These Vancouver travel tips, which we’ve collected from having been born and raised in the city and helped thousands of people get to know it, will help you squeeze the absolute maximum amount of enjoyment out of your trip to Vancouver.
Before You Ask… Here Are the Answers
Even though you haven’t asked them yet, we’re pretty confident we know what questions you’re going to eventually ask about Vancouver. And we can probably also come up with some questions you may never ask but should.
It’s not because we’re mind readers. It’s because we have a lot of experience. We’ve answered a lot of questions from a lot of visitors to Vancouver over the years we’ve grown up here and worked in all areas of the local hospitality industry.
These Vancouver travel tips are the sum of all that experience.
They’ll get you started towards having an extraordinary visit to our hometown by giving you the basic knowledge and insights you need to hit the ground running, avoid common mistakes, and get the most out of your time here.
- Your north
starmountain. If you get spun around and forget which way’s which, use the mountains to find your bearings. That way’s north.
- Vancouver is tiny. The entire city of Vancouver is only 115 square kilometers (44 square miles), which is only twice the area of Manhattan. Everything is within easy biking (or even walking) distance.
- Everywhere downtown is walkable. To walk from one extreme corner of downtown Vancouver to the other only takes forty minutes. And it’s mostly flat. So if you’re in the middle of downtown, nothing is more than an easy twenty-minute walk away.
- Where to stay in Vancouver? The very center of downtown, Burrard and Robson is the most convenient. Stay as close as you can to there. If you have a bigger budget, just look for the best deal in the area. If you’re on a tight budget, look to stay in the West End, near Davie St. somewhere between Burrard and Denman. Check out our first-time visitor’s guide to Vancouver for more on this plus an unconventional alternative.
- Beware of Skid Row. The area between Gastown and “Chinatown”, centered on the intersection of Hastings and Main, is called the Downtown Eastside. For fellow fans of The Wire, it’s Vancouver’s version of Hamsterdam. It’s where all the city’s—and really much of Canada’s—drug addicts and untreated mentally ill people are concentrated. If you go, you will see people injecting themselves with drugs in broad daylight and high out of their minds, screaming at everyone and anyone.
- But don’t be scared of Skid Row. Early on in our Airbnb hosting days, we neglected to warn a couple of innocent first-time traveler Chinese girls about this, and they returned in shock. They, and you, needn’t be scared, though. The area is heavily policed and totally safe. In fact, we recommend walking through it once to experience the gritty underbelly of beautiful Vancouver. Plus you can buy really cheap stuff they’ve recovered from dumpsters and stolen and sell on the sidewalk. (Bonus fun fact: The term skid row, which now refers to an impoverished urban area, originates from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In Vancouver’s early days, that’s where they once skidded (or dragged) logs.)
- Chinatown is not Chinatown. Not anymore. The epicenter of the Chinese community has moved south to Richmond (by the airport). What was once Chinatown now has more hipster cafes and shops than Chinese stores.
- Vancouver Island is far from Vancouver. We’re amazed by how many visitors think Vancouver Island and everything on it is super close to Vancouver. It’s not. It takes a good five hours to get to Victoria from Vancouver, for example. One or two pulled off a day trip nonetheless, but that’s crazy. If you want to go to Victoria or Vancouver Island, go for a few days. Or fly.
- Vancouver Island is huge. It’s not just some island beside Vancouver you explore in a day. It’s bigger than Belgium. Here are some fun comparisons of its size.
Getting Around Vancouver
- 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. If you really want someone else to drive you everywhere, get the local taxi companies’ Uber-imitation eCab app.
- From the airport, take the SkyTrain into town. It’s sometimes faster than taxis and cheaper (unless you’re a group of three or more).
- Public transit is for all the public. Many tourists we’ve met during our time as Airbnb hosts, Americans especially, tend to disregard public transit as an option because back home it’s dirty, unreliable, and inconvenient. It’s the opposite here in Vancouver. Everyone rides it and you should too.
- Unlimited transfers in 90 minutes. Any ticket you buy for Vancouver’s public transit system is valid for ninety minutes. You can ride as many times as you want during that period. As long as you’re on the bus/train/ferry when you’re ninety minutes expires, you’re fine.
