On our first morning in Vancouver, a tangerine sunrise pierces through the drapes, casting a warm glow that I use to lace up my running shoes and slip through the doors without waking my husband and kids, who are still sleeping off last night’s late arrival. My feet hit the pavement and I breathe in the brisk morning air — 58 degrees feels like pure bliss when you’ve just left a scorching strand of triple-digit days back in Texas. It only takes few minutes to run from the quiet residential neighborhood where we are staying to a forested footpath fringed by plants on steroids, exploding with vibrant blossoms and shaded by centuries-old conifers that stretch to the sky. Two miles later and I’m standing on a serene stretch of sand hugged by a thick band of towering evergreens and staring out on a smooth, sun-kissed sea dotted with a line of ships. A quick consult with Google Maps informs me it’s popular Third Beach, located on the Stanley Park Seawall System, but it’s still early enough that I have it all to myself. I’m a big believer that the best way to explore a new place is on foot and without a destination, and British Columbia’s captivating (and largest) coastal city is one of the best places on the planet for that. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities, it takes about a minute to fall head over heels with this Pacific Northwest paradise boasting sprawling parks that surround shimmering high-rises, urban forests that flourish just beyond its breathtaking coastline, majestic mountains and one of the mildest climates in Canada. Here are seven musts to check off your list when you visit Vancouver — one for every day of the week.
It’s no secret that Vancouver is big on parks, but spectacular Stanley Park is the oldest and largest of the bunch, totaling a whopping 1,001 acres — to put its vast size into perspective, consider that it’s larger than New York City’s Central Park. Sitting on a peninsula at the northwestern edge of downtown and surrounded by ocean on three sides, you’ll find more nature, culture and history than you can see in a single day in this lush, green oasis smack dab in the middle of Vancouver’s urban landscape. This time of year, between spring and fall when the flowers are in bloom, is one of the best times to wander through Stanley Park’s gorgeous gardens. The award-winning Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden brims with 4,500 plants; the Shakespeare Garden is a diverse arboretum with nearly 50 trees mentioned in the works of Shakespeare; and the Rose Garden was established nearly a century ago and now bursts with more than 3,500 rose bushes. Stroll, swim or sunbathe along some of the beaches wrapping Stanley Park, such as Third Beach or Second Beach, which has a heated outdoor pool. Or set your eyes on one of British Columbia’s most-visited tourist attractions: the nine colorful totem poles at Brockton Point. Walking to the myriad attractions scattered throughout Stanley Park is part of the fun — our kids marveled at the massive trees, fragrant blooms and newly hatched goslings and paused to play at every playground we passed along the way. But if your feet are tired and you’re not done exploring, climb aboard the old-fashioned Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours for an hourlong history lesson trotting past sites such as Deadman’s Island, Lions Gate Bridge and the totem poles. vancouver.ca/parks-recreation-culture/stanley-park.aspx
Canada’s largest and first public aquarium is also tucked in the heart of Stanley Park, but you can easily spend an entire morning or afternoon here. Home to more than 50,000 creatures spanning playful otters and dolphins to sea lions and African penguins, Vancouver Aquarium has garnered a reputation not only as an entertaining spot to visit but also as a leading marine science center. While you’ll find aquariums in most major coastal cities, the Vancouver Aquarium is one that’s truly worth checking off your list. Our kids loved witnessing the dolphin training demonstration where they learned all about Helen, the 30-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin, before watching two sea lions interact with each other and their trainers by roaring, clapping, diving for fish and gliding gracefully though the water at Steller’s Bay. vanaqua.org
Originally designed around the perimeter of Stanley Park to prevent erosion, Vancouver’s seawall has extended far beyond the park’s boundaries and now stretches more than 13 miles around the city’s waterfront. You don’t need to traverse the entire seawall, which starts at the Vancouver Convention Center and heads north to Stanley Park and False Creek past Granville Island before ending at Kitsilano Beach Park, to soak in stellar shoreline views and salty sea air. In fact, it’s best to experience this Vancouver attraction at your own pace — we enjoyed leisurely walks along the popular Stanley Park section of the seawall with our kids, watching the boats bob in the bay and seaplanes slicing through the glassy water as they landed while runners and rollerbladers whizzed past us. Cover more ground by renting a bike from an array of shops and vendors scattered around the city. vancouver.ca/parks-recreation-culture/seawall.aspx
