One of the most culturally diverse destinations in Canada, this mega city has plenty to offer visitors year-round.
Vancouver is home to the third-largest film and television production industry in North America. It’s the perfect place to gain bragging rights over celebrity sightings, or to visit the stunning locales featured in your favourite films. But there are plenty of other reasons to visit ‘Hollywood North,’ too. The city is as much a treat for cinema lovers as those seeking an adrenaline rush or a moment of solitude amid Vancouver’s undisturbed wilderness. Shoppers in search of unique items at independent boutiques and gastronomes on the look out for local specialities and global cuisines will also feel right at home here.
From reel to real life
Start your Vancouver sojourn in the heart of downtown at the Marine Building. With its Art Deco style facade, the building sticks out like a sore thumb in the ‘City of Glass’. It’s widely considered to be one of the finest pieces of architecture in the city, and one of the best examples of Art Deco anywhere.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll find an intricate cornucopia of marine life-like seahorses, starfish, and seashells engraved into the terracotta. Swirl in through the revolving doors and you’ll find the foyer – with its stained-glass windows, brass elevators, and cosy phone booths – to be a glorious remnant of the 1930s.
The building is the site of several Hollywood productions, including the 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four films, though it goes by the name Baxter Building in the franchise.
Further southeast, make your way to what is arguably one of Vancouver’s most iconic neighbourhoods, Gastown. This is the city’s first town centre, named after Jack Deighton, an Englishman who set up shop (or shall we say a tavern) in 1867. Over the years, the historic area has seen equal measures of gentrification and revitalisation, and is now a city centre with eateries, boutiques, galleries, and gift shops.
After a lesson on Art Deco, take in the Edwardian aesthetic of Gastown. Its cobbled walkways, the Steam Clock, Maple Tree Square (with the backdrop of Hotel Europe’s flatiron building from the 1900s), quaint storefronts, and cafes all emanate an old-world charm. A few scenes from the 2008 film series Twilight were also shot in Gastown.
Next up is the Vancouver Art Gallery, located in downtown. The museum is widely regarded for its neoclassical architecture, and the structure is magnificent in its own right – a 15,330 sqm building that features 12,000 pieces of artwork. The site is also a former courthouse from the 1900s. Walking up the stairs through the north entrance of the museum, you’ll see some of the mainstays of neoclassical architecture – imposing marble columns, granite lions (inspired by those of London’s Trafalgar Square) on either side of the entrance, a gable roof, and a central dome. The dramatic entrance has been featured in the background, as superheroes try to save the world, in Season 9 of Marvel’s The Flash.
Adjacent to this is Robson Square, which is usually lively with entertainment and events. As you spend a leisurely afternoon here, perhaps you’ll get a chance to feature in a superhero saga?
From the sea to the sky
Among Vancouverites, the city’s appeal probably lies in the fact that, despite being a densely populated metropolis, it also has several urban oases that one can escape to. Bang in the middle of the city is the 405-hectare Stanley Park, where you can run, cycle or skate along the Seawall (a 28km trail along the sea), or simply take in the views of the waterfront. With nearly half a million trees and a further 28km of trails along deciduous foliage, the public park is also described as a coastal rainforest. Several hundred species of wildlife – including coyotes, the bald eagle, and harbour seals – inhabit the park.
In Vancouver, you can go hiking on a mountain in the morning and be back in time to go paddle boating in the afternoon. One of the best ways to do this is to take the Sea to Sky Highway – a 120km scenic route flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Coast Mountains on the other – to Whistler, a ski and mountain sports destination.
Ideally, you should spend a few days in Whistler, but if not, make sure to at least make a few pitstops at the picturesque spots and campsites en route. In Squamish, a midway point between Vancouver and Whistler, you can take the Sea to Sky Gondola for a short, but surreal journey 885m above sea level. As you ascend over Howe Sound summit, you’ll see the glistening ocean, thicket of pine trees, and snow-capped mountains.
For water sports, head south to the Porteau Cove Provincial Park. The spot is particularly famous among divers for its manmade reef and two sunken vessels. As part of its rich marine life, you may spot river otters here too. If you’re really lucky, you could catch a glimpse of a pod of elusive orcas or humpback whales.
Back in the city and only 15 minutes from downtown, the Capilano Suspension Bridge is another Vancouver landmark. A 140 metre-long bridge, suspended 70 metres high over the Capilano River, is equally attractive to thrill-seekers as it is to those seeking a moment of quiet. During the winter season, the surrounding forest is transformed into a magical wonderland, with a light display illuminating the river. Some 5km north of the bridge is Grouse Mountain peak. Remember to visit the Grouse Mountain Wildlife Refuge that is notable for its playful grizzly bears, Coola and Grinder.
From freshly shucked oysters to ramen
Vancouver is home to large diaspora communities – predominantly Chinese, South Asian and Filipino. This also makes the city home to some of North America’s oldest and most vibrant community neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s Chinatown, for instance, is the second largest globally after San Francisco (catch Chinese New Year celebrations here this month from 10-17 February), while the Punjabi Market is North America’s oldest Indian locality. From cultural events and museums to public art and food markets, they offer a plethora of things to see and do.
But the best thing about any ethnic neighbourhood is the restaurants and hole-in-the-wall places that residents swear by. Try the soft yet chewy fried buns with condensed milk at the Hong Kong-inspired The Boss Bakery and Restaurant, or the flavourful perfectly balanced ramen at Ramen Danbo in Chinatown.
And as with any metropolitan city, Vancouver is also where different cultures come together to create a new identity. An example is the Japadog, which is now a Vancouver staple. A Japanese spin on a North American classic, the Japadog is a hotdog topped with thinly shaved radish, seaweed, and a soy sauce glaze. There’s also Ancora’s Peruvian-Japanese fare, which is rooted in sustainability and draws inspiration from the Pacific Northwest. Expect to find a selection of freshly shucked oysters, ceviche, sashimi, bluefin tuna, and mussels.
Fancy something sweet? Sample a British Columbia speciality, the Nanaimo bar – a dessert bar with layers of crackers, custard, and chocolate, at Granville Island Public Market. If you’re planning to travel to Vancouver during the summer months, the annual Richmond Night Market – popular for Asian and global cuisines – should definitely be on your radar.
Words: Shaistha Khan