Whether you’re laying over or enjoying a well-deserved holiday, Vancouver never disappoints.
A Day-by-Day Guide to Exploring Vancouver
Story and Photos by Carolyn B. Heller
If you like urban explorations mixed with time outdoors, Vancouver is your place. Western Canada’s largest city hugs the Pacific Ocean, with sandy beaches right downtown. The forested North Shore Mountains nearby provide a scenic backdrop for the city’s glass-and-steel towers and a natural playground for both residents and visitors.
Even if you’re just passing through Vancouver before a trip to Alaska, cruising in the Great Bear Rainforest, or road-tripping to the Canadian Rockies, you can sample the city’s blend of culture and nature. I’ve outlined one-, two-, and three-day itineraries that highlight Vancouver’s best experiences.
But first, let’s get oriented.
Downtown Vancouver sits on a peninsula, with water on three sides. At the peninsula’s tip is Stanley Park, a massive rainforest parkland. The city’s oldest neighborhoods, Gastown and Chinatown, are east of the downtown core, while the restaurants, bars, and waterfront walkways of Yaletown border False Creek.
Three bridges over False Creek connect downtown to the rest of the city. Granville Island, Kitsilano, and the University of British Columbia are on Vancouver’s west side. The street art, restaurants, and craft breweries of Main Street and Commercial Drive are in “East Van” on the east side.
Two more bridges cross Burrard Inlet, linking downtown to the North Shore and its mountain adventures. If you’re traveling to the airport or looking for the area’s best Chinese food, you’ll be going south instead, to the suburb of Richmond.
The compact downtown is easy to explore on foot or by bicycle. Cycle-friendly Vancouver has a bike share program and miles of waterfront cycling paths.
The city’s convenient public transit system includes three subway lines, an extensive network of buses, and the Seabus ferry, which connects downtown and the North Shore. The most useful subway route for visitors is the Canada Line, which stops directly at YVR airport and takes you to the city in about 25 minutes. The TransLink trip planner can help you navigate the transit system.
Two privately run ferries, The Aquabus and False Creek Ferries, operate cute little boats that shuttle between downtown, Granville Island, Kitsilano, and the Olympic Village district at the foot of Main Street.
Best Time to Visit Vancouver
The long sunny days of July and August make summer Vancouver’s peak season. I love September and October, too, as cultural activities kick-off and the evenings turn crisp. Spring, from March into June, can be damper, but flowers burst into bloom across the city. From November through February, prepare for rain in the city and snow in the mountains.
One-Day Itinerary: Downtown, Gastown, Chinatown, Stanley Park
Canada Place and the Coal Harbour Waterfront
Start your day with a walk along the Coal Harbour waterfront, for views of the North Shore Mountains and Stanley Park. Pause to watch the floatplanes buzzing around the harbor, then snap a photo of Canada Place, which houses the city’s main cruise ship terminal; its landmark sails make it resemble a ship, too.
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art
Walk from Canada Place to the modern Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art for an introduction to the region’s Indigenous artwork. Reid was a noted First Nations artist, best known for his sculptures. You’ll also find his work in the Vancouver International Airport and on Canada’s $20 bill.
To check out more works by contemporary Indigenous artists, or if you’re looking for art to take home, pop into the gallery at Skwachàys Lodge, Canada’s first Indigenous art hotel.
Continue through Gastown into Chinatown, where Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a quiet respite from the surrounding urban streets. It’s the first authentic Ming Dynasty garden constructed outside of China. The informative tours tell you more about the garden’s history and design.
In Chinatown, Juke is known for first-rate fried chicken. Tsuki Sushi Bar, a favorite local sushi spot, is between Gastown and Chinatown, and Marutama Ramen, near the Vancouver Public Library, is a good choice for Japanese noodle soup. On Granville Street, retro diner The Templeton serves breakfast all day. Cafeteria-style Tractor Foods, with several locations, makes salads and other quick fresh fare.
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Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Stanley Park. Follow the Seawall, which runs 5.5 miles around the park’s perimeter, with great views of the city and the mountains. Pause to sit in the sand at Third Beach on the park’s west side, or go for a swim at Second Beach, where there’s a public swimming pool next to the sea.
Heading back, stop at English Bay Beach to people-watch or to take in the views as the sun begins to set over the water.
Where to Eat Dinner Downtown
Chambar Restaurant, near Gastown, blends Northwest ingredients, North African flavors, and Gallic spirit in a beautifully restored heritage brick building. They’re known for moule frites (mussels and fries) and other seafood dishes. In Gastown, L’Abattoir is another favorite for contemporary cuisine and inventive cocktails.
In Yaletown, Do Chay cooks up vegan Vietnamese fare, and WildTale Coastal Grill specializes in west coast fish. On the False Creek waterfront, Japanese-Peruvian Ancora Waterfront Dining and Patio has one of the city’s loveliest outdoor terraces.
Two-Day Itinerary: Granville Island, Kitsilano, UBC, Main Street
On your second day, cross False Creek to explore Granville Island, the Kitsilano neighborhood, and the University of British Columbia on the city’s west side. If you’d like, you can check out the craft breweries and eclectic restaurants along Main Street before returning to the city center.
This former industrial district is now home to one of Vancouver’s most popular destinations for food lovers: Granville Island Public Market. Start with morning coffee at J.J. Bean or Blue Parrot Espresso Bar and a pastry from Terra Breads, then wander the market stalls before the crowds arrive. To assemble a picnic for later, stop for cheeses and charcuterie at Oyama Sausage, olives at Zara’s Deli, freshly baked bread from Terra or A Bread Affair, and whatever local fruit is in season from any of the produce vendors.
