NO wonder Vancouver is often heralded as one of the world’s most livable cities. It is blessed with a snowcapped mountain backdrop and crystal blue harbors. It is also a gateway to the Inside Passage — the marvelous maze of glacier-carved fjords and forested islands that are a cruise lover’s delight. But what really sets Vancouver apart is its urban density. With sprawl kept in check by geography, the city thinks vertically. Neighborhoods overlap, apartments rise. That seems to heighten the city’s international mix, and not just when the Olympic Games are in town.
1) CANADA SQUARE
Blame the great outdoors, but Vancouver lacks a central square — a place for citizens to turn inward and for visitors to feel that they have arrived. A quirky standby is Mount Pleasant, a working-class district near Main Street and Broadway that is becoming cooler by the minute. Scattered among dingy bingo parlors is a parade of trendy boutiques like Lark (2315 Main Street; 604-879-5275; lark.me), which carries fashion labels like Chimala jeans from Japan, and Jewellerbau (2408 Main Street; 604-872-7759;jewellerbau.blogspot.com), where Dina González Mascaró makes modern industrial jewelry. An anchor for the area’s young bohemians is the artist-run center Western Front (303 East Eighth Avenue, 604-876-9343; front.bc.ca), which has galleries, stages and arch architecture. Look up before it gets dark: those are the North Shore Mountains looming over the faux cornice.
2) PIGGING OUT
With salmon-rich waters out front and heritage pig farms out back, locavore is a way of life. The barn-to-bistro ethos is buoyed by Refuel (1944 West Fourth Avenue; 604-288-7905; refuelrestaurant.com), a casual restaurant that opened two months ago in the affluent Kitsilano district after its acclaimed predecessor, Fuel, went belly up in the recession. Still run by the tattooed chef Robert Belcham, the open kitchen features a leaner menu for your wallet, if not your waistline. Start with a irresistible bowl of spiced pork ribs and offal, rubbed with cayenne, citric acid, paprika and other spices, then deep fried to crunchy bliss. Your cardiologist won’t understand. For the main course, a recent favorite included salmon (wild and local, of course), grilled and served in a pool of fragrant leeks and clams. Dinner for two without wine, approximately 60 Canadian dollars (about the same in U.S. dollars).
3) CLUB CORNER
Vancouver isn’t known for nighttime debauchery, thanks partly to tough liquor laws. If you insist on getting dolled up, a party train of 20-somethings forms along Granville Street, a still-seedy strip with a cluster of velvet-roped bars like Granville Room (957 Granville Street; 604-633-0056; granvilleroom.ca), with a handsome interior of brick walls and chandeliers. A skip away is Davie Street, the city’s gay strip. An easygoing spot is Odyssey (1251 Howe Street; 604-689-5256; theodysseynightclub.com), a roomy and unpretentious club with an outdoor patio, cheap drinks and chatty locals.
4) GRANOLA ISLAND
Ferry across False Creek to the tiny peninsula known as Granville Island(granvilleisland.com), which has a popular food market brimming with farmers, butchers and fishmongers. It also has a hippie side — from yoga and crafts studios to a pottery gallery and theater. Grab a multigrain loaf at Terra Breads (terrabreads.com) and stroll through the island’s jampacked aisles and alleys. Standouts include the Lobster Man (1807 Mast Tower Road, 604-687-4531; lobsterman.com), with its tanks of kayak-size lobsters, and the Artisan Sake Maker (1339 Railspur Alley; 604-685-7253; artisansakemaker.com), which makes small batches of junmai sake on the premises. Sake tastings start at 2 Canadian dollars.
5) CREATIVE CURRIES
Mark Bittman, a food columnist and blogger for The Times, once called Vij’s “among the finest Indian restaurants in the world.” It’s certainly among the more expensive. For a cheaper thrill, pop in next door to its colorful sister, Vij’s Rangoli (1488 West 11th Avenue; 604-736-5711; vijsrangoli.ca), which looks like a takeout diner. Memorable combinations include a goat meat and jackfruit curry with a coconut cabbage salad (15.50 Canadian dollars).
Before Vancouver’s film industry was nicknamed Hollywood North, the city’s cultural highpoint may have been the Vancouver School of post-conceptual photography, led by artists like Jeff Wall and Roy Arden, who blurred the line between documentation and artifice. The school lives on at a pair of galleries in the South Granville district. Monte Clark Gallery (2339 Granville Street; 604-730-5000; www.monteclarkgallery.com) represents Mr. Arden, Stephen Waddell and others. Down the block is the Equinox Gallery (2321 Granville Street; 604-736-2405; equinoxgallery.com), which recently concluded an eye-catching show of Fred Herzog’s vintage photographs, reprinted using color-saturated inkjets.
