For years, Vancouver’s appeal was summed up by its spectacular setting, between peaks and ocean. You could be kayaking one minute, the cliché went, and slaloming down a snowy slope a half-hour later. Sounds terrific, right? Nevertheless, many thought this Canadian city had little to offer beyond sea and ski. Nightlife? Food? Shopping? All blah. Vancouver was so laid-back that “chill” could be the civic motto and “formal dress” meant a new Gore-Tex jacket.
Today, however, there’s a dramatically different Vancouver story. In this cosmopolitan city of 2.1 million, soaring green-glass towers play counterpoint to the natural beauty of the Coast Mountains. Hip new neighborhoods have been sculpted out of barren industrial scrapyards. The inventive culinary scene is making stars of local chefs and inspiring celebrity restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten to bypass Toronto and Montreal and come here to compete. And, largely due to immigration, the city’s face has changed in the span of a single generation: Nearly a third of Vancouverites are of Asian descent.
In short, it’s a story of an extraordinary transformation. As Vancouver (and neighboring Whistler) prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, it has leapfrogged over its old image as a “village on the edge of the rain forest” (to quote a local writer) and entered the world stage. Welcome to the new Vancouver. Leave your Gore-Tex at home.
GASTOWN & CHINATOWN
Vancouver’s reinvention began in its downtown core, a peninsula that sticks out from the rest of the city like a hitchhiker’s thumb. It’s small—less than three square miles—and densely packed with many of the city’s best-known districts, so it’s best to get around by foot. Start in Chinatown (one of North America’s largest), where apothecaries, fishmongers and food markets still operate much as they have since the community started up in the late 1880s. While Chinatown remains largely unchanged, nearby Gastown, the city’s historic heart, is experiencing a renaissance. Its cobblestone streets and late-19th-century buildings have always drawn visitors, but tacky tourist shops are giving way to high-end boutiques, cutting-edge furniture stores and innovative resto-bars. Downscale pubs still serve the neighborhood’s working-class roots, but new establishments cater to a more discerning clientele. Head down the ominous-sounding Blood Alley to Salt Tasting Room, in a gritty back lane. This small, modernist charcuterie serves up exotic cured meats, artisanal cheeses and excellent wines by the glass, many from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Yaletown’s story is more “invention” than “reinvention.” In the 1990s, the area was a desolate industrial zone choked with crumbling warehouses. Today, it’s dominated by condo towers that seem to have sprung up like mushrooms after a hard rain (a not uncommon weather pattern for Vancouver). Head for Hamilton and Mainland streets, a clutch of blocks that vaguely resembles New York’s SoHo, to find anything from kitchen design stores and day spas to some of the best drinking and dining spots in town. Best bet for a warm summer evening: Kick back on the always-busy patio outside Glowbal Grill (1079 Mainland St.) with a glass of B.C. Sauvignon Blanc.
Packed with high-rise apartments and three-story walk-ups, the West End is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in North America. You can’t really pigeonhole this district; its eclecticism is its charm. Flamboyant Davie Street, sometimes called Davie Village, is filled with clubs and campy, casual joints that coexist with sophisticated newcomers like 1181 Lounge. At the foot of Davie Street is English Bay, with its palm-lined beach (yes, palm trees) and busy Denman Street, full of small ethnic restaurants and a special, almost beachtown vibe.
But the West End’s nexus is the area around Robson Street. Its old nickname was Robsonstrasse, a reference to the postwar German immigrants who previously revitalized the neighborhood. Today, schnitzel restaurants have been replaced by luxury brands like Tiffany, Hermès and Burberry, all tightly grouped around Alberni and Burrard streets. You’ll find more mid-range shopping on Robson itself, where the ubiquitous Gap and Banana Republic stores sit cheek-by-jowl with Canadian-based retailers like roots (everything from yoga wear to furniture) and Aritzia (a Vancouver-based women’s clothing line).
When you tire of shopping, head farther west down Robson to discover its soul—or rather, its Seoul. This part of Robson is dominated by Asian manga (comic book) stores, bubble tea shops and Korean kim-chee joints, along with a few excellent izakayas—Japanese-style pubs serving cooked and raw “small plates.” Try the Gyu Yukke, a beef sashimi dish, at Gyoza King (1508 Robson St.; 604-669-8278).
