inexpensive destination, as the Canadian dollar is weak against both. In Canadian terms, some things are expensive in Vancouver – real estate, for one, but happily this doesn’t automatically translate into expensive accommodation for visitors. Many hostels, hotels and B&Bs are much cheaper than comparable locations in the US. Since so many attractions in the city are outdoors, the average traveler’s itinerary may also be cheap or even free. A meal with a glass of wine in a better-than-average restaurant will probably cost one person $25, but there are many smaller establishments with equally good food and better prices.
Location & History
Vancouver is located about an hour’s drive north of the border with the US, on the Pacific coast. The Lower Mainland (the local term for Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs) straddles a number of bodies of water, the largest being the Fraser River and Burrard Inlet. As a result, there are a considerable number of bridges in the area, and Vancouver’s downtown core is on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea. Mountains tower around the city to the north and east.
Vancouver is very young, even in North American terms; it became a city in 1886, burned to the ground almost immediately, and has been building up ever since. The city has a very new appearance, all reflective glass towers, and there’s constant construction downtown and on the roads. The chaos of preparation for the 2010 Olympics has engulfed some stretches of road almost entirely (avoid driving down Cambie Street, for example).
Vancouver’s airport, YVR, is located south of the city, in the city of Richmond. Getting to Vancouver takes about fifteen minutes in a car; getting downtown, closer to forty-five minutes. A shuttle bus to downtown costs $13, while a taxi is $25. For $3.25 you can ride a public bus: catch the 424 at the airport, which drops you at Airport Station. From there, the best bus to catch downtown is the 98 B-Line, an express.
Many overseas visitors come to Vancouver via cruise ship, or with the intention of boarding one. These dock at Canada Place, a building recognizable by its white triangular "sails." Located on the downtown north shore, it’s two minutes walk from Waterfront SkyTrain station.
Those who come to Vancouver by train – either on VIA Rail (from points east in Canada) or Amtrak (from points south, in the US) will be dropped off at Pacific Central Station, a hulking old building at the tip of False Creek. It’s fifty feet away from Main Street Skytrain Station. This is also where Greyhound, the main bus service in BC, drops off.
Those driving to the city should be warned that while driving through the Lower Mainland isn’t problematic, driving in downtown Vancouver is; those with a car should look for a place to stay outside the city core where they can stash the vehicle during their visit.
None of this "subway" business for Vancouver; for whatever reason, when it came time (in the mid ’80s) for the city to add a rapid transit line, the city decided to have everything out in the open. Then, just to make it a little more romantic than an "elevated train," Vancouver named it the SkyTrain. The original route went from the downtown through eastern Vancouver, the suburbs of Burnaby and New Westminster, and ended in Surrey, across the Fraser River. For most visitors, the most important stops will be between Waterfront and Broadway Stations; this covers downtown, Chinatown, the main bus/train terminal and the shopping area along Commercial. Beyond there you hit real suburbia; an exception, for big-time mall-lovers, is Metrotown Station, which takes you to the area’s largest shopping mall. The addition of a second SkyTrain line that overlaps with the first in 2000 has created a confusing system of maps and announcements. Beyond making sure that you’re on the correct side of the platform (do you want to go away from downtown – eastbound – or towards it, westbound?), ignore the announcements; they only pertain to riders heading for Surrey or northeastern Burnaby.
The cost for a one-zone ticket on the SkyTrain as of 2006 is $2.25; everything within Vancouver is one zone. Ticket machines at the stations take debit cards, cash (coins and bills), and some credit cards. The passes issued there are also good on city buses and the SeaBus. SkyTrain opens around six in the morning and the last train usually leaves downtown just after one o’clock in the morning.
If you’re sticking to the downtown core of Vancouver, you could probably walk from one end of the city to the other in less than thirty minutes, so buses may not be necessary. If you want to visit sites on the other side of False Creek, out at UBC, or in eastern Vancouver, there are many bus options. A number of buses run from downtown Granville Street out towards the university campus, passing many pleasant neighborhoods and attractions, like Kitsilano and neighboring beaches. The 99 B-Line is an express bus that travels all the way down Broadway to UBC. If you are buying your pass on the bus, you can only pay in coins, and drivers can’t make change, so be exact. Transfers are good for unlimited rides in a 90-minute period.
There are a number of water-based options for crossing both False Creek and Burrard Inlet; the SeaBus, a passenger-only ferry, crosses between Waterfront Station in downtown and Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. The views from the front and back windows of the SeaBus as it crosses, framing the downtown skyline and the northern mountains, are spectacular. You’ll need a two-zone ticket, $3.25, to cross. Smaller boats bob across False Creek, between Granville Island, Vanier Park, Science World, Sunset Beach and a number of other stops on the shore. The distinctive rainbow-striped boats, labelled with the word "aquabus," are so small they almost look like toys; they seat about twenty and it costs $2.50 to ride.
