We’ve lived in Vancouver for over 15 years and, during this time, we’ve hosted many first time visitors to the city. We’re often asked the question, “what are the most popular things to do in Vancouver?”
Our responses tend to vary depending on the time of year, but there are several places in Vancouver that we always recommend to first time visitors. The must see attractions that make Vancouver an awesome city.
Last summer, we wrote a detailed post that highlights 25 Awesome Day Trips from Vancouver. It’s become a popular post on this travel blog and we’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about Vancouver ever since.
We don’t often write about our hometown because it feels so familiar. However, to non-residents of Vancouver, this waterfront city is considered to be a world class travel destination.
FREE Things to do in Vancouver in 2019
Here’s your Local’s Guide to the Best Things to do in Vancouver.
Vancouver is not cheap, so this post will focus on the less expensive side of Vancouver. We love this city and try to get outside and enjoy it as much as we can. The list below highlights the things we like do in Vancouver when we have time to get outside and play.
Top things to do in Vancouver
You will not have enough time for all of these 25 attractions and activities, so we’re going to start with the must see attractions. If you only have a few days, start with these first.
1. Explore Stanley Park and The Seawall
Stanley Park is arguably Vancouver’s top tourist attraction. It is Vancouver’s first, largest, and most beloved urban park. You could easily spend an entire day in this 1,000 acre public park. Stanley Park is almost entirely surrounded by the waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay.
To get the full Stanley Park experience we recommend you walk or bike around the Stanley Park Seawall, a 10 km loop around Vancouver’s most celebrated outdoor space. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to walk around the Stanley Park Seawall and about 1 hour to bike around it (assuming a leisurely pace).
Best things to do in Stanley Park:
- Totem Poles at Stanley Park
- Take in the spectacular views at Prospect Point
- The legendary Siwash Rock
- Brockton Point Lighthouse
- Bird watching at Lost Lagoon
- Walk under the iconic Lions Gate Bridge
- Explore 27 kilometres of forest trails
- Second Beach Pool – heated, outdoor pool (more info here)
- Vancouver Aquarium (tickets and hours of operation here)
- Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours (more info here)
- Ride the Stanley Park Train
- Bike ride around the Seawall (you can rent bikes here)
- Stanley Park Pitch & Putt (more info here)
Here’s a downloadable map of Stanley Park in Vancouver.
Note – if you have a vehicle and plan to park at Stanley Park, know that the entire park is pay parking. Here’s a blog post about parking at Stanley Park.
Above – the Stanley Park Seawall. At the top of the cliff is Prospect Point Lookout.
Search for things to do in Vancouver this week here.
2. Visit Granville Island
Granville Island is one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions, especially for first time visitors. You can do Granville Island on the cheap by simply wandering around the market and soaking up the stunning waterfront views of False Creek and the Burrard Bridge.
The Granville Island Public Market is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm and is home to over 50 merchants selling a variety of food. If you’re visiting on a sunny day, you’re sure to come across a live busker performance. Check out the schedule of Granville Island Busker performances.
There are plenty of Granville Island restaurants to choose from, including the popular patio at Bridges Restaurant (pictured above) and the upscale Sandbar Seafood Restaurant.
However, given that we’re focusing on doing Vancouver on the cheap, we’d recommend you grab food from the Public Market Food Court and take it outside to enjoy on the waterfront (be mindful of the birds, they are sneaky!).
Here’s a downloadable Granville Island map.
A fun way to get to Granville Island is to hop on an Aquabus, pictured below. The Aquabus is a small water taxi that travels around False Creek. The Granville Island ferry runs every 15 minutes. Schedules, price and dock locations can be found here.
Here’s information about how to get to Granville Island.
3. Granville Street Entertainment District
Once you’ve finished wandering around Granville Island, walk across the Granville Street Bridge and continue north towards Vancouver’s Entertainment District. No matter the time of day, there’s always something happening on Granville Street.
