Unlike many cities, Vancouver's great urban gathering places stand not at the center but on the periphery, on two opposite sides of the seawall that runs around Stanley Park: English Bay, on the south side of Denman Street, and Coal Harbour, on the northern, Burrard Inlet side. They are where Vancouverites go to stroll and be seen and, on warm sunny days, the two areas are packed. Another waterside gathering spot is Canada Place, built for Expo '86 and enlarged in 2009 to add more convention space. Built in the shape of a cruise ship and serving as the city's cruise-ship terminal, it has wide walkways all around it that are super for strolling, and it offers fabulous views of the mountains.
Designed by architect Arthur Erickson to be Vancouver's central plaza, Robson Square -- downtown, between Hornby and Howe streets from Robson to Smithe streets -- has never really worked. The square, which anchors the north end of the Provincial Law Courts complex designed by Erickson in 1973, suffers from a basic design flaw: It's sunk below street level, making it difficult to see and to access. The Law Courts complex, which sits on a higher level, raised above the street, is beautifully executed with shrubbery, cherry trees, sculptures, and a triple-tiered waterfall, but Robson Square below is about as appealing as a drained swimming pool. Just opposite Robson Square, however, the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery are a great people place, filled with loungers, political agitators, and old men playing chess.
Library Square -- a few blocks east from Robson Square at the corner of Robson and Homer streets -- is an example of a new urban space that does work. It's been popular with locals since it opened in 1995. People sit on the steps, bask in the sunshine, read, harangue passersby with half-baked political ideas, and generally seem to enjoy themselves.
Parks & Gardens
Other cities may have churches and museums; what Vancouver has is nature, both wild and tamed, and the best place to discover it is in its many beautiful parks and gardens. The wet, mild climate is ideal for gardening, and come spring, the city blazes with blossoming cherry trees, magnolia or "tulip" trees, rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, and spring bulbs -- and roses in summer. Gardens are everywhere. For general information about Vancouver's parks, call the parks board at tel. 604/873-7000 or try http://vancouver.ca/parks.
In Chinatown, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a small, tranquil oasis in the heart of the city, built by artisans from Suzhou, China. On Friday evenings at 7:30pm from mid-July through the first weekend in September, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is the scene of musical performances and dances. The eclectic repertoire includes classical, Asian, Gypsy jazz, Slavic soul, and fusion music. Shows cost about C$25 and often sell out. The website (www.vancouverchinesegarden.com) provides a full listing of concerts; call tel. 604/662-3207 to reserve tickets; right next to this garden, accessed via the Chinese Cultural Centre on Pender Street, is the pretty Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park, with a koi-filled pond, walkways, and plantings.
On the West Side, you'll find the magnificent UBC Botanical Garden, one of the largest living botany collections on the west coast, and the sublime Nitobe Memorial Garden.
Also on the West Side, Queen Elizabeth Park -- at Cambie Street and West 33rd Avenue -- sits atop a 150m-high (492-ft.) hill (thought to be an extinct volcano) and is the highest urban vantage point south of downtown, offering panoramic views in all directions. Along with the rose garden in Stanley Park, it's Vancouver's most popular location for wedding-photo sessions, with well-manicured gardens and a profusion of colorful flora. There are areas for lawn bowling, tennis, disc golf, pitch-and-putt golf, and picnicking. The Bloedel Conservatory (tel. 604/257-8584) stands next to the park's huge sunken garden, an amazing reclamation of an abandoned rock quarry. A 21m-high (70-ft.) domed structure, the conservatory houses a tropical rainforest with more than 100 free-flying tropical birds.
