8 essential experiences to have in Vancouver

Visit Vancouver for the natural beauty, stay for the urban sights. It’s not known as one of the most livable cities in the world for nothing.

British Columbia’s biggest metropolis sits on the water, surrounded by trees and framed by mountains, so you can swim, cycle and ski all in one day if you choose. And with a mild climate year-round, you can enjoy four full seasons of outdoor adventures.

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But you don’t have to love the outdoors to experience the best the city has to offer. You can take in a spirited spectator sport, dine on delectable dim sum, connect with Indigenous culture and stroll the spectacular shopping districts too. In Vancouver, there’s an activity for everyone. Here are some of the best things to do in town.

Totem poles in Vancouver, surrounded by trees and greenery Indigenous experiences can be found throughout the city © Getty Images / iStockphoto

1. Engage in Indigenous experiences

There’s no better way to connect with the city than to listen to stories and experiences shared by the people who first called the land home.

Vancouver sits on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, and the Indigenous experiences found throughout the city offer engaging, educational and emotional ways to connect with the people and places that shaped what we now know as Vancouver.

Take a walking “Talking Trees” tour through Stanley Park with Talaysay Tours and learn about the local plants that were harvested by the Coast Salish people, while hearing stories about the rich cultural history from a First Nations guide.

Explore the Bill Reid Gallery – Canada’s only public gallery dedicated to contemporary Indigenous art of the Northwest Coast – and spot original fine art pieces by Bill Reid, a world-famous Haida artist.

For Indigenous cuisine, dine at Salmon n’ Bannock – the only Indigenous-owned and operated restaurant in Vancouver, serving up modern cuisine made with traditional Indigenous ingredients.

Detour: Consider an overnight stay at Skwachàys Lodge, Canada’s first Indigenous Arts Hotel. Located right in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the Lodge offers unique experiences such as sweat lodge ceremonies, traditional smudge ceremonies and in-studio visits with artists-in-residence. Using a social-enterprise model, the Lodge funds supportive housing.

2. Take to the water by beach, boat or board

Soak up the city’s sparking seascape from the surface. Vancouver offers ample aquatic adventures, with premium paddling, ocean swimming and mini-ferry rides, all easily accessible directly from downtown.

For kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, you can choose your own adventure right in the city, with water access and rentals available in Granville Island, Jericho Beach, False Creek, Yaletown or Stanley Park, or venture further afield to Deep Cove, located on Vancouver’s North Shore. 

If you’d prefer a power boat, you can rent those too! Granville Island Boat Rentals is a popular choice for renting a private speed boat. For something a little more unique, enjoy a BBQ on the water while you take in the sights. Rather have someone else take the wheel? The rainbow-colored Aquabus mini pedestrian ferries will take you for a tour or transport you between Granville Island and some of the city’s best waterfront spots.

For ocean swimming, head to one of Vancouver’s best beaches, such as Kits Beach or Second Beach, where you can soak up the atmosphere, sizzle in the sun, and then cool off with a salty dip in the Pacific Ocean.

The exterior of Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, home to over 100 vendors offering fresh seafood, meats, sweets and European specialty foods.The city’s best chefs like to shop at the Granville Island Public Market © Getty Images

3. Find fine art, family fun and fresh fare on Granville Island

Industrial wasteland turned cultural wonderland, Granville Island – one of Vancouver’s best neighborhoods – is as alluring for its fine art as it is for its culinary prowess.

Art lovers are lured by the creative scene here, with hidden studios and hands-on workshops found around every corner. Foodies flock to Granville Island too, with a melange of mom-and-pop shops like Lee’s Donuts (a celebrity favorite), fine dining spots like the Sandbar and the Granville Island Public Market – an indoor food market where the city’s best chefs like to shop. 

Kids Market – a three-story, kid-centric shopping and activity center on Granville Island – is the biggest draw for families. And only steps away, the largest free outdoor water park in North America provides the perfect place to cool off and play on warm summer days.

Local tip: Grab some grub from the Granville Island Public Market and stroll along the wooden boardwalk, from the southeast corner of Granville Island to Ron Basford Park, for a quiet picnic with water views.

