24 Hours in Vancouver: A Guide to Unlocking the City’s Essence
Travel deeper into Vancouver and you can discover the essence of this world-class city in just 24 hours. The first view of the skyline, with its green-glass buildings rising out of the sea, is always staggering. The beaches and parks are home to moss-laden cedars so tall you have to crane your neck to see the green-fringed tops. And on street level, you’re continually discovering more and more of the city’s eclectic mix of restaurants and shops. But there’s far more to Vancouver’s allure than just an enchanting cityscape.
I’ve been living in Western Canada for about four years now. Whenever I have guests, I act as a Vancouver travel guide, showcasing the inviting culture – replete with all its quirky charms – of British Columbia’s biggest city. In the perfect 24 hours in Vancouver, here’s what we do.
Your 24 Hours in Vancouver Starts on the Aquabus
One of the easiest ways of getting around central Vancouver is by boarding one of the city’s ferries. These Aquabuses, as locals call them, run up and down False Creek—a beautiful, yacht-filled inlet that separates downtown from the rest of Vancouver.
Surrounded by ocean in most directions, Canada’s largest port city shares a natural affinity with the water. From Vancouver’s aesthetic to its traditional cuisine, the influence of the North Pacific Ocean permeates many facets the city’s character. Locals will agree, taking to the water on a boat offers an insightful way to both view the city and understand it.
While taking Vancouver’s Aquabus over to Granville Island, look out for stand-up paddleboarders passing by, and—whatever the weather—watch for diverse marine birds like Black Cormorants, gulls and even the occasional Bald Eagle.
After getting off the boat, head straight to the buzzing Granville Island Public Market, where there are fresh and buttery almond croissants for sale at Blue Parrot Coffee for breakfast. The food and buskers and relaxed atmosphere on this island are an ideal introduction to the city.
On the market’s surrounding streets, various art galleries favor contemporary Canadian and Indigenous art. Visit Inukshuk for soapstone carvings, and then make a beeline for the non-profit Craft Council of British Columbia gallery that sells everything from high-end ceramics to hand-crafted jewelry. But, by far, my favorite stop is the Granville Island Broom Company. While growing up in an artistic family, sisters Sarah and Mary Schwieger learned how to flatten and craft brooms the Shaker way by using antique tools. Now they’ve brought their skills to this unique shop. Going inside feels like a peek into how peaceful a home might feel if every item were handmade, individual and artisan-crafted.
Vancouver’s Stanley Park: An Oasis of Wilderness within the City
Get closer to the city’s essence on a Vancouver day trip by visiting Stanley Park. Larger than New York City’s Central Park and surrounded by sea, it’s 1,000 acres of absolute delight—of dark green rainforest, meadows and traditional totem poles. While you’re here, rent a bike. Cycle the 5.5 mile-long (8.8 kilometers) seawall. Fawn over Siwash Rock—with just a few skinny firs growing from the top of the sea stack, it looks straight out of a haiku. Relax in the meadow at Brockton Point if it’s sunny. Or visit a 600-year-old Douglas fir tree. Or go for a walk at Lost Lagoon, where steely-eyed Great Blue Herons stalk the water.
Drop your bike off at the rental place and walk up the street—observing the thriving restaurants and shops of commercial Denman Street—to Peaked Pies. Vancouver is one of the world’s most multicultural cities, famously known for its Japanese-Canadian population. Some might say it’s a waste to try an Aussie bakery in a town with the best sushi this side of Tokyo. But those people probably haven’t tried the butter chicken pie and mash at Peaked.
Inspired by the old gardens of Ming Dynasty scholars, I also love Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. It costs $14 to wander among its rocks, water, plants and peaceful architecture, which were put in place here by 53 master artisans from Suzhou back in the 1980s. The building was supported by the Chinese and Canadian governments. And all the plants are local, while the building materials—from the lattice windows to the hand-fired roof tiles and Lake Tai limestone rocks—arrived from China in wooden crates.
Take Time to Browse the Eclectic Shops
By this point, it’s late afternoon. As much as Vancouver is known for its nature, it’s also famous for its slightly crunchy, Pacific feel. For quirky souvenirs that match the atmosphere of the city, head to Gastown. Fuel up on coffee at Timbertrain, where the baristas take their pour-overs Pacific Northwest-level seriously. And—if only because the air smells like a vanilla-scented dream—visit the wonderfully chaotic used bookstore MacLeod’s. Also visit The Paper Hound, which describes itself as favoring the “classic, curious, odd, beautiful, visually arresting, scholarly, bizarre, and whimsical.” I once bought a little book on mystic Tibetan practices of the 20th century here, and I don’t regret it.
Vancouver’s style is famously pared back, with a focus on quality rather than in-your-face branding. That’s clear to see on a stroll through Gastown proper. Wander past the stores selling Aesop lotions, Blundstone boots, and Scandi designer chairs, then go to MEET for a meal of oyster mushroom calamari and Bavarian cream cronuts. If you’re not into all things vegan, go to The Flying Pig for a fantastic bistro dinner. Order a bottle of red wine and feast on roast chicken or lamb bolognese rigatoni.
You’re in a district known for its elegant dessert and champagne bars. But still, just to the west of where you currently are, the sun is setting, and it might just be spectacular. Take a bus or quick cab over to English Bay. Go inside the heritage Sylvia Hotel and grab one of the window seats overlooking the sea. Then, order a sundowner to sip while pinks and golds spool out in the sky over the water. Or head to those famous Yue Minjun bronze statues, where fourteen giant laughing men appear bent over in different positions. Finish the day on the beach. Pick a piece of driftwood as your sunset seat. Then gaze at the gulls, watch the waves, and enjoy Vancouver—the locals’ way.