Photograph by Catherine Karnow
Nestled on British Columbia's coast, Canada’s third largest city is known for its rich cultural offerings and easy access to the sea and mountains—"Just a 20-minute drive takes you to landscapes seemingly untouched by humankind," says local award-winning designer and architect Omer Arbel. Here you can snowboard, kayak, and play beach volleyball all within the same day, then head to a chic restaurant to dine on sustainable seafood dishes paired with a top-notch local bottle of wine. At once charming and edgy, Vancouver is constantly reinventing itself: Granville Island, a one-time industrial wasteland, is a pedestrian-friendly oasis of artisan shops and galleries. In historic Gastown, you’ll find hipster boutiques and bars where there were once dilapidated storefronts. A few blocks away in one of North America’s oldest Chinatowns, old-world customs and flavors mingle with edgy, all-too-21st-century aesthetics.
When to Go: In summer, there are outdoor concerts, markets, and festivals throughout the city. From June to September, the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival is staged in waterfront Vanier Park. Mid-June to early July, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival features 300 concerts, including a free opening Downtown Jazz Weekend. Gastown celebrates the first day of summer with Make Music Vancouver, a free live music event and community dance party with 150 bands performing on sidewalk stages. In Chinatown, the summer open-air night market takes over the streets with classic film screenings, ping-pong tournaments, mahjong, and stalls selling everything from sewn goods to handcrafted honey infused with herbs or flowers. The Granville Island Farmers Market runs every Thursday from early June into October. Shop the stalls on Triangle Square for local artichokes, sugar carrots, maple syrup, blueberries, and baked treats like Sweet Thea’s raspberry rhubarb pie.
How to Get Around: Most everything is within walking distance and the neighborhoods of Gastown and Chinatown are just blocks from one another. To get to Granville Island, board the Aquabus at the Olympic Village (buses number 16 or 50) or take a taxi.
Where to Stay: A 15-minute walk away from Gastown is the Fairmont Pacific Rim, a waterfront hotel that affords panoramic views of Burrard Inlet and the snowcapped North Shore Mountains. From the Granville Island Hotel on False Creek, you can ride a bike (seasonal rentals available on site) along the seawall to the 2010 Olympic Village, take an Aquabus downtown, or eat in the Dockside Restaurant and watch the ferries and boats pass by. Some of the standard rooms have water views or private balconies, so ask what’s available when booking.
What to Read or Watch: Set in 1930s Vancouver Chinatown, The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy (Picador USA, 1997) is the award-winning story of three Chinese immigrant siblings’ search for separate identities.
What to Do: Pose for pics in front of the Gassy Jack statue at the intersection of Water and Carrall Streets, then walk across the cobblestones to Chill Winston, a chic bar that serves local beers. The watermelon-flavored Seedspitter is brewed blocks away. A few steps down Water Street is Secret Location, a European-inspired concept boutique featuring a store and restaurant under the same roof. Refuel with an espresso, then browse through the collection of high-tech gadgetry, designer clothes, and art books.
Where to Eat or Drink: Take a seat at the communal table at Salt Tasting Room, which offers cured meats and artisan cheeses paired with local wines. The line is typically out the door by noon at the Greedy Pig, so arrive by 11:30 a.m. or be prepared to order your pulled pork sandwich and homemade coleslaw to go. The one-room eatery is easy to miss. Look for the red pig sign or the lunch line.
What to Buy: Stop at Athena Atelier for leather pieces, bags, and accessories traditionally crafted by First Nations artisans using "found" materials (such as hides from animals hunted legally for food). No Scottish ancestry required to order a custom tartan kilt or browse the selection of 500 different tartan ties at House of McLaren. The Scottish-imports store also carries bagpipes, British soccer pins, and Edinburgh sweets.
Fun Fact: One of the most photographed icons in the city is Gastown’s Gassy Jack statue, which was installed in 1970 and later decapitated by vandals. The head was returned for a $50 reward.
What to Do: Don’t skip the 45-minute guided tour included with your admission to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The urban oasis is a replica of a Ming Dynasty scholar’s residence and courtyard, and every element inside—from the jade green pond water to the serpentine double corridor—has a backstory worth remembering. At the Chinese Tea Shop, sit at owner Daniel Lui’s tea desk to learn the gong fu cha (tea with great skill) method of making Chinese tea.
Where to Eat or Drink: Order the pork jowl with Pixian chili bean and a plum glaze at Bao Bei, a happening Chinese brasserie that serves reinvented traditional dishes. For late night drinks, Asian-inspired bites and DJ beats, stop at Dunlevy Snackbar.
What to Buy: Take a Wok Around Chinatown, a culinary and cultural walking tour, to shop with chef Robert Sung in traditional herbal medicine and food markets. Select teas to your taste and buy a traditional unglazed teapot from the Chinese Tea Shop. Purchase professional chef’s cutlery, woks, and skillets at Ming Wo Cookware, headquartered in Chinatown since 1917.
What to Do: Skip the map and just wander around the maze of pedestrian-only alleys brimming with cafés, specialty food stores, and restaurants.
Where to Eat or Drink: Edible Canada at the Market serves seasonally fresh fare from across Canada like Newfoundland roasted ling cod, Grangeland bison meatballs, and Alberta beef rice noodle salad. Pull up a stool at Granville Island Tea Co. and let the staff help you select a brew from their menu of 150 teas from around the globe.
What to Buy: Shop the Granville Public Market for local foods, goods, and crafts like handmade soaps, stained glass tea-light lanterns, and small-batch strawberry and blackberry preserves. Take home a bottle of handcrafted, artisan-made sake at Osake.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Celeste Moure has called Vancouver home for almost a decade. Celeste has written about food and wine, architecture, and travel for the Globe and Mail, En Route, Canadian Family, Travel+Leisure, and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter @ontippytoes.
Staff Tip: Rent a bike and take a ride around Stanley Park (named for Frederick Arthur Stanley, father of Hockey’s Stanley Cup). If you’re there at nine in the evening, you’ll hear the famous gun being fired. –Caroline Hickey, Project Manager, National Geographic Travel Books
Travel Photos From Your Shot
View scenes of Canada's city life and countryside—all taken by our Nat Geo photo community.