A Jumpstart to Your Vancouver Visit
This Vancouver travel blog is Vancouver 101.
It’ll give you a feel for what’s where, what’s good, and what’s special (and not so special) about Vancouver. That way, you’ll be prepared to hit the ground running and make the most of your stay.
And, as born-and-raised Vancouverites who’ve worked in and owned businesses in the hospitality industry here, and who’ve hosted hundreds of Airbnb guests as well, rest assured we’re more than qualified to be leading this Vancouver 101 lesson.
Everything We’ll Mention on One Map
You can save these locations to your phone following these simple instructions for using Google Maps offline.
What Makes Vancouver Special
- Everything’s close: Vancouver doesn’t have freeways and is surrounded by water and mountains, so it’s super compact and walkable / bikeable / busable.
- Fresh air: Forests, mountains, beaches, and ocean are everywhere.
- No worries: No matter where you wander you’re totally safe, even in our infamous skid-row, the Downtown Eastside (a.k.a. “Shitshow”—see maps below).
- Good for your health: Like in any great beach city (and Vancouver is one) we Vancouverites feel the pressure to have beach bodies. And we have limitless options for doing so. You won’t help but be compelled to be more active and eat more healthy than usual.
- Open-minded: Vancouver’s a diverse and accepting place where you’ll feel comfortable no matter who you are, what you believe, and how you look.
The Dark Side of Vancouver
- Van-boring: Compared to other cities of its size and reputation, there aren’t many parties, events, or cultural happenings going on in Vancouver.
- Van-cliquey: Locals are generally friendly to newcomers, but hard to actually befriend.
- Rain-couver: If you visit between September and May and don’t get any rain, that’s probably because it snowed (which is super rare. Lucky you!). It rarely rains hard, but it’s always dreary and grey.
- Van-stolen: You won’t get in any trouble unless you really ask for it, but if you leave things lying around they will be stolen. Petty crime is a big problem in Vancouver.
The mountains are north. The airport is south. Downtown and Stanley Park are on a peninsula at the north of the city where 98% of tourists are, so be part of the 2% from time-to-time. Outside of downtown, numbered streets go east-west and named streets go north-south. The East Side (roughly east of the SkyTrain that goes between the airport and downtown) used to be poor and now it’s hipster. The West Side was hippy (Kits) and humble (the rest) and now it’s too expensive. The West End (downtown) is not the same as the West Side (half the city) or West Van (a suburb across Lions Gate Bridge).
Here’s a boring but useful map of Vancouver’s neighborhoods:
And here’s an un-boring map of the same neighborhoods, with the names replaced by very un-politically correct but reasonably honest descriptions of who lives in each:
Where to Stay in Vancouver
Our Top Pick
The best place to stay in Vancouver is in the West End. It’s a relaxed but densely-populated local area within walking distance of everywhere downtown and close to the SkyTrain to the airport.
Look to stay in the square between Davie, Denman, Robson, and Burrard, which is the green-shaded area in the interactive Google map above.
For a More Unconventional Trip
For a cheaper and less conventional alternative, consider staying near Broadway and Commercial. This is the purple-shaded area in the Google map above.
Commercial Drive is probably the most culturally diverse street in the city. There are restaurants with cuisine from every continent, ethnic food stores, cultural community centers, and a wide-ranging mix of incomes and ages.
Try to stay as close to Broadway (which is 9th avenue) as you can. That way, you’ll be right by the SkyTrain, which takes you downtown or the other way to very uncharted tourist waters like Burnaby’s Crystal Mall, and the 99 B-Line express bus, which can efficiently take you to Kitsilano and UBC.
Getting Around Vancouver
To and from the Airport
Take the SkyTrain from the airport into town. It’ll get you downtown in half an hour and connects with all the city’s other transit line. Hold onto your ticket if you’re transferring because you’ll need it as proof of purchase.
If there are three or more of you, a taxi can be cheaper (though, depending on where you’re staying and the time of day you arrive, not always faster). There are fixed rates (PDF) depending on the area you’re going to. For example, it’s currently $31 plus tip from the airport to the center of the city.
Moving Around Town
Don’t rent a car. Parking’s a huge pain and it’s easier, cheaper, and even sometimes faster to get around without one.
