Not every adventurer is created equal — we get that. For every thrill-seeker that needs to cling to a rock face or zip down a ski slope in order to get their fix, there are plenty of people who prefer to just relax, to find a quiet green space that will provide a moment of natural serenity away from the chaos of city life. The great thing about a place like Vancouver is that it caters to all types of explorers, no matter how much adrenaline they need pumping through their veins.
A seaport metropolis surrounded by harbor waters and evergreen mountains, Vancouver feels less like a city with some scattered urban parks than an outdoor paradise from which a few modern neighborhoods have sprouted organically. The natural world is infused so seamlessly into the city streets that you’ll find yourself regularly eschewing the convenience of a cab ride for the joy of taking a stroll or hopping on a bike to reach your destination. It’s a city designed for every kind of adventurer, so whether you prefer high-octane thrills, quiet moments of wellness and reflection, or simply giving back to this welcoming environment by eating sustainably, we’ve compiled a few recommendations.
If your idea of getting outside includes feeling the sting of the wind against your face, screaming with excitement, and enjoying the rush of adrenaline that accompanies dizzying heights and intense speeds, you’ve come to the right place. Just don’t forget your helmet!
We spend so much time squeezed into metal cabins these days that we often forget that air travel is just that — a form of flight. Take off in a seaplane from Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, and we promise you’ll remember. There are few better ways to admire this city than from above, and when you’re strapped into a tiny aircraft, separated from the briny harbor air by only a thin sheet of metal, your heart’s bound to thump a bit. Throughout the ride, you’ll look out over the downtown skyline, Stanley Park, the Lions Gate Bridge, and the mountains along the north shore before landing carefully atop the water — an experience as graceful as it is exhilarating.
No discussion of Vancouver’s outdoor offerings is complete without mentioning Stanley Park, the city’s oldest and largest urban park (and just a leisurely stroll from The Westin Bayshore). From above, the park is unmissable, a massive block of evergreen bordering the downtown region at the northwest corner of the peninsular, and within its 990 acres (405 hectares) of West Coast rainforest, it feels like another world entirely, complete with floral gardens, hidden lagoons, diverse wildlife, and First Nations works of art.
While the park offers 17 miles (27 km) of forested trails to explore, if you’re really looking to get that heart rate up, we recommend a bike tour along the seawall. Pick up a road bike or a cruiser (or even a tandem, if you’re visiting with a significant other) from Spokes Bicycle Rentals, and set out along the 5.5-mile (8.8-km) paved seaside path, feeling the fresh harbor breeze and listening the squawks of seagulls overhead. Who knows? You might even spot a seaplane as it takes off from the water!
One of the more popular adventure excursions accessible from the Vancouver area is the Sea-to-Sky Gondola, located a scenic 45-minute drive north of the city in Squamish. The gondola will transport you up into the mountains for wondrous views of Howe Sound and the lush forest around its coast, but if you’re craving a more hands-on experience, book your tickets for the Via Ferrata tour. A form of rock climbing that’s a perfect introduction for those who haven’t spent much time on the wall, via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) involves clipping into a secure cable and following it along a guided mountain path that traverses metal rungs, exposed rock, and suspension bridges, all while taking in the glorious views below. If you look down, you might feel your lunch stirring a bit, but fear not — with its double-clip security system, via ferrata is incredibly safe, and it’s accessible to anyone, regardless of your level of climbing experience.
In the same way that Mount Rainier hovers over Seattle and the Flatirons stand guard west of Boulder, Grouse Mountain is practically synonymous with the the city it watches over. Standing between North Vancouver and the rugged wilderness of the Pacific Coast Ranges, this peak offers a variety of opportunities for thrill-seekers visiting Vancouver. Of course, in the winter, you’ll want to strap into your skis or snowboard and hit the slopes, a one-of-a-kind experience where you can catch some fresh powder while looking out over the downtown skyline.
But during the summer, the mountain transforms into a true adventure playground. Hikers who want to test their abilities should opt for the Grouse Grind, a 1.8-mile (2.7-km) trail up the face of the mountain whose 2,800-foot (850-meter) elevation gain has earned it the cheeky nickname “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.” If you want something a little less challenging, take the Skyride to the summit and check out some of the mountaintop hiking trails. And for those in search of a more out-of-the-box excursion, peruse the mountain’s diverse adventure offerings, which include ziplines, heli tours, and paragliding.
