If you Google “New York Points of Interest”, you will be presented with a familiar list of New York landmarks including the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Times Square, and other obvious icons that represent the city and are frequented by tourists. Do the same for London, Paris, Rome, Washington D.C., San Fransisco, Los Angeles, or any other major city and you will likely find an equally interesting list.
I bring this up because at first glance, Vancouver does not seem to have many “famous landmarks”. Its most famous “Point of Interest” is Stanley Park, a 1,001 acre city park named after the same “Stanley” as the Stanley Cup. Also included on this list is the “Capilano Suspension Bridge”, a gently bouncing and swinging, simple suspension bridge over a small, wooded gorge; While beautiful and photogenic, the bridge can’t shake the feeling of a manufactured tourist-trap (particularly at $40/pop to cross). Void of famous landmarks and full of museums, shopping districts, stadiums, and small attractions such as Canada Place, Vancouver is a difficult city to plan a vacation for. If you are an ineffective planner like me, the city is nearly impossible to block time around its touristy-locations.
So I didn’t plan. When we arrived in Vancouver, we just walked about and we loved every moment of it.
Our trip to Vancouver was confirmed when Cindy and I decided to get married aboard an Alaska-bound cruise ship which departed from the city. Not daring to be late to our own wedding and understanding that 7-days of hosting family isn’t really a “honeymoon”, we planned a few early days in Vancouver to see the city, relax, and enjoy each other’s company. Likely nervous about my impending wedding, I did very little advance planning and hoped that the city would guide our actions.
On our first day, we walked from our hotel, centrally located in Downtown Vancouver, to the waterfront to find the Canada Place cruise line terminal and get a glimpse of the cruise embarkation process (we were first time cruisers and rather curious). From there, we strolled along the Harbor for one and a half miles until reaching the entrance of Stanley Park. Already two miles from our hotel, we grappled with the idea that any further step onto the park’s peninsula would have to be doubled on the return trip but chose to press on. Walking under an overcast sky, the lush wooded bluffs and promise of better views drew us in and our high sprits and energy kept us going.
Stanley Park is a beautiful expanse of public space that includes forested areas, open fields, lakes, rough beaches, exhibits, and horse-led carriage rides as well as other common park facilities such as jungle gyms, sports fields, running and biking trails, gardens, and restaurants. The park felt like an equivalent to Central Park in New York but with the tremendous ability to block out the cityscape and appear as untamed wilderness. We began along a 10 kilometer trail encircling the peninsula before opting to take a direct path across a field, detouring only to avoid any incident with a gaggle of snappy Canadian Geese.
After stopping at an exhibit with samples of totem poles, we continued along the northern beaches of the park, pausing to occasionally rest our feet or take photos. Perhaps ironically, it was while taking silly photos in a water-play area that the threatening, grey marine layer overhead finally chose to unleash a tide of pouring rain. We sought refuge under an overpass with other locals and tourists and were pleased to see the deluge was over within minutes. Despite growing increasingly tired, we continued on up a rather steep trail at the northernmost tip of the park, lured forward by the promise of a hot meal, rest, and a better view of the Lions Gate Bridge towering above.
Prospect Point is the overlook we arrived at, offering great views of the Lions Gate Bridge and ships passing beneath it on their journey in and out of the Burrard Inlet. It landed on my short “list of things to see in Vancouver” after watching an episode of Psych (I marathoned the whole series earlier this year). Prior to our trip, romanticism replaced my usual cynicism and I thought it would be great to subtly reenact the show’s kissing scene on the overlook; After walking for 5 miles that morning, we were tired, sweaty, and all we wanted was some food. I had one of the best burgers I have ever enjoyed (it had Canadian bacon on it) and a Whistler Jack Ale. With great views, great food, and free wifi, lunch was “touristy” but I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
Half-way through our first day and it was already apparent that Vancouver was for us about two things: soaking in the city and food. Lots and lots of food.
