No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of Vancouver’s skyline, nothing disarms quite like the real thing. As you crest the Burrard Street Bridge, the city reveals itself: a jaw-dropping confluence of mountains, sea, steel, and glass, sitting neatly in the flats of a tidal basin. Even for those hardened to the stunning vistas of the Northwest, Canada’s only West Coast metropolis is somehow otherworldly. And what lies beneath the dazzling assemblage of blue-green towers is even better: a vibrant patchwork of cozy-yet-cosmopolitan neighborhoods.
Backed up snugly against the toothy peaks of the Coast Mountain Range, Vancouver has looked west to Asia since its European settlement in 1862. Today, around 100 direct flights arrive from or depart to points in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia each week, and more than two-thirds of the city’s recent immigrants hail from Asia. Those flung-open doors to the Pacific have fostered an international brand of exoticism built upon the vivid flavors and wide-ranging cultures of China, India, and Japan. If you’re not up for a trans-Pacific flight, crossing the Canadian border into Vancouver is the next best thing.
At the same time, the youthful city manages to “out-Portland” Portland. The new home of the annual TED conference is a mecca for farm-to-table extremism, environmental innovation, and “Vancouverism”—a globally recognized shorthand for the city’s sustainable, decidedly dense urban development approach. Craft breweries, distilleries, and even urban wineries have sprouted. Artists and creatives are plentiful. To Portlanders, Vancouver feels at once familiar and exotic—and by train, plane, or automobile, it’s easily conquered in a weekend. Just don’t forget your passport.
Pick Your Digs
From ornate historic buildings to impossibly hip boutique hotels, stylish lodging options are plentiful in Vancouver. After a full, ’70s-inspired revamp by famed interior designer Robert Bailey, Yaletown’s Opus Vancouver boasts 96 rooms bedecked with local art, luscious colors, and iPads for all—you’ll feel like a rock star. To keep it classy, book a room at the luxurious Rosewood Hotel Georgia, which first opened its doors across from the excellent Vancouver Art Gallery in 1927 and has since played host to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and the Rolling Stones. A full restoration in 2011, along with the installation of a vast collection of Canadian fine art, returned the Georgian Revival building to its former grandeur. Built in the 1950s, the Burrard, a revamped motor inn, offers a more economical option—and a taste of Portland funkiness. The “retro-licious” hotel’s tagline? “It’s like Melrose Place, only there’s no pool to drown in.”
Embrace the 100-Mile Diet
In Vancouver, world-class Asian cuisine shacks up with a local, sustainable ethos. Even the mayor, Gregor Robertson, is a former organic farmer. This fusion is on display at Chinatown’s Pidgin restaurant, where chef Makoto Ono’s delicate creations—warm mushrooms with snap peas, tossed in a soy yuzu brown butter and topped with a poached egg—bridge the divide between casual and fine dining, all in a room of Japanese joinery and homey ephemera. Burdock & Co, opened in 2013, makes its home in a rustic room of painted brick and reclaimed wood on Vancouver’s boutique-lined Main Street. Chef Andrea Carlson sources ingredients from area farms and city gardens for a fresh, refined take on familiar dishes like buttermilk fried chicken and rosemary-smoked mussels. At the legendary Vij’s (and next-door lunch spot, Rangoli), deprived Portlanders will find a taste of exceptional contemporary Indian cuisine, from pork belly with apple mint chutney to Rajasthani-style spicy goat. For dim sum—and one of the more authentic Asian culinary experiences in North America—head to the Fisherman’s Terrace in the nearby suburb of Richmond for everything from deep-fried chicken knee to steamed duck tongue.
Hit the Bricks
The historical core of Vancouver, Gastown was named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain, and barkeep who opened the area’s first saloon in 1867. Today, its walkable, cobblestoned streets are home to a stylish mix of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and upscale apartments. Nearby, the up-and-coming Yaletown is a former rail terminal and warehouse district that began blossoming fancy lofts, designer boutiques, and trendy restaurants in the 1990s. Come nightfall, its bars are packed to the rafters with wide-eyed singles. Over on the east side, South Main offers some of the city’s best shopping—and drinking. Formerly home to a stream, the area attracted throngs of breweries between 1888 and 1912, earning it the name “Brewery Creek.” Three craft breweries (R&B, 33 Acres, and Brass Neck) currently line the street, with more coming this year. In between pints, stop in to ogle poppy art at Hot Art Wet City, pick up stationery and design zines at Regional Assembly of Text, and sip a perfect latte at 49th Parallel Coffee.
Follow the Water
There’s no better way to experience Vancouver’s stunning geography than to circumnavigate the city. Rent bikes (if you stay at the Opus, borrow one of theirs) to follow the 13.7-mile seawall that lines the city’s waterfront. Follow the path through the parks and beaches that flank False Creek all the way to Stanley Park, the city’s 1,000-acre beating heart—a temperate rain forest braided with walking and cycling trails. Jaw-dropping vistas, glimpses of Olympic Village, and frolicking sea otters will lead the way. Or pack your towel and head the other direction to Kitsilano Beach to soak up some sun. To go by water, hop on the Aquabus at one of its many stops, and cruise False Creek. Be sure to make a stop at Granville Island, where the bustling Public Market’s colorful stalls sell everything from giant oysters to handmade pasta and porcelain tableware. When you’ve tired of shopping, make your way to Artisan SakeMaker for a taste of Masa Shiroki’s award-winning, small-batch sake. Or for the harder stuff, head for Liberty Distillery and try a flight of vodka, gin, and white whiskey.