In the last six months, we visited Vancouver twice and had vastly different experiences—one we call the Cheery View and the other the Curmudgeon’s.
Cheery View of Vancouver
Pulling on my sweater and tying the knitted scarf around my neck, I step outside under the autumn leaves glowing in Vancouver’s morning sunshine. The list of places I plan to explore that day include Gastown, the Vancouver Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is a nice 4.8 – 8 km (3-5 mi) loop. Briskly walking north from our apartment, I pass condominiums, shops, and parks.
Vancouver, British Columbia is a gorgeous, multicultural port surrounded by mountains. Incorporated in 1886, Vancouver is comprised of neighborhoods, which make it easy for visitors to organize their excursions. My walk heads to Gastown, a neighborhood with views of North Vancouver located on the far side of an inlet. Along the way, I photograph parks and interesting architecture, veer into a used bookstore with stacks of books piled in the aisles, and enter open shop doors to look at curiosities inside.
On Richards Street, I find the alley murals that provide a hip, edgy space for the Red Room clubgoers to catch their breath before hitting the dance floor again. This small urban venue is known for its Latin, Indy, and Alternative music.
In Gastown, my favorite place is the Coastal People’s Fine Art Gallery, which displays its gorgeous art work better than most museums. To give some context, for 70 plus years the Canadian government tried to forcibly assimilate the people of the First Nations, forbidding certain cultural practices, and suppressing traditional art. Over time, traditional skills were lost. During the last 30 years, happily, some artists talked with their elders about traditional practices, and worked with libraries and museums to learn what had been lost. Now indigenous artists create both traditional and contemporary art.
While in the gallery, I learned about the work of three fabulous artists—Susan Point, Corrine Hunt, and Isabel Rorick.
Susan Point (Coast Salish Nation) carves, paints, and etches glass using both traditional and contemporary methods. I loved her huge carved house posts (totem poles). In addition, to having her pieces in the gallery, you can see her tiles as you enter the Museum of Anthropology. Corrine Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw/Tlingit) creates exquisite silver and gold jewelry and metal objects. She was commissioned to make the 2010 Olympic medals. Isabel Rorick (Haida) is a traditional weaver. She gathers roots, strips and processes the wood, and weaves it into hats and baskets. Not only can you find her pieces in the gallery, her work is also displayed in art museums.
Near the gallery, Gassy Jack statute and the Steam Clock draw visitors. The clock is steam powered, sort of, toots a tune about every 15 minutes, and has lots of turning wheels and puffs of steam. It is a good photo op. You can read more about it here.
What to See and Do
Yaletown is a trendy neighborhood with nice restaurants and bars. Although Vancouver generally is a casual place, for dinner in Yaletown you can wear your fun, glittery dress or your hipster outfit. Nice jeans, boots and a fashionable top will suffice, but this is the place where fashion is cool. We loved the oyster appetizers and seafood entrees at WildTales and the hearty seafood stew at Cioppino Mediterranean Grill; both restaurants fall into the fine dining category ($$$). We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in this neighborhood, which was nice and super convenient. We were within walking distance of Gastown, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Aquabus dock near the historic Roundhouse. Partying continues until dawn on the weekends, however, so it can be a lot of fun if you don’t need much beauty sleep.
Gastown is the historic neighborhood because that is where the European settlers squatted in the 1870s and stayed, nudging out the First Nation people who had lived in the area for the previous 8,000-10,000 years. The neighborhood streets are lined with old buildings, brick sidewalks, souvenir shops, restaurants, and art galleries.
Granville Island is a 35-acre neighborhood known as an artist colony; entertainment area; shoppers delight; and the home of the popular Granville Island Public Market.
The proprietors of the market booths sell fruit, vegetables, fresh fish and meat. You can also find cafes, prepared food counters, and artisan stalls there. Be sure to roam the flower-lined streets to locate theaters, art galleries, a brewery and a distillery. We were intrigued by Ocean Concrete, a large cement plant located near the public market. It turns out that the plant is part the island’s industrial origins. Their 360 degree mural called Giants is comprised of six massive gray concrete silos painted in 2014 by the famous Brazilian street artist, Os Gemeos.
