At first, Vancouver was just supposed to be just our port of embarkation for our long awaited Alaskan cruise. But, after hearing people talk about how much they enjoyed their visit in this Canadian coastal city, we decided on a whim to add 48 hours in Vancouver on to our itinerary and spend a little extra time here. That turned out to be a great move that added a whole new dimension to one great vacation.
We were delighted to find that although Vancouver is a big city, it is fascinatingly beautiful and full of both urban and natural appeal. Ringed by forested mountains and sporting green leafy totem pole parks, glimmering azure waterways, and even suspension bridges over waterfalls, Vancouver is a not-to-be missed destination all in its own right.
With miles of sandy beaches and a stunningly beautiful waterfront where cruise ships arrive and depart daily and float planes zip in and out of the harbor on a regular basis, Vancouver exemplifies the very best of the Pacific Northwest.
Though sophisticated, modern and hip, the locals are laid-back in a friendly, neighborly way. Urban paths and forest trails have been drawing cyclists to Vancouver for years, but, even many of its residents choose to bike to work. The city’s not only clean, it’s green, and according to one of our tour guides, “Vancouver’s goal is to be the cleanest and greenest city in the world by the year 2020”.
One of the first things we noticed was the cosmopolitan nature of this warm and inviting city. Among the Vancouver residents we heard a multitude of accents and languages and of no surprise, there is a plethora of exciting food choices available throughout the city giving visitors and residents a chance to “eat around the globe”.
What Not to Miss in Vancouver
Our first day in Vancouver consisted of an overall orientation of the city that could not have been better than on our four-hour narrated excursion from Land and Sea Vancouver Tours with stops in some of the city’s most beautiful landmarks. Stanley Park is often called Vancouver’s Emerald Jewel. The 1000-acre lush verdant park has been named the top urban park in the world.
The nine totem poles located within the park at Brockton Point are British Columbia’s most visited tourist attraction. Carved in the late 1900s by Squamish artists, they pay tribute to their native ancestors who once occupied the land.
A 5.5 mile hiking and biking Seawall Promenade provides extraordinary views of the bay. At the northernmost tip, Prospect Point lookout gives another incredible perspective of the soaring Lions Gate Bridge, North Vancouver and surrounding mountain peaks.
Granville Island is without a doubt Vancouver’s best culinary adventure. Visitors can walk, drive over the Granville Street Bridge or take a water taxi from downtown Vancouver. The tiny peninsula located on the waters of False Creek is the place to sample a cornucopia of the area’s very best farm produce.
Stalls at the Public Market sell local fruit, vegetables, flowers, just-caught fish, seafood, local meats, sausages, farm-made cheeses, pastries, baked goods and wines from the province’s vineyards. The island has numerous eateries and artsy boutiques, and the docks are filled with food vendors and lively musical performances.
Granville Island retains some of its original industrial working class footprint, such as its large cement plant but these have been artistically incorporated into the island’s colorful appealing architecture. A popular draw for tourist photos are the eye-catching, massive, towering cement silos painted as gigantic Lego-like characters.
With its many shade trees, hanging flower baskets adorning each street corner, Gastown fully embraces its British heritage. As one of Vancouver’s several fascinating neighborhoods, Gastown provides visitors with a vibrant cultural scene filled with street-side cafes, brick lofts, art galleries, and one-of-a-kind specialty shops.
This quaint Victorianesque community is home to only one of a few steam-powered clocks in the world that whistles and steams every 15 minutes. The town was founded by Jack Deighton, known as “Gassy Jack”. One can only imagine the origin of this nickname, but locals assured us the name was attributed to his blustery and boisterous (i.e. “gassy”) monologues as a saloon keeper- and nothing else.
Lunch at the Flying Pig in Gastown was definitely a unique experience. Because of its name, one may think the menu is heavy on pork, but nothing can be further from the truth. The name originates from an inside family story of how the owner and chef, John Crook, growing up in a large Irish family, promised his mother, the matriarch of the family who cooked nonstop for her growing family that someday he would own a restaurant and cook for her. Mama’s response “Yes, John, when pigs fly” was responsible for the name John gave the restaurant.
Entrée items are seasonally based, according to the freshest ingredients available from local farms and Vancouver waters. The Rocket & Watercress Beetroot Salad with local farm chevre goat cheese, pears and walnuts was among the freshest and tastiest salads we’ve ever tasted in the world. Chilled to perfection, each ingredient held its own while the melding of flavors was a delectable myriad of perfection.
Nearby Yaletown with a distinctive European flavor was once a warehouse district dominated by textile shops and train yards. The 20-block cobblestone urban neighborhood is home to cutting-edge restaurants and a lively bar scene. Word has it Yaletown is where more celebrity sightings occur than any other neighborhood in Vancouver.
Vancouverites love a “good cuppa joe”. Artisan coffee at its best can be found at Caffè Artigiano, one of 13 popular coffee bistros located throughout Canada. When locals recommended we try the coffees here and see the talented baristas in action, we were so glad we did. The Spanish Latte, smooth, naturally sweet, and literally the best latte we’ve ever tasted, was perfect to ward off a chilly, overcast Vancouver morning. Not only was it delicious, but as an added touch, the coffee artfully featured decorative designs in the coffee’s surface from the added cream.
We just happened upon the Revelstoke Railway Museum, a free museum celebrating the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Columbia Mountains, as well as the role the railway, and its workers, have played in building Canada as a nation. Within its brick and glass-fronted building, a large collection of artifacts, historical photographs, artwork, and full-sized rolling stock are displayed, including a steam locomotive built for mountain work.
Vancouver boasts one of the world’s largest Chinatowns as well as some of the most majestic architecture in the city. This lively ethnic neighborhood was developed at the turn of the last century by Chinese immigrants from California and China, who came to work the mines during the 1858 gold rush and later the railroads.
The neighborhood includes an authentic Chinese market and business district where nearly all signs are in Chinese and storefronts are filled with hanging ducks, dried fish, exotic fruits and ancient medicinal potions. A dragon adorned gateway greets visitors much like the famous Chinatown in San Francisco. The Dr. Sun-Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden offers invites visitors to stroll through its Ming Dynasty garden masterpiece, the largest outside of China.
Canada Place and Vancouver Harbor is known as Canada’s flagship harbor the city’s Alaskan cruise ship terminal and gateway to Asia. This is no boring cruise ship terminal as it’s situated in an incredibly beautiful harbor with stunning water and mountain views and spectacular sunsets.
The iconic five white sails with cruise ships anchored in front is one of the most photographed scenes of Vancouver. The harbor area also contains the Olympic cauldron torch lit by world famous hockey great Wayne Gretsky for the 2010 Vancouver winter games.
Next to the Olympic Cauldron, Cactus Club Café is a prime oceanfront dining location with views of Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. The menu runs the gamit from utterly delicious butternut squash ravioli with prawns to perfectly-prepared delectable prime cut steaks. And because Cactus Club sources the freshest local ingredients available accompanied by magnificent water views and majestic sunsets, reservations at this restaurant are a must.
Located in the downtown Harbour Center, the Vancouver Lookout at a height of 430 feet is the perfect place to get 360-degree views of Vancouver’s picture-perfect sights. Guests take a 40 second glass-elevator ride to a rotating observation deck which is the perfect vantage point for experiencing breathtaking views of the harbor, mountain, park and downtown.
A partial-day trip within itself and an absolute must-visit while in Vancouver is the swaying Capilano Suspension Bridge that stretches 450 feet across the canyon and 230 feet above the Capilano River and waterfalls below in North Vancouver. Even for those afraid of heights, the views are so spectacular it’s more than worth the sweat-it-out adventure!
The bridge is located in a natural verdantly green park filled with massive, towering cedar, pine, and fir evergreens. This cedar-scented preserve includes a treetop adventure area consisting of seven multi-leveled foot-bridges with views 110 feet above the forest floor. The park’s newest attraction, Cliffwalk, is a cantilevered walkway clinging to the granite cliffs high above Capilano Canyon. With its ponds, gardens, gift shops, coffee shop and cafés, it would be easy to spend an entire day exploring British Columbia’s most popular and one of the most scenic outdoor attractions.
It’s no wonder that everyone who’s been to Vancouver comes away with a wonderfully positive experience. This multifaceted city filled with so much stunning natural beauty, adventure, vibrant culture, friendly people and great food is so much more than just an Alaskan cruise ship terminal. It’s one of the most beautiful and popular tourist destinations in the world- and we’re so glad we added some extra time to experience it ourselves.