Bought a ticket to visit Vancouver, BC? I bet you’ve heard lots about the mountains, the ocean, the beaches, the natural beauty… And I bet you’ve heard of the top sites to see – the Aquarium, Stanley Park, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Lynn Valley, etc. – the usual stuff… But what I really wonder is if you’ve heard about all those hidden local hot spots for fun, food and drink that only people who live in Vancouver (or who visit A LOT) know about?
Welcome to the Ultimate Insider Guide to Visiting Vancouver. DISCLAIMER: Ok, so this is MY Ultimate Insider Guide to Visiting Vancouver meaning that I have not tried every single restaurant or cool bar in the city – so yes, I’m going to miss some of them – so instead of hating, just use the comments below to add your favourite places and things to do!
Vancouver is pretty spread out and doesn’t really have a great transit system except for the skytrain which essentially connects you along one line north/south and along another path east/west. I’ve lived here for long enough and I still don’t like taking the bus…I’m sure it has to do with me being too lazy to figure out the different routes. Needless to say, I walk a lot. Cabs are decent – typical fare is about $8 from Gastown to Yaletown.
What are the main neighbourhoods in Vancouver? In downtown you have Yaletown, Gastown, Coal Harbour and the West End.
Granville Street is one of the main entry points for entering downtown. Granville Street is fondly (or not so fondly) known as the Granville Strip (Granville Street between Drake and Georgia streets) due to the number of bars and clubs on it. This is where you want to go if you are between the ages of 18-24 on the weekends and you like mainstream shit. Lots of drunk guys and girls, all young and looking for a good time – and most from the suburbs or some random tourists caught in what they think is the “Vancouver night scene”. Lots of bars and clubs – but not really unique…but if you are heading out with a group of friends or if you are single or looking for a “top 40” type of night – could be a good time – one of the famous bars on Granville St is the “Roxy” – long line ups all the time but a young, fun and frat vibe – live music and generally guaranteed a good time as long as you like that scene. This is where all your Irish pubs are – you catch my drift.
Hidden Gems (Eat,Drink, Sleep) : The Morrissey – a cool English pub down on Granville St. near Drake St.; Ginger – a decent club with house music; Commodore – great place for live music/DJs; Twisted Fork – wicked brunch
Yaletown used to be cool/hip about 10 years ago. Now, it’s sort of for the late 30s crowd who think they are going to the “cool” neighbourhood. Or the really young kids from the suburbs who also are trying to hit the “scene”. Know what I mean? It used to have some cool independent bars and restaurants but now all the chain restaurants have swarmed in and robbed it of its cool factor. Although it still has some of the nicest older warehouse buildings (especially for lofts), it’s just a bit of a pretentious scene.
Hidden Gems (Eat, Drink, Sleep): Rodneys Oyster Bar – best authentic bar/oyster place – go for happy hour (4pm-5pm) and check out the hot waiters; George – although the crowd is not always my scene, I still love the drinks they make here; Brix – beautiful hidden courtyard – wouldn’t sit inside though; Flying Pig – cool place for dinner; HONJIN – some of the best sushi, especially rolls in Vancouver – try the caterpillar roll, sunshine roll, or yaletown roll = yum! There are a few hotels – Opus is where all the stars stay apparently – a bit pretentious and expensive! There is also Moda Hotel which is sort of on the border of Yaletown – great location and at $87 a night, probably one of the most affordable hotels in downtown Vancouver.
This is the new hot neighbourhood – although it is already getting a bit old. It still is sort of interesting just because of its proximity to the East Hastings Druggie Catwalk. It’s the biggest paradox you’ll see – you walk down Water St. (one of Vancouver’s oldest streets with beautiful cobblestone and trendy boutiques) and make one wrong turn – two blocks later you are in the heart of the most drug infested area in Canada – drug dealers on every corner and people with clear mental health issues searching for their next hit. ***WATCH OUT**: You will constantly get asked for change and watch out for schemes that people come up with – elaborate stories of how their car was towed or they lost their wallet and need $5 to get home. Generally these folks are not dangerous, they are just looking for financing for their next hit. Either way, this area is gentrifying and it is definitely worth a walk to check out.
