In September 2014, my travel feature article “Exploring Vancouver” and an accompanying photo set appeared in the “Savor the City Life” issue of Asian Traveler Magazine. The article was written soon after I returned from studying abroad in Edinburgh and depicts my return to favorite spots in Vancouver as well as well as feature some new ones.
Thanks to my best friend Kim Tsan for exploring the city with me during the research phase of this article and serving as a wing-woman while I did street photography. Thanks also to Laura and Amy for their expertise on Vancouver’s history and music scene.
The article is reprinted below in this blog post. As always, if you enjoy it, please share and subscribe. Thanks!
Exploring Vancouver: an Insider’s Guide to a Multicultural Metropolis
When I returned to Granville Street in Vancouver after nine months abroad, a young boy was chasing a flock of seagulls in front of two skyscrapers. He giggled as they squeaked, flew in circles, and dived back down, terrorizing two suited workers balancing cappuccinos.
Nearby, a street violinist performed Coldplay’s “Viva la Valda”. A teenager called friends to plan a visit to the Richmond Night Market. Bikers soared up and down mountainous streets. Runners jogged, wearing earphones, baggy sweatshirts, and navy-blue yoga pants.
They seemed distant, self-absorbed, and fast-paced, no different from other urbanites. But that was just a façade, I quickly reminded myself. It was a misleading first impression, like the glass-windowed high-rises that overshadowed historic plaques, street art, and indie bookstores.
After living abroad, I needed to regain familiarity with Vancouver—to revisit my favourite spots, speak with locals, and embrace the multiculturalism at the centre of the city’s cuisine, art, and music.
From Small-town Beginnings to a Metropolis
I began my morning with a postcard view of seaplanes departing and descending against North Shore Mountains and distant skyscrapers. A woman handed me a currency exchange flyer, mistaking me for a tourist. Along the shore, the white sail-shaped roofs of Canada Place flailed in the wind. This cluster of buildings included the Vancouver Convention Centre, which hosted World Expo 86 and the Main Press Centre of the 2010 Olympic Games.
Walking past commuters exiting Waterfront Station, Vancouver’s main transit hub, I headed for the nearby neighborhood of Gastown. Laura Taylor, a 32-yr-old Vancouverite and history enthusiast, had explained its history to me over Facebook messenger. “Gastown is where Vancouver really got its start,” Taylor wrote. “Founded by ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton, it wasn’t always the shipping port it used to be.”
Originally the “backdoor” to New Westminster, Gastown once prospered as a lumber mill, a trade port, and a place of entertainment for lumbermen and sailors. During the 1930s Great Depression, it fell into disarray, until local residents rallied successfully in the 1960s to protect its historic architecture. It has now become a National Historic Site, paying homage to the past with a statue of Gassy Jack and a steam-powered clock that played music every 15 minutes. The area is home to First Nations wood carving artists, watercolor painters, guitarists, organic coffee shops, and fashion boutiques.
A Gateway to the Outdoors
For an adventure into Vancouver’s natural landscape, I caught bus 19 to Stanley Park, which topped TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of best parks in the world. At Brockton Point, the Totem Poles told the stories of First Nations tribes who lived in the regions long before the arrival of European explorers. Prospect Point presented a view of the sea, cargo ships, and the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Dolphins, beluga whales, and sea otters swam in the Vancouver Aquarium. I took a brief stroll along a section of the Sea Wall, passing bikers, sailboats, and families pushing baby strollers.
Traveling across the city to Granville Island, I watched a young woman paddle through False Creek. At the head of her paddleboard, a light-brown Labrador sat casually paddleboard and wagged his tail. On the island, a guitarist strummed “Over the Rainbow” to students and couples. Inside the Public Market, people sold raw salmon, blueberries, sea salt, and maple syrup. Two pieces of chocolates were shaped like an Inukshuk, a First Nations landmark and the symbol of the 2010 Olympics Games. They seemed tempting, but I decided to resist.
Seafood, Fusion Cuisine, and a Healthy Lifestyle
Vancouverites have an obsession with foods that are locally-grown, organic, free-range, and gluten-free. In 2005, J. B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, a Vancouverite couple, attempted to spend a year eating only foods within 100 miles of their home, and their experiment resulted in the book The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. The healthy and environmentally-conscious mindset of Vancouverites has led to numerous vegetarian and vegan options, and menu items like salmon salad, gluten-free croissants, and brown rice sushi.
But despite this, we also love fast food on the go. The city currently has over 100 licensed food trucks, serving naan bread with butter chicken, wraps, smoked salmon, French crêpes, and grilled cheese. I decided to order a Japadog. It’s one of Vancouver’s signature fast foods: a Japanese-style hotdog made with pork, beef, or shrimp, with unique toppings such as potato croquettes, spicy lettuce, or terimayo.
