Walking Tour 1: Downtown & the West End
Start: The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.
Finish: Cathedral Place.
Time: 2 to 3 hours, not including museum, shopping, and eating stops.
Best Time: Daytime, particularly during the week, when the Law Courts building is open.
Worst Time: Late in the evening when the shops and offices have closed.
Once said to be the densest residential district west of Manhattan (now trumped by Toronto's St. James Town), it's surprising that Vancouver's West End doesn't overwhelm with tall buildings and concrete. Indeed, urban density has never been more beautifully planned or landscaped than in Vancouver. Every Edwardian house and every high-rise residential tower in the West End is surrounded by lush, beautiful plantings of trees, shrubs, and flowers. City council has given density bonuses to developers: trading more floors of condos for the preservation of heritage and trees. This appealingly green idea of the urban working with nature instead of against it carries over into Vancouver's commercial downtown, where the placement and orientation of buildings has been carefully controlled to preserve view corridors to the mountains and bodies of water. Remember to look up as you wander downtown -- more often than not, you'll be rewarded with a peek-a-boo view of a North Shore peak.
1. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
At 900 W. Georgia St. and dating from 1939, this hotel was built and owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), just as the city itself was for many, many years. In return for agreeing in 1885 to make Vancouver its western terminus, the CPR was given 2,428 hectares (6,000 acres) of prime real estate -- nearly the whole of today's downtown. The Hotel Vancouver is built in the CPR's signature château style, with a verdigris-green copper roof. Construction took 11 years, halted mid-build by the Great Depression. It's worth stepping inside to see the grand, old-fashioned ambience of the lobby.
Leaving by the Burrard St. exit, turn left. Pass the intersection with Alberni St., and when you reach the corner, turn right, cross Burrard St., and you're on:
2. Robson Street
The shops on this corner are said to get more foot traffic than any others in Canada. But things were different back in the 1950s, when so many German delis and restaurants opened up that for a time the street was signposted as "Robsonstrasse." Beginning in the 1980s, the older businesses were replaced with high-end clothiers and new restaurants and gift shops with signs in Japanese. Whether you're into shopping or not, Robson Street is a great place to walk and people-watch. The street has an international cosmopolitan feel to it, and chances are you'll hear Cantonese, Croatian, Japanese, and other tongues as you stroll.
2 blocks farther down Robson St. at Bute St., turn left and walk 2 blocks and through a mini-park to Barclay St., and you've entered:
3. The West End
Beginning in about 1959, this down-at-its-heels neighborhood of once-grand Edwardian houses was transformed by the advent of the concrete high-rise. By 1970, most of the Edwardian houses had been replaced by apartment towers, and the West End was on its way to becoming one of the densest -- and simultaneously one of the most livable -- inner cities on the continent. The mini-park at Bute and Barclay is one of the things that makes the neighborhood so successful: Traffic is kept to a minimum on the tree-lined West End streets, so that residents -- though they live in the city center -- can enjoy a neighborhood almost as quiet as a small town. Beautiful landscaping, and plenty of it, adds to the area's appealing allure.
Turn right and walk 3 blocks down Barclay St. to Nicola St. Along the way, you'll see some of the elements that make the West End such a sought-after enclave: the gardens, street trees, and range and variety of buildings -- including a few surviving Edwardians, like the Arts and Crafts house at 1351 Barclay St. and the pair of houses on Barclay between Broughton and Nicola sts., otherwise known as:
4. Barclay Square
This beautifully preserved bit of 19th-century Vancouver consists of Barclay Manor, built in the Queen Anne style in 1890, and Roedde House, a rare domestic design by Francis Rattenbury, British Columbia's leading 19th-century institutional architect, who designed the Vancouver Courthouse that Arthur Erickson revamped into the Vancouver Art Gallery. Roedde House (tel. 604/684-7040; www.roeddehouse.org) is now a museum, open for guided tours Wednesday through Friday 1 to 4pm; admission is C$5 adults. On Sundays, tea and cookies are served and the admission price is C$1 more.
Turn left and walk south down Nicola St. for 1 block -- past Fire Station No. 6 -- then turn right and go 1 block on Nelson St., then left again onto Cardero St. Just ahead is the tiny Cardero Grocery at 1078 Cardero St. All the grocery needs of the West End were once supplied by little corner stores like this one. Turn right and walk 2 blocks on Comox St. to reach Denman St., the perfect place to:
5. Urban Rush & Delaney's on Denman
If Robson Street is the place Vancouverites go for hyperactive shopping sprees, Denman Street is where they go to sit back, sip a latte, and watch their fellow citizens stroll past. Urban Rush (1040 Denman St.; tel. 604/685-2996) is a fine spot for coffee and people-watching, particularly if you can nab a table on their outdoor terrace. One block down on the opposite side of the street, Delaney's on Denman (1105 Denman St.; tel. 604/662-3344) is a favorite coffee hangout for members of the West End's sizable gay community. Everyone's welcome, of course, and the pies and cakes at this little cafe are great.
When you're ready to continue the walking tour, go 2 blocks farther down Denman St. and you're at:
6. English Bay Beach
This is the place to be when the sun is setting or on one of those crystal-clear days when the mountains of Vancouver Island can be seen looming in the distance -- or any day at all, really, so long as the sun is shining. Every January 1, shivering Vancouverites in fancy costumes surround the bathhouse here at the very foot of Denman Street (entrance at beach level) to take part in the annual Polar Bear Swim. Check out the Bathhouse where a sign dating to 1931 prohibits "immodest attire"; back then, swimmers would rent wool bathing suits that tended to sag when wet.
Walk southeastward (left, as you're facing the water) on palm-tree lined Beach Ave., and you come to a tiny green space with a band shell known as:
7. Alexandra Park
Back around the turn of the 20th century, a big Bahamian immigrant named Joe Fortes used to make his home in a cottage near this spot -- that is, when he wasn't down on the beach teaching local kids to swim. In recognition of his many years of free service, the city finally appointed Fortes its first lifeguard. Later, a marble water fountain was erected in his memory by the Beach Avenue entrance to the park.
When you're finished looking around the park, head up Bidwell St. 2 blocks to Davie St., cross the street, turn right, walk 2 blocks farther on Davie St., and on your left at no. 1531, you'll see:
8. The Gabriola
This was the finest mansion in the West End when it was built in 1900 for sugar magnate B. T. Rogers. Its name comes from the rough sandstone cladding, quarried on Gabriola Island in the Strait of Georgia. Unfortunately for Rogers, the Shaughnessy neighborhood soon opened up across False Creek, and the West End just wasn't a place a millionaire could afford to be seen anymore. By 1925, the mansion had been sold off and subdivided into apartments. Since 1975, it's been a restaurant of one sort or another although at press time the building sat vacant and the gardens gated.
If it's open, cut through the garden and walk up through the Nicola St. mini-park, turning right on:
9. Pendrell Street
A few interesting bits of architecture reside on this street. One block farther, at the corner of Broughton Street, is the Thomas Fee house (1119 Broughton St.), where one of the city's leading turn-of-the-20th-century developer-architects made his home. Farther along, at the southeast corner of Pendrell and Jervis streets, is St. Paul's Anglican Church, a 1905 Gothic Revival church built entirely of wood. Next door at 1254 Pendrell, is the Pendrellis -- a piece of architecture so unbelievably awful, one gets a perverse delight just looking at it. Built as a seniors' home at the height of the 1970s craze for concrete, the multistory tower is one great concrete block, with nary a window in sight.
At Bute St., turn left and walk 1 block to Comox St., and you're at:
10. Mole Hill
These two dozen or so preserved Edwardian homes provide a rare view of what the West End looked like in, say, 1925. That they exist at all is more or less a fluke. The city began purchasing buildings here in the 1950s but continued renting them out, thinking one day to tear them down for a park. By the 1990s, however, heritage had become important. The residents of the houses waged a sophisticated political campaign, renaming the area Mole Hill and bringing in nationally known architectural experts to plead the case for preservation. The city eventually gave in.
Cut across the park to Nelson St. and continue down Nelson St. past Thurlow St. to 970 Burrard St., where stands:
11. The BC Hydro Building
Built in 1957 by architects Ned Pratt and Ronald Thom, it was one of the first modernist structures erected in Canada and has since become a beloved Vancouver landmark, thanks in no small part to its elegant shape and attention to detail. Note how the windows, the doors, and even the tiles in the lobby and forecourt echo the six-sided lozenge shape of the original structure. In the mid-'90s, the building was converted to condominiums and rechristened the Electra. And contrary to the former-tenant BC Hydro's present-day power-saving messages, lights in the building were once routinely left on with the idea to make the building a city icon.
From here, continue on Nelson St., crossing Burrard St. and Hornby St. to:
12. The Provincial Law Courts
Internationally recognized architect Arthur Erickson has had an undeniable impact on his native city of Vancouver. His 1973 Law Courts complex covers 3 full city blocks, including the Erickson-renovated Vancouver Art Gallery at its north end. Linking the two is Robson Square, which Erickson -- and everyone else -- envisioned as the city's main civic plaza. As with so many Erickson designs, this one has elements of brilliance -- the boldness of the vision itself, the tiered fountains (behind them are the offices of the Crown attorney -- the Canadian equivalent of a district attorney), the cathedral-like space of the courthouse atrium -- but, raised above street level, the entire ensemble is removed from all the life around it. To reach the courthouse, take the concrete stairway up and follow the elevated pedestrian concourse. The courthouse, with its giant glass-covered atrium, is worth a visit.
When you've seen the Law Courts, backtrack along the concourse, and you'll end up at:
13. Robson Square
As a civic plaza, Robson Square should be grand, but in fact, it's pretty underwhelming. Its basic problem is that it has been sunk 6m (20 ft.) below street level, so it's never exactly appealing or inviting to passersby. Despite the skating rink added for the 2010 Winter Games and a UBC bookstore, Robson Square lacks the throngs of people that add the essential ingredient -- life -- to a civic plaza. But look across the street, and you'll see the life that Robson Square lacks.
Directly across from Robson Sq., at 750 Hornby St., is the:
14. Vancouver Art Gallery
On sunny days, people bask like seals on the steps of the old courthouse-turned-art-gallery, a great gathering place and the perfect spot to see jugglers and buskers, pick up a game of outdoor speed chess, or listen to an activist haranguing the world at large about the topic du jour. Designed as a courthouse by Francis Rattenbury, architect of Roedde House, described earlier, and the Legislature Buildings and Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria and renovated into an art gallery by Arthur Erickson, the Vancouver Art Gallery is home to a tremendous collection of works by iconic west coast painter Emily Carr, as well as rotating exhibits ranging from native masks to video installations. Film buffs may remember the entrance steps and inside lobby from the movie The Accused. To continue the tour, go around the gallery and proceed down Hornby Street. Note the fountain on the Art Gallery's front lawn. It was installed by a very unpopular provincial government as a way -- according to some -- of forever blocking protesters from gathering on what was then the courthouse lawn. In 2007, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games countdown clock was placed here. The clock has since been removed.
Cross Georgia St. and have a glance inside the Hong Kong Bank building (885 W. Georgia St.), where a massive pendulum designed by artist Alan Storey slowly swings back and forth. Cross Hornby St. and continue west on Georgia St. to 690 Burrard St., where stands:
15. Christ Church Cathedral
A Gothic Revival sandstone church with a steep gabled roof, buttresses, and arched stained-glass windows, the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral was completed in 1895. It was nearly demolished in 1971, when the church membership voted to build an Erickson-designed high-rise on the corner. But the public outcry overwhelmed the congregation's vote, resulting in the cathedral being named a heritage building in 1976.
Backtrack east to Hornby St., turn left, walk half a block, and climb the few steps into:
16. Cathedral Place
Often overlooked by Vancouverites, peaceful Cathedral Place is a charming example of an urban park. The building behind it, at 639 Hornby St., is a postmodern structure with small Art Deco parts melded onto a basically Gothic edifice. Some of the panels on its front were salvaged from the Georgia Medical-Dental building, a much-loved skyscraper that used to stand on this site. As for the Cathedral Place courtyard itself, which although it lacks sunlight, has the formality and calm of a French garden. The garden also adjoins the Bill Reid Gallery.