Hidden Gems (Eat, Drink): Cobre on Powell St. – some of the best mexican fusion higher end food – you have to order the Boar Belly and the Tres Leche cake for dessert – pure heaven [UPDATE – Sadly Cobre closed and instead Rodneys Oyster Bar opened a 2nd joint at Cobres old location in Gastown]; Guu – japanese izakaya with a few locations in Vancouver – each location has a different menu – I love the enoki scallop and the mushroom and cheese bibimbop at the Water St. location; Clough Club – great hidden spot on Abbott St. for drinks – look for the dark glass and the random door- try the Apiary cocktail; Salt – tucked into Blood Alley is this great beer/wine/cheese spot – watch out for needles and rats in the Alley; Keefer Bar on Keefer St. – more in Chinatown but still – great place for drinks..especially in the summertime with their lush patio; Bao Bei on Keefer St. – great chinese food in an awesome setting – order the Mantou; Two Chefs and a Table on Alexander St. – my all-time favourite brunch place. [UPDATE: Also new and tasty is Sardine Can on Powell st- Spanish style tapas and very delicious wine!]
EXTRA NOTE: About a 5 minute cab ride from Gastown east on Hastings Street, you will find the Waldorf. This is a sort of hipster mecca with everything you could want in one convenient location: two great restaurants (one very vegetarian-friendly) for a bite to eat, a great tiki bar with fantastic cocktails for a couple drinks after dinner (try the Penicillin), a happening club downstairs with two rooms with different DJs each night…and of course, hotel rooms upstairs to crash in when you’ve either met the “right person” or if you have had too many drinks and feel like calling it a night. Definitely worth checking out – but don’t get there too late as the lineups can be long! [UPDATE: You wouldn’t believe it but it looks like the Waldorf is actually closed now – the owners were kicked out by the new owners of the place – we are all waiting to see what comes of it…indeed, very sad.]
Coal Harbour is not my favourite area – it’s famous for its proximity to the harbour, the ocean, Stanley Park and for magnificent views if you are in one of the multi-million dollar apartments. People that can afford luxury like that are usually in an older age bracket which lends itself to a different demographic…so not my usual area to hang out in. Great place to go walking around or to stay in if you are looking for a quieter stay in Vancouver.
Hidden Gems (Eat, Drink, Sleep): Lift – although it’s a restaurant, I’ve never been a big fan of the food – but it has some of the most beautiful views of the water and Stanley Park so it’s worth a stop for a drink; Miku – one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city – their Salmon Oshi Sushi is amazing. For sleeping try the Loden Hotel – great hidden boutique hotel in this quieter area as well as the Fairmont Pacific Rim – another beautiful, new hotel that is a bit more central location-wise.
The West End feels like a sub-urby area in downtown – great for families and with an authentic “neighbourhood” vibe. Known for its mix of ethnic foods and dominant gay population – it’s a great place to be. Lots of little shops, cafes and restaurants line Denman Street from Robson all the way to English Bay and the beach. Also home to Koreatown – the food choices in this small area are amazing.
Hidden Gems (Eat, Drink): Nook on Denman St. – simple and delicious Italian food – one of the only restaurants that will always have a line up in Vancouver; Jang Mo Jib on Robson St. – delicious Korean food – fluorescent lighting and wooden tables complete the authentic experience; Kingyo on Denman St.- Japanese Izakaya again but a bit more higher end than Guu – there is also a Guu on Denman St. – heavier on the meat menu items; Banana Leaf on Denman St.- famous Malaysian dishes; Legendary Noodles on Denman St. – the name says it all.
Outside of Downtown
There are a few areas outside of downtown that are really worth checking out if you feel like eating some good food. Kitsilano is an area just on the other side of the Burrard St. bridge – known for its lululemon wearing inhabitants. These guys cannot take off their yoga pants if it killed them. The beaches are stunning in the summer time and filled with some very fit and beautiful people – thanks to all the yoga they’ve been doing. Hidden Gems (Eat): Maenam – some of the best Thai food in the city – get the Chef’s tasting menu every time.
Granville Island is just next door which is a nice market to walk around and check out. And further up from Granville Island is “South Granville” – this is a higher end but older (like 40s) neighbourhood. Some of the stores are okay but a bit boring and overpriced for my taste. Hidden Gems (Eat): Afghan Horseman at the gateway to Granville Island – authentic Afghan food (trust me, I know) in a cool traditional setting.
