It’s sometimes cruelly nicknamed “Raincouver”. But as you fly into Vancouver over its Downtown neighbourhood, with an eagle-eyed view of evergreen-skirted mountains, beachy coves and exquisite inlets, you quickly realise this is a remarkable city to touch down in, no matter the weather.
This is a place that revels in all the wide open spaces you come to Canada for – no squeezing in with the masses here – and it’s easy to pack your days with activities, from kayaking Kitsilano to whale watching from Granville Island, via hiking into black bear country on Grouse Mountain.
Getting back into the centre after jaunts into its magically mossy forests of giant Douglas Firs – or out to sea to spot orcas and humpbacks – you’ll find cool craft brew bars, food markets and restaurants in atmospheric old industrial buildings. And, should the rain clouds disappear, just imagine what it looks like in the late summer sun.
What to do
Sightsee along the Seawall
This is the way Vancouverites do it: they jog, stroll, dog walk, skate or pedal along the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path, an 18-mile greenway at the roiling edge of the Pacific that orbits the best aspects of the city. There is Coal Harbour for oyster happy hours and scenic seaplane flights with Harbour Air; Stanley Park, the city park with beavers, eagles and totem poles to spot; English Bay for blonde beaches and cafe culture; and False Creek for dinky ferry rides and big-ticket stadia games. (At the Rogers Arena you can tick off Canada’s national obsession, ice hockey). In a city that thrives on being outdoors, you could tackle the whole Seawall loop in one go – but it’s better to treat it like a jigsaw and let the whole picture reveal itself over a few days.
Explore Gastown and Yaletown
Hands down Vancouver’s coolest districts, these resilient inner-city neighbourhoods are gleefully overstuffed with here-and-now cafes, restaurants and boutiques, and yet are also places to reconnect with the city’s past. Gastown is punctuated by handsome brick depositories, while Yaletown is built on platforms-turned-streets that were once the terminus of the country-defining Canadian Pacific Railway. To delve deeper into such history, visit Engine 374 Pavilion, with its coal-black locomotive, or stroll the Gastown streets around Maple Tree Square. Here vibey bars overlook the cobblestones, then further along Water Street stands the Gastown Steam Clock – a modest enough attraction but proof that it’s possible to draw a crowd every day, every hour, with just a puff of hot air.
Explore Granville Island
Don’t be put off by the fact it’s technically a peninsula, not an island – Granville is a dockside marvel of art warehouses, seafood restaurants and one of the best food markets in North America. Start by arriving onboard a toytown-size Aquabus or False Creek Ferry, then explore an art gallery or two – there are more than 20 here, including studios showcasing artworks by indigenous First Nations communities, printmakers and glassworks. If the dockside vibe sets you dreaming, join a half-day whale watching tour to see flips of humpback and orca tails in the Georgia Strait, or settle for the salty air of a picnic bench beside Granville Island Public Market. Here you can dig into best-in-Canada spreads of seafood, charcuterie, cheese and more – the woodsmoked Coho salmon delivers the greatest sense of place, but there are nibbles and artisan bit and bobs for every taste. Don’t miss a lunch there.
Where to stay
Those who head to Coal Harbour have good instincts. Many of the waterfront hotels are marked by striking sea-meets-summit views of Vancouver Harbour and the North Shore Mountains – and that’s the deal at The Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront. Rooms are swoon-worthy and the pool is the perfect foil to the harbour activity, while there are complimentary bikes if you fancy a wheel around nearby Stanley Park. Doubles from £110, B&B. pinnacleharbourfronthotel.com
There is no shortage of beautiful buildings in Downtown Vancouver, as this is a city that slaloms from facade-pretty Edwardian to 21st-century modernism. Caught between the two styles is The Exchange Hotel, which has taken the bones of the Old Stock Exchange from the 1920s and updated it to a West Coast look, with green credentials, recycled carpets, eco-friendly design and artworks in the lobby. Doubles from £115, B&B. exchangehotelvan.com
Globe-hopper Fairmont Hotels and Resorts is such a ubiquitous travel brand, few would question where its roots lie. That’s with the Canadian Pacific Railway, which operated hotels along its train tracks in the 1880s, and there are four outposts of the five-star hotelier here. Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (aka the ‘castle in the city’) is the one to go for, with gargoyle-adorned copper roof and plenty of baronial schtick. It underwent a major fit in 2019, so amid the history, expect plenty polish and contemporary interior design. Doubles from £165, B&B. fairmont.com/hotel-vancouver
Where to eat
You might feel compelled to seek out the new in Vancouver, but a trip to the Cactus Club Cafe is always dependably brilliant. Born in North Vancouver, this five-star answer to Wetherspoons is a casual dining nirvana, with seven outposts littered across the city. The Coal Harbour one is the flagship, but land a terrace table at the sunset-facing beach satellite on English Bay and you’ll be in taco, tofu and truffle fry heaven. In a similar vein, but with imaginative craft beers through the roof, Steamworks Brewing by Waterfront Station is for hop heads and IPA addicts.
