Not Your Ordinary Vancouver Guide, Part 1
Vancouver, Quick and Easy
This Vancouver travel blog gives you a quick and easy understanding of 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.
As born-and-raised Vancouverites, Kim and I have helped hundreds of visitors discover the city while working in and owning hospitality businesses here and hosting guests in our apartment through Airbnb.
And, when it comes down to it, everyone asks us the same 11 questions.
So we’ve put together this Vancouver travel guide to answer them for you. Quick and easy.
Vancouver Travel Blog Contents
1. Why Vancouver?
- 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” in the map 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.
2. Why NOT 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.
- It’s freaking expensive. Everyone wants a piece of Vancouver, but it’s a small place, so prices of everything keep rising and rising.
3. What’s Where?
Know the Neighborhoods
Boring But Useful Map of Vancouver’s Neighborhoods:
Entertaining, Un-Politically Correct, But Reasonably Accurate Map of Vancouver’s Neighborhoods:
Super quick info so you don’t get lost:
- 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.
- East Vancouver (brown areas in the map above) used to be poor. Now it’s hipster.
- West Vancouver (green neighborhoods in map above) was hippy (Kits) and humble (the rest). Now it’s too expensive.
- The West End (downtown neighborhood) is not the same as the West Side (half the city) or West Van (a suburb across Lions Gate Bridge).
For forty of our our top-recommend spots in Vancouver, see our Treasure Map, below.
4. Where’s the Best Area to Stay in Vancouver?
Our Top Pick
As we write in our post where we rank Vancouver’s best neighborhoods across various criteria, 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 area between Davie, Denman, Robson, and Burrard streets we’ve zoomed into here:
For a More Unconventional Trip
For a cheaper and less conventional alternative, consider staying near Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver’s Eastside.
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.
Vancouver Neighborhood Guide
Our Where to Stay in Vancouver guide explains our top-recommended neighborhoods (and ones we don’t recommend so much), then helps you choose for yourself by scoring each across various categories like fine dining, proximity to attractions, and affordability.
5. What’s the Best Way to Get Around Vancouver?
Our Dos and Don’ts for Getting Around Vancouver covers this in full, but here’s the short version:
How to Get to and from the Airport
If there are there or less of you in your group, take the SkyTrain, Vancouver’s subway, from the airport into town.
It’ll get you downtown in half an hour, connects with all the city’s other transit lines, and costs $9.25 each (the standard $4.25 2-zone fare plus a $5 airport fee).
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 than the SkyTrain (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.
How to Get 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.
The cheapest way to do so is to use Vancouver’s shared bike system, Mobi, which costs about $10 a day.
For bigger bike rides rent a better bike for $30 to $50 a day. We strongly recommend the route we outline in our post on our favorite 7 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Vancouver,
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 is banished from Vancouver).
Check out our Dos and Don’ts For Getting Around Vancouver guide for a handful more tips to help you cover more ground in less time and for less money.
Say Goodbye to the Status Quo
Push this button if you want to live outside the box:
6. What Are the Most Popular Things to Do in Vancouver?
This isn’t our person top ten things to do, but no Vancouver travel blog is complete without at least mentioning these.
Here’s our honest take on each:
1. Stanley Park
Lots of trees right 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.
Fish, arts, crafts, theatre, and markets on an
island peninsula under the Granville Street Bridge. Take a little ferry there from downtown.
4. Canada Place
For whatever reason, it’s Vancouver’s tourism epicenter. Flyover Canada may be overpriced and gimmicky, but it’s something to do when the weather’s crappy.
Go if you’re interested in the British Columbia’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).
Many locals, including Chris, have never been. It’s not obligatory for you to spend $50 to go either. Consider Lynn Canyon’s suspension bridge as a free alternative.
Forest, views, grizzlies, lumberjack shows, hikes. Do hike up in the summer, but instead of the often unpleasantly-busy Grind consider taking the locals’ route that we share in our guide to our favorite non-touristy things to do in Vancouver.
It’s a nice garden. Give it a quick walk-through if you’re in the area, but don’t go out of your way to see it.
10. 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
7. What Should Visitors REALLY Do in Vancouver?
Do these Types of Things
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:
1. 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).
2. Get into the woods
Go even if it’s raining. It’s a rain-forest after all.
3. Eat by the sea
There’s something about the salt in the air that makes the food taste better. We recommend a couple of places in our Only-in-Vancouver Dining Experiences post.
4. 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.
5. 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 Vancouver’s beaches will help you find the best one.
6. Get out of downtown
The views are nicer. The people are too. It’s cheaper. And who knows what you’ll discover.
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’ll 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.
For complete details on all of the above, read our 7 Things Everyone Must Do in Vancouver.
Try these Non-Touristy Things to Do
Whenever friends visit, these are the things we always recommend they do.
Our Non-Touristy Things to Do in Vancouver post has the full details, but if you’re lazy or short on time here’s the recap:
- Have a sunset picnic on the beach
- Hike up Grouse Mountain the other way
- Go foraging
- Play the People’s Golf, frisbee golf and pitch ‘n’ putt
- Laugh with them (or at them) at a comedy club or improv show
- Dabble in Vancouver’s marijuana culture
- Do Vancouver’s BEST bike ride from UBC to downtown
8. Where Are the Best Spots to Eat and Drink?
Go to the Dining Districts
When you’re hungry, walk along the following 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.
Try Some 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.
On the other hand, here some dining experiences you can only enjoy in 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 Experiences post.
Drink Craft Coffee and Beer
Just like its fellow Pacific Northwest cities, Portland and Seattle, just about everyone in Vancouver 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…
..But if you insist, we’ll give you one:
With regards to beer, there are a couple of microbrewery districts to do a beer crawl at:
- On and around Main Street between 1st and 7th.
- Along Powell Street between Clark and Victoria.
Savor 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.
So, as we love to do and recommend you try too, we blind tested the best to put an end to the debate. 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.
Eat Vancouver’s Best Sushi
Vancouverites eat so much sushi that there’s a company that designs furniture with all our used chopsticks, and, like with ice cream, everyone has their own opinions about whose sushi is best.
Once again, we did a taste test to find out.
Surprisingly, we discovered that the best California roll sushi was not from the restaurant where it was invented (and costs $18 a roll!), Tojo’s, but from the all-you-can-eat place across the street, Tomokazu!
For all the surprising results, head to our post on The Secrets to the Best California Roll Sushi (in Vancouver and in General).
Dos and Don’ts
Get about fifteen helpful tips for finding and enjoying great food and drink in our Dos and Don’ts for Foodies and Drinkies Visiting Vancouver.
9. Where to Go Outside of the City?
As we explained in our 16 Best Countries to Visit for 16 Unique Types of Trip, Canada is the best country to visit to connect with nature, so you really should escape the city and do so.
Here’s some inspiration:
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 to:
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.
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, head up the Sea-to-Sky corridor to Whistler.
But, before going straight to Whistler, 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 cover in our Vancouver Travel Tips post) 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 from Vancouver. 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 bike from winery to winery, lay by the lake in the dry heat, and munch on the fresh berries and local produce the valley produces every summer.
10. What Else Should Visitors Know Before Visiting?
Here are some tips and insights that other visitors we’ve helped have found most surprising and helpful:
- Vancouver is tiny. The entire city of Vancouver is only 115 square kilometers (44 square miles), so 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 tap water is potable, clean, and delicious. It comes from up high in the beautiful mountains that help make Vancouver one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
- 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, 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 before you go to Vancouver that we share in our Vancouver Travel Tips post.
11. What Are Other Good Sources of Vancouver Info?
Other Helpful Vancouver Guides
- 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 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.
The Rest of Our Not Your Ordinary Vancouver Blog Series
To help you plan most memorable Vancouver trip possible, don’t miss the other four posts from our 5-part Not Your Ordinary Vancouver Series:
- Vancouver Travel Tips You Likely Haven’t Heard Already
- Where to Stay in Vancouver: The Best Neighborhoods, Ranked
- 7 Things Everyone Actually Must Do if They Visit Vancouver
- Our Favorite Non-Touristy Things to Do in Vancouver
Free Vancouver Treasure Map
Find of 40 our favorite Vancouver restaurants, cafes, attractions, and more directly on Google Maps when you’re traveling, even offline!
It’s free and super easy: just one click!
12. (Bonus) How to Get an Answer to Any Very Specific Question
Ask us in the comments!
Kim and I would love to hear from you and will do our best to help.