As someone who spent over a decade living in a major metropolis, people always ask me, “how do you survive living on the island?” First off, let’s get a few things straight: Victoria isn’t a big city but it’s not super small either. We’ve got bars. We’ve got coffee shops. We’ve got more marijuana dispensaries than is humanly necessary. While the shopping is somewhat limited, you can still mostly get what you need (unless what you need is a Zara store. I mean, come on Victoria). With that said, living on an island comes with limitations and the desire to “get off the island” can get strong. So, when that question comes up, I always answer: “regular trips to Vancouver!”
I’ve spent large chunks of time in Vancouver since I was child and like to think I have a decent handle on the city. After posting a bunch of photos from my recent trip two weeks ago, a friend commented, “I should get you to plan my next weekend in Vancouver! I never know what to do once I’m there.” So, I’ve decided to do just that.
Everyone’s probably heard the usual recommendations: visit Stanley Park, go for a walk along the Sea Wall, go to Kits beach, visit Granville Island – and while those are all great suggestions, there’s lots more to to the city that you may not have heard or thought of doing. Planning a trip to Vancouver? Here’s some of my favourite things to do and eat in Vancouver, as seen through the lens of someone who visits the city regularly.
1. Eat at Guu Izakaya.
“You want me to eat at a place called Guu?” is what most people ask. I always tell them, “yes, yes a thousand times yes!” If you haven’t experienced Izakaya (Japanese tapas) before, Guu should be your first stop. Luckily, there are a bunch of locations around the city, each with a slightly different menu. One thing I have to order at every one I visit is their Tuna Takaki. It’s simply the best I’ve ever had.
2. Shop at a Japanese dollar store.
If you’ve never experienced a Japanese dollar store, you’re in luck because Vancouver has quite a few! I’ve recently fallen in love with the newly opened Miniso chain, which is more upscale and a great source for cosmetics, housewares & sheet masks, but Yokoyaya (International Village) and Daiso (in Richmond) are also worth checking out.
3. Stay at the Burrard Hotel.
Described as “Melrose Place without the murder” The Burrard Hotel is my go-to for when I’m not staying at my sister’s place. The decor is delightfully retro and the palm tree filled courtyard makes you feel like you’re somewhere much further south. Joe the Intern likes their selection of art by Dina Goldstein that’s scattered throughout the hotel.
4. Look at pretty things at Nordstrom.
Nordstrom used to be a novelty reserved for trips to the States, but now there’s stores in Canada. The downtown Vancouver location is stunning and a great source of inspiration if you’re like me and you love looking at & touching pretty things. The selection is curated to suit an Asian market, which I find generally means more whimsical, adventurous pieces. There’s also a bar. Inside the store. You know, because.
5. Eat a Japadog.
If you’re in Vancouver and you’ve never experienced a Japanese style hotdog, you need to visit Japadog. They have carts throughout downtown as well as a storefront restaurant on Robson street. It’s a Vancouver institution and likely one of the best street meats you’ll ever consume. My favourite is the Kurobuta Terimayo. If I’m going to send my body into a gluten spiral, this is my first stop. (American friends: they now have two locations in LA!)
6. Go bro-watching at the Cactus Club.
I think it’s accurate to say that a lot of people here have a love/hate relationship with the Cactus Club. Going to one is a bit like hooking up with an ex that has a “meh” personality but is hot and surprisingly good in bed. The Cactus Club is a chain restaurant that always makes you feel a bit like you’re stepping into an Entourage episode, but you stay because they’re in all the best locations (like overlooking the water in Coal Harbor or English Bay) and the food is actually quite excellent.
7. Go on a Vancouver Foodie Tour.
Want to experience some of the best food Vancouver has to offer in one afternoon? I seriously recommend booking a Vancouver Foodie Tour. A few summers ago, The Secret Agent and I went on the Guilty Pleasures Gourmet tour and it was amazing. Not only are you going to eat some delicious things, you’ll also get a great overview of the city’s culture.
8. Go for drinks at Long Table Distillery or The Keefer Bar.
Head to the Long Table Distillery for a few drinks before you head out for the night. This small tucked away micro-distillery has a cool, industrial-style tasting room for handcrafted spirits and some of the best craft cocktails I’ve tasted. Craving more cocktails? Check out The Keefer Bar in Chinatown. I still haven’t been there yet, but reliable sources say it’s amazing.
