British Columbia’s glass-towered metropolis revels in its mountain-fringed ocean setting. But scenery is only part of the picture in Vancouver. An urban archipelago of distinctive neighbourhoods––from historic Chinatown to indie Mount Pleasant to the up-and-coming Fraserhood––there’s a full menu of accessible mini-districts to explore here, whether this is your first or fiftieth visit.
A manmade island (later modified into a peninsula) completed in 1916, this rivet-tough warren of False Creek factories underwent an ugly duckling transformation in the 1970s. That’s when crumbling wood-beamed workshops were reclaimed with new theatres, artisan studios and a foodie-focused Public Market that’s now a major Vancouver visitor magnet. Dozens of additional creative pit stops add to its latter-day appeal, ranging from lip-smacking Liberty Distillery to handcrafted Granville Island Broom Company. But the gritty past hasn’t been forgotten: check out the preserved dockside crane, rail-embedded sidewalks and row of towering concrete silos, now painted as a gaggle of giant human figures.
Canada’s largest Chinatown is also one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods. And while trendy new businesses regularly open here, it’s not hard to tap the past in a district where red-painted lampposts are topped with sinuous golden dragons. Some of the oldest buildings are on East Pender Street where slender, terracotta-accented edifices look like time-travelling imports from yesteryear Shanghai. Nearby, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden deepens the cultural immersion, its whitewashed walls enclosing a turtle-rippled pond framed by twisting pines. Steps away, you’ll find Chinatown BBQ restaurant where nostalgic neighbourhood photos look down on heaping plates of Cantonese comfort food.
Thanks to loquacious Englishman John “Gassy Jack” Deighton and the sawmill workers’ saloon he opened here in 1867, this is where modern-day Vancouver began. The surging development surrounding his pub soon became known as “Gastown,” which was later officially renamed Granville and then Vancouver. Still the designated moniker for this historic neighbourhood, there’s now a jaunty, barrel-plinthed statue of old Gassy here, overlooking brick-paved streets that are lined with handsome heritage buildings. Deighton would be delighted to know that many of these now house some of Vancouver’s favourite bars, from the cocktail-loving Diamond to the craft beer-hugging Six Acres and Alibi Room.
A formerly faded working class neighbourhood reinvented by skinny-jeaned hipsterdom, indie boutiques stud the low-rise storefronts here. Start at vintage-focused Mintage Mall—retro taxidermy included––then peruse the packed stacks at Pulpfiction Books and eclectic arts and crafts at Bird on a Wire. Southbound (look for side street murals en route), pore over the well-curated albums at Red Cat Records then hit the Regional Assembly of Text stationery store, where antique typewriters jostle with handmade chapbooks. Need pit stops? Add java at Gene Coffee Bar, treats at Trafiq Café & Bakery and chicken and blue cheese burgers at the Rumpus Room, complete with 1970s rec room vibe.
The bohemian soul of East Vancouver since postwar Italian immigrants began transforming it into a promenade of patio cafes and neighbourhood coffee shops, these days the Drive serves an even more diverse menu of international eateries. Consider the Lebanese comfort dishes at Jamjar (don’t miss their deep-fried cauliflower); the French-Tunisian bistro ambiance (and bestselling lamb shank) of Carthage Café; and the celebrated sushi at Kishimoto Japanese Restaurant, where queue-avoiding off-peak dining is recommended. But if you’re craving a warming slice of Little Italy ambiance, beeline to Fellini-esque retro-look charmer Caffè La Tana for filigree pastries and perfect espressos.
Vancouver’s hippy heartland in the 1960s, Kits is now an affluent enclave of restored heritage homes. But there’s far more than pricey real estate to ogle here: oceanfront Vanier Park houses the Vancouver Maritime Museum, H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and the Museum of Vancouver (don’t miss its sparkling gallery of retro neon signs) as well as the tented stages of the annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival, a June-to-September must-see. Nearby, locals stretch out or kayak alongside ever-popular Kits Beach or noodle around West 4th Avenue’s kaleidoscopic stores and restaurants––including the Naam, a near-legendary vegetarian bistro launched in the flower power days of 1968.
A recently designated area forged from choice sections of two workaday East Vancouver neighbourhoods––Hastings-Sunrise and Grandview-Woodland––independent stores and restaurants have been blossoming alongside older mom and pop businesses here for years. But while some locals have yet to check it out, others make frequent pilgrimages––especially if they’re thirsty. A hotbed of Vancouver’s frothy, fast-developing craft beer scene, there are a dozen microbreweries to explore in and around this area. Try smooth Old Jalopy at Powell Brewery or malty Melcocha at nearby South American-inspired Andina. Add a hoppy Crazy Train IPA at Off the Rail before heading to Strange Fellows for a lip-smacking Talisman West Coast Pale Ale. And since beer apparently doesn’t cover all the food groups, finish with a hearty bowl of moules frites at neighbourhood favourite Bistro Wagon Rouge.
For a glimpse of what Mount Pleasant was like before it was cool, head to the Fraser Street and Kingsway intersection. Surrounding tiny McAuley Park then radiating southwards, the Fraserhood is a village-like gathering of old low-rise storefronts built to serve the area’s hardworking local families. But an influx of younger Vancouverites seeking lower rents is triggering change, with new businesses popping up between the paint-peeled Asian eateries. Coffeeshops including trendy Matchstick and indie stores such as Studiotique––where pop culture collectibles meet smart-sloganed T-shirts––are fueling this fledgling transformation. But it’s the dining scene that’s really taking off. Brunch at Jethro’s Fine Grub and a fresh-baked slice or two at the Pie Hole are now Fraserhood staples. And when it’s time for dinner, book way ahead for French bistro charmer Les Faux Bourgeois or chic Italian osteria Savio Volpe.