Geographically, Vancouver is surrounded by wilderness and water all around: the Burrard Inlet separates the core of the city from the residential North Shore area, while the Fraser River lies to the south and the Strait of Georgia lies to the west. And, of course, to the north, the city is overshadowed by the Coast Mountains. Dotted throughout are dozens of large urban parks, including the famous Stanley Park in downtown.
With its seat in the lap of nature, people sometimes forget that Vancouver is also a cosmopolitan, world-class city of glass-and-steel high rises, bustling and churning as a financial and industrial center of Western Canada. It is baffling how this city somehow manages to blend its role as a contemporary, urban metropolis – Canada’s third largest city – with its free-spirited love affair with the magnificent nature before it. This is what makes Vancouver so unique, so livable, and so lovable; millions of people will no doubt discover this when they visit soon enough for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
With a metropolitan population of only 2.2 million, and being so close to nature, Vancouver has the luxury of embracing a small-town lifestyle. Fittingly, the city is nicknamed “Hollywood North”; not just because of the many movies filmed in the city, but for its California-like laidback attitudes. Residents in Vancouver take pride in their park-like city. They have a tendency to stroll rather than rush. And they have even earned themselves the reputation among Eastern Canadians for being a little too hedonistic. But who could blame them? Recreational opportunities afforded by the sea and nearby mountains and parks demand to be taken advantage of. In Vancouver, ski slopes are only 20 minutes away from the city, rainforests are within walking distance of the business districts, and there are about 10 miles of beaches within the city limits. Spoiled as they are by nature’s bounty, Vancouverites do not abuse their surroundings. Like the native Indians before them, Vancouver residents take good care of the environment and can be quite vocal against actions that threaten it.
Unfortunately, Vancouver suffers from a lot of rain; the city averages close to 60 inches a year of it. The city, however, is warmed by the Japan Current and shielded from the Pacific Ocean winds by Vancouver Island, giving the city a gentle climate. Unlike so much of Canada, Vancouver receives very little snowfall. The warmest and least precipitous months are from May to September. Rainfall is consistent the rest of the months, but it helps keep the air fresh and the city green.
Canada Place is one of the most distinctive landmarks in Vancouver. Its white-sailed structure protruding into the harbor facing the Burrard Inlet has been featured in millions of postcards. Its roof has a white teflon-coated “sails” that has often been described as “Vancouver’s answer to the Sydney Opera House”. Canada Place has easily become the city’s icon. It was originally built to serve as the Canada Pavilion for Expo 86. The complex now includes the World Trade Centre, the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, a CN IMAX Theatre, the luxurious Pan Pacific Hotel, a major cruise ship terminal, and several restaurants and shops. There is also an outdoor promenade that encircles the complex, giving strollers excellent views of the harbor and the north shore mountains.
Canadian Pacific Railway Station
The Canadian Pacific Railway Station on Cordova Street has some architectural significance. It was originally built in the 1880s to serve as the railway’s terminus. The structure has been restored and is used today by a Sky Train elevated rail line and a SeaBus ferry.
The Harbour Centre at 555 West Hasting Street gives visitors the opportunity to view the city in its glorious setting. The building is 40-stories high. A glass “Skylift” elevator is taken up to the top where there is a circular observation deck equipped with telescopes. There is also an excellent special-effects film about the city. Be sure to check out the restaurant atop this building where you can dine while the floor rotates, giving the patron a continuous 360º view of the city.
Robson Square – Vancouver Art Gallery
Robson Square is a couple of blocks south of the Harbour Centre and runs along Georgia Street between Howe and Hornby. The complex was built in 1979 and contains a few government buildings, highlighted by a seven story law court structure with a sloping glass roof. This building also includes a media center, several restaurants and terraces, and an open-air plaza that is used as an ice-skating rink during colder months. Across from the modern complex is the old courthouse. Still preserved is its neoclassical design, which has been converted on the inside to house the Vancouver Art Gallery. The building was originally designed and constructed in 1907 by Frances Rattenbury, who was British Columbia’s leading architect of the time. Today, the gallery holds a permanent collection of international and Canadian Art, featuring mostly Canadian, North American, and European paintings. The main attraction of the gallery is the significant collection of Emily Carr’s works. Her paintings focus on the mystery of the rain forests and mimic the styles of Pacific coast native art. The gallery is located at 750 Hornby Street and is open daily.
Robson Street is Vancouver’s main strip. Visitors and locals alike take a stroll here to soak in a bit of European atmosphere. The most prominent section is the area between Howe and Broughton Streets. At one time, the strip was a German neighborhood and known locally as Robsonstrasse. Today, Robson’s European flavor still shines through. Visitors can sample the varieties of European food whipped up by the restaurants, cafes, and delicatessens lining the street. If you aren’t hungry, you can browse the fashionable clothes on display at the trendy shops.
