Sitting on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by the lush North Shore mountains, Vancouver lures visitors from all around the world with its natural beauty and offers lots of fun activities for tourists to enjoy. But what happens if you want to step off the tourist trail and explore Vancouver off the beaten path?
Vancouver has something to offer every type of traveler. There are hidden beaches, quirky walking tours, cool vintage markets, unusual hikes and some less-popular attractions that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. Whether you’re in town for a day, a weekend, or a year, here’s a guide to the most interesting things to do in Vancouver – written by a local!
Join the locals in a fun event
Vancouver offers tons of unique and fun events throughout the year for every type of traveller. These events are a great way to experience the city’s culture and even make some new friends! To find out what’s happening during your time in the city, check out the Georgia Straight’s events page and 604 Now.
Flash Mob Vancouver also organizes occasional events around the city, such as massive pillow fights, Skytrain dance parties, water fights and ‘free hugs’ days. Their Facebook group is a good place to stay up-to-date with what’s happening.
Warm-ish Weather Events – April to September
• Vancouver’s Car Free Days are popular street festivals that happen in the summer along Commercial Drive, Main Street and Denman Street. The main focus of the event is to transform a busy city street into a pedestrian-friendly zone, promoting the use of sustainable transportation and offering fun activities, vendors, food trucks and live entertainment. FREE
• The Vancouver Pride Society organizes different events throughout the summer that celebrate inclusion and diversity. The most popular event is Vancouver’s massive Pride Parade, which is open to people from any background – even the Prime Minister has attended! FREE (admission may be charged for special events)
• The Brahm’s Tams Drum Circle at Third Beach is a casual gathering of drummers and dancers that celebrates peace, love and community. The event usually takes place on Tuesday evenings between May – September, and is open for anyone to join. FREE
• Canada Day happens on July 1st each year, and there are several celebrations around the city, the biggest one happening at the Canada Place Convention Centre. But if you’re looking to get a bit more off-the-beaten-path, head over to beautiful Steveston Village in Richmond for the Steveston Salmon Festival. This unique event features a parade, concerts, fireworks, children’s activities and the true highlight – a massive barbecue grilling up over 1,000 lbs of fresh BC salmon. FREE ($16 per plate for BBQ)
• Italian Day on the Drive is a big street party on Commercial Drive that celebrates the Italian heritage of the area. The event has been running for 10 years, and is a lot of fun with live music and dancing, children’s activities, delicious Italian food, raffles and food eating contests. FREE
• 420 Vancouver is an event that started 25 years ago as a protest against the criminalization of cannabis, and still runs each April 20th even though cannabis is now legal. The event hosts an outdoor cannabis market and live entertainment. FREE
• The Celebration of Light is an annual fireworks competition where different countries design pyrotechnic displays set to music. The fireworks are set off from a barge on English Bay, so you can watch them from the nearby beaches or rooftop patios and the accompanying music can be heard on local radio station 104.3 FM. Local tip: if you want to get away from the crowds, head over to Jericho Beach in the Kitsilano area. FREE (admission to premium seats can be purchased)
Cold-ish Weather Events – October to March
• The Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is an annual festival organized by the Secret Lantern Society that lights up the darkest night of the year with lanterns and lights. This festival is unique because it takes place simultaneously in different neighbourhoods around the city. FREE ($5 donation is encouraged)
• Fright Nights takes place during the month of October at Playland, Vancouver’s only amusement park. It’s a fun Halloween-themed event that offers several haunted houses, rides and concerts. $25+ (Buy online or at a local 7-11 for the cheapest price!)
