I’ve always wanted to travel here. As a pop culture junkie, I appreciated that some of the most highly coveted shows filmed here. The Pacific Northwest is totally foreign territory to a Midwesterner. Tall mountains? Pine trees? Fresh seafood? Never heard of it. Perhaps that’s why the mere thought of traveling to our neighbor up North was so alluring.
A family trip was overdue. Every so often, the whole gang gets together: Mom, aunt(s), uncle, cousin. When sitting around in our pajamas with full stomachs at Christmas time last year, we started throwing around some potential destinations. Germany, Scotland, Ireland, California, Vancouver…wait, Vancouver, that one sounds good. Hey, why not make it a two for one, stop in Seattle on the way and make the most of the PNW? It stuck.
So, on June 4th the crew packed up, headed to O’Hare and took flight toward B.C. I previously exploited on our 24 hours in Seattle, our first stop on the excursion, so you can read all about that whirlwind day here. The next six days were quite an adventure on their own. If you are planning your own trip to Vancouver, I’m here to report that it may not be exactly what you think. Each and every day brought a new surprise, both wonderfully exciting and terrifyingly scary. Will I be back? The jury is still out, but if I were to make the trek again, I’d do many things differently. Here’s a rundown of everything we did, including some tips for packing and planning that I picked up along the way.
Before diving into the nitty gritty, I thought it’d be insightful to outline what to know before you go.
Food Scene: If you are a total foodie like me, you are in for a culinary experience of your lifetime! Vancouver offered up some of the best cuisine I’ve ever indulged in. The eclectic variations offered numerous opportunities for your taste buds to be both enlightened and excited. Japanese, Vietnamese, seafood, steakhouses, bar and grills, Italian, Mexican, Malaysian, I mean I could go on and on for days. You name it, Vancouver not only has it, but serves it up like an Iron Chef. It was the most pleasant surprise.
Happy Hours: In the same vein as the amazing food options, it seemed as though every delectable restaurant we walked past or dined in at offered some sort of Happy Hour special. Not only did they offer it, the specials were incredible (portion and price wise) AND the restaurants encouraged you to partake. It made each mealtime that much more enjoyable because you had the opportunity to try various small bites and drinks in one sitting. Another fantastic surprise.
Transportation: A not-so-pleasant surprise is that Vancouver does not offer Lyft or Uber to get around. Means of transportation around the city and beyond are required to be either by taxi, bus or walking. Coming from the U.S. where there is Uber or Lyft just about everywhere, this was a bit of a culture shock and made transportation a little more expensive than I had anticipated. I asked a local why Uber or Lyft was not an option and he expressed to me that the companies tried, but the city shut it down because it was taking away from their own economy. Definitely something to take into consideration before booking your trip.
Landscape: Keeping transportation top of mind and knowing that sometimes your most convenient way of getting around may be by foot, I should warn you that Vancouver is extremely hilly. At times, I thought I had entered America’s Ninja Warrior trying to run up that ramp contraption. Lots of breaks and lots of water are needed if you prefer to explore by walking. I even saw a car start to roll backwards once, that’s how intense it is.
Safety: Honestly, this was probably the most shocking aspect of the entire trip. Although, I never really felt in danger, there were many periods throughout the trip where I was extremely uncomfortable. We stayed right in the heart of the city and being from Chicago, believe me when I say that I’ve seen my fair share of things happen, but for some reason this was totally different. Particular drugs are way more legalized in Vancouver than they are in the United States and it was very apparent. The gentrification in certain parts of the city was nonexistent even though you could tell that the city was trying to clean up its act. I saw variations of drug use happen on the street and I felt very uneasy at times, so if this is something you are not used to seeing, I would consider staying somewhere outside of the city. I also advise to do your research on the neighborhoods in the city. Some areas are extremely nice and beautiful, Gastown, West Side, North Shore, Stanley Park, Granville Island to name a few. Areas to avoid would include the South, Chinatown and the East Side.
Packing: Now we went in early June, the 4th-11th, so I expected Summer weather, but because you are so far North and completely surrounded by water, it was actually pretty chilly. It ranged anywhere from 60-75 degrees while we were there, not terrible, but not shorts weather when accompanied with a breeze. My advice would be to pack layers because depending where you are in Vancouver you could be sweating directly under the sun or shivering in the shade. Bring comfortable shoes to walk around in because a lot of walking will take place and a lot of the excursions you do there are very outdoorsy, so you want to be prepared. Make sure to pack some cute going out outfits for dinner and drinks because the restaurant and night life scene is pretty trendy and always a good time.
Where to stay
If you are still with me, it means you are really interested and I’m glad! When we were lodging in Vancouver, we decided to go the Airbnb route because, since there was a larger group of us for the first few nights, we wanted something that was spacious, where we could be together and somewhere that felt like home. I am not even going to waste breath or words going into detail of the first place we stayed. It was not a recommendation I want to make. The picture on Airbnb’s website did not match the place we got. It wasn’t terrible, but also not worth it. It was also located on the East Side, which if you remember from above, is a place I’d avoid, so thank you, but next. After three nights, my aunt, uncle and cousin left, so my mom and I downsized to a smaller apartment (still through Airbnb) on the West Side and it was fabulous. The view was impeccable, we could see the water, we were in a great neighborhood, just a short walk away from Stanley Park and the building was super nice. I would recommend this listing in a heartbeat. I can’t find the exact one, but here is one super similar in the same building.
