Tucked into a breathtakingly beautiful and unspoiled corner of the Pacific North West, Vancouver is consistently ranked among the top cities in the world to live. But beyond its spectacular mountain, ocean and forest backdrop this is a city of enjoyable anomalies where youthful vitality pits modernity against tradition, and multi-ethnicity is restyling a colorful heritage. All this combines to help make the city a sophisticated tourism destination well-worth going out of your way to visit.
Nowhere is Vancouver better appreciated than along its waterfront where glass and mirrored skyscrapers create an amazing skyline against the rainforest of Stanley Park. Cruise ships berth at Canada Place, a few minutes walk from historic Gastown. Tankers, seaplanes and sailing craft criss-cross the harbor, and kayakers paddle across False Creek to the markets, theaters and restaurants on Granville Island. Look up, and you may see hang-gliders catching thermals off Grouse Mountain. Blink, and you may miss the curiosity of a harbor seal before it dives.
Then there are the beaches, the gardens, the spring-time cherry blossoms that swirl through downtown corridors like scented snow, and everywhere – rain, shine, or sleety snow – people at street side patios sipping chai lattes. Many of these Vancouverites consider themselves hip (this is home base for Lululemon yoga gear), eco-aware (Greenpeace, Western Wilderness and the 100-Mile Diet originated here), and tolerant – with a large LGBTQ community and multi-cultural events taking place year-round. With a thriving movie industry, don’t be surprised to see Hollywood celebs stalking fashion houses along Robson Street.
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Above all, Vancouver is safe, clean and a delight to explore, especially on foot. With planning, you can just about catch the vibe in day or two. Stay longer, and you’ll be able to include an excursion to Whistler, or Victoria and the famed Butchart Gardens. With extra days, there’s time to plan an itinerary to Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, or the vineyards of the Okanagan Valley.
Vancouver has all the top brands, a W Hotel in Gastown, a Westin Resort next to Stanley Park, three Fairmont hotels in the downtown core alone ….. you get the picture. Among the more unique choices are:
Vancouver is a year-round city and provided you have an umbrella – yes, it may rain even in mid-summer – there’s something to see and do every day and in every season. It’s true what you may have heard: there are many days when you can ski in the morning, lunch on artisan produce at a farmers market, sail in the afternoon, and relax in the evening over a glass of award-winning (local) vino and and equally acclaimed cuisine.
Vancouver is beautiful and now a far cry from its rough-and-tumble origins. It boasts a sophisticated savoir-faire in its lifestyle options, its parks and gardens, its aboriginal history, and its shopping. Nordstrom is one headliner; home-grown shoe designer John Fluevog another. And all manner of A-line designer brands (including local legend Lululemon) call Robson Street “home”.
The city’s downtown core is so compact it’s easy to get around on foot whether exploring historic Gastown and Chinatown; walking to hip Yaletown and hopping onto a water taxi to Granville Island; or strolling through Stanley Park, a 1,000 acre oasis of rainforest packed with trails, waterside pathways, gardens and attractions such as the Vancouver Aquarium.
Vancouver’s downtown is so compact you can see most of the city’s major attractions in a couple of days. Give yourself two or three days more, and you’ll be able to do most of the key attractions, too. Chances are, though, that the deeper you dig, the longer you’ll want to stay.
Your best bet is to take a hop-on/hop off tour to help determine your priorities for further touring. The entire loop is about 2 hours so is ideal for fleeting visits. If time is if the essence, key stops could include:
Granville Island – allow half a day of strolling through its alleys, marketplace and shops. Enjoy lunch here.
Stanley Park – rent a bicycle or walk the park’s 9km seawall for very special views of the city.
Museum of Anthropology – the place for those interested in the region’s aboriginal history – 3 hours
Capilano Suspension Bridge – the city’s oldest attraction and an up close and personal experience with the city’s rainforest; allow 3 hours, including a cup of java, then continue on to Grouse Mountain for the balance of the day.
Then, after you’ve spent a couple of days in town you might want to consider day trips to the Fraser Valley, Victoria, and Whistler; or a road-trip to the Okanagan (for wines), the Cariboo (for ranches), or even to Northern BC (for no-holds-barred wilderness).
Vancouver is a year-round city though predictably July–September are busiest. If you plan to travel in these summer months, book accommodations well in advance and be prepared to pay a premium, especially anywhere near the water or in the heart of downtown.
Travel in April-June, or October and your chances for less crowds, value deals, and fair weather are good. That said, Vancouver’s maritime climate will likely mean rain. Always carry an umbrella.
By Canadian standards winters are very mild; temperatures rarely drop below 5ºC/42ºF.
