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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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Whistler-Blackcomb Mountains
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38 Tours and Activities

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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Peak 2 Peak Gondola
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Summer or snow, riding the Peak 2 Peak Gondola in Whistler is a must-do highlight. Gliding along the world’s longest unsupported span, the gondola is also the highest lift of its kind. The mountain-top gondola links the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain and the Rendezvous Restaurant on Blackcomb Mountain. The ride takes around 11 minutes, with services departing every minute. The total distance you’ll swing across is 4.4 km (2.7 miles), soaring up to 436 meters (1,427 feet) above the valley floor. The gondola can seat 22 passengers, with stunning 360-degree views of this spectacular mountain setting. Ride the gondola to ski the slopes, hike an alpine walking trail or take tea at the mountain-top restaurant.

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Downtown Vancouver
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63 Tours and Activities

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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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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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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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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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

Craigdarroch Castle

Craigdarroch Castle

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29 Tours and Activities

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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Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

19 Tours and Activities
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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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Stanley Park

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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Royal British Columbia Museum

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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Gastown

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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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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Canada Place

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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Vancouver Lookout

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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Prospect Point

Prospect Point

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Found within the current bounds of Vancouver's Stanley Park, Prospect Point is not only the highest point in the park and a great viewpoint of the harbor, but a place of significant history. In the late 1800s, boats traveling into Burrard Inlet were forced to pass extremely close to Prospect Point, as uninhibited water from the Capilano River plowed into the harbor, carrying with it silt and rock. The mineral-heavy flow further out caused the waters to be less buoyant, but crossing so close to the cliffs of Prospect Point wasn't without its risks either. In 1888, a ship called the S.S. Beaver ran aground on the rocks. It was then that the decision was made to put a warning light on the point to help guide ships through the passage. Some 25 years later, a signal station was built on the point to relay information to ships entering the inlet and, in 1948, the current Prospect Point Lighthouse was erected.

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Emily Carr House

Emily Carr House

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The Emily Carr House was the childhood home of Canadian painter and author Emily Carr and had a long-lasting impression on much of her work. Today, it is an Interpretive Centre for Carr’s artwork, writing, and life.

Emily Carr’s work reads like an adventure. It carried her from remote native settlements throughout British Columbia to major cities like San Francisco, London, and Paris. But her childhood home continually appeared throughout all of her work, especially her writing. The house itself was built in 1863 and Carr called it home from her birth, in 1871, until she left to pursue artist training overseas. Her father’s death triggered ownership changes and, after years of passing through the Carr Family, the house was sold off. Although it was once scheduled for demolition, the house made its way back to the Emily Carr Foundation before being purchased by the provincial government and restored.

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Old Town Victoria

Old Town Victoria

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Chalk artists, buskers, horse-and-carriage rides, and walking tours: Victoria’s Old Town has enough attractions to keep the curious visitor occupied for an entire day. With many side streets and small squares to duck into, Old Town offers plenty of big shops and restaurants as well as smaller, independently owned boutiques and eye-catching street art. Old Town’s cobblestone streets wind together through alleyways where some of B.C.’s oldest and grandest architecture can be found. Curious pedestrians can begin at the Empress Hotel (Insider’s tip: For a truly spectacular experience, indulge in afternoon tea at the hotel, which offers a full English high tea.) and head down the Victoria Inner Harbour Walkway toward Government Street. When the weather’s nice, Government Street is lined with musicians and performers, in addition to the cafes, specialty shops, gift shops, and numerous pubs for the thirsty traveler.

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