Tucked between mountainous forests and wild Pacific surf is Vancouver, a city both grounded and elevated by the dramatic landscape that surrounds it. British Columbia’s largest city plays host to artisanal trends at once global, but delightfully local that has both preserved and transformed the city’s communities. Vancouver beguiles by offering travelers an enticing character with a mass of exciting tastes and outdoor adventures. Here are some of Vancouver’s best experiences, organized by neighborhood and ready to be explored.
Jack Poole Plaza
A sprawling waterfront walk dotted with parks and public art, Jack Poole Plaza is a community gathering place, whether for casual alfresco lunches, friendly meetups, or just contemplating the harbor, where Douglas Coupland’s statue of a giant, pixelated killer whale—dubbed the Digital Orca—leaps upward as though escaping from a video game.
Seaplanes and cruises
For different views of the city, Vancouver offers a variety of options. You can join Harbour Cruises for some of the best sightseeing tours and views of the city. Try their Sunset Dinner Cruise to enjoy great food and a sunset over the pacific. Or see Vancouver from above, Harbour Air Seaplanes are spectacular seaplanes that carry passengers for excellent panoramic views of the skyline or to nearby destinations like Victoria, Whistler, Southern Gulf Islands, and more.
Harbour Air is North America’s largest seaplane company and has just made history with its launch of the first all-electric commercial aircraft. The innovative new plane is environmentally more friendly, providing a greener way to travel.
Biking is an experience both quintessential and practical in Vancouver. Rent one in Stanley Park, just steps away from Downtown, for a ride along the Seawall bike and pedestrian path that hugs the city’s edge. After returning your wheels, explore the park’s forest trails and towering totem poles, looking for blue herons and other wildlife before visiting the Vancouver Aquarium nested in the heart of the park taking a dip in Second Beach Pool.
Vancouver’s Chinatown has enjoyed a dynamic revitalization in recent years, serving some of the city’s most notable food at places like Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto. Just outside its environs in the Financial District, a casual counter-service spot called Heritage Asian Eatery gives Far East flavors the modern treatment at the hands of Chef Felix Zhou, whose Heritage Asian Eatery dishes up unique comfort brunch (like the pork belly or Peking duck benny bowls) on weekends, and fills bellies at lunch and dinner daily with slightly sweet baos and hearty rice bowls and salads.
Something about the Pacific Northwest brews an ardent love for a fine cup of coffee, the kind that’s crafted with the intent to be sipped with a smile rather than gulped down with caffeinated speed. Vancouver’s 49th Parallel is one such purveyor, working directly with farmers around the world to cultivate rich beans for their cozy concoctions.
Granville Island Public Market
Granville Island, both a locals’ favorite and a huge draw for visitors, sits just south of the downtown peninsula, right under the Granville Bridge. Granville Island Public Market acts as a hub of activity, while Granville Island is also one of the city’s most important cultural districts with theatres, artisan workshops, and craft studios. This is a great place to explore Vancouver’s foodie-scene, whether you take a tour or stroll on your own.
A cheerfully decorated tug-boat style water taxi, dubbed the Aquabus, will shuttle you around False Creek, quickly connecting you to Downtown, Granville Island, and other neighborhoods that lie across the water from Olympic Village, one of the city’s newer ’hoods’ that’s both a legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics and a model for modern urban design. Eight stops and regular departures from morning until night—plus majorly affordable all-day tickets—make travel by the Aquabus fleet the practical option for neighborhood-hopping in Vancouver. And then there’s the ride itself: A peaceful, traffic-free cruise across the water with epic shoreline views.
Earnest Ice Cream
With a wash of new artisanal culinary experiences sweeping the city, Earnest Ice Cream continues to stand strong—albeit slightly melty. The shop has been in the business of small-batch frozen treats with a focus on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients since 2012, tempting sweet-toothed passersby with both classic and inventive flavors, like Turkish coffee, London fog, and whiskey hazelnut. Though it's not just about their unique flavors, Ernest Ice Cream is environmentally committed to being a zero-waste company, so each pint is packed in returnable and reusable glass jars. Their mission is to help create a more ecologically, sustainable world.
Vancouver was named the Best Beer Town in Canada in 2018 by Expedia, giving you ample reason to try some of the many craft brews from across British Columbia. Tap & Barrel features brewpub fare and a seasonal menu made with local ingredients. Steps away from Olympic Village is Brassneck Brewery, another example of Vancouver’s local foodie movement. Now a staple in the area, the brewery and rustic tasting room has an ever-changing chalkboard of beers on tap, with everything from classic styles to micro-keg experiments.
For uniquely Vancouver goods and one-of-a-kind wares constructed by local fashion and furniture designers like Inform Interiors, head to Gastown, where artisanal shops line the cobblestone streets. The hip heritage neighborhood was designated a National Historic Site nearly a decade ago, and there’s no finding big box stores here. Instead, you’ll find new-school indie businesses like barbershops and gems like Litchfield, where everything from an apothecary to home goods to sunglasses represent the shop’s namesake owner’s aesthetic.
Follow your nose (and stomach) down Blood Alley to the neon taco—where you’ll be rewarded with Tacofino. The eatery began life as a food truck in Tofino, British Columbia, turned brick and mortar that now has two restaurants in Gastown alone: the larger restaurant and taco bar (lit by its neon insignia), and a quick-hit burrito bar with just a few seats and counter service accessed by a separate entrance. The former is coveted for its sheltered patio, illuminated by strings of hanging lights. Still the interior—a beautiful, long room draped in air plants and 1970s Southern California warmth, which pays homage to the eatery’s surfy beginnings—is equally charming. And then there’s the food. While everyone has their favorites, there’s one solid consensus left over from the food truck days: the fish taco is a must.
Grouse Mountain Skyride
The largest aerial tramway system in North America, Grouse Mountain Skyride, takes passengers on a mile-long gondola ride up a mountainside, gaining more than 2,000 feet in elevation as the windowed tram frames vistas of Douglas Fir forests, Vancouver lights, and the distant Pacific Ocean. Once at the top, there are options for drinks and dining, plus skiing and snow-capped views in the winter and hiking during warmer months. The Skyride Surf Adventure takes small groups in summer to ride on top of the gondola with nothing standing between them and the crisp mountain air as they travel the tramway.
For nearly 130 years, the Capilano Suspension Bridge has supported pedestrians who step carefully across its planks, covering more than 200 feet above the river and bussing the canopy of a North American rainforest. It’s a remarkable sight, a single, thin line stretching 430 feet across open-air to connect two canyon sides while towering emerald-hued trees stand below as though cheering every forward footstep. The 27-acre Capilano Suspension Bridge Park has become a treetop playground, with multiple high-rise walks showing off the natural wonder of the area and educational outposts sharing First Nation’s history.
It’s rare to get the mountains, sea, and city all in one place, and rarer still to have a view of them while lounging on the beach. But such is the luxury of Vancouver’s beaches, including Jericho Beach, a long, sandy stretch of coastline that’s as relaxing as it is active, as evidenced by sailboats catching gusts of wind to bob across the water, paddle boarders playing in the tide, and friends diving into the sand during beach volleyball matches.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz is a California based travel writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.