The Butchart Gardens in Victoria is the most famous botanical garden in Canada, but going there from Vancouver is a long day. It’s about a three to four hour journey to Victoria from Vancouver one way by car and ferry. You’ll probably spend an hour or two at the gardens. Then it’s about a three to four hour journey back to Vancouver. There goes your day.
While Vancouver’s botanical gardens may not be as famous as the Butchart Gardens, they’re no less beautiful or worthy of your time. Most are only a short distance from downtown Vancouver, reached either by public transit, Uber, Lyft, or taxi. Plus, you can maximize your time in the gardens and visit several in one day.
If you have one day in Vancouver, here are five botanical gardens to consider as alternatives to Butchart Gardens:
1. VanDusen Botanical Garden
My personal favourite is VanDusen Botanical Garden, about a 15 minute drive south of downtown.
VanDusen is a serious botanical garden for plant lovers (most of the plants are labelled with their common and scientific names). Come here to appreciate all aspects of plants – the foliage, the flowers, the grasses, the trees. Flowers are only one part of the overall experience.
VanDusen Botanical Garden is quite large so set aside at least two hours. It was built on a former golf course in an affluent residential neighbourhood. Bring a blanket and picnic lunch, or buy food at their café to enjoy on site. Then take a map and meander its many paths, meadows, and trails.
Tucked away in unexpected places are little waterfalls and creeks and public artwork. There are several ponds and little bridges and stepping stones. One of my favourite underappreciated parts of VanDusen is the fern dell, a lush rockery with all sorts of ferns from around the world, including Tasmanian tree ferns.
Although I’ll happily come here any time of the year, May is probably my favourite time to be here because of the laburnum walk, and all the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom. However, there’s really no bad time to come, though come between April and October for more blooms. Set your expectations accordingly and recognize the seasonality changes and the garden morphs through the year. Each month brings something new.
2. Queen Elizabeth Park
If you’re less interested in the diversity and names of plants and just want a beautiful stroll, Queen Elizabeth Park is always a good choice. It actually looks a little bit like Butchart Gardens as it was also built in a former rock quarry. It’s here where a network of paved trails and staircases meander through the trees and flower beds. Because Queen Elizabeth Park is a city park, it’s also free to visit.
You only need an hour to experience Queen Elizabeth Park, but can easily extend your trip by visiting Bloedel Conservatory, a tropical garden inside a glass dome at the park. Admission is cheap and it doesn’t take long to see. Plus, it’s full of tropical birds!
You can also indulge at the Seasons in the Park restaurant, which is a favourite place for locals to celebrate special occasions. Even if you’re not celebrating anything, treating yourself to drinks and appies on the patio is pretty special there.
3. UBC Botanical Garden
About a half hour drive southwest of downtown Vancouver on UBC campus is the oldest botanical garden in the province: UBC Botanical Garden.
It’s not a traditional botanical garden by any means. By that, it feels more like a wild forest than a cultivated garden. That’s because that’s exactly what it is.
A sizable chunk of UBC Botanical Garden is wild temperate rainforest mixed with old groves of prehistoric-looking magnolias and rhododendrons. In the month of May, the rhododendrons are typically in bloom and it is absolutely magical. And if you look high up in the tallest trees, you will likely spot bald eagles.
UBC Botanical Garden is also fairly academic and is used by the university. Trees and plants are labelled. But there’s also an unexpected attraction in the rainforest: the Greenheart TreeWalk.
The TreeWalk is a series of (wobbly but safe) bridges and platforms suspended in the treetops, which, if you’re agile and have good balance, is one of the most underappreciated attractions in Vancouver. It’s an additional fee to do the walk, but it’s worth it.
Other parts of UBC Botanical Garden consist of oddities like an edible garden, a medieval medicine garden, and an unusual African rock garden. Most visitors don’t even know this place exists, but it’s one of my favourite hidden secrets. And it’s almost never crowded.
4. Nitobe Japanese Garden
If you’re going out to UBC campus, then it behooves you to visit the Nitobe Memorial Garden. This small yet serene garden is considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. I have never been to Japan, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the gardens there looked like this.
I like coming here during cherry blossom season, which in Vancouver is March and April. You don’t need a whole lot of time here. I’m often in and out in half an hour. However, there is so much to see and do at UBC campus, I always combine Nitobe with another place nearby, like the Museum of Anthropology, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, an obligatory stop at the UBC Book Store, and of course, the aforementioned UBC Botanical Garden.
5. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
Chinatown is the historical Chinese neighbourhood in Vancouver, but unfortunately the area has suffered in recent years and borders one of the grimier area of the city. I say this, not to scare people away, but to set expectations so they don’t learn the hard way. While Chinatown’s rough around the edges, it’s not dangerous, and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden continues to be an oasis within.
Pay for admission to this non-profit society to gain access to all the buildings, like the Ming Dynasty-style garden home, and all the garden pathways that meander around the water features. While there is a tiny “free” section outside the garden walls, you’re missing out on the majority of the experience if that’s all you see. And believe me, I didn’t realize there was more to this garden beyond the free bit until I paid admission to enter, and only then did I understood why people raved about it.
What makes Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden unique is that every plant, rock, and building material was imported from China and built in a very deliberate, traditional way. Take a free guided tour to truly appreciate this gem. Don’t expect many flowers, but an authentic Chinese cultural site that Vancouver’s lucky to have.