There are few places on Earth where you can ski, surf, be transported back in time over 5,000 years, watch a pod of Orcas frolic in the midst, or take a stroll through the world’s best urban park, all in one day; Vancouver is that place. Nestled between vast valleys, lush temperate rain forest, and an unforgiving mountain range, Vancouver, British Columbia is unmistakably West Coast. While Vancouver is one of Canada’s newer cities, it holds the title as the most ethnically diverse and the most dense, with more than half a million people crammed into its modest downtown core. And though it may sound crowded, after hosting a very successful 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver is consistently voted one of the most livable cities in the world.
Vancouver is an outdoor enthusiasts playground, with three world class mountains all within a 15 minute drive from downtown, hundreds of parks and campsites, thousands of hiking trails, one of the worlds longest seawalls and countless rivers and lakes to explore. There is an endless list of things to do in Vancouver, with an activity for every age group and suiting all interests, but there are only so many hours in a day, so here is a great list to get you started.
1. Visit the Museum of Anthropology
It’s easy to be dazzled by Vancouver’s geographical splendor, but to properly get acquainted with this city, you have to start at the beginning, the very beginning. Vancouver and what is known as the Lower Mainland was peopled some 10,000 years ago. Overlooking the Burrard Inlet, on campus at the University of British Columbia, the Museum of Anthropology offers up a mosaic of Aboriginal works, both ancient and contemporary, all weaving together a story that is rarely told to visitors of this great city. If you really want to learn about the city’s roots, and its relationship with the global community, this is one of the most important things to do in Vancouver.
2. Take a Drive up the Sea-to-Sky Highway
Rated as one of the most the beautiful drives in the world, the Sea-to-Sky corridor takes visitors on a 1.5 hour long journey, from the heart of downtown Vancouver to the world class ski town of Whistler. With waterfalls, jaw-dropping vistas, a stunning cultural center and a suspension bridge along the way, you’ll want to pack a lunch, your camera and gas up the rental car, because this journey is one you won’t want to miss.
Available tour: Vancouver: 7-Hour Sea to Sky Tour
3. Hike the Grouse Grind
There is no better way to become an honorary Vancouverite (yep, that’s what they’re called), than to earn your stripes on the Grouse Grind. Nicknamed “Mother Nature’s Staircase”, this is no Sunday stroll. Located on Vancouver’s North Shore, at the foot of its namesake (Grouse Mountain), the Grind as it’s affectionately known, takes hikers some 850m up through the alpine. Once you reach the top, a panoramic chalet awaits with ice cold drinks and sweeping views of the city. And once you’ve recovered, save those wobbly legs from further torture and enjoy a scenic ride down the mountain on the Grouse Gondola.
Suggested tour: Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge
4. Cycle Around Stanley Park
The votes are in and the crowd has spoken; Vancouver’s Stanley Park managed to elbow out the likes of New York’s Central Park, the Luxeumbourg Gardens in Paris and Chicago’s Millennium Park to be named the World’s Best Park by Trip Advisor. So why is it so great? Where else in the world can you cycle all the way around an old growth forest, visit ancient Aboriginal village sites, steal a tan at the beach, lounge around a rose garden or get up and close with sea lions and Pacific dolphins. There are a handful of bicycle rental spots at the base of Denman Street, and its the best way to get around the park.
5. Windowshop in Gastown
Vancouver proper began in the heart of what is now a trendy neighborhood called Gastown, named after a historical figure known as “Gassy Jack”. Once Canada’s third largest city, “Gastown” in 1867, was the site of various lumber mills, Gastown is now home to chic loft apartments, European eateries, cocktail lounges and flashy boutiques. There are a few galleries of note along Water Street, and plenty of places to buy Canadiana.
6. Dim Sum in China Town
The great thing about sightseeing in Vancouver is it’s easy to knock off multiple things in one visit to any of its unique neighborhoods. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in Canada and the largest. Perched on the edge of the Downtown Financial District and Gastown, Chinatown offers up an array of funky shops, inexpensive markets, and of course, the best Dim Sum restaurants in town. Sunday is the busiest day for Dim Sum, but also the best with multi-generational families sitting down and chatting about the week’s events.