Get a bird’s-eye view of Vancouver soaring high above its emerald forests and sapphire ocean dotted with Gulf Islands as you take the 1-mile journey up Grouse Mountain on the Skyride aerial tramway system. Grouse Mountain, located 15 minutes from downtown Vancouver and more than 4,000 feet above it, is an alpine playground of adventure accompanied by some of the most intoxicating views of B.C. While Grouse Mountain is known for skiing and snowboarding during the winter and spring, there are plenty of things do on this popular peak throughout the year. Test out the mountain biking trails or get a leg-burning workout on the Grouse Grind, which locals have dubbed “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster” thanks to its 2,800-foot elevation gain. Adventure-seekers can brave the dual-circuit ziplines or new aerial Mountain Ropes Adventure course, while younger kids will love the entertaining Lumberjack shows and Birds in Motion demonstrations featuring fast birds of prey. But the definite highlight for our kids was watching Grinder and Coola play-fight in the snow — the two orphaned grizzly bears were rescued in 2001 and now call this mountaintop refuge habitat home. grousemountain.com
5. Satisfy your appetite for Asian cuisine
Nearly 50 percent of Vancouver’s population is of Asian descent, so it comes as no surprise that Vancouver also happens to serve up some of the best Asian cuisine on the continent. We devoured a procession of pure deliciousness at SURA Korean Cuisine, where highlights included tasty sliced squid and kimchi pancakes followed by savory Korean barbecue plates like tender daeji galbi. Vancouver is also known for having some of the best sushi outside of Japan. Treat your taste buds to the signature salmon oshi sushi and Champagne roll with Hokkaido scallop and sockeye salmon rolled in golden tobiko at Minami, nestled in Yaletown. For a Japanese lunch, stop at the cozy yet buzzing izakaya Kingyo, which serves a fresh and bright sashimi salad atop a bed of organic greens and a limited number of sought-after bento boxes. For inventive Indian food paired with creative cocktails and a festive ambiance, try Vij’s in Cambie Village, or its sister restaurant, Vij’s Rangoli, on 11th Ave. and Granville St.
Sail away to Granville Island on an Aquabus, the rainbow, pint-size ferries that zigzag across False Creek. Save your seasick pills — the entire journey will be over in a blink — but you can fill a whole day with fun exploring this bustling, historic neighborhood. Indulge in a seafood lunch or a plate of freshly shucked oysters at one of the waterfront restaurants, or pick fresh fruit, French cheeses, gourmet goodies and local honey at the buzzing Granville Island Public Market to create your own picnic. Sip an adult beverage at the Sandbar, which is built around the bridge supports and offers unparalleled water views. Or let delight little ones inside the colorful, two-story Kids Market, which brims with more than 25 shops selling everything from toys and crafts to candy and costumes. granvilleisland.com
Taking a wobbly walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, the iconic suspension bridge stretching 450 feet across the Capilano Canyon and dangling 230 feet above the Capilano River, is quite possibly the most thrilling way to experience Vancouver’s verdant beauty. Vancouver was officially founded in 1886 with a population of 1,000, and the original Capilano Suspension Bridge was built just three years later in 1889. Today’s visitors can soak in history, culture and nature with three aerial adventures when they visit the park. After crossing the Capilano Suspension Bridge into a thriving West Coast rainforest, walk among the tree canopies on the Treetops Adventure, a series of seven suspension bridges anchored by eight 30-ton, 250-year-old Douglas firs perched 100 feet above the forest floor. The Treetops Adventure was crafted entirely by hand to avoid damaging the natural ecosystem — only old-fashioned pulleys and ropes were used to put the bridges and platforms in place and specially designed steel collars were used instead of nails or screws to spread out the pressure and strengthen the trees. Check out the Cliffwalk, which winds 700 feet along the Capilano Canyon and features a series of cantilevered and suspended walkways extending from the cliff. We made the mistake of coming on a Saturday afternoon, but I would recommend visiting on a weekday when the park opens to avoid massive crowds and have a better chance at snapping a solo selfie on the suspension bridge. capbridge.com
IF YOU GO
Learn more about Vancouver at tourismvancouver.com.