- Know your transit zone. If you take the SkyTrain or the SeaBus outside of Vancouver’s city limits, you’ll need to pay extra for going into different zones. Check this map to be sure. Note that you don’t have to pay extra for crossing zones if you’re only taking the bus; all bus rides are one zone.
- How to pay for public transit. Vancouver’s transit system accepts contactless Visa and Mastercard credit cards and Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay. If you don’t have such “high-tech” payment methods, you’ll need to pay exact change ($2.95 for one zone). Your best bet if you’re staying longer or planning to use public transit a lot is to get a Compass Card. For $6 (refundable only at the Stadium-Chinatown station) it gets you about $0.50 off each ride and can be prepaid or linked to your credit card for automatic reloading.
- Ask the bus drivers, even if you’re not taking the bus. Unlike in many other cities, Vancouver’s bus drivers are generally friendly and helpful, so don’t be scared to ask them for directions or to let you know when it’s your stop.
- Rent-a-car by the minute. Sign up for car2go and download the app before you come to Vancouver and you can get in and drive any of the hundreds of cars around the city. You pick up and drop off wherever you’d like within the zone and pay by the minute. It’s as cheap as $0.32 per minute including gas and parking. If you’re already a car2go member in another city in North America, you’re already cleared to use the service in Vancouver. If not, you can still sign up. It’s a bit of a hassle—you have to send them your local driving records—but if you’re in Vancouver for a while it may be worth it.
- Don’t rent a car by the day. Don’t rent a car for the time you’re in Vancouver. Parking is an expensive pain in the ass and you’re better off walking, biking, taking public transit, or (when desperate/really lazy) hailing a taxi.
- Put two wheels on four. If you rent a bike (which we highly recommend) don’t be scared of putting it onto the racks on the front of busses or taking it on the SkyTrain. This allows you to cover more ground with one-way bike routes.
- Park your bike just about anywhere. There are tons of dedicated bike parking spots along the streets of Vancouver, but if none are nearby don’t hesitate to lock your bike to the nearest sign, parking meter, tree, or whatever looks secure and doesn’t get in the way of pedestrians and traffic.
Drinking and Smoking
- You’re not allowed to drink alcohol in public. The fine for doing so is hefty, $200+. We do it anyways when we go for picnics on Sunset Beach (one of our top seven non-touristy things to do in Vancouver), for example. But we’re discrete. We pour the booze into cups or water bottles and hide the empties.
- Happy Hour is not that happy. There is a legal minimum price on alcoholic drinks—$5 per 20 oz. beer, $15 per 60 oz. jug, $3 per oz of liquor—which severely restricts the happiness of “happy hour” in Vancouver. And don’t forget those prices don’t include 15% taxes and 15%+ tip.
- Wanna get high? If you want to get a taste of BC bud, head to The New Amsterdam Cafe downtown. It’s the hub of the Vancouver’s weed culture. Even if you don’t smoke weed and are just curious, it’s worth checking out and is one of the seven non-touristy things to do in Vancouver we recommend.
- Take ID. Always carry one piece of picture ID and another with your name on it (like a credit card). Even if you’re well past the legal drinking age of nineteen, you’ll most likely be asked for ID to get into any club and to buy drinks at a liquor store or bar.
- You can’t buy alcohol at corner stores and supermarkets. You can only buy it in government BC Liquor stores (cheaper) or designated cold beer and wine stores (more expensive).
Activities and Attractions
- See grizzlies. If you’re visiting Vancouver in the summer, we highly recommend you go up Grouse Mountain. Yes, it’s super busy with tourists, but it’s worth it (though we advise you consider hiking up a different route). If you go, don’t make the same mistake as too many of our guests did and miss the grizzly bears. From behind the main building up top, follow the paw prints on the path to the grizzly enclosure. It is really cool to see them up close (…through the protection of a fence.)
- Avoid the Seawall on peak periods. That means weekends (unless you go early) and in the middle of any day when it’s nice out. It gets insanely busy with people who haven’t ridden a bike since they learned how and can be unnecessarily frustrating.
- Quarry Rock is not off-the-beaten-path. You’ll have a hard time finding a spot on the Quarry Rock lookout for yourself unless you go when the weather’s not-so-good.
