Our final stop before heading home was the beautiful Vancouver, BC. When looking for flights to London we noticed that it was almost 150 dollars cheaper to fly from Vancouver than from Seattle. Combined with around 10 dollar Greyhound tickets the choice was easy and we were stoked to add one more city – and country – to our journey. Besides, we were really happy to visit the city which has been voted to be one of the best cities in the world several times.
What you will first see are mountains. I would love to visit Vancouver during winter and see the view when the mountain tops are covered in snow. It created such an impressive back drop and sets the tone for what kind of destination and city Vancouver is; green, nature-embracing, ‘outdoorsy’. Another element is water, which wraps parts of the city around. You can also see people making use of the green and the water, with a constant flow of bikers, joggers, paddle-poarders, kayakers, trekkers and so on. And it all makes perfect sense in surroundings like that.
Another thing that straightaway becomes clear is how clean the city is and how the infrastructure has been, for the most part, kept in a pristine condition. Third thing that pops out is how architecturally Vancouver is not the most exciting place to visit. The buildings especially around the waterfront are all from the same mold. Glass. Metal. A bit lifeless. These things have an effect on the charm of the city for example compared to vibrant and colourful San Francisco.
However the beautiful nature makes up for it. Also there are projects under way, which will make Vancouver an interesting place to visit also for ‘building-people’. The rooftop of the central library (architect Moshe Safdie) and also the Vancouver Art Museum (architects Herzog & de Meuron) are under transformation, the latter also changing location. The rooftop should be ready in 2018 and the Art Museum opening has not yet been confirmed. But always reason enough to go back.
These new projects will definitely make downtown Vancouver more exciting. It is already clean, easily approachable and easy to navigate. But we did not find that much to do in the core of downtown. If the hockey season would have been on, then visiting a Canucks game would have been on our to-do list.
Canada Place is a landmark in the downtown north side. The Canada Pavilion opened for Expo ’86 and has since expanded to include another cruise terminal. It was the Main Press Center during the 2010 Winter Olympics and thus still a popular place for tourists to visit the waterfront. We spend some times watching small planes take off and land on the water, circling tourists in the air for great views of the city. If the Vancouver Convention Center does not offer interesting events, I don’t think there is much to do otherwise in Canada Place.
However, Canada Place is also a starting place for a Seawall biking trail.
One very popular way to see Vancouver is renting a bike and riding around the numerous biking trails all around Vancouver. Seawall biking trail is the obvious choice to see places like Canada Place, Stanley Park, beaches, parks, Granville Island and museums all with one go over a 15 kilometers trail. We were planning to do it and actually set out to do it several times, but just never got around to it. We instead walked most of it except for Stanley Park, which we will just have to see the next time.
East of Canada Place is Gastown, which goes back all the way to 1870’s. One of the best known features of Gastown is the Steam Clock. Built in 1977 the gorgeous clock gathers a flock of tourist hang around it, since every quarter hour it lets of some steam while whistling and making a little tune. The clock is powered by descending weights and a combination of a mini-steam engine and an electric motor keeps the clock running. So it is not actually only ran by steam.
The neighbourhood itself is an odd mix of touristy junk stores and stylish high-end boutiques. First impression was quite bad to be honest, but after walking around a bit the area opened up in a new way. Gastown has some charming bits and lovely stores to visit. We also found great vegan food from Meet. After all worth strolling through in our opinion.
However, right adjacent to Gastown is the poorest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Vancouver’s East Side being known as a place for drugs, prostitutes and social housing. And more than anywhere else I’ve ever been does the drug problem literally stare you right in the face (I have mostly travelled only in rich Western countries, if that makes a difference). And more than anywhere else we’ve encountered issues with heavy drug usage, in Vancouver it seems even more out of place.
I’ve heard that the city does not want to push the problem into the suburbs and marginalize the people even more. Instead they want to offer services right there where homeless and drug users are and where they will have an easy access to clean needles and help. It is an interesting approach to the massive problem they have and both sides of the discussion make some good points. It still startles you a bit when you walk in the area for the first time. You can read more about this dilemma of how one of the poorest and troubled neighbourhood is located in ‘the best city to live in’.
