Vancouver is what I consider, as a non-Canadian, to be one of the 'Big Three' of Canadian cities, along with Toronto and Montreal. Having visited Toronto many times, as well as crossing Montreal off back in 2017, 'Van City' as its affectionately called, was the last of the cities I had a chance to visit.
In January of this year, Caitlin and I decided to embark on the 4 hour drive from B.C's interior to the pearl of the Pacific. Only a weekend away, as so often it is for us when we travel, we crammed as much into the two days as we could.
Gastown and East Hastings Street
I think to begin with it would be a good idea to talk about the elephant in the room, so to speak, which was the area we decided to stay in. East Hastings Street. Against the advice of just about everyone we spoke to about our plans in Vancouver, we decided to stay on the notorious street, mostly due to the fact that we were attending a retro 'Electo-swing' event at a hotel located here. Having traveled and stayed in some fairly difficult places before, we thought little of the strange looks and shocked reactions when we mentioned we were staying on East Hastings. Surely its not that bad? They can't be right?
They were right.
Although our hotel was a good kilometer away from the notorious blocks of the street, we decided to walk to our first destination on our Vancouver list, Gastown, through East Hastings. The experience was eye opening. Never before on our travels have either of us seen such a concentration of homelessness and overt drug use. As we walked through the most dense few blocks of the street, we saw a half naked couple fighting in the road. We were repeatedly offered the chance to buy cigarettes and more. While at no point were either of us threatened or confronted in any way, the area didn't feel safe, and this was in broad daylight. It was painstakingly obvious why this area of Vancouver is frequently the overdose capital of the province and often Canada as a whole.
After hastily walking through the drug capital of Canada, we reached Gastown, which was only a block over. There was no transition from the abject poverty of Hastings and the gentrified 'upmarket' feeling of Gastown. The cobblestone streets, hipster independent cafes and a quaint steam clock simply could not be further, economically, from the street over.
Gastown itself was an interesting experience. We spent a while reading about Gassy Jack, the patron saint (almost) of the area, next to his statue, in Maple Tree Square. Across the street is the famous flatiron building built in the early 1900s. We decided afterwards to grab a drink in one of the hipster cafes and process the rapid cultural change we just experienced. Gastown didn't have a great deal of things do keep a tourist busy but it has beautiful Victorian buildings and is known for to have fantastic, albeit expensive, restaurants. Caitlin's brother lived in Vancouver for several years and recommended Meat and Bread. It's cheaper than most of the places in Gastown and has amazing sandwiches. The gastown steam work clock was entertaining if you happen to be wandering past every quarter of an hour that it 'rings'. There is also CRAB park, which offered beautiful panoramic views of the high rises, the water front as well as north Vancouver and the mountains in the distance (below).
C.R.A.B Park for Sunset
After the lookout we decided to head over to CRAB park to enjoy the sunset over the city and harbour. The pictures you can take from the small pier in CRAB park are gorgeous (see below). The park offers amazing views of the harbour, docks and skyline. We choose to walk through Gastown from the Vancouver Lookout which took about 15 minutes. We passed by a movie set, which are common place in downtown Vancouver, but didn't see anyone famous. Caitlin's brother works in the film industry and has told us that are many big names working on films here at any given time, so if you visit, look out for George Clooney!
Back to the Hotel to recuperate
After spending some time at the pier in CRAB park, we decided to head back to our hotel, 'Hotel at the Waldorf' on East Hastings (yikes!), have some dinner and go to bed. We decided to have dinner at the attached restaurant to our hotel which was called 'Nonnas table pizzeria' which offered fantastic Italian menu, the Pizzas were out of this world. The journey back from the city center to our hotel was an easy one, opting to take the bus rather than walk through the tent city that is much of East Hastings street. The public transportation system in Vancouver is modern and relatively well maintained and not overly expensive considering the expensive reputation Vancouver generally has.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park
We decided to start the next day in Vancouver nice and early and headed down to the Science World at the harbour. On our way, we visited Vancouver's extensive Chinatown. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is free to enter but the neighbouring Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden charges an admission fee. It was so relaxing to wonder through the garden and have a peaceful start to the morning. When we return to Vancouver, we will definitely go back to Chinatown to try some of the fantastic restaurants!