• The annual Polar Bear Swim lets you dip into the icy cold waters of English Bay on New Year’s Day. This cool event has been happening every year since 1920. You can register to be one of the 1,000+ participants, or just watch the event from the sidelines and enjoy the entertainment. FREE (donation to local Food Bank is encouraged)
• The Robson Square Ice Rink is a fun activity for both adults and kids in the city centre. This open-air skating rink is usually open between November – February, and lets you experience a classic Canadian pastime. FREE (skate rentals cost $5 cash)
• The annual Santa Claus Parade happens on the first Sunday in December each year, and is a great activity for families. The parade runs along West Georgia and Howe streets in the city centre. Though the parade usually starts around lunchtime, there are usually live music and activities at the Art Gallery starting around 10AM. FREE
Get some wheels
To really experience Vancouver like a local, grab a rain jacket and rent a bike! There are many rental shops around the city, or you can sign up for Mobi, which is a convenient bike sharing program.
The City of Vancouver has created a bike lane map of the city centre, and Cycling In Vancouver has a great interactive map that shows bike racks, water fountains, public washrooms and Mobi locations.
For some unique self-guided tours, check out Bikabout’s fantastic local cycling itinerary guide, with itineraries by local residents. The Daily Hive gives some great itineraries for cyclists at every fitness level.
If you’d prefer sightseeing in a group, you can join a fun bike tour with a local sightseeing company, like the ‘Towers & Totems’ ride with Vancouver Bike Tours or the ‘Epic Electric Bike Tour’ from Cycle City Vancouver.
Relax at a park
Stanley Park is amazing, but if you’re looking for somewhere a little off the beaten path to have a picnic or throw a ball around, there are plenty of amazing green spaces around Vancouver. Here are my favourites:
- Hinge Park & Habitat Island are located in the Olympic Village area near the Cambie Bridge. They were created when the area was redeveloped for the 2010 Winter Olympics and are great spots to look for local wildlife, including beavers. Dogs are not allowed on Habitat Island as it was created to be an area to protect the local animal life. Also keep in mind that this is Vancouver, so there is always a chance of an unusual character lurking around.
- Charleson Park – If you walk west under the Cambie Bridge from Hinge Park, you’ll find one of the nicest parks around the city. You can sit on the grass and gaze across the harbour at the downtown skyline or look for the small pond and waterfall.
- Dude Chilling Park – This park in the Mount Pleasant area was called Guelph Park until a local artist put up a prank signpost inspired by a sculpture in the park. After that, the community petitioned to keep the new name, and it was officially rebranded in 2012. The park honestly isn’t that special, but it’s worth a trip to get a photo with the sign.
- Larry Berg Flight Path Park – This gem near the Vancouver International Airport is a great place to watch airplanes. It’s got a cute little walking path designed like a mini runway, picnic tables, and a fun globe dome that kids will love!
- Robson Square Gardens – I’m not sure if this little urban park has an official name, but it’s worth checking out. It’s a rooftop garden located above Robson Square, stretching from the Art Gallery to the Law Courts.
Head to some of the less popular attractions
There are some attractions around the city that are really cool, but don’t make it onto the “must-see” lists. Like the Vancouver Police Museum, which is located in the old city morgue, and the Bill Reid Gallery which features a beautiful collection of Northwest Indigenous art. If you’re into nature, the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden is a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city.
Or head to Point Grey to spend the day at the Museum of Anthropology and explore the UBC Botanical Garden, which features a lovely treetop walk. This is also near where you’ll find the stairway to the beautiful Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s only nude beach.
Take a hike
The mountains and forests around Vancouver are perfect for exploring. Not only is this a great way to stay active, but it can also give you the chance to see Vancouver and its surroundings from spots that many tourists don’t see. If you want to get out and explore the region’s natural beauty, check out the Outdoor Vancouver website, which offers trail guides and safety tips. Keep in mind that some areas near the city can still be quite remote, and there is wildlife around, so make sure you’re well prepared before you venture out.
Happiest Outdoors has a great list of unusual hikes near Vancouver that many locals don’t even know about. My personal recommendations, which are accessible from the city by car or public transit, are below:
• Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver – this is a beautiful hike on Vancouver’s North Shore, and a relatively easy one. You can do the round trip in around 2 hours, and it’s easy to get here by public transit or car from Downtown Vancouver.