One morning we went for breakfast to this cafe with glowing reviews (we had to wait 45 minutes for a slice of bread and over-cooked poached eggs) which is located near Gastown. Right in front of the entrance there was a big market going on. Turns out it was official DTES Sunday Market. The salespersons and customers are mostly homeless or from very low income demographics. They sell things that are estimated to be 80 % found from bins, thus the nickname “Junk Market”.
Literally the first thing we saw was people shooting drugs right next to guards who were ignoring what was going on. So we knew quickly the market was not our cup of tea and moved on. But it has been marketed as a great way for locals and tourists as a social project to help out people in need by directly buying from them. “Binning” as in finding stuff from bins requires a lot of hours and it is actually quite an ecological thing to do, since perfectly good stuff can still get a new home in this era of single usage. However the market has also been criticized for a place to sell stolen goods, but the volunteers are trying to prevent this by vendors needing a license to sell, and by completely banning bicycles.
There is a more tourist-friendly alternative for some market-going in Granville Island. It is an island below downtown Vancouver, connected to the mainland by bridges and aquabuses. It is a massive place with several large factory buildings filled with vendors of food products, clothes and arts & crafts. If you want, you can easily spend the whole day exploring every single vendor. Due to us having our bellies full from breakfast and only a few dollars left on our bank accounts, we only spent a few hours before continuing our city hike.
We used little water taxi boats to go to the island and back. Indeed Vancouver has a great, versatile public transportation system: buses, trains, ferries and aquabuses.
You should make good use out of the public transportation and travel also outside of downtown to different neighbourhoods and to different outdoor activities. We travelled to north of downtown on a bus and on our way back we hopped of the bus and chose to get across the bay with a ferry, since our day pass allowed that too.
We originally went across the bay for some hiking in the forest north of downtown and walking over a steep canyon on a narrow suspension bridge.
The best known one is probably Capilano Suspension Bridge. Going over will cost adult about 40 dollars, although they do offer free bus from Canada Place. However, you could just pay 9,75 CAD for a day pass and use public transportation to get to Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge – and go over it for free. Both places offer various hiking opportunities as well, so to us the choice was easy. Even though it takes more time to get to Lynn Canyon, paying 40 bucks to walk over a bridge feels a bit silly when you can do it for free as well.
You can see Instagram full of gorgeous pictures of people posing at the Lynn Canyon on their own. No one else there than the person in the picture and behind the camera. During our visit the situation was quite something else:
I strongly recommend making the trip on a weekday and outside of peak hours. Our hosts had never seen a lot of people there, so it should be possible to have some peace and quiet. We saw a lot people on the bridge and also on the hiking trails, but nevertheless still enjoyed walking around in the Vancouver forests.
We stayed at the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Our first nights with amazing hosts, Rob and Carol, with whom we got our board game fix settled. For the last two nights we hopped quite literally across the street to our last AirBnb, and were happy to still stay in the great area. Everything cool on the same street, with a beautiful view to downtown and the mountains in the background.
There are some good streets around Vancouver, so don’t be afraid to hop out of downtown and explore. Eat good pizza at Don’t Argue!, have some salted caramel ice cream at Earnest, go around and taste beers at one of the many local breweries, and spend your evening playing board games at the city’s board game cafes (we went to one in Commercial Drive, which by the way looked like a pretty fun street as well)F
Fish & Chips at the Fish Counter
We had a great time on Vancouver. Even though it was the last stop of our year of travelling, and our separation of each other was getting more and more close, we were able to live in the moment. A city like Vancouver makes it easy to just enjoy yourself, as does the company of happy, relaxed Canadians. In US some things, experience and people can be so intense, that in Vancouver everything just felt so nice and simple.
Or maybe that was only in our heads, but what is certain is how easily approachable Vancouver is. It is decent-sized, beautiful, clean, safe and has a versatile selection of activities. Although we saw a lot, we still feel that maybe we only just scratched the surface.