7. Find Your Zen
While you’re in the neighborhood, Chinatown is home to one of Canada’s most impressive Chinese gardens, Dr. Sun Yat Sen. What makes it so exquisite is its unique construction. Constructed with wholly traditional methods (by hand), the site mimics complex gardens found on the Mainland with courtyards, meandering brooks, impeccably sculpted vegetation, all in keeping with the Confucian and Buddhist tradition.
Available tour: 4 Hours Private Tour of Vancouver’s Gardens
8. Kayaking in Deep Cove
If getting up close and personal with mother nature is your idea of the perfect day out, ocean kayaking is one of the most popular things to do in Vancouver, and Deep Cove is one of the best and safest places to do it in Canada. A tranquil paddle up Indian Arm, a picturesque fjord where the forests creatures come down to the water’s edge to greet you with curiosity.
9. Take an Aquabus to Granville Island
No visit to Vancouver is complete without a visit to the artsy Granville Island. Interestingly, it’s more a little peninsula than an island. What was once an industrial manufacturing hub, is now the meeting place for well-to-do Vancouverites and tourists to shop for the organic produce, sip on premium teas, sample fine chocolates, listen to buskers, and watch sleek yachts sidle on up to the dock.
Included in: Vancouver Delights: 7 Hour City Tour
10. Visit the Richmond Night Market
If you’re here during the summer months, which is best time to visit, the Richmond Market is one of the most interesting markets to wander through. Home to Vancouver’s largest Chinese community, Richmond puts on quite the show, with endless stalls of trinkets, and interesting foods, and art demonstrations.
11. Take a Foodie Tour
Vancouver is the most ethnically diverse city in the world, which means, if you can dream up a style cuisine, it’s probably here. Its culinary influences are infinite, from the freshest sushi, to the most rustic farm-to-table, you could easily take a tour around the globe eating here, so why not let someone do that for you and hop on a foodie tour. Pair the complex food scene with an exploding craft beer and wine industry and you have yourself the makings of a perfectly delicious day!
12. Hike in Lynn Canyon
Vancouver has two suspension bridges, both equally spectacular, but one is always crowded with tourists and costly, and the other is frequented more by locals and free! Located in the heart of Lynn Valley, Lynn Canyon Park has been delighting hiking enthusiasts for over 100 years! Complete with trails, popular swimming holes, breathtaking waterfalls of course, a hair-raising suspension bridge, 50 meters up in the canopy makes this a must do, no matter how short your visit.
13. Wander Van Dusen Botanical Gardens
Garden enthusiasts from around the world love wandering the tranquil 22 acres of Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Gardens. The great thing about this paradise in the city is you can visit it all year round. In the warmer months, pack a picnic, take a stroll down Laburnum Walk, and find a find a shady spot to enjoy the fragrant garden. The garden takes you on a tour of the world’s eco system, all in one place.
14. Watch a Concert at the Commodore
Vancouver offers up a plethora of live music venues, and there’s always someone famous in town, dazzling the crowds. One of the oldest and most beloved venues is the Commodore Ballroom. Originating in the 1920’s during the vibrant Art Deco era, the Commodore has hosted the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., U2, Tina Turner and Lady Gaga. Unlike the larger venues in town, admission prices are reasonable and the atmosphere casual.
15. Catch a Canucks Game
Canada is hockey country, there is no question. Hockey is to Canada what football (soccer) is to Europe, and if you happen to be in Vancouver between October and April, seeing the Vancouver Canucks go head-to-head with any number of NHL teams is one of the most exciting things to do in Vancouver.
16. Go for a Run in Pacific Spirit Park
You’ll soon learn that Vancouverites love to spend all of their extra time in the outdoors, and one place they love to do that is in beautiful Pacific Spirit Regional Park. This park is complete With 874 hectares of pristine forest and plenty of manicured trails to run on. Visitors can enjoy a nice long 10km hike around the perimeter, or meander through it. And if you have the pooch along, this park is not only dog-friendly, but in many parts, off-leash friendly.