Granville is the place to be if you’re looking for the best nightlife in Vancouver. It’s also a great place to people watch. The Entertainment District is home to the Commodore Ballroom (renowned music venue), Orpheum Theatre (home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and the legendary Roxy Cabaret (long-standing club with live bands).
Fun fact – The Granville Street strip was once believed to have the highest concentration of neon in the world behind only Shanghai, China.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, check out Robson Square and the Vancouver Art Gallery. If the weather in Vancouver is rainy during your visit (highly probable from November to April), you can take shelter in the massive Pacific Centre Mall. Here’s a map of Pacific Centre.
4. Grouse Mountain and the Grouse Grind
One of Vancouver’s top attractions is Grouse Mountain, self-described as The Peak of Vancouver.
The FREE way to reach the summit of Grouse Mountain is to hike up the Grouse Grind, also known as Mother Nature’s Stairmaster. Be forewarned, the Grouse Grind is challenging and the trail can get very busy in the summer months, especially on the weekends.
This Grouse Mountain hike is 3 kilometers straight up, with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet (853 metres), so it’s not recommended for novice hikers or casual sightseers. We’ve witnessed countless tourists attempting to hike the Grouse Grind in jeans and dress shoes, with no water or snacks. Don’t do that. This is a legit hike.
Note – The Grouse Grind is closed during the winter months.
The Grouse Mountain Skyride
The other way to reach the summit is to take the Grouse Mountain gondola (the Skyride – there’s a fee for the Skyride, and it’s not cheap). The Skyride operates 365 days a year, departing every 15 minutes from 8:45 am to 10:00 pm. Grouse Mountain tickets will vary depending on the season. Check its website for prices.
To get off the mountain, you will either need to take the Skyride (it costs $15 per person as of 2018) or walk back down mountain. Rather than go back down the steep Grouse Grind, take the BCMC trail instead.
Grouse Mountain Restaurants
The main Grouse Mountain restaurant is Altitudes Bistro. It has one of the best patios in Vancouver with endless views of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. The Observatory Restaurant is a more upscale, fine dining restaurant that is only open in the evenings for dinner.
Sticking with the theme of keeping things cheap, we recommend you pack a lunch instead of dining at one of the Grouse Mountain restaurants. There are plenty of spots to sit back and enjoy the views for free.
Grouse Mountain weather can be unpredictable (it is a mountain, after all), so it’s best to check the forecast ahead of time. Here’s the Grouse Mountain weather report and Grouse Mountain hours of operation.
Related – The Peak of Christmas at Grouse Mountain
5. Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge
Not to be confused with the popular Capilano Suspension Bridge, the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge is a pedestrian bridge located within Lynn Canyon Park in North Vancouver. Unlike Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Lynn Canyon Park is free to enter and explore.
The free-to-access suspension bridge is 160 feet (50 meters) high from the bottom of the canyon. It’s a narrow bridge that can get quite bouncy when you reach the center.
While the bridge is the star attraction of Lynn Canyon Park, we prefer to spend our time hiking the park’s extensive network of forest trails. The park encompasses over 600 acres of temperate rainforest.
You can walk the trails near Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge or the 50 kilometres (31 miles) of roads and trails in nearby Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, including the more challenging Lynn Peak hike and the easier Twin Falls hike.
Parking at Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge can be challenging on the weekends, so it’s best to arrive early. Before you cross the bridge, take a moment to check out the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre.
Related – Cliffwalk at Capilano Suspension Bridge
Hiking in Lynn Canyon Park is a great family activity for all ages.
6. Hiking and Kayaking in Deep Cove
We love Deep Cove. It’s a quaint community in the easternmost part of North Vancouver, located at the entrance of Indian Arm. There’s a little village with a restaurants, shops and the infamous Honey’s Doughnuts (Careful – these donuts are highly addictive).
Deep Cove is known for its marina and kayaking. If you don’t have your own equipment you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and surf-skis from Deep Cove Kayak. This shop gets very busy in the summer, especially on the weekends. You’re best to make a reservation for equipment rentals.