You can hail a taxi from a street corner in Vancouver by waving; a trip out to the suburbs will put you back $40. Having a car in downtown Vancouver isn’t a good idea, unless you want to join the residents in complaining about the traffic; a high percentage of streets are also one-way, and parking costs as much as $4 an hour. Renting a car to see sites outside the city (Whistler or other mountains on the North Shore, for example) is a good idea, however. Budget is just one of the companies that rents cars; shop around for the best deal.
There are drop-in medical clinics throughout Vancouver; there’s a major hospital, St. Paul’s, right downtown. Major banks, ATMs, and money exchanges are littered through the city as well. ATMs in convenience stores may charge a higher fee for use than bank-affiliated machines. As in the rest of Canada, the emergency telephone number here is 911.
Don’t Miss . . .
Even those with only a few days in Vancouver should make sure to visit Granville Island. Located under the Granville Street Bridge, on the south side (and not really on an island), it’s accessible by bus; the #4 from downtown stops at the foot of the bridge, and the main island is a short walk from there. Alternatively, take the aquabus from downtown; the dock is near Sunset Beach and the Aquatic Centre. Parking on the island can be troublesome on weekends, when locals from all over the Lower Mainland flock here to shop for the week. Originally an industrial center, the warehouses were appropriated and turned into a public market. It’s open seven days a week. The main building houses a fantastic array of food products; this is a great place to put together a scrumptious, inexpensive picnic, or shop for everything you’ll need to eat while you’re in Vancouver. Then dine al fresco out behind the market, where entertainers sing, juggle fire, and clown around against a backdrop of boats on False Creek and the downtown towers. Wander the rest of the large property to find quirky artisan shops, watch a glass blower at work, or buy good local crafts. There’s also a Kid’s Market, for the youngsters.
There are a number of festivals in Vancouver worth checking out, if you come at the right time (or, if you’re particularly interested, some of them are worth building your travel plans around). Coming to Vancouver as a family? Held in late May, the Vancouver International Children’s Festival is a no-brainer. Top children’s acts perform in big tents in Vanier Park, a great location to visit in itself. It’s on the south shore of False Creek, just west of the Burrard Street Bridge. Later in the summer there are two music festivals worth checking out, the Jazz Festival and the Folk Festival. The Folk Festival has a great seaside location, in the green hills and grassy dunes of Jericho Park, near UBC. For those visiting in the fall, the Writer’s Festival, with events throughout the city but many at Granville Island, is a hit with the literary-minded.
Downtown, the rich and semi-famous shop on Robson Street; when stars come into town to film at a movie or TV show, they’re often spotted browsing the racks here. Stores on Robston are higher-end; head down nearby Granville Street for more youthful, grungy shopping. Commercial Street (accessible via the Broadway Skytrain station) is good for a wander; Vancouver’s intense multiculturalism is never more evident than here, in the shops and restaurants, and good buys range from the kitschy to the outrageous. Other good streets for shoppers include the stretches of Broadway and 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, where trendy and boutique are the order of the day. If you really want to fit in with the locals, pick up a pair of pants at Lululemon, the yoga store on 4th. Women wear these tight pants around town for just about every occasion, not just yoga. For something a little different, the Vancouver Flea Market is open on weekends, costs seventy-five cents to enter, and has more than three hundred vendors with tables of (mainly) junk, interspersed with some great buys. The pleasure here is gawking at the strange things people will buy and sell, and searching for the real gems.
Museums & Galleries
Vancouver’s not known for its museums and art galleries, but there are a few that visitors may want to check out, especially if they hit a rainy patch. The Vancouver Art Gallery is right in the heart of downtown, on Robson Street, and houses rotating exhibits of modern and older artists on the main floors. The biggest draw is the fourth floor exhibit of Emily Carr’s paintings, which feature wild interpretations of BC landscapes and First Nations artifacts. The Museum of Anthropology, on the UBC campus, is worth a look; most of the museum is devoted to First Nations works, so if you’ve never seen one in person, this is a great place to see a totem pole. Not really a museum, Science World, housed in the giant disco ball near Main Street SkyTrain station, is a good stop for those with kids (or those that enjoy kidding around). Science experiments and games explore the body, space, and chemistry; rotating exhibits cover topics from "grossology" through the rainforest to the mechanics of toys. There’s an IMAX theatre in the silver sphere, if you were wondering. Another worthwhile stop on a rainy day is the Vancouver Public Library, which looks exactly like the Roman Coliseum and has a number of glass bridges on the top floors that allow you to stare down a vertiginous drop to the bottom. It’s a good place to relax, read a book, or use the Internet.
