Overview

Vancouver, British Columbia, is known as Canada's emerald jewel for its lush rain forests. On a clear day, from downtown you can see the Strait of Georgia's blue-green waters, glacial fjords, islands, and mountains with snow caps and dense forests.

The city is home to people from all over the world and has continued to draw many immigrants from China, other parts of Asia and around the world.

Vancouver is relaxed and outdoorsy, yet cosmopolitan. It's also sports-minded, and its hockey fans cheer hard for their NHL Canucks. The city also boasts high-fashion boutiques, a vibrant arts scene and a fondness for health-conscious eating. The winter weather of gray skies and drizzle only emphasizes Vancouver's attractions at other times of the year.

Geography

With the North Shore Mountains as a reference point, finding your way around the coastal seaport city of Vancouver is pretty easy. The core of downtown radiates outward on a grid system from the intersection of Georgia Street, which runs east-west, and Granville Street, the main north-south artery.

In navigating Vancouver, it helps to know that the city proper lies on the Burrard Peninsula. It is bordered by the Burrard Inlet to the north, the Fraser River to the south, and the Strait of Georgia to the west. Directly across the strait sits Vancouver Island, which shields the city from the Pacific Ocean. The downtown occupies a smaller peninsula formed by False Creek.

Vancouver is also home to the 1,000-plus-acre Stanley Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America.

History

The original inhabitants of what is now referred to as Vancouver, were the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Unlike so many other hunting-and-gathering peoples, these inhabitants achieved a high level of cultural complexity for a food-gathering base: wild berries, game, fish, water and building materials. This system encouraged hard work, and quickly allowed for the accumulation of wealth and status. There was so much of it, in fact, that potlatches (gift-giving feasts) were a regular event among the Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Haida and other tribes.

George Vancouver, the British Navy captain who lent the city his name, sailed into Burrard Inlet in 1792. He called it "the most lovely country that could be imagined." Settlers didn't immediately respond to his superlatives, though. The British didn't establish a permanent fur-trading post (Fort Langley) until 1839. The area remained sparsely populated until the gold rush in 1858 enticed fortune-seekers to the Fraser River.

Lumbering and mills became responsible for keeping Vancouver afloat. What truly established Vancouver as a city, however, was the decision by the Canadian Pacific Railway to make Vancouver the terminus of its transcontinental route. The first regular transcontinental train from Montreal arrived at a temporary terminus at Port Moody in July 1886, and service to Vancouver itself began in May 1887. Vancouver's population that year was 5,000. Six years later it reached 15,000 and by 1900 it was more than 100,000. The railroad, in turn, increased the city's importance as a seaport. Today, Vancouver is considered one of North America's finest natural deepwater harbors.

Vancouver has experienced a real estate boom that began after the city hosted the 1986 World's Fair. Foreign investment, especially from Southeast Asia, has transformed the downtown area. Dozens of old buildings have been renovated or razed to make way for innovative postmodern architecture and imposing glass-and-steel skyscrapers. These days, the city has some of the highest real estate values in the country.

Vancouver is also known for its colorful history of social controversy and vice. The early to mid-1900s in the city were characterized by two organized labor strikes. Fueled largely by a series of economic recessions in the region, discrimination against Asian immigrants was also prevalent at this time, and the labor-organized Asiatic Exclusion League was thought to have instigated the Vancouver riots of 1907. While Prohibition was raging in the U.S., Vancouver maintained an active liquor trade led by the infamous rum-running schooner Malahat, nicknamed "the Queen of Rum Row."

Vancouver's progressive stance on social issues can most likely be traced back to its former mayor L.D. Taylor, who introduced and maintained an "open town" policy, whereby vice crimes such as prostitution, gambling and bootlegging were managed rather than criminalized. His policies did not last after his re-election defeat in 1934 (his opponent and subsequent mayor Gerry McGeer ran on a staunch law and order platform), but they are not all that dissimilar to more recent social policies in Vancouver regarding drug use, harm reduction and treatment for addicts. Vancouver was the first North American city to have a medically staffed safe injection facility (known as InSite), and the city is also home to several controversial but effective opiate maintenance programs and research trials.

Sightseeing

Whether you're an outdoor enthusiast, a cultural buff or a parent seeking family fun, you'll find plenty to do in Vancouver come rain or shine. More than 8 million visitors go there every year. Consider beginning your adventure by taking the glass elevators to the top of Harbour Centre (also known as Vancouver Lookout). From there you can get your bearings—and a breathtaking view of the city at your feet.

Just north of downtown is Vancouver's prized possession: Stanley Park, a last vestige of semiwilderness with more than 1,000 acres/400 hectares of woodlands, trails and gardens. Within the park you'll find one of North America's biggest and best public aquariums.

On the opposite side of downtown is Granville Island, now a tourist attraction rivaling Stanley Park. Explore the wonderful covered public market, artisan shops, artists' studios and restaurants.

The Vancouver Art Gallery, located in the center of downtown, features noted Canadian works, as well as top-notch traveling exhibits. Telus World of Science, housed in a geodesic dome, offers hands-on exhibits to entertain children. The Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus is the largest teaching museum in Canada. It houses First Nations artifacts such as totem poles, carved boxes and feast dishes as well as other ethnographic and archaeological objects.

Because Vancouver is a gateway to Asia, be sure to roam the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown and stroll through the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Visit neighboring Gastown and its restored Victorian-era buildings—though it can seem a bit touristy.

Before you leave Vancouver, make the trip across the Burrard Inlet to the North Shore and two of the city's most popular attractions, Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge. You can drive over the Lions Gate Bridge or scoot across the harbor via SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay and pick up a taxi or bus from there.

Nightlife

Some say health-conscious Vancouverites are too tired to party after their daily jogs or bike rides. Most after-hours venues are frequented only by those young enough to burn the candle at both ends. Whatever the reason, Vancouver's nightlife past midnight is fairly tame—you'll see more people at coffee shops such as Starbucks and Blenz (there are scores of them) than in nightclubs or bars.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and craft beers, specialized signature cocktails sourced from local ingredients and even locally brewed spirits have become quite popular. Clubs tend to close around 2 am, though some stay open until 3 or 4 am.

Dining

Vancouver cuisine includes a long fishing tradition, mixed with Asian and other ethnic and immigrant influences, and is lately combined with the growing culinary scene emerging from the small farms of the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island as well as the wineries of the Okanagan. Best of all, the cost of quality dining in Vancouver is relatively less expensive than at comparable restaurants in other major cities.

At restaurants, breakfast is usually served 7-10 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner from 5 pm on.

Many restaurants now have happy hours, featuring half-price appetizers and glasses of wine, select beers and featured cocktails at reduced prices 3-6 pm.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$18; $$ = Can$18-$30; $$$ = Can$31-$45; $$$$ = more than Can$45.

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