Aqua Bus to Granville Island
Although we didn't go into the Science World itself, the views of the city from there were great. The next destination on the agenda was to visit Granville Island, famous for its bustling artisan markets, and what better way to get there than take the quirky little Aqua Bus. The ticket was only $5.50 per person for a one-way journey, although there were good deals available for day passes or even week/month passes ($16.00 for an adult day pass). The boat itself was a totally unique experience, with the driver sitting raised in the center and the passengers sat in a circle around him, with 360 degree views of the harbour and city. The driver was very talkative and friendly and gave us a lot of advice on things to do in the city, which was super appreciated.
Granville Island was exactly what we expected it to be. As soon as we disembarked from our Aqua Bus (and conveniently paid by tap) we could just about hear the constant drum of vendors advertising their goods. We had already eaten at our hotel before we left so we wouldn't be tempted by the foods we could find at Granville Market, we were tempted however and ended up buying a bag of mini donuts. If we lived in Vancouver or were spending more than a few days, I think we would have come back to buy dinner there to take home and cook.
Granville is also home to lots of quirky little cafes and shops, although as souvenirs aren't exactly an interest of ours, we decided to skip them and continue on with our Van city exploration. Our next stop being UBC's campus.
Museums and sight seeing at UBC
We had already picked up a day transit pass from the convenience store for $10.25 (adult fare) by our hotel to get downtown and it came in handy to get from Granville Island to UBC. Probably not on most peoples agendas when visiting Vancouver, as animal dorks, we couldn't resist the opportunity to explore the extensive collection at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. While certainly not everyone's cup of tea, the musuem was extremely informative and the taxidermy there is easily some of the best I've ever seen. They have everything from dinosaurs and whales to bears and even domestic cats. as neither of us are from British Columbia, it was interesting to learn a little more about the wildlife in the province, both now and in the past. We managed to spend a few hours browsing their collection, which is laid out more like a library than a typical museum. Staff were very friendly and we learned a lot.
The UBC campus also provided a beautiful scenic lookout, kitted out with benches too, which we enjoyed a tea from the Tim Hortons on campus while sitting at. The lookout is located at the very north western end of 'Main Mall' next to a small roundabout, it can't be missed and is a great place to enjoy a few minutes of downtime. The rose garden attached looks absolutely beautiful in Summer and well worth devoting another quarter/half an hour to.
Stanley Park was the next place on our itinerary, which actually highlights our occasional shoddy planning! The park is a long bus ride from the UBC campus and although it was nice to rest on the bus for a while, it would have been better to spend more time wandering around the gargantuan park. Another error we made was getting off of the bus on the stop before the park as opposed to the stop inside of the park, which resulted in another 20 minute walk entering Stanley Park.
The Park is hugely popular with both locals and tourists alike and one could easily spend hours wandering the lush green grounds. The weather when we visited was beautiful, walking the promenade with a fresh sea breeze was so relaxing. Had we decided to spend more of the day in the park, and had the sun been any stronger we would love to have rented some bicycles and ridden through the parks entirety.
We made a point of stopping at the iconic totem poles in the center of the park (as did most other people it seemed!). I wish we had brought some food with us in our backpack to sit on one of the many benches facing the water and enjoy a sandwich and tea as the sun made its way to meet its doppelganger on the water. Fortunately the bus stop is in a fairly central position in the park and we didn't have to wait too long for it to arrive and take us back into the city proper.
Final ThoughtsRSS Feed
Unfortunately for us, we had to head home early the next morning to get back to our day jobs. We were so tired after exploring all day, we used Skip the Dishes to order some Chinese food to the hotel. Chinese cuisine was considered a must by everyone we spoke to about Vancouver and when we return, we will definitely try some of the restaurants out! We both really enjoyed Vancouver (but we'll probably stay on a different street next time) and look forward to trying out some summer activities like whale watching, night markets, beaches and hikes later this year.