In recent years, our family hasn’t spent much time traveling to cities, although we’ve missed everything our urban areas offer. What better city, then, for our first post-pandemic international trip than Vancouver, B.C., where nature and city meet?
Many Seattleites venture up to beautiful Vancouver at one point or another, because the short trip by car transports you to a thriving multicultural city that offers so much to see and do. We recently devoted five days to exploring Vancouver and would have loved even more time.
Things to do in Vancouver with kids
Explore UBC’s campus, museums and nearby Pacific Spirit Regional Park.
We made the University of British Columbia our first stop because our high schooler was excited to visit a college campus — and because I hoped to see cherry blossoms! We found it to be a beautiful campus with lots to enjoy for all ages. Less than a 30-minute drive from downtown, it reminded me of my alma mater, the University of Washington, with its great views, gardens and museums.
While exploring the campus, check out Canada’s largest blue whale skeleton and the free outdoor “Walk Through Time” exhibit at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. The well-regarded Museum of Anthropology is temporarily closed until late 2023 for seismic upgrades, but consider adding it to your list for future visits.
Another great perk of venturing out to the west of downtown is Pacific Spirit Regional Park, a beautiful rainforest oasis surrounding the UBC campus that has a rich abundance of free multiuse nature trails for all to enjoy. This park also makes a great rainy-day outing because many trails are under the tree canopy. Dogs are allowed on some but not all trails.
Tips: On our drive in, we discovered La Win Supermarket (1702 West Broadway), Vancouver’s newest Chinese market, where we picked up affordable picnic items. Be sure to check the schedule of specific museums ahead of time because they are not open on all days.
Explore on foot and discover unique outdoor public art at every turn.
We love to explore a new city on foot and make spontaneous discoveries, and we enjoyed spotting interesting murals and outdoor sculptures all over downtown. I learned that the city is well known for its vibrant public art scene, and it holds a big Vancouver Mural Festival in August. The event has evolved from a grassroots summer festival into a year-round nonprofit arts organization committed to transforming the way art is expressed in the city. Mark your calendars for Aug. 4–13, 2023!
Our older kids enjoyed visiting Alley Oop (also known as “Pink Alley” and “Instagram Alley”) between Seymour and Granville streets downtown, and we all loved seeing the “Giants” on Granville Island (a 360-degree mural spray-painted on 70-foot-tall concrete silos). A few other fun art discoveries included the 18-foot Vancouver Convention Centre Globe, the “Digital Orca” sculpture (also next to the Convention Centre) and the “LightShed” sculpture in the Coal Harbour neighborhood.
Tip: We didn’t have a walking tour planned out ahead of time, but you can download a free mural map.
Test your fear of heights at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.
Does Capilano Suspension Bridge Park appear on all “must-do” Vancouver lists? Yes. Did I question how expensive it was and whether it would be worth it? Also, yes. But when my teenager, who was anxious to cross the bridge, rated it a “15 out of 10” after getting up the nerve, I must say that I agreed it was worth it as our one experiential splurge.
The 450-foot Capilano Suspension Bridge, the main attraction at the park, has a long history. The first version of the bridge was suspended in 1889 and later rebuilt, and in more recent years, new experiences have been added, including the award-winning Treetops Adventure and Cliffwalk. The park is dedicated to environmental stewardship and sustainability, and guides and interactive exhibits help reinforce the values of environmental conservation.
Tip: The bridge is not stroller- or wheelchair-friendly, and although dogs are allowed, be sure your pup is up to the task first. The park can also be quite crowded during peak months, so consider taking the free shuttle service from downtown. Check with your hotel concierge for entrance coupons if you are staying in a hotel.
Learn about the life cycle of salmon at the Capilano River Hatchery and explore Capilano River Regional Park.
Take a short drive north of the suspension bridge to the Capilano River Hatchery, built in 1971 to help restore the depleted salmon stocks after the Cleveland Dam was constructed. Here, learn more about the life cycle of our iconic Pacific Northwest fish on a free self-guided tour. The hatchery is located in a beautiful park, Capilano River Regional Park, which affords plenty of short, family-friendly trails and picnic spots in the lush coastal rainforest.
Tip: Dogs are allowed on the trails (with leash-required and leash-optional trails marked), but they are not allowed inside the salmon hatchery building.
Hike among giant old-growth Douglas fir trees to beautiful city views at Lighthouse Park.
