I often see people in Vancouver making rookie tourist mistakes, resulting in some wasted time or “I wish I would have known” moments. I wrote these 25 tips as a way to share some local Vancouver wisdom so you can hopefully avoid those mistakes and ultimately have a better Vancouver experience because of it.
1. Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t what you’re expecting it to be
Contrary to what you’d expect, Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t where the locals go for Chinese food. It’s also located next to the city’s worst neighbourhood where drug addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental health issues are a big problem. Unfortunately this ambiance spills over into Chinatown. As a result, only go to Chinatown in the morning or early afternoon, and be careful how you walk there. Focus your visit on learning about Chinese Canadian history and to see some of Vancouver’s oldest buildings, though don’t be surprised by the graffiti and locked gates. The Chinatown Storytelling Centre and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Clasical Chinese Gardens are the main attractions and are worthwhile. While there are a handful of Chinese restaurants and bakeries (New Town Bakery and Chinatown BBQ are favourites), there are literally hundreds of Chinese restaurants elsewhere in the city, especially in neighbouring Richmond. If you’re going to Chinatown, don’t make the rookie mistake of walking from Gastown. Enter from the west along E Pender to avoid the nearby homeless encampments, or better yet, take a guided walking tour to appreciate this misunderstood neighbourhood.
2. Gastown’s Steam Clock isn’t the must-see you think it is
The Steam Clock was built in 1977 by a local clock maker to hide a steam vent in the sidewalk. Back then Vancouver’s historic Gastown was run down (one could argue it still is), but they were trying to revitalize it, and so the Steam Clock was built and installed. While the Steam Clock used to run on steam, it no longer does. If you’ve never been to Vancouver before, you might think you need to see the Steam Clock. Unless you have a fascination for Victorian-inspired steampunk art, don’t make a special visit here just to see it. Gastown’s more interesting for its restaurants and bars anyway.
3. Prioritize the waterfront over downtown Vancouver streets
While there’s nothing wrong with Vancouver’s downtown streets, the waterfront is where the city comes alive, especially on sunny days. The seawall in particular is where you’ll want to be, and all along this 22 km (13.7 mi) paved walking and cycling path are waterfront restaurants, parks, beaches, marinas, water taxis, and endless dramatic scenery. The best sunsets can be had here too. If you want to feel like you’re on vacation somewhere special, prioritize your time along Vancouver’s waterfront.
4. Use Robson Street or Davie Street to walk east-west across downtown
If you want to walk from east to west across downtown Vancouver and you don’t have the time to casually meander along the waterfront, take Robson Street or Davie Street. These are vibrant shopping and dining streets with a lot of good energy.
Robson Street is famous for hotels and for retail chains that stay open until 8pm. It also has casual restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, and blocks of authentic, contemporary Asian restaurants. Vancouver’s arenas and stadiums are located at Robson’s east end and Stanley Park is at its west end.
Davie Street is home to Davie Village, Vancouver’s gay community, where you’ll find popular pubs, casual restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, and a few hotels. Davie is also the gateway to Yaletown in the east, and English Bay in the west.
5. Go to Granville Island earlier in the day
Granville Island’s famous public market, shops, and artisan studios (the main tourist attractions) are only open from 9-6, and some shops even lock up at 5. While there are a handful of restaurants and theatres that stay open later, if you’re looking to browse Granville Island and take in its whimsical ambiance, all the vibrant energy is gone by evening, most things are closed, and you’ll wish you had come earlier. If this is your first visit to Granville Island, go earlier in the day.
6. Yaletown comes alive by night
Yaletown is a small historic warehouse district where the heritage brick buildings have been turned into luxury lofts, trendy restaurants, bars, talent agencies, and salons. It’s an area where beautiful people go to be seen. Hollywood actors, famous musicians, and professional athletes are often spotted here. The main blocks of Hamilton Street and Mainland Street have brick loading bay sidewalks, and many of the restaurants have bustling patios. If you come here by day, there’s not a lot happening, but after 5pm the place turns into a party.
