Vancouver's downtown core—which includes some of its oldest, most historic neighborhoods—is clustered on a peninsula caught between the North Shore Mountains and the Salish Sea. You can explore this area on foot, and cover most of it in a day, though you may want to spend a little bit longer than that to really feel at home here. If you have more than a day, venture south to the funky hoods of Kitsilano and Main Street, or north to the mountains of the North Shore. In any case, bring your best walking shoes and be prepared to work up an appetite.
1. Canada Place
The distinctive sails of Canada Place are one of Vancouver’s most famous sights, and this is as good a place as any to start exploring the city. Canada Place is home to Vancouver’s two convention centers, the cruise ship and seaplane terminals, the FlyOver Canada attraction, and the Olympic Cauldron. It also offers unbeatable views of the North Shore Mountains, Lions Gate Bridge, and the busy Port of Vancouver. Tourism Vancouver has a visitor center here, so you can pick up any info you need, and numerous tours depart from the area, including the Vancouver Trolley Company city tours. And from here, it’s just a short walk east to historic Gastown, and a slightly longer walk west along a seaside pathway to Stanley Park.
2. Stanley Park
This 400-hectare (1,000-acre) public park is one of Vancouver’s greatest attractions—a wilderness area encircled by a scenic seawall and featuring gardens, a lagoon where swans glide, beaches, concession stands, playgrounds, totem poles, statuary, a miniature railway, and much more. One of the best ways to explore it is via horse-drawn carriage ride.
3. Vancouver Aquarium
While you’re in Stanley Park, be sure to drop by the aquarium, one of the best such facilities in North America. Visit the tuxedo-clad birds at Penguin Point, discover the critters of the Pacific Northwest in the Wild Coast Gallery, and stay for the daily beluga and dolphin shows.
4. English Bay Beach
If the weather is nice, head over to English Bay Beach, located at the south entrance to the park. Stretch out on the sand and check out the views of Kitsilano and, off in the distance, misty Vancouver Island. This is a good place for lunch: Try one of the many fun noodle bars along Denman Street.
5. Robson Street & the West End
Once you’ve refueled, you can meander by foot across the charming residential neighborhood of the West End. As you walk along the shady, tree-lined streets of cozy old brick walkups, you’ll find it hard to believe this friendly and livable community is one of the most densely populated in North America. Davie Street is still the heart of the city’s vibrant gay village, while Denman is a cluster of restaurants from every corner of the world. Head over to Robson Street for some window-shopping, and if time allows, pop into the Vancouver Art Gallery to check out the paintings by local legend Emily Carr. If time is short, though, you can always jump on a bus—either one of the hop-on, hop-off tours or the No. 5 city bus—or catch a cab to Chinatown.
Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the largest and oldest in North America. Although many of the original families that once lived here have moved on to the suburb of Richmond in recent years, it’s still a vibrant spot filled with cafes, noodle houses, markets, and increasingly, hip cocktail lounges. Don’t miss the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
7. Gastown & the Steam Clock
Near Chinatown you’ll find Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood, Gastown. The city got its start here back in the late 1860s when a saloonkeeper named Gassy Jack Deighton first set up shop to keep the local sawmill workers lubricated. This low-rise brick neighborhood has often flirted with the disreputable—and sometimes plunged headlong into flat-out bad behavior—but these days, it’s best known for its funky cocktail bars, independent restaurants, First Nations galleries, and trendy boutiques featuring local designers like John Fluevog. Be sure to stop and watch the famous Gastown Steam Clock whistle out the quarter hour.
There is no shortage of great places to dine in Gastown, but one of my favorites is L’Abattoir (so named because it sits on the edge of Blood Alley, once home to the city’s butchers). A modern restoration of a 120-year-old brick-and-beam space, with ornate French tile work and twiggy light fixtures, this is a chic little spot to enjoy chef Lee Cooper’s French-influenced West Coast fare and head barman Shaun Layton’s creative cocktails. Then, if you’re up for a little nightlife, you can hit the neighborhood’s clubs and bars afterward.