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Off the Tourist Track in Vancouver, B.C., With Young Kids in Tow

Beachcombing, free water parks, play cafes, Commercial Drive fun and more picks from a mom who knows

Kate Missine

Published on: April 14, 2016

Seattle families know that Vancouver, B.C.’s shimmering beaches and snow-capped mountains just across the border make for a perfect weekend getaway. But while the Canadian city’s star attractions like Stanley Park and Lynn Canyon are perpetually popular with out-of-towners, it’s a whole new trip when you have a baby or young toddler in tow.

As many new (or new-again) parents discover, the 0 to 5 crowd can easily tire even the most seasoned of travellers as bustling streets become stroller obstacle courses and little feet turn outdoor adventures into true tests of courage — with plenty of meltdown potential along the way. 

Fortunately, our northern neighbor is full of tot-friendly locales. As a former Vancouverite, I’m lucky to have spent many happy hours exploring the city that I think of as second home for my two boys. I’ve rounded up my favorite local picks — low-key, baby-friendly, off-the-tourist-trek adventures that will entice the grown-ups while keeping the little ones busy and (hopefully) tantrum-free.

Yaletown’s Roundhouse Turntable Plaza | Photo credit: Colin Knowles, flickr CC

1. Romp 'round Roundhouse at Yaletown

What tot doesn't love a choo-choo train? Visit Yaletown’s Roundhouse Turntable Plaza (181 Roundhouse Mews), a funky outdoor space designed after its railroading past. Keeping things shady under a cool mechanical canopy, the urban roundhouse is a little conductor’s dream, complete with a bridge, puffs of real steam and comfy loungers. Inside the adjacent museum, a real historic engine is free to explore for guaranteed starry-eyed fascination. Then, grab a slice of authentic Roman-style pizza at Sciué, with tiramisu for the grown-ups.  

What the locals know: Just a few steps down, the glittering marina makes for a ludicrously beautiful stroll along the water, peppered with several playgrounds within walking distance.

Granville Island water park | Photo credit: Laurel Flan, flickr cc

2. Frolic at False Creek and North America's largest free water park

Quirky Granville Island is a tourist fave, which also means a terror to maneuver with wriggly escape artists during crowded summer months. Skip the public markets and do this itinerary instead. Take the speedy SkyTrain down to Olympic Village station. (Pro tip: Snatch a front window seat to keep kiddos mesmerized with the rollercoaster-like ride.) From there, stroll, jog or trike down the gorgeous seawall to the south end of Granville Island where False Creek awaits. Enjoy a splashing good time at the adventurous playground and, spray jets and water slide at the Granville Island water park (1318 Cartwright St.), North America's largest free water park (!). Little hands will particularly adore the playful water hydrants and wonderfully muddy sandpit! 

What the locals know: After you dry off, take a short walk to see a creekside play structure made from a real boat. Then, drop by Off the Tracks Bistro (1363 Railspur Alley) for their organic all-day breakfast.

Coal Harbour | Photo credit: Lucia Sanchez, flickr CC

3. Stroll and stride at Coal Harbour

Steps plus stroller plus amazing views equals a soothing outdoor activity for wee ones and their families. On a gorgeous day, walk along downtown’s scenic Coal Harbour and Burrard Inlet. Start at the famous sails of Canada Place (999 Canada Place), where you can let the kids loose to explore ship steers, maps and a giant xylophone.

Next, take a glass-tiled ramp from the convention center down to the water as you watch seaplanes take off. Cool off at the tot splash pad, then make your way to a neat playground hidden above the community center.

What the locals know: For a snack, try a fluffy Dutch pancake at De Dutch Pannekoek House (1055 Canada Place).   

4. Find fun on the farm

A farm adventure is always a favorite with littles old enough to roam on their own two feet, and North Vancouver’s five-acre Maplewood Farm (405 Seymour River Place, North Vancouver), a dairy farm that opened in 1975, is a must-see for budding farmhands.

A 20-minute drive from downtown with admission ($7.80 per adult, $4.70 per child 19 months and older, free 18 months and under), the farm features more than 200 animals including rabbits, pigs and sheep. Show your little ones where the milk in their sippy cups comes from with a milking demonstration starring Lima the jersey cow. 

What the locals know: Follow a morning on the farm with a tour of Lonsdale Quay Market (123 Carrie Cates Court), a quirky marketplace full of tasty local goodies and a cute kids’ alley with a free ballpit.

5. Step into Steveston’s history 

The suburb of Richmond, located on Lulu Island at the mouth of the Fraser River, about a 20-minute SkyTrain ride from Vancouver, is notorious for its fantastic Asian food, but there’s more to the island city than dim sum. Take quaint Steveston, just south of Richmond on Lulu and an easy drive from the U.S. border. This historic fishing village is a toddler’s paradise: boats selling fresh fish, a touchable tram museum and huge playground with a real rail track to Thomas up and down on.