Young couple cycling, others walking or jogging late afternoon and enjoying the sunset at Stanley ParkAn entire day can be spent cycling through Stanley Park, exploring its best assets © Getty Images

4. Cycle around the Stanley Park seawall

Topping the list of Vancouver’s best parks, Stanley Park shines as the crown jewel of the city. The park is often referred to as the Central Park of Vancouver, only it’s much larger, spanning 400 hectares (988 acres) in size.

Home to an outdoor public pool, plenty of playgrounds, sandy beaches, winding trails through dense woodland, tourist attractions and top-notch dining spots, the park certainly has something for everyone – but it’s the 8.8km (5.5-mile) paved seawall that draws the biggest crowd. Rent a bike from downtown, and an entire day can be spent cycling through the park, exploring all of its best assets.

Detour: Veer off the seawall into the park and visit the Vancouver Aquarium. Canada’s first and largest aquarium, it’s home to thousands of aquatic species, and you can get up close with everything from jellyfish to sea otters.

5. Take a trek through the treetops

Vancouver is packed with tree-lined hiking trails, but for a more unique experience – and a sky-high adventure – take an above-ground trek through the trees.

On Vancouver’s North Shore, the Capilano Suspension Bridge is the most popular choice, enjoyed by visitors since it was first built in 1883. As the world’s longest and highest suspension bridge, dangling 230ft high above the Capilano River and stretching 450ft long, it’s certainly a must-visit site. It’s especially breathtaking from November to January, when it’s fully illuminated with more than 50,000 lights for the annual Canyon Lights event. 

For a free version with smaller crowds, consider a visit to the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge, which hangs 160ft above the canyon and connects to a series of hiking trails. It is also home to the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre and a quaint cafe where you can grab a coffee and a treat once you’ve completed your trek.

skier and snowboarder waiting for sunrise on Grouse MountainGrouse Mountain is the most popular local ski hill © Getty Images / iStockphoto

6. Hit the local ski slopes

Vancouver may have mild temperatures year-round, resulting in many winters without snow, but the city’s three local mountains have no shortage of the white stuff. From early December to mid-March, skiers and snowboarders ascend the mountains in droves for slopeside adventures, accessed in 30 minutes (or less) from downtown.

Known as the “Peak of Vancouver,” Grouse Mountain is the most popular local ski hill, accessed by a gondola and offering all-season attractions. Cypress Mountain Resort is the largest of the three, and when the snow melts, visitors can take an exhilarating ride down the Eagle Coaster, Canada’s longest mountain roller coaster. Mt Seymour Resort is smaller, more laid-back and family-owned, known for its fresh powder and scenic snowshoeing trails. 

7. Do dim sum on the Dumpling Trail

Deep-fried dumplings, pork-stuffed pouches and steaming hot wontons are just some of the tasty treats you’ll discover on a self-guided tasting tour along the Dumpling Trail.

Just 9.5 miles south of downtown Vancouver, Richmond is home to the largest Chinese population in the world beyond Asia, and as a result, the city is stocked with hundreds of great traditional dim-sum restaurants, street-food shacks and hidden mom-and-pop shops serving up the best dumpling dishes found this side of the Pacific. 

Planning tip: Stretch out your stay and spend a night at Versante Hotel, Richmond’s only luxury boutique hotel, with chic designs that celebrate Asian and Western influences. There you’ll find Bruno, an upscale restaurant that serves up global fare sourced from local farms, like the truffle-lavender duck dish, a fan favorite.

8. Take in a spectator sport

Vancouverites love their sports and welcome visitors to join them as they cheer on their favorite teams. For hockey fans, a Vancouver Canucks game is the hottest place to be (if you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket). The city is also home to the Vancouver Giants, a junior ice hockey team that plays in the Western Hockey League.

The BC Lions are Vancouver’s CFL team, with a big following of football fans easily spotted as they shower the city in a sea of orange on game days. A Vancouver Whitecaps soccer match is sure to be high energy, and for an afternoon of baseball, catch a Vancouver Canadians game. Interested in checking out Canada’s other national sport? Head to a Vancouver Warriors lacrosse game and cheer on the city’s newest professional sports team.


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