Vancouver is cool. We like the food, probably the best Chinese food in all of North America, and it’s an easy gateway to Whistler for some winter fun in the snow. It is a very good time to visit Canada thanks to the favorable exchange rate. Yihwan of Mile Writer says Vancouver is his favorite city in the world. Here are his practical tips should you visit.
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A quick traveler’s guide to the beautifully cloudy city of Vancouver – and why it just might be my favorite place on the planet.
Getting In & Around
Vancouver’s main airport (YVR), just 10 miles south of downtown, is well served by international carriers and budget airlines alike. While popular rideshare apps have been met with considerable regulatory resistance (you’ll be hard pressed to find an Uber here), zone-based taxis fares make ground transportation to and from the airport a breeze. Expect to pay just over $40 (including tip) to get downtown, with the flat fare including as many passengers you can (legally) squeeze into the cab.
If you’re like me and prefer public transit whenever possible, you’ll be happy to find that the Canada Line reaches directly into the terminal and costs about $7.75 ($2.75 one-way fare + $5 YVR AddFare) to the city center. You’ll be even happier to find that Vancouver offers reasonably-priced daypasses on a Compass Card, which is a no-brainer if you plan on hopping on a bus, train, or even the local ferry more than a couple times each day.
U.S.-based travelers (and everyone else who finds themselves south of the border) might consider flying into nearby Seattle (SEA) and taking a bus or train up. You’ll avoid the hefty international tariffs tacked onto trans-border trips (the fare difference can easily exceed several hundred dollars!) and have a chance to explore two great cities and the beautiful scenery in between.
BoltBus is my go-to favorite, offering clean, reliable, wi-fi enabled service from $9-40 one-way, depending on how early you buy. Amtrak is another option, though expect an additional $20-50 premium for the old world rail experience. Either way, the trip only takes about 4 hours, including a brief passport check at the border, and saves you the hassle of lengthy airport security lines and flight mishaps.
Where to Stay
The entire city center sits on a roughly square-mile peninsula that stretches out into Stanley Park. If you like being in the middle of it all, you’ll feel at home just about anywhere here considering how easy it is to get around. I’m partial to the always-lively Granville street, though the city’s ritzier establishments are scattered amongst the gleaming highrises of Coal Harbour.
One area you might avoid (or at least be mindful of) is the area to the southeast of the city’s Chinatown and Gastown quarter. Years of living in San Francisco and New York have, for better and worse, desensitized me to certain realities of the urban underbelly, but some may feel uncomfortable around the noticeably seedier areas burdened by substance abuse and neglect.
If you prefer quieter accommodation on the city’s periphery, North Vancouver is a short half-hour away by regular ferry service, and Burnaby is just a bit farther by SkyTrain. Both offer great options for accommodation, often at pleasantly discounted prices compared to downtown.
What to Do
This is a tough one for me. Whenever I tell people that Vancouver is my favorite city on Earth, I’m invariably asked why – and what there is to do there. The problem is that I don’t really have a set laundry list of things to do and places to see ready off-hand.
So to start, allow me to better conceptualize why I love Vancouver so much. Imagine, if you will, a tidier version of San Francisco, surrounded by majestic views of the Pacific and surrounding mountains, with prime samples of sensible Scandinavian design scattered throughout. Add in a strong Asian influence (and the delicious accompanying cuisine) while maintaining careful urban planning and a naval heritage imported by the Brits. These colonial roots, however, have been shed long ago, with a thriving community that is weird-like-Portland, unbelievably diverse, and always welcoming. Oh, and Canada. Everyone loves Canadians, and they love you too.
So if you enjoy nature and other outside-things, you might spend some time watching the seaplanes take off from the bay while strolling along the Coal Harbour waterfront boardwalk. You might even make a day of it biking into the city’s expansive Stanley Park all the way to the Lions Gate Bridge. If you’re willing to venture outside the city, you can hop on a ferry and bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, where you’ll find tourists and locals alike braving a modest cliff-jump into the nearby waterfall. Even Whistler, with its world-renowned slopes and trails, is only a short drive away.
If you like food, you’re welcome to visit the Granville Island Public Market and its assorted stalls and wares. If that’s a bit too touristy for you, you’ll have no trouble finding a more hole-in-the-wall joint along Robson Street (sandwiched between luxury boutiques) or from one of many food trucks roaming the streets. If you’re looking for the oh-so-Canadian dish of poutine, look beyond the creative guerilla marketing of Smoke’s Poutinerie and head on over to Fritz European Fry House or La Belle Patate, both conveniently open late enough to round out a night of misadventure.
For a more alternative vibe, check out the Kitsilano neighborhood west of downtown and peruse independent bookstores, coffee shops, or simply camp out on the beach on a clear day. Vancouver is also famous for its Davie Village, the city’s LGBT center, where you’ll find the A-maze-ing Laughter sculptures – a subtle reminder that life’s too short to be too serious.
Nightlife is no joke here, with permanent traffic closures making way for a bustling pedestrian mall through the Granville Entertainment District, which gets particularly lively on the weekends. Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighborhood is closeby, where you’ll find artists, performers, and tourists mingling along its quaint cobble-stoned streets and alleyways.
I happen to like all of these things, which is probably why I like Vancouver so much. If you like any of these things, you’ll probably like Vancouver too.
Other Tips & Practicalities
Vancouver isn’t the cheapest destination, regularly ranking among the most expensive (if not the most expensive) place to live in Canada. That being said, a strong US dollar and sheer diversity of travel options go a long way in accommodating any budget. After taking this into account, Vancouver can be considerably cheaper than New York, Tokyo, and cities in Western Europe.
In my view, the best way to get around – especially downtown – is by bike. You’ll find no shortage of short-term bike rentals, and many hotels will offer a free bike on a first come, first serve basis. The streets are a cyclist’s dream, with more dedicated bike paths and lanes than just about anywhere else in North America. Don’t forget a helmet, and remember that common courtesy (biking in the same direction of traffic, avoiding pedestrian sidewalks, etc.) goes a long way.
Speaking of courtesy, crossing the street on a red light is generally frowned upon here. I learned that the hard way – bad New York habits, sorry. Also, everyone is almost too nice. Don’t be surprised if you have to awkwardly pick up the pace as someone holds open a door several yards away from you. I might be a bit jaded from squeezing through one too many tight Manhattan sidewalks, but I for one found the overwhelming kindness and general politeness to be a refreshing change of heart.
In true American spirit, tipping is expected at 15-20% at full-service restaurants. I’m sure standard tips for cabs, luggage, and elsewhere would be appreciated as well.
As an avid traveler, I can’t help but see Vancouver through the lens of other cities and make intermittent comparisons throughout. But every time I stop by, I can’t help but realize there just isn’t a place quite like Vancouver anywhere else in the world. I hope you have a chance to discover it for yourself some day.
About the Author:
Yihwan blogs occasionally when the planets align just right, but prefers to spend his free time off the computer and on the road. When not traveling, he likes tinkering around with new tech and running an extra mile. Connect with him on Mile Writer, Strava, Instagram, or even LinkedIn.
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