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A defining feature of Vancouver, Stanley Park is situated between Downtown and the waterfront on 1,000 wooded acres (the largest public park in North America) and is equal parts lush rainforest, horticultural spectacle and recreational retreat. Established in 1888 by the newly formed city council and named for Canada’s then governor general, Lord Stanley, the park is surrounded by ocean on three sides and boasts a 5.5-mile paved path along the Seawall designed for cyclists and pedestrians that offers exceptional views. (Bike rental shops are near several park entrances.) The park’s interior features 17 miles of leafy trails, picturesque ponds (check out the Lost Lagoon and lily pad-dotted Beaver Lake), multiple formal gardens (including the Shakespeare Garden, so named for its many plants mentioned in the bard’s works), a petting zoo and a miniature train (which snakes through nearly a mile of forest). Other noteworthy sights (and sounds): the Brockton Point Lighthouse, Jubilee Fountain built in the middle of the Lost Lagoon and the 9 O’clock Gun, a 19th Century cannon that fires electronically every night, originally meant to help docked mariners synchronize their chronometers, and now…it’s a Vancouver tradition.
Best known for its amazing food market, Granville Island is also home to an impressive, and eclectic, cultural arts scene. Once a sandbar transformed into a busy industrial setting early in the 20th Century, Granville Island fell on hard times by mid-century—only to be resurrected less than 20 years later by artists and artisans with a vision for abandoned warehouses. Now the progressive cultural venue features art galleries and exhibition space, design labs, restaurants, bars, theatres and performance space. Shops offer handmade and offbeat wares, and there’s even a Kids Market for unusual toys and clothing. The marina provides boat and kayak rentals and fishing charters. Accessible by bus, car, ferry and Aquabus, Granville Island can be enjoyed year-round.
Home to over 70,000 creatures, Canada’s largest aquarium is famous for its marine rehabilitation and conservation efforts. Enormous glass panels offer chances for face-to-face encounters with penguins, sea otters, harbour seals and porpoises and the endangered Beluga whales. Located in Stanley Park since it opened in 1956, Vancouver’s award-winning aquarium recently expanded, boasting more state-of-the-art interactive displays, organized by ocean region, and an increased focus on the underwater life of the Canadian Arctic and coastal British Columbia. Check out what’s playing at the 4D theatre, for a multisensory-movie experience. Essentially, it adds sea mist, marine smells and ocean wind to the now otherwise pedestrian 3D experience.
Originally created for the perimeter of Stanley Park to stave off erosion, this paved promenade has grown over the decades to more than 17 miles long and is today Vancouver’s most popular bike and jogging path—and it’s easy to see why. Flat and fantastically scenic, it starts in Coal Harbour, wends its way around Stanley Park for 5.5 miles and continues along the waterfront to Kitsilano Beach, offering unparalleled views of the city, water and surrounding mountains. A few worthwhile stops en route: the colorful and captivating First Nations Totem Pole display at Brockton Point and the life-size bronze sculpture, Girl in a Wetsuit along the north side of Stanley Park, positioned on a boulder just beyond the Seawall. At high tide, the boulder is submerged, creating the illusion of the sculpture floating on the water. Worth noting: The paved path is divided in half with the inside lane designated for cyclists and the waterside lane for walkers and joggers; this is strictly enforced. As for bike rentals, they’re all over Vancouver.
Dedicated to the art, life and history of ancestral cultures around the globe, with a particular devotion to the First Nations peoples of the Canadian Pacific, the Museum of Anthropology is considered Vancouver’s most important museum. It’s also its best. Part of the University of British Columbia, MOA is housed in a dramatic building of glass and concrete, designed by acclaimed local architect Arthur Erickson, which even on Vancouver’s cloudiest days appears light-filled and airy. It’s the perfect backdrop for a tremendous collection of totem poles displayed in the towering (50 foot!) Great Hall. Ditto, for the more than 10,000 masks, baskets, canoes, carvings, sculptures and many other artifacts exhibited in the Multiversity Galleries. But the most famous and provocative piece holds court in the rotunda: The Raven and the First Men, the intricately carved cedar sculpture by First Nations artist Bill Reid, depicting in haunting detail the native legend of the birth of mankind, as overseen by an enormous and unamused raven. Prepare to be amazed.
Known as Vancouver’s horticultural jewel, this 136-acre park is the highest point in the city and a picture-postcard in every direction. Graced with two artfully landscaped quarry gardens, a magnificent rose garden created for the country’s Centennial in 1967 and a lush arboretum planted with 1,500 trees all native to Canada, the park is home to the Bloedel Floral Conservatory, situated at the top, and veritably crowning the summit with its sparkling acrylic dome, and Seasons in the Park Restaurant, a local landmark, serving stunning views along with regional fare. Sculptures thrive here, too. The two most famous: Knife Edge—Two Piece, an early work of British sculptor Henry Moore, located to the east of the Conservatory, and Photo Session—by American sculptor J. Seward Johnson, Jr., known for his life-size bronze statues depicting everyday activities— which claims one of the best picture-taking backdrops in the whole park.
One of the more spectacular public gardens in Vancouver (and there are many), VanDusen covers 55 acres in the center of the city, providing a lovely and fragrant spot when the need for tranquility beckons. Opened in 1975, the garden features flowers from all over the world plus an array of unusual landscapes, including a stone garden and the Elizabethan Hedge Maze (big with kids, it’s comprised of a thousand pyramid cedars, none taller than five feet). VanDusen was designed to bedazzle every single month and is an embarrassment of riches in spring. Still, the Laburnum Walk walks away with the show in April, with its hundreds of flowering trees that weave a canopy of blooms equal to the color and intensity of the midday sun. Stop by the Visitor Centre for a schedule of seasonal sights and while there, check out its new sustainable-building design.
One of Vancouver’s trendiest neighborhoods, populated with avant-garde galleries, fashion-forward shops and food-forward restaurants, Gastown is also Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood. Many of the original Victorian-era buildings are still there, and antique gaslights line its cobblestone streets. But they’re not the basis for its name. That honor goes to John Deighton, an enterprising businessman with a penchant for long-winded stories who, legend has it, came ashore in 1867 and quickly opened a tavern to serve the workers of the nearby lumber mill. Today, a statue of “Gassy Jack” stands in Maple Tree Square, heart of the district (and site of the apocryphal bar), not far from the tall steam-powered clock (the world’s first!) that sounds out the Westminster chime every 15 minutes. Photo ops abound.
Arguably the best, and biggest, farmers market in North America, the Granville Island Public Market is a foodie’s Mecca. Open daily and occupying a 50,000-square-foot building on this artsy island, the market is jam-packed with stalls of locally grown fruits and vegetables, artisanal cheeses, chocolates, baked goods, seafood, fresh pastas, even homemade charcuterie. Vendors with artful crafts and fresh flowers are sandwiched among the edibles, and at the north end of the market, you’ll find prepared foods, snacks and some of the best coffee. The temptation to eat here is overwhelming. Consider yourself warned.
Looking more like the Colosseum in Rome than anything remotely resembling a library, this seven-story swirl of glass and cast concrete was designed by internationally-acclaimed Canadian architect Moshe Safdie and opened in 1995. Interesting from the outside, the design’s true beauty is in the details: reading and study areas housed in an elliptical colonnaded wall, an expansive glass-roofed promenade, rooftop garden and more. Fortunately, all are accessible even without a current library card.
Looking a bit like a friendly spaceship that landed atop the Harbour Centre building in Downtown Vancouver, the Lookout tower houses the city’s singular observation deck. Glass elevators transport visitors more than 550 feet in a mere 40 seconds to the 55th floor observatory where unobstructed panoramic views of Vancouver and beyond await. Admission tickets are valid for multiple visits in the same day, in case Vancouver’s often-mercurial weather isn’t cooperating when you first check it out.
Located Downtown in bustling Robson Square and housed in a stately 1911 former courthouse building (which pretty much belies what’s inside), the VAG is famous for its groundbreaking exhibits and original displays of contemporary art. Yet the museum, which was founded in 1931, is also lauded for its major pieces by Marc Chagall and a host of 17th Century Dutch painters. And then, there’s its fierce dedication to world-famous British Columbian artists, both contemporary and Post-Impressionist, resulting in the most extensive collection of works by 20th Century B.C. artist, Emily Carr, and an impressive selection by J. E. H. MacDonald and the so-called Group of Seven (Canadian landscape painters during the 1920s). VAG is not your typical art museum. It’s the kind of art museum so innovative and inspiring you cancel your plans for the rest of the afternoon.
Having a large, gleaming geodesic dome as part of its building would be enough for some science museums. Fortunately, Science World is not just some science museum. Within and beneath that shiny dome (a vestige of Expo 86, the Vancouver-hosted 1986 World's Fair) is an award-winning museum dedicated to the exploration and discovery of natural science, technology and all science-related subjects in between. Featuring one of the world’s largest OMNIMAX Theatre dome screens and 100,000 square feet of interactive exhibits and mind-expanding fun. Science World is geared for kids of all ages, even the rarely included 6-and-under set.
