Often the best way to understand a city is through its music. The sounds and melodies of a community are its lifeblood, a reflection of its character, its energy, and its spirit. What would Ireland be without the twiddles of folk music emanating from the back of a lively pub? Or how differently would we experience Chicago if it lacked the house and hip-hop beats that represent the city’s soundtrack?
Vancouver’s score is a little tougher to nail down, but don’t think this isn’t a musical city. From the brick-walled venues of Gastown to the eccentric record stores of Kitsilano, Vancouver has a distinct melody, and there are a variety of ways to tune in. Whether you want to catch a show, add a record to your collection, or simply find the right song to press play on before popping those earbuds in and stepping outside the hotel, here’s how to make your trip to Vancouver a little more musical.
Vancouver is home to plenty of major music venues. Concert halls like the Vogue Theatre, the Commodore Ballroom, and even Rogers Arena serve as arenas for big shows and pit stops for touring musicians. But that’s not what these are. If you want to go out on the town, grab a drink, and enjoy an intimate concert, the kind where you can see the emotion on the performers’ faces, check these spots out.
Cambie Bar & Grill
310 Cambie St
As it’s attached to the Cambie Hostel in Gastown, the Cambie Bar & Grill brings in a diverse clientele. Students and backpackers from all over the world converge here to meet other travelers, catch some rest, and, at the end of the night, blow off some steam in the pub. With that in mind, the vibe here is — to put it lightly — a tad rowdy (according to their Instagram, they were voted the “#1 place to get wasted”), but if you can put up with loud music and stuffy crowds, there are a lot of good times to be had at the Cambie. In addition to their illuminated outdoor patio, can’t-beat drink specials, and regular beer pong tournaments, the bar features a new band on their stage every Thursday night at the Cambie Jam. So why not get the weekend started early and check it out?
696 E Hastings St
Located in Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighborhood, the Heatley is an absolute must for music lovers in the city. Its décor is playful and rustic, with hand-drawn art across the walls and oddities like a longhorn skull and an antique radio hung throughout the interior, and its sister establishments next door include a restaurant, a tattoo parlor, and an art gallery. But the music takes center stage here (literally), as the watering hole hosts live music almost every night of the week. To cleanse your palate, you can choose between their rotating craft beers, wine on tap, and house cocktails, so pick your poison, grab a seat, and enjoy the show.
216 Carrall St
If you’re walking down Carrall Street in Gastown, you can’t miss the Blarney Stone — the big neon shamrock sign kind of gives it away. So what should you expect when you step inside? Well, the Blarney Stone is the oldest Irish pub in Vancouver and quite possibly one of the most recognizable in the entire province, so like any of its kind, it’ll hit you with greasy pub fare, rip-roaring late-night entertainment, and of course, a heart pint of Guinness. Be sure to stop by on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, when the pub hosts live bands, with everything from popular hits to folksy Irish classics. Sláinte!
238 Abbott St at Cordova
Sure, most travelers embark northward to reach Vancouver, but if you’re craving a little Southern hospitality while in town, step on in to the Revel Room. Everything here is inspired by the various regions of the southern half of the U.S., from New Mexico to New Orleans, so be sure to fill up on some comfort food, and you can’t go wrong with a bourbon sour to wash it all down. But best of all is the music, a varied selection of blues, rockabilly, roots, and jazz that carves out a home for the sounds of the South up here in the Pacific Northwest. From 4-6 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday, you can stop in for Sour Hour to the tune of a boogie piano, and every night brings with it a new show, from Wednesday Revelry to Funky Fridays to Shake This Shack Sundays. Yee-haw!
Whether you’re looking to dip into Vancouver’s lively hipster culture, pore through boxes and boxes of obscure classic rock records, or simply stumble upon some hidden gem to add to your ever-growing vinyl collection, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for at one of Vancouver’s many record stores. Here are a few of our favorites.
3561 Main St
Even if you can’t find anything to your liking — which is damn near impossible, as their vinyl selection is the largest in the city — Neptoon Records is worth a visit for its history alone. Not only is Neptoon the oldest independent record store in Vancouver, but it also operates as an indie record label, releasing music from some of the city’s most beloved bands and artists. Inside, you’ll find boxes upon boxes of titles to flip through, along with a selection of print magazines, posters, and even a pinball machine. And if you’re looking for an eccentric way to up your style, they even have a box of miscellaneous pins to wade through. Needless to say, any type of music fan will find a way to while away an hour or two in here.
Dandelion Records & Emporium
2442 Main St
The back two-thirds of this record store on Main Street are organized so carefully and aesthetically that it makes what could have been an otherwise cramped and narrow establishment into a trendy boutique with an eye for design and a wondrous trove of varied titles just waiting to be discovered. But once you’ve made your selection, don’t skip out on the front of the store either.
