72 Hours In Canada’s Most Stunning City
Is this the most beautiful corner of the world?
Have you ever had just a few days in a brand new city that’s entirely yours to explore? The short time frame can either inhibit you or or set you free – it’s what you make it, after all. On a recent road trip through North America’s Pacific Northwest, my partner and I stopped in the gloriously urban city of Vancouver. It’s one of the world’s most liveable cities, boasting fine coffee, chic, modern retailers and easy access to the great outdoors.
With a panoramic horizon of snow-capped mountains set behind glistening, window-faced high-rises, Vancouver is a city of many personalities and walking around feels like you could be in any one of Australia’s capitals. Its suburbs are leafy and its locals wander in and out of street-side grocery stores and small, artisanal eateries.
Best of all, if you venture out of the urban bubble for just 30 minutes, the stunning Sea to Sky Highway north will take you to higher altitudes, towering cliffs, glassy seasides and the popular scenic destinations of Whistler and Squamish.
But the real magic lies off the coast of British Columbia, across the wild Pacific Ocean. Vancouver Island is accessible only by ferry and is more untamed, untouched and raw than its mainland counterpart. Home to glorious, lush rainforest, tangled jungle, sparsely populated beaches and endless waterfalls, set aside at least two days to make your way across its diverse geography.
Here’s how to spend 72 hours in Vancouver and its supernatural surrounds.
10am: Inner-city brunching
Much like Melbourne, the CBD is the centre of the action in Vancouver, with pockets of activity sprawling out from downtown. Wander along Robson St for staple Canadian chain stores, but don’t meander for too long; the coveted brunch destination Medina Cafe reports daily lines out the door for their lavender lattes and build-your-own waffles with white chocolate sauce and authentic maple syrup.
12pm: Window shopping in Gastown
It’s a laid-back walk to Gastown, Vancouver’s trendy inner-city hub fused with everything from the high end to the high street, situated right on the waterfront. We strolled through the orange and yellow leaves of fall, past the historic dark brick and brownstone shopfronts and cobbled streets past designer stores like Roden Gray, Neighbour, Kit & Ace and Secret Location. Vancouver’s style is typically modern and minimal with a focus on clean tailoring in dark, monochrome palettes – the functionality is what makes their local designers worth your dollars.
2pm option one: Refuel and recaffeinate
Gastown is also a thriving community of coffee shops and cafes, and the perfect place to try some local, gourmet roast. Inhale freshly baked sourdough with your espresso inside the convent styled Nelson The Seagull, get it straight up at the bar from some serious baristas at Revolver, or for a local beer on tap and some very tasty salads, don’t skip The Birds and The Beets, an exposed brick dwelling complete with an à la mode flower display in the front.
2pm option two: Feeling peckish
South of the centre of Vancouver, hidden in the Riley Park neighbourhood, is Le Marche St George: a French-inspired, Victorian-house-turned-cafe with warm, flakey croissants, homemade pot pies and fluffy crepes on lock. The tasty patisseries are only half of the appeal, as the beautifully rustic cafe also doubles as a general store for gourmet kitchen staples and homewares.
4pm: Check in
For a modern and relaxed overnight option that won’t break the bank, try The Burrard (from AU$80 per night) wedged strategically between the vibrant West End and downtown Vancouver. Take advantage of their complimentary bike rental and ride down Burrard St over to the gorgeous Granville Bridge. Take in an unrivalled view of the sunset as you cross the water before hitting Granville Island Public Market: a happening outdoor maze of local produce, seafood and best of all – beer. Granville Island Brewing Co. will keep you in check (until happy hour at least), and if too tired to ride back to your hotel room, hail a water taxi back to the main digs of the city.
6pm: Happy hour
Not a town short on cosy, hip drinking holes, head back to the east side for the best value happy hour menu and deliciously sweet hot ciders at Six Acres. The chilled out, candlelit vibe of the interior – complete with hanging plants, vintage wallpaper and coloured bulbs lining the patio – makes it a hot spot for after work drinks and specialty Canadian recipes. After something more upscale? L’Abattoir is perfect for a more refined cocktail menu and food that pays homage to the city’s original meatpacking district.
