Bubbly Tourist recently vacationed in Vancouver, British Columbia, in early March and absolutely loved it! It most definitely can be described as a truly walkable city. In fact, according to walkscore.com downtown Vancouver ranks as a "walker's paradise"with a walk score of 97, also as a "rider's paradise" with a transit score of 100, and "very bikeable" with a bike score of 84. Not only were we able to walk everywhere, but everyone we interacted with were just so darn friendly! There must be a real thing called Canadian hospitality because the inhabitants of Vancouver certainly embody it. Read on to find out more about the beautiful, walkable and friendly city of Vancouver including a highly recommended excursion of dog mushing while seeking out the northern lights.
What's the difference between Vancouver, North Vancouver, Vancouver Island?
Bubbly Tourist was admittedly confused on these differences, so here is a brief geography lesson on Vancouver for those who might need it to understand these locations are distinct. The downtown area of Vancouver is separated by the city of North Vancouver and municipality of West Vancouver to the north by Burrard Inlet and Vancouver Harbour and is easily accessible via ferry or a bridge from Stanley Park on the very northern tip of downtown Vancouver. Vancouver Island is an island separated from Vancouver to the west by the Straight of Georgia and is accessible via a much longer ferry ride (90 minutes to 2 hours). If you wish to explore Vancouver island you will need a car as it is quite large, approximately the same size as Belgium or Taiwan. The focus of this article is on the city of Vancouver and not North Vancouver, West Vancouver or Vancouver Island.
What makes beautiful Vancouver so walkable and friendly?
1. The downtown parks are walk and bike friendly
Vancouver is a park-friendly city, so the first thing we did was head out for a half-day walk. We started at Vancouver's West End waterfront on the north end of an area called Coal Harbour Seaside Park. As seen in the photo above, you can gaze across the beautiful harbour and see North Vancouver and the snow-capped mountains much farther to the north. As mentioned, Bubbly Tourist was here in the first week of March so the temperature was still cold in the mornings and evenings but surprisingly temperate during the day due to the warming effects of the Pacific ocean currents. From here, we walked west along the Seawall towards the marinas. Incidentally, from this part of Vancouver, you can book a seaplane tour. We chose not to do it this time around but we've got to imagine the views, where water and mountains meet the city, are quite spectacular. The flights seem to be very regular so it's easy to see and hear the planes.
Continue west and north on foot and from the marinas you're a short stroll into Stanley Park. Follow the Stanley Park Seawall Path along the water eastwardly towards Hallelujah Point. The views back towards Vancouver really are magnificent. Pictured below is the view of Vancouver across the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. Click on the photo and you'll get a brief video of Vancouver as the camera swings away from the marina and towards Stanley Park and the seawall path.
On the way along the seawall, you can't help but notice joggers and bicyclists taking advantage of the great outdoors. And why not? The views are amazing, the air is fresh, and there is plenty of space for everyone. There are designated paths separated from the road for both bicyclists and pedestrians so one can relax and stroll or bike safely along the water within this magnificent park. At the crosswalk at Hallelujah Point, you can head into the heart of the park or continue along the seawall. It's 9km (5.4 miles) around the Stanley Park peninsula which will take you between 2 - 3 hours on foot or one hour on bicycle. We decided to head straight for the Totem Poles. FYI, there's a gift shop and a nice separate loo / toilet facility here for a break from your morning's coffee if needed!
There are nine totem poles in Stanley Park. They are a gentle reminder of the First Nations that settled North America. Prior to its use as a public park, Stanley Park was the traditional territory of Coast Salish First Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh. Indigenous habitation of Stanley Park is ancient. On the poles, you'll find a consistent theme of various animals. The eagle represents the Kingdom of the Air. The whale, the Lordship of the Sea. The wolf, the Genius of the Land. And the frog, the transitional link between Land and Sea.
In this part (southeast) of Stanley Park, you can also find the Vancouver Aquarium, the Stanley Park Rose Garden, the Malkin Bowl amphitheater open for summer concerts, and the Stanley Park Pavilion open for tea, tours and a relaxed restaurant. Bubbly Tourist was in the mood for checking out the local beer scene and needed some lunch so we made our way to the southeast part of Stanley Park to Stanley Park Brewing. This gastropub feels new and the environment is casual as one might expect. They offer a fair amount of various beers all brewed with local ingredients so samples and flights are available. The beer quality is really good and the food was just what we needed - simple but delish and not too expensive.
