Canada: the history and must see sights of Vancouver

Kieran Meeke / 15 January 2020

With the natural wonders of mountains and sea alongside glittering skyscrapers the bustling Canadian harbour city of Vancouver offers tourists a wealth of opportunities for exploration, culinary adventures and sightseeing.



History of Vancouver

Vancouver has grown around the mouth of the Fraser River on the Pacific coast as Canada’s busiest port, with the Strait of Georgia to the West and the North Shore Mountains and Garibaldi Ranges surrounding the city. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies in 1887, when the small town of Granville was renamed after explorer Captain George Vancouver, was the basis for its rapid expansion since then.

Exports from the growing port included crops such as wheat from the prairies of Manitoba and logs from the vast forests of the northwest.

Forestry is still a major industry in Vancouver, although tourism is booming due to the city’s closeness to nature. It is considered one of the world’s best for quality of life, with mountains and sea on its doorstep.

The population is now 675,000, with some 2.4 million in the Greater Vancouver area, the third largest city in Canada after Toronto and Montreal.

Hemmed in by mountains, high-rise residential towers were encouraged in order to maximise green space. That has helped make Vancouver the fourth most densely populated city in North America after New York City, San Francisco and Mexico City.

Vancouver is also the biggest Asian city outside Asia itself, with 45 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents having Asian heritage. The first Chinese arrived as workers on the railway and as miners, with the city’s Chinatown being founded in the late 1880s. 

More recent arrivals from China have settled in the fashionable outer suburbs, leaving Chinatown to reinvent itself as a home for quirky shops, fashionable bars and niche restaurants. There are more than 5,000 restaurants in Greater Vancouver.

Filming locations in Vancouver

With its variable styles of architecture, old and new, Vancouver has stood in for many North American cities in movies, including passing for Seattle, India and the UAE in “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol”. 

In Fifty Shades of Grey, it stood in again for both Seattle and Portland. Vancouver was dubbed “Hollywood North” for the number of major films produced here, a title lost to Toronto in recent years but it is still a major player in the industry, and is home (or second home) to many famous faces.

In fact, everything from Hollywood blockbusters such as Elf and Jumanji to popular cult TV shows such as The X-Files, Supernatural, Smallville and Riverdale have been filmed in Vancouver. For visitors, it creates a city that may seem oddly familiar, as demonstrated perfectly by Vancouver native and film fan Tony Zhou in his video Vancouver Never Plays Itself, below.

Getting Around

A CompassCard is the Vancouver public transit tap-and-go smartcard that allows easy travel on all bus and metro routes, including the Canada Line from the airport. 

To cross False Creek, separating Downtown Vancouver from attractions such as Granville Island, the Aquabus and False Creek Ferry provide regular services. You can buy tickets on-board, including a cheap day pass. 

Taxis are reliable and affordable. Vancouver is also a cycling city, with its own Mobi public bike share system. However, the city centre is compact and attractive enough to make walking a popular option.

Major Sights:

Stanley Park

This well-wooded 1,000-acre expanse of walking, jogging and cycling trails is almost entirely surrounded by water. It sits opposite Downtown Vancouver and has several beaches, restaurants and other attractions including Canada’s largest aquarium. 

Hiring a bike here is practically an essential for any visitor while a horse carriage is another popular way to tour the park. Locals come to play tennis or bowls, enjoy a picnic or just stroll the Seawall Path, which takes bikers or joggers for 12 miles from Downtown Vancouver.

Must-do: Sample British Colombian salmon at The Teahouse.

Granville Island

Taking its name from the steel suspension bridge spanning False Creek under which it lies, the former name of Industrial Island tells its history as a centre for logging, construction and shipping, including such trades as rope-making and corrugated iron manufacture. 

The island was reclaimed in the late 1970s as a pedestrian-friendly shopping and artistic district that now justifiably sells itself as the “town square” of Vancouver. 

There’s a large public food market, whose fresh produce has spawned many fine cafes and restaurants, as well as art and craft shops, galleries and theatres. It is Canada’s second most-visited tourist attraction after Niagara Falls.

Must-do: Try the Artisan Sake in the Public Market, a real taste of the Asian influence on Vancouver. 

Gastown

This was the original settlement, later renamed Granville before it became Vancouver. The historic district grew around a tavern built by John ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton in 1867, his nickname deriving from a love of talking. 

t’s still a good place to find a bar or friendly café but is also filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques, galleries and wine bars. 

The Victorian architecture and cobbled streets make exploring on foot a photographer’s delight, while the restaurant scene is thriving.