On the three mile walk back to our hotel, we cut through the forested center of the peninsula and saw a completely different side of Stanley Park. With the exception of Cindy second-guessing my wilderness navigation skills, this was the pleasant part of the return trip. The journey would grow dull upon returning to the city at which point we were forced to walk uphill along a highway for 15 blocks. Eventually, we were back at our hotel and after 8 miles of walking, we were happy to stop exploring. One more quick pizza run and we ended our first day in Vancouver. By the way: Butter Pizza. I know what you’re thinking, but trust me—it was good!
Our next day began with a personal errand. As we were to be Canadian-wed, we spent the morning obtaining a British Columbia Marriage License (but not until after our first encounter with a Tim Horton’s, which was fantastic!). Our friends Chris and Chuck would be arriving later in the afternoon and we chose to take an easy morning (our feet were still sore from all of the walking!). We decided to lunch around the hotel and tried Japadog, a “fusion” restaurant where they dress up hotdogs in a Japanese food-style. The food was great and we felt authentic and proud of our choice, believing it to be a uniquely Vancouverite food option; Soon after ordering, we found a sign on the wall that said “NOW OPEN IN LOS ANGELES!” and we couldn’t help but feel gypped! Oh well, the food was good.
A few hours later, Chris and Chuck had landed and were in route to their hotel. After a tremendous mishap where Cindy and I walked to the wrong hotel, our rendezvous target was eventually corrected and we met up. The gentlemen were hungry and though we had done nothing but eat, let’s face it—I’m always down to eat some more! At the advice of a friend, we tried Smoke’s Poutinerie, a Canadian chain of restaurants featuring dressed-up Poutine dishes. For those who don’t know, Poutine is a Canadian dish consisting of french fries covered in gravy and topped with cheese curds. In the same spirit as “Animal Style Fries” or “Carne Asada Fries”, Smoke's Pountinerie took the classic Poutine base and then loaded additional ingredients on top of it. We got the nacho-topped poutine. Every bite felt bad for you. I mean, it tasted great, but the texture of it all—a ton of toppings congealed together with gravy and cheese—simply felt utterly unhealthy and made the whole experience feel like a “novelty snack”. It’s all fun-and-games until you realize you have shortened your life with every bite! And this is coming from the guy who had donuts for breakfast.
Full and ready to burn some calories, the four of us embarked on another walk. Again, we proceeded downhill to the waterside before heading east into Gastown, or “old Vancouver”. In a strange way, this area felt like “a clean Hollywood Blvd.”—a weird mishmash of private art studios and exhibits door-to-door beside shops selling cheap Canadian-branded trinkets. We spent some time at the Gastown Steam Clock, a beautiful steam-powered clock (Steampunk meets Victorian design) that everyone seemed to be taking photos of. Its long-term significance was never apparent to us but regardless, we took our photos in front of it because we’re as shamelessly tourist as everyone else.
The whimsical charm of Gastown’s dark bricks covered in green-ivy soon peeled away as we entered Vancouver’s Chinatown and stadium regions. Chinatown was understandably empty (this is on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend) but without other crowds, it felt unavoidably sketchy. We proceeded south and were soon surrounded by the BP Place and Rogers Arena stadiums where the Vancouver football, soccer, and hockey teams play. Additionally, these stadiums were used during the 2010 Winter Olympics. This area felt very industrial and cold and in some places, it felt like it had seen better days. Mind you, “Vancouver industrial” is leagues-nicer than “Los Angeles industrial” but still, we couldn’t shake the feeling that the nicest thing we saw was a Costco.
On one end of the city and looking to rest, all four of us returned to our hotel and kicked back with some ice cream and Cards Against Humanity. In hindsight, this was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip, just having a great time in each other’s company. There’s no way to describe the feeling I had as the trip counted down to my wedding day without sounding uncomfortable or cliche; I assure you I was excited but couldn’t help but feel nervous for all of the reasons we had a small wedding to begin with. I felt constantly reminded that we had all gathered for Cindy and I and at times, that made me feel watched and uncomfortable. But sitting in our hotel room making mecha-Hitler jokes—at that moment, the trip just became about four friends having fun. Vancouver gave a necessary dose of relaxation and was the perfect start to a fantastic collection of memories.
For more photos from our two days in Vancouver, check out the gallery below: