Being a proud Canadian, born and raised, it’s crazy to think that before this most recent vacation to Vancouver – that you’re now reading about – I was always pretty content with opportunities to explore my own city of Ottawa in depth, but I’ve only ever covered a minimal amount of ground in my own country, including some here and there in Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan. I fly out to Saskatoon every summer to visit with the in-law family & friends, and I always try to squeeze in a few fresh activities. But, because I love to wander, explore, and indulge in new experiences, this particular hometown visit to Saskatoon didn’t end after the one week. Hopping aboard Via Rail for a long train ride through the Rockies, all the way to the final stop in Vancouver British Columbia, I was thrilled to check an item off of my Travel Bucket List ✔.

Courtesy of YWCA Hotel Vancouver
Courtesy of YWCA Hotel Vancouver

WHERE TO STAY
I know everyone has different preferences, budgets, and ideas. I, myself, like to mix it up and keep things interesting (and once in a while, save a buck). So after getting off of the train, it was straight to the YWCA on Beatty St. for the first homestead of the trip. This was not a simple decision to make. First and foremost, Vancouver is not cheap. If you’re a creature of luxury, hotels like The Fairmont and Four Seasons begin at a cost of C$240 per night, and can run you up to $C10,000 per night. If you’re more like the rest of the 99%, it might be in your better interest to look for places that would be categorized as more inexpensive. If you want to stay right downtown or even close by, there are several choices, but I ended up with the YWCA Hotel, and completely endorse and recommend these accommodations.

They pride themselves as Vancouver’s best choice for comfort and affordability, which I totally have to agree with, as the service we received was exceptional all around (shout out to Heiky Kwan – Marketing and Communications Strategist). Besides the financial benefit of around C$75 per night, it’s centrally located, newly refurbished with bright and cheerful guestrooms, simple furniture, clean, and my personal fave is that proceeds from the hotel support women and YWCA projects/programs. It’s Vancouver’s jewel in the crown, so make sure to book your room as far in advance as possible, especially if you’re planning to visit during peak time, like the summer months.

Now onto the Vancouver “musts”. There is simply an abundance to see & do here, and squeezing it all into three days proves exhausting, but I’ve highlighted the most exceptional (touristy as well as off the beaten path) so you’ll know what, when, and how to plan.

Gate of Heaven at The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden
Gate of Heaven at The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden

1) Don’t miss out on a remarkable destination
After checking in to your lovely new abode, meander on over to Chinatown, and then specifically to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden for the ultimate beginning to your stay in Vancouver. This small reproduction of a Classical Chinese Scholar’s garden, which normally would have been a secluded urban-garden home, really is a remarkable world that you walk into. Starting off with a tour, I quickly shied away and spent the rest of my time perusing slowly on my own, with a self-guided touring pamphlet that divulges all of the information you need, including the yin-yang design principle, in which harmony is achieved through dynamic opposition – basically what this garden is all about. But mostly, you’ll just be in awe of how gorgeous it is, and the amount of zen and peace you feel, right in the midst of Vancouver’s thriving city life.

admission C$12 adults, C$10 seniors, C$9 students, free for children 4 and under, C$25 families. guided tour included with admission. may-june 14 and sept daily 10am-6pm, june 15-aug daily 930am-7pm, oct-apr tues-sun 10am-430pm. closed mon nov-apr. 

gastown steamclock

2) Gastown steam clock
Say hello to a very touristy photo-op, but with a cool enough story behind it to make you want to see it anyways. Built by horologist Raymond Saunders in 1977 (based on an 1875 design), it was the world’s first steam clock, powered by steam from an underground system of pipes that supply heat to many downtown buildings. The clock sounds its whistles, playing the “Westminster Chimes” every quarter-hour, with steam shooting out from vents at the top. As you can see, the show at exactly 5:00 PM was all the rage.

gastown, at the intersection of water and cambie sts. free admission. 

New sweater - from The Latest Scoop
New sweater – from The Latest Scoop

3) Shop ’til you drop
The juxtaposition of walking along East Hastings St (where drug use is rampant), then quickly crossing at a traffic light right into Gastown (Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood that is no stranger to gentrification) is supremely disturbing. I won’t get into it because I’m here to talk about travel, but I’m not the type to remain inactive about these kinds of issues, I’m always working on changing the world. Anyways, Gastown is a shopaholics dreamland, with all of the independent and unique boutiques. Storefronts like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and an amazing concept store called “Secret Location”, are hard to miss, but I flocked to more price tag friendly places, like The Latest Scoop. It was totally my style, so I snatched up some awesome fall clothing; a two toned v neck sweater by Jolie and a cardigan and top by Dreamers. So many beautiful things!

