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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

The perfect city break in Canada, Vancouver

Updated: Feb 17

Vancouver is not only one of my favourite cities in Canada but it's up there on my list of top cities in the world. Why you may ask? The city is more open and green, so there are parks everywhere, forests nearby, beaches and ocean to take in, surrounded by mountains which makes Vancouver a stunning beautiful city. A lot of the city can be walked, cycled, or if public transport is used, then the bus is a great way to get around. Like San Francisco, this city is good for your health, food wise and a lot of people love to keep healthy by running, walking and cycling, using the green spaces the city has to offer. However unlike San Francisco, the air in this city is fresher (if that makes any sense) and whilst wandering around, I didn’t feel like I was in a huge city. Because of a lot of natural things nearby, this felt more like a town in a forest or by the sea with the people having a laid-back approach to life. Ok, I will stop talking now and tell you all about what the city has to offer and what day trips or weekend breaks can be done nearby.

A view from Stanley Park, Vancouver
Vancouver - a view from Stanley Park

Downtown Vancouver

Now I am going to be totally honest, apart from eating out and shopping, I only did a few of the places the city has to offer. This is because of all nature has to offer nearby. One place I regret missing out so far on my three trips to the city is not stopping by at Granville Island (which is not an island but a peninsula) where there are a lot of cafes, restaurants, markets and theatre. Another place is Gastown which is Vancouver’s Old Town, another area full of restaurants. Next trip, fingers crossed I will get to these two areas of the city (and update this post!) So for now you might want to use Google or look at other travel blogs.

I start off where 98% of visitors of the city go too (this is what it felt like to me), the area around Stanley Park. This park is one of the best city parks in the world I have come across and a heck of a lot of people love to do a run or cycle around here. There are great views of the sea and the mountains to the north of the city. There is quite a lot of see in this mini rainforest with different varieties of trees but for those who want to escape nature for a moment and learn about one of the local cultures here in Canada, then there is the First Nations Totem Poles. The art work on the carvings are totally amazing. However for me it’s just taking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and water. A truly amazing place.

Near to the entrance of the park is a little harbour where I took a ride with Harbour Cruises and had a sunset dinner and cruise on a mild summer evening. Leaving the harbour the vessel I was on, the MPV Constitution (which is a paddle-boat, my first and only time I have been on one), took in the northern side of the city, went past Stanley Park, south towards Kits Point and Granville Island before turning around and going back the way route. I think I was on the cruise for over two hours so whilst on the journey, I took in the sunset on a cloudy evening over the sea and had a three-course meal (buffet style) which had a lot of fish and vegetables on offer (so I can’t complain). This cruise is the perfect way to take in the sea and the city views at night.

One of my other favourite eating places is Cardero’s restaurant located in the Coal Harbour Marina. As well as having fantastic marina and mountain views, the food and service here is bloody fantastic (the only way Olga and I could sum it up at the time). The starters, the fish meals, the desserts, we couldn’t complain about anything (well, we don’t want to complain in the first place), & it was one of the best dining experiences we had in Canada. If having a late meal here in the evening, there is also live music to be had.

Grouse Mountain: As mentioned, Vancouver for Olga & I was like a base and didn’t do much in Downtown. It’s outside the city which is really worth checking out and getting up close with nature and taking in the views.

Located slightly north of British Columbia’s largest city Vancouver is Grouse Mountain which is one of the North Shore Mountains. Standing at 1,200 meters (4,100 feet), the mountain is known for its ski resort but is also one of the top attractions to check out whilst staying in this amazing city. Grouse Mountain is pretty easy to get to from Downtown Vancouver. We had a car and the journey took about twenty minutes to drive to the main car park on a clear road. However there are shuttle services (check Grouse Mountain website for details) which takes about twenty-five minutes. If using a sat-nav (GPS): the full address is: 6400 Nancy Greene Way North Vancouver, BC V7R 4K9.

