This is a guest post by Lizzie Gross of the blog From Marmite to Maple. She is a British girl who has moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and fallen in love with this fantastic city. In this guide she offers the visitor many great ideas of what to do in this beautiful Canadian metropolis.
I’ve been living in Vancouver for just over a year now, and in this short time I really have come to think of it as home. Nestled close to the US-Canadian border on the West Coast, Vancouver is surrounded by water and it is this sea-level position which makes it one of the warmest (though unfortunately not driest) places to live in Canada. It has a diverse and multicultural population of over 600,000 people, and is consistently ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Over the past year I have mentally compiled a well-stocked library of favourite things to see and places to go. Some are popular places that you’ll likely already have read about in various other guides to Vancouver (they’re popular for a reason!), whereas others are my own personal favourites. It’s time this list went down in writing to share with you all, so here are my ‘bests’ that Vancouver has to offer.
Best running route: Stanley Park Seawall
Vancouver has a strong health and fitness culture and a lycra clad runner is one of the most common sites in the city, rain or shine. The city is home to no end of running routes through mountains, beaches and streets, but the Stanley Park seawall comes up trumps in terms of distance, terrain and beautiful, beautiful views. The seawall is approximately 9km all the way round (or 10km if you link back around to make a full circle), and I prefer to start on the North East side by the marinas of Coal Harbour. As you run counter clockwise around the park you leave the skyscrapers of the city behind and pass under the Lionsgate Bridge that links Downtown with the North Shore. You’ll hit your first beach at about the 5km mark, and pass another on the South side of the park before ending your route at the popular Davie and Denman area of English Bay. There’s something about running alongside the water that really brings a sense of perspective to a workout, and the hundreds of Vancouverites who finish this run every day can’t be wrong.
Best festival: Celebration of Lights
The Festival of Lights is an annual fireworks competition in which Canada and other selected countries compete to throw the best display. The shows are set to music over three consecutive Wednesday/Saturday nights in July, and tens of thousands of spectators gather from across Greater Vancouver and beyond to watch. The beaches of Kitsilano and English Bay always fill up hours before the 10pm start time with barbecues, picnics and usually sunbathing. It’s a memorable experience for both locals and tourists alike, and definitely one summer activity not to be missed.
Best local pub: The Winking Judge (Downtown)
The key here is in the word ‘pub’. The Winking Judge isn’t a bar, a lounge or a club; it’s a good old British-themed pub. Traditional pubs are somewhat of a rarity in Vancouver (indeed, anywhere in North America), which made my move to Downtown all the more sweet when I realized I was living opposite this gem. It’s more than a little dingy inside and the furniture has definitely seen better days, but the drinks are averagely priced, the pool table is usually available and hockey is always on the TVs. The food is also well priced and follows the British theme; my favourite is the steak & ale pie. At first glance this pub is nothing special, but if you look a little closer you’ll see that’s exactly why it’s my favourite.
Best hot chocolate: Kits Coffee Co. (Kitsilano)
Kits Coffee Co. is an independent coffee shop on famous West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, and is a popular meeting place with both locals and visitors. The speciality snack is hot gooey cinnamon rolls, but my favourite beverage by far is the hot chocolate with whipped cream. The particular hot chocolate syrup they use is rich, creamy and incredibly chocolaty, and if I’m not careful I can polish off a large drink in under 3 minutes. The food is a little over-priced for my liking, but the free wi-fi still makes it a great place to relax or get some work done.