Sometimes you want to get outside just to take a breath of fresh air, to lower your heart rate as opposed to ratcheting it up into high gear. And in Vancouver, it often feels like every city block offers a green space designed for exactly that purpose. Here are some of the best spots in the city to take in the views, meditate, or just relax.
Grouse Mountain? That place with the ziplines and the helicopters and the natural stairmaster? How is that relaxing? Worry not! We truly mean it when we say Grouse Mountain has something for everyone, and for those who crave a more tranquil outdoor excursion, it’s possible to spend an entire day here without breaking a sweat. Instead of hiking to the Peak of Vancouver, opt for the Skyride, an aerial tramway that will bring you to the top while offering ascending views of the city, the glittering Pacific, and the forested summits of North Vancouver (including the one-two granite punch of the Lions, or Sisters, peaks).
Laid-back offerings at the top include a disc golf course; a grizzly bear enclosure where you can (safely) admire Coola and Grinder, the resident bruins; ranger talks; guided eco-walks; a mountaintop cinema; and even a lumberjack show. We also recommend taking the Peak Chairlift to the ultimate summit, from which you can catch a panoramic view of the city to the south and the evergreen wilderness to the north. Finally, unwind at the Rusty Rail BBQ and Beer Garden, whose outdoor patio offers one of the most scenic viewpoints on the mountain.
Vancouver Public Library
With its nine floors of books and its gorgeous, high-ceilinged lobby, the Vancouver Public Library’s Central location has always been a hot spot for architecture fanatics and bibliophiles alike.
But with its recent expansion that includes a peaceful rooftop garden, now it’s a popular natural meeting place for those in need of some fresh air as well. Infused with fragrant local greenery such as lavender, honeysuckle, and maple trees, this is the ultimate spot to kick back with a good book or cup of coffee and forget your worries for awhile. So what are you waiting for — go and smell the roses!
Surrounded on three sides by water, Vancouver is not lacking in beaches. But if we had to recommend one, it would be Kitsilano. Situated on the northern edge of its namesake neighborhood, this quiet beach offers views across the Burrard Inlet of the downtown peninsula with the mountains of North Vancouver looming overhead. What makes it so serene are its sounds — because the beach is so spread out, you’ll rarely be bothered with any hullabaloo from fellow beachgoers, and it’s far enough away from downtown that there are no city noises to be heard.
Instead, you can close your eyes and listen to the gently breaking waves, the caw of seagulls overhead, the very distant buzz of cars on the road to the south, and perhaps the occasional horn of a barge in the harbor. But be careful: whether you choose to relax on the fine white sand, one of the massive felled logs that serve as natural benches, or in the shaded grass in the park behind the beach, you might just find yourself dozing off.
Just 10 minutes up the road from Stanley Park, you’ll come to one of Vancouver’s most popular attractions, the Capilano Suspension Bridge. This 230-foot-tall (70-meters, or, to the Statue of Liberty’s shoulders) bridge extends across a spectacular natural chasm, offering those who cross it ample opportunities for photos of the river below, the granite cliffs on either side, the birds that soar through the gorge, and Grouse Mountain to the north. But there’s more than just Insta-worthy shots to be enjoyed here. Once you cross (and be sure to hold on; it will gently sway as you and your fellow travelers traverse it) the bridge and disappear into the forest of Douglas firs, hemlocks, and big maples on the other side, you’ll enter a world of natural intrigue to explore.
The top attractions include the Treetop Adventure Walk (less of a hike than an elevated boardwalk through the forest), the Cliffwalk (don’t look down!), and the Kia’palano first nations exhibit. Everything here was built using eco-friendly and sustainable practices (for instance, the Treetop Walk was constructed with pulleys and ropes — not a single nail — and fallen trees are repurposed as footbridges or exhibitions stages), and info signs scattered throughout the park offer educational tidbits about the surrounding ecosystem. And if you visit in the winter, you cannot miss Canyon Lights, a celebrated lighting festival that turns the entire park into a holiday wonderland.
If you have some extra time afterward, head just up the road to Cleveland Park, a beautiful spot with expansive green lawns, views of Grouse Mountain, and a dog-friendly forest park with picnic tables and plenty of other open spaces to lounge out and take a breather.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
Surrounded by unassuming low white walls in Vancouver’s Chinatown, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden can be easy to miss. But trust us — you won’t want to. Described as an “urban oasis of tranquility and reflection,” it was named the best city garden in the world by National Geographic in 2011, and that’s an accolade that’s hard to argue. Like a microcosmic example of Vancouver’s symbiotic relationship with the natural world, the garden demonstrates a beautifully composed interplay of architecture and flora, the built and natural environments flowing together seamlessly.
