Vancouver neighborhoods occupy the narrow flat land between the Coast Mountains and the U.S. border in southern BC, much of which is also the Fraser River delta. The city’s center is on a narrowing peninsula between False Creek (actually a saltwater inlet) and Burrard Inlet, with Stanley Park at the northwestern end of the peninsula. The glistening skyline so often depicted in Vancouver photos is, unlike other such cityscapes, a collection of hundreds of residential towers, rather than office buildings. Encompassing most of the West End, much of downtown, and the False Creek, Coal Harbour and Yaletown districts that have redeveloped over the past 20 years, this high-rise forest now covers most of the area of Vancouver contained on the peninsula between Burrard Inlet and False Creek. The remaining historic neighborhood, Gastown, is a small area north of Pender and east of Richards, and is largely knick-knack shops and cafes. The original Chinatown, once a thriving neighborhood worthy of an afternoon stroll, has fallen on hard times as a result of drug traffic and Asian middle-class flight to the southern suburb of Richmond, which is also the home of Vancouver International Airport.
The 1929 Marine Building at Burrard and Hastings, with its extravagant decor depicting the sea outside and a Mayan temple in the lobby, is one of the world’s finest Art Deco structures. It’s also one of the few remainders of a century ago in a thriving downtown whose two focal points are Canada Place on the north side and architect Arthur Erickson’s famous many-level Law Courts complex toward the south edge. The Vancouver Art Gallery, Robson Square and Pacific Centre shopping complex are the major attractions downtown. A mix of modern hotel, office and residential high-rises peppers the skyline, and the noontime streets are bustling with office workers, as this is Western Canada’s financial center.
Not so long ago this was a run-down warehouse district southeast of downtown with beery transients toasting fate in the old delivery alleys. Today it’s one of the continent’s best examples of savvy urban redevelopment, developers kept the sturdy brick building shells, spruced up the streets, turned the wide truck-loading platforms into patios and walkways, and installed a dizzying array of shops, cafes and restaurants. Easily reached on foot from most downtown hotels (don’t bring your car here, parking would challenge even deities), Yaletown hums, especially on fair-weather nights when every cafe has tables out front and urbanites dine and laugh where greengrocers once off-loaded produce from Fraser Valley farms to the east.
The leafy-street, single-family-home residential district closest to downtown is nicknamed “Kits,” as in: “You live in Kits? Lucky you.” One of Canada’s most desirable neighborhoods, Kits includes an area of early 20th Century homes (bounded by Chestnut and Arbutus Streets and Cornwall and McNicoll Avenues) that’s one of the finest on the West Coast. Kits residents enjoy the area’s many small shops and cafes, and they head to the wide sandy beaches at Kitsilano Beach Park for volleyball and sunbathing on nice afternoons in July and August.
With more than 40,000 people living in high rises, this is one of the densest urban neighborhoods in North America. With Stanley Park comprising its western half, English Bay Beach to the south and a myriad of small shops and cafes on Denman Street, the area has a most European feel. Though it’s no longer the shopping center of Vancouver, the people-watching paradise of Robson Street runs through the center of the West End, with a famous corner (at Thurlow) that has coffee shops on three of the four corners. That’s an excellent place to get the full measure of the city’s diversity: motorcycle riders favor one of the two Starbucks outlets; Asian tourists and city residents of Asian descent stroll the sidewalks; Europeans poke their heads into stores; Canadians and Americans wander about. It’s possible to hear more than a dozen languages in the space of a few minutes here. The meditative walking Labyrinth at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (1130 Jervis St.) is a replica of the one in Chartres Cathedral in France.
Richmond & New Chinatown
The historic city-center Chinatown has been supplanted by this modern, shopping mall-style version in the southern suburb of Richmond. Rather than the urban streets lined with narrow tong houses of old Chinatown, Richmond Chinatown is a sprawling area whose population is 60 percent Asian-Canadian and whose major commercial center, Golden Village, consists of new-built malls that look like any such suburban developments, but contain numerous Asian stores. Here, the Richmond Night Market provides the flavor of Asian street market districts and is the most genuinely “Asian” attraction. Many fanciers of Asian food, particularly dim sum, feel the restaurants of Richmond have supplanted Vancouver’s downtown and Chinatown restaurants for Asian food. Also in Richmond is Steveston, a lovely historic maritime village with working boatyards, waterfront cafes and nautical-theme shops, washed by fresh breezes off the Strait of Georgia.