- Capilano isn’t the only suspension bridge. Capilano Suspension Bridge is cool and all, but it’s super expensive ($50!) and insanely busy. We recommend Lynn Canyon instead. It’s not quite as busy, not as built up, and it’s free.
- Vancouver’s biggest park isn’t Stanley Park. Stanley Park is famously bigger than Manhattan’s Central Park, but what’s less known is that it’s not even the biggest park in the city. Pacific Spirit Park is more than twice as big. It’s worth checking out on your way to or from Wreck Beach (a must-see cultural and wilderness sight in the summer) and The Museum of Anthropology.
- Gastown’s not as old as you think. The famous steam clock only dates back to 1977. It was put there to attract tourists to Gastown after they revitalized the area. The same goes for the cobbled streets and the old-looking-but-actually-new lamps. Only the buildings date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. And claims that “Blood Alley” is named after butcher shops aren’t true; it was given its name and legend purely to attract more tourists.
- Try stand up paddle boarding for some exercise and an unforgettable perspective of the city. In the summer, go to Kits beach on Monday for half-priced rentals ($10/hour, the $5 every hour after), two-for-one Tuesdays, or 30% off Wednesdays.
- Take the plunge. The ocean water is clean and not even that cold, especially when the tide is out in the summer. Jump in. And if you’re in Vancouver over New Years, join 2,500+ others in the annual Polar Bear Swim.
- Free exercise. You’ll be amazed by how active everyone in Vancouver is and whether or not you’re into exercise or not, you’ll be motivated to do so here in Vancouver to fit in. The good news is there are tons of options, many of which are free. Most yoga, spinning, or whatever style of fitness is in style these days studios offer free or steeply discounted first classes. We like to go to Vancouver’s outdoor calisthenics parks and do rock workouts on Sunset Beach.
- Don’t sleep on Squamish. If you’re an adventure traveler looking to get into the outdoors and meet a bunch of like-minded adventurers, consider spending some time in Squamish. Squamish is halfway between Vancouver and Whistler (an hour away) and is where all the young outdoorsy people in Vancouver are migrating to.
Food and Drink
- Better than sushi and ramen. For some reason, everyone who comes to Vancouver thinks they need to eat sushi or ramen. We recommend trying other Japanese food at Kingyo too. It’s Kim’s favorite and she’s a half-Japenese food fanatic, so she knows what she’s talking about.
- 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. Don’t be sucked into getting one of those We ♥ Van water bottles. To Vancouverites, those don’t say you “♥ Van.” They say you’re too lazy or unconscientious to fill up your own bottle from the tap.
- Dining districts. Instead of picking a restaurant online, head to one of Vancouver’s dining districts like Gastown, Main Street, or Alexandra Road and follow your nose (or taste buds). Go to our Vancouver travel blog for first-timers for a list of our favorite dining districts.
- Free fruit. In the summer and spring, you’ll likely see a lot of berries in the bushes along the streets and in the city’s parks. Eat them! Ones to look out for are blackberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, blueberries, salmonberries, and salal. To learn more about not just berries, but other local edible plants and mushrooms too, try a foraging class, which is one of the cool things to do in Vancouver we highly recommend.
- One-of-a-kind Vancouver dining. For recommendations for foods like subs from the Sandwich Nazi and crazy bubble tea, which may not be the best tasting but are certainly unique and may create the best memories, don’t miss our post on only-in-Vancouver dining experiences.
- The best California roll sushi. The California roll was invented in Vancouver. And, based on our blind taste test of Vancouver California rolls, the best one might be from the restaurant it was invented, Tojo’s. Either that or it’s from the all-you-can-eat sushi place across the street, Tomokazu.
- The best ice cream or gelato. We also blind taste tested gelatos from all across the city. To the chagrin of the local economy and hipsters everywhere… the winner was Haagen Dazs. But there were some local, artisanal standouts too. Read our Vancouver ice cream and gelato post to see who came second, third… and last.
- “Thank you” isn’t enough. You’re expected to tip for hotel services ($1-2 per bag to the bell boy, $2-5 per night for the maid, $10-20 to a helpful concierge), at restaurants (15-20%), at bars ($0.50-2 per drink), spas and beauticians/barbers (10%), and taxi drivers (10%). More info here. (Oh, and P.S. you don’t have to tip us, but if you want to thank us for these tips you can book your hotel through this Booking.com link or buy whatever you want on Amazon through this one at no extra cost to yourself.)