Gastown is a neighborhood that is located a few blocks east of Harbour Centre between Columbia and Richards Streets. It is the birthplace and oldest part of Vancouver. This is where “Gassy Jack” Deighton built a saloon in 1867 to serve thirsty mill workers. A shanty town soon sprung up and eventually became Vancouver. In 1886, a fire destroyed the buildings here. Gastown, though, was quickly rebuilt with more robust materials. By the 1960s, the buildings had deteriorated into slums and renovation during the 1970s restored the structures while maintaining their 19th century exteriors. The cobbled streets were also retained and 19th century imitation street lights installed. Today, Gastown is lined with restaurants, bistros, pubs, galleries, and shops and is a major tourist draw, both during the day and at night. The center of Gastown is Maple Tree Square. This is where the original Globe Saloon built by Gassy Jack once stood. There is a statue erected to commemorate Gassy Jack with his barrel of whiskey. The corner of Cambie and Water Streets features the world’s first steam-powered clock in the world. The original steam mechanism has been restored despite having been long powered by electricity. Every 15 minutes, the clock pipes out the Westminster chimes, letting off steam.
Chinatown is located south of Gastown between Gore Avenue and Carrall Street. It is centered along Pender and Main Streets. Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community in Canada and the third largest in North America. The neighborhood had its beginnings in the 1880s and some of the original buildings still stand. The neighborhood bustles with noises and smells resembling Hong Kong. There are numerous restaurants, shops, bakeries, and herbalists hawking Chinese goods of all kinds. The main attraction besides the food and goods is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden located on East Pender Street behind the Chinese Cultural Centre. This is an unexpected peaceful sanctuary in the middle of a busy section of the city. It is the only one of its kind outside of China. A team of Suzhou residents designed the Ming Dynasty style garden to honor the revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, who visited Vancouver during the early 20th century to plan an overthrow of China’s last dynasty. The Oriental style garden is finely decorated with arched garden gazebos and features a composition of sculpted limestone, plants, bridges, rocks, trees, and water. Guided tours are provided and the principles behind the designs are explained. Another highlight of Chinatown is the Sam Kee Building. It is reputedly the world’s narrowest building at only 1.3 meters (or 6 feet) deep. It is located at the corner of Pender and Carrall Streets.
Stanley Park is the pride and joy of Vancouver residents. Located on the western tip of the downtown peninsula, this urban park measures 405 hectares (1,000 acres), 70% of which is lush rain forest. The remainder is comprised of sandy beaches, gardens, and public facilities. In 1886, Canada’s governor-general, Lord Stanley, granted the land to the city, dedicating it to the enjoyment of people of “all colors, creeds, and customs for all time”. The park today is laced with trails, picnic sites, tennis courts, running tracks, cricket pitches, miniature golf courses, restaurants, snack bars, a miniature railway, and an open-air theatre. You’ll also find a marsh lake called Lost Lagoon at the Georgia Street entrance. The lake is a bird sanctuary for Canadian geese, wildfowl, and Trumpeter swans. The 10 kilometer (6 mile) seawall encircling the park is popular among rollerbladers and cyclists. The less energetic can stroll through Scenic Drive, which circles the peninsula in an anti-clockwise direction.
You can get great views of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains at Brockton Point, where a series of totem poles stand. At Prospect Point, you can catch ships passing through the First Narrows. Ferguson Point, meanwhile, at the southwest tip of the park overlooks Third Beach and the peak mountains of Vancouver Island.
The Vancouver Aquarium is located in Stanley Park and is well worth a visit. It is the largest aquarium of its kind in North America with over 8,000 aquatic species on display. Performances are given by acrobatically trained killer whales who are supported by a cast of playful dolphins and beluga whales. There is also a recreated Amazonian jungle with birds, animals, and plants on display.
Granville Island sits on the south side of False Creek and is connected to downtown by the Granville Bridge. At one time, it was the center of the city’s shipbuilding industry, but by the 1960s had degenerated into a grim area of dingy warehouses and factories. Renovation in the 1970s revived the neighborhood and businesses, studios, galleries, restaurants, markets, shops, and theatres moved in. The highlight of Granville Island is the popular Public Market, where produce, international food, and fresh seafood are sold in stalls. On the western side of the island, you’ll find the Maritime Market, which sells every kind of good needed for leisure boating. The island is best visited at lunch time. You can grab a sandwich and eat while enjoying the great views.
Grouse Mountain stands 1100 meters (3,700 feet) high and can be reached by taking a lift at the north end of Capilano Road at 6400 Nancy Green Way. The eight-minute ride takes you up to the top. On a clear day, you can enjoy panoramic views of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The mountain is a popular ski resort in the winter, mainly because it is the closest ski dig to the city. In the summer, however, Grouse Mountain becomes “Cypress Beach”, so nicknamed because people flock here to sunbathe and soak in the sun. Year-round, paths and hiking trails are used by residents looking for some exercise. Restaurants and snack bars supply the folks when hunger and thirst sets in. The most popular trail is the Grouse Grind, a steep and mountainous hike up more than 850 meters (2,800 feet or 1.8 miles). It is so named for the grueling pain it inflicts on its undertakers. On average, it takes about 90 minutes to complete, but the world record is 24 minutes and 22 seconds.