Rent a bike if it’s nice out. Vancouver’s so bike-friendly that car-lovers are always complaining that bike lanes are taking over the city. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Vancouver’s got a shared bike system called Mobi, which is about $10 a day.
Also, take public transit (it’s safe, clean, and efficient here), walk (the city’s compact), and, only when you really have to, take a taxi (since Uber was banished).
We share tons more tips on getting around the city on our Vancouver travel tips post.
Things to Know Before Coming to Vancouver
Based on our experience of hosting hundreds of Airbnb guests and many more friends in Vancouver, these are some tips and insights that people find most surprising and helpful:
- Vancouver is tiny. The entire city of Vancouver is only 115 square kilometers (44 square miles), which is just twice the area of Manhattan. Everything is within easy biking (or even walking) distance.
- Vanc-Uber-less. There is no Uber, Lyft, or any ridesharing platform in Vancouver. You have to take the taxi, ride public transit, walk, or use car2go.
- Free water. Our water is potable. It comes from up high in the beautiful mountains that help make Vancouver one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s clean and delicious.
- Take ID. If you want to drink something more alcoholic than water or get into any place that serves drinks, you’ll need to show ID. This applies even if you’re well past the legal drinking age of 19.
- You’re safe on your own. Everywhere. There is no unsafe part of the city, no matter at what point of day or night.
- Your stuff isn’t safe on its own. Never leave any personal items unguarded in Vancouver. There is a large underworld of thieves who prowl the city waiting for the chance to grab your stuff when you’re not looking.
- Free Wifi. Save on roaming fees and enjoy free internet throughout the city by connecting to any of the 550 (and counting) #VanWifi hotspots. Here’s the map.
These are just seven of the 50+ helpful things to know we share in our Vancouver travel tips post.
Food & Drink
When you’re hungry, walk along these streets. You’ll be sure to find something to your cravings, whatever they may be.
- Alexandra Road: An easy SkyTrain ride south to Vancouver’s southern suburb of Richmond. You’ll be overwhelmed by the 200+ mostly Asian restaurant options.
- Main Street: Hipster mile. Tons of vegetarian and vegan options and casual spots to “nosh,” or whatever they say these days.
- Commercial Drive: As explained in Where to Stay, it’s got options from all corners of the globe.
- Gastown: Definitely the most popular area of the city for a dinner out, with tons of reasons why.
- Yaletown: Where the yuppies go to pre-game and spend more than they should.
- West Robson: Japanese and Korean row. Tons of ramen spots with ever-present lines.
- West 4th Ave: The birthplace of Lululemon, with plenty of spots that cater to Lululemon-types. Go to Maenam for Thai food.
Each of these streets is marked in green in the main map above.
Only-in-Vancouver Dining Experiences
There are plenty of hip and/or fancy places that serve “better” food than the following places, but you’ll find similar restaurants in any American city. These dining experiences, on the other hand, are quintessential Vancouver:
- Stuff yourself with humungous sandwich served by the unbelievably offensive but golden-hearted Sandwich Nazi at La Charcuterie
- Drink your favorite chocolate bar or fruit in a wild and crazy bubble tea from Bubble Queen
- Snack on unpretentious food while enjoying unbelievable views of the mountains and downtown Vancouver at The Galley Patio and Grill
- Fill yourself up on samples of crazy flavors before settling on one or two at the pink palace, La Casa Gelato
- Put a cap on another great day with a picturesque picnic at Sunset Beach
For some more detail on these and more recommendations, check out our full only-in-Vancouver dining post.
Just like its fellow Pacific Northwest cities, Portland and Seattle, just about everyone here is passionate about starting their day with a brew (of coffee) and ending their day with more brews (of beer).
Cafes are everywhere, so we won’t even bother trying to recommend which one to go to…
With regards to beer, there are a couple of microbrewery districts to do a beer crawl at. The first is on and around Main Street between 1st and 7th. (The grey-shaded area on the map.) The second is along Powell Street between Clark and Victoria. (The blue-shaded area.)
Vancouver’s Best Ice Cream
Rumor has it that Vancouverites consume the most ice cream per capita in the world. We doubt it’s true, but what’s undeniable is that everyone here has strong opinions on whose ice cream or gelato is best.