Wonderful Lighthouse Park, a 185-acre park located along the shores of West Vancouver about 30 minutes by car from downtown, has something for everyone. Choose from many family-friendly trails to hike among giant old-growth trees, eventually making your way to the shore for a peek at the Point Atkinson Lighthouse, designated as a National Historic Site, and spectacular water views. The land surrounding Point Atkinson’s first lighthouse was set aside to provide a dark background and a fuel source for the foghorn. Learn more about the park’s interesting history and preservation from the Lighthouse Park Preservation Society.
Tip: This very popular park is located off Marine Drive at the south end of Beacon Lane and is open 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. Parking is limited, so you might consider taking public transit from downtown Vancouver.
Hop on an Aquabus and explore Granville Island and the Granville Island Water Park.
A trip to Granville Island is another must in Vancouver, and we enjoyed rolling in on an oh so Instagram-worthy (and pet-friendly) rainbow-colored Aquabus via False Creek. When you travel on these cute little ferries, you’ll enjoy great city views and unexpected sights (such as the “Giants” mural). Once an industrial wasteland, Granville Island is now a bustling mixed-use waterfront oasis reminiscent of Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
The main draw for us was exploring the indoor Granville Island Public Market and grabbing lunch from one of the bountiful dining options. We enjoyed our lunch outdoors along the water and then walked around. We discovered a fun hammock store, Hamuhk, and then the kids enjoyed the play structures and serene little pond near the Kids Market. We also spotted the wonderful no-admission Granville Island Water Park.
Tip: There are many ways to get to Granville Island, including by bus, car, bike or boat, but we took the Aquabus from the Plaza of Nations and back via the Hornby Route. This allowed us to see a lot of downtown Vancouver by sea and on foot. Well-mannered dogs are allowed on Granville Island and on the Aquabus, but are not allowed inside the market.
Take a scenic drive around Stanley Park.
Most people reading this are familiar with Stanley Park, Vancouver’s impressive 1,001-acre urban park, which serves as a lush oasis near downtown. You can easily spend a day or many days exploring the park, and every time we’ve traveled to Vancouver, we’ve been sure to visit.
In the past, we loved exploring by bike, pedaling on the Seawall around the periphery of the park. This time, we were traveling with our large dog, so we opted to take a scenic drive instead, making stops along the way to get out and explore.
Our first stop was a return trip to the First Nations Brockton Point totem poles, where we explored the neighboring trails. Next, we visited Prospect Point Lookout, the highest point in the park, offering beautiful views of the ocean and Lion’s Gate Bridge. We also toured Brockton Point Lighthouse, a 1914 lighthouse that you can walk through; and Hollow Tree, an ancient western red cedar and one of the park’s most popular attractions.
Tip: Download a free printable map to plan your visit ahead of time (vancouver.ca). Also, don’t let having small kiddos (or a dog) stop you from exploring by bike — local rental shops rent bike trailers for both!
See history come to life at the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site.
We would have loved to spend more time exploring Richmond, a city south of downtown Vancouver that is known for its Asian influences and night market. If you only have a brief time to visit, you should definitely prioritize a stop at the fascinating Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site.
History comes to life at this beautiful 8-acre living museum, set along the waterfront minutes from popular Steveston Village, where the main Britannia Shipyard building (1889) serves as a focal point of the historic multi-ethnic canning, fishing and boatbuilding community. Learn more about the diverse residents who lived there, visit the last surviving Chinese bunkhouse on the West Coast (built in 1915) and tour the restored home of the Japanese Canadian Murakami family, which lived there from 1929 to 1942, when its members were interned during World War II.
If you go …
Getting there: Most travelers from Seattle prefer to drive, since it’s a quick (2.5-hour) drive up Interstate 5 via the Peace Arch border crossing, but other options include the Victoria Clipper ferry, the scenic Amtrak Cascades train or even a budget-conscious bus such as FlixBus.
Where to stay: We splurged and stayed downtown at the Fairmont Waterfront, which features sweeping views, a fabulous heated rooftop pool and dog-friendly amenities. In the past, we had a pleasant stay at the Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront, located close to the Seawall, which is a great spot for kids to watch seaplanes.
Where to eat: We enjoyed dinners at Dinesty Dumpling House (West End), Guu Toramasa (West End), Swad Indian Kitchen (West Vancouver) and Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. Our favorite go-to for a treat or coffee downtown was Mink Chocolates.