Travel | Outings + Activities

Culture Rich and Car Free: 48 hours in Vancouver

Stanley Park Vancouver familySearching for a perfect rain-or-shine getaway while waiting for summer to arrive?

Try Vancouver, B.C. In addition to its spectacular setting, Vancouver is a cosmopolitan, culturally diverse city whose residents speak more than 12 languages (besides English and French), including Punjabi, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tagalog. Even in the downtown’s English-influenced core, Vancouver has an international flavor that’s anything but stodgy.

My Bellingham-based family loves Vancouver for its top family attractions and lesser-known cultural gems, so we recommend a weekend with a bit of both. And if you stay in downtown’s West End neighborhood, adjacent to Stanley Park, you can even go car free for at least part of the weekend. Make a day of it on foot and bicycle.

Where to stay: West End family accommodations abound. We particularly recommend Blue Horizon (from Can$ 115*), a recently upgraded 200-plus-room hotel with fabulous views from its upper-story rooms, a pool, and a fantastic location on Robson Street, Vancouver’s most famous shopping street. We also like the charming, vintage Sylvia Hotel (from $169) located next to Stanley Park.

Day 1

9 a.m. Breakfast at Blue Horizon’s recently rebranded restaurant (it’s being remodeled on Seattle’s Skillet restaurant). Pick up picnic fare for Stanley Park, either from the hotel or from Safeway up the street. We also sometimes grab lunch at the Upstream Café at the Vancouver Aquarium.

10 a.m. If your family is comfortable on bikes, consider two-wheeling it for the day, our favorite way to explore Stanley Park and the surrounding seawall. Find several bike rental shops on Denman St. (try here or here).Walk or bike to Stanley Park’s Vancouver Aquarium, a regional gem for its manageable size and robust exhibits and shows (check website for updates). We once watched acrobatic dolphins during a winter snowfall and then warmed up in the bio-diverse Amazon Gallery. Oh, and don’t miss the 4-D movies. (Vancouver Aquarium, $13-$25, kids 3 and under free)

1 p.m. After lunch at the Aquarium’s decent outdoor café or your picnic, bike the seawall or explore stunning Stanley Park on foot, where even kids will admire fabulous views of the Coast Mountains and downtown high rises. The park is big — 1,000 acres — but you can ride the seawall perimeter in an hour, or stick to the walkable south end for family features such as playgrounds, totem pole park, miniature train, and the free Variety Kids Water Park (open June 1).

3 p.m. Take an Aquabus from Hornby St. at the end of the seawall to Granville Island, the lively public market that’s deservedly popular with locals and tourists alike and which features artisan shops and vendors that reflect Vancouver’s multiculturalism. Extra fun for kids is the multi-story kids’ market with shops and play areas just for them.

6 p.m. Vancouver offers Asian food you can’t get anywhere else. The West End’s Banana Leaf on Denman St. specializes in Malaysian/Indonesian, and is the coziest of three downtown outlets, mimicking a Malaysian house with shutters and carved doors. Kids will love the pineapple fried rice, and one of my favorites is gado-gado, an Indonesian salad of bean sprouts, tofu, and satay sauce. Following dinner, walk to Bon Crepe on Robson for a Japanese-style dessert crepe.

If your family still has energy, take the SkyTrain to nearby Chinatown’s Night Market, open weekends, May–September, 6–11 p.m., which is being modernized for 2013 with new food, live music, storytelling, and more.

Day 2

9:30 a.m. Stroll Robson Street for your choice of a bakery or breakfast place, then head south of downtown to the Bloedel Floral Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park (10 a.m. opening), a lesser-known gem in the Fairview neighborhood. The conservatory features a stunning indoor tropical garden with free-flying parrots and other tropical birds. ($15/family or $3.25–$6.50).

11 a.m. Just a few minutes from the Conservatory, wander Little India’s Punjabi Market, a six-block strip of Indian shops on South Main (between 48th and 52nd). Stock up on ingredients, snack on samosas, and admire colorful saris. Kids will enjoy the bazaars for cheap bangles and trinkets.

Aberdeen Centre Richmond foodThen head to Richmond, a small city 20 minutes south of Vancouver — you can arrive by car or SkyTrain — that’s become our family’s new go-to destination. With a population that’s 65 percent Asian (49 percent Chinese), Richmond has a flavor that’s more modern than Vancouver’s Chinatown (“it feels like we just went to China,” say my kids). Start at Aberdeen Centre, a shiny mall with free parking (and on the SkyTrain route). Take a walk through the grocery store, and then lunch in the large Asian-centric food court (picky eaters will love the bubble waffles). The older-style Parker Place Mall and food court are just a walk down the street.

2:30 p.m. Just a few minutes’ drive from Aberdeen Centre, visit the International Buddhist Temple, a tranquil temple in Richmond with outdoor gardens, warm colors, and the largest Buddha in North America.

For a taste of local kid culture, a fun afternoon stop is Watermania in Richmond, which boasts a huge pool, water slides, and a rope swing ($4.55-$9.10). Bellingham families flock regularly to Lower Mainland pools and water parks because they’re done so well, and this one is on the way home stateside if you’re driving home.

6 p.m. If you’re staying through Sunday night, try Saravanaa Bhavan on Broadway for a South Indian dinner of specialties such as dosas, adai avial (lentil and vegetable pancake) and aloo gobi fry (spiced, fried cauliflower and potato).

Joanna Nesbit tries to go exploring with her family as often as possible. She lives in Bellingham with her husband and two children. Learn more about her at Joanna Nesbit.

Grouse MountainHave 72 hours?

Day 3 options

  • North Vancouver’s beautiful Lynn Canyon is the less crowded counterpart to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. The suspension bridge and hiking trails are free and very kid friendly.

Vancouver travel tips

  • Alert your bank you’re traveling to Canada. My debit card was blocked recently during a weekend in B.C.
  • Ask your cell phone provider if texting is free in Canada (it often is), but turn off your data plan to avoid an astronomical bill.
  • If you drive, fill ‘er up stateside — Canadian gas is by the liter.
  • For public transportation fares, day passes, and SkyTrain information, visit
  • If traveling from Seattle or Portland, consider taking Amtrak or the ultra-cheap Bolt Bus for a completely car-free weekend.

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