Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 4, 2010

My 36 Hours in Vancouver, British Columbia

Aerial view of Vancouver, British Columbia's beautiful setting (NASA Photo)


Vancouver is magical. A brilliant choice for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city’s setting is nothing short of breathtaking (check out Vancouver webcams here). And no one who visits will want for things to do, remarkable places to visit, delicious foods to eat, or unforgettable memories to make.

The biggest problem, for me, about Vancouver (check out this 3D map!) has been how to get between its international airport, YVR, and downtown. The Olympics are helping to solve that, with a new 26-minute Canada Line rail link-up between the two. Will it have all of its teething problems solved by the time the Olympics kick off February 12 (they continue through February 28)? The routes (also to Richmond) chosen may not take everyone where they want to go – so those arriving by air at YVR may continue to be stuck with expensive taxis or the annoying bus service (and striking transit workers).

One hopes the traditional YVR customs delays may be expedited – at least for the Olympics; but with added security, they may actually be worse. Border crossings (particularly via U.S. Interstate 5) have been notoriously slow since 9/11. Allow extra time.

Totem poles in Stanley Park

Once downtown, the magic may officially begin. I believe Vancouver is the world’s largest city with its own downtown rainforest. That would be Stanley Park, which is a real wonder – and well worth your time, regardless of the season, or the weather. (By the way, Vancouver’s weather is usually warmer and a bit drier than Seattle’s.)

The park is on a peninsula, out into the Strait of Georgia; trails crisscross the interior of the park (a thick forest of redwoods, cedars, ferns and flowers); wide pathways encircle it. In accommodating weather, bicyclists, rollerbladers and walkers seem to share it all with typical Canadian hospitality and polite manners (the trails also extend around all Burrard Inlet, Lions Gate, Stanley Parkof downtown now). The views of Burrard Inlet, Lions Gate Bridge, bluish Coast Mountains and Vancouver’s modern skyline are not to be missed. Cruise ships bound for Alaska and the Inside Passage leave (and arrive in) Vancouver almost daily during the summer season. Seaplanes buzz the First Narrows around the bridge, and use the harbour as their base. You could literally spend every waking hour here, of a 36-hour visit, and not take advantage of all there is to do.

But wait! There’s more. Lots more. Vancouver is full of fascinating neighborhoods, and ethnic enclaves; its Chinatown is at least the rival of San Francisco’s. Restaurant choices are overwhelming. Though chain stores are easy to find, the number and variety of specialty one-off shops is innumerable.


For dinner, I can recommend no restaurant in Vancouver more highly than “Le Crocodile”. Without “pretense or fanfare” as the owners claim – meaning word-of-mouth alone is enough to keep it packed every open minute – this French/Westcoast fusion find still has most of the staff it opened with 25 years ago. Menus change daily. The wine list is sublime. If the staff remembers you, they will remember your favorites and serve them without prompting. Be prepared, however, to pay richly for the privilege of eating here.


The St. Regis is a can’t-miss hotel choice. Rooms can be had for under $150 with a little advance planning (all bets are off during the Olympics). Guests rave about the location, price, amenities and the breakfast (included in the room rate, with rare exception).

Assuming the St. Regis is full, which is often the case for last-minute bookers, a fall-back suggestion would be the Shangri-La – a favorite with business travelers – or the boutiquey Wedgewood.

Vancouver also has a robust bed-and-breakfast “inn-dustry” and I have stayed in – and can recommend – the Manor Guest House, Barclay House, and O Canada House (where the Canadian national anthem is said to have been written).

Any of the lodging choices mentioned here will more than amply take care of your breakfast needs. So let’s assume you are well-rested and fed; where should you head out to on your first morning of gadding about?

Fantasy Island

The No. 1 choice has to be Granville Island.