When it comes to food, we prefer objectivity over opinions here at The Unconventional Route, so we organized a blind taste test to find the truth.
The winner was…
…hipsters and buy-local-supporters are going to hate this…
The local favorites, Earnest, Bella, and Rain or Shine, came in 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively. Read all about the best Vancouver ice creams here.
Vancouver’s Best Sushi
Everyone seems to have similarly strong opinions about sushi as they do about ice cream. We eat so much sushi that there’s a company that designs furniture with all our used chopsticks.
Once again, we did a taste test to find the best and found that the best California roll sushi was not from the restaurant where it was invented (and costs $18 a roll!), Tojo’s. Surprisingly, the all-you-can-eat place across the street, Tomokazu, took the title. For all the surprising results of our Calfornia roll taste test, click here.
What to Do in Vancouver
Types of Things to Do in Vancouver
Instead of telling you exactly what to do in Vancouver, here are the types of things you really should do to get a true feel for the city:
- Experience the Asian side of Vancouver. Vancouver is the most Asian city in the world outside of Asia. Dive into it (and dig into the food).
- Get into the woods. Go even if it’s raining. It’s a rain forest after all.
- Eat by the sea. There’s something about the salt in the air that makes the food taste better. We gave you a couple of options above in the only in Vancouver dining experiences.
- Try some Canadian food. There’s no such thing as Canadian cuisine, but there are a few things you should try while in Canada such as poutine, Nanaimo bars, and Caesars.
- Go to the beach. In the summer this is a no-brainer. But even in the winter, you should go for the views and fresh air. Our guide to all the Vancouver beaches has all the info you need.
- Get out of downtown. The views are nicer. The people are too. It’s cheaper. And who knows what you’ll discover.
- Exercise. Vancouverites famously don’t always work hard, but they do work out hard. Join the fun. Yeah, fun. As we wrote in our tips for staying fit while traveling, not only will you feel better but you might meet some cool people and have some of your favorite travel experiences doing so. Join an outdoor bootcamp, drop in at a yoga studio, go to one of the city’s calisthenic parks, or, if you’re a bit crazy, try a beach rock workout.
The Touristy Top 10
This isn’t our top ten, but no Vancouver travel blog is complete without at least mentioning these attractions. Here’s our honest take on each:
- Stanley Park: Lots of trees beside downtown. It’s nice to bike around it on the Seawall as long as you avoid the crowds. Head to Lynn Canyon for a more beautiful forest.
- Granville Island: Fish, arts, crafts, theatre, and markets on an
islandpeninsula under the bridge. Take a little ferry there from downtown.
- Gastown: A good place to go for dinner and drinks.
- Canada Place: For whatever reason, it’s the tourism epicenter. Flyover Canada may be overpriced and kitschy, but it’s something to do when the weather’s crappy.
- Museum of Anthropology: Go if you’re interested in the area’s Aboriginal culture and history. If you’re out that way in the summer, start at Wreck Beach, stop at the museum, then bike back along the beaches (see Vancouver’s best bike ride).
- Capilano Suspension Bridge: Many locals, including Chris, have never been. It’s not obligatory for you to spend $50 to go either.
- Vancouver Lookout: The needle-topped, space-ship-looking building in Vancouver. Go in March for the Urban Grind. Otherwise go elsewhere—like Grouse, Cypress, or Locarno Beach—for city views.
- Grouse Mountain: Forest, views, grizzlies, lumberjack shows, hikes. Do hike up in the summer, but consider taking the locals’ route instead of The Grind.
- Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden: It’s a nice garden. Give it a quick walk-through if you’re in the area, but don’t feel you need to go out of your way to see it.
- Science World: It’s the golf ball-looking structure at the end of False Creek. It’s mostly for kids, though once a month they have the adults-only Science World After Dark and every February there’s the Science World of Cocktails
One thing that makes Vancouver special is that in as little as half an hour you can flee the city and be immersed in full-fledged, watch-out-for-bears-and-cougars, Canadian wilderness.