Designed in 1986 as a pavilion for the Expo 86 World’s Fair, Canada Place on the Burrard Inlet waterfront is Vancouver’s primary ocean-liner terminal and home to its convention centre, its world trade centre, a high-end hotel, a very cool flight-simulation attraction called “Flyover Canada” and an interactive exhibition about the city’s waterfront history. But more than even all that, Canada Place—with its stylized roofline of five enormously high sails—is one of the country’s most recognized symbols and one of the city’s most famous landmarks. If that still doesn’t wow you, it’s the site of Heritage Horns, which every day at noon, sounding like the horns of a cruise ship, blast the first four notes of O Canada, the country’s national anthem.
One of Vancouver’s all-time top attractions is this wonderful colorful collection of nine totem poles towering over Brockton Point at the eastern tip of Stanley Park. Totem poles are a meaningful art form in indigenous cultures, and these come from all over British Columbia—several dating as far back as the 1880s with the most recent addition carved in 2009. They stood in various sites around the city until the mid-1960s when they were gathered up and relocated here, creating one striking outdoor exhibit.
Robson Street is Vancouver’s answer to Fifth Avenue in New York City or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. In Canadian Monopoly, Robson Street is the most expensive property. Getting the picture? One of the oldest streets in the city (its first shops date from 1895), Robson runs from BC Place Stadium (home to the Whitecaps, Vancouver’s soccer team) to the West End, ending at Stanley Park. But by far its busiest stretch—as famous for its couture shopping as its couture watching—is between Jervis and Burrard streets. It even has its own website.
This clothing-optional beach is a four-mile stretch on the banks of Georgia Strait, located within Pacific Spirit Regional Park. Accessible only via a half-mile foot trail within the park.
A great family-friendly beach, this Point Grey site offers an expanse of sand, shallow water, volleyball courts and lawns full of picnic tables. A little farther up the coastline, Spanish Banks West and Locarno beaches are designated “quiet zones,” meaning no amplified music allowed.
Between the Conservatory’s dazzling dome of 1,400 acrylic panels and the Dancing Waters fountain out front, it’s possible to completely bypass entering this bit of horticultural paradise. Home to some 500 varieties of exotic plants—plus more than 50 species of free-flying (and chatty) birds—the Conservatory wonderfully replicates the climate of desert, subtropical and rainforest habitats in circular succession. There’s also a healing garden just in case your little interlude in the tropics wasn’t calming enough.
Styled like a mini retro houseboat, the AquaBus is a fun way to see some of Vancouver’s landmarks, neighborhoods and various skylines. With frequent service to and from Granvillle Island plus several docks along the Downtown Seawall. Also offered: a 25-minute mini cruise that tools around False Creek.
Located at Point Grey, Jericho is one of Vancouver’s best beaches for windsurfing and kayaking (rentals available). It’s also home to Jericho Sailing Centre.
Built in 1937 to connect the city of Vancouver and North Vancouver, the landmark Lion’s Gate Bridge crosses the First Narrows of the Burrard Inlet, offering sweeping city views. Inspired by the Golden Gate Bridge, Vancouver’s first suspension bridge was a make-work project to create jobs during the Great Depression. Officially named the First Narrows Bridge, it got its moniker from a pair of peaks in the North Shore Mountains called The Lions, visible from the bridge when driving north. So popular was its nickname that two years after the bridge was erected, twin cast concrete lions by Canadian sculptor Charles Marega were added on either side of the south-approach entrance.
Along the south shore of English Bay is one of the city’s most popular beachfronts—known as Kits to the locals—and part of the happening neighborhood of the same name. Popular with cyclists, runners and walkers, Kits Beach is at the end of the Seawall. Featuring a large heated saltwater pool (open May to September), the beachside Vanier Park and some of the best sunsets around. The Boathouse restaurant serves lunch and dinner and weekend brunch.
Conceived in recognition of Vancouver’s major port-city status and inspired by the Chrysler Building in New York, the 1930 Marine Building remains Vancouver’s most elegant skyscraper and one of the world’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture. Opulent by design, this Downtown office building has decorative maritime-theme elements up and down its 21-floor façade, some in places only enjoyed by high-flying birds, like the relief of King Neptune standing guard on the 16th story. For those without a birds-eye view, there’s still plenty to appreciate—from the elaborate arch over the main entrance to the grand 90-foot-long lobby inside, known for frequent film-crew sightings. For the best overall view of the building, stand at the corner of Hastings and Hornby streets.
