Things to Do in British Columbia
North America’s major ski resort focuses on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, attracting up to two million winter and summertime visitors a year.
Linked by the groundbreaking Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the two mountains peer over the pretty alpine town of Whistler Village.
The official skiing venue for the 2010 Olympic winter games, the Whistler and Blackcomb resorts merged in 1997 and together have a total of 38 ski lifts and more than 200 ski runs.
In summer the ski runs transform into mountain-bike trails for nail-biting thrills, and the alpine meadows are crossed by hikers and nature lovers.
The Lions Gate Bridge spans Burrard Inlet, connecting North and West Vancouver with the City Centre, via Stanley Park. Originally opened in 1938, the bridge isn’t just a major transportation hub for Vancouver, but it’s also a National Historic Site of Canada.
Even the impressive stats—the bridge is about a mile (1.5 km) long, its two suspension towers are 365 feet (111 meters) tall and the bridge deck sits 200 feet (61 m) above the water—barely do the bridge justice. From Ambleside Park, in West Vancouver, the view of Lions Gate Bridge against a backdrop of downtown Vancouver truly shows its immense scale. It’s even more spectacular at night, as the entire bridge is covered in decorative LED lighting.
A highly evocative neighborhood of excellent character bars and a smattering of good restaurants, Gastown is Vancouver’s best old-town area. The Victorian era resonates in the cobblestone streets, antique lamps, and old buildings, adding to the neighborhood’s distinctive ambiance.
Gastown is the place to pay your respects to Vancouver’s founding father, "Gassy" Jack Deighton – a bronze statue of him salutes Maple Tree Square. On Water Street stands the famous Steam Clock, a charming little artifact, built to resemble London’s Big Ben. The neighborhood has also become a hotbed for local designer-owned shops, drawing a new crowd of regulars to the area. It’s also place to look for a new art gallery or a piece of beautiful, hand-carved First Nations art in one of the galleries along Water and Hastings streets. Microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung up across the city in recent years, and many of the best beer havens are in Gastown. Steamworks is the most accessible.
Brimming with arts and crafts studios, bars and restaurants with eye-popping views, Granville Island is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. Though it’s really a peninsula, jutting out into False Creek, the island draws those who come to wander the pedestrian-friendly alleyways while enjoying the sounds of the buskers and the sights along the waterfront.
One of the highlights is the Granville Island Public Market, where you can trawl the deli-style food stalls and artisan stands. Art lovers can wander through the three galleries of up-and-coming artists at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design. For the under-10 set, the Kids Market bristles with kid-friendly stores, mostly of the toy variety. For a little respite, entice the kids away from the shops and head to the huge Granville Island Water Park.
One of the best places to orient yourself, especially if this is your first trip to Vancouver, is Canada Place. Built for Expo '86, this iconic, postcard-friendly landmark is hard to miss: its five tall Teflon sails that jut into the sky over Burrard Inlet resemble a giant sailing ship. Now a cruise-ship terminal and convention center, it's also a pier where you can stroll out over the waterfront, watch the splashing floatplanes, and catch some spectacular sea-to-mountain views.
Around the perimeter of Canada Place is a promenade, where you can gaze out at the North Shore mountains standing tall across Burrard Inlet. You can also see nearby Stanley Park and its famous Seawall Promenade. Walk to the other end of the promenade and you’ll be rewarded with great city views, including the historic low-rise tops of Gastown, where Vancouver was first settled. Inside the building is FlyOver Canada, a cool simulated flight attraction that takes you across Canada.
Brandywine Falls is a spectacular 216-foot waterfall located just a short hop off the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Squamish and Whistler. The falls are also surrounded by Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, which has tripled in size in the past decade. Measuring 216 feet, the waterfall is nearly 30 percent taller than Niagara Falls, albeit with a fraction of the water volume. A half-mile (1-km) walking trail leads from the parking lot to a viewpoint, and it’s worth venturing a few minutes further down the trail, too, as a second viewpoint offers panoramic views across Daisy Lake. Both the Lava Lake and Sea-to-Sky trails offer short hiking and mountain biking opportunities within the park. The steeper Swim Lake Trail, which starts just before the railway crossing, doesn’t actually lead to a good swimming hole, as Swim Lake doesn't have a dock or beach. However, the trail is worth exploring because it provides the best opportunity to spot the rare and endangered red-legged frog.
