Exploring Vancouver on foot
If you experience a sensation of deja vu on your first walking explorations of Vancouver do not be alarmed. Canada's third-largest - and most densely populated city - has taken so many star turns in the movies that is is known as "Hollywood North." Man of Steel, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, X-Men: The Last Stand, Godzilla, Fantastic Four, and 50 Shades of Grey are just a few of the blockbusters that have used the streets of Vancouver as a film stage.
Cosmopolitan Vancouver easily slips into its role of movie star with little make-up required. More than half of the city's residents consider English to be a second language. The colourful neighbourhoods teem with so much cultural diversity that standing in for other international cities in front of a movie camera is just something Vancouver does every day.
History and architecture
Royal Navy officer George Vancouver died in obscurity in 1798 when he was just 40 years old but he spent a good deal of his time on earth naming things on his Pacific Ocean explorations. He also managed to somehow miss discovering the two most important North American rivers that discharge into the Pacific Ocean: the Columbia River in the American Northwest and the Fraser River with its mouth in the modern city that bears his name.
The first British fur trading posts in the Pacific Northwest were established on Vancouver Island across today’s Strait of Georgia. Victoria was the hub city while the tiny settlement on the mainland was little more than a rough-and-tumble logging camp. That began to change in 1885 with the arrival of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway and when the Klondike Gold Rush exploded soon after there was no looking back. Vancouver was on its way to becoming the busiest port city in Canada.
In its rush to the world stage much of Vancouver's heritage buildings were trampled. In one attempt to salvage a morsel of architectural history developers practised a technique called “facadism” that preserved the fronts of old buildings and raised towers on the rubble of their demolished innards. City planners retained a hand on the development rudder, however, by mandating 27 protected view corridors among the the city's 50-plus buildings that rose taller than 100 metres. So as you stroll the town's celebrated neighbourhoods mentioned below the grand North Shore Mountains and the sparkling waters of English Bay remain visible through the concrete canyons.
Vancouver started in 1867 in the building lots surrounding the tavern operated by Yorkshire seaman “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a world-class talker. When the trains rolled into town elsewhere the brick Victorian warehouses on the Gastown waterfront were forgotten - even the voracious urban renewal bulldozers never came calling.
So much of Gastown remains intact that it was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009. The cobblestone streets were made for rambling and your tour can start at Gassy Jack's statue in Maple Tree Square. A few strides away at Cambia and Water streets is Gastown's prime attraction - the ever-bellowing Steam Clock. Although it blends seamlessly with its vintage streetlight companions the contraption of chimes and whistles was borne as a solution to a nettlesome steam vent in the sidewalk only in 1977.
Downtown Vancouver means Granville Street and you will want to come at night as city boosters claim the thoroughfare has the highest concentration of neon lights anywhere outside of Shanghai. Several blocks have been shut off to traffic to create a pedestrian mall reserved strictly for urban explorers.
Shopping, clubbing and entertainment are all on the menu here. The Orpheum Theatre hosts the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Vogue Theatre, a souvenir of the Art Moderne age, presents the latest contemporary acts. In Harbour Centre a glass elevator whisks passengers to the top of the 168-metre high Vancouver Lookout for 360-degree views of the harbour and the majestic coastal mountains that ring the city. And don't spend all your time gazing off in the distance. Look down, as well to see Stanley Park, one of the world's great urban greenspaces. For foot travellers the 28-kilometre Seaside Greenway around the park is the longest uninterrupted waterfront path on the planet.
Coursing through the heart of the downtown Vancouver peninsula this legendary commercial ribbon attracts some of the highest retail rents in the world. When Parker Brothers brought out a Canadian version of the board game Monopoly the most expensive property on the board was Robson Street. Robson links the idyllic Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park and at one end to BC Place, the city's outdoor sports palace, at the other. Even if one of the local professional teams is not in action you can tour The BC Sports Hall of Fame inside the stadium that honours Western Canada's sporting heritage, including its hosting of the dominion's first-ever Winter Olympic Games in 2010.
Interspersed with the high-end shops are some of Vancouver's greatest cultural treasures. The eye-catching Vancouver Public Library looks like Rome's Colosseum from the street and occupies an entire city block, attracting almost seven million visits per year. Robson Square is the city's civic centre, landscaped with lush greenery and waterfalls and featuring the only public outdoor skating rink in Vancouver - just strap on your skates, it is free for all to use. Robson Square connects to the Vancouver Art Gallery, housing 11,000 works in the city's former Hall of Justice.
