Vancouver is a beautiful city to visit. Sure, I'm biased because I live here, but that was by choice, not by the accident of birth.
If you have as little as an hour to spare, you can certainly see the essence of downtown Vancouver. Your Alaska cruise may see you being bussed directly from the airport to the ship, but you are bound to be on board a couple of hours before you sail, and you can easily get off and tour downtown Vancouver. I know the excitement of getting on board and wanting to explore the ship, but you will have a whole week to do it. If you are ending a cruise in Vancouver, you may have a couple of spare hours before you need to get to the airport to catch your flight home. There are places at the Canada Place cruise terminal to stash your bags while you explore. You may miss out on the free transfer from the cruise terminal to the airport, but it's only a $20 taxi drive, and you really wouldn't want to wait around at the airport when you could be checking out Vancouver.
This article is designed for somebody undertaking a walking tour from the Canada Place cruise terminal. If you happen to be docked at Vancouver's other cruise terminal, Ballantyne Pier, which is about a mile and a half further up the harbour, you will need to get a short taxi ride to get you downtown. Ballantyne Pier, while having a lot more room than the Canada Place cruise terminal, suffers from the fact that there is nothing to see within easy walking distance, and to get to downtown from Ballantyne Pier takes you through one of the least-pleasant areas of Vancouver. If you are starting from Ballantyne Pier, you can take a cab to the Canada Place cruise terminal, and pick up my tour at that point. Alternatively, you could take a taxi to the Hotel Vancouver, the center of downtown Vancouver, and start your tour there. If you do that, you still may want to end your tour at the Canada Place cruise terminal, because that is really worth seeing.
Leaving the Cruise Disembarkation Area
When you come out of the disembarkation area of the Canada Place cruise terminal, you will come out into an underground parking and passenger loading area. If you walk straight ahead, you will come to an elevator bank, where you will see the sign "Hotel and Convention Centre". You should go up to the main (lobby) level of the Pan Pacific Hotel, which is above the cruise terminal. Don't miss the opportunity to have a look at the Pan Pacific Hotel itself, by going up the two sets of escalators after you come out of the elevators. The hotel has an intriguing atrium, and a great bar (the "Cascade Lounge") to the left when you get to the top of the escalators, where you can look down on any cruise ships that happen to be docked on the west side of the terminal. There is also a great view across to Vancouver's North Shore. The bar area is also a fun spot to stop for a drink on your way back, before you re-board your cruise ship. Behind the bar is a great dining area called the "Five Sails", although not inexpensive.
If you are looking for any last minute items before you re-board your ship, or even after you get off it, there is an underground mall across the road from the cruise terminal, under the Waterfront Hotel. If the weather is bad, you can also get to this underground mall directly from the Pan Pacific Hotel, by an underpass which will keep you out of the inclement weather.
Canada Place Cruise Terminal
Proposed extensions to the cruise terminal, and a new Trade & Convention Center, will be to the left (east) of the existing terminal. The waterfront area to the right, which prenetly shows railroad tracks, is now being
re-developed with residential high-rises.
Photo coutesy of Tourism Vancouver.
So, standing outside of the Pan Pacific Hotel and about to start your tour, the first thing to do is to get oriented for directions. Looking back at the cruise terminal, you are facing north. If you move far enough to be able to see around the Pan Pacific Hotel, you will see the mountains behind Vancouver, which will always help you find where north is. Looking north, west is obviously to your left, and that is the direction where the cruise ship exits for Alaska, and is where you will find Stanley Park and Lions Gate Bridge. To the east, your right, is where you will find Ballantyne Pier cruise terminal and the second major crossing of Vancouver's harbour, called the Second Narrows Bridge. Most of Vancouver's suburbs are out in this eastern direction. Now, facing south, away from the mountains, you are facing downtown, and also the direction of the airport.
Tourist Information Center
You may want to start your tour by crossing the road and walking to the right a little, where you will come upon a Vancouver Tourist Information Center. In this center, you will get almost everything you ever wanted in the way of brochures about Vancouver, and also Victoria. Everything is free. If you think Vancouver's waterfront in this direction looks junky, well it is! The whole waterfront area is under redevelopment, now that the waterfront area no longer has the railway yards from the previous century. A whole series of high rise residential buildings will eventually occupy the waterfront area but, fortunately, there will be public access on the very edge of the waterfront, and you will eventually be able to walk along a seawalk from Canada Place cruise terminal all the way to Stanley Park.
Walking Around Canada Place
You can get a good view of Vancouver's North Shore by taking the long walk around the Pan Pacific Hotel/Canada Place cruise terminal complex itself. At the far end there is an I-max theatre. You will get a good view of the sails of Canada Place as you walk around the terminal. There is also an excellent restaurant at the end of the pier called the "Prow" Restaurant. If the weather is bad, you can always come back through the inside of the cruise terminal, and there is a food court and souvenir stores within that end of the complex. You will end up passing through the cruise ship disembarkation area again to get back outside.