Vancouver's 22-hectare (54-acre) VanDusen Botanical Gardens (5251 Oak St., at W. 37th Ave.; tel. 604/878-9274; www.vandusengarden.org), located just a few blocks from Queen Elizabeth Park and the Bloedel Conservatory, concentrates on whole ecosystems. From towering trees to little lichens on the smallest of damp stones, the gardeners at VanDusen attempt to re-create the plant life of a number of different environments. Depending on which trail you take, you may find yourself wandering through the Southern Hemisphere section, the Sino-Himalayan garden, or the glade of Giant Redwoods. Should all this tree-gazing finally pall, head for the farthest corner of the garden to the devilishly difficult Elizabethan garden maze. Note: The garden lost hundreds of trees in the December 2006 windstorm that also devastated Stanley Park.
Adjoining the University of British Columbia (UBC) on the city's west side at Point Grey, Pacific Spirit Regional Park, called the Endowment Lands by longtime Vancouver residents, is the largest green space in Vancouver. Comprising 754 hectares (1,885 acres) of temperate rainforest, marshes, and beaches, the park includes more than 50km (31 miles) of trails ideal for hiking, riding, mountain biking, and beachcombing.
Across the Lions Gate Bridge, provincial and regional parks on the North Shore Mountains delight outdoor enthusiasts year-round. Good in winter or for those averse to strenuous climbing is the publicly maintained Capilano River Regional Park (4500 Capilano Park Rd.; tel. 604/224-5739) surrounding the Capilano Suspension Bridge & Park. Hikers can follow a gentle trail by the river for about 7km (4.4 miles) down the well-maintained Capilano Pacific trail to Ambleside Park and the Lions Gate Bridge, or a mile upstream to Cleveland Dam, a launching point for white-water kayakers and canoeists.
The Capilano Salmon Hatchery, on Capilano Park Road (tel. 604/666-1790), is on the river's east bank about .5km (1/4 mile) below the Cleveland Dam. Approximately 2 million coho and chinook salmon are hatched annually in glass-fronted tanks connected to the river by a series of channels. You can observe the hatching fry (baby fish) before they depart for open waters, as well as the mature salmon that return to the Capilano River to spawn (Oct–Dec is best viewing time for chinook; June–Nov for coho; Mar–Apr for steelhead). Drive across Lions Gate Bridge and follow the signs to North Vancouver and the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Or take the SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay and transfer to bus no. 236; the trip takes less than 45 minutes.
Ten kilometers (6 miles) west of Lions Gate Bridge on Marine Drive West, West Vancouver, is Lighthouse Park. This 75-hectare (185-acre) rugged-terrain forest has 13km (8 miles) of groomed trails and -- because it has never been clear-cut -- some of the largest and oldest trees in the Vancouver area. One of the paths leads to the 18m (59-ft.) Point Atkinson Lighthouse, on a rocky bluff overlooking the Strait of Georgia and a fabulous view of Vancouver. It's an easy trip on bus no. 250. For information about other West Vancouver parks, call tel. 604/925-7200 on weekdays.
Driving up-up-up will eventually get you to the top of Cypress Provincial Park. Stop halfway at the scenic viewpoint for a sweeping vista of the Vancouver skyline, the harbor, the Gulf Islands, and Washington State's Mount Baker, which peers above the eastern horizon. The park is 12km (7 1/2 miles) north of Cypress Bowl Road and the Highway 99 (also mapped as the Upper Level Highway and the Trans-Canada) junction in West Vancouver. Cypress Provincial Park has trails for hiking during the summer and autumn, and Cypress Mountain (tel. 604/926-5612; www.cypressmountain.com) grooms slopes for downhill and cross-country skiing during the winter.
Rising 1,449m (4,754 ft.) above Indian Arm, the peaks of Mount Seymour Provincial Park and its ski hill Mount Seymour (1700 Mt. Seymour Rd., North Vancouver; tel. 604/986-2261; www.mountseymour.com) offer another view of the area's Coast Mountains range. Higher than Grouse Mountain, Mount Seymour provides a spectacular view of Washington State's Mount Baker on clear days. It has challenging hiking trails that go straight to the summit, where you can see Indian Arm, Vancouver's bustling commercial port, the city skyline, the Strait of Georgia, and Vancouver Island. The trails are open all summer for hiking; during the winter, the paths are maintained for daily skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.