There’s a bamboo forest, a system of still ponds with opaque jade waters blanketed by lily pads, and a series of limestone boulders (known as taihu rocks) that resemble sculptures, inviting you to project your imagination to see shapes and creatures within. Photographers will find endless frames and angles to play with here, while those in search of some peace and quiet might find themselves never wanting to leave. Whatever the case, when you finally walk out the exit, you’re guaranteed to feel refreshed and ready to take the city on once again.
Not feeling outdoorsy? Not to worry. You can still practice wellness by eating at restaurants that utilize local ingredients and sustainable methods. Luckily, Vancouver has plenty of choices in that regard. Here are a few of our favorites.
1509 W 12th Avenue
Housed in a beautiful heritage building with exposed brick and wooden floors, Heirloom offers a comfy and casual atmosphere that can be enjoyed at any time of the day. But it’s really the menu that takes center stage. With solely vegan and vegetarian fare (including an extensively creative cocktail menu) sourced locally, the choices might at first seem limited, but trust us when we say that even Ron Swanson could find something to whet his palate here. Particularly tasty are the artichoke tacos and the cashew coconut curry (with just the right amount of kick), and when it comes to appetizers, you might want to stay away from the KFC, crispy cauliflower tossed in gochujang sauce and scallions. You will order a second helping, and you might not have room left for an entree.
4288 Main Street; 12 Water Street; 1165 Mainland Street
Like Heirloom, MeeT offers a creative vegan and vegetarian menu that caters to all types of foodies. The Gastown location, tucked into a building complex on Water Street, is the perfect spot for a cozy weekend brunch. The friendly staff and eccentric interior design, with its Centre Pompidou-esque lighting and piping displays, will make you feel at home as you open up the menu, which includes such specialties as K-Town Poutine and a Double Double Burger (made with plant-based bacon). And be sure to cool off with a refreshing option from the drink menu, such as the hibiscus limeade or one of the kombuchas on tap. And don’t fill up before dessert! The Barista Kiss (vegan coffee and coconut ice cream), which is described as a “grown-up frappuccino,” is a good option, but you simply must order the Cronut — it tastes like a fresh-out-of-the-oven doughnut infused with creme brûlée.
200 Granville Street #70
Budget travelers might want to skip this one, but if you’re looking to work a high-end dinner into your schedule, look no further. Using local seafood and utilizing an “Aburi” (or “flame-seared”) technique, chef Kazuya Matsuoka, has crafted a sushi menu whose flavors are so mouthwatering on their own that he asks that you don’t wash them out by adding soy sauce. The space itself is warm and fancy, with classy lighting, accommodating staff, and sparkling waterfront views, but it’s the food itself that earned Miku a spot on the Daily Beast’s list of the Best Sushi Restaurants in the World. Trust us — when the waiter offers more, you won’t think twice about answering yes.
With a burrito bar in Yaletown, a taco bar in Gastown, multiple brick-and-mortar locations, and two food trucks stationed around the city, Tacofino is a Vancouver establishment that’s hard to miss. What started as a small enterprise operating from the back of a surf shop parking lot in Tofino has evolved into a successful franchise that infuses West Coast flavors into dishes inspired from the owners’ world travels. Best of all, their ingredients are sourced from local farmers, so whether you’re looking for a sit-down dinner in the Financial District or you just want to grab a taco on-the-go, you’ll be giving back by chowing down.
429 Granville Street; 397 Railway Street; 1691 Main Street; 968 Howe Street
Need a quick caffeine boost or a made-to-order gourmet sandwich? You’ve come to the right place. Located in the historic Railtown district on the east side of downtown (several new locations have emerged around the city as well), the Railtown Café prepares all of its offerings using local and organic ingredients — steamy soups, delicious pastries, housemade ice cream, artisan bread loaves… do we need to keep going? They also offer coffee, craft beer, wine, and spirits from local sellers, so however you’re trying to warm up, you’ll have plenty of options to mull over. With its open garage-door setting, chalkboard menu, and location near the local shipyards (you can hear the seagulls overhead if you listen closely), the spot has a rustic, San-Francisco-esque atmosphere to it, and their London Fog (latte made with earl grey tea) is the perfect pick-me-up to wrap your hands around after a bike ride through the city.
Have any other suggestions for adventure and wellness around Vancouver? Let us know!