Overview of Vancouver

From diverse North American cuisine to busy mushroom markets to charming historical districts, Vancouver offers a diverse experience for all family members.

Vancouver is a large, cosmopolitan city located just 24 miles north of the U.S. border in Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia. A picturesque city, Vancouver sits on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides with a coastal mountain range overlooking it in the distance. It’s a diverse and vibrant city, a virtual melting pot of East meets West; its deep Canadian heritage is interspersed with Asian and European influences. The cultural kaleidoscope, so many cities within a city, is perhaps what makes Vancouver so interesting. I’ve come to know Vancouver well, the city serving as a gateway to nearby Whistler, one of my favorite ski resorts.

On my most recent visit, I stayed at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel, which made for a great home base. It’s located across from Burrard Inlet, Vancouver’s main port, and the cruise terminal. Also across the street is the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre, which will serve as broadcast central for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, when Vancouver and nearby Whistler host the games, an IMAX theater and a boardwalk with historic plaques and markers along the way, making for a nice walking tour highlighting Vancouver’s historical sites.

Culinary Delights and Shopping

For an easy way to hit several city highlights in one day, my family hops on a Big Bus sightseeing tour that weaves through the city’s key districts, allowing us to hop on and off at intervals.

Our first unloading is Granville Island, a culinary treasure trove in Vancouver. The island, once a center of shipbuilding, was transformed in the ‘70s into a mecca of butchers, bakers and fishmongers, the public market being the epicenter. Here, locals and visitors come to buy fish, kelp and rainbow seaweed combed from local waters, wines from inland Okanagan Valley, gourmet preserves, and exotic mushrooms foraged from British Columbia forests. The “mushroom man,” as I like to call vendor Louis Lesosaoi, says that each Vancouver ethnic group gravitates toward certain mushrooms: the Germans toward porcini, French toward morel, Japanese like pine mushrooms and Russians marinate lactarius deliciosus.

Granville’s is a colorful market for sure and a must on a visit to Vancouver. For a unique culinary outing, sign up for a “market experience” guided by a top chef with hints on ingredients, what to do with them, and a goody bag filled with recipes and tips. Visit www.edible-britishcolumbia.com.

After my kids put up with my culinary wanderings, we wander over to Granville Island’s Kids Market (toys, not food) and its big Adventure Zone indoor playground. There’s also a model train museum around the corner with the world’s largest public display of model and toy trains.

Next stop, Robson Street, where some of the city’s most fashionable shops are located, though with the Canadian dollar now about on par with the U.S. dollar, the buys are not like a few years ago. But, if you happen to be visiting around the Christmas holidays, keep in mind that Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is like the day following Thanksgiving in the United States where virtually every store has a grand sale. Robson Street also features more than 50 restaurants ranging from noodle houses to the ultra-chic.

Vancouver Eats

Like the city itself, Vancouver’s cuisine is diverse, renowned for Pacific Northwest seafood cuisine, French-inspired new-Canadian dishes and some of the best sushi outside Japan. In fact, the sushi master at Tojo’s, located at 1133 W. Broadway, is credited by some as having invented the California Roll. But to experience the melting pot that is Vancouver, I also recommend a visit to the hip Chambar Belgian Restaurant at 562 Beatty St. serving paper-thin ostrich carpaccio drizzled in truffle oil and more Belgian brews that I can count. Raincity Grill at 1193 Denman St. is a good choice for authentic British Columbia food and wine. It’s a pretty, candlelit bistro overlooking a bay that features almost entirely seasonal, local products. 

An Urban Nature’s Paradise

To wear off a good meal, my family heads to Stanley Park across Burrard Inlet, a vast natural oasis with 1,000 acres of trails, lakes, beaches and wildlife. It’s one of the largest urban parks in North America. We stroll among Douglas Firs, some more than 300 feet tall, and breathe in the scent of cedar trees. Horse-drawn carriage rides are also available to tour this nature-lovers park. Within its midst is also the Vancouver Aquarium, an aquatic delight complete with Beluga whales that totally captivate my children and me.

I don’t see much sun in our days in Vancouver; in fact, I have rarely seen the sun on any of my visits. But during the summer months is when it does peek out and Vancouver is at its most heavenly, a nature-lover’s paradise with kayaking along tree-lined fjords, a cornucopia of great hiking and biking opportunities through the region’s coastal rainforests and beaches at every turn along the city’s coastline.

Along English Bay’s beach, keep a lookout for the enormous Inukshuk stone statue, literally translated from the indigenous Inuit language to mean “stone man that points the way,” a directional beacon used for centuries by travelers seeking safe passage. An Inukshuk image is now the symbol for the 2010 Winter Olympics having come to represent cooperation, friendship and human spirit and an emblem seen time and again in Vancouver.

Historic Gastown, Chinatown and More

On another day, strolling around the corner just a few blocks from the Fairmont Waterfront, we find ourselves in historic Gastown, its red brick streets lined with gaslights, a hissing steam clock momentarily taking me back in time to when Vancouver began. The streets are a charming, eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants, galleries (including one with enormous totem pole works of art) and souvenir shops. For a treat, stop in Gastown’s Old Spaghetti Factory and ride out the hearty lunch on the on-site trolley car inside.

Not too far from Gastown is Vancouver’s Chinatown, the third largest in North America. There, while my youngest children are back napping at the hotel, my 8-year old and I find respite along the busy main boulevard at lovely Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens, the first such gardens built outside China, following the most ancient of horticultural traditions and worth a visit. It’s tranquil and exquisite, and my daughter becomes snapshot-happy trying to capture its beauty.

On our next days it’s a toss up between a floatplane ride—Vancouver has one of the world’s largest floatplane networks—whale watching or a walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. My family opts for the latter, 20 minutes outside of downtown Vancouver. We sway on the long suspended bridge high above a gorge over cascading river rapids, then wander its elevated walkways amidst the coastal rainforests until my children are out of breath but invigorated.

Vancouver most certainly does invigorate with a seemingly endless assortment of adventures in the city, and in its ‘cities within-a-city.’ But when all good things come to an end on a visit to Vancouver, consider the Fairmont Vancouver Airport to ease travels back home. It’s a favorite of my kids and the only hotel inside Vancouver International Airport. As I pack up for a long trip home, my kids don binoculars provided in-room to watch the planes coming and going over milk and chocolate chip cookies. For some reason, all the action makes the ending of our trip not so anti-climatic. It’s just one more adventure in Vancouver, where adventures never seem to end.

Destinations: Vancouver

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat, Shopping, Sightseeing

User Comments

Oh Canada I am a huge fan of Vancouver and especially enjoyed visiting Granville Island – great food and great buzz. Stanley Park was another highlight and I’d definitely head back there with our daughter. I also love the British tea shops – feels like home!