IIt sometimes has the cruel nickname “Raincouver”. But when you fly into Vancouver via downtown, with eagle-eye views of evergreen-fringed mountains, beach coves and exquisite bays, you’ll quickly realize that this is a remarkable city to land in, whatever the weather.
This is a place that thrives on all the wide open spaces you come to Canada for — without squeezing in among the crowds here — and it’s easy to fill your days with activities, from kayaking in Kitsilano to whale watching from Granville Island to to hikes into Black Bear Country on Grouse Mountain.
Coming back downtown after exploring the magical mossy forests of giant Douglas firs – or heading out to sea to spot orcas and humpback whales – you’ll find cool craft brew bars, food markets and restaurants in atmospheric old industrial buildings. And should the rain clouds disappear, imagine what it looks like in the late summer sun.
What should I do
Sightseeing along the Seawall
Here’s how Vancouverites do it: jog, walk, walk the dog, skate or bike the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path, an 18-mile greenway on the roaring edge of the Pacific Ocean that circles the city’s most beautiful sides. There’s Coal Harbor for oyster happy hours and scenic seaplane flights with Harbor Air; Stanley Park, the city park with beavers, eagles and totem poles; English Bay for blonde beaches and cafe culture; and False Creek for cute ferry rides and high-profile stadium games. (Check off Canada’s national obsession, ice hockey, at Rogers Arena.) In a city that thrives on being outdoors, you could complete the entire seawall loop in one go — but it’s better to put it together like a puzzle treat and let the whole picture reveal itself over a few days.
Explore Gastown and Yaletown
Arguably Vancouver’s coolest neighborhoods, these resilient inner-city neighborhoods are packed with here-and-now cafes, restaurants and boutiques, yet they’re also places to reconnect with the city’s past. Gastown is punctuated by handsome brick depots, while Yaletown is built on platforms turned streets that were once the terminus of the country’s defining Canadian Pacific Railway. To delve deeper into this story, visit the Engine 374 Pavilion with its charcoal-black locomotive or stroll the streets of Gastown around Maple Tree Square. Here lively bars overlook the cobblestone streets, further along Water Street stands Gastown’s Steam Clock – a fairly modest attraction, but proof that it’s possible to attract a crowd every day, every hour, with just a puff of hot air.
Explore Granville Island
Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s technically a peninsula, not an island — Granville is a harborside marvel with art warehouses, seafood restaurants and one of North America’s best food markets. Begin by arriving aboard a toy-town-sized Aquabus or False Creek ferry, then explore an art gallery or two—there are more than 20 here, including studios displaying artwork from Indigenous First Nations communities, printers, and glassworks . If the harbor vibe gets you dreaming, join a half-day whale-watching tour to see humpback whales and orca tails in the Georgia Strait, or indulge in the salty air of a picnic bench next to Granville Island Public Market. Here you can enjoy Canada’s best spreads with seafood, charcuterie, cheese and more – the wood-smoked coho salmon gives the best feel for a place, but there are nibbles and artisan bites to suit all tastes. Don’t miss lunch there.
Where to sleep
Going to Coal Harbor has good instincts. Many of the waterfront hotels boast sweeping ocean and hilltop views of Vancouver Harbor and the North Shore Mountains — and that’s the deal at The Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront. Rooms swoon and the pool is the perfect antidote to the harbor activities, while there are free bikes if you fancy pedaling around nearby Stanley Park. Doubles from £110 B&B. pinnacleharbourfronthotel.com
There’s no shortage of beautiful buildings in downtown Vancouver, as this is a city that’s transitioning from facade-gorgeous Edwardian to 21st-century modernity. Between the two styles lies The Exchange Hotel, which has taken the bones of the 1920s Old Stock Exchange and transformed it into a West Coast look with an eco-friendly design, recycled carpets, eco-friendly design, and artwork in the lobby. Doubles from £115 B&B. Exchangehotelvan.com
Globetrotter Fairmont Hotels and Resorts is such a ubiquitous travel brand that few would question where its roots lie. That’s on the Canadian Pacific Railway, which operated hotels along its railroad tracks in the 1880s, and there are four outposts of five-star hoteliers here. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (aka the “Castle in the City”) fits the bill with its gargoyled copper roof and lots of princely chic. It underwent a major makeover in 2019, so expect plenty of polished and contemporary interior design amidst the history. Doubles from £165 B&B. fairmont.com/hotel-vancouver
where should we eat
You may feel compelled to seek out what’s new in Vancouver, but a visit to the Cactus Club Cafe is always reliably brilliant. Born in north Vancouver, this five-star answer to Wetherspoons is casual dining nirvana with seven outposts scattered across the city. Coal Harbor One is the flagship, but land a patio table on the beach satellite overlooking the sunset on English Bay and you’ll be in taco, tofu, and roast truffle heaven. Similarly, but with imaginative craft beers through the roof, Steamworks Brewing by Waterfront Station is for hop lovers and IPA addicts.