8pm: Dine at a Canadian Gastropub
Whatever the season, make dinner all about comfort at The Flying Pig in the industrial Yaletown. Hearty gastropub style dishes with a modern twist, fresh produce and quality Canadian fare is the focus here, partnered with local brews that will leave you full to the brim.
Adventure purists should consider escaping the city and instead taking a 40 minute drive into the mountains to camp at Porteau Cove (AU$50 per powered site), a beautiful natural reserve pushed against the pebbled shores of Howe Sound, for a night under the stars. Wake up to a hazy horizon overlooking Anvil Island and the sound of water gliding over the giant, fallen maple trunks.
If you’re lucky enough to have an extra day on your hands, continue north for two-and-a-half hours up the highway to reach the astounding Joffre Lakes. A full day’s hiking will take you to three lakes of the brightest aquamarine that shine like ribbons of silk through the towering pines of the forest, all set against a backdrop of glacial mountain ranges. It’s truly a sight to behold, and it’s been known to bring a tear to the eye.
7am: Escape to the Island
Rise early and depart for the ferry to Vancouver Island. Drive in as the sun rises, relax with a steaming mug of coffee and cruise past the dark green islands punctuating Georgia Straight as the cold air tangles your hair.
Start your journey in Victoria, the island’s busiest town, and immediately head north up Highway 1 to Goldstream Provincial Park. Surrounded by moss-covered pines and a jade carpet of ferns, a gentle hike leads to a waterfall amid overgrown jungle, oversized maple leaves and low hanging vines.
12pm: Head north
Hugging the coast as you drive further north, there are way too many quaint seaside towns to stop at each and every one. Duncan boasts great vegetarian food and Cowichan Bay displays an array of colourful fishing boats you can ogle while enjoying fish and chips on the wharf. A must-stop is Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, where two tiers of awe-inspiring drops fall into aquamarine pools below.
3pm: Trace the Pacific Rim Highway
Turn off from Highway 1 onto the 4 – The Pacific Rim Highway – and proceed further northwest to the more remote coast of Vancouver Island. The drive in itself is a journey of highs and lows through jagged sierras, with each corner revealing jaw-dropping peaks, green lakes, and low hanging fog swelling through thick forest. Allow a few hours for this drive before dark sets in; the views are so mind-blowing you’ll want to stop at literally every turn for photos, or just to take it all in. Bookmark a stop at Snow Creek, where white pebbles surround water so crystal clear that it lights up even the gloomiest of winter skies.
Round the bend and enter the Pacific Rim National Park as it gets closer to nightfall. Approaching the sleepy surf town of Tofino, feast at prized restaurant Wolf In The Fog before heading straight to the coast to camp on the shores of MacKenzie beach for the night (Bella Pacifica Campgrounds, AU$50 per night for a powered site). If the weather is calm, then the wide, flat shore of MacKenzie Beach is an ideal spot to lay a blanket and warm some cider over a makeshift campfire on the sand.
8am: Explore remote beaches all day
Wake up early to the sound of gently crashing waves to take in the sunrise; it’s a million dollar view overlooking the north Pacific Ocean from the very edge of the continent.
Driving back through town, you’ll find on-point coffee from any of the local roasters – Tuff Beans or Tofino Coffee Roasting Co. will get you buzzed for the day. Florencio Bay, located in the national park off the highway, is one of the most spectacular beaches in the area with its quiet cove reserved mostly for locals and surfers. The vast 5 kilometre long beach is accessed by steep staircases through mossy, dark green jungle.
In the summer, Florencia is a water-babies dream, but in the cooler months, search for seashells, find hidden caves and build a teepee with the shoreline’s plentiful driftwood to dream up your next big adventure.