It’s about a 25 minute drive from downtown Vancouver. Deep Cove parking can be challenging, so it’s wise to arrive early (before 8:30 AM). You can also take public transit from Vancouver to Deep Cove.
Another popular activity in Deep Cove is the Quarry Rock hike. It’s an easy hike that takes about 1.5 hours round trip. The views from the top of Quarry Rock are awesome (see photo below).
Related: The best hikes in Vancouver
Get a $45 credit for AirBnB accommodations here.
7. Explore Cypress Provincial Park
The season and weather conditions will decide what you do in Cypress Provincial Park.
During the summer, you can access a variety of hiking trails with incredible views of Howe Sound and the North Shore Mountains. In the winter, you can go snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, tubing and cross-country skiing at the Cypress Mountain Ski Area.
Note – the hiking and snowshoe trails in Cypress Provincial Park are free to access. However, if you plan to ski or snowboard, you’ll need to purchase a day pass to use the chair lifts. Here’s the Cypress Mountain ticket prices.
Views from Eagle Bluffs hike that starts at the Cypress Mountain parking lot.
8. Mountain biking in North Vancouver
The North Shore mountains offer world-class mountain bike trials for all skill levels. You have access to easy cross-country trails and more technical trails with obstacles like bridges, ladders, and teeter-totters.
Mount Seymour has the most extensive network of trails on the North Shore. One of the most popular mountain biking trails is the CBC trail, a 2 kilometer trail that begins at the top of Seymour Parkway.
Here’s a map of Mount Seymour Biking Trails.
9. Gastown Steam Clock
Located near Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver, the iconic Gastown Steam Clock has been attracting tourists for decades. Originally built in 1977, this working steam clock is one of the only functioning steam-powered clocks in the world.
The Gastown Steam Clock whistles and blows its steam every 15 minutes, to the delight of onlookers. It’s a cheesy touristy thing to do, but you’ll be glad you took a few minutes to check it out.
While in Gastown, admire its old cobblestone roads and unique architecture before wandering inside the many shops, art galleries and restaurants in Gastown. We like to grab a pint of craft beer at Steamworks Brew Pub. It’s one of our favourite restaurants in Vancouver.
Above – the cobblestone streets of Gastown in downtown Vancouver.
10. Olympic Cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza
The Olympic Cauldron from the 2010 Winter Olympics is located at Jack Poole Plaza, which is located beside the Vancouver Convention Centre, one of Canada’s largest convention centres.
The plaza offers stunning views of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains. From here you can witness dozens of float planes departing and arriving at Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre (see photo below).
Related – 25 Awesome Day Trips from Vancouver
Above – the Olympic Cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza.
11. Canada Place
Canada Place is home to the iconic white sails that dominate Vancouver’s skyline (see above photo). From here, visitors are treated to unobstructed views of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains.
It’s located beside the Vancouver Convention Centre and Jack Poole Plaza (to the west) and Gastown (to the East), so you can include all of these Vancouver attractions in your sightseeing tour. You can walk from Coal Harbour to Gastown in less than an hour (at a moderate pace).
Canada Place is also home to the Vancouver Cruise Ship Terminal, so it gets quite busy during the summer months. This cruise ship terminal can hold up to four luxury cruise ships at one time. It’s the home port for many of the Alaska cruises that depart from Vancouver.
12. Horse Racing at Hastings Racecourse
Hastings Racecourse, also known as Hastings Park, is a vintage race track that has been around since 1947. We’re not big gamblers but we love spending a sunny afternoon at Hastings Park because of the spectacular views of the North Shore Mountains and its entertaining atmosphere.
It’s free to enter, so we don’t mind putting a few dollars on the ponies, which adds to the excitement of the Hastings experience. Check the race schedule here.
It’s easy to get to Hastings Park by public transit. There’s also plenty of parking at Hastings Racecourse.
