When people all over the world tuned into the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and caught their first glimpse of sunny Vancouver, they saw a city that was finally coming into its own. Surrounded by mountains and sea and dotted with parks and gardens, Vancouver has always been a pretty place, but only now is it realizing its potential as an urban powerhouse. It consistently makes the Top-10 lists of most-livable places on earth, and that’s despite its ridiculously high housing prices. It’s one of the world’s greenest cities, where the air is fresh, the climate is mild, and the water is deliciously drinkable. (The cool people always order tap, and you should, too.) It is one of the world’s most diverse cities, with more than half the residents speaking a first language other than English, mostly Mandarin and Cantonese. It is also home to a number of booming industries and escaped the recent economic downturn reasonably unscathed, which is why so many luxury brands are building their Canadian flagship stores here.
Vancouver proper is a fairly small city of about 600,000 people, and is one of the most densely populated in North America. But Greater Vancouver sprawls out into the Fraser Valley and up into the North Shore Mountains to create Canada’s third-largest metropolitan area, with a population of 2.4 million. Forestry, fishing, and tourism are the big economic drivers here, with software development and biotechnology close behind, not to mention Canada’s largest and busiest port. It’s also known for a vibrant film industry, but unfortunately, the creative industries were among the few to be hard hit by the recession of 2008, and many of the once-lucrative film, animation, and video game jobs have since left town.
The city has always had a laidback, slightly eccentric, slightly rough-around-the-edges vibe, especially during the counter-culture heyday of the 1960s and [‘]70s, when it earned the nickname “Lotusland.” These days, though, that crunchy granola ambience is being replaced by a more sophisticated, slick sort of scene, with designer labels replacing Birkenstocks and glass towers overshadowing shaggy Craftsman-style houses.
An hour and a half away by ferry, the scene is quite a different one in Victoria. Once a quiet, proper, and slightly boring little city that was more British than Britain, today Victoria has fully embraced its inner hipster cool. Yes, it’s still a government town—it is, after all, the provincial capital—and it’s still a big retirement community. And it’s still a small city, with a population of less than 350,000 in the entire urban area and only 80,000 in Victoria proper. But it’s also a young, vibrant city, where every second person you meet seems to be working on some performance art piece or harvesting sea salt or building a still from scratch.
Victoria is actually Vancouver’s older sister, and unlike her brash young sibling, has preserved its historic downtown. Those lovely old Victorian warehouses and homes make for beautiful shops and restaurants. And while Vancouver restaurants have been a leader in the farm-to-table movement, in Victoria, the farm is just up the road, and chances are the chef is the farmer as well, when he’s not busy making his artisanal gin, of course.
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