Set between the Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver is a spectacularly beautiful destination. Its landscape offers a natural playground for outdoor lovers, while the city itself is filled with world-class restaurants, lively pubs, museums, art galleries, a wealth of shopping opportunities, grand parks and more. If you’re trying to figure out the best things to do for your itinerary to British Columbia’s largest city, these ideas are sure to give you a great head start.
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Take Your Kids to Science World
If you’ve got kids with you, visiting Science World is really a must. Along with the Vancouver Aquarium, it’s considered the best museum for children and offers the chance to ignite their minds and allow them to discover the wonders of science through hands-on interactive displays, fascinating science demonstrations, immersive films at the IMAX Theatre, shows at the Science Theatre and more. There are five permanent galleries, including the physics-oriented Eureka! Gallery, the Sara Stern Search Gallery, the toddler-targeted Kidspace Gallery, the Our World Gallery, and Illusions.
Walk Through Historic Gastown
Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood offers a blend of old with new. Located north of the downtown Vancouver Peninsula, it’s lovingly referred to as the spot where the city began when local hero “Gassy Jack” Deighton enlisted local millworkers to help build his saloon in just one day. It’s managed to maintain its historic charm, even earning a place on the National Historic Site of Canada. Take a stroll down Water Street and you’ll discover a magnificent collection of Victorian buildings that house watering holes, curated décor boutiques, interesting galleries, cobblestones, the Steam Clock and vintage lampposts. At the end, you can take a selfie with a statue of Gassy Jack himself.
Embark on a Sea Kayaking Adventure
With so much nature surrounding the city, along with the wildlife that lives there, including whales, seals and bald eagles, taking a kayak tour is one of the best ways to experience it. Lotus Land Tours offers a variety of excursions, including a day trip to Indian Arm, a protected ocean inlet that is the country’s southernmost glacial fjord. You’ll paddle through the spectacular waters as your guide points out the wildlife around. A break at Twin Island, a tiny marine park island, is included, along with a three-course picnic lunch. While the adventure is suitable for nearly all levels of fitness, if you aren’t up for the exercise, Sewell’s Marina in West Vancouver offers two-hour trips from Howe Sound in high-speed Zodiac-style boats.
See the Stars at Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory
The place to go for stargazers, the Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory features a Cassegrain telescope that allows visitors to explore the night skies around Vancouver, and learn about what they’re seeing from expert staff. Free public viewing sessions are available on Friday and Saturday evenings when the sky is clear. Next door is the HR MacMillan Space Centre, an astronomy museum and planetarium.
Hit the Beach
During the summer, Vancouver’s beaches are a popular place to be. Kitsilano Beach, or Kits Beach as the locals call it, offers a wrap-around view of the city, ocean and mountains and is a favorite, attracting sun-worshippers, joggers, families and people of all types. You can throw a blanket down on the sand and relax, go for a swim in the heated outdoor saltwater pool that’s three times the size of an Olympic pool, or throw a Frisbee in the grassy area. At Jericho Beach you can cast your line from the pier, or enjoy beach volleyball, sea kayaking, windsurfing and sailing. Spanish Banks is a great spot for skim boarding, and is generally the least crowded beach in the city. Those that want to enjoy a secluded, clothing-optional beach can head to Wreck Beach, a 4.8-mile-long stretch of sand located adjacent to the University of British Columbia campus, accessible via a long flight of steep stairs.strong
Take a Heart-Pounding Walk Across the Capilano Suspension Bridge
One of the most popular attractions in Denver, and the oldest tourist attraction in the city, the Capilano Suspension Bridge, originally built in 1889, dangles high above the roaring Capilano River. It stretches for 450 feet, offering the chance to enjoy a unique and somewhat heart-pounding perspective of nature. Once you reach the other side, you’ll find even more suspension bridges and thrilling activities, like the Cliffwalk, which meanders along the edge of the canyon, following a granite precipice along the river on a labyrinth-like series of narrow stairs, cantilevered bridges and platforms. A variety of entertainment is offered too, including First Nations Dancers, wood carvers and fiddle players.
Get Your Bearings and Enjoy the View at the Vancouver Lookout
Located downtown in the heart of the city more than 550 feet above Harbour Centre, the Vancouver Lookout is a perfect place to kick off your visit in the city. You’ll take a 40-second glass elevator ride to the top where you’ll find a spectacular, unobstructed bird’s-eye view of Vancouver, the glistening waters of the harbor and world-famous Stanley Park. It’s a perfect way to get your bearings, providing an overview of the city’s layout. If you want to stick around a while, you can dine at the “Top of Vancouver” revolving restaurant that slowly rotates, providing ever-changing but always stunning views.