A bit younger is the Main Street neighbourhood – known for their hipsters – Main street is full of consignment and thrift stores. Lots of great cafes and clothing stores too if you like that style. Hidden Gems (Eat): East is East – one of my favourite places to eat in the city – affordable and truly amazing eastern fusion – try the silk feast or any of the amazing rolls.
Fraser St is sort of the new Main st – a bit more low key and a bit more family oriented. The thing with Vancouver is that it is so expensive to buy anything downtown that younger families are getting pushed out to these outskirts. The cool restaurants and bars follow them. Hidden Gems (Eat): Les Faux Beaurgois near Fraser and Kingsway – delicious and authentic french food; Outpost Cafe on Fraser St.- delicious and simple brunch.
I know I’ve mostly focused on food and drink – because that’s what I think is truly amazing and unique in Vancouver…but there are other things to do besides eating and drinking…not much but there are some. The Art Gallery in Vancouver is very good – I would highly recommend a stop although the entry fee of $17.50 is steep. I think MOMA in NYC charges $25 and you get a huge museum to explore. I digress. On a rainy day in Vancouver, the Art Gallery is worth checking out.
Another rainy day activity that I enjoy is heading out to Richmond to check out the Chinese and Japanese malls – there’s Aberdeen Center and Yaohan and a few other smaller ones as well. It’s so fun to walk around, try some delicious food and just absorb another culture without having to get on a plane! You can reach these malls by taking the skytrain – Canada Line.
If you are in Vancouver in the summertime, and if the sun is out, you are really in luck! There are lots of things to do. If you want a day adventure, I highly recommend heading to deep cove for some kayaking.
There are also amazing hiking trails up on the north shore mountains (Cypress, Seymour or Grouse), near Squamish or all the way near Whistler.
If you are thinking of things to do in the city, I’ve got a few favourites:
- Rent some bikes (check out the corner on Georgia and Denman) for the day, pack a picnic (Tango’s on Denman St. has a great deli) and bike around the seawall (starting at Georgia st) to Third Beach. It’s about a 45mins – 1 hour ride but it is well worth it. Third beach is a great place to hang out on a summer day – it’s a great vibe, it’s not too crowded and the water is really nice for swimming. P.S. You can also usually sneak a beer or wine at Third beach – another reason for making it a great place…but be careful, police do come around to check sometimes.
- Grab a friend or two and go to Stanley Park Pitch n’Putt or to Burnaby’s Central Park’s Pitch n’Putt. It’s a lot of fun on a nice day.
- Go to Horseshoe bay and head over to the marina – look for Sewells Marina. You can rent a little boat here for the day (will cost you a few hundred – split it with friends?) and jet around to the many beautiful little islands that surround Vancouver. Hidden Gem (Eat): Don’t forget to try to fish and chips at Troll’s while you are in Horseshoe Bay.
- Get a picnic (maybe take out from Trolls?) and head to Lighthouse Park – just on the end of West Vancouver where it meets Horseshoe Bay. There are beautiful, huge boulders to relax and sun tan on…and if you really feel peppy, you can jump off certain spots (check first!) into the fresh ocean water!
- Check out the Chinese Night Market (in Chinatown) or the big one in Richmond. Great outdoors market, feels very authentic and has some very tasty food!
On a winter day in Vancouver, there is really only one thing I am interested in – and that’s getting on the mountain for skiing/snowboarding! Cypress is one of the better local mountains – it has a few lifts and quite a few decent runs. The Lift Ticket will still set you back around $60 and on the weekends the line-ups can drive you crazy. This is all fine if you are a beginner and don’t go down runs too fast…then Cypress may be perfect. But if you are more intermediate, it can a bit boring and since the runs aren’t too long – you feel like you are waiting in line all day….in this case, try Whistler/Blackcomb.
For about an hour and a half drive, you can avoid Cypress and the local mountain mayhem and spend your day in Whistler – where there can be line-ups but you can always seem to find a little bit of quiet on either Whistler or Blackcomb mountains…made even easier by the Peak to Peak gondola which connects you to either mountain in about 11 mins! The Lift Ticket is steep – around $95 at the base of the mountain. **TIP**: Buy your lift ticket at the 7-11 on the way up in Squamish – this will save you a few bucks at least as it is cheaper than at the base. If you are a BC or Washington Resident, get an Edge card.
And that’s it – that’s all I can think of for now. Feel free to leave your favourite Vancouver hot spots in the comments below!