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Visiting Vancouver for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do

The perfect blend of coastal charm and urban vibes, Vancouver has endless activities for visitors.

An aerial view of Vancouver's downtown area
Hi, I'm Diane!

Based in Vancouver, B.C., Diane Selkirk enjoys writing stories where science, history, or social justice intersect with travel. Her work has appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic Travel, and The Globe and Mail.

Visiting a new destination offers an overwhelming number of options for things to see, do, and eat, and Vancouver is no different. Whether you’re seeking culture, outdoor adventure, or just the chance to explore a new place, there’s something for everyone in this diverse, welcoming city. Vancouver is an intriguing mixture of beautiful nature and city glamour, offering the perfect vacation experience for any kind of traveler. Here’s what to do and see on your first trip.

1. Explore Stanley Park

Cyclists explore Stanley Park in Vancouver.
Cyclists explore Stanley Park.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

A favorite among locals and visitors, the park is a tranquil escape from the busy city.

With hiking trails, gardens, and a beautiful seawall, Stanley Park is a peaceful place for a stroll. The expansive urban park showcases the unique beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest, home to treasures like the Vancouver Aquarium and several restaurants. The park often features events, like outdoor concerts, among the towering cedar trees. Whether you want to experience panoramic views of the North Shore mountains on a bike ride around the Seawall or simply stroll and enjoy the park’s greenery, its proximity to downtown makes it the perfect place to start exploring Vancouver.

2. Wander Granville Island

Visitors shop for fruit at the market in Granville Island in Vancouver.
Shoppers enjoy the food markets on Granville Island.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

The spot for culture, food, and sightseeing.

Formerly an industrial hub, Granville Island’s warehouses and boathouses have been converted into chic galleries and cozy cafes. The Public Market is the heart of the island, a colorful, covered market featuring specialty food vendors and pottery stalls. Grab lunch and hang out at the picnic tables overlooking the city’s harbor. Enjoy the talented buskers that often serenade diners in the afternoon, but keep an eye out for hungry seagulls in search of snacks. Craft breweries are the place to be in the evening, and the island’s theaters host plays, comedy nights, and dance performances.

3. Shop the city

Visitors walk through Robson Street in Vancouver.
Robson Street is popular among shoppers.Foto: i viewfinder / Shutterstock

Vancouverites live in raincoats and hiking boots, but they can still appreciate a good outfit.

Nicknamed Hollywood North for the city’s thriving film industry, Vancouver is full of places to find a new look. If you have a quirky, vintage style, head to Main Street for curated thrift stores and consignment boutiques to load up on silk scarves and platform boots. For luxury shops, head downtown along Robson Street, while the Kitsilano neighborhood is home to outdoor stores galore—deck yourself out in flannel and get ready to hit the trail.

4. Hike the North Shore

Hikers walk on the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver.
Walking amid the crowns of trees can be awe-inspiring.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

Vancouver’s proximity to pristine wilderness makes it a favorite for hikers.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is beautiful in all seasons, featuring stunning cedar forests and lookouts over sparkling glacier water. The suspension bridge sways over the canyon below, and the trees form a dense green canopy above. For those who want a challenge, take on the Grouse Grind, nicknamed ‘Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.’ Although the hike is short, it quickly rises in elevation. Make it to the top for stunning views over the city, try your luck at a mountain ropes course, or relax at the mountaintop chalet.

5. Enjoy international cuisine and nightlife

A visitor walks around Vancouver's famous Chinese garden is near Gastown.
Vancouver's famous Chinese garden is near Gastown.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

In a city full of diverse communities, there are delicious surprises around every corner.

Start in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, exploring elegant tea shops, traditional Chinese bakeries, and antique stores filled with treasures. To learn about the history of this vibrant community, stop in at the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum, or visit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden to relax during a tea ceremony. The neighborhood is packed with dim-sum shops, barbecue restaurants, and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops to keep you fueled during your adventures. In the evening, head to Gastown to take in the Vancouver nightlife. Cool basement lounges host live music, and quirky cocktail bars abound.

Related: Why Vancouver Has the World’s Best Dim Sum (and Where To Find It)

6. Immerse yourself in culture

The Museum of Anthropology is a top destination in the city.Foto: Xuanlu Wang / Shutterstock

Learn about the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations

Vancouver’s culture is deeply rooted in the history and knowledge of the people who have lived on the land since the beginning. Understanding more about this is the key to discovering the city. Visit the Museum of Anthropology at UBC to marvel at traditional artwork from the Pacific Northwest, and learn about the people who have always called the land home. Later, head to Stanley Park for a walking tour with an Indigenous guide, highlighting the plants traditionally used for food, medicine, and art.

7. Get out into nature

Whistler's popular, summer and winter.
Whistler's popular, summer and winter.Foto: ppa / Shutterstock

A day trip to nearby Squamish or scenic Whistler offers respite from the bustling city.

Grab a bus from downtown to head to Whistler, or opt for a road trip to travel the stunning Sea to Sky highway. With views of the ocean and mountains, the road is an experience in itself. Squamish offers river rafting experiences and challenges, such as the imposing Stawamus Chief Mountain, a towering granite slab popular among hikers and climbers. Otherwise, carry on to Whistler for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and hiking, canoeing, and mountain biking in the summer. Its pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with bustling restaurants and shopping boutiques.

8. Discover the art scene

The exterior of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The Vancouver Art Gallery features works from Canadian icons like Emily Carr.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

Vancouver has a treasure-trove of gorgeous galleries.

Start at the Vancouver Art Gallery—this well-curated gallery features works from Canadian icons including Emily Carr as well as a frequent rotation of exhibits from around the world. The expansive building is located in downtown Vancouver, and the front square hosts a good sized farmers market every Wednesday afternoon, as well as summer movie nights. Across the street, you’ll find the Bill Reid Gallery which highlights traditional Haida art, as well as contemporary Indigenous artwork.

9. Make time for a beach day

A scenic beach along English Bay.
Vancouver's beaches are spread along the sides of English Bay.Foto: Volodymyr Kyrylyuk / Shutterstock

This coastal city boasts urban beaches.

Vancouver is famed for its nature, and its beaches are especially well-known, spread along the sides of English Bay. There’s a beach for every occasion—if you’re after stunning sunsets, head to the aptly-named Sunset Beach, near Davie Village. Volleyball players gather at Kitsilano Beach, while families favor Jericho Beach to splash in the water and watch the population of bunnies play in the nearby grass. Spanish Banks is farther out, but it has the benefit of a shallow slope, meaning that the water warms when it comes up over the sand.

10. Stop and smell the roses

The lush foliage of Queen Elizabeth Park.
Queen Elizabeth Park is beautiful no matter the season.Foto: Viktor Birkus / Shutterstock

Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park provides a stunning vantage point to view the city.

Beautiful in all seasons, Queen Elizabeth Park rises above the city, capped by the shimmering dome of the Bloedel Conservatory. In the springtime, the fluffy cherry blossoms and bright florals make it a popular spot for picnics, and in the winter, locals bring their sleds to line up at the top of the hill. Explore the sunken quarry garden, wander among sculptures, and enjoy the peace of this urban oasis.

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