There’s something about being surrounded by dazzling wild nature that makes you want to dive straight in to explore, and Vancouver gives plenty of opportunity to indulge. Join its sporty locals running, climbing, biking, and paddling the city parks, mountains and waters – just minutes from the downtown core – to understand why Vancouver so frequently makes it into the top of any Most Liveable City poll.
Within that compact downtown there’s also a treasure trove of arts and culture to explore; although a young city, Vancouver has a storied past, and thanks to the Indigenous Peoples of the Musquem, Tsleil-Watuth and Squamish First Nations, a fascinating depth of culture.
Below our expert shares her tips for the best attractions in Vancouver. For further inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants and bars, plus how to spend a weekend in Vancouver.
Learn the secrets of the forest with a First Nations guide
Join one of the Talaysay Cultural Ambassadors to discover the rich heritage and living culture of the Coast Salish First Nation. Learn how plants and trees provided everything from medicine and food to clothing, shelter and transport – the myriad uses for cedar alone are amazing. Taste wild salmonberries (which do not taste fishy) and hear traditional songs and perhaps learn a few words of Squamish.
Insider tip: Book a Talaysay tour at the start of your time in Vancouver to gain a deeper understanding of the Skwxu7mesh Uxwumixw – Coast Salish People and their traditional unceded territory, where Vancouver now stands. Far more than just a city tour, the Talaysay experience shines a fascinating light on one element of the Indigenous experience in Canada.
Dive into marine life at the aquarium
As well as being one of the city’s most popular attractions, handily placed in the heart of Stanley Park, the Vancouver Aquarium operates as a centre for marine research, conservation and marine animal rehabilitation. The perfect rainy day activity, it’s home to more than 50,000 animals covering 30 exhibits from the tropics to the Arctic. Don’t miss snapping an arty silhouette photo by the jellyfish wall. Timed entry tickets are sold online due to capacity limits.
Insider tip: Currently suspended due to Covid, but check if the program is running again. Children will enjoy the Animal Encounters sessions (reservations recommended) where they can touch, feed and play with critters such as sea turtles and adorable sea otters under the guidance of professional trainers.
Bike the world's longest uninterrupted waterpath
There can be few more iconic Vancouver experiences than pedaling Stanley Park along its paved and pleasingly flat five-and-a-half-mile Seawall. Pack a camera and water bottle, and expect glorious scenic views: the Lion’s Gate Bridge, Elek Imredy’s Girl in a Wetsuit life-size bronze sculpture and the intricately carved totem poles at Brockton Point are highlights but it’s the wild nature which wows from the North Shore Mountains to the sandy beaches and cooling shade of cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce trees.
Insider tip: Throughout spring and summer, the park glories in a riot of colourful blooms, the Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron gardens are especially beautiful; take a stroll through the little road off the main cycle path. Bikes may be hired from outlets along Denman Street by the Park entrance. Try Spokes.
Pack a picnic and people watch
Vancouver is packed with greedily tempting neighbourhoods, but the West End – with its beaches, Stanley Park, summertime firework Festival of Lights celebrations and Pride festival, and smörgåsbord of affordable pan-global cuisine – easily takes the biscuit. Choose barbecue from Buckstop (the deep-fried pickles and fall-apart brisket are life changing), Five Spice Pork Belly Banh Mi from Café Phin and Pho, or sushi from Yummy to Go and head to English Bay to people watch, leaning on a log as the sun slowly sets.
Insider tip: Drinking alcohol in Vancouver’s many parks and beaches is only permitted in designated zones. To avoid a $230 fine (and your alcohol being confiscated!) make sure you only pop those corks and cans within the marked boundaries; bylaw officers are infuriatingly zealous about enforcing this law.