Next to the car park is the lower cable car station where the main ticket booths are. However at weekends and during the summer periods, the queues can be quite long so it is best to buy the tickets in advance and skip the queues. Then it’s time to go into the cable car and take a ride up the mountain. This is called Skyride and takes visitors over the towering Douglas Firs. The ride is pretty quick and before we knew it, we were at the top of Grouse Mountain. For those who don’t want to go up in the cable car (and save some cash), there is a hiking trail but it's 2.9km long each way and is steep in some places. The cable car station is connected with other buildings which host gift shops, toilets and of course food outlets. There is a bistro up here which we did and we enjoyed it, but for those who want to splash the cash, the Observatory Restaurant is the place to be. Eat and take in the beautiful sights of Vancouver down below.

As well as being a mountain and taking in the amazing views of this part of British Columbia, there are also some things to do and check out. We found this place to be a great way of educating young children as well with some of the events here and we sure can’t wait to bring our children here. First off in the summer months there are usually lumberjack shows (sure don’t get this back home in the UK) and these guys can chop wood real good. Also there are ranger talks and the ‘Birds in Motion display’ - a bird of prey demonstration whilst for the crazy ones, there is mountain biking, golf, paragliding and a zipline to throw one down, it can all be done up here. For those with even more cash, take a helicopter tour of the surrounding mountains.

Don’t forget to check out the bears, Grinder and Coola. Grinder has been here since 2001 and was found dehydrated, weak, thin and not weighing very much. His mother was never found so the guys who found him looked after him, got him back to healthy status and now lives here on Grouse Mountain. Coola (the larger one out of the two), was found orphaned beside a highway in the province. His mother and two other cubs were killed by a truck and Coola was the only one to survive. Coola has lived on top of Grouse Mountain since 2001 also.

Another place to check out is the Eye of the Wind, which was an amazing experience. A little walk from where the bears and birds of prey are located, the ‘Eye of the Wind’ is the world’s first and only wind turbine that allows visitors to go right to the top and take in the views of the surrounding area from inside a clear-view glass pod. Here we took in 360-degree views however, the rotating blades weren't on that day so we couldn’t get to see them in action. It does cost a little bit extra (not much) but for those under 16 years old go up for free but have to be over one meter tall in height.

Some tips which may come in useful: I will just talk about the summer months as I have never been up the mountain in winter. First off, during busy periods, buy your tickets online and skip the queues. Take comfortable walking shoes and just in case, a light jacket. Weather changes quite quickly on the summit of mountains. It maybe warm and hot at the bottom but can be a few degrees cooler at the top. If doing everything, visitors will need a full day here, otherwise if just doing half-a-day and then lunch, then combine it with a half-day trip to the Capilano Suspension Bridge which is a couple of kilometers down the same road which brings visitors to Grouse Mountain.

Nearby is Cleveland Dam on the Capilano River. Ok, so it’s a dam right, however this place is free to visit and is off the main road between Vancouver and Grouse Mountain. The reason I mention it is that it's a great place to go for walks or start a run from here but also another great view is to be had of the mountains.

One of my favourite days out whilst staying in the area is the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Wondering why a bridge? I will explain but I can assure you that this place isn’t just about a bridge and why it is a fantastic place to visit for everyone, even little children. Here is how my trip planned out when I visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge (which I have visited twice and can’t wait for a third time when the children come along for the first time).

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is located about fifteen minutes drive from Downtown Vancouver. Again, like Grouse Mountain, there is a free shuttle bus from certain pick up and drop off points in the city but we had a car for our visit so there was ample parking which is opposite the main entrance. The full address for Capilano is 3735 Capilano Rd, North Vancouver, BC V7R 4J1. The attraction is open all year round apart from Christmas Day.

Stats and history: After paying for the ticket at the main entrance the first place Olga and I checked out of course is the Suspension Bridge. The bridge crosses the Capilano River, is 140 meters (460ft) long and is 70 meters (230ft) above the river. Originally built in 1889 by a Scottish man named George Frant Mackay who was a civil engineer and a park commissioner for Vancouver. Over the years the bridge was sold twice, firstly brought by Edward Mahon then MacEachran (who invited the local natives (First Nations people) to place their totem poles in the area). Then the bridge was sold again to Henri Aubeneau before the bridge was rebuilt for the second time in 1956. The whole park was sold again in 1983 to the current owner Nancy Stibbard who managed to boost attendance numbers to the park by adding a few extra attractions (which we will explain shortly).

Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver
Capilano Suspension Bridge.

On the bridge: of course the Capilano Suspension Bridge is the highlight of the visit to the park. We love the views of the river and the water gushing downhill towards Vancouver. Here is also a good place to see a huge amount of trees and the taller mountains to the north, which one of the mountains that can be seen (but only just) is nearby Grouse Mountain. One word of advice is that if visitors suffer with motion sickness, then get here early (We would get here early regardless to avoid the crowds, especially in the summer months or weekends), because the more people on the bridge, the more it rocks.

Treetops Adventures: Once crossing the bridge, one of the newer attractions (well, since 2004) is Treetops Adventures which consists of seven footbridges suspended between the trees. Fact: the trees around here are Douglas Fir trees (thought I throw that in there). The walkway is located up to thirty meters (98 feet) above the forest floor. I can see why children love this place, running along the bridges, getting excited about how high they are and it’s a great way to get up close to the trees.

Cliffwalk: Another one of the newer attractions opened in 2011 is the Cliffwork where visitors get the chance to walk on glass panels (thankfully the glass is very strong) on the side of a cliff. I am not joking, it is quite high and if you don’t like heights, then don’t look down! This is a great way to see another part of the canyon and a great view of the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Once the cliff walk is completed then the path goes through another forested area which meant I was able to get up close to the trees and saw a nice pond. The path eventually leads back to the main entrance area where there are gift shops and a restaurant.

Step back in time & First Nations culture: There is also a small area known as the Story Centre where we got to see people posing as tramps. No, not the tramp who are usually homeless people sleeping rough on the streets, no, the term tramp in this case are people who made the long ‘tramp’ to the suspension bridge. Here there are some displays to check out and artifacts from the area when the park was being created.

Also there is an area called Kia’palano where I got a glimpse into the lives of the First Nations people of this area and to see the connection they have with nature. Some of the history explained here includes the placing of the totem poles which all tell a story.

My advice: As mentioned I have been here twice, both in the summer months. First time I had a glorious sunny day, the second however, I had the rain come lashing down on me but luckily cleared up halfway through his visit. The good thing about this is that the park gives out free poncho’s if visitors require them. Make sure comfortable shoes are worn. Don’t even bother going in high heels! At weekends or the busy summer season, I would suggest buying tickets online to skip the queues at the entrance. Also in busy periods, get there early. I was here all morning and by lunchtime the park was full of visitors. I was really surprised that the bridge can hold a lot of people. All that extra weight and strain on the structure.

Another suspension bridge to check out but to the north-east of Vancouver is the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge located in the area known as Lynn Valley. It is free to go to and parking is limited but at the bridge there is a cafe and toilets. From here, walk across the bridge (which is smaller than the Capilano but still breathtaking), and if visitors have enough time, then go for a hike. I did this in the rain (well, the area does have rainforests, so it was good to walk in the rain in the rainforest I guess!), and walked down the hill towards the 30 Foot Pond. Here it was just nice to sit down and relax by the water. It is an easy trail (the name of the trail is Baden Powell Trail) however going back from the pond to the bridge is uphill but it’s a nice gentle climb.

Across the water: have a weekend on Vancouver Island

One of the parts of Canada I always wanted to visit was Vancouver Island, Olga & I managed to achieve this during our first road trip around British Columbia but unfortunately we had only two days (one night stay) on the island, so we had to plan the trip out carefully but thankfully for a local we knew, we was taken to the top places to visit near the island’s largest city, Victoria, named after the British monarch from the 19th century. Here is what we managed to see and do on the island which we highly recommend.

