I wanted to visit Canada for the longest time. I envisioned it as a country with warm people, albeit “a bit” colder weather, and magnificent nature. This September, I was incredibly lucky that work brought me to Vancouver, and that Canada proved to be even more breathtaking than I expected. We had less than two days of free time in Vancouver but we tried to see as much as possible. I want to share that experience with you. 🙂
What follows is a two-day outdoor itinerary – allowing you to explore the beautiful nature and architecture of Vancouver on foot and on a bike. So wear your comfy sneakers and charge your cameras!
Our first stop was Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood.
Gastown is specific for its cobblestone streets, victorian architecture and low-rise buildings. Stroll down the picture-perfect Water Street and enjoy a charming mix of old and new. You will find artisan stores, art galleries, gourmet food, vintage lampposts, and old Steam Clock. Make some time to look around and even buy some unique souvenirs.
The Gastown Steam Clock is the world’s first steam-powered clock. It was built in 1977 to solve the issue of a steam vent in a popular sidewalk for the then renovated Gastown neighborhood. However, contrary to its name and legend, the clock requires three electrical engines to run and only the pipes on top are fueled by steam. Each quarter hour the clock whistle will sound the Westminster Chimes, while the large whistle sounds once on the hour. We made sure to be there for the hourly one and it took us a moment to realize the song is coming from the clock. 🙂
On your way to the Stanley park, go by Vancouver’s historic Chinatown and stop by its Ming Dynasty-era traditional Chinese garden.
DR. SUN YAT-SEN CLASSICAL CHINESE GARDEN
In the very heart of Vancouver lies Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and adjacent Sun Yat-Sen Park. The entry to Sun Yat-Sen Park is free for visitors, while the fee for Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Garden is 12CAD for adults and 9CAD for students. The park and garden share the same pond but this is where the similarities end.
The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden in Vancouver is the first Chinese or “scholars” garden built outside of China. Built in 1986 by fifty-three master craftsmen from China and 950 crates of traditional material, the Garden was constructed using 14th-century methods – no glue, screws nor power tools were used. Everything is authentic, down to the smallest pebble.
The Park was built around the same time as the Garden, by local craftsmen and using the modern tools. The materials for the park origin from North and South America. However, the Park has that peaceful feel of an oasis in the midst of concrete and steel.
With its winding paths, water lily-covered pond and authentic plants and rock forms, the Garden is well worth the visit. I recommend you visit around noon, during koi fish feeding time and join a complimentary 45-minute guided tour that will allow you to understand the story behind each Garden element. Also, enjoy a steaming cup of traditional Chinese tea.
After you get some mindful rest, head to Stanley park.
STANLEY PARK SEAWALL
Stanley park, also known as the place that cemented my head-over-heels feelings about Vancouver, is Vancouver’s largest urban park. Situated over 405-hectars (1,001-acres), Stanley park borders downtown Vancouver and is almost entirely surrounded by waters of Vancouver Harbor and English Bay.
The park offers many attractions and family-friendly activities. You can enjoy a Pitch & Putt game, get up close with beluga whales, dolphins and other magnificent residents of the sea at Vancouver Aquarium, swim in a heated, outdoor pool located near the beach, swim at an actual beach, have a picnic on one of the grass fields, or dine at one of park’s many restaurants. Since we had just one afternoon (sniff sniff), we decide to visit the Stanley park seawall and what a great decision that was.
Vancouver seawall was built between 1917 and 1980 around the perimeter of Stanley park in order to prevent the erosion of the park foreshore. The seawall is 8.8km long and offers a spectacular waterfront, ocean and mountain peaks on one side and old forest on the other. The seawall is made of pedestrian, bicycle, and rollerblading pathway – no motor vehicles allowed. You can walk the whole perimeter in around three hours, but since we were short on time we decided to rent a bike in one of many available places at the park entrance and cover the route faster.
My mastery of English language is not great enough to faithfully describe my soul-deep enjoyment of the ride. Let’s just say that the three of us kept repeating “It’s so beautiful” every three minutes or so. In the end, with many stops for selfies and admiring the scenic vistas, it took us a little over two hours to cover the track. Granted, we managed to get lost and make an unplanned trip to the city, but we found our way back easily enough. Note that cyclists and rollerbladers ride counterclockwise on the seawall so keep your eyes on the signalization to know when to make a turn back.
If you have more time, I encourage you to explore more than 27 kilometers of forest trails that crisscross the park’s interior. The park has been largely preserved in its original state – it has more than half million trees, some of which stand as tall as 76 meters (249 ft) and are up to hundreds of years old. Also, do not be surprised if you spot a coyote since people in Vancouver are trying to peacefully coexist with the wildlife as must as possible. Something I admire greatly.
From afar, Canada Place building looks like one giant cruise ship. It’s shaped like a boat and has fabric roofs resembling sails. In fact, Canada Place is the main cruise ship terminal for the region. Once I plan a cruise to Alaska, our ship is going to sail from there. 😀 Canada Place is also the home of the Vancouver Convention Centre, Vancouver’s World Trade Centre, and FlyOver Canada, our first stop for the day.