If you’re short on time, consider hiking up Grouse Mountain (and maybe try the local route). Or, if you’re short on fitness too, walk around Lynn Canyon. Both are nice.
But, if you’re able to, go for a real hike.
In general, the harder the hike is to get to, the better it is. It’ll be less spoiled by hordes of others and more beautiful. To whet your appetite, here are a couple of hikes that we’ve put together detailed guides on:
- Anvil Island. Hike up to the top of Leading Peak on this essentially uninhabited island just outside Vancouver and enjoy 360-degree views of Howe Sound and the surrounding mountains from the helicopter pad up top. The only thing is you’ll need to hire a boat or rent a kayak to get there. Here’s our Anvil Island guide.
- Brandywine Meadows. If you can find someone with a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to get you there, it’s one of the fastest ways to get to the B.C. alpine. Come in August or September and you’ll be rewarded with wildflowers galore as you explore the waterfalls, creeks, and mountains in this alpine playground. Read more about hiking Brandywine Meadows here.
If you want other suggestions, let us know what you’re looking for in the comments and we’d be glad to help.
Squamish and Whistler
If you’re more into mountains than beaches, you’ll probably be interested in heading up the Sea-to-Sky corridor to Whistler.
Before going straight to Whistler, though, consider stopping half way in Squamish.
Squamish is Canada’s outdoor adventure capital. It’s famous worldwide to rock climbers, mountain bikers, and kite surfers, but unknown otherwise. It’s kind of like what Whistler was thirty years ago. We have no posts about Squamish to share with you (yet), but Chris used to own a hostel there and his brother owns a cafe, an ice cream shop, and a climbing gym in town, so we’re definitely qualified to answer any questions. Ask away in the comments below!
Squamish is also way cheaper than Whistler. And since it’s only forty-five minutes away it’s worth considering staying there to save money. But if you insist on staying in Whistler, at least save some money by checking out our post on how to find cheap(-er) accommodation and our guide to Whistler’s hostels.
Some common misconceptions among visitors to Vancouver (which we covered in our Vancouver travel tips) are that Vancouver Island is A) really close to Vancouver and B) not that big.
The truth is it’s as big as Belgium and takes at least four hours to get to. Go if you have more than a few days to explore it.
Only 140 kilometers (less than 100 miles) from the Vancouver is a little, totally overlooked, and borderline tropical island called Savary. It’s unlike any other island in the Pacific Northwest (maybe because it’s really just a giant sandbar). And they say it’s got the warmest water of anywhere on the Pacific Coast north of Mexico!
Located about a four-to-six hour drive from Vancouver, the Okanagan is BC’s mini Sonoma Valley. In the summer months, you can find yourself biking from winery to winery, laying by the lake in the dry heat, and munching on the fresh berries and local produce the valley produces every summer.
Other Vancouver Guides
External Sources of Info
- Airbnb’s City Guide. A little-known experiment by Airbnb, it’s a compilation of all the insider tips from hosts around the city. It’s way better than Google Reviews, TripAdvisor, Yelp, or whatever else.
- Vancouver Tourism’s Story Sheets. These aren’t meant to be seen by the public. They’re made to help tourism “insiders”—influencers, agencies, and media—come up with fresh things to write about. Why not skip the middleman and go straight to the source?
- The Daily Hive. Most of their content is BuzzFeed-esque mental fast food, but it is the best resource there is (for now) to find out what’s going on in Vancouver.
Our Vancouver Posts on The Unconventional Route
- Vancouver travel tips that answer your questions about visiting the city before you ask them
- Non-touristy things to do in Vancouver
- Things everyone needs to do in Vancouver’s summer
- Only-in-Vancouver dining experiences
- The best ice cream / gelato and the best California roll sushi (it was invented here) in the city
- A guide to all the Vancouver beaches (some of which are great for doing rock workouts)
- A couple of our favorite off-the-beaten-path hikes nearby Vancouver: Anvil Island and Brandywine Meadows.
Be a Good Canadian
Canadians are famously polite, helpful, and open-minded, so why not prepare for your trip by doing something Canadian and leaving a comment to say thanks, leave a tip of your own, or ask a question.
If you had a blog, think of how much you’d appreciate getting comments. That’s how we feel, so please don’t be shy.