I was very pleased last month to confirm my suspicions: Vancouver, the largest city in Canada’s western province of British Columbia, is a world-class metropolis. Nice people, great food, and a gorgeous backdrop of just a few of the reasons why you simply must go and spend some time in this very special place, often called The World in a City.
Vancouver is consistently regarded as one of the world’s most liveable cities, and as you’ll soon see, it has definitely earned this reputation as the perfect place to live, work, or just visit. Here are some suggestions for things to add to your Vancouver sightseeing must-do list.
You might be surprised to find the outdoors at the top of our Vancouver sightseeing suggestions. But the reality is that here in the south of British Columbia, it’s the warmest part of Canada. There’s a perception that it’s also very wet, like Seattle, but it isn’t. The weather is quite tolerable and thus you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get outside and explore. Some top suggestions:
- Stanley Park: I would move to Vancouver for Stanley Park alone. When I first saw it, I thought I was seeing Vancouver Island across the bay – it’s such a dense set of
treesforest! I went running here and didn’t see anyone else for a good half hour. Talk about incredible: unspoilt nature in the middle of a major city. Nice work. You can walk/run/bike the entire park via the seawall trail that runs the exterior length of the park.
- Public Art: You can pick up a walking brochure from any tourist office (there’s one just across from the Convention Centre) which will show you the location of hundreds of public art displays across the city. They range from some majestic ones on the shoreline in English Bay to a set of red-coloured plastic men in Coal Harbour who appear to be in desperate need of a toilet. Entertaining to say the least.
- Grouse Mountain: Ski and hike in the city, just a half an hour north of downtown. Grouse is also popular with tourists for the unbelievable sunset view of downtown Vancouver – the vantage point is perfect. (Though often it’s cloudy and misty – if you can’t see the mountains from the city, it won’t be clear up here.)
- Kitsilano: Beaches! In Vancouver! Believe it or not, and unlike other cities, these are natural. There are several beaches, such as in English Bay, but Kitsilano and the other waterfront communities nearby are a hotspot. Sunny days are best, but of course any day that’s clear and not too rainy is perfect to stroll along the water and get some fresh air.
Great to See but Way Overpriced: The Capilano Suspension Bridge. It’s a pretty nifty suspension bridge built over a gorge, with some neat trails and tree-top walks on the other side. But you’ll have to pay about $30CAD for the privilege. It’s nice, but kind overpriced for what you get.
Neighbourhoods & Cafe Culture
Vancouver is a city of neighbourhoods, and for the best of Vancouver sightseeing, I suggest touring some of them to get a feel for the city. If you go up into the Vancouver Lookout, a 360 indoor viewing deck downtown, you can get a better understanding of Vancouver’s layout. Once you’ve done that, here are two must-visit few suggestions:
- Denman Street: Denman is a street, but it’s so packed with unique shops and establishments that it’s also a neighbourhood. It’s also a dividing line, with locals mentioning if they live east or west of Denman. Denman runs out from English Bay, so it’s the perfect street to combine with a seawall walk
- Granville Island: Not sure whether to call this a neighbourhood or not, but it’s one heck of a bustling island! There’s a brewery here as well as two food markets that have some VERY tasty treats. Many say it is kind of touristy, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it has a very distinct Vancouver feel and does cater to the tourists while still being authentic.
Worth a visit, but keep your expectations down: Gastown & Chinatown: Both of these neighbourhoods have a lot of commercial appeal but are still worth a visit. Gastown has the Steam Clock, which is interesting, as well as a lot of shops, though it could use a splash of character. Chinatown has the gorgeous Chinese Gardens and some fantastic restaurants, but otherwise you don’t need to see much of it – Chinese influence is easy to see throughout Vancouver.
Vancouver sightseeing doesn’t stop in the city centre; it seems you could spend weeks doing daytrips (or weekend getaways, in many cases) to places not far away at all!
- Whistler: Probably one destination even more well known than Vancouver itself. Snowboarding, posh food and drink, scenic hikes, and fantastic hotels are just a few of reasons to head to Whistler. 2.5 hrs bus (with a longer scenic train option in summer) or via car. Our friend Marci suggests that the Fairmont Chateau Whistler is one of the best places in the world to golf.
- Victoria: Victoria is the prettiest little harbour in all of Canada and the main tourist city on Vancouver Island. From the world-renowned British Columbia Museum to the lavish Empress Hotel, what’s not to like? 2 hours Bus/Ferry or a 1 hour seaplane.
- Seattle: Seattle is one of America’s world-class cities and often joins Vancouver on the most liveable list. You can get to Seattle by bus, seaplane, train, or car.
- Gulf Islands: Vancouver Island is huge and has a number of attractions, but there are other islands in the Vancouver area, called the Gulf Islands. They are home to small fishing villages, ecological centres, and if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and tranquillity you’ll be sure to find it here. There are a number of ferries or seaplane options to get to island towns and villages.
That is only a few highlights; Vancouver might be at the tip of British Columbia, but there’s so much to be explored! Vineyards, pristine lakes, and woodland hiking trails are just some of the goodies you’ll find if you go exploring. Our friends Dave and Deb suggest the West Coast Trail here in BC in their round-up of the best things to do in Canada.
Public transport around the Pacific Northwest is very good. There are a number of ferries (with bus service timed to connect), a few train lines, and bus networks. Of course, some of the most out-of-the-way destinations are best reached by car. And for the bold and brave, there are seaplanes, which offer some of the best views you’ll find anywhere!
Things To See and Do
We’ve covered a lot of the classic Vancouver sightseeing experiences in the outdoors and neighbourhoods, but I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other things to do that I really enjoyed:
- Drink Cocktails at Hotel Vancouver: Fairmont’s Hotel Vancouver was my base during my stay, and what a gorgeous iconic hotel it is! It’s a destination in itself, part of the skyline and part of the community. You don’t have to stay there to experience the hotel (though I suggest it); cocktails at the lobby bar, 900 West, are a must-do experience. Sit down and soak up the ambience and reflect on all the history that this hotel has seen.
- See the Displays at the Art Gallery: Next door to the Hotel Vancouver is the art gallery, which looks more like a library than the library does! There are a number of rotating exhibits, but there are two things for me that stand out at this gallery: the first is their collection of Emily Carr pieces, which is to be expected given this talented artists was from British Columbia. The second is their selection of modern art pieces, which include both audio and video. I was shocked by the quality of the work, and impressed that much of it was by local artists.
- Go to the Library: At the east end of Chinatown you’ll find the city’s library. Yup – that strange building that looks like the Roman coliseum? That’s it. Such a fascinating building that should have ended up on our architectural tourism list.
- Shopping at the Bay: Downtown has plenty of shops, but you’ll probably want to at least take a stroll through “The Bay” – it’s a classic Canadian retailer and a great spot to grab all of your Canadian gear.
Part of the whole Vancouver sightseeing experience is the food! Be sure to check out our recommendations for the best food in Vancouver in our Foodie’s Guide to Vancouver.
Editorial Disclosure: The author was given a media rate at the hotel and provided a free attractions pass, which did not affect the contents of this article.