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How to Enjoy Vancouver for Free (or Very Nearly)

You don’t need deep pockets to make the most out of a visit to Vancouver.

Mother Nature, an exhibitionist at heart, struts her stuff for free on Canada’s wild West Coast. With sturdy walking shoes and the right all-weather jacket, you could spend days gawking at her spectacular scenery and part with hardly a penny.

And the best part about enjoying Vancouver on the cheap? You’ll spend more time with locals than other tourists.

Here are 10 terrific ways to enjoy a rich visit on a poor purse:

  • Stroll a seawall or dyke: The long, flat and highly scenic seawalls that ring much of downtown Vancouver and nearby West Vancouver are easy to walk or cycle. Start from Ambleside Park in West Vancouver, or Granville Island or Canada Place downtown. And if you find yourself near the airport, walk the Richmond dyke instead.
  • Stake out a beach: You don’t have to look far to find a swimming beach to match your bent. Wreck Beach near UBC is Vancouver’s famous nudey beach; Kits attracts the young and beautiful; English Bay is popular with the rainbow crowd; and Third Beach and Ambleside are favoured by families.
  • Ramble around Stanley Park: This sprawling urban green space near Coal Harbour is Vancouver’s answer to New York’s Central Park. Don’t expect to discover every facet of this jewel-in-the-city  in a single visit. Focus on one or two areas at a time–Lost Lagoon or the Rose Garden, for example, or Lumberman’s Arch or Brockton Point–and save the rest for another time. If you can afford it, rent a bike (about $6/hr) on Denman Street near the entrance to the park and see even more.
  • Climb the Grouse Grind. It costs a small packet to ride the gondola up Grouse Mountain on Vancouver’s North Shore, but you can walk it for free. If you’re relatively fit–and you don’t want to tackle this project unless you are- the steep climb takes about an hour on a well-marked trail through thick woods. It costs $10 to ride down in the gondola. Consider using the money you save going up to enjoy a meal in one of the several restaurants at the peak.
  • Visit Granville Island. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, this former industrial site-turned-urban market always features great buskers and street performers. It’s a free spectacle and the people-watching is superlative, but be warned: the siren call of fine food and outstanding arts and crafts is hard to resist here.

    Granville Island
  • Cross a bridge  by foot. Vancouver is a city of bridges and it’s fun–even a little thrilling–to walk over any one of them. High atop the Lion’s Gate Bridge (connecting Vancouver and the North Shore) or the Burrard St. Bridge (connecting downtown and Kitsilano), you’ll be treated to dramatic water-and-mountain vistas on all sides.
  • Ride the Expo Line to New Westminster. For abut $5, you can make a return trip on TransLink’s Expo Line from downtown Vancouver all the way to the quays of suburban New Westminster. Most of the SkyTrain trip is above-ground and while the views aren’t always postcard-pretty–the train cuts through several of the city’s less prestigious neighbourhoods–they will give you an interesting perspective on local living conditions, including the in-your-face mountain views.
  • Explore Lynn Canyon Park. Looking for an authentic Canadian wilderness experience but don’t have time to travel outside Vancouver? Spend a few hours in this craggy and uncrowded North Vancouver park and soak in the sights, sounds and smells of unadulterated nature. It’s easy to find by bus or car and the trails and mini-suspension bridge are well worth a half-day excursion.
  • Window shop. Even if you can’t afford to buy, it’s fun to browse Vancouver’s neighbourhood shopping districts. South Main and Robson Street appeal to hard-core fashionistas while Commerical Drive attracts an oatier crowd. Foodies salivate in Little India along Main near 49th or Chinatown downtown. The yoga-and-latte crowd congregates on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano while yummy mummies share Starbucks tables with the blue rinse set in Kerrisdale near 41st and Arbutus. Mallrats convene at Pacific Centre downtown or Metrotown in Burnaby, which is easily accessible by SkyTrain.
  • Drive Highway 99. If you have a car at your disposal treat yourself to a leisurely drive along the so-called “Sea-to-Sky Highway” between Horseshoe Bay (in West Vancouver) and Whistler. Consistently ranked one of the world’s most scenic drives, the winding route was straightened for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Now you can actually take your eyes off the road long enough to enjoy the staggering views of Howe Sound, North America’s southern-most fjord. Bring a picnic lunch and plan to stop at Shannon Falls Provincial Park, home to BC’s third-highest waterfall, just south of Squamish.

What have I missed? Add your favourite Vancouver freebies in the comments section below!

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