Ferry from Vancouver to the island: There are two main ferry routes for passengers (unless you wanna fly of course) and they depart from TWO different ferry ports in Vancouver. The one north of Vancouver is the ferry port known as Horseshoe Bay and ferries go across the sea to Nanaimo (which is a handy route if passengers want to avoid Victoria and doing the extra mileage from the south of the island) or the route which we took with the car and that was from the ferry port south of Vancouver (and it is a long way out) known as Tsawwassen where the ferries sail across to Swatz Bay near Sidney, which is about a twenty minute drive from Victoria.

The ferries (run by BCferries) are the best way to get across. On a perfect summer’s day like we had, we were able to see some dolphins and the odd whale but we love the route the most, going in between islands, seeing the nearby mountains in the very far distance, this is probably one of the best ferry rides we have ever done (and the food on board is ok, once again a lot of junk food being offered so not good for the healthy eaters but there are a few salad options).

Victoria: This was the first (and probably the only) town in western Canada which has a lot of British heritage and European style buildings like the Fairmont Empress hotel (which is a four star hotel but looks five star from the outside) on Government Street and the nearby British Columbia Legislature building where politicians governs the island. These two buildings are the finest from the days of British rule (as I like to call it).

For all those road trips geeks and geography muppets like myself, the sight I wanted to see was the marker which is the start of the Trans-Canada-1 highway (or the finish marker depending which way you go). The highway goes to the ferry point at Nanaimo then starts again on the mainland passing Vancouver, Calgary and goes right across the centre of Canada all the way to St John’s in Newfoundland on the Atlantic coastline. The road is around 4,900 miles long (8,000km) and is one of the longest in the world. The marker can be found on the green with the junction of Dallas Street and Douglas Street on the seafront.

Victoria, Vancouver Island
Mile '0' sign in Victoria

However there are not that many sights in Victoria, it is mainly just a city full of shops but there are some great places to dine out also. On our first evening we checked Browns Social House on 809 Douglas St, V8W 1A6. Maybe not a budget restaurant but the place is always packed out, lots of beer and wine on offer, great customer service, plenty of sport on the television screens, what can go wrong. All I can say is that steaks are top notch and the female staff members were very friendly to me when they found out he had a ‘proper’ British accent.

One of our all time favourite breakfast places is also located here in Victoria. John’s Place located at 723 Pandora Ave, Victoria, V8W 1N8. Located north of downtown, this restaurant has a great atmosphere about the place with its many sports memorabilia hanging on all four walls. Once again the staff were fantastic and couldn’t beat the service but the food here is totally awesome! That’s all I am going to say but the point is, it is cheap (so great if you are traveling on a budget) and just to point out, Olga & I couldn’t finish our plates!

Quick trips outside Victoria: As we didn’t have much time and with the ferry departing late on the second day we were on the island, we got up early to do a drive up north (then west) to check out a few sights. Just north of Victoria is the Goldstream Park which is kinda small compared to other parks but we were shown a great short walk from the car park just off the highway (take turning onto Finlayson Arm Road) which goes straight into a car park with an information hut. Follow the path back underneath the highway and this will take hikers to a nice waterfall.

We also did another hike nearby in the park where we parked up near the entrance of Goldstream Provincial Park Campground and followed a hiking path for a while which took us along a river to another small waterfall. It was just simply wonderful to get out of the city and enjoy nature without a soul to be seen.

Further up the highway (passing through Duncan) is the very small town of Chemainus and we simply love this place for its hippy and artistic feel. Starting off as a logging town, the area has now got thirty-nine murals which locals decided to paint on the side of buildings to boost tourism (to gain another income) after they saw their huge mill close down in the early 1980s. Because of this, many restaurants, cafes, antique stores and other types of quirky shops have sprang up and the town now attracts many visitors from far afield. We even found a shop selling British chocolates (but at a very high price which we wouldn’t even think of daring to pay back home!) =

The other town we explored is right near Swatz Bay ferry port and is a great place to stop off for an afternoon if looking for food and drink and that is Sidney. With time to kill we just relaxed by the seafront, beer in hand and took in the views of the Pacific Ocean and the mountains over in Washington State (USA) which can be seen. Also the town has a funky street market which closes off a few streets in Downtown and the street food on offer is sublime. (Just wish our camera battery didn’t die on us at this point!).

