As a wise man once said: “Ain’t no party like a west coast party, ‘cause a west coast party don’t stop.” And although Coolio was undoubtedly referring to Los Angeles, the same ethos applies all the way up the coast – just take a look at these landmarks in Vancouver.
Mistaken time and time again for the capital of British Columbia (but you already knew that the capital is Victoria, didn’t you?), Vancouver is one of Canada’s most popular cities – among tourists and expats alike.
Though the distinguishing features that make Vancouver special can vary, it is without dispute that this buzzing city has some of the best weather in Canada and a classic west-coast reputation for being ‘chill’. Add to that some stunning natural landscapes from all sides – including a breathtaking mountainscape to the north that’ll make you feel like you’ve just been dropped a real-size simulation of Red Dead Redemption 2.
But no matter what you’ve heard about Vancouver, almost everyone agrees on at least this much: it sure as heck isn’t overrated. From the wacky to the wonderful to the downright saucy, this city offers some of the best sight-seeing in Canada. Don’t miss the 10 most famous landmarks in Vancouver.
Disclaimer: While some of these places might be temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, likely, you’ll soon be able to see most of them – and, if you’re Canadian, with many of us understandably concerned about the prospects of embarking on international travel over the coming months, there’s never been a better time to explore our own backyard!
1. Support the #1 independent cinema in Vancouver at the Rio Theatre
If Vancouver is the cinematic heart of Canada, then the Rio Theatre is the network of veins and arteries that connect the blockbuster with the arthouse. Movie-goers of all kinds converge at the Rio Theatre to indulge in a high-tech yet cozy and sophisticated cinematic experience that feels like it was created just for them.
Built in 1938, the Rio Theatre was a Vancouver institution from the get-go, renowned for eclectic programming and late-night screenings of cult classics and feature films. Not only can fans show up to screenings of Grease and the Rocky Horror Picture Show in costume (it’s encouraged – the best costume of the night even gets a prize) and sing-along with the musical numbers, they can also perch on the edge of their seats as they follow Liam Neeson through whatever iteration of his family getting kidnapped came out this summer.
Today, the Rio Theatre continues to offer all its beloved staples, but also a great deal more. Throughout the year there is a dizzying array of live events rolling through the venue, ranging from international musical artists (including a live extravaganza of Pink Floyd’s The Wall), Vancouver International Comedy Festival, and the International Burlesque Festival. Regarding the latter, the Rio Theatre has made no official comment as to whether they welcome their guests with a little back-and-forth refrain of “We Put the Spring in Springfield” from The Simpsons. But given its receptiveness to audience participation, you’re always welcome to take your lead from these master (mistress?) stage performers. They are the country’s greatest, after all.
2. Explore our shared humanity at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia
Nestled within the stunning University of British Columbia campus is one of the best – and most underrated – museums in Vancouver: the Museum of Anthropology.
With a staggering collection of artifacts and art, this museum delineates the histories of settlers, First Nations people, and other societies across British Columbia, the South Pacific, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The Museum of Anthropology is more than just one of the most worthwhile landmarks in Vancouver – it’s something of a hallowed ground for those with curiosity and wonder about the ways societies shift, change, and demarcate themselves as individuals.
The Bill Reid Rotunda is an unmissable highlight, showcasing the Haida legend, The Raven and the First Men, etched into an enormous slab of cedarwood. This piece is so iconic that for a long time, it was depicted on the Canadian $20 bill. It is showcased by a single skylight overhead that gives it a gravitas and inspires awe in even the most cynical of souls.
The museum’s temporary exhibits are well worth a peek, with spectacular pop-up installations focused on a variety of thematic areas. Don’t miss the contemporary collection from Australian Indigenous Artists, Marking the Infinite, or the Arts of Resistance, an exploration of politics and the past in Latin America.
For those who simply can’t wait to go, you can also explore the Museum of Anthropology’s nearly 50,000-strong digital collection on its Collections Online system. Be warned – it’ll only make you more impatient to get there!
3. Swing from the treetops at Capilano Suspension Bridge
Re-enact your favorite action movie (minus anything remotely resembling real risk) at one of the most famous landmarks in Vancouver: the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
This 140-meter-long suspension bridge draws over 800,000 visitors every year, and it’s not hard to see why. Swinging around mountainsides and swaying across the Capilano River from 110-feet high from the earth puts you not far above the glorious ancient Douglas firs.
Every little detail has been considered, with stunning light installations integrated both into the suspension bridge itself and all around, as part of one of the many season-specific events.
This must-see landmark in Vancouver can get crowded during peak times, so it helps to book a skip-the-line ticket in advance to beat the crowds.
4. Set phasers to ‘Geek out’ at Storm Crow Alehouse
Not to be confused with Storm Brewing (another famous landmark in Vancouver well deserving of an honorable mention), Storm Crow Alehouse is a Vancouver institution with a creative twist This pop-culture-themed bar is like stepping into the trophy cabinet of a Comic-Con organizer – though, by any metric, Storm Crow is undoubtedly cleaner than whatever you’re visualizing!
With memorabilia from every fandom dangling from the walls and ceilings alongside retro posters galore, this bustling and buzzing Granville bar is the perfect place to meet up with friends for a movie-themed drink, a loaded bowl of poutine, or to play one of the dozens of board and card games, all available to clients free of charge.
Geek out over the ingenious cocktail menu, with treats ranging from Butterbeer, What We Drink in the Shadows, the Cthulhu Tiki, and – wait for it – the Karen Shooter (hand-delivered by Storm Crow’s resident Complaints Specialist).
For those with a passion for Dungeons and Dragons (or those who’ve never played it before but did see that one episode of Community), whet your taste for danger with a high-stakes drink of destiny by rolling the twenty-sided die. But beware: the number determines your drink. Will you have the luck of Khal Drogo (Malibu coconut rum and peach schnapps, praise to the Great Stallion) or Pickle Rick (uh oh – good luck drinking your Jameson whiskey with pickle juice).
5. Pass a blissful afternoon at Stanley Park
Stanley Park is Vancouver’s first, largest, and most beloved urban park – and one of the famous landmarks in Vancouver with the most repeat value.
Though billed as a green oasis amid the city’s urban landscape, that pitch doesn’t quite do either Vancouver or Stanley Park justice. What makes the city and the park equally charming is that nature plays an active, interwoven role with the city’s fabric, existing not outside of it but as an active part of its makeup.
The 400-hectare Stanley Park is a testament to this philosophy – a slice of rainforest and a perfectly-curated urban park all at the same time, as well as the proud home to the city’s famous Seawall.
Stanley Park offers a diverse array of fun activities in Vancouver to suit any interest. A morning run or an afternoon picnic? No sweat. A spot for scouting wildlife? Sure. Somewhere sumptuous to enjoy a meal? Look no further. And be sure to check out an open-air concert at the Malkin Bowl or have your portrait painted by one of the cherished artists who can be found scattered along the pathways, expertly wielding their easels and watercolors.
Even when the weather is less ‘Paradise on the Pacific’ and more ‘Pacific North-West Chilly’, Stanley Park is home to Canada’s largest aquarium, which is an ideal way to spend an afternoon regardless of the climate outside.
6. See a very, very different side of Vancouver at Wreck Beach
Leave the kids at home and prepare for a real return to nature, because Wreck Beach is one of the most scandalous (or natural, depending on your perspective) landmarks in Vancouver… by far.
Situated at the bottom of a steep stairway in the far reaches of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver Campus, Wreck Beach is a popular destination for young and old alike. But this ain’t your momma’s beach (and even if it was, we’d never dare cast aspersions) because Wreck Beach is an enthusiastically clothing-optional destination.
Depending on your culture and shyness, it goes without saying that Wreck Beach may or may not be for you. It’s definitely one of the few landmarks in Vancouver one should visit with an open mind (no, not that kind open – people will get the wrong idea!).
That said, Wreck Beach is something of a sacrosanct place amongst Vancouverites, who consider it an extraordinary place to build a more loving, and less perfectionistic, relationship to one’s own body. It’s hard not to see the validity of that idea, given beachgoers are usually surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes who are swimming, sunning themselves, playing frisbee, or simply existing… And all without self-consciousness about how they look.
Wreck Beach is often packed during the warmer months, with a colorful assortment of unofficial vendors strolling along the shoreline selling cold refreshments and snacks from their backpacks. Buyer beware: it’s illegal to drink alcohol from an open container in Vancouver (yes, even in the seemingly lawless cornucopia of Wreck Beach) so bear that in mind if you’re contemplating a beer.
And whatever you do, for the love of all that is decent, don’t even think about snapping any photos during your visit. For Wreck Beach to remain a safe space for all to enjoy, there’s a condition of mutual trust placed upon everyone who goes there. All it takes is one bad egg to spoil the batch – so don’t be a stinker, and don’t let any of your travel companions be one, either!