Stanley Park is Vancouver’s largest urban park. It is a peninsula covered with huge trees, landscaped gardens, and meadows. We rented bicycles and rode on the trail that circumnavigates the park’s perimeter (10 km/6.2 mi); and appreciated having a special lane for bikes and a different one for pedestrians. Bicycling let us see the spectacular views of the mountains and the city. Don’t miss the First Nation’s totem poles exhibit.
The Museum of Anthropology, located on the University of British Columbia campus, houses a huge collection of First Nations’ artifacts, including totem poles, boats and household objects. It provides an excellent introduction to the rich history of the aboriginal peoples who lived in the area for thousands of years before the Europeans; and the First Nation peoples continue to live in the area. The museum also has collections from other parts of the world. It is a first class museum and a must see.
The Aquabus is the water taxi service around an inlet and is a fun and convenient way to get to many of Vancouver’s attractions.
The cute, stubby boats come to specified docks every 15 minutes. Riding the entire circuit is a chill way to rest and see the city’s interesting architecture.
A Curmudgeon’s View of Vancouver
Let me preempt the hate mail by stating I realize that no one can claim unless they have gone to a city repeatedly or stayed a long period of time. I was only there for roughly four days, I didn’t see much of anything much less everything and I realize I’m being terribly unfair. There. Moving on:
The City: It’s big, it’s crowded and it’s noisy. The streets are relatively clean and it is no different than any other big city except that it is on the water and has an extremely large and attractive urban park. It also has beautiful and interesting skyscrapers. It’s best to focus on looking up or perhaps over at the harbor rather than at eye level since the streets are crammed full of stores that at first floor level are rather unattractive and do not in any way inspire the traveler to inquire within.
Fine Dining – Vancouver is full of restaurants that fall into three categories: Hole in the wall with zero ambience that is remarkably expensive and have fairly decent food, larger and more noisy restaurants that are remarkably expensive but have good food, and fine restaurants that are outrageously expensive and have interesting and good food. Here is a sampling:
Expensive Food – As a case in point, we dined at one of the high-end restaurants with a group of bon vivants given to ordering everything with much enthusiasm. So we wound up with a table full of interesting entrees, such as ones infused with essence of sea urchin, house made bread with grain ground on the premises, and braised knotweed. I visualized the restaurant staff going to the nearest vacant lot to chop down some of this noxious weed and then subduing it in the kitchen. Surprisingly, all of these were better than you would have thought but they were stunningly expensive. Ambience was sacrificed in favor of, apparently, putting all effort into grinding grain with their teeth in the kitchen. The bill was, not surprisingly, incredibly large. But as you know, you can’t be the curmudgeon who shrieks when someone merrily orders three more orders of slightly burnt bread.
Fairly Decent Food – A local restaurant, renowned for its candor with customers, served us breakfast. Somewhat reluctantly. This is a place that will bring you first cup of coffee but expect you to get any refills on your own without making a mess. They also criticized me for finishing my omelet since, as they pointed out, they wouldn’t be able to donate the extra to the local homeless shelter (it says on the menu that leftover food there; I felt thoughtless for not considering it). I am used to be catered to and fussed over. So the curmudgeon was slightly hurt not to be treated as a princess. By the way, the place had zero ambience.
Hole in the Wall – We went to a small Japanese place with staff who were pleasant but not that into us and it had zero ambience. The food was good but not awesome. It was small and cramped but it was all right.
Tim Horton’s – Due to an unfortunate fire alarm at our hotel, we had the pleasure of going to that Canadian Institution – Tim Horton’s. It’s famous for its maple glazed donuts, which we didn’t find about till later so we didn’t get it. We selected a sort of muffin with cheese and egg. It was quite forgettable and the cheese could not be identified by even its closest relative. The coffee would have been unspeakably weak if it had not been for the shot of espresso my husband prudently added in.
Harbor Cruises: They will speak glowingly of seeing whales leaping out of the water. I saw quite a bit of the regular harbor and was bored speechless by the commentary as to which cannery was the largest in North America. Eventually, we got to the fjords which featured densely wooded slopes, obscure islands and the occasional waterfall. Much was made of the waterfalls and we visited one up close so that we could get sprayed with water. Still no whales. We were served a luncheon that I felt almost made up for the industrial harbor talk. Then we chugged slowly back, reviewing the same islands, wooded slopes, etc. I kept nodding off but kept the faith. No whales. Not so much as a sea otter. To be fair I saw two bald eagles. I disembarked bitter and bereft of whales. It could have been worse; a friend of mine went on one of the serious whale-watching trips in a zodiac. She was sprayed in the face the entire time and also saw no whales.