Best view: Cloud 9 / Kits Point
I’m a sucker for a good view, and sure am spoilt living in the panoramic paradise that is Vancouver. I couldn’t quite choose between these two very different types of view, so I cheated and went with both. Cloud 9 is a revolving restaurant and bar that sits on the 42nd floor of the Empire Landmark hotel on Robson Street, and cannot be beaten for its aerial perspective. In particular, it beats the competing Vancouver Tower for both value for money (there is no cover charge during regular hours) and atmosphere (upscale, but in a nice way). It takes about 90 minutes to complete a full rotation, and if you drink very slowly, the cost of a cocktail is well worth the elevator ride. My second vantage point of choice is back down at sea level, and specifically at English Bay level. For me, there is no better way to spend a day than walking along the seawall at Kits Point staring over the water at the skyscrapers of Downtown and the green of Stanley Park. The best thing about not being in Downtown is being able to see Downtown, and if you stroll along Kits Point you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Best all-weather activity: Grouse Mountain
There was only ever one contender for this category, and Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver really is the ultimate all-weather day out. It’s easily accessibly by transit from Downtown Vancouver, and there is plenty to do whatever the weather. The Lumberjack Show, bear habitat, paragliding and ziplines are highlights during the summer, while the winter brings ice skating, sleigh rides, snowshoeing and skiing/snowboarding. The view is absolutely stunning both day and night, and really needs to be seen to be believed. General admission up the Skyride is $39.95 for adults (and doesn’t include skiing/snowboarding), but if you’re going to be in Vancouver for more than one season the $99 Annual Pass is a bargain. If saving yourself money on admission wasn’t enough, other discounts include 50% off admission for up to six guests, 20% off winter equipment rental and 20% off in the gift shop. Go on…you know you want to.
Best brunch: Cafe Zen (Kitsilano)
My first experience of Cafe Zen was waiting in line for 20 minutes in the snow with a group of friends, my stomach growing ever hungrier as we inched towards the door. The wait was worth it, and since that day I have introduced friends and family back to the wonders of Cafe Zen. The speciality is Eggs Benedict, and the diverse options available (shrimp and avocado anyone?) do not disappoint. If Eggs Benedict isn’t your thing you can still choose from full cooked breakfasts, french toast, waffles, breakfast burritos, omelettes and much much more, all at great prices and served in a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere. If you needed any more convincing, the location (1631 Yew Street) is just a minute’s walk from both the beach and trendy West 4th Avenue.
Best place to hide from the rain: Granville Island Public Market
Vancouver isn’t renowned for it’s year-round sunshine, and I was disappointed to find out that it’s in fact one of the only places on earth where it statistically rains more than my native UK. With an average precipitation rate of 62 inches per year, it’s always important to have a rainy day back up plan for, well, any occasion. With an undercover haven of deli counters and market stalls, Granville Island Public Market is the ultimate plan B. Whether you’re looking to grab a cup of coffee from an independent store, do your weekly shop from the deli counters or sample the delights of homemade fudge being mixed right before your eyes, the Public Market is for you. In the sunshine the views of Downtown from underneath the Granville Island Bridge are stunning, and in the rain the warm and cosy atmosphere will encourage you to join the crowds milling about inside and browse to your heart’s content. The rest of the Island is equally worth exploring whatever the weather, as local artists work in studios between boutique gift shops and high quality restaurants.
Best live music venue: The Commodore Ballroom
Vancouver has a great live music scene, and whilst others would probably rate some of the smaller, dingier, lesser known venues as their favourite, there’s something about the Commodore Ballroom that I absolutely love. The building was built as a cabaret house in the late 1920s, and much of the style and decor is still retained today. With a new hardwood dance floor surrounded by booths and bars and a huge gallery, the atmosphere is electric. There’s something extra special about seeing your favourite band in such a grand setting, and it’s central location on Granville Street makes it a definite winner.
Best day trip: Sea to Sky Highway (99)
The Sea to Sky Highway is consistently rated by guide books and websites alike as one of North America’s most scenic drives, and I’m not going to disagree. The typical route from Horseshoe Bay up to Whistler takes around 2 hours non-stop, longer if you choose to continue on to Pemberton and beyond. There is no shortage of viewpoints from which to stop and gaze over the plethora of little islands nestled in the Straight of Georgia, and other attractions include Shannon Falls and Alice Lake Provincial Park. The town of Squamish sits half way between Vancouver and Whistler, and this small community is home to the Stawamus Chief, a sheer cliff face with fantastic views of the region for anyone who can make the climb to the steep but manageable climb to the top. Whistler is a day trip destination in itself even without the drive, and is an outdoor paradise even through the summer months. You could easily spend an entire day meandering along the Sea to Sky highway, and I highly recommend you take the time to do so.