With its maritime climate, oceanside Vancouver never gets very hot or cold and is characterized by beautiful summers and falls. These are separated by cool, damp winters with strong storms blowing in off the Pacific, and springs of variable, though relatively mild weather.
Snow may come at higher altitudes and it’s not unusual to see snow capped mountains from downtown. When it does settle in the city – usually in January once every few years, it never stays long.
The maritime climate also means rain is likely during your visit. Those coastal mountains have a way of gathering clouds as they roll in from the ocean causing downpours that sustain Vancouver’s beautifully lush landscapes and rainforests.
Vancouver’s calendar becomes most crowded during the summer months. Spring and fall bring fewer events and festivals, while winter is trade-show and exhibition time.
The big, colorful Chinese New Year Festival culminates in the annual dragon parade through the city.
Dine Out Vancouver is Canada’s largest food and drink festival. For 17 days, restaurants throughout the city showcase signature dishes at discounted prices.
Talking Stick Festival, an exploration of aboriginal performance, art and culture.
The International Wine Festival, North America’s biggest wine-tasting week, involves more than 150 wineries from all over the world. Proceeds support Bard on the Beach, a summer long Shakespearean festival beneath beachside tents.
Surrey Vaisakhi Parade is one of the largest Sikh New Year celebrations outside India.
Vancouver’s Alcan Dragon Boat Festival is recognized as another of North America’s ‘biggest and best’. The colorful event attracts over 100,000 people and some 200 dragon boat teams to the waters of False Creek
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival features some of the world’s top acts performing on a combination of open-air (often free) stages and indoor venues.
Vancouver Folk Music Festival is an iconic institution, taking place over a variety of venues around town – especially pretty Jericho Beach Park that seems to transform into hippies-ville.
Honda Celebration of Light – an extravaganza of fireworks from barges in English Bay.
Vancouver Pride Festival, and its amazing parade, is always one for the books.
Vancouver Fringe Festival presents all manner of new, experimental, and extraordinary theatre performances in venues throughout the city that range from studio theatres to parking lots and restaurants.
Vancouver International Film Festival – think over 370 films from 70 countries, a host of many international guests and 370 admissions. Phew.
Van Dusen Botanical garden stages a Festival of Lights – a breathtaking showcase of twinkling lights complete with Santa Claus and his elves, a Make-A-Wish Candle Shrine and the Candy Cane Express model train.
The following days are holidays and many are also the focus for events and festivities so check listings when you are in town.
New Years Day – January 1
Family Day (2nd Monday/February)
Victoria Day (3rd Monday/May)
Canada Day – July 1
BC Day (1st Monday/August)
Canadian Thanksgiving (2nd Monday/October)
Remembrance Day – November 11
Christmas Day – December 25
Vancouver is in the Pacific time zone, the same as Los Angeles and Seattle. Daylight saving time (one hour ahead) is observed from mid-March to early-November.
Vancouver epitomizes West Coast casual from the ubiquitous runners and rain jackets to designer suits with a loose, easy cut.
It’s really a question to dressing to the expenditure you’re likely be making. If a restaurant is very expensive, there may be some sort of official or unofficial dress code. Call if in doubt. Otherwise, don’t sweat it. Smart casual is generally the order of the day for casual as well as fine dining.
The old saw, dress in layers, was never truer than on the West Coast. Temperatures are rarely extreme so provided you have a light sweater to ward off summer breezes, and a warmer one in winter, all should be good. Remember quality walking shoes, even hikers if you want to take on some mountain trails.
A quality rain-proof wind jacket will never go amiss; and if you do forget your umbrella, they are readily purchased for a handful of dollars at nearly every corner store. Most hotels offer them on a complimentary basis.
Vancouver has a reputation for being one of Canada’s most expensive spots and some of this is inevitably passed on to visitors.
Without question, accommodations will be your biggest expense, but that amount depends on where you choose to stay. Anywhere near the waterfront will be around $350 a night in summer – more (upwards from $450) for a swankier place; a little less for a bland chain, family-style hotel. Boutique hotels and bed-and-beakfasts cost less, with rates dependent on their proximity to a) the waterfront, b) downtown (Granville Street), and c) The West End (residential ‘hood near Stanley Park). If you’re prepared to walk 10 minutes to any of these locations then there are deals to be had.
Many of Vancouver’s key sights are free, particularly walking around Stanley Park, Chinatown, Gastown, Granville Island and Stanley Park. The city’s other main attractions like the Vancouver Aquarium, taking the gondola up Grouse Mountain (hiking up is hip and free), the Capilano Suspension Bridge and many city gardens have entrance fees. Some are $10; others near $45, so if you’re ambitious costs can really start to add up making it worth checking out vancouverattractions.com for discount packages of up to 35 percent.
