What Not to Miss: Vancouver, BC
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
We’re often asked for recommendations about places we’ve traveled and I’ve never written specifically here about one of our favorite cities to visit, Vancouver, BC. In the spirit of my “What Not to Miss: Austin” post, I present, “What Not to Miss: Vancouver, BC”.
Josh and I have been big fans of Vancouver since our first trip there, back in 2014. We stayed in Vancouver for a couple of days prior to our Alaska cruise. We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Vancouver twice since that original trip, both times in the last year and we’re still in love with the city. It (along with Barcelona) is a place we’d absolutely consider if we were to move “abroad”.
How to Get Around
If you arrive by air, you’ll likely land at Vancouver International Airport (YVR). The airport is beautiful and really easy to navigate and it’s ridiculously easy to get from the airport directly to Downtown Vancouver, using public transportation. Just make your way to the Vancouver (YVR) – Canada Line SkyTrain station, located above the covered parking garage at the airport, and ride the SkyTrain for around 30 minutes, to the City Centre station, for less than $10 per person.
If you’re renting a car at the airport and you’re planning to stay Downtown, make sure you account for parking with your lodging. I’m a big advocate of having a car in Vancouver, and you’ll see why as my recommendations go on, but parking in Downtown Vancouver can be a bit of a nightmare. Make sure you’re prepared with an Airbnb that includes parking or a hotel that has parking facilities.
If you’re not renting a car, you’ll still find it very easy to get around Vancouver, using public transportation. I recommend downloading the Citymapper app (Android | Apple) to map your routes using busses and the SkyTrain. It’s super easy to use and is available for a variety of cities around the world. All you have to do is enter your final destination and Citymapper will tell you all of the options for how to get there, using public transportation, on foot, via car, and with a taxi/ride share service. If you’re using public transportation, the app has a feature that will allow it to alert you when your stop is coming up. Surprisingly, this feature works on underground transportation, as well, and even worked flawlessly in the London Tube, which is known for being one of the deeper subway systems in the world.
If you’ve got an early flight to catch, you can also use the app to estimate how long any route will take at specific times of the day, so you can estimate what time you will need to leave to arrive somewhere at a specific time. It’s a really useful app and we’ve used it in multiple cities around the globe.
Where to Stay
I definitely recommend finding a place to stay that’s in Downtown Vancouver. Vancouver is an incredible walkable city (we’ve easily hit 25,000 steps in one day in Vancouver) and being right in the center of everything puts you that much closer to all the great parts of the city center.
If you’re comfortable with using the sharing economy, I recommend Airbnb. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay in the same building (two different apartments) for each of our three Vancouver trips and it’s in a perfect location. Unfortunately, the first apartment we stayed in has been sold and is no longer listed on Airbnb, but our last two trips were spent in a fabulous 19th floor apartment, overlooking Downtown. The views at night are incredible and the apartment had everything we needed to enjoy a trip to Vancouver (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, laundry in the apartment, a fully stocked kitchen, balcony, fast internet, and the best perk of all – underground parking).
If you’re thinking of using Airbnb for the first time, you can get a $40 travel credit by using my link (www.airbnb.com/c/adavis350). Full disclosure – if you use my link to book, I’ll get a $20 Airbnb credit when you complete your trip.
We haven’t stayed in a hotel in Vancouver before, but there are a lot of options to choose from in the Downtown area. If hotels are more your speed, you’re sure to find one that’s suitable.
What to Do in Vancouver
It seems like there’s a never-ending supply of things to do when you’re visiting Vancouver. I’ve broken down my “to-do” recommendations into “inside Vancouver” and “around Vancouver”. We’ll start with things to do while you’re in the city.
The first time we were in Vancouver, we spent a whole day riding the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. We’ve found that this tour, in any city we’ve done one in, has been one of our best experiences. These tour companies painstakingly curate their routes and include interesting facts and history about the city, while showing you some of the most popular sites around. You can hop off the bus at any of the stops, and hop back on when you’re ready to explore somewhere new.
