I lived in Vancouver, a world-class, culturally vibrant city, for close to 10 years and enjoyed a wide variety of the sights, attractions, and things most visitors want to see and do. Most people don’t spend a week in a city these days, but if you even have three days, you can cover off a huge selection of my picks of top things to do in Vancouver. A week will give you enough time to include a variety of activities in Whistler as well.
Vancouver is truly a wonderful city to visit but access between the north shore and downtown, especially if you’re driving, can be a royal pain. Avoid rush hour at all costs as it can easily take an hour to drive from West Vancouver to downtown Vancouver. Lion’s Gate Bridge gets backed up, but the First Narrows Bridge is no picnic either. I would recommend splitting your time between the downtown core including Stanley Park, the north shore from Deep Cove to West Vancouver, and the outlying areas like Bowen Island and Squamish and Whistler if you have time.
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Best time of year to visit Vancouver
I think most visitors will want to avoid the rainy season – which lasts from November well into April. However, Vancouver does get some high-pressure systems in winter moving in for extended periods of time, so you can get weeks of sunny weather. Unfortunately, it’s not the norm. There was one stand-out February for me that had three plus weeks of sunshine. With flowers blooming, that period was pure magic. You’ll need Lady Luck on your side or the ability to do a last-minute trip.
Most of you will want to visit from May until October. A common saying in Vancouver is that summer doesn’t start until mid-July – and that usually holds true if you’re coming for warm or hot weather. It’s also the busiest time in the city. I personally love the spring for the flowers and early fall for the decrease in crowds.
Stanley Park is the quintessential experience to enjoy in Vancouver, no matter what the season or your age. Here’s a selection of ways to do just that.
Spend a good part of a day in Stanley Park. The best way to experience is on foot or by bike. You don’t have to be a regular cyclist to enjoy the bike ride around Stanley Park. It’s easy, flat and can be done over a 1 -2 hours, depending on how many stops and detours you make. (Rent a bike at one of four stores clustered around Denman Street.) I would recommend trying to bike at a less busy time of day so you can take your eyes off the path and enjoy the view! Walking will take you two to three hours if you do the entire seawall.
Short on time? Drive around Stanley Park, pulling off at viewpoints to take in the best sights like Prospect Point and Second and Third Beaches. Second Beach is home to a heated outdoor pool, that is perfect for sunny days.
Visit the Vancouver Aquarium. There are no longer any whales at the aquarium but there are many more marine animals on display as well as an Amazon exhibit. Animals are shown in ‘natural’ habitats and won’t be doing any tricks or acrobatics to music, and the general presentation is of education and interest – not entertainment.
If you’re feeling lazy or romantic, there are narrated horse-drawn carriage rides around the park that provide general information about both Stanley Park and Vancouver.
Top things to do in Vancouver along SW Marine Drive
If you are coming in from the Vancouver Airport, either drive or ask your taxi or Uber driver to take a detour along SW Marine Drive and continue out along Spanish Banks. It’s only seven minutes from the airport.
If you visit the Spanish Banks area at low tide, you can walk out on the sand flats for a mile.
Some of Vancouver’s best beaches are along here including Locarno Beach which is perfect for an outdoor BBQ on a warm evening.
Enjoy the view of Vancouver from SW Marine Drive. It’s truly spectacular with the ocean and mountain backdrop.
Near Point Grey, stop at the Museum of Anthropology. Here you can see totem poles and unique British Columbia First Nations art.
Kitsilano has a fantastic salt water outdoor pool – three times the size of an Olympic pool – with fabulous views of the mountains as a backdrop for those that just want to suntan and relax.
Top things to do in downtown Vancouver
For many the skyscrapers of downtown are quite an eye-opener, especially the revolving restaurant. For indoor days there’s plenty of shopping both at indoor malls and on Robson Street, in Gastown, or even Chinatown with its myriad shops to poke around in. You could also try one of these activities.
Kids will enjoy Science World, and the Imax Theatre is far superior in size and effect than the one at Canada Place.
Park the car at Sunset Beach in the West End and take the False Creek ferry over to Granville Island – a great way to add to the fun.
The HR MacMillan Space Center has indoor shows, laser and light shows and telescope viewings. Try to visit on a clear night.
Take a dinner cruise while enjoying the downtown skyline.
Enjoy a scenic float plane tour. It’s not too expensive when you consider how many people you can tuck in and what can be seen in a very short space of time.
Visit one of these gardens in Vancouver – VanDusen Botanical Garden, Bloedel Conservatory, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Nitobe Memorial Garden at UBC. I also love the UBC Botanical Garden.
