Vancouver: Insider Travel Guide

Dana Lynch, for CNNPublished 29th October 2015
Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — Here's what you likely know about Vancouver: it's pretty. You can ski, snowboard, hike, camp, kayak, golf and go to the beach.
Here's what you likely don't know: Botoxing was invented here. The Occupy movement started here ("AdBusters" is Vancouver-based). And Lululemon is the reason your mom wears yoga pants.
Invention is always on display in Vancouver, where the cuisine is fusion, the fashion is eco-friendly, the hotels are as green as they are glam and the vibe is unique: West Coast outdoors, multicultural, high-tech and hippie all at the same time.
Here's how to take in the best of Vancouver, British Columbia's (B.C.) best-known city.


The Rosewood Hotel Georgia
Queen Elizabeth II stayed here. So did Elvis Presley, Errol Flynn and a host of luminaries back in its heyday.
Reopened in 2011 after a C$120 million remodel that restored -- and, in some cases, surpassed -- its former grandeur, the Rosewood Hotel Georgia maintains best of Vancouver status for its elegance, amenities, sense of place and storied history.
In summer, one of the city's poshest spots is just upstairs at the Hotel Georgia's rooftop patio/bar Reflections.
The Opus Hotel
Unabashedly trendy (perhaps even cloyingly so), the Opus Hotel draws the tactically hip with its fashionable Yaletown address and in-house bar OPUS, a celebrity hot spot that attracts all of Vancouver's beautiful people (and a few Canucks hockey players of arguable beauty, too).
Urban chic, high-tech (it's the first Canadian hotel to offer guests complimentary iPads during their stay), fun and flashy, the Opus wears its personality like a fedora.
Rooms come in five flavors, including Architectural Digest--style minimalist and Hollywood Glam decor schemes.
The Burrard
If your primary criteria are a private bathroom and a central location, The Burrard is the best of Vancouver on a budget.
A remodeled 1950s motor inn, The Burrard has quasi-hipster appeal without need for the customary trust fund.
Amenities include complimentary Nespresso shots and an Electra Cruiser bike to use during your stay.
Rooms are plain but surprisingly quiet, given the hotel's location on busy Burrard Street.
Ask for a room overlooking the inner courtyard for even less noise.
Dubbed "the Wolfgang Puck of Indian food" by the Los Angeles Times, Vikram Vij is one of Canada's highest-profile celebrity chefs.
Vij made his reputation with his flagship restaurant Vij's, roundly regarded the best of Vancouver Indian cuisine.
Vij's high-end, contemporary cuisine bends traditional Indian flavors and ingredients toward surprising ends.
The wine-marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry will astound first-time diners.
Avoid the typical hour-long wait (Vij's doesn't take reservations) by going very early or very late.
Blue Water Café + Raw Bar
Of all the five-star seafood restaurants in Vancouver -- and there are plenty -- Blue Water Café wins top honors for its dependable excellence.
Blue Water's in-season, sustainable seafood epitomizes West Coast cuisine: sablefish (black cod) in a miso sake glaze, white sturgeon with chioggia beets and a pumpernickel crust, local Qualicum Bay scallops in a candied ginger and citrus sauce.
Sushi: Tojo's and The Eatery
Sushi in Vancouver is as ubiquitous as coffee in Seattle; to say there's a sushi restaurant on every corner is only a slight exaggeration.
The best of Vancouver sushi is Tojo's.
Order omakase style and Chef Hidekazu Tojo will create the menu for you; his bold flavors and combinations are worth the expense.
For over-the-top fusion sushi, there's The Eatery.
Decorated in anime characters and Astro Boy memorabilia, this restaurant's original "Funky Eatery Creations" include the popular "Japanese Fortress," a spicy tuna roll topped with yam fries.
From Stanley Park to the downtown core, street food is everywhere in Vancouver.
The best Vancouver street food is the most quintessential: Japadog, street-style hot dogs with Japanese toppings.
Japadog's signature item is the Terimayo: an all-beef hot dog topped with teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, fried onions and shredded seaweed.
While exploring downtown, you can find the nearest street food options with the free Vancouver Street Food App.


The Diamond
Like a speakeasy of yore, The Diamond's unassuming second-floor entrance belies the party inside: this is Vancouver's top cocktail spot for its crowd and constitution.
Housed in a heritage building that was once a brothel, the decor combines modern furnishings with early 20th-century architecture for a sophisticated but unpretentious aesthetic.
The bar/restaurant's nearly floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Gastown's bustling Maple Tree Square.
The Diamond is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring Gastown's busy nightlife, or just a place to enjoy another Buck Buck Mule (London Dry Gin, sherry, cucumber and ginger beer).
Republic Nightclub
If a TV or film production ever needed to shoot on location at a "sexy nightclub" in Vancouver, Republic is where they'd do it. It has the requisite back-lit bar, the interior balcony for scoping out the crowd/drink posing and the jam-packed dance floor.
The decor may be impersonal (it's a nightclub, not a bed-and-breakfast), but Republic wins best of Vancouver marks for its crowds: high-energy, pretty people ready to drink, dance and mingle.
It's also smack in the center of the Granville Street Strip, downtown's rowdiest nightlife district.
St. Augustine's
The preeminent showcase for regionally sourced microbrews and craft beers is this casual, unpretentious gastropub in East Vancouver.
St. Augustine's keeps a rotating selection of 40-plus beers on tap, most of which come from local and B.C. microbreweries.
You can sample five-ounce glasses of four different draft beers with the C$8.75 Sample Paddle.
The bar's knowledgeable wait staff will help you circumnavigate the selections, and, if you come in when it's not too busy, they'll answer any and all beer-related questions, too.
Vancouver Original Cocktails: West Restaurant and L'Abattoir
West Restaurant bartender and all-around mixological rock star David Wolowidnyk creates original cocktails that will ruin you for highballs.
Wolowidnyk's Passage to India (orchid mango, Havana Añejo Blanco rum, lemon, chili, cilantro, curry) was served at the "Slumdog Millionaire" Oscar party.
His Beldi won Bombay Sapphire's World's Most Imaginative Bartender Award 2012.
At L'Abattoir, mixologist Shaun Layton creates cocktails with a macho edge; the Meat Hook -- comprised of bourbon, maraschino, Punt e Mes and Ardbeg malt scotch whisky -- is sure to put hair on your tongue.
West Restaurant's crowd skews older; L'Abattoir -- across the street from The Diamond in Gastown -- is younger and better situated for bar-hopping.