Capilano Suspension Bridge
The Capilano Suspension Bridge sits at the foot of Grouse Mountain and offers a dramatic and thrilling experience. It is set in a parkland. The plank-and-cable bridge is more than 135 meters (450 feet) long and sways about 70 meters (230 feet) above the Capilano River. If you’re afraid of heights, you might want to avoid this attraction. But if you’re looking to recreate an Indiana Jones moment, the Capilano Suspension Bridge may well be the perfect prop. The Capilano River below rushes through a narrow canyon and is surrounded by Western Red cedars and Douglas firs. Be warned, there is a charge for crossing the bridge. You can reach it by taking Capilano Road from the Lions Gate Bridge. It is located at 3735 Capilano Road.
Mount Seymour Provincial Park peers over the waters of Indian Arm. It provides opportunities for mountaineers, hikers, horseback riders, picnickers, and scenic seekers to do what they like. In the winter, the mountain can be skied. Trails and roads climb 8 kilometers (5 miles) up the mountain to the mountain’s information center, the starting point for more trails. There is a café there where views of eastern Vancouver can be enjoyed. The chairlift from there takes visitors up to the top of the mountain in July and August. The road continues past the information center to the summit. To reach Mount Seymour, you should take Mount Seymour Parkway from the Second Narrows Bridge and turn off to the north once you get to Mount Seymour Road.
Van Dusen Botanical Gardens
The Van Dusen Botanical gardens are located about 10 blocks away from Queen Elizabeth Park at 37th Avenue and Oak Street. The garden measures 22 hectares (55 acres) and features a fragrance garden, plants grouped geographically and botanically, and a topiary garden for children where hedges are cut in animal shapes to form a maze.
Science World is a recognizable silver geodesic dome that was built for Expo 86. Located at 1455 Quebec Street at Terminal Avenue, visitors come here to learn about science through fun and imaginative hands-on displays. There is also an OMNIMAX Theater where specially-made films are shown. The theater claims the world’s largest domed screen and features effects that take audience participation to a whole new level.
The Vancouver Museum is located in Vanier Park west of the Burrard Bridge at 1100 Chestnut Street. The museum focuses on West Coast Indian culture and has some stunning native art and artifacts on display. Other exhibits include a replica of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post with reconstructed period interiors. In the second floor, you’ll find the H.R. Macmillan Planetarium, which presents a couple of astronomy shows daily complete including a laser show at night. The Gordon Southam Observatory sits next to the museum. Visitors can use the Zeiss telescope there to gaze at the heavens.
Queen Elizabeth Park
Queen Elizabeth Park is located at 33rd Avenue and Cambie Street. It sits at a height of 150 meters (492 feet), which is the city’s highest point. You’ll find magnificent gardens as well as a dome-shaped Bloedel Conservatory where exotic plants are grown and brightly-colored birds fly hither and dither. The floral displays in this park attract keen gardeners along with leisure folks who are looking for a nice stroll.
The sea plays an integral role in Vancouver’s economy. The city has the largest port in the Pacific Northwest. Grain, timber, minerals, and other Canadian resources are exported from Vancouver to Asian countries like Japan and China. Vancouver’s major industries include tourism, real estate, international finance, fishing, and forestry. With the high rate of foreign investment and the steady influx of immigrants from Asia Pacific, it is hard to imagine the city ever losing its position as a key player in the global economy.
The first European to visit Vancouver was the Spanish explorer, Jose Maria Narvaez, in 1791. He sailed up the Georgia Strait and found dense forests that were inhabited by Salish Indians subsisting on fishing. The following year, Captain George Vancouver explored and mapped the area, charting the Burrard Inlet for the British Navy. In 1808, Simon Fraser also reached the Pacific, but by land. On behalf of the North West Company, Fraser set up trading posts along the mouth of the river now named after him. Subsequently, the area was largely ignored, partly as a result of the North West Company’s merger with the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s. However, sawmills began appearing in the area in the 1860s and the Burrard Inlet was soon occupied by workers. The town came to life in 1867 when a Yorkshireman by the name of Jack Deighton built a saloon. A community sprang up around the bar and it was named Gastown after the saloonkeeper who was known as “Gassy Jack”. The town kept growing until the provincial government renamed it Granville.
In 1884, William Van Home, who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, decided to make Granville the West Coast terminus for his railway. The town renamed itself Vancouver and was incorporated as a city. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed within months by fire, but quickly rebuilt in time for the arrival of the first railway passenger train in 1887.
Around this time, many Chinese arrived to help construct the railroad, resulting in a number of clashes between them and the white community in Vancouver. The Chinese were deported by Vancouver authorities to Victoria. The provincial government intervened to permit the Chinese to continue living in Vancouver in the area now known as Chinatown. Unfortunately, racism persisted and the Chinese were denied rights as citizens until the late 1940s.
The 20th century witnessed the city’s rapid growth, spurred largely by the increased importance of trade with Asia. The fishing and timber industries thrived during the first half of the century. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 allowed the city to export grain to Europe. The two world wars also created significant demand for Vancouver’s mineral and timber resources. Today, high-rise buildings glitter in Vancouver in the background of coastal mountains, symbolizing the city’s transformation from a sleepy False Creek village into a globally important metropolis.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Vancouver.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver>
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