Dandelion’s curated collection of goods ranges from oddball stocking stuffers like notebooks, candles, mugs, and soaps to random curiosities like jars of honey, handmade crafts and, literally, a “pictorial dictionary of curiosities.” Anything and everything you pick up is bound to put a smile on your face and a glint in your eye.
1972 W 4th St
Tucked between a boot store and a Fjällräven, Zulu is the kind of shop you might easily skip right past if you didn’t know what you were looking for. But once inside this Kitsilano staple, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into the ’80s, and you’ll want to find just the right record to match the mood. With carpeted floors and wood-paneled walls, the store sports a cozy, ski-lodge aesthetic, and its offerings are both extensive and well-priced. Outside, you’ll find tables of cheap used records, and if you follow the spiral staircase upstairs, you can stock up on 99-cent albums. And while the store carries works across all genres, it specializes as a city institution, displaying an entire selection dedicated to Vancouver artists and regularly hosting live local bands.
While there’s not a single genre or style that defines Vancouver’s music scene, one way to get a handle on the city’s beat is to sample some of the artists who have called it home. Add these names to your Spotify queue.
Tegan and Sara
Though they both hail from Calgary, the indie pop duo Tegan and Sara now split their time between Los Angeles. Their ethereal synth-pop beats and thoughtful lyrics inspire comparisons to artists such as Matt and Kim or Passion Pit, but their sound is wholly unique.
Theirs is the kind of music you’ll want to throw on while driving through a new city for the first time, the hypnotic melodies enhancing your senses and making you excited to take in this new world.
A few favorites: “Closer”; “Where Does The Good Go”
Few musicians are as synonymous with Canadian rock as Bryan Adams, whose monstrous hits like “Heaven” and “Summer of ’69” have provided the soundtrack to countless young romances. Adams grew up in Ottawa, but his road to stardom was paved at age 15, when he moved to Vancouver and got involved with the city’s music scene, working as a background vocalist for the CBC and lending his voice to local artists such as Motown keyboardist Robbie King.
After several years playing with bands throughout the city’s nightclubs, Adams met Jim Vallance — a drummer and songwriter for the band Prism (see below) — at a Vancouver music store, and soon the two were collaborating in Vallance’s home studio. By the time he turned 19, Adams had signed his first record deal, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A few favorites: “(Everything I do) I Do It For You”; “Run To You”
Whether you’re a dedicated fan who’s bought all nine of her massively popular studio albums — which have sold over 30 million copies worldwide — or you know her only from her work with the ASPCA — the initial ad for which raised over $30 million in donations — it’s hard to deny the influence that Sarah McLachlan and her heavenly voice have had on the music industry and the world at large.
After finishing high school in Nova Scotia, McLachlan signed with Vancouver-based independent record label Nettwerk and moved to the British Columbia city to embark on a new life as a recording artist. Today, her emotional ballads are listened to all around the world, and she continues to live in Vancouver, where her philanthropic efforts include the opening of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a free music school for at-risk youth.
A few favorites: “Angel”; “Wintersong”
Prism’s massive success as a classic rock band has been mainly contained within Canada, where they won the Juno Award for Group of the Year in 1981. That said, a few of their songs have made waves across borders both international and interplanetary. 1981’s “Don’t Let Him Know” found a spot on the U.S. Top 40 charts, while in 2011, the crewmembers of the space shuttle Discovery selected 1977’s “Spaceship Superstar” as their wake-up song.
The band was formed in the ’70s and included members from two Vancouver bands, “Sunshyne” and “Seeds of Time,” as well as a variety of musicians from the local scene. Though they were honored as official citizens of Calgary at a concert earlier this year, their roots and their legacy will forever belong to Vancouver.
A few favorites: “Take Me To The Kaptin”; “Armageddon”
Superstar Michael Bublé’s upbringing reads as quintessential Vancouver. He grew up in Burnaby (just east of the city) and dreamt of growing up to become a professional hockey player, attending every Canucks home game and imagining himself out on the ice with the likes of Gary Lupul and Patrik Sundstrom. As a teenager, he spent his summers working as a commercial fisherman with his father and crewmates.
But his true talent emerged when his family heard him singing along to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” during a car ride one winter — needless to say, he nailed it. That launched him on the path toward musical stardom, and today he’s sold over 75 million records worldwide and won four Grammys. His velvety voice has filled countless homes with warmth and joy, and he’s really just getting started — his tenth studio album was released in November of 2018.
A few favorites: “Haven’t Met You Yet”; “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”
Did we miss one of your favorites? Let us know your musical recommendations for Vancouver in the comments below! And if you’re planning a stay, the city’s Marriott International locations offer easy accessibility to Vancouver’s lively music scene.