- Just wear something. Vancouver is possibly the world’s least-stylish city. People often wear whatever they feel like in public. You can fit in by doing the same.
- This is an anti-umbrella town. Most Vancouverites wear rain jackets (mostly Canadian brands like MEC or, for those with too much money, Arcteryx). Regardless of the brand, if you have a rain jacket, wear it instead of using an umbrella. (Note: Not all Vancouverite agree with this tip, but some, especially taller ones like Chris, will hate you for threatening their eyeballs with umbrellas.)
- Welcome to Can-Asia. With 47% of its population being of Asian descent, Vancouver is the world’s most Asian city outside of Asia. Many guests we’ve hosted thought they’d landed in the wrong continent when they got to the airport. Don’t worry. The Asian-ness is a huge part of our culture. Plan to explore it (especially the food) as part of your trip
- Be Green. Being so close to nature and the home of David Suzuki and Greenpeace has made us Vancouverites very environmentally sensitive. You should be too, at the very least while you’re here. If you have empty bottles or glasses, look for a recycling bin to put them in. And only get bags from stores if you really need them.
- You won’t stand out. Vancouver is such a multicultural city that regardless of your accent, skin color, fashion, or whatever, as long as you don’t have a big camera around your neck and an “I ♥ VanCity” hat on, nobody will think you’re a tourist.
- They aren’t “Indians” …unless they’re actually from India. Refer to the area’s original inhabitants as Aboriginal people or First Nations people instead. If you’re interested in their history and culture, go to The Museum of Anthropology, eat at Salmon n’ Bannock, and take a tour with Talaysay.
More Vancouver Travel Tips
- No summer bummers. Despite its “Raincouver” reputation, it barely ever rains during Vancouver’s summer, from mid-May to mid-September.
- When it rains… it rarely pours. Chris didn’t even own a rain jacket when growing up in Vancouver because, while it rains often during the non-summer months in Vancouver, it’s mostly a drizzle. Torrential downpours are rare.
- You’re safe on your own. There is no unsafe part of the city, no matter at what point of day or night. Even the Downtown Eastside is safe (though there’s no good reason to go there at 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. Always lock your bike in safe places (busy areas during the day and private lockers at night) and never leave any possession unguarded.
- Things cost more than they appear. Listed prices never include tax, which are normally an extra 14%. And then there’s the tip you’re expected to pay at restaurants and bars, and for other services. (See tip on tipping.)
- Souvenir shopping. Roots, Lululemon, and Aritzia are Canadian brands whose clothes make for practical souvenirs. Kitschy souvenirs are most easily found in Gastown. Get maple syrup or packaged smoked salmon from a supermarket instead of a souvenir shop to save money.
- 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:
- More Vancouver travel tips, info, and events. Aside from reading our other posts on The Unconventional Route and asking us questions in the comments, here are some other handy resources for planning your trip:
- Airbnb’s City Guide: It compiles the insider tips from hosts around the city. It’s better than Google Reviews, TripAdvisor, Yelp, or whatever else.
- Tourism Vancouver’s info sheets they share with media are better than anything the media then shares with the public.
- The Daily Hive is a good resource for seeing what events are going on in the city today.
If you have any questions, ask us in the comments. And if you have any Vancouver travel tips to add, leave them there too. Just think of how much you would have appreciated if someone had shared them with you.
Just the Tip(s) of the Iceberg
These Vancouver travel tips are just the tip of the iceberg. For a lot more inside info on how to have an unforgettable trip in Vancouver, don’t miss our other posts on The Unconventional Route:
- Everything a first-time visitor should know before coming to Vancouver
- Our favorite non-touristy things to do in Vancouver
- 8 only-in-Vancouver dining experiences
- A bit more difficult to get to, but completely worth it, nearby hikes to Anvil Island’s Leading Peak and Brandywine Meadows and Mountain
- Where to find
- A checklist of the seven things everyone must do in Vancouver in the summer
- A local beach bum’s guide to all the beaches in Vancouver, the (sometimes) best beach city in the world