Granville Island

This tiny island, just south of downtown, is an urban oasis of art galleries and studios, fine restaurants (most facing the lovely waterfront), craft stores and fresh food market with a dizzying array of choices. Unique foodstuffs include grass-fed buffalo, wild honeys, strange jams and jellies, and homemade ice cream, gelato and yoghurt. You could easily spend all day here (yes, just like Stanley Park), but try to limit yourself to a morning and perhaps lunch on the run. To get here, catch a water taxi or Aquabus; walk across the bridges, or arrive via car (parking is limited and expensive).

Got Gas?

In some ways, Vancouver’s Gastown district qualifies as more of the same (ala Granville Island). But it is noteworthy in its modern-day transformation from a seedy section of drug addicts and prostitutes. It is now a lovely, lively area of cobblestone streets, antique gaslights and a much-photographed steam-powered clock. An interesting shop is Deadstock/Livestock, which specializes in limited-edition shoes.

Many tourists complain about two things here: Gastown takes itself a bit too seriously, and is priced accordingly; and, the wider area around Gastown is much the same as the old Gastown – seedy. If you go, enter and leave from the west (Burrard or Granville and Hastings streets). Avoid Main and Abbott and similar eastside streets, or risk being accosted by aggressive panhandlers – and worse.

Many visitors could happily spend an afternoon at worthwhile attractions such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Botanical Garden at the University of British Columbia’s seaside campus, museums (particularly the Maritime), the Aquarium and Zoo, or Capilano Suspension Bridge (not for the faint of heart) and its scenic park. Major sports and special events can be seen at the new Canada Place (cruise ships also leave from here), General Motors Place, and BC Place arena.

Still hungry?

Diners can’t go wrong with choices such as Blue Water Cafe, RainCity Grill, or Le Bistro Chez Michel in downtown. Top ethnic choices include La Terrazza, Simply Thai or Chinatown’s venerable Sun Sui Wah.


Commodore Ballroom

A must-see among Vancouver’s otherwise mostly unremarkable selection of nightclubs  is the Commodore Ballroom. This art deco palace opened its doors in 1929 – just in time for the Great Depression – but it has managed to endure for 80 years now (thanks to a rescue by the House of Blues chain in 1999). Duke Ellington, the Dorsey brothers, the Rat Pack, Sting and Kid Rock – yeah, they all played the Commodore.

Last day!

Last chance for a stroll, ride or walk through Stanley Park. Bicycle rentals abound; I’ve used and can recommend Denman Bike Shop and Bayshore Bike Rentals.

Right in Stanley Park, enjoy a standout brunch or meal anytime at the quaint Tea House Restaurant (formerly the Sequoia Grill).

Blues with a View

A delicious Sunday brunch, with farm-fresh ingredients, fair prices, waterfront ambience, a hip vibe with live jazz can be had at Nu.

Picnic basket

Prefer the outdoors to the indoors for a Sunday brunch? Weather permitting, locals like to picnic at the beachfront areas around Stanley Park (more info here) and the less crowded Jericho Beach Park. Tourists may find the latter too hard to get to, and the former too crowded.

On to the Next Thing

2010 Vancouver Olympics poster

Of course, the Olympics will put the Vancouver-area ski resorts squarely in the spotlight. If you have time after your Vancouver idyll to visit the resort area of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain (76 miles north), you will have the Olympics to thank for the newly widened, safe, well-maintained Highway 99 (with beautiful views of Lions Bay and surrounding mountains), or for the well-to-do: seaplane service (Harbour Air and Whistler Air are possibilities) from Vancouver Harbour, right to Rainbow Lake in Whistler. Other skiing options include Hemlock Valley (60 miles east) and – almost in downtown – Cypress Mountain.

Finally, if you are looking for a destination beyond Vancouver, let me recommend Victoria on Vancouver Island. It’s a slice of Victorian England – just across the strait. High tea, Butchart Gardens, Craigdarroch Castle…perfect day trips, or fodder for a whole ‘nuther “36 Hours”.

Jerry Garrett

January 4, 2010


  1. […] (For a longer version of this travel guide, with extra suggestions, check out “My 36 Hours in Vancouver, British Columbia“.) […]

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