Note: Any prices quoted are in Canadian dollars.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in C$.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $5 per person
$$ => Tickets $6-15 per person
$$$ => Tickets $16 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $101-200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $201 for a double
$ => $1-20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $21-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-30 per person
The further you book in advance, the cheaper the fare. For example, Toronto-Vancouver will be around $400 if you book months ahead but could go up to $700 more last minute. This is also the kind of price you can expect from most US cities; US carriers tend to connect via Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco or Denver, Houston and Chicago.
You don’t need a rental car in Vancouver, but getting one is useful if you want to explore the parks, gardens, and beaches on the outskirts. A rental car costs about $35 to $60 per day and higher on summer weekends (but look-out for deals and promotions) plus about $12 to $15 a day for insurance, which you may be able to waive, thanks to your own coverage or coverage offered by credit cards if used in payment.
Gas and Parking Fees
Gas in Canada is not as expensive as in Europe, maybe, but still costly compared to the US. Canadian newspapers and television are always lamenting hikes in gas prices and a drop of a few cents from the $4/gallon average can cause mayhem at the gas pumps. Clearly, any sort of extended driving tour will add significantly to your budget.
Metered parking in city-central can be difficult to find. When this happens, you’ll want to use one of the downtown’s many garages, which charge upwards of $4.00 per hour. If you park early, you may receive a discount for the whole day.
Travel insurance is one cost that’s often overlooked until the last minute, yet the medical insurance component is particularly important. Check any existing policy you have in your home country and if there’s no cover in Canada it’s best to buy insurance.
Annual policies can be good value if you plan to travel elsewhere in the same year, but be sure you have cover for any outdoor activities you may plan, particularly skiing, though activities like mountain biking may need special cover too. In general policies should not cost as much as those covering you in the USA since medical expenses in Canada are more moderate.
Canadian currency isn’t hard to figure out. The bills come in $100, $50, $20, $10, and $5 bills, and coins are 25cs, 10cs, and 5cs pieces. Canada also uses handy one- and two-dollar coins. The gold colored loonie is worth $1; the slightly bigger twoonie (comprising a silver outer ring and a golden inner disk), is worth $2.
Every major bank offers some sort of currency exchange service. International Currency Exchange (tel 604-656-1704) operates exchange desks on level 3 of Vancouver International Airport from 5:30a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
In addition, several private exchange companies operate in downtown Vancouver. VBCE has several locations downtown, operating normal business hours. Exchange rates are generally on par as those offered by banks though transactions often incur a nominal fee.
All major credit cards are widely accepted, with American Express slightly less favored than Visa and Mastercard. ATMs are numerous, dispensing local currency.
The average tip for most service providers, such as waiters and cab drivers, is 15%, rising to 20% for particularly good service. A 10% to 15% tip is sufficient if you just drink at a bar.
Bellhops get C$1 or C$2 a bag, hotel housekeepers should receive at least C$1 per person per day, and valet-parking and coat-check attendants expect C$1 to C$2 for their services.
Check your restaurant bill carefully before laying down a tip on the table. Some pricier establishments may include the cost of service as an automatic 15% tip in the bill, although this practice isn’t as widespread in Vancouver as it is in many tourist towns.
Although Vancouver prides itself as being the Gateway to the South Pacific, it isn’t exactly the hub of North America. Even so, most major airlines have direct flights to Vancouver and unless you’re driving up the West Coast, or through the Rocky Mountains, flying to this corner of the world is your best bet.
Once there, you’ll find a decent network of transportation options that include seaplanes, buses, rapid transit (Skytrain), a Seabus that crosses the harbour, small 12-person ferries, and much larger vessels that take cars and passengers to Vancouver Island and elsewhere on the coast. Skytrain provides a 20-minute service between the airport and the downtown waterfront. Translink is the governing body for most options, offering schedules and trip planning tips.
You only really need a car if you’re going further afield to, say, Whistler (though there’s a good shuttle service), Steveston, or the Fraser Valley.
Most major airlines have direct flights to Vancouver and unless you’re driving up the West Coast, or through the Rocky Mountains, flying to this corner of the world is your best bet. If you’re traveling from anywhere in North America, and are happy to do the hop across the border yourself check flights to Seattle.
Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is about a 30-minute drive south of Vancouver. As a Gateway to the Pacific, YVR is a major hub for airlines from Australia, New Zealand and the Orient and is used by 53 airlines and 19 million passengers a year.