9. Swim in the pools at Kitsilano or Second Beach.
Vancouver public pools > your public pools. Vancouver is home to several excellent public pools like Kitsilano (which is saltwater!) and Second Beach in Stanley Park. Both spots have scenic waterfront views that rival any hotel pool in the city.
10. Eat something deliciously greasy at Hons.
By now you’ve probably figured out that Vancouver is a hub for amazing Asian food. Is Hon’s the best Chinese food in the city? Probably not. But it’s kind of an institution and it serves damn tasty Cantonese comfort food. Think perfectly fried and just a little bit smoky rice noodles with beef, crispy fresh Gai-Lan with oyster sauce and plates of bbq pork all served by staff in matching T-shirts.
11. Have sushi at Shiro.
If you’re walking along a street in Vancouver and you don’t pass at least a handful of sushi restaurants before you reach your destination, be concerned. Very, very concerned. There’s just so. much. sushi. here. Shiro is my favourite in the city though.
12. Treat yourself to dinner at Wildebeest.
If you’re looking to go for a higher-end meal and like things meaty, hit up Wildebeest in Gastown. I can be a bit of a scene on the weekends, but I’ve had some of my favourite meals from the past five years at this restaurant. I also recommend Pidgin (Asian/French fusion) which is right around the corner.
13. Take the Skytrain to Aberdeen Centre.
If you’re in the mood to be transported somewhere totally different, take a quick skytrain ride to the Aberdeen Centre – a large Asian shopping mall just outside the city in Richmond. You’ll find stores like Hong Kong’s Giordano that aren’t available elsewhere in Canada. Hint: stop at the food court for lunch and/or some delicious Asian desserts.
14. Enjoy a decadent meal during Dine Out Vancouver.
If you’re like me and love fine dining and are also budget conscious, Dine Out – a yearly event where high-end restaurants offer prix-fixe menus at a reduced cost – is probably going to be your jam. This past winter, a friend and I took advantage & had a wonderful meal at Yew.
15. Shop at Front & Company on Main.
Located on a the hip Main St street, Front and Company features a mix of previously worn name brand & designer items and new pieces. It’s also where I go to sell items from my wardrobe – and let’s face it – where I get a huge chunk of my clothes. Most of my profits usually end up going back into the store because I almost always find something gorgeous to buy every time I visit.
16. Eat some Pupusas on Commercial Drive.
Commercial Drive (“The Drive”) is probably the area of the city that most reminds me of Toronto – in the best way possible. Old school Italian businesses press up against hip bars, vintage shops and Indian take-out. While you’re there, make sure to try some pupusas (delicious El Salvadorean corn patties stuffed with melted cheese, beans & meats) at Rinconcito Salvadoreno.
17. Look for treasures at Community Thrift & Vintage in Gastown.
Cobblestone lined Gastown is now home to a lot of trendy bars, restaurants and shops, but tucked away amongst the hip high-end sneaker shops and furniture stores, you can still find a bargain at one of two Community Thrift & Vintage stores. Not only are the stores super cute and well curated, they’re part of a social enterprise initiative that provides supportive, employment opportunities to women living in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
18. Grab a drink in the “Gayborhood” and wander around the West End & English Bay.
Davie Village (aka the “gaybourhood”) is a vibrant neighborhood located in the West End of downtown and is the heart of the city’s gay community. I love this area – especially in the the summer and around Pride weekend when the night life (and day life) spills out on to the street. Imbibe at one of the many eateries, bars or lounges and then head for a romantic stroll around English Bay (one of the best views in the city).
19. Discover discount designer duds at the consignment stores of South Granville.
Adjacent to some of Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhoods lies South Granville. This hood is home to stores like Anthropologie, James Perse, Max Mara and others. It’s also where the rich folks go to dump their wardrobes. My favourite place for scoring deals is Turnabout. Think lots of lightly used high-end to mid-range designer pieces for fair prices. Tip: if $30 Alice and Olivia dresses are your thing, head to the basement. That’s where you can find the clearance racks and deepest discounts.
20. Eat tacos at Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop.
These are the best tacos I’ve found outside of L.A. There’s now a location on the island so I don’t make a point of eating there when I’m Vancouver anymore, but it’s good. Oh so good. There’s a couple of locations around the city, the newest being in the financial district. Try the chicken tinga taco. It’s mouthwatering.