Overall, we barely scratch the surface once again on Vancouver Island. We only did about 2% of the island as it is one of the world’s largest islands. All we saw outside Victoria whilst driving along the highway and hiking the area is trees, trees, trees and mountains of course. We really do want to come back here one day as we've been told the hiking routes in the centre and west of the island are worth checking out. We love the island, the people we met, the food, the nature, the journey across to the island from the mainland, it was all part of an adventure which we hope to return soon.

To the east of Vancouver, the Fraser Valley

The Fraser Valley is one of many counties (areas) which make up British Columbia and all the places I will mention in this section are about one to two hours drive east of Vancouver (whilst driving along the Trans-Canada 1 highway which runs from west to east of Canada). Olga and I based ourselves in a town called Mission on all our visits to the region (as we spend more time in the Fraser Valley than Vancouver itself) which has plenty of budget accommodation and cheap eats and makes it ideal to do road trips around the Fraser Valley.

Mission: This small quaint town which lies north of Abbotsford and on the Fraser River as I mentioned is a great place to be based. The centre maybe small with a few shops, bars and restaurants (as most are located on the outskirts of the town) but here is one of our favourite breakfast places of all time, a cafe called Rocko’s. This family owned business is open twenty-four hours a day so if anyone has got the munchies in the middle of the night then this is the place to hit. However the only time Rocko’s is closed is when a lot of movie and television productions hire the place out for filming. The breakfasts here are cheap, massive and mighty damn tasty as you can see from the photos! Location: 32786 Lougheed Hwy, Mission, BC V2V 1A7, Canada

Near the river edge on the southern side of town is Captain’s Cabin Pub. Now why would I mention a bar as there are plenty of bars in the area. Well as far as we are concerned I have to mention the ‘Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings’ because this was the first place we got hooked on them in Canada and are very tasty. A little bit of a zing but just right if you don’t like the wings to be too hot and spicy. Also the bar shows a lot of sport on television but I would advise to stay away on karaoke night. Some of the cats around here sing a lot better than the locals! Location: 33331 Harbour Ave, Mission, BC

Mission may not be a touristy place. What I do recommend is a walk to the top of the hill in the east of the town where Westminster Abbey is located. The abbey itself looks nice and has about thirty monks in there dancing the night away (only kidding) but the views overlooking the river and valley is amazing and in the far background on a clear day, Mount Baker which stands at 3,286 meters which is the highest mountain in Washington State over the border line. Also I was taken here one morning to the cafe nearby to have another great breakfast, a little bit more pricey than the diners in town but the food, service and of course the location in the summer months makes this a very pleasant place to kick start the day. Location: 34224 Dewdney Trunk Rd, Mission, BC V2V 4J5

A thirty minute drive north-east of Mission is the Cascade Falls Regional Park. This small park is great to relax by the river in the summer months but the main feature here is the waterfall and the suspension bridge. Location: Ridgeview Rd, Deroche, BC V0M 1G0

The area is also known for its wine so Olga and I were taken to an unusual winery which not only makes wine out of grapes but also wild berries. Kermode Wild Berry Wine had a lot of different wines to choose from, some we have never heard of and was also given the chance to sample many of their different flavours and because they were that good, we also brought home a few bottles. Location: 8457 River Road South, Dewdney, V0M-1H0

Just one more place to mention whilst in the Mission area and if after a day relaxing by the lake in the hot summer sunshine, then directly north of the town is Hayward Lake (next to Stave Lake) is the place to be. Nice quiet place with plenty of hiking routes. Big car park to park up with toilet blocks but there are no food places around here, so bring a picnic.