One of a kind seasonal things to do in Vancouver
In the summer there is outdoor ethnic dancing at the Ceperley Park picnic area. While this may sound a bit odd, it can be a lot of fun and was a huge hit with one of my friends out of town visitors.
Every August the Squamish Nation Pow-Wow is held at the foot of Capilano Road. It’s quite a sight to see and the Europeans in particular love to see it! There is food, stalls selling native goods, and of course the dance competitions. It’s worth the time for a unique afternoon.
Catch the Festival of Light every summer with fireworks starting at 10 PM at English Bay. You don’t have to be in English Bay to enjoy the dazzling show. There would also be some excellent areas to see them from Stanley Park. The fireworks occur three nights over a week.
Top things to do in Deep Cove, North Vancouver
Starting at Deep Cove you can take a hike to the lookout at Quarry Rock, about 30 minutes along the Baden Powell Trail. It’s not for those afraid of heights.
Browse some small shops and eateries in Deep Cove. When I dragonboated out of Deep Cove on Saturday mornings, we would often end up at Honey Doughnuts & Goodies, eating back all the calories we’d just burnt off.
Rent a kayak or SUP in Deep Cove and explore the lovely inlet of Indian Arm or just the cove area itself. You can also take a kayaking tour – even in winter and on full moon nights.
Most summer evenings you can watch dragonboat teams practicing. Come out and cheer them on.
If you can afford the tram ride up Grouse Mountain (about $61/adult in 2022) you can probably afford to eat at the Observatory Restaurant at the peak, and in that case the trip up is included with your meal! If you are a fitness freak climb the 3000-foot mountain on the Grouse Grind Trail, but only if you are prepared and healthy enough to do it! If neither of those methods attract you then there is a helicopter ride from Coal Harbour that will take you up to the peak and back to the harbour later in the day.
If you want a view at no physical or monetary cost (save for gas) then drive-up Cypress Mountain and pull off at the first lookout. You get a great aerial view of the lower mainland and on a really clear day you can see Mount Baker in Washington.
Head to Sewell’s Marina in Horseshoe Bay and enjoy a sea safari. Look for seabirds, seals, and even whales.
Wander the maze of trails among giant trees in Lighthouse Park, enjoying views at the water’s edge of Howe Sound. It’s a great place to enjoy a picnic dinner in summer and watch the sun go down.
Take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay, enjoying lovely views of Howe Sound on the way over to Bowen Island as a foot passenger. On the island poke around the shops in Snug Cove and have lunch on the deck at Doc Morgans Pub. You could even try a few hours of sea kayaking, right off the ferry dock. If you’re slightly more energetic you can take the loop trail around Killarney Lake or even hike Mt Gardner for the 360-degree view at the top. The island has a little bus service that can get you around.
- Shannon Falls, rising 335 metres above the Sea to Sky Highway at Squamish, is only a 15 to 20-minute walk from the car park to the lookout.
- Stop at the base of the Chief and see if you can spot the climbers on the rock face. It’s worth the 90-minute hike to the top of Stawamus Chief too.
Drive the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler
- Drive the Sea to Sky Highway – stopping at some of the iconic sights along the way. The lookout on a clear day over the Tantalus Range is particularly compelling.
- Brandywine Falls just south of Whistler is an enjoyable 5-minute walk from the car – and worth seeing just for their 70-metre height!
- In Whistler there’s lots to tempt you – canoeing the River of Golden Dreams, hiking the Black Tusk, Garibaldi Lake or Panorama Ridge to name a few, mountain biking, golf, shopping, the Peak to Peak gondola, and the zipline.
Where to stay in Vancouver
You’ll probably want to stay in downtown Vancouver or North Vancouver so you can walk about – and perhaps forgo a car altogether. From North Vancouver, it’s easy to hop on teh sea bus to downtown Vancouver. Here are some ideas of where to stay.
I have stayed at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – and loved the downtown location, ambiance and the room we had.
The Paradox Hotel Vancouver is rated as superb.
The Pan Pacific Vancouver located on the waterfront is a luxurious option.
In North Vancouver, I recommend either the Pinnacle Hotel at the Pier with its killer sunset views or The Seaside Hotel located in the Shipyards.
Further reading on things to do in the greater Vancouver area
- 12 Great Things to Do in North Vancouver, BC
- 5 Places to Sea Kayak Within 90 Minutes of Vancouver
- Snowshoeing at Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver
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