Must-see: The Steam Clock and the statue of Gassy Jack Deighton.

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Sway and jump your way (depending on how well behaved other visitors are) for 450 feet over the Capilano River some 230 feet below. 

First built by Scottish engineer George Grant Mackay in 1889 in order to reach his holiday home, this is now one of Vancouver’s biggest visitor attractions. 

The virgin forest that first brought Mackay to the area is still the best reason to visit and you can explore it on trails or on more treetop walkways.

Must-see: North America’s largest private collection of First Nations totem poles.

Grouse Mountain

Towering over the city, some 20 minutes from the centre by cable car, this 3,700-feet peak can also be climbed against the clock in the 2,830-step “Grouse Mountain Grind” where the average time to reach the top is 90 minutes. 

The official record for men is 25 minutes, with 31 minutes for women. At the top is a viewing point and restaurant, starting point for hiking or skiing and the site of a winter ice-rink.

The mountain is part of the North Shore Mountains, a range which can be seen from many parts of the city. T

These rugged mountains limit the Vancouver’s expansion (and hence raise property prices) but offer great recreation, including mountain biking and hiking trails in summer and skiing and snowshoeing in winter.

Must-do: The Grouse Mountain Grind

Harbour Tour

Vancouver harbour tours are available by boat, kayak and paddleboard but the best way to see Vancouver is by one of the floatplanes that take off from the harbour itself. 

These aircraft are the best way for hunters, anglers and campers to reach the interior, where they can land on lakes, while regular services also run to destinations such as Seattle and Vancouver Island. 

A 30-minute sightseeing flight takes passengers along the coast and back to see the shoreline and admire the city skyline from on high.

Must-do: Take the scheduled flight to Nanaimo along the picturesque Strait of Georgia

Vancouver Art Gallery

A great collection of national and international contemporary art as well as temporary exhibitions which give an insight into Canadian culture. 

The gallery also has one of the best collections of photo-based work in North America, something Vancouver has become noted for with artists such as Jell Wall and Ian Wallace.

Must-see: The Gund Bequest of Indigenous Art from the region.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here



Major Events:

Chinatown Spring Festival Parade

Given Vancouver’s large Asian community, the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade is a Chinese New Year event not to be missed if you are visiting during late January/early February. 

Some 3,000 participants, including marching bands, lion dancers and the Vancouver Police Department Motorcycle Drill Team travel a mile-long route watched by 100,000 spectators. 

The lion dancers then fill the streets of Chinatown to bring good fortune for the year ahead. 

Vancouver International Jazz Festival (Coastal Jazz)

Coastal Jazz is a 12-day event is held in late June and early July to span Canada Day on July 1. Jazz, funk, Latin and fusion artists such as Erykah Badu, Buddy Guy, Chris Botti or The Roots headline, attracting more than 500,000 fans. 

There are events in dozens of venues around the city, from large to small, including many free concerts. 

Vancouver Pride Parade

Some 500,000 people attend Vancouver Pride. a major event in early August, which was granted civic status in 2013. It’s one of the world’s largest and most spectacular and fills a weekend with celebrations. 

Honda Celebration of Light

Honda Celebration of Light is a major international fireworks competition is held over three nights at English Bay every summer during late July and early August. 

A mobile app allows you to listen to synchronised music, which is also broadcast on local radio. 

Theatre Under The Stars

Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS), originally started in 1940,  brings open-air productions of Broadway musicals to Stanley Park during July and August. 

A pre-show picnic on the grass is part of the tradition, while the outdoor show features performances that in recent years have included Shrek: The Musical, Hairspray, Beauty & the Beast and West Side Story. 

Bard on the Beach

Bard on the Beach, a Shakespeare festival, is held in two performance tents set up in Vanier Park during a summer season between June and September. 

The Mainstage rotates two major plays, against an open-air backdrop, while the smaller tent puts on more intimate productions of lesser-known Shakespeare plays or related works. 

The weather in Vancouver

Vancouver's climate is very similar to London's, and in winter it is one of Canada's warmest cities, with temperatures remaining above freezing at 6 or 7°C in December and January. Only the smaller cities on nearby Vancouver Island have warmer winter temperatures. Summers, however, are quite cool thanks to its coastal position, with July and August the warmest months, with maximum temperatures usually around 22°C. 

Vancouver is also one of Canada's wettest cities, with rainfall at an annual average of 1,117.2 mm - that's double the average rainfall of London. Despite that wet weather though Vancouver gets a lot more sunshine than London, and summers tend to be dry.

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