More Things to Do in British Columbia
The magnificent Stanley Park certainly enjoys one of the world’s most breathtaking settings: the park is surrounded on three sides by the ocean and loomed over by the snow-capped North Shore mountains. The park’s perimeter seawall stroll is one of the best ways to spend your time. Stanley Park is big enough to have quiet parts whenever you’re seeking seclusion, while wildlife lovers can always spot raccoons on the ground or eagles high in the trees.
Within its 1,000 acres/400 hectares you’ll find forests of cedar, hemlock and fir, mingled with meadows, lakes, and cricket pitches. There are also a couple of excellent beaches – ideal spots to perch on a driftwood log with a picnic and catch a kaleidoscopic sunset over the water.
But the park isn’t just for dewy-eyed nature lovers; other highlights include the collection of totem poles by the shore, Second Beach Swimming Pool, and Vancouver Aquarium.
Resembling a space ship that landed atop a downtown office tower, the Vancouver Lookout gives you panoramic 360-degree views of the city and surrounding landscape. Perhaps befitting the observation tower’s space age design, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was also the first visitor to the Vancouver Lookout, inaugurating the tower in 1977. Though the 30-story structure now seems almost petite compared to Vancouver’s newest skyscrapers, it’s a great place to get oriented to the city with vistas to Stanley Park, the North Shore mountains, and on a clear day, all the way to the Olympic Peninsula.
You can explore the views on your own – there are informational plaques in front of every window – or ask one of the guides for a complimentary tour. You can also join one of the free 20-minute tours that run throughout the day. Your admission ticket is valid all day, so you can scope out the daylight views and return later for the sunset.
Surrounded by the city’s Seawall and containing one of Vancouver’s most popular beaches, English Bay is at the heart of Vancouver’s water related activities. In warm weather, kayaking, fishing, and even scuba diving all take place in the waters here. English Bay Beach, also called First Beach, is the most populated beach area in the city. With palm trees and plentiful sand, English Bay Beach is the go-to spot for sunbathing and beach volleyball when the sun is shining. It is also one of the best places to go swimming.
Annually two of the city’s largest events take place here: the Celebration of Light fireworks competition in July and the Polar Bear Swim in January. Many laid back, open-air restaurants and patios dot the area around the water, and the notable sunset and sunrise skies are what draw many visitors. With views of the surrounding mountains and coastline, English Bay offers some of the best natural scenery in Vancouver.
At the center of Vancouver lies a short protected inlet that separates the downtown from the rest of the city. Once a centuries old fishing village dismissed by its disconnection to the Vancouver Harbor, it is now a highly sought after residential and commercial area. False Creek sits peacefully by the water, which draws many boaters and kayakers. There is also a promenade that allows visitors to walk alongside the water and take in views of the city skyline and the surrounding sea.
Many visitors hop on board one of the ferries that run along the water, stopping at trendy parts of the city such as Granville, The Village, and Yaletown. These neighborhoods all face False Creek, and offer some of the best restaurants, shops, and markets in Vancouver. Southeast False Creek was the site of the Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympic Games.
With two theaters (including the world’s largest OMNIMAX® dome theater) showcasing films that rotate regularly, stage shows, and more interactive exhibits than you can shake a stick at, Science World at Telus World of Science (still unofficially called “Science World” by the general public) is a fascinating place for children and adults to completely lose track of time while getting lost in the wonderful world of science.
Visitors can immerse themselves in the many interactive displays, rotating feature exhibitions, and live science demonstrations. There are plenty of these fast-paced shows, which cover a variety of science topics like chemistry, moving objects, electricity, and bubbles, while different galleries inside are dedicated to the environment, life sciences, physics, sustainability, and more. Science World’s programming changes frequently, as do the films and light shows offered in the on-site theaters, but free shows are offered regularly.
A tranquil break from bustling Chinatown, this intimate "garden of ease" exhibits the Taoist symbolism behind the placing of gnarled pine trees, winding covered pathways, and ancient limestone formations.