Related – 25 Awesome Day Trips from Vancouver
13. Walk, run or cycle the Vancouver Seawall
Earlier in this post, we mentioned you should walk the Stanley Park Seawall. We highly recommend you do that section first, if you’re limited on time. However, if you have a few days in Vancouver we recommend you explore other sections of the Vancouver Seawall.
Walking or cycling the Seawall will have you pass many of Vancouver’s famous landmarks, including the Lions Gate Bridge, Siwash Rock, A-maze-ing Laughter public art display, Science World (picture above), BC Place (Football and soccer stadium), Rogers Arena (NHL hockey stadium), Olympic Village, Granville Island, Burrard Bridge and Kitsilano Beach.
Here’s a printable map of the Seawall.
Above – colourful autumn trees on the Seawall in Yaletown, a downtown Vancouver neighbourhood.
14. Walk across the Lions Gate Bridge
Walking across the Lions Gate Bridge is a different way to experience the city. Lions Gate Bridge connects Stanley Park and Downtown Vancouver with the North Shore, including the city of North Vancouver and West Vancouver. The above photo is the view facing north.
Lions Gate Bridge has cycling and walking lanes on both sides of the bridge. We recommend you walk north on one side of the bridge, and south on the opposite side. This will give you a variety of photo opportunities.
If you have a vehicle, plan to park at Prospect Point in Stanley Park. From here its a short walk to the south side of the bridge. You can also park your vehicle at Park Royal Mall in West Vancouver if you plan to start from the north side of the bridge.
Above – south side of the Lions Gate Bridge.
15. Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver
There are several urban beaches in Vancouver. The most popular Vancouver beaches are located in either Stanley Park or English Bay. All of these beaches are free to access, but you may have to pay for parking.
Ambleside Park is located in West Vancouver, across the Burrard Inlet from Stanley Park. We selected Ambleside Beach because it’s an alternative to the main Vancouver beaches. The park has over 8 km (5 miles) of walking trails and the west facing views are perfect for sunset watching.
More popular Vancouver Beaches
- English Bay Beach – located on Beach Ave in downtown Vancouver’s West End
- Second Beach – located on the Stanley Park Seawall, west of Lost Lagoon
- Third Beach – also located in Stanley Park
- Kitsilano Beach – located in the Kitsilano Beach Park
- Jericho Beach – located west of Kitsilano in Jericho Beach Park
- Spanish Banks Beach – located in the West Point Grey neighbourhood
- Wreck Beach – clothing-optional beach located near the UBC campus
Can you swim in Vancouver beaches?
Yes, you can swim in the Vancouver beaches. However, we wouldn’t recommend you spend a lot of time in the water. As with all city beaches, there’s risk of sewage and pollution from boat/ship traffic.
Popular swimming beaches, including Kitsilano Beach, Jericho Beach and English Bay, were closed in the summer of 2018 to unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria.
Get a $45 credit for AirBnB accommodations here.
16. Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver
While you’re in West Vancouver, we recommend you make a visit to Lighthouse Park, a National Historic Site of Canada. To view the famous Point Atkinson Lighthouse, you will take an easy forest hike on the Lighthouse Park trail, passing some of the largest Douglas Fir trees in Greater Vancouver.
There are several well-marked hiking trails in the park, which are open year-round. Plan to spend 2 hours in the park. We recommend you bring a light picnic and enjoy the stunning ocean views.
Here’s a map of Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver.
17. Lonsdale Quay Market in North Vancouver
Another great place to view the impressive Vancouver skyline is the Lonsdale Quay Market in North Vancouver. The market has a variety of shops selling everything from fresh produce to craft beer to souvenirs. Here’s a list of vendors in the Lonsdale Quay Market.
We recommend you grab a bowl of freshly made soup at the Soup Meister, a local favourite, and enjoy it outside on the boardwalk (pictured below). After lunch, walk to The Pier and historical Shipyards and check out the city views. In the summer, the Shipyards hosts a Night Market on Friday evenings.