VIA Rail (888-842-7245), Canada’s national passenger rail network, offers a romantic and luxurious way to get to Vancouver from the East Coast but is topped by The Rocky Mountaineer, a train run by an upscale tour operator that prides itself in a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip through the Canadian Rockies in daylight hours. It also offers connections to Seattle which are otherwise catered for by Amtrak (800-USA-RAIL). Double check your reservation because although the train schedule between Seattle and Vancouver looks as if there are several departures, listings generally include both trains and buses between cities.
From May through September, Vancouver is a major starting point for cruises up the Inside Passage to Alaska. Many tour operators offer all-inclusive fly-cruise packages from all over the world.
Translink (604-953-3333) is Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority, operating the bus system, Skytrain and the SeaBus.
Regular service on the main routes runs 7 days a week, with extra services during rush-hour periods and for some special events. Call for schedules on the weekends. Consult the Vancouver Transit Guide for schedules and routes, available at the Tourism Vancouver Visitor Information Centre. The guide outlines transit routes for many of the city’s neighborhoods, landmarks, and attractions.
Fares are a flat $2.75 per passenger ($1.75 for seniors). Have the correct change as none is given. If you intend to use the system a lot, purchase a preloaded Compass Card, available at many corner shops like 7-11, and grocery stores displaying the Compass logo.
If you must bring your car (exploring downtown is best done on foot), make sure your hotel has parking. Parking spaces around the city center are at a premium. For out-of-town activities, car-rental agencies include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, 1696 West 1st Ave., 604-742-1722), and Pacific Car Rentals, 501 West Georgia St., (604-689-4506), Budget, 416 West Georgia St., 604-668-7000) and Hertz, 1270 Granville St., 604-606-4711). Many brand agencies are also located at the Vancouver International Airport. Renting a car costs approximately $60/day but may be less with various discounts. Remember to budget for insurance (about $12/day) which you may be able to waive, thanks to your own coverage or coverage offered by credit cards if used in payment.
Gas in Canada is expensive; not as expensive as in Europe, maybe, but still pretty costly. Canadian newspapers and television are always lamenting the hikes in gas prices and when they drop a few cents from the average of $4 a gallon($1.50/liter); well, there’s mayhem at the gas pumps. Even when converted to U.S. dollars, that’s a hefty. Clearly, any sort of extended driving tour where the miles eat up gas much more quickly will add significantly to your budget.
Metered parking in city-central can be difficult to find. When this happens, you’ll want to use one of the downtown’s many garages, which charge upwards of $4.00 per hour. If you park early, you may receive a discount for the whole day.
If you plan on visiting Victoria on Vancouver Island in your car, you’ll have to pay to transport the car on the ferry in addition to the fee for yourself and others traveling with you. Transport for a car varies, according to ferry and distance, from $30 to $60 per one-way hop.
Yellow Cabs (604-681-1111) and Black Top Cabs (604-731-1111) are good bets. But do call ahead—very few stop for flag-downs, especially when it’s raining. Rides around downtown average $10, plus a 10-15% tip.
Vancouver is intent on becoming one of the world’s greenest cities by 2020. As a result, every year sees an increasing number of bike lanes on downtown streets as well as bike-safe corridors helping make bikes an ideal way of exploring more dispersed city sights, like Stanley Park. Vancouver joins 1,000 cities in offering a public bike share (PBS) system – a network of shared bicycles available for short-term (30-minute increments) use for a nominal fee. Many hotels provide complimentary bikes (with mandatory helmets) and rental companies are easy to find.
The major hub downtown is at The Waterfront Centre. This is where Canada Line terminates from the Vancouver International Airport, and where trains head to east of the city, including the one regular passenger overland service, the West Coast Express that only runs during rush hour.
The Waterfront Centre is also the place to transfer to the SeaBus, a fully automated catamaran service that scoots across the harbour in 12 minutes to Lonsdale Quay on the North Shore. In addition to having a lively market, Lonsdale Quay is where to make bus connections up to Grouse Mountain and other North Shore destinations.
Regular transit fares are a flat $2.75 per passenger; an AddFare of $5.00 for travel on the Canada Line to/from the Vancouver International Airport. If paying in cash have the correct fare as no change is given.
Most transit passengers use a Compass Card that can be pre-loaded online, at a Compass Retailer (including London Drugs, Safeway and Seven Eleven), as well as at a Compass Vending Machine at hub stations.
Day Passes cost $9.75 ($14.75 when purchased at YVR or at Sea Island Stations) which represent an excellent value for visitors intending to tour the city under their own steam.