Now, where to go? Back at our starting point in front of the Pan Pacific Hotel, if you turn left, you can go to Vancouver's Gastown (follow the road as it turns to the right for half a block, then turn left at Cordova Street). This is the site of Vancouver's original settlement, and contains a number of the older buildings. I personally find that the Gastown area is over-rated as a tourist sight, but if you have the time, it is probably worth walking the two or three blocks you will need to travel in order to see the main items of interest in Gastown, being the steam operated clock, and the statue of "Gassy Jack", one of the founders of Vancouver. Gastown peters out into some less attractive areas. There are certainly plenty of souvenir shops in Gastown, if you are looking for that last-minute present for a relative.
Super View and Liquor
When you are coming back from Gastown, on your left hand side there is a building called "Harbour Center", although you are actually looking at the back of the building. There is a look-out on the second-to-top storey of this building, which is accessible by an external, glass-walled elevator at the front of the building (Hastings Street). Although there is an admission fee, the view of Vancouver is absolutely phenomenal from this look-out, and there are lots of signs explaining what you are looking at. As usual, the ladies will have retail opportunities here. There is a revolving restaurant above the look-out floor, but I doubt if you will have time to enjoy that experience. At the bottom of the Harbour Center complex, on the Cordova Street side, is a liquor store, the closest one to the cruise terminal. If you want to sneak a little booze on board and save a bit of money, this is the place to pick it up.
On the way to or back from Gastown, you might want to have a look in the Canadian Pacific Railway Station (which will be on your left as you go to Gastown). This is a classic railway building, and was the original terminus of the trans-Canada railroad system, operated by Canadian Pacific Railway. Nowadays, the old railway terminal contains upscale stores and offices, and is also the location for the Seabus (ferry) across to North Vancouver, and the Skytrain (computer-operated train) to the suburbs of Vancouver (unfortunately, the train does not go to the airport).
Choices to get to the heart of Downtown
Back at the cruise terminal and facing south, you have a choice of three streets to take you downtown.
If you go to the left (east), or if you are coming back from Gastown, then you can follow Howe Street to the centre of downtown. A more attractive route, as you come out of the Pan Pacific Hotel, is to cross to a mini park in front of the hotel, cross another road, through another mini park, and you will end up on Hornby Street, which will take you to the heart of downtown. A third choice, but less interesting, is the street to your far right which is Burrard Street. You may want to take that route if you like Chinese food, as there is an excellent, but expensive, Chinese restaurant just around the corner called the "Imperial". As you pass through the second mini park, on your right hand side you will see a low rise orange and beige building - that's one of Vancouver's private clubs, the "Vancouver Club", and is a heritage building. "Heritage" is only a relative term in Vancouver, as you will hardly find any buildings that were constructed prior to the 1900's - reflecting Vancouver's quite recent history, and the fact that the early wooden buildings have mostly been destroyed.
Once you come through the second mini park, it is only three blocks to the centre of downtown. If you are interested in "mall" shopping, turn left at West Pender Street, and then right at Howe Street. If you look up, you will see a sign saying "Pacific Centre", being one of the many entrances to Vancouver's biggest shopping mall, which is all underground.
Back on Hornby Street and continuing to walk south towards the middle of downtown, you will cross Dunsmuir Street which has two good restaurants on the corner: informal dining at the Keg Caesar's, and great Italian food across the road at an underground restaurant called "Di Carlo". A little further along on the right hand side after you cross Dunsmuir Street is "Hy's Encore", definitely the best steak place in town.
Canadian Craft Museum
Right next to Hy's Encore, and often overlooked as a tourist sight, is the "Canadian Craft Museum" - if you are interested in that type of thing. The next street is Georgia Street, and you are now in the heart of Vancouver's downtown.
Across the road is the Hotel Vancouver, a Vancouver landmark, and featuring the classic 1930's architecture that can also be seen in other hotels across Canada owned by Canadian Pacific. The hotel is worth a visit inside to see its classic architecture, and there is an excellent "Canadian Pacific" store inside, featuring nostalgia from the days when Canadian Pacific not only ran trains, but also had the largest cruise ship fleet in the world. The hotel also has a couple of excellent restaurants, including "900 West Georgia" which features "nouvelle cuisine".
Vancouver's Hotel Vancouver
A classic 1930's design for Canadian Pacific Railway's hotels. To the left, you can see the fountains in front of the Art Gallery, formerly the main courthouse in Vancouver.
If you look to the open space to the left of the Hotel Vancouver, the building behind, which looks like a courthouse, is, in fact, Vancouver's main art gallery. That building was Vancouver's original main courthouse. The gift shop in the art gallery is excellent, and has a lot more than simply art materials in it. Vancouver's new courthouse is now two blocks further down Hornby Street, and is immediately recognizable by its glass roof, sloping at a 45 degree angle. This is an interesting piece of modern architecture, and if you are so inclined (and I can't imagine why) you can actually go in, and visit courtrooms in session.
