Consistently ranked as one of the world's most livable cities, Vancouver lures visitors with its abundance of natural beauty, multicultural vitality, and cosmopolitan flair. The attraction is as much in the range of food choices—the fresh seafood and local produce are some of North America's best—as it is in the museums, shopping opportunities, and beaches, parks, and gardens. Indeed, the Vancouver package is a delicious juxtaposition of urban sophistication and on-your-doorstep wilderness adventure. The mountains and seascape make Vancouver an outdoor playground for hiking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, and sailing—and so much more—while the cuisine and arts scenes are equally diverse, reflecting the makeup of Vancouver's ethnic (predominantly Asian) mosaic. Yet despite all this vibrancy, the city still exudes an easy West Coast style. More than 8 million visitors each year come to this, Canada's third-largest metropolitan area. Because of its peninsula location, traffic flow is a contentious issue. Thankfully, Vancouver is wonderfully walkable, especially in the downtown core. The North Shore is a scoot across the harbor, and the rapid-transit system to Richmond and the airport means that staying in the more affordable 'burbs doesn't have to be synonymous with sacrificing convenience. The mild climate, exquisite natural scenery, and relaxed outdoor lifestyle keep attracting residents, and the number of visitors is increasing for the same reasons. People often get their first glimpse of Vancouver when catching an Alaskan cruise, and many return at some point to spend more time here.
From inventive neighborhood bistros to glamorous downtown dining rooms to Asian restaurants that rival those in the capitals of Asia, Vancouver has a diverse array of gastronomic options.
Many cutting-edge establishments are perfecting Modern Canadian fare, which—at this end of the country—incorporates regional seafood (notably salmon, halibut, and spot prawns) and locally grown produce. Vancouver is a hotbed of "localism," with many restaurants emphasizing the provenance of their ingredients and embracing products that hail from within a 100-mile-or-so radius of the city, or at least from within B.C.
With at least a third of the city's population of Asian heritage, it's no surprise that Asian eateries abound in Vancouver. From mom-and-pop noodle shops, curry houses, and corner sushi bars to elegant and upscale dining rooms, cuisine from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and India (and to a lesser extent, from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia) can be found all over town. Look for restaurants emphasizing Chinese regional cuisine (particularly in the suburb of Richmond), contemporary Indian-influenced fare, and different styles of Japanese cooking, from casual ramen shops to lively izakayas (Japanese tapas bars) that serve an eclectic array of small plates. Even restaurants that are not specifically "Asian" have long adopted abundant Asian influences—your grilled salmon may be served with gai lan (Chinese broccoli), black rice, or a coconut-milk curry.
British Columbia's wine industry is enjoying great popularity, and many restaurants serve wines from the province's 200-plus wineries. Most B.C. wines come from the Okanagan Valley in the province's interior, but Vancouver Island is another main wine-producing area. Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay are among the major varieties; also look for ice wine, a dessert wine made from grapes that are picked while they are frozen on the vines.
If you enjoy strolling to scope out your dining options downtown, try Robson Street, Denman and Davie Streets, Yaletown's Hamilton and Mainland Streets, or Kitsilano's West 4th Avenue between Burrard and Balsam Streets.
If the weather's fine, head for this seafood stand on the seawall overlooking the docks beside Granville Island. The menu is short—highlights include fish-and-chips, grilled salmon or tuna sandwiches, and fish tacos—but the quality is first-rate. It's hugely popular, and on sunny summer days the waits can be maddening, so try to avoid the busiest times: noon to 2 pm and 5 pm to closing (which is at dusk). Since there are just a few outdoor tables, be prepared to take your food to go.
With easy access to the sea and mountains, it's no surprise that Vancouver is such an outdoorsy town, but once the sun goes down, the city's dwellers trade in their kayaks, hiking shoes, and North Face windbreakers for something decidedly more chic.
There's plenty to choose from in just about every neighborhood: hipster Gastown has caught up with Yaletown for clusters of late-night establishments and is now the place to go for racy clubs and trendy wine bars, with venues in the newly cool Chinatown giving them some good competition. The West End—that's Denman, Davie (gay-friendly), and Robson streets—is all about bumpin' and grindin' in retro bars and clubs, while a posh crowd of after-work professionals and glitterati flocks to Coal Harbour's chic bars and stylish lounges. Meanwhile, Kitsilano (the Venice Beach of Vancouver) attracts a laid-back bunch that enjoys sipping beer and cocktails on outdoor patios with killer views, especially in the summer. The up-and-coming SoMa neighborhood is where you'll rub shoulders with youthful working folk as you knock back a lager and listen to live jams of emerging Canadian musicians. With its fair share of galleries, film festivals, cutting-edge theater, comedy, opera, and ballet, Vancouver (aka Hollywood North) also has all manner of cultural stimuli available for the asking.
