Canada has some wonderful cities. Folks (especially East Coasters) are likely most familiar with Montreal, Toronto and perhaps even Québec City. But my favorite metropolitan area in our neighbor to the north is hands-down Vancouver, a bustling and incredibly diverse seaport on the west coast of British Columbia. With more than half a million residents, it’s one of the most densely populated and exciting urban sprawls in the country.
Sitting right on the water, framed by mountains and with views of forested islands, Vancouver exudes a cinematic beauty that’s made it an exceedingly popular filming location for movies and TV shows. Deadpool, Fifty Shades of Grey, Elf, Riverdale and countless others were shot in what’s become known as Hollywood North. The scenic vistas and abundance of green spaces also put it in the rarified category of places that deliver cosmopolitan culture coupled with virtually endless access to nature.
Vancouver is a foodie mecca with a dynamic dining scene that’s captured hearts and tastebuds for its elevated Pacific Northwest restaurants, as well as a breadth of international cuisine. There are also many galleries, museums and distinctive neighborhoods to explore.
While people tend to imagine the Great White North as one giant snow globe during the frosty months, winter in Vancouver is surprisingly mild with the average temperature hovering around 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite being rather rainy, the weather doesn’t really preclude travelers from doing much of anything, save maybe going for a swim. (Though, perhaps you’re someone who digs a polar plunge?) December, January and February just add an extra layer of seasonal merriment to the litany of awesome things to do in Vancouver.
A Guide to Taking a Luxury Train Across CanadaTake it from someone who’s done it: the undisputed best way to see the Great White North is by riding the rails and staying in the historic hotels along the way
How to Get There
Most travelers fly into Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Coming from nearby Victoria Island or Whistler? Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane airline, operates flights directly to Vancouver Harbor in the middle of the city. It’s worth mentioning that Vancouver is also less than a three-hour drive from Seattle.
Where to Stay
Discerning travelers, diplomats and Hollywood stars (hello, Katharine Hepburn and Elvis Presley) have long made a habit of staying at Rosewood Hotel Georgia. The Georgian Revival landmark dates back to 1927 and was totally revamped in the mid-aughts, but the old-school luxury vibes are stronger than ever. It’s gilded glamour and grandeur at its finest with a show-stopping lobby, swanky bar and a spa that’s a true pampering escape. Located just down the street, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver stands out as another upmarket classic that mixes heritage and contemporary trappings. If you need an example of its high-end appeal, the lobby features a Gucci store. Another refuge in the heart of downtown, Shangri-La Vancouver is an upscale option with Asian-influenced décor and a rooftop pool. For a more affordable alternative in a really cool neighborhood, Sonder at Revival — one of those modern apartment-style hotels with both studios and one-bedroom setups — fits the bill. Plus, it’s in the center of the hip West End, close to English Bay.
What to Do
Vancouver is very walkable — we clocked at least 20,000 steps a day on our trip. And it’s easy to navigate the myriad of attractions and lively neighborhoods such as the West End, Kitsilano, Yaletown and historic Gastown.
In iconic Stanley Park, you’ll find forests, gardens and a seawall. While wandering the rainforest trails, it’s hard to comprehend the fact that you’re still in a city. Talaysay Tours offers tours led by Indigenous guides to connect visitors with nature and Aboriginal culture. Between December and early January is the perfect time to witness the annual Bright Nights, which features millions of twinkling lights and a miniature train for the younger crowd. On the topic of festive outdoor fun, the Robson Square Ice Rink opens each winter to the delight of locals and out-of-towners who rent skates, go for a spin and warm up with hot cocoa. It’s always a blast to catch a Canucks hockey game at Rogers Arena. And everyone, regardless of age, likes the Vancouver Aquarium.
Granville Island is accessible from downtown Vancouver via an affordable, five-minute boat ride. It’s home to the famous Granville Island Market, a smorgasbord of fresh produce, artisan bread, cheese, meats, seafood and sweets that also has a microbrewery and sake maker. There are many shops, notably a fantastic bookstore called Nooroongji Books with a diverse number of titles for adults and children.
The Vancouver Art Gallery and the Museum of Anthropology — which houses an impressive collection of art, textiles and other artifacts from the Northwest Coast First Nations — both offer an interesting and informative reprieve from the oft damp weather. You’ll find designer shops along Thurlow Street, as well as two luxury department stores, Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom. Even if you don’t stay at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, I highly recommend booking a massage. Then carve out a couple of hours to use the superb spa facilities, including the enormous heated pool.
While the weather is fairly temperate and flakes aren’t a guarantee in the city, Grouse Mountain offers skiing for a real-deal winter wonderland moment. Of course, hitting the slopes isn’t a requisite. Many tourists on a city break simply enjoy the lovely gondola ride and incredible views. You can also go snowshoeing on Cypress Mountain, where swooshing through the tree-dotted, LED-lit trail feels very on-brand for the season. If you’re seeking heaps of powder and world-class downhill action, hop on a quick seaplane to Whistler.
Where to Eat and Drink
Eating is a full-blown pastime in Vancouver — as it should be when there’s so much deliciousness to devour around seemingly every corner. For brunch, I’m a big fan of the always-buzzing Maxine’s Cafe & Bar. The plates are decadent, hearty and delicious — think smoked brisket hash, brioche French toast and house-baked pastries. It’s near the Burrard Street Bridge, making for a belly-filling jumping-off point to explore many different districts. Baked good enthusiasts must head to Angus T in Yaletown for flaky croissants stuffed with savory tuna and corn or something sweet like Earl Grey cream.
The OG izakaya in Vancouver, Guu with Garlic, has become something of an institution with locations all around town. The original sits on Thurlow Street and is well worth checking out for a quick, casual lunch. I tend to favor the small, lively outpost in the West End that offers a more extensive menu and zashiki dining. The surrounding streets are full of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean eateries. Fans of omakase have been known to refresh their browsers to snag a spot at Sushi Bar Maumi. The minimalist sushi bar has a stellar reputation for its chef’s choice tasting menu and strict but reasonable policies (no kids, no perfume, no substitutions). I personally love the food and atmosphere at Raisu in Kitsilano. It’s well regarded for Teishoku, or set menus with mains like barley-fed pork tonkatsu, sides, rice, pickles and miso soup. Order the sea urchin donabe rice, a cozy and inviting pot of goodness that will surely rid any lingering chill after a full day of walking around. And don’t leave without trying some flame-seared nigiri. Open for lunch and dinner, Miku Vancouver is a polished and spacious venue for delicious sushi overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Khin Kao Song serves some of the tastiest Thai dishes I’ve ever eaten in a space that’s cool and modern. It’s also big on natural wines, so you can pair shrimp toast and massaman curry duck confit with a bottle of chilled Gewūrztraminer from Penticton, British Columbia.
Pacific Northwest cuisine is rather remarkable with a spate of excellent restaurants that focus on all things regional and seasonal. Named one of Canada’s 100 Best restaurants, L’Abattoir occupies a 19th-century brick building in historic Gastown. The interior exudes industrial charm, and the food is equally comforting and contemporary. Executive chef and owner Lee Cooper puts West Coast ingredients on a pedestal in inventive ways while infusing dishes with his signature French flair. Botanist, the acclaimed restaurant and bar at the plush Fairmont Pacific Rim, shines a spotlight on the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest with really pretty plates and craft cocktails in a stylish setting.
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