Granville Island
At Granville, even locals are tourists.
At Granville, even locals are tourists.
Robert Giroux/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
An urban attraction that's perenially popular, Granville Island offers a complete Vancouver shopping experience in one scenic location.
Stroll through the Granville Island Public Market for fresh food, European delicacies and baked goods before hitting the shops: one-of-a-kind retailers that include the multi-story Kids Market, fashion, jewelry, souvenirs, home decor, handcrafts and local artists' workshops.
Explore the back alleys and you'll find standouts like Masa Shiroki's handcrafted artisan sake, the first fresh premium Junmai sake (Namazake) of its kind produced in Canada.
Vancouver Designers
Vancouver's emerging independent designers combine West Coast ease and sensibility with high-fashion structure and artful design.
The best of Vancouver independent fashion is centered in two distinct neighborhoods: downtown's Gastown and on Main Street between 20th and 22nd Avenues.
Main Street's Twigg&Hottie is the default destination for affordable, high-style, eco-friendly women's clothes and accessories by top Vancouver and independent Canadian designers.
Dissatisfied with being Vancouver's preeminent denim destination, Gastown's dutil denim recently launched its own line, The Quintessential Series, for men and women, promising go-to fit and fashion.
Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery
That the Inukshuk became the symbol of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics demonstrates the lofty standing held by First Nations artworks in Vancouver's cultural aesthetic.
You can purchase (or just browse) the best of Vancouver First Nations art -- sculpture, graphics, bentwood boxes, masks, and jewelry -- at the Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery in downtown Vancouver.
Be advised: prices are commensurate with the master-level skill needed to create these incredible pieces.


Stanley Park
The place to be active. Or just reflect.
The place to be active. Or just reflect.
Among the world's greatest parks, Stanley Park offers visitors a chance to do everything from biking the Seawall to ogling the beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium.
During summer, you can experience authentic native culture, performances and art at the Klahowya Village.
In December, you can trundle through the forest on the miniature train, enjoying myriad twinkling holiday lights at Stanley Park's annual Bright Nights.
UBC's Museum of Anthropology
When it rains -- which it will -- you can tour the region's rich native history at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (MOA).
MOA's collection of art and cultural artifacts from the Northwest Coast of B.C. includes massive totems, ceremonial masks and canoes.
The most famous object on display is the iconic sculpture by B.C. First Nations artist Bill Reid, "Raven and the First Men," whose image appears on the back of every C$20 bill.
Wreck Beach
If you don't mind the Pacific Ocean chilling your bits, you can skinny dip at clothing-optional Wreck Beach.
Not a typical visitor destination, Wreck Beach is difficult to access (you must hike down a forest path to reach the beach), and finding the entrance can be tricky: use the directions from the Wreck Beach site and be prepared to ask passersby for help.
Worth the hassle? Absolutely. This strip of pure, unadulterated Pacific Northwest beach is glorious.
With no signs of civilization in sight and a respectful, hippie vibe to its attendant crowd, it has a unique ambience: strange, magical, isolated, very "Vancouver."

Seasonal attractions

Summer/Winter: Robson Square
Vancouver's de facto central plaza, Robson Square is ground zero for intra-city outdoor activities.
In winter, there's free ice-skating at the popular Robson Square Ice Rink (skate rentals are C$4).
In summer, there's free, all-ages ballroom dancing every Friday night and free salsa dancing every Sunday afternoon.
Summer Night Markets
Want some pork sui mai with your sno-cone?
The best of Vancouver multiculturalism is on display at the city's Asian-style night markets, where grilled squid on toothpicks and Osaka balls are served beside Belgian waffles and deep-fried cheesecake.
Featuring live entertainment, tons of food and plenty of cheap-and-tacky wares, these markets are enormous -- crowds number in the thousands -- and enormously fun.
Vancouver snow sports
Get rad on Cypress Mountain.
Skiers and snowboarders already know that Vancouver is just two hours away from Whistler, B.C., one of the top-rated ski resorts in the world.
But Vancouver also has three nearby mountains -- 20 to 30 minutes' drive north of downtown -- that provide quicker access to the slopes: Grouse Mountain, Mount Seymour and Cypress Mountain.
Cypress, a 2010 Winter Olympics venue, boasts the highest vertical rise and most diverse cross-country trails; Mount Seymour is ideal for scenic snowshoeing.