Must Do . . .
Stanley Park & the Seawall
Stanley Park is the jewel of Vancouver; shaped like a seahorse’s head, it’s as large as the city’s downtown. It sticks out into Burrard Inlet and English Bay, and the deep forest in the middle of the park is criss-crossed by a number of walking trails. There’s also a horse-drawn carriage that does tours of the park, for those with sore feet. The Vancouver Aquarium is in the park, but, compared with other aquariums worldwide, it’s not worth the entrance fee. The last killer whale left the aquarium a few years ago after much public outcry about the caging of wild animals; the same issue closed Vancouver’s zoo more than a decade ago. Stanley Park’s main draw is the Seawall, a paved walking/bicycling/inline skating loop around the park’s perimeter. Renting wheels, whether skate or bike, is possible at a number of shops on Denman Street, the last major street before the park entrance. The loop doesn’t take long and during the summer it’s very busy; going quickly isn’t recommended, partly because then you’ll miss the fantastic views. Going around at sunset is a romantic treat, but if you go earlier in the day you’ll be able to continue on, following the seawall that goes all the way around False Creek, past Science World, Granville Island and the beaches in Kitsilano. (It’s not paved after Vanier Park, so inline skaters will have to stop there).
UBC Endowment Lands
The University of British Columbia’s property is massive, and in fact, it’s not even officially part of Vancouver; residents don’t pay taxes to the city. But the campus is a good place to visit. When school’s in session the pedestrian-only streets buzz with activity, but in the summer they stand green and mostly bare. Just outside campus is Pacific Spirit Park, where a number of great jogging/biking/hiking trails run from Spanish Banks (a nice beach), up through patches of old forest and across to the other end of campus, where a steep staircase leads down to Wreck Beach, the local nudist hang out. Depending on how you feel about buying food from someone who’s naked, you can pick up lunch on the beach from a number of little stands.
The North Shore
Over the waters of Burrard Inlet lies the North Shore, where city quickly gives away to temperate rainforest and the hills soon rise to mountains. Winter visitors will want to ski/snowboard on the local hills: Cypress, Seymour and Grouse are among the best. During the summer all the mountains have good hiking trails, and the fit (or the not-so-fit but brave) can challenge themselves on the grueling Grouse Grind, two miles of steep trail that climbs from the bottom to the top of the mountain. Every year there’s a competition to see who can rush up the fastest; but don’t go out thinking you can compete with the guy who did it in 26 minutes. It’s more likely to take you an hour and a half, and you’ll really enjoy a break for beer and nachos at the top. Another great North Shore destination is the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, where a 5-mile paved trail runs through a beautiful BC forestscape. It’s a really good place to try out inline skating; at the end of the trail you can hike down a gravel path to see the Seymour Dam. Also, if you like heights, the North Shore has two suspension bridges; Capilano is higher and longer than Lynn Canyon, and also more expensive ($21.95 per person versus free).
False Creek Beaches
Vancouver’s yearly fireworks show, the Celebration of Light, (late July/early August) launches its light blooms off a barge in English Bay, at the mouth of False Creek, and best place to watch is from one of the beaches along False Creek. Getting a good viewing spot requires the patience to hit the beach early in the day and lay claim to a patch of sand, but that’s no hardship, since these beaches are the nicest in the city. Second Beach (in Stanley Park), English Bay Beach, Sunset Beach – which, not surprisingly, is also a good place to watch the sun set over the Bay – are all on the north side of False Creek, while Kitsilano and Jericho are on the south side. Kits Beach, as it’s known, is right beside Vanier Park, a good place for a picnic or an attempt at kite-flying. Swimming here isn’t the greatest, but they’re all nice sand beaches with great locations literally a stone’s throw from the city. Kitsilano is a lovely neighborhood with an older, genteel charm, while Davie, the street that runs just up from English Bay Beach, is the gay and lesbian mecca of Vancouver.
Cheer for the Canucks
2006 marks the first year in a while that Vancouver’s hockey team, the Canucks, hasn’t made the playoffs, and gloom and doom have descended on the city. While the city has football and baseball teams, hockey is the town’s true organized-sport passion. In fact, it has the ability to whip the city’s normally laid-back citizens into a frenzy – in 1994, when the team lost in the Stanley Cup finals, the city broke into a violent riot. Getting a ticket for a game at the "Garage" (GM Place, right beside Stadium SkyTrain station) can be tough, and expensive, as games sell-out way in advance. If you can’t manage that, it’s almost as much fun to hit a sports bar and drink a few beers while cheering along with the locals.