On your visit, learn how everything in the garden reflects balance and harmony, and the placement of each item has a considered purpose. Soft-moving water flows across solid stone, while smooth, swaying bamboo grows around immovable rocks. As you wander the peaceful paths, notice how dark pebbles are placed next to light pebbles in the paving. If you visit in summer, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is the scene of musical performances and dances. Every Friday night from mid-July through the first weekend in September, the garden hosts an eclectic repertoire that includes classical, Asian, world, Gypsy jazz, Slavic soul, and fusion music.
Vancouver’s Olympic Village, coming in at over 1,000,000 square feet in size, was built for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics hosted in the city in 2010. 1,000 units accommodated nearly 3,000 athletes, coaches, and personnel during the games. Construction took place over three years, and it is now a housing and retail space with a community center. It is one of the greenest building structures in the world, granting Vancouver its reputation as a leader in sustainable living. Built mostly in steel, the many elegant towers stand as modern icons of a growing city. The Olympic Village area is growing in population and popularity as a result. The neighborhood has a variety of excellent restaurants, as well as paths for walking and seafront views of the water. A walk along the seawall can run scenically alongside Vancouver's inner coastline from Coal Harbour to Kitsilano Beach.
Exotic sights, sounds, and aromas pervade North America’s third-largest Chinatown. In this evocative area, you’ll find families bargaining over durian fruit in a flurry of Cantonese; shops redolent of sweet-and-sour fish; and street vendors selling silk, jade, and Hello Kitty footstools. The steamy-windowed wonton restaurants, butchers with splayed barbecued pigs, and ubiquitous firecracker-red awnings will make you think for a moment that you’re in Hong Kong.
Start your trek at Millennium Gate, the official entry into Chinatown. Head under the gate, and spend some time strolling the tranquil pools, intriguing limestone formations, and gnarly pine trees that fill Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. After strolling the garden, nip next door to the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum & Archives. Across the street, on Carrall Street stands the Sam Kee Building, the world’s thinnest office building.
Found within the current bounds of Vancouver's Stanley Park, Prospect Point is not only the highest point in the park and a great viewpoint of the harbor, but a place of significant history. In the late 1800s, boats traveling into Burrard Inlet were forced to pass extremely close to Prospect Point, as uninhibited water from the Capilano River plowed into the harbor, carrying with it silt and rock. The mineral-heavy flow further out caused the waters to be less buoyant, but crossing so close to the cliffs of Prospect Point wasn't without its risks either. In 1888, a ship called the S.S. Beaver ran aground on the rocks. It was then that the decision was made to put a warning light on the point to help guide ships through the passage. Some 25 years later, a signal station was built on the point to relay information to ships entering the inlet and, in 1948, the current Prospect Point Lighthouse was erected.
Although it's officially on a peninsula, the abundant water surrounding downtown Vancouver can make it feel like an island. It is, today, the center of commerce and business for British Columbia but, even historically, the downtown area has always been a significant meeting point for trade and culture.
In modern history, the area wasn't permanently settled by outsiders until 1862 when the city was chosen to be the terminus for the transcontinental railroad. As Vancouver grew, a number of neighborhoods began to develop within the city. Gastown is one of the oldest parts of the city and remains a tourist attraction. It's here where the world's first steam-powered clock still stands in working condition. Other significant neighborhoods worth visiting within the downtown core include Robson Street, Coal Harbour and Yaletown. There is also a prominent Chinatown in downtown Vancouver – the largest in Canada.
Come for the views at this 128-acre (52-hectare) park located at Vancouver’s geographic center – it’s the highest point in the city. You can look out over the gardens and grounds all the way to downtown and the North Shore mountains. Within the park itself, there are Quarry Gardens, former rock quarries now filled with flowers, shrubs, and other plants; an arboretum – the first to be established in Canada – with more than 1500 trees; and a Rose Garden that blossoms with many varieties of the flower. In spring and summer, you can browse the Painters’ Corner, where local artists display and sell their work. Seasons in the Park, a restaurant overlooking the gardens, serves lunch and dinner daily.
If you’re looking for more athletic pursuits, you can golf the park’s Pitch & Putt course, play tennis on one of the 17 public courts, or join the lawn bowlers at the Vancouver Lawn Bowling Club, which welcomes visitors several times a week during the spring and summer.
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