There's no doubt that Canada is a beautiful country, and you know there'll be plenty of breathtaking moments when your flight is descending into Vancouver and you see these images from the window of your plane.
Vancouver is often the gateway to Canada for travellers from Asia. Whether you're visiting the Canadian Rockies, going skiing in Whistler or joining a Alaskan cruise, Vancouver will most likely be your first port of call.
Looking back over the years, it suddenly dawned on me that I've travelled to Vancouver more times than any other city in the world. I wouldn't say I know it like the back of my hand, far from it actually, but I've explored a fair number of places.
Even though Vancouver has 3 ski resorts in its backyard, namely Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour, skiing isn't one of its strong suits. I've skied at the first 2 resorts, but never at the third. Snow conditions at these resorts are too unpredictable and the runs too few. In my view, the proximity and ease of travel from Vancouver to the mammoth ski resort of Whistler Blackcomb render these 3 resorts virtually redundant. Thus, skiing does not feature in my list for Vancouver.
So here's my top 10 list for Vancouver...
No. 1: Coal Harbour
Taking a stroll along Coal Harbour on a frosty winter morning is a must-do when in Vancouver. Inhale the clean fresh air, watch seaplanes take off and land against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, ducks wading through the freezing water, and seagulls flying into the mist. From this vantage point, it's easy to see why Vancouver is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
We spent 2 nights in this beautiful neighbourhood at the comfortable Coast Coal Harbour Hotel on our last trip, and even celebrated my younger daughter's birthday at the lobby.
Prestons Restaurant + Lounge at the hotel serves a lovely breakfast with farm fresh ingredients. Guaranteed to light up your face up with a bright smile in the morning.
No. 2: Granville Island Public Market
One of my favourite places to visit in Vancouver is Granville Island's Public Market. Some people catch the Aquabus there, but it's actually walkable from the downtown core. The walk to and fro rewards you with a bird's eye view of the area from the overhead bridge, and you pass thrift stores filled with curios, florists, etc. Also helps you work up an appetite to try the freshly baked goods and other goodies at the market.
No. 3: Stanley Park
The best way to enjoy Stanley Park is on bike. We've done that before, but on our latest trip, we had trouble renting a bike and decided to do the next best thing i.e. walk. With great company with us, it was equally fun!
The city's aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, is also within the compounds of Stanley Park. I must admit that I've never been in there. Judging by the tanks they sponsor at the airport, I think they're well worth a visit, especially if you've young kids with you.
No. 4: Robson Street
My kids are at an age where they've ditched aquariums for shopping, and Robson Street is right up their alley. Robson Street is a major thoroughfare in Downtown Vancouver, lined with plenty of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. I suppose you can say it is to Vancouver what Orchard Road is to Singapore, except the malls in Singapore are replaced by charming individual shopfronts at Robson Street.
Our first 2 nights in Vancouver on our last trip was spent at Listel Hotel along Robson Street. The arty boutique hotel was centrally located, had water coolers for guests to fill their water bottles with sparkling or still water, and the icing on the cake was their evening social hour. To encourage guests to mingle, they served complimentary British Columbia wines for an hour at the lobby. We happily helped ourselves to more than just a few glasses!
Opposite Listel Hotel is Ramen Danbo, a very popular Fukuoka-style tonkotsu ramen joint with a constant long line outside. Their ramen and gyozas really hit the spot. So good that you could develop a craving for it! We ate there repeatedly during our trip.
For some good old-fashion winter fun, head down the road to Robson Square Ice Rink & Plaza. Between 30 November and 29 February, free ice skating is available at the rink. The event is sponsored by Nordstrom. You only have to pay CAD5 to rent a pair of ice skates.
No. 5: Lynn Canyon Park / Capilano Suspension Bridge Park & Lonsdale Quay Market
Now that we've explored some key parts of the metropolitan area of Vancouver, it's time to venture a little further out to the nature parks in North Vancouver.
Lynn Canyon Park is a municipal park in North Vancouver with a 50m long suspension bridge hanging over raging waters, and hiking trails leading to waterfalls and swimming holes. The park is totally free and is accessible by public transport. From Downtown Vancouver, catch the sea bus to Lonsdale Quay, then transfer to Bus 228 or 229 to Lynn Valley Centre. It's a 15 min walk from there to the park's main entrance.
I've yet to visit Lynn Canyon Park, but judging by all the reviews highly recommending it online, it's definitely on the radar for my next trip to Vancouver.