On the west side of Stanley Park, you'll find several beaches and a swimming pool in case you desire a cooldown. We continued north along the seawall and into the woods for some easy hiking. The trails can be hilly, generally not too steep and are decently groomed. Here you'll find some massively tall trees including the Hollow Tree which is a monument to the original forest of giant trees. It is possibly the oldest tree in Stanley Park and is about 700 - 800 years old. You can step in side of it for a picture. Our last stop in the park was Siwash Rock. It's a somewhat steep climb to get to and offers views of West Vancouver. This 50 foot rock is said to have been once a man - a legend among the indigenous Squamish people.
2. The stunning Nitobe Memorial Japanese Garden
Take an Uber or cab to the botanical gardens near the University of British Columbia campus and bring your walking shoes. Although this stunning garden is only 2.5 acres, there is a lot to see and it is visually spectacular. In March, although not much was in bloom, the Nitobe garden offered an oasis of calm and beautiful walking paths with a glimpse into the blooms that were just weeks away. Visit in spring for the cherry blossoms, summer for the irises or autumn for the maples.
It's so serene in the Nitobe Garden that you can feel the zen in the air. Each tree, stone and shrub has been deliberately placed and is carefully maintained to reflect a symbolic representation of nature. There is harmony among natural forms – waterfalls, rivers, forests, islands and seas – and a balance of masculine and feminine forces traditionally attributed to natural elements. Nitobe Garden includes a rare authentic Tea Garden with a ceremonial Tea House. "I am in Japan," said Akihito, Crown Prince (now Emperor) of Japan as he walked these gardens. If that's not an endorsement of its authenticity then we don't know what is. Highly recommended!
3. Pacific Spirit Regional Park
The Nitobe garden and the University of British Columbia campus are adjacent to this park, so if you're in the area then why not hike the trails and check out the beaches? There are numerous access points to various beaches, but we randomly stumbled into Trail 3 Access Point (aka "Tower Beach" stairs) so we used that. But let us warn you, it's .2 miles down to the beach and it's a steep descent (19% grade) which means coming back up is, well, not pretty. Just as we were almost at the bottom, you'll also see the "clothing optional" signs. Since we're right off campus, it's probably a real thing but thankfully, being March, Bubbly Tourist saw nobody but seagulls down on the beach.
Once we made it down to the beach we immediately found the remnant of a WWII spotter tower. From here on the Foreshore Trail, you can either turn left and head south towards Wreck Beach (the beach is sandier) or turn right and head north towards Acadia Beach. We headed north along the rocky beach to find another way back up to the top which wouldn't require as much oxygen. Acadia Beach is about a mile walk and from that point you can turn up onto the Admirality Trail of the Pacific Region Spirits Park which walks along NW Marine Drive. Both will take you towards an off-leash dog area and eventually to Spanish Banks Beach Park which offers a sandy beach with views across the water towards West Vancouver and also back towards Vancouver itself at English Bay. You'll also see numerous container ships heading to port. FYI, the beach also has plenty of parking spots and a convenient bus stop.
4. A Sunset and nightlife in English Bay
Bubbly Tourist is a sucker for sunsets, and we found English Bay to be the best spot in Vancouver to watch the sun go down when we were there. The sun sets due west over the bay and was perfectly positioned. Since everything is walkable, we made the safe 20 minute walk to and from our downtown hotel. We also did some research to determine the best restaurant in the area from which to see the sunset and have some quality food, so we decided to do dinner at the Cactus Club on Beach Ave. There was a line to get in, but we were happy with the food and drink and our ability to step right out onto the beach during sunset. As its name implies, Sunset Beach Park must also be a good alternative spot for watching the sun go down. Full disclosure, Bubbly Tourist did not go to this other location.
English Bay is slightly eclectic which made exploring fun and different. Between the multi-colored facades on the buildings and the quirky parks like Morton Park, there always seemed to be something interesting around the corner. And with the sandy beach and the Stanley Park Seawall path that takes you back into Stanley Park within minutes, it feels like this would have been a good area to have lodged. Following dinner, we opted for a few pints at the Three Brits Pub to hang in English Bay and enjoy the nightlife before heading back to our hotel. With a good crowd, trivia and cheap drinks, what was there not to like?
