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The Best of Vancouver for Free

Lonely Planet

Western Canada’s biggest metropolis is routinely named as one of Canada’s most expensive cities for residents. But for budget-conscious Vancouver-bound travellers – as well as belt-tightening locals – there are plenty of ways to save a buck here and still have a great time.

Alfresco allure

No cash is needed to appreciate the forest-and-ocean trails in Vancouver’s magnificent Stanley Park. But its admission-free Nature House is also recommended for the lowdown on the region’s multitudinous flora and fauna. Aside from its wildlife exhibits, the facility also hosts low-cost guided park walks, often illuminating resident critters from herons to raccoons.

Nature-lovers should also check out Chinatown. The neighbourhood’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden charges admission, but right next door is a free-entry park that echoes the same ancient horticultural ideals. The paid attraction is more ornate and has guided tours, but its freebie sibling includes a similar turtle-rippled lily pond and terracotta-topped perimeter walls.

Alternatively, with kids in tow, head to Vancouver’s splash-tastic free water parks. The Stanley Park one, by Lumberman’s Arch, serves-up smashing oceanfront vistas. But the larger Granville Island Water Park – with pipes and sprinklers – is even more popular. You will only save money if you keep your sprogs away from the nearby indoor Kids Market, though.

But if you’re keen to explore another side of the city, the new Arbutus Greenway starts a few blocks away and is Vancouver’s answer to Manhattan’s High Line. This former railway route is being transformed into a 9 km linear park and is already open to walkers and cyclists. Fringed by trees and attractive homes, it snakes south to the Marpole neighbourhood – and a hidden gem historic house.

Freebie history

Marpole’s Colbourne House was built in 1912 as a small family home. Saved from the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, it’s now preserved as an evocative house museum, lined with nostalgic furnishings and period knickknacks – look out for the staircase “cupboard.” The house is open when volunteers are in attendance; email ahead to make sure.

If the past is your bag, you should also head to Yaletown’s Engine 374 Pavilion, which sounds fairly nondescript until you realise the hulking steam locomotive on display here pulled the first transcontinental passenger train into Vancouver in 1887. Peruse the old photos on the walls and quiz the enthusiastic volunteers on its fascinating story.

Alternatively, check out the ocean-themed patterns and handsome lobby of downtown’s grand Marine Building – Vancouver’s favourite art deco edifice – or crick your neck at the elaborate hammerbeam ceiling in 19th-century Christ Church Cathedral. Don’t miss its gorgeous stained glass windows.

But if you’re looking for the city’s oldest structure, head across town to the Point Grey neighbourhood. The wood-framed Old Hastings Mill Store Museum was built in the 1860s but was barged over here from Gastown in the 1930s. Originally a sawmill shop, it now displays eclectic curios including relics from the 1886 Great Fire that destroyed most of the fledgling city.

It’s not far from here to the University of British Columbia, where top attractions include the Museum of Anthropology. But there’s also a cool (and free) hidden museum to discover. In the basement of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, the Chung Collection Exhibition showcases artefacts on early Chinese immigrants and the Canadian Pacific Railway – vintage travel posters included.

Admission-free art

Vancouver is studded with eye-popping murals and camera-luring public art – the gaggle of giant laughing figures near English Bay beach is arguably the most popular. But there are also some cool free-entry galleries to explore, from the University of BC’s contemporary-focused Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery to the ever-changing short-run shows at downtown’s Pendulum Gallery.

Nearby, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s outdoor Offsite art installation changes every few months. And if you want to save on entry to the gallery itself – where blockbuster visiting shows combine with a strong focus on photography by Vancouver artists – drop by between 5pm and 9pm on Tuesdays when entry is by donation (five Canadian dollars is typical).

There is also a freebie gem nearby that even some locals don’t know about. Nip into the Royal Bank of Canada at the corner of West Georgia Street and Burrard Street, and take the escalator up one floor. In front of you will be the giant ‘Ksan Mural, a nine-panel, First Nations carving – one the largest aboriginal artworks in Canada. And although it is in a bank, you do not have to pay a cent to see it.

Gratis activities

Anyone can shimmy along to Robson Square for summer’s free Sunday afternoon salsa lessons. And if you still have energy – rather than money – to burn afterwards, tackle North Vancouver’s ultra-steep, calf-busting Grouse Grind hiking trail, a 2.9km route that starts near the main parking lot at the entrance to Grouse Mountain, one of the region’s most popular attractions.

Taking the well-marked trail to Grouse’s summit saves on the Skyride gondola fee, and once you are up top, you can freely enjoy attractions including lumberjack shows and wildlife enclosures. The downside? The trail is one-way, so you will need to pay 10 Canadian dollars to take the gondola back down.

For a less sweaty endeavour, consider one of the free – tips encouraged – city walking tours with Vancouver’s Tour Guys. Or spot some feathered locals on the gratis guided Bird Treks hosted by local avian expert Al Grass in area parks. More interested in the media? Downtown’s CBC television and radio studio complex hosts complimentary behind-the-scenes Newsroom Tours.

The CBC stages gratis music concerts at noon on summer weekdays in front of its building. And you can also join the locals across town at the Kitsilano Showboat, a summer-long series of free al fresco shows often framed by pyrotechnic West Coast sunsets. You’ll find many of the same Vancouverites catching free outdoor movie screenings in summertime Stanley Park – picnic blankets recommended.

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