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Back to School in Vancouver

Lonely Planet

You’ve done Stanley Park and Granville Island and swayed across the North Shore’s Capilano Suspension Bridge. It’s easy to find Vancouver’s biggest visitor attractions, but where else can you go with time spare and a hankering to head off the beaten path?

Occupying a dramatic waterfront promontory on the city’s West Side, the University of British Columbia is easily reached by transit bus (numbers 4 and 44 roll in from downtown, while connecting to the 99B-Line can be even faster). But heading back to school here isn’t just about reliving your undergrad days.

As Vancouverites will tell you, the 50,000-student UBC campus is also studded with museums, gardens and attractions. Add public art, a full menu of eateries and a couple of great performance spaces, and you’ll have more than enough for a full day out – so long as you know where to go.

Many start at the popular Museum of Anthropology, the university’s best-known attraction. Its glass-walled Great Hall – bristling with towering totem poles and hulking ceremonial carvings – illuminates the region’s rich First Nations heritage (take the free tour for added enlightenment).

But the MOA isn’t just about snaggle-toothed totems. It’s also crammed with 10,000 cultural objects from around the world, from intricate samurai armor to leering Portuguese Lucifer masks. And its library-quiet European Ceramics Gallery displays 600 pre-20th-century objets d’arts, from elaborate beer steins to fragile figurines.

Some visitors begin and end their UBC excursion with the MOA. But there are other museums worth hunting down here – including some hidden gems.

Opened in 2010, the entrance to the family-friendly Beaty Biodiversity Museum is dominated by Canada’s largest blue whale skeleton, a 26-metre-long colossus suspended from the ceiling. Step into the movie theatre for a fascinating documentary on how this marine giant was transported across the country.

Essentially a public display of natural history research materials, Beaty is lined with rows of cabinets teeming with tooth-and-claw taxidermy and preserved flora and fauna. Beady-eyed birds are the stars – especially some imperious owls and a yellow-feathered Baltimore oriole that seems to scrutinize everyone who passes. 

Just across from Beaty, the small Pacific Museum of Earth is one UBC’s lesser-known attractions and entry is by donation. Crammed with kids on my visit, its displays showcase intriguing fossils and shiny, gem-like minerals – while a large, duck-billed Lambeosaurus skeleton acts as a full-time camera magnet.

After perusing the free-entry Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery a few minutes’ walk away – it specializes in contemporary works and changes shows several times a year – I discovered another gratis attraction.

Hidden in the basement of the Irving K Barber Learning Centre – UBC’s original library building – the Chung Collection’s evocative photos illuminate Vancouver’s early Chinese residents. There are also nostalgic posters, menus and models from the golden age of Canadian Pacific Railway travel – think powerhouse steam engines and streamlined cruise ships.

Back outside, it’s worth saving time for a tree-lined campus stroll. Centered on Main Mall – UBC’s principal thoroughfare and de facto promenade – ivy-clad older buildings jostle with grand, glass-fronted structures resembling corporate head offices. But despite the pace of development, plenty of tranquil green spaces remain here.

Punctuating Main Mall’s north end, the handsome Rose Garden offers postcard views of Burrard Inlet framed by the looming North Shore Mountains. Not far away, the Nitobe Memorial Garden ( is a Japanese-themed oasis of peaceful pathways and a moss-banked pond filled with plump koi carp. And if communing with nature is your main aim, Pacific Spirit Regional Park fringes the waterfront with dozens of woodland trails.

But most green-loving visitors make a beeline for the UBC Botanical Garden (it’s on the university’s C20 shuttle bus route if you don’t want to hoof it from Main Mall). The 78-acre park is divided between tree-lined trails on one side and – via an under-road tunnel – cultivated gardens on the other.

Check out the medicinal Physic Garden and the jam-packed Food Garden here, but don’t miss the attraction’s Greenheart Canopy Walkway: an elaborate network of rope-supported footbridges strung between towering firs and cedars. It guarantees a squirrel’s-eye view of the regional rainforest – plus a jelly-legged feeling as you wobble along the route.

A quick budget-stretching note: the handy UBC Museums and Gardens Pass provides discounted combined entry to four fee-paying attractions – ideal if you’re planning a full day out.

And if all that exertion inspires an appetite, the campus also has a diverse menu of fuel-up options available.

Coffee shops like Ike’s and Neville’s are perfect pit-stops, while Italianesque Mercante is ideal for lunch. But if you’re craving something more substantial, you don’t need to line-up at the Student Union Building’s hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. Instead, pick-up a copy of The Ubyssey campus newspaper to read and find a perch inside what may be the best bar on campus.

Koerner’s Pub – well-hidden near the north end of West Mall and handily close to the MOA – welcomes all with its communal tables, tree-fringed beer garden and clientele of nerdy professors and hipster regulars. Alongside the welcoming ambiance, the menu keeps the locals coming back.

The Koerner Organic Burger is a staple here while heaping weekend brunches are similarly popular. But for something hyper-local, try a crunchy UBC Farm Salad, sourced as much as possible from the university’s own farm, less than a mile away.

The farm is planning to open its own microbrewery in 2017. But until then, you can sup from Koerner’s excellent booze list – go for draft sake or a tasting flight of four beers dominated by Driftwood Brewing, one of British Columbia’s best ale-makers.

And while you should also save time to dart to the UBC Bookstore for a souvenir of your visit – UBC Thunderbirds football team T-shirt recommended – there’s no need to end your eclectic day out just yet.

Check ahead to see what’s on at the university’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts – one of Vancouver’s best concert venues – or book tickets for a play by the school’s acclaimed thespian students on one of several campus stages. The season typically runs from September to June – and you might just spot a rising star or two.

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