Walk, jog or bike around Stanley Park
Stanley Park is a beautiful 1,000-acre park located right in the city, just north of the West End. While you could easily spend more than a day here and not see everything it has to offer, biking, walking or jogging the 5.5-mile-long seawall that hugs Vancouver’s waterfront is a great way to experience many of its highlights. You’ll enjoy fantastic views that include Lions Gate Bridge, Burrard Inlet, the North Shore Mountains and downtown Vancouver as well as landmarks like the 32-million-year-old Siwash Rock that rises from the water and the “Girl in a Wetsuit,” a modern-day mermaid sculpture. The path begins at the Vancouver Convention Centre and ends at Spanish Banks Park. If you’d like to explore it on two wheels but don’t have a bike with you, you’ll find a number of bike rental companies nearby. With a bike, you can get out on the over 17 miles of forest trails too. If you’re here in the summer, particularly if you have kids along, you might want to spend time at the outdoor water park and heated outdoor swimming pool – there is also a miniature train that winds through over a mile of forest.
Relish the Atmosphere at Granville Island Public Market
Once an industrial site, Granville Island has become one of the city’s most beloved neighborhoods. The former factories are now home to theaters, art galleries and trendy restaurants, but the highlight of it all is the Granville Island Public Market. One of the best open-air markets in North America, more than 12 million visit each year to browse and buy all types of items from fishmongers, bakers, gardeners, chefs, butchers and importers. You’ll find everything from rare mushrooms to incredibly fresh fish, artisanal cheeses and homemade charcuterie. When the weather is nice, you can enjoy a meal outside by the water and watch the boats head back and forth in English Bay.
Enjoy Cats, Coffee and More at the Vancouver Catfe
Cat lovers won’t want to miss visiting the Vancouver Catfe. A fun and very unique place to hang out, here you can enjoy a hot beverage, food and pick up some cat-themed merchandise. It features a special cat room, with five to 12 cats who are in the space at any given time. Inside the “cat room,” the felines are free to roam around and socialize as they please. All are former strays that were previously housed in cages at the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals (BCSPCA). If you find yourself particularly attached to one, you can even adopt it from the Catfe. As this is a popular spot and only a limited number of customers can be in the cat room at any given time, reservations are strongly recommended.
Sip Afternoon Tea at the Secret Garden Tea Company
As a former British Colony, it’s no surprise that tea is done right here, where it runs in the blood of the locals. The Secret Garden Tea Company is considered one of the best spots for Afternoon Tea, though you might have a difficult time deciding which tea to sip with their nearly endless list of options. The High Tea experience includes a variety of blended teas served on delicate china along with delicious house-made sweets, scones, jam, sandwiches and more. There are a number of other great places for Afternoon Tea around the city, including the castle at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and Adonia Tea House.
Play on Grouse Mountain
Grouse Mountain towers over North Vancouver, and it not only offers breathtaking views from its summit, but a host of outdoor adventures all year-round. This wilderness paradise is just a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver, and visitors who are in the mood for a little exercise can take the nearly two-mile trail known as the Grouse Grind, often referred to by locals as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.” If you’d rather relax and enjoy the vista, you can take the famous Grouse Mountain Skyride on a one-mile aerial journey to Alpine Station, which sits 3,700 feet above sea level. From there, you can see the city, the surrounding mountains and the sea. A variety of other options await, including a wildlife refuge that’s home to two orphaned grizzly bears, ziplines and more. In the winter, visitors can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, snow shoeing and sleigh rides.
Smell the Flowers at VanDusen Botanical Garden
VanDusen Botanical Garden, located a little over two miles southwest of downtown Vancouver, is considered one of the city’s hidden gems. Spread across 55 acres, it offers a series of smaller, specialized gardens within the framework of the larger main garden. In the spring, the Rhododendron Walk is blazing with color, while the hexagonal Korean Pavilion provides the focal point for the Asian plant collection. There are sculptures dotted throughout, and paths wind through a total of 40 theme gardens that skirt lakes and ponds, cross bridges and wander through giant redwoods and stands of bamboo. Around the Christmas Holidays, its Festival of Lights illuminates the garden with more than a million magical, sparkling lights.
