7 travel and sightseeing tips for your next trip to Vancouver
Editor’s Note: As the number of COVID-19 continues to rise, travel advice continues to evolve. Check all local and international travel requirements regarding proof of vaccination or wearing a mask before leaving.
VANCOUVER, BC – I’m pretty sure I did Vancouver wrong.
Granted, I tried to demolish a complex and changing metropolis in just three days, which is a ridiculously – and, let’s be honest, insulting – short period. In a misguided attempt at comprehensiveness, I turned my trip – my first since Canada reopened its border to Americans on August 9 after a lengthy COVID-induced shutdown – into a stuffed sandwich, letting choice morsels slip off. the plate and on the floor. The best things I saw were unforeseen accidents. If I had slowed down a bit and tried to do less, I probably would have found more.
So, in the spirit of regret and contrition, I give some advice to my past – and I will give it out loud, so that you can profit from my mistakes and woes.
1. Obtain a transport card immediately, called a Compass card.
You can get them at major transit hubs (SkyTrain stations, etc.) or at a London Drugs store or at 7-Eleven. Start taking buses and trains right away. You’ll save money, get to know more of the city, and in the long run, you’ll save time. (But, of course, reserve the right to a Lyft or Uber every now and then.)
2. Go to Robson Square and stay there, quietly and discreetly, for a while.
The vigil in Robson Square, which has since made headlines around the world, began on May 28, when Vancouver artist Tamara Bell (Haida) placed 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of the Vancouver. Art Gallery to commemorate 215 Indigenous children whose anonymous mass grave was discovered at a Catholic residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia
This discovery and these shoes sparked a deep and continuing national conversation about the horrors of residential schools and the history of colonialism in Canada. (Where in the US you might see “Black Lives Matter” on t-shirts or sidewalks, in Vancouver you will see “Every Child Matters” – unrelated to BLM’s “All Lives Matter” subversion.) These stone steps in Robson Square, which were once the steps of a courthouse, has become a permanent vigil where people come forward, talk, drummer, cry or stand in silence. It’s not a “fun” tourist diversion to gaze at and snap photos, but right now it’s arguably one of the most important things to see in Vancouver.
You can learn more about the city’s early inhabitants, especially the Musqueam, at an exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver (1100 Chestnut St.) titled “c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City”.
3. Spend more time on Commercial Drive
At first, this neighborhood will confuse you with its pleasantly surprising mix of cuisines, ethnicities, and income brackets – that’s a good thing. Within a few blocks you will pass places advertising injera, sushi, tandoori, mezcal, Italian coffee, samosas, Cuban sandwiches, and high and low end Vietnamese cuisine. . High-end pet accessory stores sit alongside run-down second-hand bookstores; some people on the street seem to have a lot of money, others seem to not have a lot. Andy Yan, an urban planner at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, explains that this coexistence is explained by slow-motion gentrification. Commercial Drive was an Italian stronghold, then a multi-ethnic district, and today attracts “bobos” (bohemian bourgeois). But, due to a variety of factors – including the location being cut up into small plots of land making it difficult and expensive to develop condos etc. – the old parts of the district are resistant to major development.
Places to eat: Lunch Lady (1046 Commercial Drive), a delicious second-generation Vietnamese restaurant; La Grotta del Formaggio (1791 Commercial Drive) for its excellent Italian sandwiches; and old-fashioned, anti-pretentious Joe’s Cafe (1150 Commercial Drive) for a great neighborhood cappuccino. The Samosas at Sweet Cherubim (1105 Commercial Drive) are known to be excellent, but I didn’t have the chance to try one.
4. Don’t miss the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia
Yes, it looks awfully far off the map, but you won’t regret it. The MOA is like the Burke Museum a Thousand Times (including the wall-windows where you can watch conservators at work) and its collection of First Nations artwork is unlike anything you’ve ever seen: the gigantic posts of storytelling houses; the startling expressions on the carved wooden faces; the intricately crafted rowboat-sized “house dishes” served as food and gifts at potlatches, some of which were tied like train cars. And works by contemporary First Nations artists sit alongside objects from other centuries, striking the idea that the collection is made up of “artefacts” from “extinct” cultures. Then there are the piles, stuffed with objects from around the world: sculptures made from abandoned fishing nets near Papua New Guinea; Minoan and Greek clay figurines; intricate wood carvings from Tanzania; samurai armor; sculpted Peruvian gourds; carnival costumes from Kurentovanje from Slovenia; a full-size woven motorcycle from Java… a ticket to the MOA is like a passport to browsing a library of other people’s dreams.
5. Spend more time in Chinatown
This is another neighborhood where there is a lot going on. Stop by Massy Books (229 E. Georgia St.), which is charming, dense, smartly organized, and native-owned. Stay long enough for someone to open the secret door to their rare book collection, then go upstairs to see their gallery’s current exhibit. Also take a look at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Classical Chinese Garden. If you are lucky, Joyce Tan will be there to teach Guzheng (a 21-string zither) and you will learn how to pluck “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on an unknown instrument tuned to a pentatonic scale.
Places to Eat: Enjoy bao at New Town Bakery (148 E. Pender St.), noodles at Fat Mao Noodles (217 E. Georgia St.), and buttered beef (on the raw side, like a carpaccio) or hot and sour shrimp soup at Phnom Penh’s long-standing restaurant (244 E. Georgia St.). The Korean Zoomak Tavern (52 Alexander Street) has excellent sample platters of their various dishes at lunchtime.
6. Stroll the streets between West End and Yaletown in the evening
This area might seem a bit generic, another downtown PaneraLand, during the day – although there are a few damn good places to eat, like the Japanese izakaya Guu with Garlic (1698 Robson St.) – but it has a different chemistry at night. At worst, you will see the hubbub of life in an unfamiliar city. At best, you’ll find something you couldn’t have predicted, like that b-boy / b-girl cipher you found outside the gates of the British Columbia Provincial Courthouse, in an underground plaza right in below Robson Square.
About 40 people were in a circle – Asians, natives, blacks, whites – fighting for hours. Someone in the crowd was 24 that day and decided to celebrate by challenging their friends to 24 consecutive challenges. It was a scene of enthusiastic energy and cheerful screams, not a sour note to be found – and a sign of multiethnic and cosmopolitan hope, just steps from the mourning of the 215 shoe vigil.
These two events, occurring simultaneously, were counterpoints – and proof that there is more going on between them in Vancouver than you could ever imagine.