• Capilano Pacific Trail, North Vancouver – this hike along the Capilano River is fairly easy and very pretty. I used to walk part of it every day when I lived nearby and never got bored of the scenery. It’s usually less than 2 hours to get from Park Royal mall to the Cleveland Dam, and busses run regularly on each side.
• Baden Powell Trail, North Vancouver – this is a fairly long hike and can be quite busy, but it’s worth it for the amazing views and beautiful scenery. The full length of the trail is about 48km, but the most beautiful part in my opinion is the 12km stretch from Deep Cove to Lynn Valley.
• Norvan Falls, North Vancouver – this beautiful hike in the North Shore’s Lynn Headwaters Regional Park takes you to the waterfall at Norvan Lake. It’s about a 5-hour trip, and the water is always cold, making it a great place to cool off.
• Dilly Dally Loop, Coquitlam – though it may not sound like it, this is a hike for experienced hikers. The entire circuit takes around 12 hours so you’ll want to be well-prepared, but the views are absolutely worth it. This hike can be done in the warmer months, usually from June-October.
• Pacific Spirit Regional Park, Point Grey – the beautiful Pacific Spirit Regional Park is located on the West Side of Vancouver, and is a short drive or bus ride from the city centre. There are several trails here, from coastline walks along the beach to forest trails where you can even check out some WWII relics. The terrain is mostly flat, though some areas can be slippery after a rain or snowfall.
See some local art
Vancouver has a very strong arts community. If you want to stay in the loop with the arts & culture events that are happening, the Georgia Straight is a great resource. You can also check out an extensive list of all the art galleries in the Greater Vancouver region on the Galleries West directory.
There are also some great annual events that you can check out, including the Eastside Culture Crawl, which is a free event that has been happening for more than 20 years. The event allows you to check out several local studios around East Vancouver, also giving you an opportunity to talk to the artists. The West of Main Art Walk is another free event that takes place in May and lets you connect with artists from South Vancouver and the West Side.
Vancouver has also been making an effort to support the local street artists and sculptors to make the city more colorful for its residents and visitors.
If you want to plan your own self-guided walking tour, you can check out the downloadable public art & sculpture guides, which show the locations of the most popular art pieces around the city. You can also join the community at one of the many annual art events, including:
• The Vancouver Mural Festival is an annual summertime festival that helps transform public spaces into colourful works of art. This art celebration features events like free tours, concerts, a street party and other fun activities. It’s mostly free, though some events may have admission charges. You can check out their website for info about upcoming events and an interactive map of the artworks.
• The Facade Festival is a week-long event in September that lights up the exterior of the Vancouver Art Gallery with colourful projections designed by local artists. The projections start around sunset and last till midnight. FREE
• Lumiere Vancouver is a festival that showcases several illuminated words of art in different locations around the city each November. Admission is free and locations of each installation can be found on the event website.
Vancouver street art highlights:
- Pink Alley (aka Alley Oop) – 688 West Hastings Street
- Pacific Horses – 2903 Granville Street
- A-maze-ing Laughter – Moreton Park (Denman & Davie)
- Canvas Corridor – Eihu Lane (between Burrard & Bute)
- Kits Wings – 1817 West 4th Avenue
- The Birds – 1 Athletes Way
- Freedom – 68 East 2nd Avenue
- Giants – 1415 Johnston Street
- Jimi Hendrix – 1030 East Cordova Street
- Digital Orca – 1055 Canada Place
- Saturday Kind of Love – 8 West 8th Avenue
- The Kraken – 3050 Watson Street
Watch a hockey game
Watching a hockey game is a truly Canadian experience. It can be difficult to get tickets to see the Vancouver Canucks play (though worth it if you can!) but tickets to the city’s Western Hockey League team the Vancouver Giants are much easier and cheaper to purchase.