I do not care how afraid of heights are you, you have to do this one! In 8 breathtaking minutes, FlyOver Canada will let you experience the best of what Canada has to offer.
FlyOver Canada is a flight simulator. You are seated in a suspended chair, with your feet dangling, in front of an impressive 4-storey spherical screen. Everywhere you look, there is an image that corresponds to what you would see if you were really looking from that perspective in nature. Aside from the visual and sound effects, additional special effects make the whole experience even more real. You feel the freshness of the running stream, sense the smell of wild horses while running beside them, feel the wind helicopter turbines make and the snow thrown by skiers on your skin.
I have a terrible fear of heights and I have to admit, I had to shut my eyes during two scenes, it just felt too real. Even though I was feeling the back of the chair and was aware that we were not leaning forward in any moment, I could not do the cliff jump. After the ride both my hands and feet were wet from the sweat, a first for me, but I do not regret a moment! Would actually love to do it again.
Shows run every day from 10AM to 9PM. The whole FlyOver experience lasts around 25 minutes because you also get a pre-show during the onboarding process. General admission price is 21.95CAD for adults and 18.95CAD for students. However, you can get a 10% discount if you buy your ticket online.
HARBOUR GREEN PARK AND COAL HARBOUR
To rewind after the flight simulator, walk along the coast to the Coal Harbor, home to Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, the busiest water aerodrome in Canada. This is the first time I saw seaplanes taking off and landing, so we spent a few moments just enjoying the view.
If you are not tired of flying, you can even rent one of the seaplanes and see British Columbia from an aerial perspective. The planes fly according to a schedule and can carry a very limited number of people, so make sure to find the best option for you before your arrival. Since the tours cost around 80CAD and up for a 10-minute flight, we decided to skip it, but it sounds like a great experience.
Instead of flying, we decided to head to Harbour Green Park right across the Flight Centre and catch some sun rays on the grass. This proved to be another great Vancouver public park with families, puppies and a beautiful view of the North Shore mountains.
DOWNTOWN TOUR – BURRARD STREET
From the park, we found the West Cordova Street and walked east to the intersection with the Burrard Street. Burrard Street is the central street of Downtown Vancouver and the Financial District. We continued down the Burrard St. The first sight you see is the Marine Building, the building still most clearly identified with Vancouver.
Marine Building is considered one of the greatest Art Deco building in the world. Its decorative ornaments tell the story of Vancouver as a sea and rail connection and, if you look closely, you can see flocks of Canada geese, lobsters, crabs, prawns, and marine fauna etched in the stone.
Next up is a Christ Church Cathedral near the intersection of Burrard St. and Georgia street, usually considered to be the center point of Downtown Vancouver. The Cathedral was built in 1895, and with its gothic style stands out amid all glass and steel of nearby business establishments.
A bit further south, at the northeast corner of Burrard St. and Robson St., is situated the Vancouver Public Library. A truly impressive structure that reminds of a small colosseum.
From here, if you make a right turn you will find yourself on Robson St., the finest shopping street in Vancouver with a range of brands for everyone’s perusing pleasure.
We decided to hurry a bit and go straight down Burrard St. to get to the Island in time.
Granville Island is known for its public market, gourmet restaurants, brewery and lots of small artisan shops. It’s a great place to grab some late afternoon lunch and lose a couple of hours finding perfect hand-made souvenirs and memorabilia to take back home.
There is a family-owned ferry fleet that ships you from Downtown Vancouver to Granville Island and back. Every 5 minutes little blue ferries sail from West End of Downtown Vancouver to Granville Island. The ride does not last more than a couple of minutes and costs 3.25CAD per person (adult fare) one way and 5.50CAD per person (adult fare) both ways. Make sure you bring cash.
Once you disembark from the ferry, check out the Public Market first. It’s a market unlike I have ever seen. With colorful stalls and gastronomic delights from all corners of the world. You can find fruits and vegetables, all kids of seafood, smoked meat and even warm donuts. Imagine the smells. I could not resist grabbing a homemade Italian cannoli. Hey, it was calling my name, I couldn’t possibly resist! 😀
After the Public Market, choose one the nearby sea-food restaurants (reccomendations for The Sandbar!) and have lunch. Afterward, check out the artisan shops and the brewery. You can spend a couple of minutes to a couple of hours perusing so just be mindful of the time. Once done, get back to the town the same way. I love the idea of little blue ferry wrapping up our two-day tour of Vancouver.
In the end, I loved everything about Vancouver. I loved its unique architecture – tall steel and glass buildings reflect the sun so there is a lot of light everywhere. Hence the “City of Glass” moniker. I love the way they respect and preserve nature. I love its dog-friendly attitude and the fact that the city felt safe, even in the evening hours. Hope you love it as well! 🙂
P.S. If you wand to explore Vancouver with your dog, you certainly can, just make sure to keep it on a leash when you are not in off-leash designated areas. Another reason why I love Vancouver is because they have a strategy for sharing Vancouver parks called People, Parks, and Dogs. There are many designated off-leash areas throughout the city. You can find an interactive map of sites here.