Yaletown Brewing Company
In a renovated warehouse with a glassed-in brewery turning out several tasty beers, this always-crowded gastropub and patio has a lively singles' scene. Despite its popularity it still feels like a neighborhood place.
The brick-and-beam 1910 architecture combines antiques, a 38-foot bar, and a menu of classic cocktails. Most are inspired from the 1862 bartending bible How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas, the first bartending manual ever to put oral traditions to print with recipes for mint juleps, sloe gin fizzes, and more. Test the bartender's skill by asking for a Pick-Me-Up, a Chain-Lightning, or a Corpse Reviver. Parties of six or more can book family-style dinners: everything is set in the center of the kitchen table, and it's a help-yourself affair, just like at home.
At the top of a narrow staircase above Maple Tree Square, the Diamond occupies one of the city's oldest buildings. A bartending school by day, cool hangout and cocktail lounge by night, the venue's official name is the Diamond Preparatory School For All Things Drinks. Standing at the bar, co-owner Josh Pape is like a conductor at the symphony. You can choose among "boozy," "proper," or "delicate" options on the drinks menu. Many are one-of-a-kind concoctions: a Colin's Lawn puts sake and mint together; the Buck Buck Mule is a refreshing mix of gin, sherry, cucumber juice, cilantro, lime juice, and ginger beer; and the Tequila Martinez features tequila, vermouth, Lillet, peach bitters, and an orange twist.
Although Vancouver is a pretty compact city, each area has a distinct character and accommodation options. From hip boutique hotels to historic bed-and-breakfasts to sharp-angled glass-and-mirror towers, there are lodging choices for every style and neighborhood, whether it's the center of shopping on Robson Street, gracious tree-lined boulevards near Stanley Park, or the pulsing heart of the city's core.
The 2010 Winter Olympics changed the face of Vancouver in just a handful of years, but the city managed to retain, and make the most of, some of its defining characteristics. For example, Vancouver is an extremely outdoorsy community, so hotel amenities can sometimes include free bicycles and free ski storage, and many concierges can put you in contact with hiking and running groups that welcome visitors.
The local penchant for healthy living has given rise to some top-quality spas, many of which reflect the cultural mosaic of the city. Services run the gamut from Ayurvedic body treatments to therapies incorporating traditional Chinese medicine. Local ingredients are often featured, so you can even indulge in a Canadian maple pedicure.
Hotels with a water view are coveted and book up well in advance, as do some of the historic B&Bs you'll find in the more fashionable neighborhoods like the West End and near Stanley Park.
Art galleries, ethnic markets, gourmet-food shops, and high-fashion outlets abound in Vancouver, and both Asian and First Nations influences in crafts, home furnishings, and foods are quite prevalent.
Vancouver has a community of budding fashion designers whose creative clothes and accessories populate the boutiques in the Gastown and Main Street/Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods. The Portobello West Market is also an exciting showcase for emerging local designers. Of course, Vancouver does have many of the same chain stores that you can find across North America, primarily downtown on Robson Street and in the malls. "Mall" doesn't just mean the Gap and Abercrombie, though, particularly in suburban Richmond, where shopping destinations cater to an upscale Asian community. If you're not headed to Hong Kong, Beijing, or Tokyo, Richmond could be the next best thing.
In the art scene, look for First Nations and other aboriginal art, from souvenir trinkets to stellar contemporary art; many galleries showcasing First Nations artists are in Gastown. Area artisans also create a variety of fine crafts, exhibiting and selling their wares at Granville Island galleries. We've listed a few of our faves, and the "Artists & Artisans of Granville Island" brochure, available at shops around the island, has a complete listing of island galleries and studios.
Food—especially local seafood (available smoked and packed to travel), cheeses from British Columbia and across Canada, and even locally made chocolates, jams, and other goodies—makes tasty souvenirs (or delicious picnic fare along the way). B.C. also has a rapidly maturing wine industry, and local shops give advice about the region's offerings (and tastings, too). Remember the restrictions about taking alcohol back into your home country before you stock up.
Outdoor-oriented Vancouver is a great place to pick up camping and hiking gear. There's a cluster of outdoor-equipment shops on West Broadway between Yukon and Manitoba streets in the Fairview neighborhood, and you'll find several snowboard, skiing, and bicycle outlets on West 4th Avenue, just east of Burrard Street in Kitsilano.
Hill's Native Art
This highly respected store has Vancouver's largest selection of First Nations art. The main floor is crammed with souvenirs, keepsakes, and high-quality pieces, including carvings, masks, and drums. If you think that's impressive, head upstairs for collector one-of-a-kind pieces and limited editions.