Editor’s note: Vancouver is seriously one of the most wonderful places in the world. My guide, which you can see here, covers some of the same places as this beautiful piece by Sam Spector, although he fills in some important gaps. This is one of the reasons I love having other voices on The Royal Tour. Two people can go to the same place and have such different experiences! For more of Sam’s writing, please click here to visit his index page.
How did I get into international travel? As a child, I remember dreaming about the world. At night, I would read atlases to fall asleep. For my birthday, I asked for a globe. When I went to the library, I would check out travel books and just read them, or an international cookbook to try the recipes. In my free time, my favorite game to play was Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Every day and night, I would think about how one day I would get out of Seattle and see the world: the temples of Bangkok, the wildlife of Nairobi, the museums of Berlin. Much to my surprise, when I did start traveling internationally, I found that what was easily one of my favorite cities was not on the opposite side of the world, but rather less than 150 miles and only two and a half hours from my house.
Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada is a place of pilgrimage for Seattleite teenagers, as the drinking age in Vancouver is only 19. In high school we had a running bet to see if someone who had a free period next to lunch could make it to Canada and back without missing class (one of my friends almost did it). That is how close one of the best cities outside of the United States is to the US. In a lot of ways, Vancouver is like Seattle, being a fellow Pacific Northwest city; however, it is unique in its own right too. It is similar in size to Seattle, on the water with hills and nature, has a skyline with a building that has a top that looks like the Space Needle, has a famous market, and while Seattle sits with Mount Rainier in the background, Vancouver’s skyline has Mount Baker, another of Washington’s volcanic peaks, as a backdrop. However, Vancouver feels more in nature than Seattle; it is surrounded by dense forest. It also feels more international than Seattle, which is fairly international for American cities, with a vibrant Chinatown and a massive Indian community, largely based in the Punjabi Market district. A trip to Vancouver is not complete without a meal at an Indian restaurant (I recommend SULA, considered one of the best in the world) and a visit to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first authentic Chinese garden built outside of China and a place of peace and reflection.
One of the best things about Vancouver is its many distinctive neighborhoods, each of which is fun to explore. When I arrive in Vancouver, the first place that I always go is to Granville Island. Granville Island was initially an island in False Creek, an inlet from English Bay, until the 1950s when much of the creek was filled in. Granville Island feels as though it has its own hippie culture with fun shops selling items like eco friendly hammocks, as well as microbreweries and great restaurants. There is a marina where happy seals follow boats looking for snacks. However, Island is most famous for its public indoor market. There, you can buy seafood, produce, stop at restaurant stands, and find arts and crafts as well. On a nice day, take your food outside and enjoy a great view while street performers perform for your entertainment and Canadian dollars. One of the best parts of Granville Market is that it is truly for everyone in your family, with several dog eateries as well. However this is most emphasized with its children’s market, an entire building with a child’s sized door, a massive indoor multistory play area, and dozens of children’s toy stores. Outside of the children’s market is a water amusement park and park for kids and families to play. Not only is this part of the island fun for children, but it is also validating for children that they matter, too.
At night, Granville Island is a great place to explore, but also make sure you check out the Gastown neighborhood, with its famous steam clock, powered by a steam engine. Every fifteen minutes or so, the steam clock makes a loud noise and shoots steam into the air for onlookers to marvel at. The neighborhood is a fun one to walk through in the evening with a good selection of bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
While I love Granville Island, the crown jewel of Vancouver is Stanley Park on the Downtown Peninsula. Stanley Park is an essential part of the culture of Vancouver, where residents jog, have picnics, and go for walks. The park is larger than Central Park and is on the water where English Bay meets the Burrard Inlet. Along the 5 ½ mile walkway and seawall, you will get wonderful panoramas of the city, see planes take off and land from the seaplane airport, and watch massive ships cross under a bridge while coming in and out of the city’s port. The park’s land was inhabited for thousands of years by the First Nations People (the Canadian term for the indigenous people of Canada) and large totem poles tell their stories. The park is still home to many creatures, native and not; there are a lot of coyotes and also one of the largest urban populations of Great Blue Herons anywhere in North America. It is also where the Vancouver Aquarium is located. For a long time, this aquarium housed belugas and dolphins, but has phased those out, though it still has hundreds of other species. If spending a full day (or a couple days) at Stanley Park, make sure to visit the Lost Lagoon and Beaver Lake, two beautiful, peaceful freshwater lakes in the park, the latter of which is completely covered with water lilies. You can also explore this park via horse-drawn carriage or its miniature railway with an old timey train that goes through part of it.
The totem poles of Stanley Park are one of many representations of the First Nations in Vancouver. In order to appreciate your trip to Canada, it is imperative to understand the history and culture of the First Nations. A great place to do this is Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. This research and teaching museum has in its possession over 50,000 ethnographic objects and half a million archaeological artifacts, many of which are hundreds of years old. The MOA also holds many modern art exhibits telling the story of the First Nations People. You can spend hours walking through this museum and learning much about the indigenous people and their culture. While there, we visited exhibits that showed – through art – injustices against indigenous, Latinx, and black people in the United States, in particular at the hands of the criminal justice system. While I agreed with much of the narrative that was being displayed, it was quite uncomfortable as an American to be in another country and seeing an exhibit that was so critical towards my country; I still do not know if that discomfort is a negative thing or is ultimately a good thing.
Finally, for another place to see totem poles, it is worth going to northern Vancouver to one of the most prominent tourist attractions in Vancouver. The Capilano Suspension Bridge is one of those places that is like the Space Needle in Seattle; it is an overpriced tourist trap, but it is still absolutely one you must do. With a hefty of price of nearly $60 to enter, you will first be greeted by many totem poles inside of a thick forest. Docents give talks about the totem poles, explaining their history, meaning, and how they are made, as well as about bears and other topics. The Capilano Suspension Bridge is not for the faint of heart. This bridge was first built in 1889 by loggers with hemp rope and cedar planks. Today, it is far more reinforced for the 1.2 million annual visitors, but the bridge still sways back and forth under each step. While only a few feet wide, it is 460 feet in length and hangs 230 feet above the Capilano River below. On one side of the bridge are restaurants and creeks as well as walkways that go alongside a cliffside. On the other side of the bridge there are a series of other bridges on the tops of trees that allow visitors to walk from treetop to treetop above the ground below. On the same side of the river as the treetop bridges are birds of prey with rangers teaching about them. Crossing the bridge is a beautiful and adrenaline rushing experience that is scary (especially when I crossed the swaying bridge while holding my baby). When visiting the Capilano Suspension Bridge, it will be apparent why over a million people a year pay such an outrageous price for this experience.
While this article just covered Vancouver, it is important to remember that Vancouver is less than 2.5 hours away from Seattle, North Cascades National Park, the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington, and within 1.5 hours of Victoria, Vancouver Island, the fjords of Harrison Hot Springs, and the ski resort town of Whistler in British Columbia. There is not only so much to do in this city, that I would say is easily one of the world’s best and most beautiful, but so much around it that you can easily couple into a longer trip. For any lover of nature, culture, and great cities, make sure that Vancouver is a place that you get to in the near future.
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