Vancouver is renowned for its tempting ocean beaches shaded by skyscrapers. Cooling off means a visit to Kitsilano, a neighbourhood of sand and shops on the shores of English Bay. And if the gentle waves are not calling your name you can relax in the enormous Kitsilano Pool, a saltwater public swimming pool right on the beach.
Festivals are the order of the day in Kitsilano during the summer. None is bigger than Bard on the Beach, bringing over 100,000 William Shakespeare acolytes to Vanier Park for special events and nightly performances. Every day of the year Kitsilano dishes out digestible culture with its array of museums including the Museum of Vancouver that tells the city's tales from the Musqueam First Nation's peoples to modern day; the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and its Planetarium Star Theatre; and the Vancouver Maritime Museum where you can board the famous St. Roch, the first ship to make it through the fabled Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean in both directions.
Granville was the original name of Vancouver but it was thrown overboard by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880's. This tiny sandspit in False Creek south of downtown held onto the name and today it is a go-to destination for locals and visitors alike, many arriving on vibrantly painted water buses. If you suffer from seasickness just stepping on a boat, no worries - the “island” is really a peninsula.
The Granville Island Public Market is the pulsating heart of the neighbourhood, brimming with stalls showcasing the freshest catches from British Columbia's seas and harvests from its fields. The Granville Island Brewing Company was the the province's first craft brewer and today the outfit has been joined by a spirits distillery and the first sake maker in Canada. Many of Vancouver's performing arts theatres have migrated to Granville Island, as have the city's talented buskers. Railspur Alley is dotted with jewellers, glassblowers and potters plying their crafts. You may even discover yourself in an artisan workshop making your own Canadian keepsake.
The first Chinese arrived in Vancouver to build the Canadian Pacific Railway and the homes they built in Vancouver now represent the country's largest and most historic Chinatown. One of the city's oldest structures is the Wing Sang Building on Pender Street; it dates to 1889. And the Sam Kee Building is one of the oddest. When the city widened Pender Street in 1912 all but two metres were taken from Sam's land. Unfazed, he had a steel-frame structure built that measured 1.5 metres wide. It is now hailed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's "narrowest commercial building."
No walking tour wanders through the six blocks of Vancouver's Chinatown without visiting the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Fifty-three master craftsmen from China used 950 crates of traditional material to imagine the first classical Chinese Garden in Canada. The 14th century construction methods used no glue, no screws and no power tools.
Any exploration of Vancouver on foot will eventually lead to the waterfront and the Coal Harbour Seawall. The wide walking path winds for two kilometres or so past marina-based houseboats and replicas of the marine sheds that once thrived here. Instead of coal barges, today you can watch the comings and goings at the Vancouver Coal Harbour Seaplane Base that is the busiest water aerodome in Canada. The control tower directing traffic is the highest in the world.
The views from the condo towers that now populate the waterfront are so arresting that they lured reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes from his hermetically sealed hotel in Las Vegas to live in 1972. Rumour has it that Hughes stayed five months and 28 days - two days before Canadian tax laws would have kicked in.
The centrepiece of the harbour front is the white-sailed Canada Place, the disembarkment pier for luxury cruise ships and Vancouver's number one place to party. Expect a festival or celebration at any time of the year, most notably the country's birthday bash on Canada Day (July 1) that is the largest outside of Ottawa. Ten days earlier, on June 21, National Aboriginal Day honours the lives of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. You will never need a map to find Canada Place - just follow the sound of the ten Heritage Horns that blare the first four notes of “O Canada” across the city at noon each day.
Vancouver Travel Guides
- Top 10 restaurants in Vancouver
- A sport enthusiast's guide to Vancouver
- Exploring Stanley Park, Vancouver
- Top 10 things to do in Vancouver
- Exploring Gastown, Vancouver
- Exploring Vancouver on foot
- Explore the best film locations in Vancouver
- Exploring Deep Cove, Vancouver
- Exploring Capilano Suspension Bridge Park
- Exploring Grouse Mountain, Vancouver
- A beginner's guide to Tofino, Vancouver Island
- Spot Orcas in Vancouver
- A beginner's guide to Vancouver farmers' markets