Eatons and Me
Also to your left you will see a building with the sign "Eatons". Eatons is one of Canada's main department stores, and their building is above the Pacific Centre underground mall, which was mentioned earlier. If you look to the right of the Hotel Vancouver, you will see an office building, and if you look up at the 15th floor, you will see me busy in my office. There I am, waving at you.
Robson Street Shopping
The next place I would suggest you visit is the main retail shopping area in downtown Vancouver, called "Robson Street", which also contains a large number of excellent restaurants. (If the weather is bad, you may prefer to shop in the Pacific Centre underground mall, although you will find it looks like any mall anywhere in the United States, with all of the major chains featured).
Robson Street is immediately behind the Hotel Vancouver, and when you hit Robson Street by continuing down Hornby Street, you should turn right, as all the best shopping areas are to the west.
Before you start the four block walk of Robson Street shopping, you may want to explore the treed area at the corner of Robson and Hornby Streets (opposite the back of the art gallery, and kitty corner to Duthie's Book Store). When you pass through the treed area, it goes up over the government building which is just this side of the new courthouse. It is a very pleasant oasis in the middle of Vancouver.
Books, Planets and Virgins
Now starting the walk down Robson Street: on the right hand side, Duthie's Books, is one of the largest book-sellers in Western Canada. On that same side you will see the entrance to Planet Hollywood, a good place to take kids for lunch, although you would hardly call it Canadian. Next to Planet Hollywood is Virgin Records, and while you may not be in the market to buy any music, it is a very interesting store to go and wander around - especially if you have teenagers with you. You will see street vendors selling hot dogs, and these are usually pretty good.
After crossing Burrard Street, you will come into the two block area which has most of the retail and tourist stores. If you are into Japanese food and sushi, there is an upstairs restaurant called "Tsunami Sushi" on the right hand side.
On the left hand side in this block you will come across the "Marks & Spencer" store, a familiar name in England, but less well-known in the U.S. The store has an interesting mix of imported English foods, and good clothing. Right next door is an excellent souvenir store called "Capilano River Trading Company" (it's easy to find, as there is usually a bear chained outside the store - no, it's not real).
Magazines and Newspapers
Hankering for some news from back home? Just a little along from the Capilano River Trading store is "The Great Canadian News Store", which, despite its name, has newspapers and magazines from just about everywhere, including the New York Times and U.S.A. Today.
Time for coffee? The hugely-successful Seattle chain of Starbucks Coffee has stores on two of the next corners (Thurlow Street). If you look to the right as you cross this intersection, you will see Joe Fortes Seafood House, which is a fun place for a Canadian seafood lunch. If you are really desperate, there is a McDonald's right next to it.
If you are looking for a different kind of souvenir of Vancouver, on the left hand side in this next block is a camera store "Lens and Shutter", which has some fabulous aerial posters of Vancouver for sale.
On the right hand side, upstairs, is an excellent Italian restaurant called "Settebello". On the left hand side a little further up are two more upstairs Italian restaurants, one called "Zefferelli's" and the other "Cin Cin". The latter is probably the best, but a little bit more expensive.
Looking for a drug store? London Drugs, on the right hand side, has a huge collection of everything.
If you are looking for some non-ethnic food, or have the kids in tow, you might want to consider having lunch at "Earl's on Top", above London Drugs. Bute Street is the next main intersection, and the concentrated tourist shopping stops about this point, although you may want to explore just one more block. If you really have lots of time, you can continue walking down Robson Street, and you will end up at Stanley Park. I am planning to write a separate article about tourist sights in Vancouver which are a little further out from downtown.
Returning to the Ship
Turning around now to go back to the ship, you could pretty well go down any street towards the mountains, and you will eventually end up at Canada Place if you turn right once you get near the waterfront. You may want to consider returning to the ship simply by walking down the other side of Robson Street, but this time turn left at Burrard Street rather than at Hornby Street. Going down Burrard Street, after you cross Georgia Street, you will see a Royal Bank Center on your left. As far as I know, the Royal Bank is the only place that has an ATM machine that spits out U.S. dollars rather than Canadian ones. Next to the Royal Bank is the Hyatt Hotel, which has an interesting lobby to look at.
Next to the Hyatt Hotel, is a Skytrain station. If you would like to save a little bit of walking, and have the fun of riding on Vancouver's computerized train, climb aboard. It is only one stop from the Burrard Street station to the Canada Place Cruise Terminal (the station is called "Waterfront"). Make sure you catch the train going the right direction, otherwise you will end up in Vancouver's suburbs.
I hope you have enjoyed my little tour, and more especially I hope you enjoy Vancouver.
Beluga & Boy
Award-winning photo taken at Vancouver's aquarium in Stanley Park
Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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