Watch the Fish Fight Their Way Upstream at Capilano Salmon Hatchery
The Capilano Salmon Hatchery is just down the road from the suspension bridge in Capilano River Regional Park. Located on the Capilano River, it not only offers beautiful scenery, hiking trails and a picnic area, but during spawning season (July through November) you can watch bright red Coho salmon jump and fight their way upstream. Depending on the season, you may see juvenile salmon and trout in the display aquaria or mature salmon returning through the fish ladder. And, there is even more good news when it comes to your budget, as it doesn’t cost anything to visit.
Hop Aboard a Harbour Cruise
Taking a cruise is a great way to see the city skyline and the towering surrounding mountains from a different perspective atop glistening waters. There are a wide range of options available, including sunset dinner cruises where you can enjoy dining on fresh-caught seafood while sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge, passing Stanley Park and the Lookout Tower, as well as daytime tours of Vancouver Harbour. Harbour Cruises offers the opportunity aboard the city’s only authentic paddle-wheeler, journeying through Burrard Inlet, the “Gateway to the Pacific.” Most cruises and boat tours operate mainly between late April and October, but if you’re traveling outside of this time, occasionally there are special events like Harbour Cruises’ boat tours of the Carol Ships Parade of Light in December.
Check Out the Fantastic Works at Vancouver Art Gallery
In its 85 years of existence, the Vancouver Art Gallery has grown from a tiny collection of British historical paintings and just seven works by Canadian artists, to the largest public art museum in Western Canada, with a collection of over 10,000 pieces. This highly-acclaimed gallery of international and national contemporary art is well-worth at least an afternoon of exploring. Not only does it contain an impressive collection of work by well-known British Columbian artist Emily Carr, 17th-century Dutch paintings and historical landscapes, but one of North America’s most important photographic collections by icons like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Cindy Sherman.
Experience the Dance Scene
If you’re looking for something to do after dark, your choices are practically endless, but the city’s music and dance scene is something you should highly consider. There are a multitude of international acts coming to town every week, along with a host of intimate, after-hours gatherings on every weekend night. The local acts that play them often draw international attention, particularly at venues like FACT and the Boiler Room. The Electric Owl Social Club is the spot for Indie music lovers, while Celebrities is the go-to dance club for the city’s gay community; EDM enthusiasts head to the Venue Nightclub; rock ‘n’ rollers hit the Roxy, and The Bourbon is for country music fans.
Get Your Style On By Shopping Robson Street
Robson is Vancouver’s premiere shopping street, with flagship stores of international brands as well as more unique shops that are ideal for blowing some cash, or just doing some window shopping. The main retail shopping area starts around Granville Street, which is where you’ll find the entrance to the Pacific Centre shopping Mall and Nordstrom. Near the intersection of Burrard and Alberni, a block off Robson, this area known as “Affluent Alley,” is home to Tiffany & Co, Hermes, Agent Provocateur and other high-end, luxury brands. When your appetite calls, you’ll have a wide range of options for feeding those hunger pangs. At the east end of Robson, there are lots of casual eateries serving up items like burgers and beer, and at the west end, there are a number of well-priced Asian restaurants. In the middle, you’ll find some excellent higher-end options, like Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House and CinCin Ristorante & Bar.
Take a Stroll Through Chinatown
Located east of downtown Vancouver, the bustling Chinatown district is the third largest in North America by population, following New York and San Francisco. You’ll find a number of things to do here, including the chance to visit an authentic Chinese market. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, it’s easy to spend an entire day wandering the aisles that showcase everything from chicken feet and daikon radishes among an impressive range of exotic produce, to herbs, dried goods, meats and more. If you’re searching for a cure to what ails you, there are even doctors available to prescribe traditional Chinese medicinal cures. After dark, you’ll find a host of nightlife options too, like the Fortune Sound Club, where you’ll often hear international DJs spinning, and The Keefer Bar, with its incredible craft, Asian-inspired cocktails in a really cool atmosphere.
Get Up Close to Whales, Dolphins and More at the Vancouver Aquarium
The Vancouver Aquarium, located inside Stanley Park, is home to more than 70,000 creatures from the Amazon to the Arctic. The always-smiling beluga whales are one of the most popular, and adorable, animals found here, though the dolphins, penguins and sea otters are sure to mesmerize too. The main focus of the aquarium is species that are native to the Pacific Northwest – whether it lives in a stream, river, ocean or lake, you’ll probably find it here. By booking an animal encounter, you can get even closer to the animal residents with an interactive training session. The Animal Encounters program allows visitors to touch, train, feed and play with sea turtles, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins and beluga whales.