Getting lost as you wander around a fascinating new neighborhood is part of the fun of traveling. And getting lost in Vancouver, or at least losing your directional bearings, is possible, mostly because the main grid of streets doesn't run strictly north-south, but rather northwest to southeast like a parallelogram.
If you do become directionally challenged, just look for the mountains. They are to the north, across a body of water called Burrard Inlet. If you're facing the mountains, east is to your right, west is to your left, and the back of your head is pointing south. That one tip will generally keep you pointed in the right direction, no matter where you are. You'll also find that Vancouverites are incredibly friendly: If you're scratching your head over a map, almost inevitably someone will ask if he or she can help.
By Public Transportation
Vancouver’s public transportation system is the most extensive in Canada and includes service to all major tourist attractions, so you really don’t need a car, especially if you’re staying in the downtown area.
The Translink (tel. 604/953-3333; www.translink.ca) system includes electric trolley and diesel buses, the SeaBus catamaran ferry, and the light-rail SkyTrain. It’s a reliable, safe, eco-friendly, and inexpensive system that allows you to get everywhere you want to go, including the beaches and ski slopes. Regular service runs from about 5am to 2am, although schedules vary depending on the line, and some routes have reduced service on Sundays and holidays. Schedules and routes are available online, at tourist information centers, and at many major hotels.
At some point in 2014, all the current passes and tickets will be replaced by a reloadable electronic fare card called Compass. The rollout is being done gradually, so you can expect some confusion regarding fares and how to pay them throughout the year. Until Compass is fully in place, you will still be able to pay cash on buses, buy tickets for SkyTrain and SeaBus at machines in the stations, and purchase FareSavers and DayPasses at retailers displaying the FareDealer sign. Fares are based on the number of zones traveled and one ticket allows you to transfer from one mode of transport to another, in any direction, within 90 minutes. A one-way, one-zone fare (everything in central Vancouver) costs C$2.75. A two-zone fare—C$4—is required to travel to nearby suburbs such as Richmond or North Vancouver, and a three-zone fare—C$5.50—is required for travel to the far-off city of Surrey. To depart the airport costs an additional C$5 over the two-zone fare. After 6:30pm on weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays, you can travel anywhere in all three zones for C$2.75. DayPasses, good on all public transit, cost C$9.75 for adults and can be used for unlimited travel.
Both diesel and electric-trolley buses service the city. Regular service on the busiest routes is about every 5 to 15 minutes from 5am to 1am, although hours will vary depending on the route. Wheelchair-accessible buses and bus stops are identified by the international wheelchair symbol. Some key routes to keep in mind: no. 5 (Robson St.), no. 6 (Davie St.), no. 10 (Granville St.), no. 4 (UBC), no. 2 (Kitsilano Beach to downtown), no. 50 (Granville Island), no. 19 (Stanley Park), no. 240 (North Vancouver), and no. 250 (West Vancouver–Horseshoe Bay). The Translink site (www.translink.ca) has a handy “Next Bus” feature that lets you plug in the number of your bus stop, and it’ll let you know when the next bus is due.
SkyTrain is a fast, light-rail service between downtown Vancouver and the suburbs. All stations are wheelchair accessible. The Expo Line trains operate along a scenic 27km (17-mile) route from downtown Vancouver east to Surrey in 39 minutes. The Millennium Line loops from Waterfront through Burnaby, Port Coquitlam, New Westminster, and East Vancouver. Trains on both lines run every 2 to 8 minutes. Canada Line links Richmond and Vancouver International Airport to downtown. Trains run every 4 to 20 minutes, and departures from YVR cost an additional C$5.
Double-ended catamaran ferries take passengers, cyclists, and wheelchair riders on a scenic 12-minute commute across Burrard Inlet between downtown’s Waterfront Station and North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay. The SeaBus travels every 15 minutes from 6am to 7:30pm on weekdays and 10am to 6:30pm on weekends; outside of peak hours, it departs every 30 minutes. There’s a countdown clock in each terminal that lets you know whether you need to run or be prepared to wait for the next crossing. The crossing is a two-zone fare on weekdays until 6:30pm.