I've visited North Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge Park though. The ticket costs roughly CAD55.00 per adult, but Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is home to the world's longest suspension bridge. At 140m long and towering 70m above the Capilano River, this bridge is almost two thirds longer than the bridge at Lynn Canyon Park. It was an adventure crossing the bridge and we even spotted the American bald eagle from there.
The park's other attractions are Treetops Adventure (boardwalk and suspension bridges amongst the majestic Douglas firs) and the exciting Cliffwalk.
From 22 November to 26 January, the park hosts the Canyon Lights winter festival. Hundreds of thousands of lights adorn the park's trees, bridges and walkways. We had planned to experience that during our last visit, but unfortunately, rainy weather upended our plans.
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park operates a year round free shuttle from Downtown Vancouver. The last time we visited, we got there by free shuttle, and after the visit, we took Bus No. 236 to Lonsdale Quay, before returning to Downtown Vancouver by sea bus.
That gave us the opportunity to grab a bite at Lonsdale Quay Market, a public market as colourful as Granville Island Public Market, albeit on a smaller scale.
The sea bus ride back was scenic too, as we got to see the gleaming skyline of Downtown Vancouver as we approached the terminal. It was a perfect ending to a great day out.
No. 6: Metropolis at Metrotown
The best shopping in Vancouver can be found at Metropolis at Metrotown, the largest mall in British Columbia and the third largest in the whole of Canada. The mega mall is located in the suburban Burnaby, and is next to the Metrotown Skytrain Station. It has more than 450 shops and services, and counts Walmart, Hudson's Bay, Sport Chek, etc amongst its anchor tenants.
We've been to the mall several times over the years, and it has always been busy with Christmas shoppers. The shops dangle generous and genuine discounts. Foreigners can register at the Information Desk for even more shopping privileges.
We enjoyed our first visit to the mall so much that we chose to stay in Burnaby to be close to the mall on our following trip. The hotel was Element Vancouver Metrotown, and it was one of our favourite hotels in Vancouver. Buffet style continental breakfast consisting of the usual rolls, cereals and juices was included in our stay. In addition, they had healthy breakfast wraps which were da bomb!
No. 7: Gastown
Gastown is a quaint neighbourhood in Downtown Vancouver with Victorian Buildings housing souvenir shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. It has 2 well-known landmarks, a whistling Steam Clock and a statue of Gassy Jack, a Canadian bar owner whom Gastown is named after.
Gastown borders the notorious Downtown East Side (DTES), a neighbourhood plagued by terribly high levels of drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution, mental illness, poverty and crime. As cold as Vancouver is, it is still warmer than other parts of Canada. In the winter, the homeless from the Canadian Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) migrate to Vancouver to escape from the bitter cold and the number of people sleeping rough on the streets swell.
The boundaries between Gastown and DTES aren't distinct and we inadvertently walked through there several times over the years. Sent chills down my spine each time. The people in the neighbourhood had obviously fallen through the cracks of society. Some were deathly pale and filthy. Some were lying in their sleeping bags or covered under layers of blankets. The stench of urea was distinctly present, as were used needles discarded on the pavement. City officials have struggled for years to manage the problems at DTES, but they've never been successful. It remains an ever-growing pimple on the city's butt.
No. 8: Biking the Sea Wall
Jumping on a bike and riding along the 28km Sea Wall is one of the favourite activities of locals and tourists alike. We rented our bikes from a shop along Denman Street one year and did just that, discovering off-the-beaten track gems as we we made detours from the Sea Wall biking path.
No. 9: Breakfast at Medina Cafe
Medina Cafe has fast gained the reputation as THE place to have the most important meal of the day in Vancouver. Buzzing with the morning office crowd, the cafe was a hive of activity when we arrived on a weekday morning. Glad we walked across town in the rain to have breakfast there. Everything was delectable, and the hipster ambience kicked it up a notch higher.
No. 10: Chinatown
Vancouver's Chinatown is the largest in Canada. So many ethnic Chinese immigrants migrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the 1980s and 1990s that Vancouver is sometimes dubbed "Hongcouver". Step into a dim sum restaurant like Floata Seafood in Chinatown mid morning and you'd think you were transported to Hong Kong with the yum cha culture in full swing.
In Chinatown, you'll also find medicinal halls and grocery shops selling the usual oddities like dried seahorse and Jew's ear which only the Chinese will appreciate, souvenir stores selling t-shirts at less than what you'll find at Gastown, and the lovely oasis - Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.