If you can’t get tickets, no worries! Most of the local sports bars will screen big games. Here are some of the best places in the city to watch a game with a glass of locally-brewed beer:
- Brewhall – 97 East 2nd Avenue
- Bells & Whistles – 3296 Fraser Street
- Kingston Taphouse – 755 Richards Street
- Boston Pizza [Stadium] – 808 Beatty Street
- Red Card Sports Bar – 560 Smithe Street
- Shark Club Bar & Grill – 180 West Georgia Street
If you want to get onto the ice yourself, you can always throw on some skates and head to one of the local ice rinks for a public drop-in session! In the winter, the Robson Square Ice Rink is a fun outdoor activity for both adults and kids during the months of November – February.
Experience some great craft beer
The craft beer industry in Vancouver has grown tremendously over the past several years and there are now microbreweries all over the Greater Vancouver Area. Most restaurants and bars will offer a selection of locally-brewed beers, but if you want to delve deeper into the world of Vancouver’s amazing craft beer, there are several ways to do it:
• Vancouver Brewery Tours offers 4 different public tours of the best local breweries in a fun group environment. There’s a rotating roster of the breweries they cover, which means you can come back on a different day for a completely different experience. You even get a free glass as a souvenir!
• Canadian Craft Tours has a variety of local brewery and distillery tours around Vancouver, and also a few that can take your to surrounding cities, like Whistler, Delta, Port Moody and even Victoria. They also offer brewery tours by foot and bike.
• Vancouver Toonie Tours offers a street art and craft beer tour in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, which is an interesting way to see a part of the city that isn’t on the main tourist route. It may not cost a toonie (Canadian $2 coin), but it’s got great reviews.
• Vancouver Craft Beer Week is a 10-day festival that happens every summer and is definitely worth checking out if you’re in town. The festival has loads of beer tastings, delicious food and live music, and many local businesses get involved by putting on their own events, so make sure you check out their website to see what’s on.
• Red Truck Beer Company not only has classic diner-inspired meals and brewery tours, they also turn their parking lot into a concert venue on the weekends. Check out their events calendar to see who’s playing when you’re in town.
If you prefer doing things at your own pace, you can check out this great map of the local breweries by Craft Beer Vancouver and create your own self-guided tour of the tasting rooms you most want to check out!
Do Some Good
Many visitors to Vancouver expect to see only a pristine city surrounded by nature and are surprised to discover how much the city struggles with issues such as homelessness and drug addiction. There are many organizations dedicated to helping those in need and many are glad to welcome volunteers.
If you’re looking for a rewarding way to spend your time in the city, check out Mission Possible, DTES Women’s Center, The Door Is Open, or contact one of the many shelters directly to see if you can use your time and skills to help them out.
If you’re more geared towards environmental issues, you can see if there are any Shoreline Cleanup events happening during your stay.
Try the food trucks
Vancouver’s food truck scene gets better and better every year, and some of the most popular trucks now also have restaurant locations. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some suggestions:
- Experience one of the best fish tacos in BC at Tacofino.
- Try some fusion Indigenous cuisine at Mr. Bannock.
- Enjoy one of Japadog’s world famous Japanese-style hotdogs.
- Experience a classic Canadian dish at Big Red’s Poutine.
- Dig into some movie-themed comfort food at REEL Mac & Cheese.
- Cool down on a summer day with an artisinal popsicle from Johnny’s Pops.
- Indulge in some guilt-free vegan food at Rolling Cashew.
- Enjoy some 100% Canadian ingredients with an O’Canadawg beef, pork or veggie dog.
Since trucks often move around the city to different locations and events, I recommend checking out the Vancouver food truck map to see what’s around!
Shop at the local markets
There are some great markets around the city where you can pick up some locally-made products or second-hand treasures for unique souvenirs and gifts. Eastside Flea happens every other weekend throughout the year, and there are several Farmers Markets that take place around the city. Portobello West also organizes artisan markets throughout the year at different locations. These are nice alternatives to the expensive and tourist-filled Public Markets at Granville Island and Lonsdale Quay.
There are also some great seasonal markets – from May to October the Richmond Night Market is a fun Asian-style event worth the 20-minute skytrain ride out of the city center (you can check out this awesome guide for more info) and the Vancouver Christmas Market offers European food, crafts and entertainment each winter.