For the best sunset views, climb to the top of the lookout tower at Lonsdale Quay (see above picture – under the big Q) or walk to nearby Waterfront Park.
To get from Vancouver to the Lonsdale Quay Market, hop on the 15 minute Seabus ferry at Waterfront Station. Here’s the Seabus schedule.
18. Cleveland Dam and Capilano Lake
The Cleveland Dam, located in the Capilano River Regional Park, is a popular free tourist attraction in North Vancouver. There are several hiking trails in the park that lead to views of the dam and Capilano Lake (pictured below). We often hike these trails with our boys and they are fine with the terrain.
The Capilano Salmon Hatchery is another popular free attraction. It’s a short walk from the Cleveland Dam to the Hatchery or you can drive down Capilano Road to get there. The hatchery is open year round, but late August through to November provides good opportunities to view returning salmon, leaping up the river.
If you’re driving, there’s parking at the Cleveland Dam parking lot on Capilano Road. You can also take public transit from the Lonsdale Quay Market or Park Royal Mall. More transit info here.
Here’s a downloadable map of Capilano River Regional Park.
Above – views of Grouse Mountain and Capilano Lake from the Cleveland Dam.
19. Kitsilano Beach Park
Kitsilano Beach Park, often called ‘Kits’, is one of the most popular beaches in Vancouver, for both locals and visitors. Located at the north edge of the Kitsilano neighbourhood, the beach faces English Bay, downtown Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains (pictured above).
Kitsilano is also home to the outdoor Kitsilano Pool, the longest swimming pool in Canada and Vancouver’s only saltwater swimming pool. The pool is open annually from May to September.
For the best city views, head to Elsje Point. You can access Kitsilano Beach on foot or bike via the Seawall. While there, check out the nearby Vancouver Maritime Museum (adult admission is $13.50) and H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (adult admission is $19.50).
Here’s more info about Kitsilano Beach Park.
20. Richmond Night Market
Between May and September, a fun evening activity is visiting the Richmond Night Market. It’s become an annual summer tradition for many Vancouverites. While it’s technically not free for adults to enter the night market, it only costs $3.00 to enter. Kids under 8 years old and seniors over 60 years old are free.
The Richmond Night Market is inspired by the bustling night markets found in Asia. It hosts over 100 food stalls and over 200 retail vendors. We enjoy sampling a variety of street food, like tornado potatoes (pictured above), grilled meat on a stick (see below), takoyaki, steamed dumplings, blooming onions and sweet mango desserts. Prices range between $2-$10 per item.
Richmond Night Market parking is free but it can get quite full on the weekends. We recommend you take the SkyTrain’s Canada Line to Bridgeport Station and walk west along River Road (the market is only a couple blocks from the station). Here’s a map of the Canada Line stations.
The night market hours of operation are from 7:00 PM to 12:00 PM on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday’s the market closes at 11:00 PM.
Related – Foodies Delight at the Night Market
21. Wander the historical streets of Chinatown
Vancouver’s Chinatown is actually the third largest in North America by population (behind San Francisco and New York). Vancouver’s Chinatown is located east of the downtown core and is home many historic sites, retail stores, specialty grocery stores and cafes.
Chinatown attractions include the ornate Chinatown Millennium Gate on Pender Street and the Sun Yat-Sen Park, which is the free alternative to the popular Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (admission is $14 per adult in the summer).
Here’s a map of Vancouver Chinatown.
22. New Westminster Quay and Boardwalk
If you want to get outside the big city, the New Westminster Quay and boardwalk is a fun day trip from Vancouver. The River Market is home to several shops and restaurants. New Westminster Pier Park is a scenic riverfront park that connects visitors to the Waterfront Esplanade Boardwalk.
To get to New Westminster Quay, take the Skytrain Expo Line from downtown Vancouver to New Westminster (here’s a map of the Expo Line stations). The train takes about 25 minutes. The River Market is located one block south of the New Westminster Skytrain station.
23. Photograph the Murals of East Vancouver
If you like street art, you’ll enjoy exploring the backstreets of East Vancouver, specifically the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood on Main Street, between 4th and 14th Avenues. This is where you will find the best street art in Vancouver.
In early August, the city hosts the Vancouver Mural Festival, the largest annual free public art celebration. This interactive map reveals every work of art from the Vancouver Mural Festival, including those made in past years. Here are photos of Vancouver murals from a few years ago.
Here’s a map of the mural locations in Vancouver.
24. Free Vancouver Walking Tours
There are several free walking tours in Vancouver that visit many of the attractions mentioned in this post. These tours are a fun way to meet other visitors and get the backstory behind the attractions.
Here’s a list of the best free walking tours in Vancouver.
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25. Drive the Sea to Sky Highway to Shannon Falls
Ironically, one of the best things to do in Vancouver is to actually leave Vancouver. The spectacular Sea to Sky Highway is often ranked as one of the best drives in the world. We agree.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but you’ll need a vehicle to drive the Sea to Sky Highway. Visitors can pick up a car rental from the Vancouver airport. Book online and save up to 35% on car rentals here.
Departing from downtown Vancouver, your drive begins by passing through Stanley Park and crossing the Lions Gate Bridge. Continue through West Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay. Stop in Horseshoe Bay Village and grab a coffee. Walk around the village and watch the BC Ferries ships depart from the marina.
Continue your drive to Porteau Cove Provincial Park. Walk to the end of the pier and soak up the views of Howe Sound. Get back in the car and drive past Furry Creek towards Britannia Beach. Stop here if you want to visit the Britannia Mine Museum. Otherwise, continue driving to Squamish.
Shannon Falls and Sea to Sky Gondola
Before you reach the town of Squamish, stop at Shannon Falls Provincial Park. Check out the impressive waterfalls and nearby Sea to Sky Gondola. You can also hike the Stamamus Chief trail. It’s a challenging hike but the views at the top are incredible.
The drive from Vancouver to Squamish takes about one hour with no stops. Plan for about 4 hours round trip, with a few stops along the way.
At this point, you can turn around and drive back to Vancouver. Or, depending on how much time you have, you can continue to Whistler. The drive from Squamish to Whistler is about 45 minutes. We recommend you stop at the Tantalus Lookout if the skies are clear.
Related – The BEST road trip from Vancouver
Where to stay in Vancouver
There are plenty of hotels in Vancouver to choose from, ranging from upscale five star hotels to backpacker hostels and everything in between.
- Search for Vancouver hotels here.
- If you prefer apartment rentals, get up to $45 CAD off your first night here.
- Most of the popular Vancouver tourist attractions are located in the downtown area. Consider this when selecting where to stay in Vancouver.
- Downtown hotels often require additional fees for overnight parking – sometimes as high as $40 per night. Consider this when booking hotels and car rentals.
- If you prefer to stay closer to the mountains, consider staying at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel or the Holiday Inn North Vancouver.
Vancouver travel tips and things to know
- Pick up & return car rentals at Vancouver airport. Save up to 35% on car rentals here.
- If you visit during winter, make sure you have snow tires for mountain drives.
- Save time and money by riding the Skytrain from Vancouver International Airport to downtown Vancouver. It only takes 25 minutes. Learn how to take the Vancouver Airport Skytrain.
- Bike sharing is an inexpensive way to get around Vancouver. Learn about Vancouver’s public bike share system here.
- Check the Vancouver weather forecast before you start your day. The weather in Vancouver can be unpredictable. Plan for rain in the winter months.
- Here’s a list of things to do in Vancouver at night and during the winter.
- If you like hard copy travel guides, order a copy of Lonely Planet Vancouver.
- Here’s an interactive map of Vancouver attractions.
Have you visited Vancouver? What did we miss?
Share your recommendations in the comments below. Our readers thank you!