17. Sea-to-Sky Gondola
We’ve already suggested you head up the sea-to-sky corridor, what we haven’t delved into are all the amazing things you’ll find along the way like the Sea-to-Sky Gondola, one of Vancouver’s newest and most exciting attractions. Vancouver is all about spectacular views, and the 100 meter long Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge provides 360 degree views of all the Squamish region has to offer. From rugged mountains above to the vibrant turquoise fjord below, you may not want to come down.
18. Catch a Sunset in English Bay
Vancouver’s West End neighborhood is one of the most unique in Canada. It’s the most densely populated urban neighborhood in the country, and because of its adjacent location to Stanley Park and with the popularity of the seawall, it’s a highly transitional neighborhood. In the summer, it’s hard to know where the tourists end and the locals begin! When dinner time hits, wander down Denman Street and find a spot for good eats and cocktails. Then head on down to English Bay, find a bench, and watch as mother nature puts on her finest show in the sky above.
19. Visit Christ Church Cathedral
Vancouver has many churches, but few as beautiful as the Christ Church Cathedral. You don’t have to be religious to admire this Gothic Revival structure built with West Coast Douglas fir beams. From its exquisite stained glass windows, to stunning archways, this is a great place to find some peace and quiet.
20. Get Folksy on the Sunshine Coast
Vancouver is amazing, but if you are lucky enough to have some extra time on your hands, there is a plethora of day trips that are bucketlist worthy. A forty-minute ferry ride will take you to the Sunshine Coast, Canada’s best kept secret, and one that we’re telling you so you can experience a coastal oasis. The roads are as lackadaisical as the wonderfully quirky people who live in this coastal community. Visitors can base themselves in Sechelt, Roberts Creek or Gibsons, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, rent a cabin up the coast and spend your days shopping at authentic farmer’s markets, laze around peaceful lakes, and or grab a book and head down to the beach for some you time.
21. The PNE
Every summer, the Pacific National Exhibition returns to the city for a 17 day stint on its very own designated fair grounds. The century old tradition is local favorite and brings along with it an array of rides, farm animal auctions, a popular concert series, beer gardens, food vendors and all the makings of an exciting city-meets-urban fair.
22. Find a Local Event in the Georgia Strait
If a Vancouverite wants to know “what’s on” in the city, they flip through the pages of the Georgia Strait. From hyper local community center talent shows, to blockbuster movies, ballets and headlining super-bands, any event at any time will be listed in here. Check out some jazz at a local club, check out a comedy show on Granville Island, or get dolled up for a charity event at the Vancouver Convention Center, whatever your flavour, you’ll find it listed in this free publication.
23. The Vancouver Aquarium
If you’ve ever wanted to get up close and personal with what lies beneath the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean, or what’s living above in canopies of the Brazilian Amazon, the Vancouver Aquarium gives you that opportunity. One of North Americas largest aquariums, and conveniently located in the heart of Stanley Park, this attraction is one of the most popular things to do in Vancouver. There is lot’s to see, and as the Aquarium sees a regular rotation of unique exhibits, you may want to give yourself at least a day to come nose-to-nose with Belugas and learn about how essential the salmon is here in the Coastal ecosystem.
24. Lunch on the Drive
Like any neighborhood around the world, Vancouver’s urban spaces tell a story. Commercial Drive is one of Vancouver’s oldest and most ethnically eclectic streets, and one that you definitely need to visit. This century old street, now affectionately termed “The Drive” is home to a mix of contemporary and Edwardian houses, Portguese bakeries, Brazilian coffee houses, Italian pasta places and any number of hippy-chic boutiques. In the spring and summer months, the Drive is a hive of activity, and a meeting place for those looking for good eats and great conversation.
25. Ski, Snowboard or Play in the Snow
Vancouver may be a temperate climate, but in the winter months, the North Shore mountains transform into a snow-capped wonderland. With three excellent mountains all within a 15 minutes drive from the downtown core, and a free shuttle to one of them, Vancouver is your perfect place for a winter holiday. Seymour and Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver offer up challenging runs and family fun, and Cypress in West Vancouver has the city’s best tubing park! And for the world class skiier, hob aboard a shuttle and head to Whistler/Blackcomb for one of the best alpine experiences in the world. It’s no wonder Vancouver played host to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.