7) THREE DESIGNERS
The Gastown district, with its cobblestone streets and imitation gaslights, might seem touristy, but its old brick warehouses still are home to some of Vancouver’s most fashion-forward stores. The local designer Hajnalka Mandula spins lacy and brooding finery for “Twilight” goths at Mandula (214 Abbott Street; 604-568-9211; mandula.com). Treana Peake, the wife of the Nickelback guitarist Ryan Peake, offers sensible, office-smart styles at Obakki (44 Water Street; 604-669-9727; obakki.com). And at Killa (46 Alexander Street; 604-681-7550; killa.ca), the streetwear designer Dennis Arriola makes interactive hoodies with iPod controls sewn right into the sleeve.
From Tokyo-style izakayas to banh mi cafes, the flavors of Asia are well represented. The large Asian population has also raised the bar on fusion. For haute interpretations of humble Thai dishes, Maenam (1938 West Fourth Avenue; 604-730-5579; maenam.ca) has drawn comparisons to the Michelin-starred Nahm in London. In fact, Angus An, chef and owner, apprenticed there. Opened last May in the Kitsilano district (yes, that’s Refuel next door), the pink-and-bamboo spot draws a foodie set with playful dishes like spicy braised duck with sweet longans, confit potatoes and cumber relish ($18). Also generating a lot of hype is Bao Bei (163 Keefer Street; 604-688-0876; bao-bei.ca), an upscale Chinese brasserie in Chinatown that opened just before the Olympics.
9) DRINK SETS
A smattering of high-concept watering holes — the kind serving wine and beer flights — have opened in Gastown. Popular with the Hollywood North set is the Alibi Room (157 Alexander Street; 604-623-3383; alibi.ca), a loft-like space with wooden tables and a long list of bottled and draft beers. Wine imbibers head to the Salt Tasting Room (45 Blood Alley; 604-633-1912; salttastingroom.com), a cellar-like bar with a large chalkboard menu that lists eclectic wines, cheeses and exotic cured meats.
10) BACKYARD SKIING
There is more to skiing than Whistler. Three slopes — Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour — lie within 17 miles of downtown Vancouver, which means you can ski in the morning and have time for errands in the afternoon. The most challenging is Cypress Mountain (Cypress Provincial Park; 604-419-7669;cypressmountain.com). It is also the most atmospheric, with awesome views of the city. Strap on some snowshoes (rentals for 18.75 Canadian dollars) and scrunch along wondrous trails till you reach the Hollyburn Lodge, a wood-plank cottage that was built in 1926. It’s as cute as a red button. (Closed for the Olympics, the trails are scheduled to reopen in March.)
11) FINAL STRETCH
Guess where Lululemon Athletica got its start? When the fitness-crazed locals aren’t carving moguls and conquering couloirs, they can be found toning their minds and bodies at the city’s countless yoga studios. A lithe and fresh-faced troupe stretches its way toYYoga Flow (888 Burrard Street; 604-682-3569; yyoga.ca), a huge and sleek studio that opened last August in downtown Vancouver. Drop-ins start at 15 Canadian dollars. Run by Terry McBride, a music mogul, the white and airy space features three roomy studios, sparkling showers, a calming cafe and an infrared sauna, packed by young snowboarder types who seem to strike a balance between work and play.
Air Canada and Cathay Pacific fly nonstop from New York City to Vancouver. A recent Web search found an Air Canada flight starting at $475 for travel this month. Although Vancouver has decent public transit, a car is recommended if you plan to do much exploring.
A flurry of hotels opened in downtown Vancouver in advance of the Olympics. TheShangri-La Hotel Vancouver (1128 West Georgia Street; 604-689-1120; shangri-la.com/vancouver), opened in 2009, offers 119 Zen-like rooms and polished service in a new skyscraper. The hotel also has a well-equipped gym, a heated outdoor pool and a Market by Jean-Georges restaurant. Rooms start at approximately 300 Canadian dollars, about the same in U.S. dollars, for stays in March, though specials as low as 230 were recently found on its Web site.
For slightly hipper digs, try the Loden Vancouver (1177 Melville Street; 604-669-5060;theloden.com). Opened in 2008, the 77-room hotel features floor-to-ceiling windows, handsome marble bathrooms and large plasma TVs with easy computer hookups. Voya, its restaurant, serves high-end Pacific Northwest cuisine. Rooms start at 229 Canadian dollars.