After the market, explore Granville Island’s galleries and artist studios. Browse the stellar collection of Northwest Coast First Nations art at Eagle Spirit Gallery, watch the glassblowers at work at Vancouver Studio Glass, or shop for works by local artists in the Craft Council of BC Shop & Gallery.
Museum of Vancouver
From Granville Island, follow the Seawall along the waterfront to the Museum of Vancouver. Inside the distinctive building, shaped like a traditional hat of the Haida First Nations people, the well-designed galleries walk you through the city’s history, from its Indigenous roots through modern times.
Kitsilano Beach & Lunch
Continue along the waterfront to Kitsilano Beach. Rest up in the sand, watch the volleyball players, or go for a dip in the saltwater at Kits Pool.
If you didn’t pack a picnic for the beach, Kitsilano has lots of lunch options. Café Zen is a popular brunch destination near Kits Beach. On West 4th Avenue, Maenam serves inventive Thai cuisine, while Au Comptoir crafts French classics. For excellent Vietnamese food, try Mr. Red Café on Broadway.
University of British Columbia
Catch a bus (or Uber/Lyft) west from Kitsilano to the University of British Columbia campus, where you’ll find one of the region’s top museums. The Museum of Anthropology organizes fascinating exhibits about British Columbia’s Indigenous cultures and art, as well as other traditional cultures from around the world.
Craft Beer & Dinner on Main Street
If you still have the stamina to explore another part of the city, spend your evening around Main Street. Poke into the laneways off Main to check out the vibrant street art – the district hosts a mural fest every summer – then sample the beers at a craft brewery, like 33 Acres Brewing or Brassneck Brewery.
Three-Day Itinerary: The North Shore, Richmond
On your third day, get outdoors to explore the North Shore mountains and waterfront. Later in the day, head south to Richmond to sample some of North America’s best Chinese food.
At Grouse Mountain, which you can easily reach by public transit, you can plan a full day of adventure or simply ride the tram to take in the panoramas across the craggy peaks.
There’s a network of hiking trails (and skiing/snowboarding in winter), a grizzly bear sanctuary, zip lines, a ropes course, nature programs, and more. For a hiking challenge, walk up the mountain on the Grouse Grind, nicknamed “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.” The mountaintop bistro has great views.
Lower Lonsdale & The Shipyards District
If you’re not lunching on the mountain, catch the bus to Lower Lonsdale Street and the adjacent Shipyards Complex, which both have lots of restaurant options. I’m partial to the brunch plates and baked goods at Lift Breakfast Bakery and the Lebanese fare at Jamjar Canteen. This neighborhood is a burgeoning craft beer destination, too.
On the waterfront, pop into the Polygon Gallery, an eclectic contemporary art space. From the walkway behind the gallery, the views across the water to the first-rate cityscape.
Haven’t had enough outdoor adventure? Venture to the North Shore village of Deep Cove, one of the area’s most scenic spots to get out on the water. Rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard, or book a paddling tour, at Deep Cove Kayak, to paddle between the forests and mountains along Indian Arm fjord.
After your day of adventure, it’s time for a good meal, and Vancouver has some of the best Chinese food in North America. Downtown, look for the Shanghai-style Dinesty Dumpling House, where dumplings are made to order, or the northern-style Grand Chinese Restaurant in Yaletown; try the spicy sautéed cauliflower with pork or the garlicky eggplant. In Chinatown, Bao Bei puts hip spins on Chinese classics, paired with creative cocktails.
For a more interesting Chinese food experience, though, hop on the Canada Line to Richmond. It’s a 25-minute ride to this south-of-the-center suburb, where the Asian dining options can be overwhelming – in a good way.
Love lamb? At Hao’s Lamb Restaurant, lamb dumplings, stir-fries, chops, breads, even penis are all on the menu. For Sichuan-style seafood, find The Fish Man on Alexandra Road, nicknamed “Food Street,” because it’s lined with places to eat. Su Hang Restaurant is a top choice for Shanghai fare, including steamed whole fish, xiao long bao (soup dumplings), and whatever green vegetables are fresh that day. Reservations are recommended at all of these Richmond restaurants.
Where To Stay In Vancouver
Most Vancouver hotels are located downtown and range from quirky converted motels to apartment hotels to boutique properties and luxury lodgings. You’ll also find hotels near the airport in Richmond.
AirBnB properties and other vacation rentals are scattered across the city. Besides downtown, popular neighborhoods include Kitsilano, Cambie Street (along the Canada Line), Main Street, and Commercial Drive farther east.
If you do opt for a downtown hotel, here are a few favorites:
Skwachàys Lodge, a boutique Gastown lodging where Indigenous artists designed the 18 one-of-a-kind rooms
The Burrard, a funky rehabbed 1950s motel downtown, built around an outdoor courtyard
The Listel, an under-the-radar city center hotel with an excellent art collection
Opus Hotel Vancouver, one of Vancouver’s most stylishly hip lodgings, in Yaletown
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a classic downtown hotel, built-in 1939, known for its service
Fairmont Pacific Rim, arguably Vancouver’s most luxurious lodging, with sleek Asian-inspired décor.
On a budget? The modern YWCA Hotel rents simple good-value rooms, included shared and private bath units, as well as family rooms.
Want more tips to plan your Vancouver visit? I’ve written a whole book about my favorite city: Moon Vancouver: With Victoria, Vancouver Island, & Whistler.
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