Click here if you do want to learn more about East Hastings and how you can help.

the latest scoop. 206 carrall st. 

4) Cocktail hour at l’abattoir
If you’re finances aren’t exactly screaming “fine-dining”, you may not be looking to indulge on the French-influenced West Coast Fare here (although totally do it if you can), but at least grab a cocktail in this modern restoration of a 120-year-old brick-and-beam space. Barman Shaun Layton’s creative cocktails will have you perusing the menu for a while, but I have to highly recommend the Bitters and Smoke or Seabiscuit’s Julep – neither disappoint!

217 carrall st. reservations recommended. main courses C$27-C$34. daily 530pm-10pm. closed statutory holidays. 

stanley park

5) Experience quintessential vancouver

You would never imagine that Stanley Park is actually a rainforest jutting out into the ocean (or specifically, the Burrard Inlet) from the edge of the West End. It’s like this 1,000-acre natural oasis was simply placed with giant hands, ever so gently, right in the core of downtown. Originally, I was lost in day dreams of exploring the park via horse-drawn carriage ride (so romantic), but when you aren’t travelling alone, compromise is key, so the next thing I knew, I was alternately exploring on two wheels – as in bicycles. At the end of the day, either way was fine with me because I just wanted to be there, to be present, and soak up the awesomeness, as it’s arguably Vancouver’s greatest attraction. To describe it to you, imagine a wilderness area, encircled by a scenic seawall, featuring dense cedars, Douglas firs, gardens, a lagoon where swans glide, beaches, concession stands, playgrounds, totem poles, and even more. The entire seawall is easily traversed in around two hours, with stunning views of English Bay, Lions Gate Bridge, and amazing views of the downtown skyline.

Even though Stanley Park is the second-largest urban forest in Canada, for me the sea is everything. The famed Seawall Promenade runs for 5.5 miles along the waterside edge and the circumference of the park, allowing you to experience this magical mixture of it all; forest, sea, and sky. Another activity I had to opt out of was the aquarium, but I didn’t feel bummed. I had more time to enjoy every second staring across the Pacific Ocean, my hair blowing in the wind.

free admission. park daily 24 hr. 

fable kitchen

6) From farm-to-table
Heading over to Kitsilano gives you the one and only opportunity to check out Fable Kitchen, a great lunch option. It’s a casual downhome eatery known for exceptional farm to table fare. Trevor Bird opened the place in 2012, after competing on “Top Chef Canada”. Go for the popular grilled cheese, with white cheddar, onion jam, and spinach; it’s heavenly, but light enough that you’ll have some room for at least a coffee at 49th parallel up the road.

1944 w. 4th ave. no reservations for lunch and brunch. main courses C$12-C$17 lunch. mon-fri 1130am-2pm, sat-sun 1030am-2pm, daily 530-10pm.

49th parallel

7) Best coffee in town
An Americano made with “the best beans around town” goes scrumptiously well with one of Lucky’s Donuts, especially the root beer float flavor!

8) Tell everybody you’re busy because you’re tanning in kitsilano
They sure know how to do outdoor pools in the West. One of the reasons for catching a cab to Kitsilano, (other than checking out what was hippie central in the ‘70s and ‘80s, although is now a bit more yuppified) is it’s colossal outdoor saltwater pool. After refueling the body and recharging the electronic devices, hopefully it turns out to be the absolute perfect day (it rains in Vancouver?) to savor that beach read until you become a bit dozy, then drift off into a sun-soaked nap.

9) Best south asian food in Canada
I had heard a lot of fabulous things about Vij’s – it’s one of the foodie hot spots. You aren’t guaranteed a table, especially because they don’t take reservations. About an hour after arriving (at around 530PM), having had some delicious apps passed around, it was time for this ever so raved about food to arrive. It definitely isn’t your typical butter chicken joint, there actually isn’t even butter chicken on the menu. Try the shiitake mushrooms in cream curry which is spectacularly flavorful and the wine-marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek sauce – they aren’t actually frozen, but are oh so delicious. Don’t forget to grab a glass from the award-winning wine list. Overall, Vij’s is truly worth the wait!