Take in the glittering skyline from False Creek
It’s well worth heading out for a paddle at False Creek to see the glittering skyscrapers and soaring mountains of Vancouver from a different perspective. Vancouver Water Adventures rent out stand-up paddleboards, jetskis and kayaks, but it’s fun (and likely safer for newbies) to join a guided tour from their Granville Island location to take in the sights (hopefully including seals, herons and eagles) and hear stories of the city.
Insider tip: Splurge on a dinner trip with a difference and book a guided Seadoo (jetski) tour to nearby Bowen Island, splash through English Bay and Howe Sound, snap photos of the seal colony and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant before zipping back as the sun sets.
Stop for a culture fix in the heart of the city
Architecture fans will love the F.M Rattenbury-designed Vancouver Art Gallery, which was originally Vancouver’s law courts; the elegant staircase is a work of art all by itself. The gallery is an easily managed dip into culture, spread across three relatively compact floors, (there are plans to move to a larger space in 2023). Start with the permanent collection of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, before exploring what’s new in the visiting collections.
Insider tip: Check to see if one of the FUSE after hours events is scheduled during your visit; pre-booked tickets are essential for this fun night of dancing, drinking, interactive art and experimental installation work.
Nearest metro: Vancouver City Centre
Sip tea in a classic Chinese garden
Vancouver has one of the highest concentrations of overseas Chinese people in North America, and a long history of Chinese Canadians. Constructed from hand-fired roof tiles, carved woodwork, lattice windows, and prized limestone rocks from Lake Tai, the Dr Sun Yat Sen Garden was the first authentic Chinese garden built outside China. Take a tour and enjoy a tea ceremony and learn about the Tao principals of yin and ying; the more you understand, the more significance this tranquil garden reveals.
Insider tip: One of the most extraordinary facts of this beautiful spot is that it was wholly constructed in dougong style without using glue, nails or screws. Time slot tickets are available online.
See a world-famous statue up close
Although somewhat out of the way at the UBC campus, it’s well worth the trip to the Museum of Anthropology to admire 'The Raven and the First Men', Bill Reid’s large shining yellow cedar sculpture which shows the Haida legend of when Raven found the first humans in a clamshell on the beach. Home to the largest collection of Pacific Northwest First Nations art, this is a rare chance to explore this captivating style.
Insider tip: Amble over to the neighbouring Nitobe Memorial Garden, a ravishing Japanese garden cultivated to delight the sense year-round, but especially lovely in spring and autumn with cherry blossoms and maple leaves.
Party at the PNE
From big name live music shows to farmers’ markets, and the annual fun festival that is the summer fair, the Pacific National Exhibition - or PNE - just 10 minutes from downtown Vancouver is where locals go to let their hair down. The summertime fair is unmissable if you are in the city; running from late August till early September, it showcases outrageously calorific North American-style fair food at its very best from double-donut fried chicken burgers and rainbow-dyed gooey grilled cheese sandwiches to lava whip soft serve; attractions include the impeccably trained Superdogs troupe, and adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters and rides. Retro live acts such as Culture Club and the Pointer Sisters play each night. The fair returns for Fright Night around Hallowe’en for a spooky-themed thrills and chills with elaborate haunted houses and rides.
Insider tip: If the Smoke & Bones BBQ stall is open for business, loosen your belt, grab a stack of napkins and dive into one of their sauce-smothered brisket and ribs platters for the ultimate in carnivorous gluttony.
Soar above the city
You can easily spend the whole day on Grouse Mountain exploring the trails, zipping up and down on the ski lifts, learning more about the flora and fauna in a talk from one of the knowledgeable rangers, or watching films in the high-definition Theatre in the Sky. But frankly, it’s worth the admission alone for the Skyride tramway, which climbs to 1,100m (3,700 feet) in 12 minutes, with spectacular views over the bushy Douglas firs, Pacific Ocean and glittering beauty of Vancouver.
Insider tip: Embrace peak Canadiana and chomp on a Beaver Tail (a fried flat doughnut, dipped in maple sugar) whilst enjoying the vaudeville humour and impressive feats of the free Lumberjack show.