Downtown -- Most of Vancouver’s commercial and office space is found in a square patch starting at Nelson Street and heading north to the harbor, with Homer and Burrard streets forming the east and west boundaries, respectively. Canada Place, on the waterfront facing Burrard Inlet, is part of the city’s huge convention center and cruise-ship terminal. The most interesting avenues for visitors are West Georgia, Robson, and Granville streets. West Georgia Street is where you’ll find the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Colosseum-inspired Vancouver Public Library, and the Pacific Centre shopping mall. Robson Street is all designer chains, restaurants, and cafes. Granville Street, also known as the Entertainment District, is where you’ll find many of the city’s bars, nightclubs, theaters, and pubs.
Gastown -- Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood, Gastown, was named for a voluble saloonkeeper named “Gassy” Jack Deighton, who kept the millworkers lubricated back when this was just a rough frontier settlement named Granville. In 1886, it was incorporated as the city of Vancouver—and just a few months later, burnt to the ground, only to be rebuilt from scratch shortly thereafter. And so began the first of the city’s many real estate booms. In today’s Gastown, you can find brick low-rises, cobblestoned streets, a certain amount of tourist tat, and plenty of quirky, vintage charm. It’s increasingly become home to many creative professionals, as well as some of the city’s most exciting restaurants, craft cocktail bars, First Nations art galleries, and unique boutiques, not to mention the famous Steam Clock on Water Street. Be aware, though, that Gastown borders the notorious Downtown Eastside, a desperately poor neighborhood of homeless, drug-addicted, and mentally ill residents, so it can be a bit dodgy, especially at night.
Chinatown -- Located southeast of Gastown, Vancouver’s Chinatown was originally settled by migrant laborers brought in to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. It quickly became one of North America’s most populous Chinatowns, and even today, although most of the city’s huge Asian population has moved out to Richmond, thousands of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking Canadians still live, shop, and eat here. And, although it retains much of its original character, Chinatown is quickly evolving into one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, with trendy restaurants, cocktail bars, and condo projects moving in.
Yaletown & False Creek North -- Hard to believe these days, but legend has it this is where the expression “skid row” was coined. That’s because a century or so ago, Yaletown was where logs were “skidded” into the harbor. It was, at any rate, a rough, tough industrial area of sawmills, cooperages, and warehouses that likely stored illegal hooch back in the dirty days of Prohibition. Today, this is a sleek, chic, urban neighborhood of trendy condos, cool restos, chic boutiques, galleries, and well-dressed young professionals walking tiny dogs along the cobblestoned streets that are all that remain of the bad old days.
West End -- This was Vancouver’s first upscale neighborhood, settled in the 1890s by the city’s merchant princes. By the 1930s, most of the grand Edwardian homes had become rooming houses, and in the late 1950s, some of the Edwardians came down and high-rise apartments went up. Expect to find bland concrete towers sitting comfortably next to brick walkups among lush gardens, tree-lined streets, pocket parks, and the gorgeous beaches of English Bay. Davie Street is Vancouver’s most prominent gay neighborhood, with rainbow-painted crosswalks and rainbow banners fluttering overhead. Denman and the northern end of Robson Street are chock-a-block with cafes, takeout joints, and restaurants dishing up a global banquet of cuisines.
Granville Island -- Vancouver’s most successful urban renewal project, and one of its most popular destinations. This sandbar under the Granville Street Bridge was once an industrial area of sawmills and factories producing everything from paint to planks to machine parts. Then, back in the 1970s, the federal government decided to transform it into a “people-friendly place,” and to everyone’s surprise, succeeded. Its main attraction is the Granville Island Public Market, but you’ll also find theaters, pubs, restaurants, artists’ studios, bookstores, crafts shops, a marina, Fisherman’s Wharf, an art school, a hotel, parks, a community center, a cement plant, lots and lots of people, and just as many seagulls.
Kitsilano -- In the 1960s, this West Side neighborhood had fallen on hard times. Nobody respectable wanted to live there—the 1920s homes had all been converted to cheap rooming houses—so the hippies moved in. Kits became Canada’s Haight-Ashbury, with coffeehouses, head shops, and plenty of patchouli and long hair. Today the patchouli and head shops are gone, and this is one of the city’s priciest, most yuppified neighborhoods. It’s still a fun place to wander, though, with plenty of trendy boutiques selling furniture, housewares, fashion, and snowboards. Plus, every third storefront is a restaurant, and who can resist the heated saltwater swimming pool at Kits Beach?
Commercial Drive -- Known as “The Drive,” Commercial Drive is the 12-block section from Venables Street to East 6th Avenue. The Drive has an unpretentious, down-to-earth, fading counterculture feel to it. It’s an old immigrant neighborhood that, like everyplace else in Vancouver, has been rediscovered: First, it was the Italians, who were followed by waves of Portuguese, Hondurans, and Guatemalans. Nowadays it’s all young families, artists, and eccentrics of all stripes. Think Italian cafe near a Marxist bookstore across from a vegan deli and co-op grocery store, and you’ve got the picture.
Shaughnessy -- Designed in the 1920s as an enclave for Vancouver’s budding elite, this is Vancouver’s Westmount or Nob Hill. With its stately mansions, lush gardens, and towering trees, this a lovely place to go for a walk, a bike ride, or an afternoon drive and gaze upon the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Look on the map for the area of curvy and convoluted streets between Cypress and Oak streets and 12th and 32nd avenues. Be sure to check out The Crescent, where the poshest of the homes are, as well as South Granville Street, the luxurious shopping district between Broadway and 16th.
Richmond -- Not so long ago, this flat suburb was mostly farmland; about a third of it still is. But it’s also become the vibrant, exciting epicenter of Vancouver’s new Chinatown, where wealthy, well-educated newcomers are flocking from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all over Asia. Head to an Asian-themed mall like Aberdeen Centre or Parker Place, and you’ll feel like you’ve landed in Hong Kong, without the jet lag. The best reason to visit, though, is the fantastic Chinese restaurants, which are considered some of the best in the world. Then, for a very different sort of experience, visit Steveston, a charming, historic fishing village that’s a great place for the whole family to spend a sunny day.
Little India -- Most of the businesses on this 4-block stretch of Main Street from 48th to 52nd Avenue are run by and cater to Indo-Canadians, primarily Punjabis. The area is best seen during business hours, when the fragrant scent of spices wafts from food stalls, and Hindi pop songs blare from hidden speakers, while young brides hunt through sari shops or seek out suitable material in discount textile outlets.
South Main -- South Main Street—awkwardly dubbed SoMa—is the city’s hip, new, happening neighborhood, all artist studios in converted industrial buildings, hidden theater companies, uber-trendy eateries, craft breweries, and independent eco-fashion boutiques. It still retains its old working-class and strong community feel, but with serious hipster street cred for miles. Nearby on Cambie Street lies City Hall, an Art Deco make-work project built in 1936.
North Shore -- Two bridges—the graceful Lions Gate and workmanlike Ironworkers Memorial Bridge—and the SeaBus connect Vancouver to the communities of North and West Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains. West Van is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Canada, a series of charming seaside “villages” and luxe homes with beautiful views from their aeries on the hill. North Van traditionally was more working class, and is still home to shipbuilding and a variety of light industries. It’s where you’ll find major attractions like the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain, just one of three ski hills on the North Shore (the other two are Cypress Mountain and Mount Seymour). The North Shore Mountains are known for their hiking and biking trails, and can make for an idyllic day spent among nature.
The Newest Hood: Southeast False Creek -- Vancouverites still can’t get used to seeing this sleek, sophisticated new neighborhood instead of rundown old industrial lands. Mind you, it wasn’t created without a certain amount of pain. It was developed as the Vancouver Olympic Village to house the athletes during the 2010 Winter Games and was mired in controversy—the city abandoned its promise for subsidized housing, then had to take on the bills when the developer backed out of its agreement, and for a while, no one wanted to live or buy here. Now the dust has settled, and this is rapidly becoming one of the coolest hoods in the city. Located on the waterfront overlooking downtown and BC Place Stadium, it’s also considered one of the greenest neighborhoods in the world, with a fab new waterfront Seawall that makes it a good place to walk, run, or cycle.