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Things to Do in British Columbia

Coastlines, mountains, and forests abound in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. Amid these striking natural landscapes lies cosmopolitan Vancouver, the capital city of Victoria, Whistler — arguably the world’s best all-season resort — and a host of small towns and cities. Make Vancouver your launch pad in order to watch whales in the Atlantic Ocean, cross the exhilarating Capilano Suspension Bridge, stroll through Butchart Gardens, and see the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In March and April, visitors might glimpse the northern lights illuminating the sky over Whitehorse’s arctic wilderness.
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Gastown
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A highly evocative neighborhood of excellent character bars and a smattering of good restaurants, Gastown is Vancouver’s best old-town area. The Victorian era resonates in the cobblestone streets, antique lamps, and old buildings, adding to the neighborhood’s distinctive ambiance.

Gastown is the place to pay your respects to Vancouver’s founding father, "Gassy" Jack Deighton – a bronze statue of him salutes Maple Tree Square. On Water Street stands the famous Steam Clock, a charming little artifact, built to resemble London’s Big Ben. The neighborhood has also become a hotbed for local designer-owned shops, drawing a new crowd of regulars to the area. It’s also place to look for a new art gallery or a piece of beautiful, hand-carved First Nations art in one of the galleries along Water and Hastings streets. Microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung up across the city in recent years, and many of the best beer havens are in Gastown. Steamworks is the most accessible.

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Lions Gate Bridge
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The Lions Gate Bridge spans Burrard Inlet, connecting North and West Vancouver with the City Centre, via Stanley Park. Originally opened in 1938, the bridge isn’t just a major transportation hub for Vancouver, but it’s also a National Historic Site of Canada.

Even the impressive stats—the bridge is about a mile (1.5 km) long, its two suspension towers are 365 feet (111 meters) tall and the bridge deck sits 200 feet (61 m) above the water—barely do the bridge justice. From Ambleside Park, in West Vancouver, the view of Lions Gate Bridge against a backdrop of downtown Vancouver truly shows its immense scale. It’s even more spectacular at night, as the entire bridge is covered in decorative LED lighting.

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Victoria Inner Harbour
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A trim wedge of water rimmed with top landmarks, Victoria’s Inner Harbour is the city’s bustling port. Whether you’re hopping a whale-watching cruise or enjoying a sea breeze, the Inner Harbour is an essential stop when exploring Victoria. Among its highlights are the elegant Fairmont Empress hotel and the narrow streets beyond.
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Stanley Park
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The magnificent Stanley Park certainly enjoys one of the world’s most breathtaking settings: the park is surrounded on three sides by the ocean and loomed over by the snow-capped North Shore mountains. The park’s perimeter seawall stroll is one of the best ways to spend your time. Stanley Park is big enough to have quiet parts whenever you’re seeking seclusion, while wildlife lovers can always spot raccoons on the ground or eagles high in the trees.

Within its 1,000 acres/400 hectares you’ll find forests of cedar, hemlock and fir, mingled with meadows, lakes, and cricket pitches. There are also a couple of excellent beaches – ideal spots to perch on a driftwood log with a picnic and catch a kaleidoscopic sunset over the water.

But the park isn’t just for dewy-eyed nature lovers; other highlights include the collection of totem poles by the shore, Second Beach Swimming Pool, and Vancouver Aquarium.

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Downtown Vancouver
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Although it's officially on a peninsula, the abundant water surrounding downtown Vancouver can make it feel like an island. It is, today, the center of commerce and business for British Columbia but, even historically, the downtown area has always been a significant meeting point for trade and culture.

In modern history, the area wasn't permanently settled by outsiders until 1862 when the city was chosen to be the terminus for the transcontinental railroad. As Vancouver grew, a number of neighborhoods began to develop within the city. Gastown is one of the oldest parts of the city and remains a tourist attraction. It's here where the world's first steam-powered clock still stands in working condition. Other significant neighborhoods worth visiting within the downtown core include Robson Street, Coal Harbour and Yaletown. There is also a prominent Chinatown in downtown Vancouver – the largest in Canada.

