Vancouver is the cultural capital of Canada’s West and the gateway to the country for many visitors arriving from Oz.
With the North Shore Mountains as its backdrop, the city is a spellbinding blend of outdoor beauty, urban life and cultural diversity. To make matters even better, Vancouverites are some of the friendliest people around. Expect a warm welcome (and a great coffee!) on arrival.
Vancouver is a city of many layers and half the fun is peeling them back to find out what’s hidden underneath. They will continue to surprise and amaze you long after your visit to Canada comes to an end.
Enjoy this Vancouver travel guide.
Top cultural experiences in Vancouver
Vancouver is home to cultural groups from all over the world.
Spend some time soaking up the buzz in the Chinatown district, located on the eastern side of the city. It’s the third largest Chinatown in North America and one of the oldest. Here you’ll find amazing architecture, a concentration of well-priced restaurants, plenty of tasty street food, and no end of market-style shopping. Drop by The Chinese Tea Shop for a tasting and to browse their incredible range of teas and teaware.
The city has a robust arts scene and there are upwards of 100 galleries and exhibition spaces across Greater Vancouver. With its focus on British Columbian artists, the Vancouver Art Gallery is a must-see. The collection has more than 10,000 works, although only a small percentage is on display at any one time. Photography features prominently. Book a queue jump ticket and breeze straight in.
To experience the culture of the First Nations people of Vancouver, head for the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Admire traditional carvings and jewellery, along with contemporary artworks.
Vancouver for history lovers
First Nations people settled in this region some 10,000 years ago.
Visit the Museum of Anthropology to delve into that extraordinary history and gain a better understanding of their creative and spiritual lives. While it has an emphasis on Canadian Northwest Coast First Nations heritage, the museum’s 50,000-piece collection encompasses ethnographic artefacts from around the world.
The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is one of the city’s most popular attractions and it’s the spot to learn the early history of the West’s biggest city. There are historic displays to take in, along with North America’s largest collection of totem and story poles. The original suspension bridge over the swirling Capilano River was erected in 1889. The current version was built in the 1950s, but it sways just like the original!
One of the most famous characters in the history of Vancouver is ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton, who opened the city’s first saloon in 1867. Today there’s no shortage of cool bars around town. Enjoy the inventive cocktail list on offer and raise a glass to Gassy Jack at The Keefer Bar in Chinatown.
Great places to eat in Vancouver
During winter there’s nothing like hunkering down in one of the city’s warm cafes.
Coffee shops are also the perfect place to go if you need access to free Wi-Fi while travelling. Try Musette Caffe in Downtown (which is popular with the biking crowd). If you’re a licensed coffee snob, Revolver tops pretty much every list for the city’s best brew and offers a range of speciality beans from all over the world. Also check out Pallet Coffee Roasters and Nemesis — winner of the best coffee shop in the city in 2018. Olive and Ruby lays claim to serving the best brunch in town — and we’re not inclined to disagree.
No visit to Canada would be complete without blowing your daily calorie count on a plate of poutine at least once. Traditional poutine consists of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds, but in Vancouver you can try lots of other tasty takes on this popular snack. ‘Hot dog poutine’ springs to mind.
Vancouver’s dining scene takes full advantage of the region’s abundant seafood and amazing seasonal produce. Treat yourself to the sublime cuisine at Botanist. Their highly Instagramable dishes feature foraged local ingredients, sustainably sourced seafood and huge helpings of innovation.
Take your tastebuds on a rather unusual journey at Kissa Tanto, which is set in an unobtrusive location in Chinatown and delivers a fusion of Japanese and Italian flavours in a contemporary setting. Like we said — unusual — but it works!
For a budget meal without compromising on the quality, follow the locals to family-run Hoi An Café. They do absolutely mouth-watering Vietnamese. Also try The Arbor, which dishes up what have to be the best plant-based burgers in the city (possibly the world!).
If you’re looking for a tipple to match with your meal, try a glass of British Columbia’s famous ice wine. The name comes from the production process. The grapes are left on the vine until they freeze in winter and then picked and pressed before they thaw. You can try a Vancouver ice wine at many wineries and local restaurants.
Where to shop in Vancouver
The city offers shopaholics everything from pricey high-fashion boutiques to shopping malls and outlet stores.
However, if you’re looking for a unique piece, go for a stroll along Commercial Drive. This hip strip is home to cool coffee shops, restaurants and fun stores. Most boutiques here are one of a kind, and you won’t come across them anywhere else.
For food-focussed retail, drop by the hugely popular Granville Island Public Market. This is the spot to shop for gourmet goodies or supplies for a picnic, but you can also pick up souvenirs and gifts for those back home.
Ways to relax in Vancouver
For things to do in Vancouver that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised, just hit the great outdoors!
One of the most popular spots for outdoor recreation is Stanley Park, which attracts vast numbers of visitors every year. However, at 1,000 acres, there’s plenty of space. Activities on offer in the park include hiking, biking, swimming, skating and even a miniature train to ride. The park is also home to the Vancouver Aquarium.
While it’s particularly popular for winter sports, Grouse Mountain is a wonderful place to escape to no matter what the season. Ride the gondola up to the top, then try a range of energetic activities (hiking, skating, snowboarding and skiing) or simply relax and enjoy the views.
Back in the city, take a break from the hubbub by visiting the beautiful Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Set in the heart of Chinatown, it’s a haven of tranquility laid out with covered walkways, tiny pavilions, ponds and lots of secret nooks and crannies.
Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach is possibly unlike any other patch of sand you’ve parked yourself on in the past. Instead of swaying palms and views to the horizon, you’ll get a panoramic vista of the city set against a background of mountain peaks. There’s a heated seawater pool if you’re up for a dip, but it’s a genuinely lovely place to just sit for a spell or wander along the shoreline.
And finally, you may not have time to see all of Canada on your visit (after all, it is the second largest country in the world), but FlyOver Canada is the next best thing! This high-tech attraction will take you on a journey across the country without even leaving your seat. Strap in and get ready for adventure as you’re suspended over a special spherical screen, which comes alive with projections of life-like landscapes and amazing special effects. What a way to travel!
Do you have any tips to add to our Vancouver travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Jess Singet is a travel blogger from Vancouver.
Cover image: Cliffwalk, Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Image courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.