VANCOUVER, B.C. – I’m pretty sure I did Vancouver wrong. Granted, I tried to chug down a complex, changing metropolis in just three days, which is a ridiculously – and, let’s be honest, insultingly – short period of time.
In a misguided attempt at comprehensiveness, I turned my trip – my first since Canada reopened its border to Americans on Aug. 9 after a long, COVID-19-induced closure – into an overstuffed sandwich, letting choice bits slide off the plate and onto the floor.
The best things I saw were unplanned accidents. If I’d gone a little slower and tried to do less, I probably would’ve found more. So, in the spirit of regret and contrition, I’m giving my past self some advice – and I’m going to give it out loud so that you may profit from my mistakes and misfortunes.
1. Get yourself a transit card, called a Compass Card, immediately
You can get them at major transit hubs (SkyTrain stations, etc.), London Drugs store or 7-Eleven. Start taking the buses and trains immediately. You’ll save money, see more of the city and, in the long run, save yourself some time. (But, of course, reserve the right to a Lyft or Uber now and then.)
2. Go to Robson Square and stay there, quietly and unobtrusively, for a while
The vigil at Robson Square, which has since made headlines around the world, began May 28 when Vancouver artist Tamara Bell (Haida) placed 215 pairs of children’s shoes on the steps of Vancouver Art Gallery to memorialize 215 Indigenous children whose unmarked mass grave had been discovered at a Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
That discovery, and those shoes, have unlatched a deep, continuing national conversation about the horrors of residential schools and the history of colonialism in Canada. (Where in the U.S. you might see “Black Lives Matter” on T-shirts or sidewalks, in Vancouver you’ll see “Every Child Matters” – no relation to the “All Lives Matter” subversion of BLM.)
Those stone steps on Robson Square, which used to be the steps of a courthouse, have become a vigil where people show up, talk, drum, cry and stand silently. It’s not a “fun” tourist diversion for gawking and photos – but, at the moment, is arguably one of the most important things to see in Vancouver.
You can learn more about the city’s original inhabitants, particularly the Musqueam, at a Museum of Vancouver (1100 Chestnut St.) exhibition titled “ćəsna?əm: The City Before the City.”
3. Spend more time on Commercial Drive
At first, this neighborhood will confuse you with its pleasantly startling mix of cuisines, ethnicities and income brackets – that’s a good thing. In just a few blocks, you’ll pass places advertising injera, sushi, tandoori, mezcal, Italian coffee, samosas, Cuban sandwiches and upscale and down-home Vietnamese food.
Upscale pet accessory stores live next to well-worn used bookshops; some people on the street look like they have a lot of money, others look like they don’t have much. Andy Yan, an urban planner with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, says this coexistence is explained by gentrification in slow motion.
Commercial Drive was an Italian stronghold, then a multi-ethnic neighborhood and is now attracting “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians). But, due to a variety of factors – including the place being cut up into small parcels of land, which makes it difficult and expensive for development – the old parts of the neighborhood are holding out.
Places to eat: Lunch Lady (1046 Commercial Drive), an exquisitely good second-generation Vietnamese place; La Grotta del Formaggio (1791 Commercial Drive) for stellar Italian sandwiches; and old-school, anti-pretentious Joe’s Cafe (1150 Commercial Drive) for a great neighborhood cappuccino. The samosas at Sweet Cherubim (1105 Commercial Drive) are rumored to be excellent, but I didn’t have room to try one.
4. Don’t skip the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia
Yes, it looks dauntingly far away on the map, but you won’t regret it. The Museum of Anthropology is like the Burke Museum times a thousand (including window walls where you can watch conservators at work), and its collection of First Nations artwork is like nothing you’ve ever seen: the mammoth, storytelling house posts; the startling expressions on the carved-wood faces; the intricately made, rowboat-size “house dishes,” used to serve food and gifts at potlatches, some of them linked like train cars.
And works by contemporary First Nations artists stand alongside the objects from other centuries, striking the idea that the collection is “artifacts” from “vanished” cultures. There are stacks crammed with objects from around the world: sculptures made from abandoned fishing nets near Papua New Guinea; Minoan and Grecian clay figurines; intricate wood carvings from Tanzania; samurai armor; carved Peruvian gourds; Kurentovanje carnival costumes from Slovenia; a full-size woven motorcycle from Java. A ticket to the MOA is like a passport to walk through a library of other people’s dreams.
5. Spend more time in Chinatown
That’s another neighborhood where a lot is happening. Stop by Massy Books (229 E. Georgia St.), which is lovely, dense, intelligently curated and Indigenous-owned. Hang around long enough for someone to open the secret door to its rare books collection, then go upstairs to see the gallery exhibition.
Also take a peek at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. If you’re lucky, Joyce Tan will be there giving lessons on the guzheng (a 21-string zither), and you’ll learn how to pluck “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on an unfamiliar instrument tuned to a pentatonic scale.
Places to eat: Enjoy bao at New Town Bakery (148 E. Pender St.), noodles at Fat Mao Noodles (217 E. Georgia St.) and the butter beef (on the raw side, like a carpaccio) and hot and sour soup with prawns at longtime institution Phnom Penh Restaurant (244 E. Georgia St.). Zoomak Korean Tavern (52 Alexander St.) has great sampler platters of various dishes at lunchtime.
6. Walk the streets between West End and Yaletown in the evenings
That zone can feel a little generic, another downtown PaneraLand, during the day – though there are a few damn good places to eat, like the Japanese izakaya Guu With Garlic (1698 Robson St.) – but it has a different alchemy at night.
At worst, you’ll see the hubbub of life in an unfamiliar city. At best, you’ll find something you couldn’t have planned, like that b-boy/b-girl cypher you stumbled across outside the doors to the Provincial Courthouse of British Columbia, in an underground plaza just beneath Robson Square.
Around 40 people were in a circle – Asian, Indigenous, Black, white – dance battling for hours. Someone in the crowd was turning 24 that day and decided to celebrate by challenging his friends to 24 consecutive challenges.
It was a scene of enthusiastic energy and happy hollering, not a sour note to be found – and a sign of multiethnic, cosmopolitan hope just a few steps away from the mourning of the 215-shoe vigil.
Those two events, happening simultaneously, were counterpoints – and proof that more is happening between them, in Vancouver, than you could ever imagine.
7. Give yourself more than three days