Take a walking tour
Sometimes the best way to see a city is by foot, and Vancouver is the perfect size for walking! Here are some of the most interesting ways to experience Vancouver from the ground:
- Learn about local aboriginal culture with the Talaysay Talking Trees tour through Stanley Park.
- Experience Vancouver’s most colourful neighbourhood with Forbidden Vancouver’s Really Gay History Tour.
- Dive info the city’s history with a local historian on a Vancouver Heritage Foundation tour.
- Explore Vancouver’s dark history with the Sins of the City tour, operated by the Vancouver Police Museum.
- Take the Seabus across to North Vancouver for the Shipyards food tour with Taste Vancouver.
- See the city from a different perspective with an Architectural walking tour organized by the Architectural Institute of BC.
See a show!
A visit to Vancouver’s iconic Rio Theatre will not only give you a chance to see an entertaining show, it will also allow you to experience a piece of history. Opened in 1938 as a film cinema, the Rio has been transformed over the years into one of the most popular local venues for live productions and movie screenings. In 2018 the theatre was put up for sale, which may have led to it being torn down but the community rallied to raise enough funds for the operator of the theatre to buy the property. Even celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Seth Rogan and Kevin Smith chipped in to save the theatre. The Rio offers a variety of different productions, from quirky productions like Star Wars burlesque to classic film screenings to improv shows to musical sing-alongs. 1660 E Broadway, Commercial Drive. Most movies $12.50 CAD.
If you like improv comedy, you’ll want to head over to Granville Island and catch a show by the Vancouver TheatreSports League. The company has been around for nearly 40 years and boasts alumni from shows like Corner Gas, The X-Files and Whose Line Is It Anyway. There are 11 shows each week in a variety of genres, including romance, holidays and adults-only themes. Ticket prices are generally around $10-25, depending on the show and preferred seating. 1502 Duranleau Street, Granville Island. $9 CAD and up.
Theatre Under the Stars has been putting on musicals in Stanley Park’s open-air theatre every summer for nearly 80 years. The venue is accessible for everyone, and you can enjoy your own picnic dinner or food from the on-site concession stand in a traditional seat, or on the grass. 610 Pipeline Road, Stanley Park (Malkin Bowl). Tickets $30 CAD and up.
The popular Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival has been a local favourite for over 30 years. Located in Kitsilano’s Vanier Park, it features a selection of Shakespeare productions that run from June to September. The plays are performed inside large tents, which are located across the water from the city centre, offering amazing views of Vancouver’s skyline, harbour and mountains. Productions change each year, and the styles of the shows can range from classical to modern-day. The theatre grounds (aka Bard Village) also include a bar offering snacks and drinks and a gift shop. Tickets for evening performances also include a theatrical pre-show summary for those who want to arrive early. 1695 Whyte Avenue, Vanier Park. Individual tickets $26 CAD and up.
The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs for 10 days in September each year. It’s a great way to experience some of Vancouver’s best theatre talent, including many up-and-coming actors and playwrights. The festival has been happening annually since 1985 and is mainly based in Granville Island, though several venues around the city participate. In addition to entertaining theatrical shows, the Fringe Bar on Granville Island features amazing local bands each night of the festival, who you can see without any cover charge. Multiple venues. Individual tickets around $15 CAD and up.
Are you planning a trip to Vancouver?
Don’t miss my Vancouver neighbourhood guide, which details the different areas of the city and lists the pros and cons of each one. It also describes how easy it is to get around and gives some information on which part of the city you should avoid.
Before stepping onto the plane for your journey, make sure to read my tips on how to stay hydrated on long flights. It’s so important to take care of yourself, and this guide will give you valuable advice on how to stay hydrated from the inside out.
You can also check out my printable travel planner that was designed to make trip planning a breeze. This 7-page PDF has spots to fill in hotel and flight details, emergency info, must-do activities and more. It is available as an instant digital download in the Onwards + Upwards shop.
*Please note that this article was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic so some information may have changed.