We typically do one full loop of the tour, then get off at places that sparked our interest. That way, even if we find a place we love and lose track of time, we would still have been able to see everything on the tour. I usually recommend buying whatever version of the ticket will allow you to access all of the routes that are running on your selected day, and if you’re going to be in town for more than a day, I’d get a multi-day pass, if it’s offered. Then you can just do a couple days of hop-on-hop-off, and see everything you want to see in the city you’re visiting.
Granville Island is a special place. It combines art, food, and waterfront, right in the middle of the Downtown Vancouver skyscrapers and it’s magical. Most people immediately think of the Granville Island Public Market when they think of Granville, but this area is so much more than just the Market. Don’t get me wrong – the Market is phenomenal, but the area is filled with local artists, studios, a boat making shop, a theatre company, and tons of little shops and restaurants that are totally Vancouver. The Island is a great place to spend an afternoon and when you’re done, grab a snack at the Market and sit outside watching the boats and birds on False Creek, in the shadow of Downtown Vancouver.
You can’t go to Vancouver without visiting Stanley Park. It’s one of the largest parks in North America and British Columbia doesn’t mess around when it comes to parks. At 130 years old and nearly 1,000 acres, Stanley Park is the oldest and largest park in Vancouver. The park lies on a peninsula between Vancouver Harbour and English Bay and features a beautiful seawall that’s great for running, walking, biking, and rollerblading. While visiting Stanley Park, you can ride the Stanley Park train, visit the largest aquarium in Canada, lay on the beach, visit historical landmarks, eat delectable food, and enjoy the beautiful British Columbia outdoors. It’s really a park like none other, and you’ll want to devote a chunk of time to checking out all it has to offer.
Stanley Park Seawall
The Vancouver Art Gallery is really a fantastic stop if you’re an art lover. Their exhibits change often and Josh and I have enjoyed the exhibits all three times we’ve visited. The gallery is currently housed in a beautiful and historic building (former provincial courthouse), right in the middle of Downtown Vancouver. Soon, it will be moving into a brand new space (groundbreaking is scheduled for sometime this year – 2018) that’s been in the planning process since 2004. We can’t wait to get back to Vancouver when the new facility is finished to see how it turned out. It’s definitely worth checking out while it’s still in the current location, as the architecture is gorgeous.
Adjacent to Stanley Park, you can find Sunset Beach and English Bay Beach. The two are connected and I’m not certain where one ends and the other begins, but both are fantastic places to spend an afternoon just people watching or enjoying the breathtaking views of English Bay. Sunset Beach features access to the False Creek ferry system and the Stanley Park seawall. English Bay Beach features beach rentals, the Cactus Club Cafe (this place seemed WAY too cool for us, with a line to get in around 3pm), and a swimming raft with a slide. If you’re looking for beach activities, either of these would be a great option.
What to Do around Vancouver
Now, we’ll explore things to do around the Vancouver area, but outside the city. If you have the opportunity and the time to get outside the city limits of Vancouver, you won’t be disappointed. British Columbia is one of the most spectacular places we’ve ever been and, if we lived there, I would spend most of my time outdoors. It’s just breathtaking, every direction you go.
Folks, this is my #1 recommendation when you’re traveling in British Columbia and have access to a car. If you take no other piece of advice I’ve given here, take this one. GyPSy Guide is an app that you can download on your smartphone. You download the app for a few dollars (trust me, it’s worth every penny you’ll spend and SO much more) at home, before you leave for your trip to Vancouver. GyPSy uses GPS (get it? GPS?) signals (no cellular data) to track where you are located and gives you a turn by turn guided tour of the area over your phone speakers, or through the car’s bluetooth connection.
We have taken both the Whistler (north) route and the Kamloops (east) route out of Vancouver and we would recommend both to anyone who wants to take a day-trip out of the city. GyPSy also has a tour of Downtown Vancouver that does a great job of teaching you about the city and showing you all of the important landmarks.
GyPSy Guide tours have taken us to places other driving tours would have skipped and we’ve been awed by every turn. In addition to the British Columbia tours, GyPSy offers tours in Hawaii, on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. We used the Oahu and Kauai tours when we were there last year and will use the others the next time we have the opportunity. GyPSy Guide also has tours in other areas of the United States and Canada. Truthfully, we will download the GyPSy Guide tour for any area we’re visiting that has one. The tours keep you interested and provide some really great information about the places you’re visiting. Again, I can’t recommend these enough. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to see things other tourists will miss!
If you download the GyPSy Guide Tour to either Whistler or Kamloops, you’ll be given the opportunity to pull off at many of the British Columbia Provincial Parks. I absolutely recommend stopping to visit these breathtaking spots. British Columbia isn’t ever a place that came to mind when I pictured spectacular waterfalls, but it’s definitely on my list of best waterfalls now, after visiting so many of the Provincial parks. It seems like every turn in British Columbia affords another fabulous view, and the Provincial parks spread throughout the province do not disappoint.
You’ll often hear from people who have visited Vancouver that you need to make sure you get yourself to Victoria. This can be easier said than done, but, on our last trip to Vancouver, we made the trek to the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen and sailed to Swartz Bay, just outside of Victoria. The voyage was beautiful and the experience of riding a passenger/vehicle ferry was really interesting.
Something many people don’t realize about traveling from Vancouver to Victoria on a ferry, is that the ferry terminals are both about 30 miles outside each city, so just hopping on the ferry as a passenger isn’t the most feasible option. You’ll either need to have a car, or take one of the chartered busses that will take you from Downtown Vancouver to Downtown Victoria. We chose the private vehicle method, and would do it that way again, if given the opportunity. We’ve never done the bus trip, so I can’t comment on how smoothly that works, but we know the private vehicle option works well. I do recommend, however, that you book your trip ahead of time, to reserve a spot. You’ll have to pay a deposit to make the reservation, but you don’t pay the full fee until you arrive at the ferry terminal for your voyage.
While in Victoria, be sure to stop at Butchart Gardens. I never thought a garden could be so fascinating, but it’s truly amazing. The gardens are inside an abandoned quarry and are like no place I’ve ever been. The care and love that goes into keeping this place so beautiful is very evident as you explore the grounds. While you’re there, don’t forget to make reservations to experience high tea. It can be pricey, but it’s really worth it. You won’t leave hungry!
Where to Eat
What would a trip be without some restaurant recommendations? My recommendations in Vancouver are a little different than my typically recommendations. Vancouver is an incredible international city. You can find cuisine from all over the world within about a 4 block radius of wherever you stay. Everything is incredible, and you should try it all – from the dollar pizza, to the food trucks outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, you don’t be disappointed. That being said, I do have a couple of recommendations if you need some places to get started.
This was a recommendation from one of Josh’s colleagues and he didn’t steer us wrong. We stopped here as soon as we got off of our cruise ship, after 5 days at sea, from Maui. Fresh, gourmet donuts and a great mocha were on my to-do list for the day and we had great success at Cartems. The donuts you’ll find here aren’t of the “Dunkin’” variety. Come prepared to give your tastebuds a workout and you’ll have the opportunity to try flavors you won’t see anywhere else, like smoked maple walnut, honey Parmesan, and orange guava.
Located in the heart of Gastown, one of the more gentrified, touristy areas of Vancouver, the Flying Pig may look like any other over-hyped restaurant. What you’ll find, though, is a meticulously curated menu of seasonally-inspired and locally-sourced dishes that will blow you away. Who wouldn’t love some pulled pork poutine or lobster and prawn risotto? Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any selection from their menu.
If you know me, you know of my love for food trucks. Mr. Shawarma is a truck I found the first time we visited Vancouver, and I’ve been back every time we’ve been there since. It’s not fancy and it’s not expensive, but the food tastes amazing and the owners are some of the nicest people you’ll meet. My favorite order is a falafel pita wrap, but they also sell poutine, platters, and spicy options.
Whatever your plans are when you visit Vancouver, I hope you love the city as much as we do! Do you have favorites that I missed?
Other blogs in my What Not to Miss series: