A Vancouver Point of View – Winning the battle of urban livability, this west coast Canadian city is the gem of British Columbia
Winning the battle of urban livability, this west coast Canadian city is the gem of British Columbia
Sheltered by its namesake Vancouver Island to the west, and ringed by the rugged peaks of the Coast Mountains, Vancouver feels like a city with a purpose: namely, maintaining its reputation as one of the most livable places on Earth. Canada’s largest west coast metropolis has made an unwavering commitment to ward off the common plight of other large urban centers – overcrowding, deteriorating environment, sprawl – and with great effect.
Of course, Vancouver started with considerable natural assets. Established on a peninsula of land surrounded by sparkling inland waterways and nestled among towering forests against a dramatic backdrop of mountains, it doesn’t get any more picturepostcard perfect than this.
To retain this connection with the natural surroundings, the city has set aside huge swaths of prime real estate devoted to parks and public use. The urban landscape is laced with pathways for walking or bicycling that link restaurants and hotels with sandy beaches, welcoming parks and character-filled neighborhoods.
Vancouver has been described as a city of neighborhoods; small, easily explored, each bursting with its own distinctive vibe. However there are three that have earned a well-deserved reputation as must-see destinations in this most neighborly of cities.
Start where it all started back in 1867, in the historic district known as Gastown. This cobblestoned quarter was elevated to National Historic Site status in 2009.
Pause here at the intersection of Carrall and Powell Streets under the statue of “Gassy Jack” to pay tribute to one John Deighton. Deighton’s drinking establishment opened in 1867, sparking the development of a ramshackle settlement that soon became known as Gastown, after the proprietor’s “gassy” propensity for chatting too much.
Another gaseous Gastown fixture is the Steam Clock on Water Street. Surrounded by tourists waiting for the whistles and steam that erupt every 15 minutes, this seemingly antique timepiece is not quite what it appears.
Actually installed in 1977, the clock is loosely based on London’s Big Ben bell tower.
It may look impressive with its whooshing vapors, but it’s largely driven by electricity. The steam that powers the whistles comes from an underground heating system that also warms local buildings.
As you meander through the streets of Gastown, you can read about the history of the area on plaques mounted on its buildings. But to get the real low-down on the old town’s
low-life, visit the Vancouver
Police Museum. Once a coroner’s court, this excellent small museum features an eyepopping array of confiscated weapons and counterfeit currency.
The museum also runs a popular Sins of the City neighborhood walking tour (C$20/$15), where squeaky-clean Vancouver’s nefarious back story is revealed. Museum entrance C$12 ($9); 240 East Cordova Street; tel +604 665 3346; vancouverpolicemuseum.ca.
The hottest downtown neighborhood is Yaletown, a waterfront area that captures the essence of Vancouver. In its long-ago past, this was Vancouver’s warehouse district. The low-rise brick buildings have kept their spacious loading docks, the perfect venues for dining al fresco. Wander among the cobblestones of Hamilton and Mainland streets and you’ll find hip boutiques and houseware stores, as well as coffee shops, bars and restaurants – it’s a buzzy area at night.
When the first transcontinental passenger train trundled into Vancouver on May 23, 1887, Canada was linked for the first time – and BC’s pioneer city suddenly burst into rapid development. The steam engine that made it all happen, Engine 374, was rescued from rust and restored in the 1980s. Today it’s on display in its own pavilion next to Yaletown’s Roundhouse Community Center.
The Roundhouse itself is a preservation story in its own right. It was built in 1888 to service the great steam locomotives of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. As steam power on the rails faded, the historic building faced demolition but got a reprieve from the wrecking ball to be used in Vancouver’s Expo 86 world’s fair. Today the refurbished building features a black box theatre, an exhibition hall, woodworking, pottery and dance studios and more.
The whole 20-block Yaletown area is loaded with entertainment and eats. A stone’s throw in any direction from the Roundhouse you’ll find a brewpubs, seafood restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops.
The spiritual heart of Yaletown is David Lam Park, a huge patch of green space that fronts the water and is filled with playgrounds and public art. Little boats pull up to David Lam Park from time to time; these are the sea buses, which for $2 ferry folks around False Creek, connecting Yaletown to, among other places, Sunset Beach, Vanier Park and Granville Island.
One of the city’s prime attractions, Granville Island is Vancouver at its most arty and laid-back. It’s home to a wide range of craft and gift stores, boutiques, art shops, artists’ studios and – its real jewel – a thriving indoor food market.
Vancouver’s favorite gathering spot is a kaleidoscope of colors, from glistening fresh-caught fish and meticulously stacked pyramids of fruit to a bewildering array of locally made arts and crafts. Open daily from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM, you’ll find a mouthwatering array of stalls selling incredible-smelling breads, cheeses, meats and treats.
But some vendors stand out at this celebrated covered market, including the ever-busy Oyama Sausage, chatty Granville Island Tea Company and Siegel’s Bagels. Check out Edible British Columbia (ediblebritishcolumbia.com) – its locally produced sauces, oils, preserves and maple syrups make good gifts, and it offers chef-guided tours of the market. There will probably be a busker or two providing accompaniment. Visit granvilleisland.com
Granville Island is stuffed with artisan studios and quirky galleries, which means you don’t have to settle for maple sugar cookies when it comes to finding the perfect Vancouver souvenir. Among the best spots to shop – especially if you’re good at packing fragile items – is the Gallery of BC Ceramics.
This gallery celebrates ceramics made by artists from across the province. Prices are good and you can carefully run your fingers over everything from cool, glossy-glazed mugs to hand-thrown teapots shaped like cars, armchairs and even pufferfish. 1359 Cartwright Street; tel +604 669 3606; bcpotters.com
Visit britishcolumbia.travel, tourismvancouver.com. BT
Clockwise: Gastown Steam Clock, shops in Yaletown, Grandville Island Public Market