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Canada Place
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One of the best places to orient yourself, especially if this is your first trip to Vancouver, is Canada Place. Built for Expo '86, this iconic, postcard-friendly landmark is hard to miss: its five tall Teflon sails that jut into the sky over Burrard Inlet resemble a giant sailing ship. Now a cruise-ship terminal and convention center, it's also a pier where you can stroll out over the waterfront, watch the splashing floatplanes, and catch some spectacular sea-to-mountain views.

Around the perimeter of Canada Place is a promenade, where you can gaze out at the North Shore mountains standing tall across Burrard Inlet. You can also see nearby Stanley Park and its famous Seawall Promenade. Walk to the other end of the promenade and you’ll be rewarded with great city views, including the historic low-rise tops of Gastown, where Vancouver was first settled. Inside the building is FlyOver Canada, a cool simulated flight attraction that takes you across Canada.

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Victoria Chinatown
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First established in the mid-19th century, Victoria Chinatown is among North America’s oldest. Now a National Historic Site, Victoria’s Chinatown is home to cafes, studios, herbalists, tea rooms, and shops, as well as the narrow Fan Tan Alley, which measures 35 inches (88.9 centimeters) wide at its narrowest point.
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Vancouver Lookout
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Resembling a space ship that landed atop a downtown office tower, the Vancouver Lookout gives you panoramic 360-degree views of the city and surrounding landscape. Perhaps befitting the observation tower’s space age design, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was also the first visitor to the Vancouver Lookout, inaugurating the tower in 1977. Though the 30-story structure now seems almost petite compared to Vancouver’s newest skyscrapers, it’s a great place to get oriented to the city with vistas to Stanley Park, the North Shore mountains, and on a clear day, all the way to the Olympic Peninsula.

You can explore the views on your own – there are informational plaques in front of every window – or ask one of the guides for a complimentary tour. You can also join one of the free 20-minute tours that run throughout the day. Your admission ticket is valid all day, so you can scope out the daylight views and return later for the sunset.

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Royal British Columbia Museum
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Even if you normally give museums a miss, you won’t want to leave Victoria without dropping into the highly acclaimed Royal British Columbia Museum. From big-screen IMAX movies to the re-created First Peoples village, this imaginative and creatively curated museum will have you thinking and engaging with the past.

The First Peoples Gallery provides insights into life before the arrival of Europeans, while the Modern History Gallery vividly re-creates colonial life. In the Natural History Gallery, seals, grizzly bears and seabirds fill dioramas re-creating the region’s ecosystems. Big-screen films are screened in the on-site IMAX cinema.

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British Columbia Parliament Buildings
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Built overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbor, the British Columbia Legislature Buildings form an impressive architectural and historical landmark within a few steps of downtown. When the provincial legislature outgrew its former home, the provincial government hosted an architectural competition to build the new legislative buildings. Francis Rattenbury, a then 25-year-old recent arrival from England, won with his three-building neo-baroque style plans, but construction didn’t go without its woes; the project soared beyond its original budget, but the new British Columbia Parliament Buildings did open their doors in 1898.

The white marble, massive central dome, and lengthy façade combined to make an innovative and impressive monument for what, at the time, was a relatively young Canadian province. The building remains equally impressive, today, and a few new landmarks exist on its property.

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More Things to Do in British Columbia

Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Falls

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Brandywine Falls is a spectacular 216-foot waterfall located just a short hop off the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Squamish and Whistler. The falls are also surrounded by Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, which has tripled in size in the past decade. Measuring 216 feet, the waterfall is nearly 30 percent taller than Niagara Falls, albeit with a fraction of the water volume. A half-mile (1-km) walking trail leads from the parking lot to a viewpoint, and it’s worth venturing a few minutes further down the trail, too, as a second viewpoint offers panoramic views across Daisy Lake. Both the Lava Lake and Sea-to-Sky trails offer short hiking and mountain biking opportunities within the park. The steeper Swim Lake Trail, which starts just before the railway crossing, doesn’t actually lead to a good swimming hole, as Swim Lake doesn't have a dock or  beach. However, the trail is worth exploring because it provides the best opportunity to spot the rare and endangered red-legged frog.