A riverfront walk culminates in the best-ever, no-grease fish and chips and Timothy’s fresh-fruit froyo in warm handmade cones.

What the locals know: Parents love the fantastic artisan coffee at Rocanini Café (115-3900 Moncton St., Steveston), where a shelf of children's books may even let you enjoy your drink while it's still hot. 

Steveston fishing boat. Photo credit: wlcutler, flickr CC

6. Play, naturally at an amazing adventure playground

While in Richmond, be sure to check out the new Terra Nova Adventure Playground (2260 River Road, Richmond). This one-of-a-kind playscape is made almost entirely of natural materials. Little ones can balance on logs, roll down hills and run through a meadow maze while older siblings zoom down the tandem zipline or climb a three-story "treehouse." They'll definitely be ready for a nap by the time you get back to the car!

What the locals know: If weather doesn’t cooperate, shake their sillies out at Richmond’s Riverport Entertainment & Business Complex, which features a waterpark, indoor playground and trampoline park. Oh, and classic stand-by The Old Spaghetti Factory. Note: The various attractions have their own admission fees.

Whytecliff Park | Photo credit: Bill Stilwell, flickr CC

7. Beachcomb Horseshoe Bay

At the tip of West Vancouver’s Howe Sound, Horseshoe Bay is best known as a terminal for island-bound ferries, but the charming community also makes for a sweet family outing. The marina park is a gem of shady lawns, pretty docks and a nautical-themed playground with vistas galore.

A short drive away, the beach at Whytecliff Park teems with discoveries for mini-explorers. This home to assorted marine critters is a natural sensory trove of seashells, rocks and sand. Don’t forget the beach toys! 

What the locals know: Cozy Horseshoe Bay village is full of eateries. My favorite is Troll’s, an old-school family-style joint with rustic décor and hearty seafood-themed fare (6408 Bay St., West Vancouver). 

View of Vancouver, B.C., from Queen Elizabeth Park | Photo credit: Kyle Pearce, flickr CC

8. Run and smell the flowers at Queen Elizabeth Park

Kiddos who are more or less steady on their feet (say ages 2 and up) will adore phenomenal Queen Elizabeth Park (4600 Cambie St.). It’s the ultimate combination of pretty picture opportunities for adults and just plain running around for kids.

The park, located on Vancouver's Little Mountain (the highest point in the city),  is famous for its gorgeous gardens, stone pathways and cute bridges, not to mention lovely lookout points. What this means for youngsters is an explosion of colors, textures and plenty of new terrain to conquer. Pro tip: Stroller access is available, but stairs, hills, and narrow walkways are part of the full experience. 

What the locals know: If you have bigger kids in your bunch, be sure to visit the park’s Bloedel Conservatory, housing a cool collection of exotic birds and plants under its glass dome.

9. Get a taste of the city on Commercial Drive

Exploring the vibrant energy of a new city shouldn’t be off-limits just because you’re stroller-bound. For urban-minded moms and dads, East Van’s lively Commercial Drive is a dream destination for a morning out. 

Easily accessible by bus or Skytrain, the buzzing district is a mix of funky shops, great restaurants and colorful streets. Sit back with wi-fi and a latte in Circus, a new spiffy-clean play café (1650 East 12th Ave.) or hit up groovy Grandview Park (1657 Charles St.). Then, get some retail therapy in kid-themed boutiques like Room for 2 (1409 Commercial Drive) and Dilly Dally (1161 Commercial Drive) for fun toy and baby finds. 

What the locals know: A Vancouver institution, Café Deux Soleils (2096 Commercial Dr.) is the ultimate lunch spot with a combination of homegrown comfort food and vintage charm. Plus, there’s a great kids' menu and large play area!

White Rock | Photo credit: Pyonko Omeyama, flickr CC

10. Go So Cal in White Rock

Just a hop, skip and a jump from the border crossing, the oceanfront town of White Rock is where Vancouverites come for sun-soaked family weekends. With a laid-back beach vibe that’s more So Cal than PNW, it’s named after, you guessed it, the beachside giant white rock that never fails to excite little ones.

Plenty of frolicking beckons on grassy lawns and large dock, and the beach strip is lined with family-oriented patios where you can even enjoy an umbrella drink. Bonus: If you’re lucky, you may get to witness a cargo train thunder down the tracks running right through the promenade. 

What the locals know: Just west of the main West Beach is low-key Crescent Beach, where an entire day can be spent with a beach blanket and picnic, digging and dipping tiny toes in on-shore waves.

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