Stanley Park: The best thing in the city. The pedestrian path is mercifully separated from the bikers. There are many bicyclists who are either very new at it or are intent on carnage. There are flowers, very old and large trees, and artists. The artists are offering multiple canvases of the same thing, painted slightly differently.
The Aquarium – I went there is search of sea wildlife because of the Whale-less Cruise. I saw sea otters and sea lions, which is certainly something. We only had an hour until they closed but this was not a disappointment since much of the exhibits were rather small. For example, when you hear Canaccord Financial Gallery or the Pacific Canada Pavilion, you envision a rather large expanse of something but they were actually large rooms with either a largish tank or a few tanks of very small frogs and various other creatures. There was apparently much off limits at that time of the day so perhaps there were exciting things we missed. We did see aquariums full of fish, a few exhibits with their version of charismatic mega fauna (i.e., sea lions and such) and there was an entire large room, called Canada’s Arctic, painted with pictures of creatures they do not have with extremely dreary ecological explanations of how they will all soon be gone. The one bright spot besides the sea otters was the ‘Goldcorp 4D Theater’ which had a nature documentary augmented by festive sprays of mist in the face, being poke in the back by imaginary sharks, and of course, noise. I am a sucker for IMAX films so in my childlike way, I was vastly amused. Soon after, it was time to leave, exiting through the gift shop. It was fortunate we did not have much time, since it was geared towards children with terrible taste in souvenirs. Still, who doesn’t feel better after seeing sea otters?
Squamish Chief’s Head – It must be admitted that I have a bad knee so I can’t really hike for more than an hour without discomfort. But this trail is unspeakable. It is a mountain, actually, and it is straight up. No switchbacks, due to the steepness, just straight up. It’s like climbing steep stairs if you’re three but these were set up by sadistic adults for adults. I stopped not very far up and did a watercolor of the waterfalls. Not because I was defeated by the mountain but because I wanted to. My husband reported cheerfully that I didn’t stop too soon because the stairs never stopped and later there were ladders and chains; it took them over three hours. This trail is only fun if you are fresh off your victories in the Ironman circuit. On the other hand, you could just go there to do paintings of the attractive waterfalls (of which there are many), pack a picnic lunch and laugh at all the grim hikers.
Canada has very little crime, especially compared to the rest of the world. Vancouver is a beautiful and clean city. It is the third largest Canadian metro area in population, but it has only the seventh most crime in the country. Visitors should consider it a safe destination, but crime exists. Downtown Eastside is considered one of the sketchiest of the Vancouver neighborhoods. You may encounter a few other gritty places, but they are avoidable. Although we were approached by a couple of needy souls, they were not threatening in any way. The rate of violent crime, which is low, has been steadily decreasing and is lower than it was in 2005. The same is true for sexual assault.
- Pay attention to what is going on around you. If you feel uncomfortable, go to a safer place. Or cross the street to avoid a hazard.
- In crowded places, take normal precautions to prevent having your wallet or handbag stolen.
- Don’t tempt thieves by pulling out lots of cash, leaving your cell phone on a restaurant table or hanging your handbag in a place that is easy to steal.
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Drunken women are easy marks.
- If you are walking, wear shoes you can run in. If you are going to a fancy place where you want to wear high heels, walk there in comfortable shoes and carry your fancy shoes in a bag. You can put them on when you arrive.
- Even if you are on a big tour or with others, it’s a good practice to act as if you are solely responsible for your own safety since any shrewd criminal targeting a tourist would look for the most distracted or least aware in the group.
We enjoy spontaneous conversations with local people, and when the opportunity arises, we ask a lot of questions. We learn about some of the off-the-beaten-track places to go, current events, and bits of history. For example, a knowledgeable taxi driver gave us a summary of Canadian politics, bringing in enough political history to provide the context for the current issues. Because of his brief orientation, we watched the news with keen interest while we were visiting and since we returned home. We came away with an appreciation of some of the complexities of the issues the country faces. So in addition to enjoying touring the city, we now have a long-term interest in what happens in Vancouver and Canada.