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Robson Street

Robson Street

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Locals, international tourists, and recent immigrants - try and count the number of accents you catch as you stroll along here - throng the hotels, eateries, and shops of Robson Street, Vancouver's de facto shopping promenade. Stand at the corner of Burrard and Robson and watch its colorful parade of shoppers and shops unfold.

Shoppers come to browse and buy the high-end clothing and accessory shops that line Robson Street. While most shops are of the ubiquitous chain-store variety, many boutiques showcase up-and-coming designers.

It’s also worth heading to the Stanley Park end of the strip, where you'll find a modern “mini-Asia” of subterranean internet cafés, hole-in-the-wall noodle eateries, and discreet karaoke bars populated by homesick Japanese and Korean language students. It's a great area for a cheap-and-cheerful, authentically South Asian lunch.

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Government Street

Government Street

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Running through the heart of Downtown Victoria, Government Street is home to plenty of shopping and local history. Along the Victoria Harbour front, the British Columbia Legislature Buildings and the Fairmont Empress are important historical landmarks, both designed by the untrained British architect Francis Rattenbury.
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Granville Island

Granville Island

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Brimming with arts and crafts studios, bars and restaurants with eye-popping views, Granville Island is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. Though it’s really a peninsula, jutting out into False Creek, the island draws those who come to wander the pedestrian-friendly alleyways while enjoying the sounds of the buskers and the sights along the waterfront.

One of the highlights is the Granville Island Public Market, where you can trawl the deli-style food stalls and artisan stands. Art lovers can wander through the three galleries of up-and-coming artists at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design. For the under-10 set, the Kids Market bristles with kid-friendly stores, mostly of the toy variety. For a little respite, entice the kids away from the shops and head to the huge Granville Island Water Park.

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English Bay

English Bay

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Surrounded by the city’s Seawall and containing one of Vancouver’s most popular beaches, English Bay is at the heart of Vancouver’s water related activities. In warm weather, kayaking, fishing, and even scuba diving all take place in the waters here. English Bay Beach, also called First Beach, is the most populated beach area in the city. With palm trees and plentiful sand, English Bay Beach is the go-to spot for sunbathing and beach volleyball when the sun is shining. It is also one of the best places to go swimming.

Annually two of the city’s largest events take place here: the Celebration of Light fireworks competition in July and the Polar Bear Swim in January. Many laid back, open-air restaurants and patios dot the area around the water, and the notable sunset and sunrise skies are what draw many visitors. With views of the surrounding mountains and coastline, English Bay offers some of the best natural scenery in Vancouver.

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False Creek

False Creek

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At the center of Vancouver lies a short protected inlet that separates the downtown from the rest of the city. Once a centuries old fishing village dismissed by its disconnection to the Vancouver Harbor, it is now a highly sought after residential and commercial area. False Creek sits peacefully by the water, which draws many boaters and kayakers. There is also a promenade that allows visitors to walk alongside the water and take in views of the city skyline and the surrounding sea.

Many visitors hop on board one of the ferries that run along the water, stopping at trendy parts of the city such as Granville, The Village, and Yaletown. These neighborhoods all face False Creek, and offer some of the best restaurants, shops, and markets in Vancouver. Southeast False Creek was the site of the Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympic Games.

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Yaletown

Yaletown

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Pedestrian-friendly Yaletown is Vancouver’s "little SoHo", a former red-brick rail terminal turned into a warehouse district lined with swanky New York-style lofts and chichi boutiques. The focal point of the modern-day yuppie enclave exudes a hip and inviting atmosphere - especially at night, when its sophisticated drink and dine spots are packed to the rafters with the city’s beautiful people checking each other out.

Walking along Yaletown streets provides a bounty of attractions. The neighborhood has plenty of pricey boutiques to window shops, art galleries to linger in, and lots of places to stop for lunch, coffee or a splurge-worth dinner. Some of the best seafood restaurants are here, as is Yaletown Brewing Company, where you can sample its home-brewed beer. If you’re curious about the area’s almost-forgotten rough-and-ready past, follow the old rail lines embedded in many of the streets and amble over to the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.