STANLEY PARK & COAL HARBOUR
Spread over 1,000 acres at the westernmost tip of the downtown peninsula, Stanley Park has been Vancouver’s crown jewel since 1888. The lush park, crisscrossed with trails, is home to Beaver Lake and visited by about 200 bird species. Lining the perimeter is a 5½-mile walkable seawall that winds past three beaches—a magnet for walkers, cyclists and roller-bladers. (Rent gear nearby at Bikes ’n Blades; 718 Denman St.; 604-602-9899.)
While Stanley Park is largely about preserving what was, Coal Harbour, a dynamic new neighborhood near the park’s main entrance, testifies to what is. A few short years ago, the area was a mix of parking lots and boating-supply companies, with the lovely Westin Bayshore Hotel as its only notable building. Today, high-rise luxury condos surround the Bayshore, while swank restaurants like Lift and the casual Cardero’s have turned this once-neglected stretch of waterfront into a bona fide destination.
Vancouver’s transformation isn’t just about its central core. South Main, a longtime blue-collar district, is now home to fashion-forward boutiques, innovative casual restaurants and packed cocktail bars. To the east, Commercial Drive’s neo-hippie ethic is morphing into a more sophisticated urban vision; that said, there’s still room for the Italian sports bars and legit (i.e., not Starbucks) espresso joints that once defined “The Drive.” If you can ignore the adult shows and shops, the new clubs on downtown Granville Street are also worth a weekend visit. The venerable Yale, Vancouver’s best blues club, still reigns as the street’s anchor (1300 Granville St.; 604-681-9253). Just across Granville Bridge, South Granville has grown from a modest residential area into an expensive-looking boulevard lined with galleries, restaurants and boutiques (check out Martha Sturdy for exquisite resin furniture; 3039 Granville St.).
When construction of the Olympic Village (to house the athletes) is completed on the inlet called False Creek, almost the entire waterfront between Yaletown and tourist-friendly Granville Island will be filled in with recent development, letting visitors walk the whole way on a new seawall. With so much at stake, many Vancouverites are anxious to know how this next chapter in the city’s transformation will unfold. Others, however, have a different attitude. Chill, dude. Just chill.
EATSALT TASTING ROOM
Tasting plates of cold meats and
cheeses change daily at this Gastown
spot. 45 Blood Alley; 604-633-1912;
light dinner for two, $36*
A popular izakaya (Japanese-style bar).
Try the beef tongue cooked on a hot stone,
for the novelty, at least. 871 Denman St.;
604-608-1677; dinner for two, $50
A modern space in Coal Harbour, with
amazing views of Stanley Park and the
Coast Mountains, especially from the
upper deck. 333 Menchions Mews;
604-689-5438; dinner for two, $95
DB BISTRO MODERNE
As with Boulud’s original NYC bistro,
the burger—stuffed with braised short
ribs and black truffle—is the decadent,
signature dish. 2551 W. Broadway;
604-739-7115; dinner for two, $80
Vikram Vij’s modern Indian cooking
is uniformly brilliant, but his lamb
popsicles are a must. Vij’s doesn’t take
reservations, but you can sample free
snacks in the lounge while you wait.
1480 W. 11th Ave.; 604-736-6664;
dinner for two, $60
SUN SUI WAH
If you’ve never had dim sum, go. If
you’ve had it elsewhere, go—and be
amazed. 3888 Main St.; 604-872-8822;
lunch for two, $25
Hidekazu Tojo’s carefully prepared sushi
and inventive Japanese cuisine are the
city’s gold standard. Choose the omakase
option, putting yourself in the chef’s
capable hands. 1133 W. Broadway;
604-872-8060; dinner for two, $100
* All prices are in USD. Prices cover a meal for two without drinks, tax or tip.
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS IN VANCOUVER INCLUDE:AVIAWEST IN VANCOUVER
DESTINATIONS AT ROSEDALE ON ROBSON
CLUB INTRAWEST, VANCOUVER
For more information, visit RCI.com or call
A stylish new 77-suite hotel
with water and mountain
views. 1177 Melville St.;
doubles from $210
FAIRMONT HOTEL VANCOUVER
The city’s grand dame.
Centrally located, with a
lively lobby-level lounge.
900 W. Georgia St.;
doubles from $180
Opened in January, this
119-room luxury hotel is
the latest addition to the
Vancouver skyline. 1128 W.
Georgia St.; 604-689-1120;
A former apartment building
built in 1912. Far from luxe,
but the English Bay beachside
location can’t be beat. 1154
Gilford St.; 604-681-9321;
Hip, ultramodern boutique-style
hotel in funky Yaletown.
322 Davie St.; 604-642-
doubles from $200
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.