“Vancouver is, literally, one of the world’s youngest cities. One day we’ll be old and creaky, but not now — right now is for being young.” City of Glass, Douglas Coupland (2000)
WHEN snow-dusted peaks and the Pacific Ocean make a city look this damn good, nobody tries to compete with nature. In fact, Vancouver’s condo-tower skyline — Coupland’s ‘city of glass’ — is all about reflecting the great outdoors at every turn.
This natural playground is Vancouver’s heart. Trawling the 125-year-old city for history, such as downtown’s art deco Marine Building and the brick warehouses in Gastown, may be a good start, but the best way to understand a local is to sweat with them.
The city’s StairMaster, known affectionately as the Grouse Grind, is a vertiginous rite of passage which takes you straight up the 4,100ft Grouse Mountain, minutes north of the city. While I’m being passed by regulars running up, I know my hour-long humiliation will soon disappear with a typical British Columbian reward atop: a culinary hit (local scallops) alongside the best panoramic city view. Oh, and the cable-car ride back down, too.
Vancouverites get outside a lot — and myriad rental places mean you, too, can do the proverbial ski in the morning, bike in the afternoon and golf in the evening on a spring day. The mountain slopes are even floodlit until 10pm during winter. It’s all part of a work/life balance that has earned Vancouver the moniker Lotusland — and helped it achieve the zenith of being labelled the world’s most liveable city.
From its origins as a Wild West outpost, Vancouver is now Canada’s fastest-growing metropolis. It’s a melting pot of immigrants, with a smorgasbord of cuisine and festivals such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and the Chinese New Year parades. It permeates every neighbourhood: grab your pho on Fraser Street, your Cornish pasty in Dunbar and your faloodeh in North Vancouver.
Hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games helped raise Vancouver’s game culturally, so if you have to be inside — and it is known as the Wet Coast for obvious reasons — take in its art galleries and museums.
But remember, rain never stops play for a local.
Bayshore Rentals: 745 Denman Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 688 2453. www.bayshorebikerentals.ca
Grouse Mountain/The Observatory Restaurant: 6400 Nancy Greene Way, North Vancouver. www.grousemountain.com
Museum of Vancouver: 1100 Chestnut Street. www.museumofvancouver.ca
Vancouver Art Gallery: 750 Hornby Street, Vancouver. www.vanartgallery.bc.ca
Food glorious food
As fastidious foodies, locals like to eat out as much as possible. They’ll hook up with friends at restaurants, especially newly opened ones, a few times a week. Luckily, the choice in Vancouver is exhaustive: some 4,000 restaurants create an epicurean map as diverse as its 600,000-strong population.
Notable newcomers — the high-octane chefs Daniel Boulud (Lumière in Kitsilano) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Market by Jean-Georges at the Shangri-La downtown) — have both added gravitas to a scene Vancouverites always knew was exceptional.
Thanks to the omnipresent Pacific and its recent (record) 30 million salmon run, world-envied fish play starring roles on most menus, with sushi (try the West End’s Kingyo restaurant) now the city’s equivalent of cheap, fast food. At the pricier end, Blue Water Cafe in Yaletown will satisfy any raw or seafood craving. Sea urchin, geoduck, jellyfish, periwinkles, anyone?
And for unabashedly loud servings of adventurous dim sum, head to Sun Sui Wah in East Vancouver or Chinatown’s brasserie, Bao Bei.
As the spiritual home of the ‘100-mile diet’ in North America, Vancouver restaurants have long been geared to the locavore movement. Menus that change according to the season or catch of the day include Raincity Grill in the West End, Il Giardino’s in downtown Vancouver and Bishop’s in Kitsilano.
Locals also gravitate towards their homegrown talents: the happening Thai restaurant Maenam, in Kitsilano, and Glowbal Grill’s North
American-style Wagyu steaks (complete with for-all-to-see meat locker) in Yaletown, the former warehouse district. Any ocean-view restaurant, such as The BoatHouse on Kitsilano beach, draws tourists and locals alike.
Despite being the domain of cheesy tourist tack, Gastown is firmly attracting back the locals, with eateries reviving disused alleyways that were once no-go areas. Its snack-central Salt Tasting Room is inspired.
Come summer, head for the beach after stocking up at the Granville Island markets or downtown’s newly launched street food vendors for some poutine — a Quebec dish of chips, cheese and gravy — at Fresh, Local, Wild.
Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar: 1095 Hamilton Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 688 8078. www.bluewatercafe.net
Glowbal Grill Steaks & Satay: 1079 Mainland Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 602 0835. www.glowbalgrill.com
Kingyo: 871 Denman Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 608 1677. www.kingyo-izakaya.com
Maenam: 1938 West Fourth Avenue. T: 00 1 604 730 5579. www.maenam.ca
Salt Tasting Room: 45 Blood Alley, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 633 1912. www.salttastingroom.com
Shangri-La: 1128 West Georgia Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 689 1120. www.shangri-la.com/en/property/vancouver/shangrila
In Vancouver, you are just as likely to go for a coffee after work as for a beer — thanks, partly, to stringent alcohol laws that make for few drink-only venues, as well as the city’s Java culture.
That’s not to say locals won’t indulge in a few sharpeners in the downtown core, especially on Fridays. The Four Seasons Hotel’s Yew bar, for example, is a popular hangout for the well-heeled after-work crowd, as are the nearby unsuspecting, neon-lit Kingston Taphouse and most of the bars in Yaletown.