Many of the grandest of Vancouver’s restaurants tend to look as downbeat and done-in as the most avoidable. One of the best is St Lawrence, a hard-to-get-into Quebecois restaurant among the rough-and-tumble streets of Downtown Eastside. The food from Montreal chef Jean-Christophe Poirier is absolutely terrific – chops glazed with maple, venison tourtière, crêpes with mushroom ragout. In a similar vein nearby is Ask for Luigi – a cosy fine-dining affair specialising in hand-tossed pasta.
Oyster bars are legion 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 thrilling locations – one in Kitsilano and one on Coal Harbour – and serves oysters on the half-shell, steamed, stewed or nude. Another to seek out in Yaletown is Rodney’s Oyster House, where the menu lists a dozen native oyster varieties, from the kusshi and black pearl to the supposedly sense-arousing Pacific kiss.
Where to drink
Vancouver was into craft beer before it became a Noughties trend – and every pub and boozer has a menu fat with spruce tip pilsners and marshmallow ales in place of mass-produced corporate lagers. Alibi Room, with 50 taps, is one such place, as is CRAFT Beer Market on False Creek. Perhaps a better way to drink on the fly, though, is to bike the Yeast Vancouver Ale Trail, stopping off at taprooms such as Parallel 49 Brewing, Bomber Brewing and Powell Brewery along the way.
For cocktails, there is only one destination: The Keefer Bar in Chinatown. As well as plenty of multi-layered signature cocktails, there’s dim sum and a fire-lit patio with live music and mini-golf. If it’s too busy – which is highly likely – try Clough Club or The Diamond in nearby Gastown; both deliver a louche, low-lit speakeasy vibe.
For Vancouver’s army of up-early outdoor lovers or the neurotically hungover, juice bars are the cure. They’re reliable, inexpensive and tucked into folds of dozens of Downtown streets and malls. Two to try for cold-pressed juices, raw cleanses and unpasturised smoothies are The Juice Truck, with six city-wide locations, and Glory Juice Co. on West Hastings and in Yaletown.
Where to shop
The cluster of streets around Robson, Burrard and Granville offers a carousel of high street names, particularly so at CF Pacific Centre, downtown’s largest shopping hive and where you can 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 with Grouse Mountain summit gleams in their eyes, or those who fancy swimming, kayaking or riding 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 down, not up, and a puffy hoody, insulated jacket or fleece sweater is what you’ll need if trying to look the part.
Canada Place, with its Sydney-Opera-House-like sails, and the revolving Vancouver Lookout, are the city’s most recognisable architectural landmarks. But the most remarkable piece of engineering is the Capilano Suspension Bridge – a Klondike-era steel ribbon hanging thrillingly above a plunging river canyon. To cross it feels like visiting a faraway land.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Canadian dollars (CAD).
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
10 to 15 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
Eight hours behind GMT.
How should I get around?
By bike, bus or ferry.
What’s the best view?
From the cable car station and restaurant atop Grouse Mountain.
Remarkably, “happy hours” here can last three to four hours and, as well as including cheapo beer, wine and oysters, many offer deals on sushi, tacos, wings and more.
Trying to fly less?
The truly intrepid could take a cargo freighter from Belgium to Houston, Texas, from where you can take a train to Seattle (via Los Angeles) to pick up a bus to Vancouver.
Fine with flying?
Numerous airlines including British Airways and Air Canada fly direct from the UK.
For more information, visit destinationvancouver.com.