Cab fares start at C$3.20 and increase at a rate of C$1.85 per kilometer. In the downtown area, you can expect to travel for less than C$12, plus tip. Taxis are easy to find in front of major hotels, but flagging one down can be tricky, especially late at night or on rainy days. Most drivers are usually on radio calls, and thanks to built-in satellite positioning systems, if you call for a taxi, it often arrives faster than if you go out and hail one. Call for a pickup from Black Top (tel. 604/731-1111), Yellow Cab (tel. 604/681-1111), Vancouver Taxi (tel. 604/871-1111), or MacLure’s (tel. 604/731-9211).
If you’re staying in Vancouver proper, you don’t really need a car. Parking can be a hassle in both cities and is quite expensive in downtown Vancouver. But if you must drive, keep in mind that driving in Vancouver can be quite a leisurely experience—there are no freeways through the city, plus the addition of new bike lanes has meant the loss of driving lanes, which has slowed traffic even further. Add a few major construction projects and a landscape that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a grid system, and you can see why a short trip can take such a long time. At least the view is nice while you wait.
You can find rental cars at Avis (757 Hornby St.; tel. 800/879-2847 or 604/606-2868; www.avis.ca), Budget (416 W. Georgia St.; tel. 800/472-3325 or 604/668-7000; www.budget.ca), Enterprise (550 Bute St.; tel. 800/736-8222 or 604/689-7377; www.enterpriserentacar.ca), Hertz Canada (1270 Granville St.; tel. 800/263-0600 or 604/606-4711; www.hertz.com), National (999a Canada Place; tel. 800/387-4747 or 604/609-7160; www.nationalcar.ca), or Thrifty (413 Seymour St.; tel. 800/847-4389 or 604/606-1666; www.thrifty.com). These firms all have counters and shuttle service at the airport as well.
Driving Rules -- Canadians drive on the right-hand side of the road and pass on the left. Distance is measured in kilometers, which everyone calls “clicks,” and speed is counted in kilometers per hour, or kmph. In the city, the average speed is usually 50kmph (30 mph) and on the highway 100kmph (60 mph). Also, remember that seatbelts and car insurance are compulsory in British Columbia.
Breakdowns -- Contact the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA; tel. 800/222-4357; www.bcaa.com) for emergency roadside assistance.
Gasoline -- Most service stations are self-service and open 24 hours a day. Remember that gas is measured in liters, not gallons, and is more expensive than it is in the U.S., though not as pricy as it is in Europe.
Vancouver is a cyclist’s paradise. Along Robson and Denman streets near Stanley Park you will find plenty of places to rent bikes. Paved paths crisscross through parks and along beaches, plus several major thoroughfares now have designated bike lanes. Helmets are mandatory, and riding on sidewalks is illegal except on designated bike paths. SkyTrain, SeaBus, and many buses will carry your bike at no extra charge. For more information on cycling in B.C., visit www.th.gov.bc.ca/BikeBC.
By Mini Ferry
Crossing False Creek to Granville Island or Vanier Park on one of the zippy little mini-ferries is a cheap and fun way to get around. There are two lines—Aquabus (tel. 604/689-5858; www.theaquabus.com) and False Creek Ferries (tel. 604/684-7781; www.granvilleislandferries.bc.ca)—which dock at the south foot of Hornby Street, Granville Island, Science World, and other locations. They operate daily from about 7am to 10:30pm (9:30pm in winter) and run every 3 to 15 minutes or so, but schedules change monthly and depend on the route. They are not part of Translink, so your public transit pass or ticket is not valid. One-way fares are C$3.25 to C$5.50 for adults and C$1.75 to C$3.75 for seniors and children. Various passes are also available.
Vancouver proper is a great place to explore by foot. It’ll take you about half an hour to cross the peninsula from north to south, and about twice that to wander west to east from, say, Stanley Park to Chinatown. There’s plenty to see while you’re walking that you’ll miss from a car or bus. Just make sure you have a map, comfortable walking shoes, layers, and an umbrella, because you never know what Vancouver’s unpredictable weather will throw at you.