Vancouver may have a reputation for being Canada’s most expensive city, but its status as a hotspot for outdoor activities means there’s no shortage of free and cheap things to do. From Granville Island market and Stanley Park to long, sandy beaches and scenic hiking trails, here’s our pick of the best.
Granville Island, in False Creek, is one of Vancouver’s top attractions. Once the city’s industrial manufacturing area, it’s now a hub for the city’s arts and crafts community, home to galleries, theaters, and the Kingsmill Pottery Studio. You can take a stroll through the famous Public Market, where you’ll find more than 50 traders selling everything from local smoked salmon and artisan cheeses to jewelry and leather goods. Then pop over to the waterfront to soak up the views. From downtown Vancouver you can get here on foot, by bus, or by boat.
Vancouver Art Gallery — one of the largest in Canada — is housed in the city’s former courthouse and is as impressive inside as it is out. An adult ticket usually costs CAD24 ($18.31), but if you come on a Tuesday evening between 5pm and 8pm you can get in for just a donation. The permanent collection boasts 11,000 items, including major works by the well-known Canadian artists Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, in addition to several rotating exhibitions. Don’t leave without checking out the 1931 Gallery Bistro, which has one of the city’s swankiest outdoor terraces.
Lynn Canyon Park
Lynn Canyon Park, in north Vancouver, is a free alternative to one of the city’s top paid-for attractions – Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Boasting its own, smaller, 55yd (50m) suspension bridge, it’s the perfect spot to witness sweeping views of the surrounding forest and swimming holes. Although the suspension bridge is the main attraction, there’s also an extensive network of trails here. Hike through forest near the bridge itself, or head to the nearby Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve for the Twin Bridges hike or the slightly more challenging Lynn Peak hike.
Relax at the Beach
Vancouver is packed full of beautiful beaches, with Kits, a sandy stretch with a large, grassy park, the most popular. In Stanley Park you’ll also find First, Second, and Third Beaches. First Beach is the park’s most popular, attracting lots of swimmers, and home to volleyball courts and a place to rent kayaks and paddleboards. From Second Beach, you can look out over English Bay from the busy swimming pool, while Third Beach, on the southern coast, is the most isolated, offering incredible sunset views. Further outside the city is the delightfully named Burnaby’s Barnet Marine Park and North Vancouver’s Cates Park.
Queen Elizabeth Park
Queen Elizabeth Park is Vancouver’s highest point, clocking in at 410ft (125m) above sea level. Thanks to its central location, the park has some of the best views of the city’s impressive skyline, with a stunning backdrop of the North Vancouver mountains. The park is a popular picnic spot, with plenty of green space to relax with family or friends. You can also spend time wandering through the diverse arboretum filled with exotic trees and soaring sculptures, or play a game of tennis, lawn bowling, or pitch and putt.
In North Vancouver, at the gateway to the North Shore, Lonsdale Quay houses a bustling market with 60 food stalls and shops, including a fresh food market, specialty stores featuring local designers, a play area and even a boutique hotel. The landmark quay hosts various summer events, as well as exercise classes and live music. Treat yourself to dinner at one of the many restaurants while soaking up Vancouver’s best views from the waterfront. To get to Lonsdale Quay from downtown Vancouver, hop on the SeaBus ferry from Waterfront Station.
You might not know it, but Vancouver’s Chinatown is the third largest in North America (after San Francisco and New York). Take in the ornate Millennium Gate entrance on Pender Street before diving into the dim sum restaurants, traditional bakeries, and Chinese grocery stores lining the streets. Nearby, you’ll find the tranquil Dr Sun Yat-Sen Park — the first traditional Chinese garden outside China, and a serene escape from the bustle of urban life. There’s a beautiful classical garden with an admission fee, but the park itself is free.
Lighthouse Park is a fantastic national historic site in West Vancouver spanning 185 acres (75ha). It’s home to ancient forest and some of the largest Douglas firs in the area, as well as several hiking trails, open year-round. From the colorful Point Atkinson Lighthouse — the park’s namesake – you can enjoy spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, and it’s a great spot for a picnic on sunnier days. Lighthouse Park is a 30-minute drive from downtown, or you can get there by public transport.
Stanley Park is a glorious 1,000 acre (400ha) public park at the northernmost tip of downtown Vancouver. As well as views of the beautiful Burrard Inlet and English Bay, you can find beaches, walking trails, local wildlife, and Canada’s largest aquarium. Walk or cycle the 3.4mi (8.8km) sea wall that loops around the coastline, soaking up incredible views of the northern mountains and the Lions Gate Bridge. Keep your eyes peeled for the Girl in a Wetsuit statue, Siwash Rock, the Lost Lagoon, Brockton Point Lighthouse, Beaver Lake, and the park’s many impressive totem poles.
Enjoy a Summertime Festival
Summer is a great time to visit Vancouver, not only for the warm weather, but for the free festivals and events. The Celebration of Light is the longest-running offshore fireworks festival in the world, where three different countries from around the world compete each year to see who can light up the sky most spectacularly. (India and Croatia competed with Canada in 2019.) The Pride Parade and Festival draws thousands of party-goers, while at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival you can catch hundreds of free concerts at venues across the city.
Vancouver’s large supply of parks and trails means there are hikes to suit every skill level. Among the most popular areas are Quarry Rock, in Deep Cove, home to moderate trails and waterfalls, and Burnaby Mountain, which is also great for mountain biking. Those who fancy a challenge can tackle the famous Grouse Grind to the peak of Grouse Mountain. This hike may not be for the faint-hearted, but the views at the top are well worth it. While it’s free to climb to the top, there is a fee to take the Skyride back down, though by that point you may not mind paying for the luxury.
Capilano Salmon Hatchery
On the Capilano River, in North Vancouver, the Capilano River Hatchery invites you to witness the fascinating life cycle of the Pacific salmon that pass through the area. Late August to November is the best time to see returning salmon leaping upriver for spawning. If you’re so inclined, take a self-guided tour through the hatchery’s interpretive center, and watch as fish develop from eggs to when they’re ready to be released into the river, or explore the area’s various hiking trails and picnic spots. The hatchery is open year-round.
Richmond Night Market
If you’re looking for a free Friday night or weekend activity, Richmond Night Market has a great range of Asian street food and snacks, from fried squid and tornado potatoes to bubble waffles and fresh mango desserts. Vendors sell a host of other gifts and accessories, too. There’s also live entertainment including music and dance performances, and carnival rides. The market is currently held near Bridgeport Station, and you can get to it on the Canada Line from downtown.
Pacific Spirit Regional Park
Near the sprawling campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Pacific Spirit Regional Park is known as a hiker’s paradise for its 34mi (54km) of hiking trails. Many welcome cyclists, runners, dogs, and horseback riders. If you decide to walk, it takes about three hours to get from one end to the other. The park is home to some spectacular wildlife, with regular sightings of bald eagles and salamanders, and a variety of trees including Douglas firs, hemlock, and Sitka spruce. If it clouds over, the Museum of Anthropology and the UBC Botanical Garden are good alternatives.
Canada Place, with its roof of iconic white sails, is one of the best spots for a breathtaking view of Vancouver’s waterfront. Soak up views of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains, as well as the luxurious cruise ships arriving and departing from the main terminal. There’s a range of exhibitions and regularly changing events inside, but the highlight is FlyOver Canada, a virtual ride that recreates the sensation of flying over some of Canada’s most impressive sights.
Additional reporting by Emma Gibbins
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