Weekend in Vancouver

From Totem Poles to Dim Sum: When time is short, make sure you cover all the essentials.

By Joanne Sasvari

VANCOUVER is a heady mix of contemporary and retro, sophisticated and laidback, urban and wild. It is a sparkling modern city of skyscrapers — which hometown author Douglas Coupland labelled the “City of Glass” — surrounded by cosy vintage neighbourhoods, sandy beaches, darkly-hushed forests, towering mountains and endless ocean. It’s a city that embraces the outdoors, but offers plenty of unique indoor activities too, from shopping for shoes by funky local cobbler John Fluevog to exploring one of the most exciting dining scenes in North America.

Even if all you have is a short weekend in Vancouver, between the parks, the trails, the restaurants and the attractions, you can cover plenty of the city’s essential ground. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.

If you’ve never been to Vancouver (or even if you have), a good place to start your visit is around Canada Place. You’ll recognise this central location by the unmistakable white sails that soar above Coal Harbour. It is the departure point for most of the tours that go around the city and beyond, including Vancouver Photowalks, which combines a photography lesson with a walking tour. It’s also where you will find the cruise ship and floatplane terminals, as well as the Olympic Cauldron, a number of bars and restaurants, and the new FlyOver Canada attraction, an ultra-realistic flight simulation ride that whisks you right across Canada.

Canada Place is a good place to get oriented (and take a selfie or two to post on Instagram). Across the busy harbour to the north are the majestic North Shore Mountains, with their three ski hills, countless hiking trails and breathtaking Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, which sways above a deep canyon halfway up beautiful Grouse Mountain. East of Canada Place are the historic neighbourhoods of Gastown and Chinatown; downtown is to the south; and Stanley Park to the west. This is also the beginning of the seaside pathway that includes the Stanley Park seawall and continues around English Bay and False Creek all the way to Kitsilano.

If you’re feeling energetic, it’s just a 30-minute walk from Canada Place to Stanley Park, one of the absolute must-sees on any visit to Vancouver.

Stanley Park is the city’s crown jewel: just under 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of forest encircled by the seawall and home to cricket pitches, rose gardens, a historic amphitheatre, miniature train ride, lighthouse, restaurants, horse-drawn carriage tours and much more. Aside from the seawall, the scenic seaside pathway that is always busy with walkers, runners, skaters and cyclists, two of the biggest attractions within the park are the much-photographed cluster of totem poles at Brockton Point and the Vancouver Aquarium, a research and conservation facility. If you decide to visit the newly expanded aquarium (and you should), expect to spend a few hours meandering through galleries such as the Tropic Zone or Penguin Point, before hitting the new café and now bigger-than-ever gift shop.

While you’re at the aquarium, be sure to check out the beautiful sculpture by legendary Haida artist Bill Reid, “Chief of the Undersea World,” which depicts a breaching Orca. Reid is just one of the many First Nations artists whose works you can find throughout the city — after all, for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived, this was the home of the Coast Salish peoples, and their legacy can be seen everywhere. Find artwork at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art downtown, the spectacular Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and galleries where you can purchase authentic jewellery, prints and sculptures, such as the Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery in Gastown.

Gastown is also a must-visit destination. It is the most historic part of Vancouver, where the city began back in the 1860s, when it was just a cluster of shacks and a saloon gathered around a sawmill. The saloonkeeper was a chatty gent named John Deighton — “Gassy” Jack to his friends — and you can see a statue to the neighbourhood’s namesake at Maple Tree Square, at the city’s origins right at the intersection of Alexander, Water, Powell and Carrall streets. The square is not only historically significant, it’s also where you will find many of the city’s top restaurants, including L’Abattoir, Secret Location and The Irish Heather.

Just a few steps away is the city’s historic Chinatown, and even more great eateries, including Bao Bei, a cheeky modern Chinese brasserie, as well as attractions that include the serene Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the ornate Millennium Gate (a.k.a. China Gate). The first Chinese arrived here back in the 19th century to work on the railway; today, the city is home to a huge Chinese population, as well as people from all across the vast Asian continent. You can best experience their varied cultures in the cuisine, whether it’s the pan-Asian fusion of PiDGiN, the exceptional sushi at Tojo’s, savoury dim sum at Sun Sui Wah or the fragrant south Asian of Vij’s.

In case you hadn’t already gathered, Vancouver has an exciting, multi-cultural food scene that is all about celebrating British Columbia’s exceptional fresh ingredients. One of the best ways to experience as much of the dining scene as possible is to join one of the Vancouver Foodie Tours, walking tours that let you sample as you stroll. The Granville Island Market Tour, for instance, is a delicious introduction to one of the city’s — and Canada’s — most popular destinations. The guides will introduce you to the top producers and artisans, and let you savour the best of the market.

While you’re at the island, check out the many boutiques and galleries, and if it’s sunny, be sure to take some time to relax on a patio with a glass of BC wine while you soak in the beautiful view. After all, while there’s plenty to keep you busy on visit to Vancouver, one could argue that the very best thing to do here is, blissfully, absolutely nothing at all.

Vancouver Stand Up Paddle Board

For what to do, see, eat and more in Vancouver, visit tourismvancouver.com

For more on British Columbia’s destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com

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