Too often we reduce cities to their most popular cultural activities. Anyone who goes to Los Angeles knows to traverse the Walk of Fame and stroll along the Santa Monica Pier when it’s all lit up at night, and travelers to Rome simply have to snap some photos at the Colosseum and master the art of taking an espresso like a local. But, as travelers, we also know that those magical moments we crave often occur when we stray off on our own with a nose for discovery.
A harbor town surrounded by sparkling waters and towering mountains, Vancouver certainly invites its guests to gear up for an adventure or sample the local seafood. But given the city’s vibrant atmosphere and creative energy, some of its most exciting offerings lie hidden away from all of the “Best of” listicles and “Can’t Miss” city guides. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the most eccentric, out-of-the-box destinations to discover within the Pacific Coast metropolis.
The World Famous Lumberjack Show
Do we really need to say anything here? Have you not already bought tickets after seeing the name alone? Well, if you somehow still need convincing, the Lumberjack Show is Grouse Mountain’s most intriguing offering, a 45-minute battle between Johnny Nelson of the Green River Logging Camp and Willie McGee from Blue Mountain to determine who deserves to hold the title of Top Lumberjack. Taking place on an intricate logging camp set atop Vancouver’s most prominent peak, the showdown features a series of exciting events designed for buff mountain men in cut-off flannel — log rolling, a 60-foot (18-meter) tree climb, two-man peg-and-raker saw races, axe throwing, and a springboard chop. You’ll feel so inspired you’ll want to pick up the nearest axe and hurl it at a tree! But please don’t… let’s leave that to the professionals.
Already popular in major cities around the world, blind dining isn’t exactly a Vancouver exclusive. But Dark Table is still one of the city’s most unique and exhilarating restaurant options, and like any wondrous travel experience, it guides us into the unknown, forcing us to rely upon our oft-ignored senses to take in the world around us. Located in the Kitsilano neighborhood, Dark Table is gray and ominous enough from the outside. Its stacked-shale patio is guarded by shrubs, ivy, bamboo walls, and wrought-iron bars, and its windows are boarded up, offering no views inside. But once inside, you’ll find yourself in utter darkness, meaning you can approach your meal with no preconceived notions, savoring it for its smell and flavor alone. While the menu offers some established courses, you can choose to have everything that’s brought to your table to be a surprise. And if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, they can accommodate that as well. In short, everyone who enters is in for a treat — they just don’t know what it’s going to be…
Really Gay History Tour
Vancouver’s Davie Street is one of the most spirited LGBTQ+ neighborhoods in the world, and the city’s Pride Parade always attracts crowds in the tens of thousands. But as with any progressive city, that energy of acceptance comes at the tail end of a less-than-glamorous past. Just over a half-century ago, being gay in Vancouver was seen as a criminal offense, and while many places might prefer to forget about such a horrible time, Vancouver understands the value of remembering and acknowledging the darker moments of its past, so as to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
While exploring Robson Square, Granville Street, the West End, and Davie Street Village, those who embark upon the Forbidden Vancouver’s Really Gay History Tour will traverse a path through history, visiting sites of bookstore bombings, Imperial Court coronations, police raids, the Granville Street “Kiss-Ins,” and the gayest beer parlor in town. As you finish in Davie Street Village, you’ll have a wonderful selection of bars and restaurants to stop in, rest your legs, and enjoy a post-tour cocktail. And be sure to check out Forbidden Vancouver’s other walking tours to learn more about the city’s intriguing and mysterious past.
The Paper Hound
Gastown is one of those neighborhoods that booklovers live for. We know that hidden among the cobblestone streets and historic, brick-walled alleyways, there’s bound to be a few quirky bookshops and stationary stores to stumble into and lose track of time inside. And in Gastown, a short walk from Marriott International’s downtown locations, no shop fits the bill more perfectly than the Paper Hound on Pender Street. This hole-in-the-wall offers used and new books, as well as branded knick-knacks and tote bags (we know you want one) featuring the shop’s namesake pup perched atop a hardcover.
Though it’s small, you’ll want to spend some time exploring here, as every nook and cranny offers unique curiosities designed for all types of bibliophiles and diehard print fanatics — there’s a banned book box, a postcard tree, and a “poem dispensary,” to name just a few.
And to really get a feel for the Paper Hound’s vibe, just spend a couple of minutes perusing its wonderfully specific genre sections, of which a few of our favorites include Wanderlust, Fantastical Speculation, Macabre Narration, Pulp Ribaldry, and Books With Bears.
South Main Street Shopping
It seems counter-intuitive to call something off-the-beaten-path when it’s literally on Main Street. But not only is the section of South Main that’s roughly between 18th and 30th far enough from downtown that it feels more like a residential neighborhood, it also is home to some of the city’s more out-of-the-box retail offerings.
Don’t believe us? Just stop by Knifewear, which houses Canada’s greatest selection of Japanese knives, sharpening stones, and chef’s tools. Simply admiring the sheen of the knives’ handiworks and listening to the glorious clink as the professionals sharpen their products is an adventure in and of itself — and you can even pick up a state-of-the-art axe to practice throwing with the lumberjacks up on Grouse Mountain (again, we kid — please don’t throw any sharp objects).
Booklovers can check out Lucky’s Books, whose commitment to print and creativity has coalesced into a collection of bookshelves that operate almost as an art exhibit. Every cover design here is impeccable — it’s a bookstore for people who love the art of print as much as they do a good story. Similarly, Collage Collage and the Regional Assembly of Texts offer books, crafts, stationary, and zines, and they run workshops for kids and adults who want to learn more about printing. The latter even offers the opportunity to make your own buttons or join their letter writing club.
Other can’t-miss stops include Neighborhood Quality Goods, which sells a variety of tactile items like crystals, oils, candles, soaps, earthenware, and women’s clothing and accessories, and the Flower Factory, whose selection of succulents, floral arrangements, soaps, stationary, and all things botany make it worth a visit for the aromas alone. But these are just a few of our personal favorites — to really find your Main Street niche, carve out an afternoon to walk up and down the street and simply follow your sense of curiosity.
If you’ve ever wanted to solve a murder, complete a secret mission, or save the planet by defeating a supervillain known as the Muck Monster (that last one’s specific, we know, but everyone has their dreams!), then Vancouver is the right city for you. Vancouver Mysteries, a local themed adventure company, designs games that are played out right on the city streets. In set-up, these games are similar to an escape room in that once you sign up, you’ll receive activation instructions and a game kit and then work together with your teammates to solve clues and complete the game. But rather than stay cooped up inside a locked room, you get to do all this while exploring downtown! Not only is it a great team-building exercise for you and your traveling partners, but it’s one of the most exciting and one-of-a-kind ways to experience Vancouver.
Want more off-the-beaten path suggestions? Check out our Alternative Shopping Guide to Vancouver!