The Best of Vancouver for Free
While a 2012 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit claimed Vancouver, British Columbia is North America’s most expensive city to live, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself here for free – if you know where to look.
For budget-minded travellers – and belt-tightening locals – here are some top tips to save a buck and still have a good time in Western Canada’s largest metropolis. (Just don’t forget that while entry may be free, donations are often gratefully accepted at volunteer-run attractions).
Cash is not required to appreciate the totem poles and vista-hugging seawall trail in Vancouver’s giant Stanley Park. But a visit to its admission-free Lost Lagoon Nature House (http://stanleyparkecology.ca/education/nature-house) is also recommended if you want the low-down on B.C.’s multitudinous flora and fauna. Aside from wildlife exhibits and chatty staff, there are regular birdwatching walks through the park (for a suggested CDN$5 donation).
Nature-lovers should also check out Chinatown. The neighbourhood’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com) charges admission but right next door is a free-entry park echoing the same horticultural principles. While the paid attraction is more ornate and has guided tours, its freebie sibling includes a turtle-rippled lily pond, neon-bright koi carp and terracotta-topped buildings framing its verdant foliage.
Marvel at the universe instead with a by-donation Saturday evening viewing at Kitsilano’s Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory (http://www.spacecentre.ca/gms), where guides point out night-sky highlights through a half-metre telescope. Back on terra firma, North Vancouver’s Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre (http://www.dnv.org/ecology) immerses visitors in the regional rainforest, while the surrounding park’s woodland trails lead to a freebie suspension bridge swaying over the canyon.
If the past is your bag, Yaletown’s Roundhouse Community Centre is home to the Engine 374 Pavilion (http://www.wcra.org/engine374), which sounds fairly anonymous until you realize the hulking steam locomotive on display here pulled the first trans-continental passenger train into Vancouver in 1887. Peruse the old photos on the walls and quiz the enthusiastic volunteers on its fascinating story.
Even more geriatric than the train is the wood-framed building housing the Hastings Mill Store Museum (http://www.hastings-mill-museum.ca), located across the city in Point Grey. Built in the 1860s and now Vancouver’s oldest surviving structure, it was barged here from Gastown in the 1930s and now displays eclectic curios ranging from Vancouver’s first city council table to artifacts salvaged from the Victorian-era steamship SS Beaver.
Alternatively, crick your neck at the elaborate hammerbeam ceiling in downtown’s 19th-century Christ Church Cathedral (http://www.cathedral.vancouver.bc.ca). Then peruse its gorgeous stained glass windows (http://www.cathedral.vancouver.bc.ca/2010/08/22/stained-glass-windows-brochure) – including one by London’s Morris & Company in the downstairs vestibule.
History of a different vintage is celebrated at the quirky Jimi Hendrix Shrine (http://www.creeksidestudentresidence.com/vancouver_jimi_hendrix.htm) on Chinatown’s southern edge. Reputedly occupying the 1960s homestyle eatery where Hendrix’s grandmother cooked and where the then-unknown guitarist often strummed, the red-painted shack is lined with old photos, album covers and eye-popping artwork.
But if you have kids in tow, head to Vancouver’s excellent free-access water parks instead. The one by Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park has smashing waterfront vistas, but the larger layout on Granville Island – with pipes, slides and sprinklers – is even more popular. You’ll only save money if you can keep your sprogs away from the nearby Kids Market (http://www.kidsmarket.ca), though.
Anyone can shimmy along for summertime Sunday afternoon salsa lessons at downtown’s Robson Square (http://www.sundayafternoonsalsa.com). But if you still have energy – rather than money – to burn, tackle North Vancouver’s ultra-steep, calf-busting Grouse Grind hiking trail (http://www.grousemountain.com/grousegrind).
It’s not just about exercise: taking the trail to the Grouse Mountain summit saves on the CDN$39.95 cost of the Skyride gondola. And once you’re up-top, you can freely enjoy attractions including lumberjack shows, wildlife enclosures and bird of prey demonstrations. The downside? The trail is one-way, which means paying a special CDN$10 rate to take the gondola back down.
There’s no need to work up a sweat for a bargain, though. Consider one of the free – tips encouraged – city walking tours with Vancouver’s Tour Guys (http://www.tourguys.ca/vancouver-tours/vancouver-tours) or relive your student days with a gratis summer-only guided amble (http://www.ceremonies.ubc.ca/summer-campus-tours) at the waterfront University of British Columbia campus.
But if you really want to get off the beaten path, book ahead for a free guided bus and walking tour of the area’s forest-encircled reservoirs (http://www.metrovancouver.org/region/SpecialEvents/Pages/watershedtours.aspx) run by the Metro Vancouver regional authority.
Vancouver is studded with eye-popping outdoor public art (http://app.vancouver.ca/PublicArt_Net) but there are also many free-entry galleries for those ever-regular rainy days. Rub your chin in contemplation at the Charles H. Scott Gallery (http://chscott.ecuad.ca) at Granville Island’s Emily Carr University. Or check out the often-challenging contemporary works in the Belkin Art Gallery (http://belkin.ubc.ca) at the University of British Columbia.
Downtown’s popular Vancouver Art Gallery (http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca) also curates a free outdoor art installation called Offsite near the Shangri-La Hotel (http://www.shangri-la.com/vancouver/shangrila). And if you want to save on entry to the gallery itself, drop by between 5pm and 9pm on Tuesday when entry is by-donation (CDN$5 is typical).
But there’s also a freebie hidden gem artwork nearby that even some locals don’t know about. Nip into the Royal Bank of Canada at the corner of West Georgia Street and Burrard Street. Then take the escalator up one floor. In front of you will be the giant ‘Ksan Mural, a nine-panel, 36.5-metre-long First Nations carving that’s one the largest aboriginal artworks in Canada.