With our lodging downtown, we were also conveniently located a short walking distance to Gastown. This historical area was fun to explore. First of all, the Gastown Steam Clock is one of the only steam-powered functioning clocks in the world. Every quarter hour, the clock will shoot steam and whistle in its version of the Westminster Chime for all to hear. At the top of each hour, the clock will signal the time with a toot of steam from each whistle. The other cool thing about Gastown are the brick buildings that have been renovated from a series of old warehouses and factories to upscale lofts and restaurants. We did have dinner in Gastown but found the service and food kinda meh so no recommend. ations to provide. Pro Tip: Don't venture too far east of Columbia Stas we were told by a local that the area can become sketchy. Similarly, stay north of E. Hastings St. in your ventures as we found not much to see south of it. Gastown is a cute part of town to see, especially at night, but we were glad not to have stayed in this part of town. See below for where to stay.
6. False Creek Ferry
From Vancouver, Granville Island is truly only accessible by ferry or by using a taxi or Uber over the bridge. Being the adventurous types, Bubbly Tourist opted for the ferry. We headed down to the Yaletown docks at the recommendation of our hotel to get access to the False Creek Ferry which is a privately owned and operated service with 9 stops along on both sides of False Creek. The price is the same regardless of the number of stops, so we opted to see as much as we could with our fare. The Yaletown dock area is nothing more than marinas and docks but a few minutes west along the river is a recreational area called David Lam Park which includes 2 basketball courts, 2 tennis courts, a soccer field and a playground sheltered by lush plantings. There is also some intriguing sculptures and a large open lawn for just chilling.
7. Granville Island
Head to Granville Island if you like public markets, seafood restaurants, artist shops, bread and brews. In other words, there's most likely something for everyone. It's not very big and you can walk the whole island and see everything in about 3 - 4 hours. The first thing we did was head to A Bread Affair which serves delicious organic certified artisan crafted breads for a pastry (yum!) and then sat at the Blue Parrot where we ordered some warm coffee. The Granville Market is primarily a market selling food and produce but also sells arts, gifts, and more. Looking for a place to eat? There are a number of restaurants primarily selling seafood from which to choose. After examining the menus at just about each restaurant on this small "island", we decided on The Sandbar because of its good reviews and spectacular views back at Vancouver. We weren't disappointed and highly recommend their oysters. FYI, it's located under the bridge. Interested in drinks? Check out Granville Island Brewing for artisan brews which we sampled, The Liberty Distillery for some hand crafted cocktails, or Artisan Sakemaker for some small batch sake made on site. If you need a place to stay, then check out the Granville Island Hotel. Although we didn't stay there, we walked in to check out the restaurant and bar with nice views back at Vancouver and the hotel looked very nice.
Other Important Information
1. A note about Canadian Hospitality
It seemed to hit us immediately how darn friendly everyone was whom we met in Vancouver. Winter certainly wasn't going to get in the way of their natural sunshine. Helpful, kind and generous were consistent characteristics of the locals. Whether it was a free drink, friendly tips or sincere interest in us as individuals, Bubbly Tourist certainly felt the love.
2. Where to stay in Vancouver?
This was a big question for Bubbly Tourist and let's face it, it always is. Honestly, we always look to be in the "old town" if there is one and that's our go to approach for most destinations. But generally speaking, we look for lodgings in areas that are most convenient to the locations we'll be visiting. For Vancouver, the answer is in two places: 1) West End or 2) Downtown Central Vancouver. We decided on Central (downtown) Vancouver because of its literal city center location and convenient proximity to good restaurants, shops and sites like the Vancouver Art Gallery. And since we absolutely love Relais & Chateaux hotels our choice was the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa. As mentioned above, we would also have been happy staying in West End given its proximity to Stanley Park and English Bay.
3. How many days should one spend in Vancouver?
With at least a half day in Stanley Park, a half day near UBC campus, a half day on Granville Island plus any city excursions and/or shopping, Bubbly Tourist recommends staying in Vancouver no less than two nights but ideally three nights so you can shop and explore and just chill but also relax from all your walking. If you've got a week, then there is time for a side trip to Victoria on Vancouver Island, a ski trip to nearby Whistler, or perhaps the multi-day excursion Bubbly Tourist took which is described below...
Excursion to see the Northern Lights and Dog Mushing
This was a ton of fun and if this interests you, then read on...
Bubbly Tourist Bon Voyage!