If you had to pick a perfect spot to build a city, Vancouver wouldn't be a bad place to start. Look up and take in the snow-capped mountains. Walk 20 minutes from downtown and relax on a beach or in Stanley Park. Ski in the morning, sail in the afternoon, and eat exceptionally well as the sun sets over the Strait of Georgia.
Small is beautiful. The ocean placed a natural cap on Vancouver's urban sprawl. When the population started booming, builders found the only way to go was up – with the result that the downtown core of this 21st-century city remains eminently walkable. And that's definitely the best way to appreciate it.
When planning your sightseeing, you could easily organise it as a series of walks radiating out from the centre of town, usually considered to be the Vancouver Art Gallery. You don't have to stray far to cover the bases: shopping, great restaurants, beaches and nature are cheek-by-jowl and you can taste them all in a day – though you'll need longer to savour them.
Canada Place (999 Canada Place, 604 775 7200) is probably Vancouver's most photographed spot. A cruise ship terminal, IMAX movie theatre, convention centre, and a restaurant and hotel complex, the sail-like structure is a legacy of the city's first large-scale international event, Expo 86. The western extension justs out over the waterfall. From the inside, its glass walls provide a stunning outlook.
The West End is leafy and residential – home to the city's gay community, Asian students and service industry workers. Yaletown's formerly empty warehouses now house high-tech start-ups and boutiques and Gastown is the historic heart of the city, just south of Gastown, Vancouver's Chinatown is the third largest in North America.
Stanley Park has been called the soul of the city and the envy of the world. At 400 hectares (1,000 acres) it's slightly bigger than New York's Central Park, making it the largest urban park in North America. Yet its greatest virtue is that it's almost an island, wrapped with a Seawall that offers nine kilometres (five miles) of spectacular waterfront views. At its heart are natural landscapes that belie the fact that almost all of the trees are second growth.
A pretty residential area that includes laid-back Kitsilano, affluent Point Grey and the elite Shaughnessy, the West Side makes the most of its long, sandy beaches and spectacular views. The obvious tourist attractions are Granville Island (with its maze of artist's studios, artisan stores and indoor market), shopping in the upscale South Granville strip, the beaches, a trio of museums in Vanier Park and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. This area also includes some of the finest public gardens in North America, and some of the city's best fine dining.
While the West Side attracts wealthier citizens, bohemian East Vancouver has always been a diverse area where a succession of immigrants have lived before moving on to other parts of the city. Its mixed neighbourhoods – including Commercial Drive, Main Street to the Punjabi Market, and Strathcona on the edge of Downtown – are places to experience daily life on Canada's left coast. It's not about tourist attractions; this is where people shop, eat and hang out, paint their homes purple and show folk art on front lawns.
In case you're wondering, Vancouver's cross-streets are designated east or west according to their relationship with Main Street. Main is one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city, dating from 1888, and initially connecting mill workers' homes in Mount Pleasant with the factories and city wharf on Burrard Inlet.
Vancouver's most desirable suburban districts, West and North Vancouver, sprawl along the Burrard Inlet foreshore between Deep Cove and Horseshoe Bay, and up the mountain slopes (see Grouse Mountain) to just above the Upper Levels Highway. The North Shore is primarily residential, with a total population of 171,000 and development higher up the mountain continuing despite mudslides that have seen homes collapse. But there are parks and other spaces worth seeking out. In the winter, the ski resorts on Grouse Mountain, Seymour and Cypress become the city's playground; none of them is more than a 30-minute drive from downtown. In the summer, hikers square up to the challenge of the Grouse Grind – locally known as 'Mother Nature's Stairmaster', the Grind is built largely of big wooden steps, and gains about 850 metres (2,800 feet) in 2.9 kilometres (1.8 miles), with a gradient steper than 50 degree in parts – while tour buses gravitate to the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
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