1480 w. 11th ave. main courses C$24-C$30. daily 530-10pm. 

grouse mountain

10) Skyride to the peak of Vancouver
It helps to get to the following attractions with a car, but if this isn’t possible, you’re taken care of with shuttles, tour buses, and city buses. After driving across the Lions Gate Bridge, you can make your way up Capilano Road until you reach the parking lot of Grouse Mountain. Here, hop aboard the SkyRide, because your only other way up is the Grouse Grind (a tough 2.9km hike that goes straight uphill. I think this is something you only do for charity – not for fun). This mountain is one of three ski hills on the North Shore, where in the summer months, you can explore hiking trails, go zip-lining, and visit the grizzly bears in the wildlife refuge. But mostly, just relax and enjoy the spectacular views of Vancouver, the Salish Sea, and the Gulf Islands. Be prepared for a little bit of waiting though, as this is the city’s most visited tourist attraction, with around 1.2 million visitors a year. Next time, I think I’ll do the Grouse Grind. For real.

6400 nancy greene way. skyride C$42 adults, C$38 seniors, C$24 children 13-18, C$14 children 5-12, free children 4 and under. 

11) Rusty rail bbq
Enjoy spectacular views as from atop Grouse Mountain as you grab a well deserved burger at this casual joint, or maybe a more romantic meal at the The Observatory.

12) Get lost in lynn headwaters regional park (or try not to actually)
Now you can decide either to head East to North Vancouver (confusing, right), or West to West Vancouver. Drive East and you’ll find yourself in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park – trees upon trees upon trees gathered around the rushing waters of Lynn Creek. The park is full of terrific hiking trails encompassing all levels of difficulty, along with lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and majestic forests. Until the mid-1980’s, this was inaccessible wilderness and bear habitat, but the park and bears are now managed. You might find yourself on the 5km Lynn Loop Trail – a perfect mixture of lovely meandering combined with some more intense elevation. Please pay VERY close attention to all signs – straying from the trail can make a two hour hike turn into something much longer, and it’s never that much fun when you’re trying to figure out how to get back before dark while you should be taking in the peaceful wilderness.

lighthouse

13) Magical architecture
Lighthouse Park is accessible by taking the West route down Marine Drive and through a little bit of West Van, a series of small seaside villages that have combined to become one of the wealthiest addresses in Canada. Continue on Marine Drive in order to reach Lighthouse Park. Beacon Lane is a very easy and quick hiking trail directly to the lighthouse lookout, and considering I make the attempt to see  and document lighthouses wherever I go, I was really thrilled. There is  just something about them –  notice the history, the mystical, and the magical that these buildings exude.

dundarave, west vancouver. daily 24/7. free admission. 

14) Pier 7
Right along the water in North Vancouver, located among the hustle and bustle of the Lonsdale Quay, is a restaurant with a seafood-intense menu (think your typical New England clam chowder, and a West Coast Bouillabaisse consisting of prawns, scallop, mussels & fin fish in a tomato coconut broth) along with a cool cocktail menu, not to mention a lively view of Vancouver and the busy Port.

25 wallace mews. main courses C$18-C$34. mon-fri 1130am-late, sat-sun 1030am-late 

sushi

15) The beach house
“Why of course we brunch on the weekend darling. It remains a precious weekend pastime.” Although I was planning on this restaurant for dinner – to nibble on some seafood, sip a glass of wine, and enjoy the beach side view of Lions Gate Bridge and Stanley Park, it ended up being a brunch experience. It is an ideal way to wind down time in the busy city of Vancouver before jumping on a ferry and heading over to the islands. And, I actually did still have the chance to nibble on local seafood at this century-old teahouse, in the form of the pressed sushi. It was so bittersweet – sitting by the sea with good company and snacking on some sushi before bidding farewell, and continuing on to the next leg of the journey.

150 25th st. reservations recommended. main courses C$18-C$32. mon0thurs 1130am-10pm, fri-sat 1120am-11pm, sun 11a,-10pm. 

The journey doesn’t end here; stay tuned for my following articles about the adventures of leaving the mainland and discovering what Vancouver Island has to offer