AOL PICK from our Editors
There are literally dozens of attractions and activities competing for visitor attention in Vancouver, several of them are not only the best Vancouver things to do, they're also among the top such sights on Earth and have earned three stars by Michelin. Though there aren’t as many museums as, say, New York, Vancouver’s best are world leaders: The Museum of Anthropology, for instance, is the foremost facility devoted to Pacific Northwest First Nations art and culture. The sights below are the most outstanding, but there are many more, ranging from the controversial neo-Roman architecture of the Vancouver Public Library, to the hiking trails of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, to Cypress Provincial Park and Mount Seymour, the two alpine ski areas that bracket Grouse Mountain, to the best old-growth forest in the Lower Mainland at Lighthouse Park. Bounded as it is by mountain and water, it's not surprising that Vancouver is also jam-packed with outdoor activities and many miles of recreation paths. Indian Arm, for instance, just northeast of the city, is Canada’s southernmost fjord, an excellent spot for an afternoon in a kayak. English Bay Beach and Kitsilano Beach are delightful urban swim venues. Tourism Vancouver
operates an excellent visitor center opposite Canada Place at 200 Burrard Street; or contact 604-683-2000.
Kids and adults both find themselves mesmerized in a science “playground” that’s the last legacy attraction of Expo ’86. This immense geodesic dome structure, poised at the upper end of False Creek, holds dozens of hands-on, interactive exhibits, Science World pioneered this now-universal trend decades ago, that depict the principles of biology, weather, physics, engineering and astronomy. Visitors can “make” volcanoes, construct sundials, build stunt airplanes from paper, play games with robots, and do hundreds of other things that illustrate the principles of science.
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Neighborhood: Grey's Point
It’s hard to say which is more outstanding, the best-of-its-kind collection of First Nations art and culture here, or the famous, distinctive building designed by Arthur Erickson that holds it. Poised atop a headland looking out over English Bay and the North Shore Mountains, the building guides visitors into ever-higher-ceilinged exhibit halls that dramatize the tall, haunting totems that stand here. Daylit by towering windows, the masks, bentwood boxes, sculptures and canoes of a dozen different peoples attest to the powerful artistic tradition of the Pacific Coast. The museum’s key piece has its own room: Haida artist Bill Reid’s beautiful and spiritually arresting yellow cedar sculpture, The Raven and the First Men. A depiction of his people’s creation story, this is one of the world’s great art treasures. Nearby, dozens of cabinets hold thousands of other artifacts, all evidence of the cultural wealth of a coast that has more than 50 indigenous peoples.
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Neighborhood: West End
One of the world’s most famous urban parks offers miles of sublime paths through forest, field and garden within its 1,000 acres. Excellent swimming beaches here, Third Beach is best, seem light-years from the city. Stanley Park is often presumed to hold old-growth forest, and to have been founded with great conservation foresight by city pioneers. In reality, its 150,000 trees are mostly second-growth, and the park was designed to boost property sales in adjacent West End developments; it has succeeded admirably. The park’s key feature is the 9 kilometer (5.5.mile), granite masonry seawall trail that winds along its shoreline border, favored by presidents, residents and visitors alike. It’s best to walk, ride or take a taxi to the park, parking is scarce, and almost impossible on busy summer days. The soaring Lions Gate Bridge at the park’s northwest corner connects Vancouver with the North Shore. Aside from the Vancouver Aquarium, the park also includes a nature center, rose gardens, a Children’s Farmyard and narrow-gauge train, a water park, numerous playfields, and a much-photographed hollow cedar tree stump.
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A quiet, walled retreat built of paved paths, artfully shaped trees and shrubs, burbling water and still ponds, meditation rooms and evocative archways, the first classical Chinese garden in North America was built by craftsmen from China in 1985 in the heart of Chinatown. It’s a remarkably serene retreat in the middle of the city; alas, the surrounding neighborhood is in decline, and Vancouver’s East End drug trade is just a few blocks away. It’s safe for visitors here, and on East Pender, Chinatown’s main street, but wandering north to Hastings Street is not advisable.
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The towering white canvas “sails” of this over-water facility have become emblematic of Vancouver. Much of the interior is devoted to a convention center and high-octane Pan Pacific Hotel, and the wharf itself is a cruise ship dock. But the promenade around the outside of the wharf offers sweeping views of the city, Stanley Park, the North Shore Mountains and the Port of Vancouver. Westward along the Canada Place Pier just a bit, the plaza in front of the new convention center is the home of the Olympic Cauldron, a legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Aside from admiring the architecture, which reminds us of the Sydney Opera House, this is a splendid place to watch floatplanes land and depart for points up and down the BC coast.
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Delightful shops, galleries, cafes and a huge public farmers market (the biggest in Vancouver) occupy what used to be an industrial warehouse district beneath the Granville Street Bridge. Today dozens of stores and galleries, a craft brewer, a hotel and the market draw throngs of families. The food court (see below) is a great spot for lunch while browsing Eagle Spirit Gallery, perhaps the best purveyor of First Nations mask art in the city; and the immense Kids Market, with literally thousands of toys. Dozens of other emporiums offer everything from art to zinnias. Though there is no single attraction that outshines all, the island’s innumerable shops and galleries beckon visitors to wander for hours window-shopping, tasting and listening to the many buskers in the district.
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Neighborhood: West End
One of the world’s top aquariums is both a wonderful visitor attraction and a leading advocate for marine conservation. Bill Reid’s iconic orca statue greets visitors at the entrance, inside Stanley Park. Within the aquarium, otters gambol, belugas soar underwater, and sea lions bark, while display cases illustrate the colorful green, orange, crimson and butterscotch hues of underwater life in the Salish Sea. Just as important, the aquarium is a leader in research on Pacific marine mammals, and sponsors, with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an Ocean Wise sustainable seafood campaign observed by most Vancouver chefs. Parking is scarce near the aquarium, it’s best to walk or use public transit.
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Vancouver’s economic mainstay is the topic of this shoreline museum south of False Creek. The highlight is the RCMP St. Roch, a sturdy schooner that was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage west to east over two winters during World War II. Clambering up and down the ladders, passages and decks of the St. Roch becomes much more fascinating when you consider that crew members were confined to these small spaces for months on end. Other exhibits include a tugboat bridge where you can pretend to guide a huge cargo ship into dock. Nearby, the Museum of Vancouver offers an engaging tour through the city’s history, which consists of a walk leading past reconstructions of early houses, sawmills, sundry shops and so on.
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Housed in the 1906 former courthouse, Vancouver’s art museum is a relatively small facility that focuses on contemporary urban art and traveling exhibits. Though it has the largest holding of famed BC artist Emily Carr (a spiritual contemporary of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe), a relatively small number of Carr canvases are on display at most times. Keep your eyes open for canvases by Jack Shadbolt, another notable BC artist whose paintings poise between realism and Expressionism. The south-facing steps of the building are the focal point for the city’s almost daily political and social protests.
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Neighborhood: North Vancouver
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The best view of Vancouver is found at the top of this thrilling, steep tram ride on the North Shore of the metro area. The tram climbs one mile to a landing at 1,100 meters (3,700 feet), from which a nearly 300-degree view takes in all of Vancouver, most of the Lower Mainland, the Cascade Range and Mount Baker, the Strait of Georgia and Vancouver Island. Hiking trails, dining and natural history interpretive exhibits entertain summer visitors; in the winter this is the closest of the three metro ski areas, with prodigious (though wet) snowfalls and lighted skiing until 10PM.
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