7. Don’t walk between Gastown and Chinatown
Located between Gastown and Chinatown is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a small inner city neighbourhood home to the city’s most vulnerable residents. It’s here on E Hastings where thousands of homeless people are camped out on the sidewalks, where many of its residents have extreme untreated mental illness and opiod addiction issues. If you need to walk from Gastown to Chinatown, be strategic about your route if you’re not wanting to walk through the worst part of Vancouver. This area often upsets and shocks visitors.
I usually recommend walking into Chinatown from the the west (from as far west as Pender and Granville ideally) to avoid the worst of what you’d find between Gastown and Chinatown. This often means backtracking down Water Street in Gastown. Because of these visible social issues that upset visitors, I don’t normally prioritize Gastown or Chinatown if you have limited time in Vancouver. Or just set your expectations that you’ll see open drug use and people in desperate need of help.
8. There’s more to Vancouver than its downtown
Don’t just limit yourself to downtown Vancouver. Most first-time visitors never leave downtown, which is easy to do, but downtown is tiny and it’s just one flavour of Vancouver. Outside of downtown are many unique-to-Vancouver neighbourhoods home to vibrant shopping and restaurant districts, like Commercial Drive, Mount Pleasant, Riley Park, South Granville, and Kitsilano.
You’ll also find many more attractions outside of downtown like VanDusen Botanical Garden, the Museum of Anthropology, Queen Elizabeth Park, Jericho Beach, the Museum of Vancouver, the Vancouver Maritime Museum, Spanish Banks, the UBC Botanical Garden, Locarno Beach, Pacific Spirit Park, and more. This doesn’t even include all the suburbs (Richmond, North Vancouver, Burnaby, etc.) which opens up even more opportunities to explore. If you’re just sticking to downtown Vancouver, you’re just seeing one tiny part of the city.
9. Skip the HOHO Buses
I find the local HOHO (hop on hop off) buses spend a lot of time driving around the small, walkable part of downtown Vancouver – an area you can easily walk yourself. Half the stops are at hotels, while the other part of the tour drives you through the grungrier parts of the city, in fact, taking you through the homeless encampments of the Downtown Eastside next to Chinatown and Gastown. While there’s a time and a place for HOHO buses, I’m not convinced it’s the best use of your limited time.
10. Don’t go to Butchart if you haven’t seen Vancouver’s gardens
I’m not entirely convinced the people asking about seeing Butchart Gardens realize it takes 3-4 hours to get there from Vancouver one way. That’s 8 hours of travelling to spend 2-3 hours in a garden. Unless Butchart has been a lifelong dream to see and you’re not just going because somebody told you to go, you’re going to get a lot more out of exploring Vancouver’s botanical gardens instead.
Consider spending an afternoon at both VanDusen Botanical Garden and Queen Elizabeth Park, with a short visit to the Bloedel Conservatory. The UBC Botanical Garden, Nitobe Japanese Garden, and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden are also worthwhile if you’re a garden enthusiast. And of course, Stanley Park is a must. This isn’t to say Butchart Gardens isn’t worth it (it is), but not when you’ve got limited time in Vancouver. Save Butchart for a separate trip to Victoria.
11. There is no airport shuttle to downtown Vancouver hotels
There are no airport shuttles between the airport and downtown Vancouver. The only hotels that offer free airport shuttles are located next to the airport in Richmond, about a half hour drive south of downtown Vancouver. Instead, you’ve got flat rate taxis (approximately $35 for downtown locations from the airport), Uber, or you can hop on the Canada Line for less than $10 per person. The Canada Line is the rapid transit train that runs partially above ground and partially underground and is managed by Vancouver’s public transit system, TransLink. However you get there, getting to a downtown hotel from the airport takes about half an hour.
12. There is no hotel next to the train station
The Pacific Central train station (home of Amtrak and VIA Rail) is located in a grungy light industrual part of the city just to the east of downtown. While there are no hotels immedeately nearby, all of downtown Vancouver’s hotels are just a short taxi, Uber, of Skytrain ride away. I’d consider a hotel on the east side of downtown like the YWCA Hotel, Hotel BLU, or the Sandman Hotel Downtown Vancouver. For something fancier, consider the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver, literally a 5 minute drive down the road.
