Vancouver: how to do North America’s most expensive city on the cheap

You won’t get far on a shoestring in the Canadian city, but follow these tips and you’ll find thrifty thrills aplenty

Vancouver: how to do North America’s most expensive city on the cheap Mogu: premier Japanese street food - © David Clack
By David Clack

If you're planning a trip to Vancouver, pack lots of cash. As declared back in March by The Economist's annual Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, North America's westernmost metropolis is also its most expensive, beating even established wallet-emptiers New York and Los Angeles (ranked joint 27th on the list, six places behind Vancouver).

While a one-bedroom downtown apartment isn't bad value at around $1,300 a month, it's the smaller things like food, alcohol and consumer goods (eg. stuff tourists get through like locusts) that cost big in the Canadian city. Sure, that incredible view of Grouse Mountain poking up behind the skyline may be free, but should you actually want to do anything in Vancouver, prepare to pay through the face for it. Unless, that is, you know where the bargains are.

Food and drink

With over 100 registered vendors, Vancouver is big on street food. And while eating your lunch standing up and using your jeans as a napkin is very rarely as cheap as it should be, there are deals to be had. Though a single portion won't satisfy everyone, Mogu's deliciously sweet and spicy Japanese chicken karaage is a serious contender for the city's best carlorie-per-dollar grub at $4.75 for a double serving, which comes topped with a beautiful sweet chilli sauce (ask nicely and they'll give you an extra drizzle). If you've got someone to split with, the mammoth platters of papusa (imagine a meat and veg-stuffed Indian naan bread with a South American slant – minced pork, cheese, salsa, etc) served up at Guanaco – the city's only Salvadoran food truck – also represents good value for money at $9.50 a pop.

Still, man cannot live on fried chicken and papusa alone, especially not in a city famed for its craft beers. The scene's epicentre is in Gastown – a cluster of streets east of downtown Vancouver, where every single one of the many pubs has a local brew on tap or in a bottle. Try Six Acres (203 Carrall Street, +1 604-488-0110) for light and dark ales brewed just across the water in Victoria, or Steamworks (375 Water Street, +1 604-689-2739), which serves up eight varieties of beer brewed just down the road in Burnaby. Predictably though, they're not cheap, so it makes sense to go for the most filling, meal-like drink on offer – a glass of Steamworks' Heroica Oatmeal Stout, costing £5.50.

Verdict: Small appetites will be spoilt, but everyone else will flop out their wallet and ask for seconds.

Sport and outdoors

Thanks in part to its location on the Pacific north-west coastline, there are plenty of ways to burn calories in Vancouver, even without burning cash. The main draw is north of downtown in Stanley Park – a 1,000-acre sprawl of cycle paths, nature trails and similarly exhausting things, with which getting involved requires nothing more than boundless enthusiasm and a casual disregard for the discomfort of blisters.

A popular day out involves a trek or cycle (rental rates start at $4.75 an hour from Stanley Park Cycle (768 Denman Street, +1 604-688-0087) through Stanley Park's cedars and douglas firs, across Lions Gate Bridge and through North Vancouver to the foot of Grouse Mountain. While most are content to take a quick Instagram snap and head home, the hardcore take on the infamous Grouse Grind – a 3km course that runs up the side of the mountain with an average incline of 17 degrees, doable in about 90 minutes with a decent level of fitness. Given the traffic coming up, heading back down by foot can be tricky, hence why most choose to splash out on a $10 descent by cable car.

If the weather's good, though, save the cash and take a trip to the open-air swimming pool in Kitsilano, south-west of downtown, towards the University of British Columbia. Located right on the beach and separated from the sea by a strip of tarmac no more than 10 feet wide, it's essentially a public version of one of those swish hotel infinity pools, only at 137m long, much bigger, and, at $6 a swim, a hell of a lot cheaper.

Verdict: The more energy you've got, the less money you'll spend. So if you're planning on being super thrifty, factor in a day or two for recovery.

Art and culture

Cash-strapped culture kids will get a lot more out of a visit to Vancouver if they factor a Tuesday night into their visit. That's when the city's biggest art gallery (imaginatively, it's called Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street, +1 604-662-4700) drops the $20 entry fee and operates a pay-what-you-like policy, meaning that – providing you can cope with a dirty look from staff when you drop a fistful of brass into their buckets – you can tour the gallery's 10,000-strong collection for basically nothing, from 5pm until 9pm. While there are few A-listers on show (despite a comparative price tag, this isn't MoMa), the range of modern and contemporary painting and photography is impressive, especially considering that the bulk of the collection has been sourced from within British Columbia. There are bargains to be had elsewhere, too – the Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Avenue, +1 604-257-8300) operates a similar system on Thursdays from 5pm, while the Museum of Anthropology (6393 NW Marine Drive, +1 604-822-5087) drops its ticket price from $16.75 to $9 on a Tuesday evening.

Still, even handing over loose change to gawp at canvases can be considered a tad lavish given that some of Vancouver's most interesting artwork is on display in public places and completely free to look at. Organised bike tours are available, but given that they start at an eyebrow-raising $25, you're better off hiring a bike and checking out the city's 300-odd public sculptures and murals at your own pace. For a whistlestop greatest hits tour of Vancouver's public art (much of which was put in place ahead of the 2010 winter Olympics) head to the stretch of waterfront running from Devonian Harbour Park along to Canada Place on the edge of Gastown. Look out for 'Digital Orca', a LEGO-like sculpture of an 8-bit whale by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, located outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, just next to the city's relocated Olympic cauldron.

Verdict: Time it right to check out awesome art for next to nothing.

Virgin Atlantic flies to Vancouver (via London Heathrow) from Mumbai and Delhi. For fares check 

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