For foodies seeking local specialties, Vancouver offers no typical cuisine. But as a city of immigrants, the city has seen a steady increase in multicultural and fusion restaurants over the last two decades. Japanese sushi bars dot nearly every street, mingled with Chinese dim sum restaurants, Vietnamese noodle houses, and Thai cafes. The coastal location of the city also ensures an array of fresh seafood, from Dungeness crabs to cedar-planked salmon, from mussels to giant prawns.
Art in Galleries and Unexpected Places
On Hornby Street, I admired the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was expanded from the former classical-style British
Columbia courthouse. It is home to a permanent collection of works by Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, and other local and international artists. This fall, the gallery will showcase two special exhibits: “In Dialogue with Carr: Landon Mackenzie”, a series of paintings about people’s positions in the world, and “The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors”, a showcase of artefacts from the Beijing Palace Museum.
Outside the tiered art gallery steps, artists and students sketched the cityscape, while people picnicked with sandwiches and browsed stands selling paintings, portraits and jewellery. The sculptured head of local artist Douglas Coupleland, which he had created as a self portrait, was on display near the entrance. Coupleland also posted an invitation to the public to place gum on the sculpture, for he liked to blend mass culture with his art. A few blocks away, a mural showed two faces overlapped by colorful dots, rainbows, train tracks, and white sailboats, suggesting Vancouver’s multicultural roots.
A Myriad of Musicians and Bands
After admiring some street art, I wandered into the Granville Entertainment District, the region of Granville St. from West Hastings St. to Smithe St. It not only has pubs, bars, and theatres, but also offers a taste of Vancouver’s music scene, where musicians such as Japandroids and Destroyer have become international hits. The Commodore Ballroom features renowned and up-and-coming bands. Talented local and independent musicians also play in pubs like Joe’s Apartment.
For what made Vancouver’s music scene vibrant and unique, I chatted with Amy Zahradnik, a Douglas College music student and local singer. “We have almost every culture represented here musically,” commented Zahradnik. “My musician friends came from different countries such as Tunisia, Japan, China, and Iran, where their traditional music is based off of different scales or intervals.”
While many local musicians play traditional instruments like the piano and guitar, others master the sitar, mandolin, and Chinese flute. They also like to take a more unconventional approach, Zahradnik explained, “staying away from writing catchy pop tunes, and instead sticking to what they know to be their own personal truth.”
Places to Visit
The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibits works by local and international artists. 750 Hornby St., 604-662-4719, www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/.
Granville Island’s Public Market and indie shops sell vintage postcards, stationary, music instruments, hats, local produce, and takeout foods. To reach the island, catch Bus #50 from Gastown or Granville St. 1689 Johnston St., granvilleisland.com/.
The Coast Peoples Fine Art Gallery showcases and sells carved woodwork, decorations, and jewelry by First Nations artists. 312 Water St., 604-684-9222, www.coastalpeoples.com/.
The Gastown Steam Clock on Water Street plays music every 15 minutes, with longer songs at the hourly mark. www.gastown.org/.
Vancouver Lookout Tower provides a great view of the sunset and evening city lights.
555 West Hastings St., 604-689-0421, www.vancouverlookout.com/.
For kayaking near Granville Island, visit Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres for lessons, rentals, and guided tours. 1668 Duranleau St., 604-689-7575, www.ecomarine.com/.
Further afield, Lynn Canyon Park has a 50-m tall Suspension Bridge and extensive hiking trails through 617 acres of forest. To reach the park, take #228 to Lynn Valley Centre and walk for 15 minutes. 3663 park road, North Vancouver, 604-990-3755, lynncanyon.ca/.
Where to Eat
Blue Water Café & Raw Bar specializes in West Coast seafood and wine. 1095 Hamilton St., 604-688-8078, www.bluewatercafe.net/.
Shabusen Yakiniku House Restaurant is a popular choice for all-you-can-eat Japanese food and Korean BBQ. 755 Burrard St. #202, 604-669-3883, www.shabusenyakiniku.com/.
If you want to try Chinese food, Kirin Restaurant sells dim sum, seafood, stir-fries, and Peking Duck. 1172 Alberni St., 604-682-8833, www.kirinrestaurants.com/.
Japadog is known for its Japanese-styled hotdogs with special toppings like noodles, potatoes, or terimyao. 530 Robson St., 604-569-1158, www.japadog.com/.
Recently opened Timbertrain Coffee Roasters takes pride in serving fresh, slow-brewed espressos and building community in Gastown. 311 West Cordova St., 604-915-9188, www.timbertrain.ca.