13. Cruise ship season means expensive hotels
From May until October, Alaska cruise ship season is in full force. What this means is that all hotels raise their prices because of all the demand. Expect to pay $300+ a night for a basic hotel and $500+ per night for a nicer hotel. Luxury hotels will cost you much more. Staying outside of Vancouver will be cheaper, but not by much.
14. Every hotel downtown is close to the cruise ship terminal
Every year Alaska cruise ship passengers seek hotels close to Vancouver’s cruise ship terminal, Canada Place. While there are luxury hotels immediately next to Canada Place (the Fairmont Waterfront, the Pan Pacific, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, etc.), there are many more hotels just a few blocks away elsewhere downtown to consider too.
The Blue Horizon is a spacious older hotel on Robson Street. The Sylvia Hotel is a lovely historic hotel on English Bay. The Westin Bayshore is a stunning harbourfront hotel next to Stanley Park. The Opus Hotel is a hip and stylish boutique hotel in trendy Yaletown. The YWCA Hotel is a clean, affordable budget option nearby. Know that every hotel downtown is going to be a short (less than 10 minute) taxi or Uber ride away from Canada Place. There’s no need to limit yourself to the hotels immediately next to the cruise ship terminal because as long as you’re staying downtown, you’ll be close.
15. Expect to pay for parking everywhere
Vancouver city planners have strategically made it difficult and expensive to drive a car, with the hopes of encouraging people to walk, cycle, or take public transit instead. In most parts of the city, you’ll be paying for parking from 9am until 10pm, 7 days a week including holidays. Most hotels charge $35+ to park overnight. There are also parking garages throughout downtown, often with a 6am-6pm price and an overnight price.
16. Don’t leave any valuables in your car
Rookie mistake is to assume Canada’s crime-free. While Vancouver isn’t known for violence, it is unfortunately a hotbed of opiod addiction, which means higher property crime and car break-ins. If you’re driving an out-of-town car, especially with US licence plantes, don’t leave anything visible in your car when it’s parked, whether it’s a jacket, a shopping bag, a suitcase, a backpack, spare change, or anything, really. Don’t use your car as storage. Never keep valuables in your car. If you absolutely must keep things in the car, store things in your trunk but keep your valuables on you. And lock the doors, always.
17. Vancouver is bike-friendly
Parking may be expensive, but it’s cheaper to ride a bike. In the past decade Vancouver has put a lot of funding into its bike lane infrastructure. You’ll find separated bike lanes downtown, traffic lights specifically for bikes, and bike routes all over the city. There are bike rental shops all over downtown and even a Mobi, Vancouver’s bike share program, where you can pay by the hour to use bikes to commute short distances. And of course, the seawall is considered the ultimate cyclist experience in Vancouver.
18. You don’t need to seek a seafood restaurant to have good seafood
Tourists will often ask for seafood restaurant recommendations, but the local secret is that you can have good seafood at almost every restaurant in Vancouver without having to specifically seek a seafood restaurant.
Wild Pacific seafood is ubiquetous here: wild salmon, halibut, cod, trout, spot prawns, Dungeness crab, scallops, clams, mussels, oysters and even sea urchin. While there are some fantastic seafood restaurants (the Sandbar, Fanny Bay Oysters, Joe Forte’s, Blue Water Cafe), keep your eye out on menus and you really will find local, wild Pacific seafood everywhere. Don’t forget about the incredible local seafood on the local sushi, izakaya, and Chinese restaurants too.