An area of Downtown bordered by False Creek, this former warehouse and rail yards district morphed almost overnight a few decades ago into a diminutive grid of hip shops and hipper eateries with a booming nightlife scene, and some of the most expensive, and coveted, new skyrise condos and converted warehouses in town.
More a sprawling urban forest/nature preserve than a park, Pacific Spirit on Point Grey on Vancouver’s West Side is rife with trails for hiking, cycling, even horseback riding. It incorporates the shores of Georgia Strait, which includes the Spanish Banks beaches and Wreck (clothing optional) Beach.
Founded in 1916 as a research project and situated on the university’s campus, this sprawling 78-acre site is magnificent with some 8,000 different plants from temperate regions around the world, growing in woodland gardens, an alpine garden, edible garden, a medicinal garden and others. Being a university setting, this is a real learning environment with clinics, guided walks and seasonal events provided year-round for recreational gardeners and wannabes. For a totally different perspective, check out the Greenheart Canopy Walkway, a 45-minute guided aerial tour along a collection of treetop-suspended bridges for a bird’s-eye view of the sights and sounds of Vancouver’s temperate rainforest.
This 2.5-acre walled Japanese garden is the visual and sensory definition of calm. Exotic and lovely, it features a pond, stream and waterfall plus an amazing array of flowers, trees and shrubs, all planted Japanese style. In April and May, the garden is exuberant with cherry blossoms. There’s a circular path around the park symbolizing the cycle of life and a ceremonial teahouse that hosts a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Lying just to the east of Stanley Park’s southern entrance in the city’s West End, English Bay Beach is arguably Vancouver’s most popular. The Seawall runs all the way around, making it a favorite destination for cyclists, joggers and walkers. It features two volleyball courts, offers kayak rentals and is host to lots of public events—including the Celebration of Light, a two-week-long fireworks competition, held every summer starting in late July.
Located on the Stanley Park Seawall at Ferguson Point facing English Bay, Third Beach is one of the best for taking in sunsets, which makes it a favorite for evening strolls, picnics and proposals.
Walking across the gently swaying no-frills footbridge, suspended 230 feet above the rushing Capilano River in North Vancouver, has all the pulse quickening of an action-park ride. Then once across the 450-foot-wide canyon, you transfer to a canopy walk for an aerial tour around the towering evergreens. (Fortunately, there’s just enough “interesting info” signage along the way to distract you from developing a fear of heights.) The last leg is a narrow cliff-side walk, which precariously takes you back across the canyon, depositing you only steps from the Trading Post store (where you'll find some of the best maple-cream fudge on the planet). Free 30-minute shuttle service from Canada Place. If visiting in December, go late in the day in order to catch the captivating Canyon Lights display.
Known as Mother Nature’s Stairmaster, this 1.8-mile challenging hike up the face of nearby Grouse Mountain is practically a rite of passage for first-time visitors to Vancouver. Plan on taking at least an hour and a half to reach the 2,800-foot summit—or, 2,830 steps in the world of Fitbit wearers. The reward? Bragging rights, plus stellar views of Vancouver, the mountains, the ocean and legend has it, a few slivers of heaven.
Appropriately named, this aerial tram journeys one mile, from the base of the mountain to the Alpine Station, 3,700 feet above sea level, all in eight minutes—where it dangles for extraordinary panoramic views of Vancouver, the mountains, the ocean and on a really clear day, outer space.
On the Stanley Park Seawall, Second Beach is one of the most popular for families, thanks to its large heated pool with sliding ponds, a playground and picnic shelter.
Smack in the heart of Vancouver’s bustling Chinatown is this exquisite, and unexpected, time machine of tranquility. Created in 1986 by 50-some master craftsmen and landscape architects from China using traditional 15th Century building techniques, this Ming Dynasty-style garden boasts a koi pond the color of jade, bedecked covered walkways and just seemingly transportive abilities. The entry fee includes a 45-minute guided tour that roams the grounds, explaining gardening techniques according to Taoist and Feng shui principles.
This glass-enclosed bubble positioned about 15 stories up on the stem of a working wind turbine atop Grouse Mountain is a cross between the coolest observation deck and a master class in wind power. An elevator whisks 36 visitors at a time to the stationary bubble, which from more than 4,100 feet above sea level provides jaw-dropping panoramic views, of, well, what seems like the entire world. All the while, three slender 125-foot-long blades are employed by the wind, supplying about 25% of the energy needs for the mountain’s activities.