Many of Vancouver’s great restaurants tend to look run-down and worn-out in the most avoidable way. One of the best is St. Lawrence, a hard-to-reach Quebec restaurant on the rough streets of downtown Eastside. Montreal chef Jean-Christophe Poirier’s food is absolutely terrific – maple-glazed chops, venison tourtière, Crêpes with mushroom ragout. Nearby is Ask for Luigi – a cozy gourmet restaurant specializing in hand-stirred pasta.
Oyster bars abound in Vancouver, and buck-a-shuck happy hours are as much a part of the food scene here as poutine is in Montreal. Chewies (named after local oyster king Richard Chew) has two exciting locations — one in Kitsilano and one in Coal Harbor — and serves oysters half-shelled, steamed, braised or naked. Another Yaletown destination is Rodney’s Oyster House, where the menu features a dozen local oyster varieties, from Kusshi and Black Pearl to the supposedly sensory Pacific Kiss.
where to drink
Vancouver was big on craft beer before it became a noughties trend — and every pub and snug has a menu of pine-top pilsners and marshmallow ales instead of mass-produced company lagers. The 50-tap Alibi Room is one such place, as is the CRAFT Beer Market on False Creek. Perhaps a better way to get a drink along the way is to bike the Yeast Vancouver Ale Trail, stopping at taprooms like Parallel 49 Brewing, Bomber Brewing, and Powell Brewery along the way.
There’s only one destination for cocktails: The Keefer Bar in Chinatown. Along with many layered signature cocktails, there’s dim sum and a fire-lit terrace with live music and miniature golf. If it’s too crowded – which it very likely is – try Clough Club or The Diamond in nearby Gastown; both deliver a louche, dimly lit speakeasy vibe.
For Vancouver’s army of early risers or those with neurotic hangovers, juice bars are the cure. They’re reliable, inexpensive, and tucked away on dozens of downtown streets and malls. Two to try cold-pressed juices, raw cleanses, and unpasteurized smoothies are The Juice Truck, with six locations across the city, and Glory Juice Co. in West Hastings and in Yaletown.
Where to shop
The collection of streets around Robson, Burrard and Granville offers a carousel of well-known street names, particularly in the CF Pacific Centre, downtown’s largest shopping district, and where you’ll find upscale department stores Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom. For textbook Canadian backwoods style try Hudson’s Bay, or for outdoor gear head to Lululemon or Arc’teryx.
For those who want the peak of Grouse Mountain to gleam in their eyes, or who enjoy swimming, kayaking, or driving along the seawall, MEC (aka Mountain Equipment Company) on 2nd Avenue East is a one-stop shop for The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, Garmin, Salomon and hundreds of other outdoor brands. This is a city where people dress casually, not elegantly, and a baggy hoodie, insulated jacket, or fleece sweater is what you need when attempting to play the role.
Canada Place, with its sails resembling the Sydney Opera House, and the revolving Vancouver Lookout are the city’s most recognizable architectural landmarks. But the most notable piece of engineering is the Capilano Suspension Bridge – a Klondike-era steel ribbon that hangs excitingly over a sloping river gorge. Crossing it feels like visiting a distant land.
screws and nuts
What currency do I need?
Canadian dollars (CAD).
What language do you speak?
Should I tip?
10 to 15 percent.
What is the time difference?
Eight hours behind GMT.
How should I move?
By bike, bus or ferry.
What’s the best view?
From the cable car station and restaurant on Grouse Mountain.
Notably, happy hours here can last three to four hours, and alongside cheap beer, wine, and oysters, many offer deals on sushi, tacos, wings, and more.
Are you trying to fly less?
The truly intrepid could take a freighter from Belgium to Houston, Texas, from where you can catch a train to Seattle (via Los Angeles) to catch a bus to Vancouver.
Good with flies?
Numerous airlines, including British Airways and Air Canada, fly direct from the UK.
For more information visit destinationvancouver.com.