7. Catch a hockey game for the ages at Rogers Arena
Some stereotypes are unjust. Others are understatements. When it comes to hockey (on ice, go figure), the intensity of Canadians – and Vancouverites in particular – are second to none. Those who haven’t witnessed this steadfast devotion first-hand may recall the 2011 Stanley Cup in Vancouver when the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks by the Boston Bruins kickstarted riots that made international headlines.
Not sure you heard of it? Fair enough. But perhaps you remember the viral photo of ‘the kissing couple’ snapped during the scene: a man comforting his girlfriend who had been knocked down by police, both splayed on the street in a way that looks like a kiss, with riot police in the fore and background, offset by hazy orange light.
Thankfully, Vancouverites haven’t taken to rioting quite so much as they have to maple syrup, so there’s ample reason to go enjoy a Canucks game during your trip to Vancouver. And nowhere is it better to see them play than at their home stadium – the legendary Rogers Arena, the almost 19,000-seat stadium located directly downtown.
Even if you’ve never seen a game in your life, hockey is an exhilarating spectacle to behold. Fast-paced gameplay, three 20-minute periods, and the omnipresent possibility of a fight (though they’ve cut down on that somewhat since the truly vicious ole days) – what’s not to love?
There are few more exciting ways to pass an evening in Vancouver than to watch a famous National Hockey League team duke it out on the ice in one of the most famous landmarks in Vancouver.
8. Lonsdale Quay: Dozens of fun activities in Vancouver all in one place
Originally a carnival-themed market erected for Vancouver’s Expo in 1986, Lonsdale Quay has become one of the preferred landmarks in Vancouver for locals and tourists alike. Convening the best in shopping, dining, and sleeping right on the waterfront, Lonsdale Quay boasts 60 fresh food vendors, artisanal stalls, retail stores, and even a boutique hotel. And, it’s all just a convenient SeaBus ride from Vancouver’s Waterfront Station.
To keep things fresh and funky, roving events and fun activities take place at Lonsdale Quay regularly, from art workshops and yoga classes to wine tasting and live music. What better way to reward yourself for successfully twisting yourself into a pretzel than with an actual pretzel (or another yummy treat) afterward?
Saturdays are the Lonsdale Quay’s big draw, with a sensational farmer’s market taking place from May until September. As with all good farmer’s markets, it pays to get there early ––the stalls tend to be done and dusted by 3 pm.
To catch a great view of the city, haul yourself up the 77 steps of the Q Tower… or take a spin on the significantly easier (but potentially less satisfying) elevator.
9. Wander through Gastown and Chinatown – Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods
There’s no need for kitschy theme parks to get a taste of pioneer-era Vancouver. Just take a journey to the cobblestoned Gastown for a gander at the heritage sites, and experience the unique combination of what is old – and what is old but new again!
Gastown has become a hipster hub over the years, but in true hipster fashion, the area has captured and embellished on the vibrant identity of the neighborhood’s roots. Now it’s home to some of the best independent breweries, flea markets, the Gastown Steam Clock, and even the Vancouver Police Museum. Gastown is a great spot to sightsee by foot – though just to be safe, don’t stand downwind from the statue of the eponymous Gassy Jack!
Chinatown is just a stone’s throw away, and deserving of a visit when you’re in the area. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is one of the most famous landmarks in Vancouver, and the first authentic, full-scale Taoist garden built outside of China.
Though the area is rapidly changing, some pockets of Gastown and Chinatown can be a little sketchy. No city in North America is exempt from having a place where its most destitute need to live. This shouldn’t be a deterrent to visiting, but it is important to use common sense and consider doing your sightseeing by daytime.
10. Explore the British Columbia wilderness without leaving Vancouver at Grouse Mountain
The more orientationally-challenged of us (that is, the ones who can stare directly at the sun and still not quite work out which way is east) will take to Vancouver like a duck to water for no reason other than because Grouse Mountain comprises part of the stunning mountainscape due north of the city.
Just 15 minutes from downtown, Grouse Mountain is not just one of the landmarks in Vancouver to enjoy from a distance. Its hiking trails are beyond compare, and admission provides access to several eco-walks, ranger talks, lumberjack shows, and more.
For those interested in seeing the staggeringly gorgeous vistas that Grouse Mountain has to offer, the Skyride cable car operates year-round. Rise above the towering forest and drink in the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf Islands, and the city of Vancouver below.
Grab your admission from Tiqets to skip the line and make your visit more memorable with a romantic dinner at The Observatory restaurant, located at the mountain’s peak.