19. When in doubt, prioritize Asian cuisine
Skip the poutine and the steakhouses. If you’re in Vancouver and you don’t know what to eat, prioritize the city’s Asian cuisine; this is what Vancouver’s famous for. The city is particularly famous for its Chinese (Cantonese, Northern Chinese, Shanghainese) and Japanese cuisine (sushi, izakaya, ramen), but you’ll also find a lot of Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian food too. To a lesser extent, there’s also Filipino, Thai, Malaysian, Cambodian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani cuisine if you know where to look. Fortunately, Asian restaurants can be found in every neighbourhood, on every street in the city. Only tourists go to Chinatown looking for it, but locals know the best Chinese food is elsewhere in the city. Robson Street between Denman and Bute is a good reliable place to go downtown for Asian food, especially in the evening.
20. Avoid Tim Hortons
There’s a time and place for Tim Hortons, like a road trip across Canada. But Vancouver’s not the time or place. Tim Hortons is a fast food coffee, donut, and sandwich franchise but have been cutting corners in recent years, and it shows. They’re popular in small town Canada where options are limited, but in Vancouver, while’s cheap, you get what you pay for. Orders are often wrong. Drinks are made with powder mix. There are often people sleeping at the tables. The food is reliably inconsistent and slapped together without much care. It is the only fast food outlet where I have received a partially frozen egg in a breakfast sandwich. With so many excellent coffee options in Vancouver, you can do so much better than Tim’s. If you need an affordable 24-hour coffee, donut and sandwich shop, may I suggest Breka for a much more pleasant experience and better food. If you’re looking for good coffee, there are countless excellent independent cafes to serve you around Vancouver, like JJ Bean, Prado, or Pallet.
21. Everywhere in Vancouver is safe, some areas are just more pleasant than others
Stastically, there is no overtly dangerous part of Vancouver. Danger is tied to activity in Vancouver (i.e. gangs, drugs), not geography. Random acts of violence can happen in the fancy parts of town just as much as the down and out parts of town. There is nowhere I’d feel threatened if I went walking at night as a single female. Muggings, shootings, and pickpocketing is rare.
However, there are certainly parts of Vancouver that are more pleasant than others. Generally I find the West End by Stanley Park, Robson Street, Yaletown, Coal Harbour, Kitsilano great areas to base yourself out of. I’d avoid staying in and around Gastown, Chinatown, or around Granville Street’s nightclubs, only because it gets a bit grungey there, even though it’s safe.
22. The craft brewery scene is outside of downtown
If you’re a craft beer nerd, there are dozens of breweries in and around Vancouver, but they’re almost entirely outside of downtown in East Vancouver. Look up the BC Ale Trail for brewery itineraries. For downtown beer lovers, Alibi Room and The Magnet have some of the best beer lists in the city. Otherwise Steamworks and the Yaletown Brewing Company are downtown and they brew their own beer on site.
23. You can get by in Vancouver without cash
Almost everywhere in Vancouver accepts payment by tapping or swiping your card, especially since the pandemic started. Visa, MasterCard, and debit/Interac are the most common types. However, it’s always a good idea to have some Canadian cash on you should you wish to tip your hotel housekeeping or a busker on the street. Simply visit an ATM (they’re everywhere) and withdraw some Canadian cash with your bank card. Nobody uses US cash in Vancouver, or in Canada as a whole, although some businesses will gladly take it off your hands at a higher rate if you don’t wish to exchange it. Any change you get back will be in Canadian cash. If a business is cash only, they’ll usually make it obvious with a sign on the door or window.
24. It doesn’t rain all the time in Vancouver
Vancouver may be famous for rain, but the rain is seasonal and falls mostly between November and June. From July until mid-October, it almost never rains. Of course, climate is changing. Vancouver is getting much hotter in the summer months (it’s stressing forests and killing trees). We have also seen some unusual cold, snowy spells in the winter. However, as a general rule, the dry summer and wet rainy winter is what you can expect for Vancouver. If snow falls, it’s usually for a day or two in December, January or February, and then it melts a few days later.
25. Prioritize being outside
Vancouver’s unique in the way that its natural setting is its main attraction that distinguishes it from other large cities. If you’re spending time in Vancouver, make sure you build in some outdoors time. Explore Stanley Park’s rainforest trails, watch a sunset from English Bay, or simply stroll the waterfront along the seawall.