Bridal Veil Falls: Further east along the Trans-Canada-1 (east of Chilliwack) is the Bridal Veil Falls, this spectacular waterfall where the water gushing down the mountain-side is shaped as a bridal veil (if looking at it face on) is one of the most beautiful we have ever seen. It's worth a pit stop off the highway and is about a fifteen minute walk from the car park.

Harrison Hot Springs: This beautiful village located on the southern shores of Harrison Lake is known for its hot springs (which we didn’t have the chance to as it was a quick pit stop for us here) but what we did love here was the quirky shops and cafes (where we did enjoy a nice chocolate cake) but for us the views looking north towards Echo Island was the highlight.

Harrison Hot Springs near Vancouver, British Columbia

Hope: I totally love the name of this town which is a good stop off point if doing the long drive across the province. This beautiful town is surrounded by the Fraser River to the west and north but more beautifully is the mountains to the east. I noticed on the long drive the heading west of Hope through the valley to Vancouver is flat but going east, north and south is all mountains. It is a truly beautiful area for a pit stop.

Just to the east of the town is the Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park which like the rest of B.C. is a beautiful park with rivers, mountains, trees (starting to see a theme in this beautiful park of the world) but also here is the Othello Tunnels. These tunnels used to be part of a railway line which is now decommissioned and has now turned into a walking trail. Here there are five tunnels and a few bridges which go in a straight line through the gorge. Many popular films like Rambo: First Blood and Cabin in the Woods to name a few. In Rambo the popular scene where Sylvester Stallone hangs off the cliff while a helicopter overhead tries to shoot him down was filmed here. Location: Kettle Valley Trail, Hope, BC V0X 1L1

Further afield

Vancouver is a great place to start or finish any trip. My favourite trips are road trips and there are so many places to check out if going further afield, like driving along the Trans-Canadian-One-Highway through the national parks of British Columbia and Alberta to Calgary. Or head north towards Whistler and Alaska and check out even….mountains and trees. To the south there is also Seattle in the United States which is another city to check out and has the laid-back vibe. So much to do.

Seattle in the USA, a four hour drive from Vancouver

A few tips on a trip to Vancouver

Arriving by air: Vancouver International Airport (YVR) needs no introduction as it is one of the biggest airports in Canada and has fantastic connections to Asia, the USA and the rest of Canada. Check out the airport website here for which airlines use the airport and the routes they serve.

By road: as mentioned earlier, Vancouver is well connected with the Trans-Canadian-Highway-1 which goes between Victoria on Vancouver Island and St Johns in Newfoundland via Calgary, Winniepeg, Regina, Montreal, Quebec and the other Atlantic provinces. Route 99 which heads south out of the city through Richmond crosses the Canada-USA border, and heads to Seattle.

By train: There is a commuter train which runs between Vancouver and Mission but only a few trains run a day. The main train routes which visitors to the city might use is the Rocky Mountaineer which takes tourists to Jasper in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. There is also ViaRail where trains head east to Toronto via Calgary and Winnipeg. However a journey will take over three days. Amtrack runs a service between Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Eugene in the USA.

Getting to and from the airport. As well as a taxi which costs around $40-$45 at the time of writing, there is also the Sky Train which gets us into Downtown in no time and costs $9.25 each way. I would say don’t have car rental if visitors are just checking out the city but if going further afield, then a car is needed. Just remember that parking can be expensive in places and a pain to find a space.

If looking for a hotel, one place I can recommend which is right by the Vancouver Lookout on East Hastings Street is the Delta Hotels Vancouver Downtown Suites. A comfortable stay with modern decor and fantastic service but the breakfast was amazing. Sitting outside on the mini-terrace taking in a city view. A great way to start the day and is within walking distance to some of Vancouver’s top sights.

Delta Hotels Vancouver Downtown Suites in Vancouver
Breakfast at the Delta Hotels Vancouver Downtown Suites.

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