Despite the close proximity of the United States – the border is less than an hour’s drive away – Vancouver is culturally closer to London than Seattle. Its aboriginal roots are enjoying a renaissance, and with such easy access to the Pacific Rim, the Asian influences here are palpable. Chinatown is the third largest community of its kind outside of China, established with the Chinese railroad workers and now undergoing a gentrification along with much of Vancouver’s older neighborhoods.
Vancouver’s coastal lifestyle, separated from the rest of the country by the Canadian Rocky Mountains, also exudes a cocky independence. Views tend to be left-wing and the beauty of the city’s location has created an air of smugness. Yet there are always two sides to these things and Vancouver also has the dubious honor of having the poorest postal code neighborhood (the East Side) in the country.
Yet despite this and being extremely multi-cultural, as in the rest of Canada everyone in Vancouver tends to get on.
Once a quiet and beautiful backwater, Vancouver was home to small, salmon-fishing Native settlements that moved from one inlet to the other, trading along the Fraser River and beyond. That all changed late in the 18th century when Spanish and English navigators, in search of routes between Asia and Europe, stumbled across the region’s network of tidal inlets, rivers, islands, and sounds.
After some sparring between the two nations, Captain George Vancouver staked a British claim in 1792.
The region’s resources in lumber, fishing, and trapping quickly saw the arrival of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. And when gold was discovered in the Cariboo, backcountry to the north of Vancouver, hundreds of prospectors rolled through the area during the mid 19th century, solidifying Vancouver’s future as a port of call.
Although the gold veins soon played out, people still came; when Canadian Pacific Railroad surveyors showed up to lay out a terminal station for a new transcontinental railroad line, things would never be the same again. In fact, finding a way through the Rockies and bringing people and business to the West Coast was the linchpin for British Columbia becoming a part of Canada. The trains began rolling in from the East Coast in 1887, and from that moment on, Vancouver, having survived a disastrous citywide fire that nearly stopped the entire project in its tracks – grew exponentially.
Because Vancouver has and continues to grow through immigration, it is a very multi-cultural. And like the rest of Canada, attitudes are generally very liberal, all-inclusive and tolerant of different religions, beliefs and traditions. As a result the LGBT community is strong and active too.
Many communities celebrate their differences with specialty festivals such as Pride Week and Vaisakhi celebrations.
On the whole, Vancouverites are a polite lot though it may seem that individuals are always preoccupied. Locals won’t always stop to help those, say, trying to read a map unless asked. And chances are that if you do ask, the respondent may not speak English or know the city well enough to offer precise directions. That said, most drivers do stop at crosswalks and passengers using public transit will often thank bus drivers before disembarking. It would be nice to say that English politeness is still very much a part of etiquette but its influence is waning.
Vancouver prides itself on its foodie culture. The 100-mile diet originated here and the overall West Coast lifestyle is all about the virtues of organic, fresh, and healthy. One look at the quality and abundance of fresh produce on display at Granville Island Market or a visit to any number of Farmer’s Markets is evidence of a spoiled for choice abundance.
As you might expect from the city’s seaside position, with its constant supply of fresh finny, seafood is nearly always a good bet. And the riches of the Fraser Valley deliver fresh farm produce, artisan cheese and meats. Then there’s the micro-brew movement as well as access to award-winning wines from the Okanagan Valley, long-considered British Columbia’s Napa Valley. Little wonder that foodie tours are all the rage whether exploring pressed duck and other delicacies around Chinatown, or the gourmet delights of upscale specialty food retailers.
Vancouver offers a horde of ethnic flavors : Indian, Italian, Mexican, Greek, and Californian. Chinese food is especially good and less westernized than you might expect, as is Japanese sushi, and fusion bowls of Asian and local influences. Japadogs anyone?
Check out the plethora of food trucks, too. Click here for the app. If you visit in January, be sure to take advantage of Vancouver’s Dine Out extravaganza where restaurants showcase signature dishes at discount prices. And if foodie tours are of interest, try Edible British Columbia who can arrange everything from multi-day kayaking trips to half-day tours through Vancouver neighborhoods.
Although its roots are British, and many words still adopt English spelling, Vancouver’s proximity to the United States has made the the spoken and written word predominantly American, albeit with a Canadian ‘eh’ at the end of a sentence.
French may be one of Canada’s official languages but in Vancouver you’re far more likely to hear Mandarin or Cantonese — 60% of high school students have English as a second language, and ESL schools are big draws for international students hoping to become proficient enough to attend university here.
In parts of Vancouver, and in particular in hospitals and other important institutions, many signs are in multiple languages, including Punjabi, catering to the region’s large Indian population.