I’ve been asked to provide a list of things to do in Vancouver, for the benefit of people visiting. For the critical reason that it is not statistics, I am going to do so now.
The first area to address is the ‘classic touristy stuff’ category. Included within it are both things worth seeing and things better avoided. I would definitely suggest going up Grouse Mountain but, if at all possible, I highly recommend doing so by climbing either the Grouse Grind or the Baden Powell Trail. Both would provide a much more authentic Western Canadian experience. Both are fairly energy intensive trails, but nothing that a young and fit person wouldn’t be able to deal with. A less strenuous option in the same area is to walk up or down Capilano Canyon, either from or to Cleveland Dam.
Also in North Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge. My advice: skip it. It’s one of those ‘drive a whole tour bus full of (probably German or Japanese) tourists with digital cameras and expose them to actors in period clothing’ kind of places. If you want to see a suspension bridge, I recommend the one in Lynn Canyon. It’s free and there are a number of nice hikes there. You can walk around Rice Lake (very easy), up to Lynn Headwaters (still easy, but longer), up to Norvan Falls (more of a challenge), or all the way up Hanes Valley, up Crown Pass, and then down Grouse Mountain (a serious day-long trek, with an interesting but difficult to navigate boulder field segment).
Among more urban attractions I would recommend: Granville Island, a kind of cultural conglomeration under the Granville Street Bridge, built on former industrial land. It features a number of good theatres, such as the Arts Club. Check what’s playing. Also located there: a number of good markets and restaurants. A good place for souvenir shopping.
Downtown is worth a bit of a wander, but I would avoid Granville Street. Instead, walk westward along Robson Street towards English Bay. That route passes some of my favourite restaurants in the city. Tropika, not far past the provincial courthouse, is an excellent Thai/Malaysian restaurant which is ideal for going to with a group. Farther along, Hapa Izakaya is one of Vancouver’s funkiest contemporary places, serving modern Japanese food in a unique atmosphere. Farther still, where Robson meets Denman, you will find Kintaro – an authentic Asian noodle house popular with the business crowd, Wild Garlic, a fun little bistro with good drink specials, and Tapas Tree, a safe option for non-adventurous diners that still offers some interesting menu items.
Once you get to Denman, walk southwards along it, possibly stopping for gelato at one of many places nearby or for a coffee at the Delany’s there. Alternatively, ask someone to direct you to the nearby liquor store and watch the sun set while sitting against a log in English bay with a bottle of two of the excellent local Granville Island Breweries beers. I recommend their amber ale and the winter ale, if it’s in season.
North and east of the central area of downtown, you find Gastown, which is probably worth a bit of a look as well. It’s right beside some of the dodgiest areas not only in Vancouver, but in any city I’ve visited, so watch out. The waterfront between the Pan-Pacific Hotel and Coal Harbour (next to Stanley Park) is also a nice walk. For something longer, you can extend it all the way around the sea wall, under the Lions Gate Bridge, and then back around into English Bay. A bit less ambitiously, you can cross the causeway leading to the bridge, walk around one side of Lost Lagoon, and reach English Bay along one of a number of nice paths.
Personally, I would recommend visiting the campus of the University of British Columbia. If you do, don’t miss the fantastic view from the escarpment near Place Vanier (ask some students how to get there). Consider walking down the wooden steps to Wreck Beach: Vancouver’s nude beach and an attractive place to visit any time of year. If you carry on northwards, along the beach, you will pass two spotlight towers installed during the second world war in case of Japanese invasion. Farther still are Jericho and Spanish Banks: really nice beaches to visit in the summer to swim, windsurf, or have a bonfire.
Another nice expedition is to catch the Seabus from its downtown terminal at the base of Seymour Street across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver. It only costs $2 or so and it gives you a nice view of the harbour. The other terminus is at Lonsdale Quay: worth a bit of a look for its own sake. A few blocks up Lonsdale Avenue, you will find Honjin: one of many cheap and excellent sushi restaurants in Vancouver.
If you want to eat on the cheap, the 99 cent pizza downtown can’t be beaten. Avoid Love at First Bite on Granville. Instead, go to either AM or FM classic (on Smithe and Seymour, respectively) or to my favourite, which is located across Seymour Street from A&B sound, near the 7-11.
Another area worth visiting is Commercial Drive. Either catch the 99 bus down Broadway or one of several buses or the Skytrain from downtown. This street features a number of art galleries, fun cafes, and a nice bohemian atmosphere. It is to Vancouver what SoHo is to New York or what Kensington Market is to Toronto.
There are lots of good theatres in Vancouver: the Orpheum downtown, the Stanley out near Broadway, the Firehall theatre near gastown, and the Chan Centre and Freddy Wood theatres on campus at UBC. Grab a copy of The Georgia Strait to see what is happening, in terms of music and live theatre. It’s free and includes the excellent column “Savage Love.” Look for it in boxes around the downtown area.
Dance clubs really don’t interest me, but the ones people seem to go to are mostly on the northern bit of Granville Street, before you reach the bridge. I would recommend The Cellar (the jazz club on Broadway, not the sleazy dance club on Granville) for some live music and a nice atmosphere.
This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, but it should be enough to get started. Vancouver is a really wonderful city: beautiful, easy to get around in by public transit, and large enough to have a good level of culture. While it can definitely get extremely rainy at times, if you find yourself with some nice weather, I strongly recommend one of the walks or hikes I mentioned above, or something else of your own devising outside.
Good day or weekend trips from Vancouver include Whistler, for skiing or snowboarding as well as general mountain exposure, or Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.