FLANKED BY MOUNTAINS on one side, the Pacific Ocean on another, Vancouver has one hell of a backyard. Three ski resorts are within a half-hour drive of downtown, while world-famous Whistler/Blackcomb is an hour-and-a-half up the road. After a ferry-ride and a few hours’ drive, you get to Tofino, a tiny surf mecca that proves ‘Canadian surfing’ is not an oxymoron. Back in the city streets, a subculture of musicians, artists and technophiles continues to thrive off the kind of lifestyle this sort of backdrop demands.
Vancouverites are fiercely territorial. The city’s neighbourhoods are loosely definied geographically, but pretty clearly defined when it comes to stereotypical demographics. East Van hipsters raise an eyebrow at the yuppies of Kitsilano while Kitsilano-ites will always remind you that they’re never more than a 10-minute walk from a beach. West End residents steer clear of condo-laden Yaletown while Yaletowners won’t stray too far from a latte and a small dog. Everyone knows there are exceptions to every rule, but everyone also knows that they’re pretty damn happy exactly where they are.
Vancouver’s drinking laws are a bit out-of-touch compared to much of Europe. Having a beer at the beach isn’t impossible, it just requires keeping an eye out for ATV-riding beach cops (as much as it sounds like a bad Canadian sitcom, they really will make you dump out your goods). Liquor laws are equally confusing. Bars and clubs close at 2 a.m. while restaurants and pubs may close earlier, or require you to buy food with your drinks. The drinking age is 19.
Head to Gastown, the city’s original home, for a bit of character. Six Acres (sixacres.ca), 203 Carrall Street, is a cozy pub with huge front windows that overlook cobble-stoned Maple Tree Square, a small loft, exposed brick walls and what is hands down the city’s best beer selection.
Richards on Richards (richardsonrichards.com) and the Commodore Ballroom, 870 Granville Street, are some of the staple live music venues in the city, bringing in a steady stream of touring acts. Locals and lesser-knowns hit up the smaller stages at venues like the Media Club (themediaclub.ca), 695 Cambie Street, and the Railway Club (therailwayclub.com), 579 Dunsmuir Street. Over on East Hastings, the Sweatshop, 1945 East Hastings Street, is a bit of an underground success story in a city that favours the aboveground. This warehouse space has been transformed into a skate shop, an indoor skate park, a graffiti exhibit and an event space. Local and visiting punk bands grace its mini ramps on a regular basis.
Robson Street is the tourist’s shopping destination. If you’re into walking down streets where extended families take up the entire width of the sidewalk while alternating between miniature footsteps and stopping abruptly, then this your kinda place. Otherwise, there are a few other must-visit ‘hoods with the goods.
Gastown has a mix of high-end boutique shops (bring your wallet and your friend’s wallet), along with burstin’-at-the-seams vintage shops.
In Kitsilano, check out the wondrous 1700-block of West 4th Avenue, packed with skate, snow and surf shops. A branch of Showcase, the Whistler-based institution, is here, along with Pacific Boarder, the Boardroom, Comor, Livestock and Dub. Among them you’ll find a great selection of women’s clothing along with gear for all your boards. Gravity Pope (gravitypope.com, 2005 West 4th Avenue, is a little farther west along West 4th with its huge selection of men’s and women’s shoes laid out like a shoe fetishist’s dream buffet.
South Main Street has more unique local designers’ shops along with a stretch of antique stores. Just north of Broadway on Main is Anti-Social skate shop (antisocialshop.com), 2425 Main Street, co-founded by Canadian skate legend Rick McCrank. Head towards the back of the shop to check out the art gallery.
The Portobello West Fashion and Art Market offers even more local flavour. On the last Sunday of every month, local artists and designers take over the Rocky Mountaineer train station (portobellowest.com), 1755 Cottrell Street, to showcase and sell their unique wares.
Sleep downtown to be close to everything. There’s a wide range of hostels but for assured quality and a bit of character, try Hostelling International’s HI-Vancouver Central (hihostels.ca/vancouvercentral), 1025 Granville Street, in a converted boutique hotel.
For a bit more privacy but still-decent prices, the Sylvia Hotel (sylviahotel.com), 1154 Gilford Street, is a good choice. Across the street from First Beach, the Sylvia is an ivy-covered 1912 heritage building overlooking English Bay.
If you want to infuse a bit of luxury into your stay, head to the Opus Hotel (opushotel.com), 322 Davie Street, in Yaletown. A lot of Hollywood movies are filmed in Vancouver and the Opus is a celebrity hot spot, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your view.
Sushi is practically a religion in Vancouver. Argued to be the best this side of Japan, sushi is omnipresent around the city. No really, there are more sushi restaurants than Starbucks. Try Tojo’s (tojos.com), 1133 West Broadway, for fine sushi dining, or The Eatery (theeatery.ca), 3431 West Broadway, for unique takes on sushi like the Andy Warhol roll with tuna, mango and salmon mayo.
Thanks to the proximity of the Pacific, seafood is nice and fresh here. Get some of the freshest at the Granville Island Public Market (under the Granville Street bridge). Smoked salmon is the West Coast’s post-aquatic claim to fame so don’t leave without giving it a shot.
Vancouverites are an oft-health-conscious bunch, so vegetarian dishes are easy to find. For full-on veggie fare, try the Naam (thenaam.com), 2724 West 4th Avenue, in Kitsilano. It’s a 24-hour vegetarian landmark in the city, dating back to the 1970s when Kits was a hippie haven.
As with the homeless, artists of all sorts flock to Vancouver so galleries and art spaces are bountiful. The Vancouver Art Gallery (vanartgallery.bc.ca), 750 Hornby Street, is the mother ship, with regular and visiting exhibits. Cruise Gastown for up-and-coming artists’ galleries or keep an eye on the Georgia Straight, the city’s weekly arts magazine for current happenings.
But more than anything else, Vancouver’s culture is massively influenced by the landscapes that surround it, which inevitably draw everyone outside, as evidenced by the gigantic four-wheel-drive strollers hoisted around by new parents or the proliferation of fleece and waterproof breathables. Stanley Park is the largest city-owned park in the country, larger than New York City’s Central Park. It’s surrounded by the Seawall, a pedestrian and cyclist pathway, and huge rainforest trees inside the park hide an aquarium and countless walking paths.
In the summer, a sea of flesh floods the oceanside beaches, sailboats and kayaks flutter about in the bay and locals who’d grinned and bore the previous winter stockpile vitamin D like they know what’s coming with the change of seasons. Like Seattle (a few hours to the south), Vancouver is known for its rainy (but relatively mild!) winters. But as the rain rolls through the city streets, snow pounds the North Shore Mountains and locals run to the hills – notably the ski resorts at Cypress Mountain (cypressmountain.com), Mount Seymour (mountseymour.com) and Grouse Mountain (grousemountain.com). Meanwhile Whistler/Blackcomb (whistlerblackcomb.com) gets dumped with an average of nine metres of fluff every year. It’s an easy daytrip with a scenic drive.