Overall, if you are planning a trip to Vancouver, I would recommend going one of two routes. Option 1: stay in a hotel on the West Side or near the seawall. This is going to be the nicest area if you want to be right in the city and there are a ton of hotel options available. I would go this route if I went back. Option 2: Stay in an Airbnb right on the seawall or near Granville Island. I think the Airbnb option for Vancouver would be best right on the outskirts of the city and not directly downtown.
Where we ate and drank:
Our food expedition on this trip was one of the best parts of the entire seven days, so this is probably the section I am the most excited to share. Here is a list of all of the restaurants, bars, coffee shops and breweries we had the pleasure of going to while on our trip:
Water Street Café: Get an Aperol Spritz and the bison carpaccio
Banana Leaf: Malaysian cuisine, do the seven-course tasting menu and get a local craft beer
A Bread Affair Granville Island: Get the veggie sandwich toasted, some of the best bread I’ve ever had
Granville Island Public Market: Grab a coffee, a pastry and sit outside under the bridge listening to live music and people watching. Beware of the huge seagulls though!
Bridges Granville Island: Get the spicy tuna tacos, the mussels, a glass of white white and sit on the patio
Granville Island Brewery: Get a flight of local craft beers
Frankie’s Italian Kitchen & Bar: The beef carpaccio and pesto chicken gnocchi are to die for
Tim Horton’s: The one place I think you can skip. They say the coffee is better than Starbucks and Dunkin…I have to disagree
Joey Restaurant: Perfect upscale, yet casual dining spot. We shared amazing Lettuce Wraps, Sliders and Pot Stickers
Verre: Gorgeous spot right on the seawall. Had brunch there one early afternoon with great cocktails and even better eggs benedict
Rodney’s Oyster House: This place was quintessential Vancouver. You have to get the oysters (duh), lobster rolls and bacon wrapped scallops. Also, all very attractive men work here…it was kind of weird
Tasty Indian Bistro: Had some amazing drinks and some amazing flatbread here one night after dinner. It’s also really beautiful on the inside, if we had more time, we probably would’ve had dinner here one night
The Sandbar Granville Island: Probably our best meal of the entire trip (close tie with the Malaysian restaurant). What didn’t we order here…my recommendation: Sit inside to take it all in and order the crab cake, some sushi and the seafood hot pot OMG
What we did
It was my mission to ensure that every day was jammed packed with activities. I am a restless traveler. I have this innate feeling of a ticking clock over the entire trip, so I find it imperative to see as much as humanly possible with the time that we do have. Here are all of the fun sights we saw and endeavors we partook in:
Steam Clock in Gastown – Swarms of people huddle outside to watch this clock whistle a tune every 30 minutes. It’s almost more exciting to watch people’s reactions than to actually gaze upon the singing clock
Wild Whales Vancouver – Whale watching is an absolute must in Vancouver. Any time on the water is a must, but especially with the prospect of seeing wildlife like ginormous whales in their natural habitat. We saw a mom humpback whale and her two calves on our trip as well as a slew of sea lions. Our tour guide Alan Chang is also a fantastic photographer, you can see his work on his Instagram here
City Tour – This was one of those coach buses tours that packs in many sights at one time. Perfect for us since time wasn’t on our side. Our tour stopped at Granville Island, the iconic Totem Poles and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which was the coolest thing I’ve done in a while. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and the anxiety is thrilling. Here is the tour we participated in.
B.C Lions Game – This was more spontaneous and NOT planned, but that made this little venture that much more fun. After dinner one night, we saw some guy selling tickets and decided to take him up on his $30 for 6 tickets offer and watch the Canadian version of our beloved American football. It was so cool to see inside the stadium that we saw every night from our Air BnB and regardless if you’re a fan of the team or not, sporting events are always a good time in my opinion
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra – Also another spontaneous adventure. On our city tour, we drove past the symphony building. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but our driver said the inside was one of the most beautiful concert venues. I was sold and bought tickets on the spot to see for myself. It was incredible because the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was celebrating their 100th year and we got to see their closing show. Dressing the part wasn’t half bad either
Seawall Bike Ride – My mom and I spent an entire afternoon taking a leisurely bike ride around the seawall. The winding bike path took you off the beaten trail and some of the sights were ones I’ll never forget. Take your time, ride at your own pace, stop every so often, this was totally worth it because you’re going to think you rode 20 miles when really, you’ve only gone about 10. All you have to do is download an app to rent a bike, all of the instructions are right at the bike stations all along the seawall!
Harbor Cruises – On the last day of the trip, my mom and I wanted to take it easy but still enjoy some true Vancouver sights. I found great reviews on Harbor Cruises and booked the Indian Arm Lunch Cruise for an afternoon of great food, great drinks and stunning mountain scenery. We love being on the water, so riding along the coast in between enormous mountain ranges, there was something so calming about it. Like time stood still. Mountains stretched farther than the eye could see, we stopped by an all engulfing waterfall to snap some pics and enjoyed a surprisingly delicious lunch buffet. The bar was serving Caesars, also known as an American Bloody Mary with Clamato juice. Such a wonderful day.
And there you have it! That right there is my six surprisingly delicious, gorgeous, curious, intense and wonderfully weird days in Vancouver. I don’t want to write off Vancouver. Reflecting back on this trip reminded me of how much fun I had and how beautiful it was at times. Not every place is going to be just like home, and it shouldn’t be. The best part of traveling is getting the opportunity to experience another way of life through other cultures’ eyes. And it was eye opening in that you quickly realize people don’t live the way you do. It’s not a bad thing, it’s actual quite outstanding. Although there were small logistical aspects I would alter about my trip, I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. Vancouver you were interesting and absurd and outrageous, and now you are kind of missed.