For some reason, perhaps Vancouver’s feeling of inferiority about its lack of history, Gastown gets played up as a tourist hotspot. Yes, some of the buildings here are older, and not made of glass. Yes, there are some cobbled streets. Yes, there’s a steam clock! Wait a minute. A what? Don’t become one of the tourists standing perplexed beside Gastown’s steam clock, taking an uninspired photo and wondering why this was supposed to be a highlight. Locals visit Gastown only at night, when a number of trendy clubs sport healthy lineups, but otherwise abandon it to the tourists. Follow their example. Gastown is also right on the edge of Vancouver’s sore spot, known as the Downtown East Side, home to the outer fringes of society, including a lot of drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes. Avoid this area (East Hastings Street is the area’s main drag) at all times – especially at night.
Where to go and party? Vancouver’s city government recently eased the rules for clubs, allowing them to stay open later, so you can go out longer. There’s a strip of good clubs along Granville Street, heading south of Robson. The Commodore Ballroom, on Granville, sometimes functions as a nightclub (check out disco Tuesdays, where dressing ’70s can help you avoid cover charges) and sometimes as a concert venue, but either way, it’s fantastic. The high ceilings, wide floor and darkened balcony seating make this one of the city’s most popular spots, especially with up-and-coming bands. Two floors below, also accessible from the street, is the popular Commodore Lanes, with late-night, boozy five-pin bowling. A few blocks away is Richard’s on Richards (on Richards Street, not surprisingly), another good live music/night club combo. There’s another nightclub strip in Gastown; for something cheesy but fun, head to the Blarney Stone, an Irish-themed bar/nightclub. There are also a number of good bars/clubs in Kitsilano, near the beach; to enjoy some English tavern atmosphere, check out the King’s Head, on Yew Street.
The theatre scene in Vancouver isn’t bad; major touring shows from Broadway come to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre or the Centre for the Performing Arts, both downtown, while the local professional theatre companies work out of the Playhouse (beside the Queen Elizabeth), and the Arts Club (at Granville Island). Check out Vancouver’s free weekly entertainment newspaper, The Georgia Straight, for caustic reviews of theatre (along with music, movies, art, and so on). If the critic with the Straight gushes about it, it’s really worth seeing. Every summer, in Vanier Park, Bard on the Beach puts on Shakespeare in big tents, with the scenic views of False Creek providing the backdrop for shows. It’s enormously popular and worth checking out.
Vancouver’s best movie theatre is the Fifth Avenue Cinema, a small place that shows all the indie and art flicks that big establishments are too lazy to take on. When movies open there are often line-ups around the block. It’s actually located on Burrard Street, near the corner of Fifth Avenue.
Fine and Funky Dining
The city is on the rise in terms of international recognition for its food establishments; Rob Feenie, owner of Lumiere and Feenie’s Bistro (on Broadway), won on Iron Chef and isn’t letting the city forget it. Other posh, high-end places include Seasons in the Park, Raincity Grill, Bishop’s and CinCin. Anyone looking for a good meal that won’t break the bank won’t be let down, either. International options abound; the Mongolie Grill, at the corner of Cambie and Broadway, lets you hand pick your meat, veggies and sauce before a flamboyant chef stirfries it right in front of you. Vancouverites love their sushi, especially the all-you-can-eat type, and BC Sushi (Broadway and Arbutus) or the Eatery (Broadway, close to Alma) do the raw stuff right. DV8, downtown on Davie Street, is filled with funky art, music and food. Breakfast lovers should line up for brunch at Sophie’s Cosmic CafÃ©, on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano; the kitschy wall decorations are fun, too, and lunch and dinner are also good. Also on 4th, vegetarians/vegans/hippies will appreciate the Naam, which is open all night. Vera’s Burgers has a number of locations in the city (at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge, on Denman Street at Davie, at UBC) and they live up to their slogan: "you can’t beat Vera’s meat."
A Good Night’s Sleep
Vancouver doesn’t have a ton of hostels, but many of the ones it does have are excellent, both in terms of location and ambience. On Granville Street, right in the middle of the a trendy, slightly edgy area of downtown, there are two: the SameSun, and right across the street, one of the city’s Hostelling International places. Both are nice, although the SameSun is slightly quirkier. HI also runs a place on Burnaby Street, closer to Stanley Park, and one at Jericho Beach, in a mammoth old white building; it’s only open in the summer, and Jericho is a little harder to access by public transit than the others.