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Things to Do in Downtown Vancouver

Top Attractions and Activities in Vancouver's City Center

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Start a visit to Vancouver in the downtown area. From the city center (which is also the major hotel district), you can visit many local attractions, capture photos of the North Shore Mountains, catch public transit, attend cultural performances, and find great nightlife.

Top Things to Do in Downtown Vancouver:

1. Visit Canada Place

© Chloë Ernst

Marked with white, tented peaks and a ship-like dock, Canada Place is the Vancouver cruise ship port that's close to major hotels and some good restaurants. It's also where most guided city bus tours begin, a location for conventions, and a site for gatherings on Canada Day.

But most fantastic are the views: look out on the North Shore Mountains, and then follow the paved seawall that runs from Canada Place to Stanley Park in the West End. The gentle walk leads past large public art sculptures, the 2010 Olympic Cauldron, and the floatplane airport terminal.

2. Shop Robson Street

© Chloë Ernst
Robson Street is always busy with shoppers. But amongst the stores, window displays, and sale signs, find restaurants, galleries, and a wintertime ice-skating rink at Robson Square. If you enjoy shopping, plan at least half a day on Robson Street. If you don't, skip the shopping district and head straight for the art gallery.

3. Vancouver Art Gallery

© Chloë Ernst
Housed in the former city courthouse, designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, the Vancouver Art Gallery is a destination for culture lovers. In the 1970s, architect Arthur Erickson overhauled Rattenbury's heritage design into the current space, which has four levels of galleries that feature always-changing artworks. Exhibits are a mix of European classics, international modernists, and locals who have made a mark in the art sphere. For something truly west coast, ask if there are any Emily Carr pieces currently on display.

4. Vancouver Lookout

© Chloë Ernst
The Vancouver Lookout observation deck sits atop Vancouver's third tallest building, called Harbour Centre. Take a glass elevator to the top of the beige concrete tower, where exhibit panels give context to the 360-degree scene, from the mountains to the sport stadiums. A neat fact? Neil Armstrong opened the Vancouver attraction in 1977. There's also the Top of Vancouver revolving restaurant on the floor above, although I don't recommended dining there.

5. SeaBus and SkyTrain

© Chloë Ernst
Vancouver has a world-class public transit system, meaning you can zip about the city for little cost and without the stress of traffic. Two favorite routes with visitors are the SeaBus, which crosses Burrard Inlet to the North Shore Mountains, and the SkyTrain. The latter is a large network that runs east to Burnaby, Coquitlam, New Westminster, and Surrey, with the southern Canada Line going to the airport and Richmond. But the SkyTrain is mostly a favorite for its futuristic name -- all the downtown sections lie underground.

6. Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

© Chloë Ernst
This art gallery is much smaller than the Vancouver Art Gallery, but it gives a better introduction to First Nations art through the works of Haida artist Bill Reid. (When arriving at YVR, you'll have already seen Reid's work in the airport.) Carvings, castings, paintings, and photographs are among the collection, making the gallery a must-visit for anyone interested in British Columbia history and culture.

7. Downtown Shopping

© Chloë Ernst
Robson Street is the major vein of downtown shopping, with international brands, tiny souvenir shops, and foodie delights. But being a city center, downtown Vancouver has many other options. Major department stores (Holt Renfrew and The Bay) are located on Granville Street, and most malls (Pacific Centre being the largest) tunnel underground. There are also souvenir shops near Canada Place, upscale boutiques on West Hastings Street (step into the beautifully renovated Sinclair Centre), and independent designers a short walk away in Gastown.

8. Nightlife on Granville Street

© Chloë Ernst
Granville Street is dubbed the downtown "entertainment district". That means you'll find dozens of bars, lounges, nightclubs, music venues, cheap restaurants, and even a bowling alley on the strip. This area can get rowdy (and messy) on Friday and Saturday nights. But that said, there is a venue for every taste and age group within a few-block stroll.

9. Dining and Restaurants in the Downtown

© Chloë Ernst
Many restaurants in downtown Vancouver cater to the business set. Eateries that are packed for lunch Monday to Friday tend to be less busy during evenings and weekends. In the downtown, you'll find a cluster of Vancouver chain restaurants (Cactus Club, Earl's, Joey's), but in between are cheap diners, legendary hot dog stands, quirky dining rooms, ever-changing food carts, and upscale foodie pilgrimages. A hotel concierge can point you to the closest options, or see my downtown dining recommendations.
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