If they are eating before dancing, locals usually opt for lighter tapas — while lounging on decadent beds in places such as the Middle Eastern, cathedral-like Sanafir restaurant downtown or luxuriating at Yaletown’s Philippe Starck-esque Opus Bar.
When it comes to vibes, however, the city has a split personality. There are locals who are devoted solely to live music (Vancouver is the jumping-off point for many major and emerging bands on North American tours), heading to such downtown spots as the Commodore Ballroom and the Railway Club.
Then there are those looking for sharp DJs, who spin at the many clubs and bars along the slightly kitsch, neon-central strip of Granville Street. Party people head to Ginger 62 (which often includes burlesque, a major attraction in the city), Caprice and Republic, all clubs on Granville, as well as the notable gay-friendly Celebrities in the nearby West End. For smaller indie nights, which tend to open and close at whiplash speed, it’s worth checking out the free listings paper, The Georgia Straight.
A word of warning: downtown Vancouver can heave on Fridays and Saturdays, with an onslaught of out-of-towners from the ’burbs of Surrey, Guildford and Richmond (there were many homesick expat city planners in the early days). Book a taxi early or expect a long wait. And don’t try to take your drink out of the club — it’s against the law to have alcohol on the street.
Commodore Ballroom: 868 Granville Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 739 4550.
Four Seasons Hotel & Yew Bar: 791 West Georgia Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 689 9333. www.fourseasons.com/vancouver
Ginger 62: 1219 Granville Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 688 5494. www.ginger62.com
Opus Hotel & Bar: 350 Davie Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 642 0557. www.opusbar.ca
Republic: 958 Granville Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 669 3266. www.dhmbars.ca
Sanafir Restaurant & Lounge: 1026 Granville Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 678 1049. www.sanafir.ca
A pile of style
Mocked mercilessly for its reputation for sweat pants and socks ’n’ sandals — a hangover from its hippie era — Vancouver is no slouch in the style scene today.From fashion and design to arts and crafts, there’s a generous seam of hipsters showcasing mainly in two epicentres, Gastown and the less concentrated area of South of Main (or SoMa) in East Vancouver. Both have undergone a radical renaissance in the past decades, with boutiques opening when rents were low and the areas grungy.
Now wise locals often leave the mainstream style of downtown’s Robson Street to the tourists, and head to these alternative areas for handmade-in-Vancouver and vintage fashions. Cutting-edge dresses, t-shirts, trousers, belts and shoes overflow at stores such as Front and Co, Twigg & Hottie and Eugene Choo in SoMa, and The Block, One of a Few, Obakki and Fluevog — the Vancouver institution and quirky footwear maker — in Gastown.
They are fertile spots for guerrilla stores and art installations that occasionally pop up, such as the Makeshift project where artist Natalie Purschwitz wore only things — including her shoes — that she had made herself for a year.
Sure, there are still plenty of the West Coast biker looks here (de rigueur sleeves of tats and oversized baseball caps), but locals happily absorb many fashion-forward style tips, often spurred on by the city’s vibrant Emily Carr University of Art + Design, just by wandering the streets.
Beyond fashion, check out the internationally acclaimed light designs by Vancouver’s Omer Arbel or Brent Comber’s wooden sculptures at Inform Interiors (Gastown). With its roots as a lumber town, Vancouverites are forever adding creative value to its most common export.
The city also revels in its own Pecha Kucha event, Vancouver’s take on the worldwide creative phenomenon where the style scene is explored every few months. Not that Canadians ever like to be as showy as their neighbours across the border to the south, but this is one regular spot where their collective excitement spills over.
The Block: 350 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 685 8885. www.theblock.ca
Eugene Choo: 3683 Main Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 873 8874. www.eugenechoo.com
Fluevog Shoes: 65 Water Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 688 6228. www.fluevog.com
Obakki: 44 Water Street, Gastown. T: 00 1 604 669 9727. www.obakki.com
One of a Few: 354 Water Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 605 0685. www.oneofafew.com
Pecha Kucha: www.pecha-kucha.org/night/vancouver
Twigg & Hottie: 3671 Main Street, Vancouver. T: 00 1 604 879 8595. www.twiggandhottie.com
Top 10 local
01 Tuesday is discount day at the Museum of Anthropology and by donation at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
02 Snowshoe at night and enjoy a chocolate fondue on Mount Seymour. www.mountseymour.com
03 If you are asked to join a pot luck, it means you need to bring food to share at the party.
04 Grab a seat in the Shark Club and watch the Canucks play hockey (never ice hockey). www.sharkclubs.com
05 Hit the beach in summer for your outdoor yoga at the Kitsilano Showboat. www.blissology.com
06 Peaches from Peachland, oysters from Vancouver Island’s Fanny Bay in the farmers’ markets. www.eatlocal.org
07 Pick up some skating tips from the expert locals at Robson Square downtown. www.robsonsquare.ubc.ca
08 Avoid crossing bridges (especially Lions Gate) at rush hours as the traffic can be horrendous.
09 Bring or rent a volleyball net, hook it up to the beach posts and let the game begin. www.fitnessvancouver.ca
10 Do the seventh-inning stretch at a Vancouver Canadians’ baseball game . www.minorleaguebaseball.com
City of Glass by Douglas Coupland (Douglas & McIntyre)
Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor (Counterpoint)
Tour Vancouver’s sin city with Vancouver Police Museum: www.vancouverpolicemuseum.ca/SinsoftheCity.htm
A self-guided walking tour of Vancouver’s heritage: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/heritage/walks/index.htm
Published in Mar/Apr issue 2011 © National Geographic Traveller (UK)