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Vancouver Olympic Cauldron

Vancouver Olympic Cauldron

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Located in Jack Poole Plaza in front of the Vancouver Convention Center, the Olympic Cauldron was built to commemorate the city's 2010 hosting of the Winter Olympic Games. The 33-foot-tall cauldron was constructed with steel and glass and was first lit as the Olympic torch made it's final run on the relay to B.C. Place Stadium for the opening ceremony of the games. Across the plaza from the cauldron is the Vancouver Convention Center, which was host to the media during the Winter Games and a key cog to the operations of the event. It's a fitting placement to commemorate the amount of work put into the event by the city of Vancouver. Today, the cauldron, which is back-dropped by stunning view of mountains and sea, has become a tourist destination in the heart of downtown Vancouver. However, the cauldron is only lit on days of special importance such as Remembrance Day or Canada Day.

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Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver Aquarium

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Stanley Park's biggest draw, the aquarium is home to 9,000 water-loving creatures - including sharks, dolphins, Amazonian caimans, and a somewhat shy octopus. There's also a small, walk-through rainforest area full of birds, butterflies, and turtles. Check out the iridescent jellyfish tank and the two sea otters that eat the way everyone should: lying on their backs using their chests as plates.

Beluga whales whistle and blow water at onlookers in the icy-blue Arctic Canada exhibit, while in the Amazon rainforest, an hourly rainstorm falls in an atrium filled with three-toed sloths, stunning blue and green poison tree frogs, and even piranhas. For a local perspective, check out the Pacific Canada exhibit, where you can see Pacific salmon, giant Pacific Octopus, Stellar see lions, and a Pacific white-sided dolphin.

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Craigdarroch Castle

Craigdarroch Castle

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It’s hard to believe that this opulent Scottish-Gothic fairy-tale castle was built as a family home. Now open to the public, take a tour and pretend you’re in Bonny Scotland.

The four-story turreted castle was built in the late 1880s for Scottish coal millionaire Robert Dunsmuir. He died before the home with its 39 rooms was completed, but his family lived there until 1908.

A self-guided tour of this incredible property reveals its stained-glass and carved balustrades, rooms furnished with period details, and the lookout tower with fabulous views over the city.

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Whistler-Blackcomb Mountains

Whistler-Blackcomb Mountains

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North America’s major ski resort focuses on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, attracting up to two million winter and summertime visitors a year.

Linked by the groundbreaking Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the two mountains peer over the pretty alpine town of Whistler Village.

The official skiing venue for the 2010 Olympic winter games, the Whistler and Blackcomb resorts merged in 1997 and together have a total of 38 ski lifts and more than 200 ski runs.

In summer the ski runs transform into mountain-bike trails for nail-biting thrills, and the alpine meadows are crossed by hikers and nature lovers.

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Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

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Fisherman’s Wharf is an eclectic combination of tourist shops and residential float homes. Although the fishing heyday has passed, at which time when a fishing vessel was tied to every slip at the Fisherman’s Wharf except the two “live aboard” docks, the atmosphere hasn’t changed much. Colorful characters still roam the docks, but now often rub shoulders with passing tourists rather than sea-hardened fishermen.
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Fairmont Empress Hotel

Fairmont Empress Hotel

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The grand lady of Victoria, the Fairmont Empress Hotel was built in over-the-top French chateau style by the Canadian Pacific Railway company, opening in 1908.

Victoria’s first hotel is still the grandest, and one of the most highly awarded hotels in the country. Over the last 100 years, all manner of famous people have stayed here, including Edward Prince of Wales, Queen Elizabeth and Shirley Temple.

Taking afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel is an experience not to be missed, complete with Edwardian style service, clotted cream, scones and pots of tea. Bookings are essential.

The style is more subcontinental colonial in the Bengal Lounge restaurant, where the menu features a curry buffet.

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