Touching down in Vancouver on a clear day is an unforgettable experience. Nestled between the Pacific and British Columbia’s snow-capped coastal mountains, the city’s glittering downtown core rises up like a mini-Manhattan – the big difference being that it lies a stone’s throw from the Great Outdoors.
Yet the question you’re no doubt going to ask about this cosmopolitan, fast-growing New World city with its shiny glass high-rises is: where is the history? Trust me – and I know the city well, having visited it on numerous occasions – it’s there. You just have to look a bit harder to find it than in the Old World.
The city was named after British explorer Captain George Vancouver, who claimed its thickly wooded shores for king and country in the 1790s. The first real settlement of any note here was Gastown, a neighbourhood that still boasts a wealth of Victorian architecture.
To get the best out of Vancouver I’d suggest taking a circular walking tour of some of the city’s keynote heritage buildings. First stop: the 1914 Canadian Pacific Railway train station in West Cordova Street – once the CPR’s Pacific terminus. The last transcontinental train departed in 1927, but the Waterfront station, as it’s now known, remains a downtown transport hub – and its grand neoclassical facade, mighty columns and vaulted atrium still impress.
Three blocks down Granville Street is the flagship Hudson’s Bay Company store, a six-floor cream terracotta building dating to the 1920s. The HBC’s roots go back to 1670, and for decades it controlled North America’s fur trade – before diversifying into retail – and it’s arguably one of the two most important companies (along with the CPR) in Canadian history.
I’ve always been a sucker for pre-Second World War skyscrapers, and Vancouver has several fine examples. The years before the First World War saw an influx of migrants (mainly from Britain) and money, triggering a building boom that resulted in the development of cutting-edge structures like the Vancouver Block (1910–12). Its neon-lit clock remains a city landmark to this day. (Visit during office hours, when you can see the lobby.)
For decades, tourism has been a mainstay of the city’s economy – reflected in high-end interwar hotels like the Hotel Georgia and Hotel Vancouver.
Opened in 1927 by the future Edward VIII the former was built in the Georgian Revival style – and for many years it was the place to stay, playing host to several big name celebrities including John Wayne, Nat King Cole and the Beatles. Following a lavish refurbishment, it has now been restored to its former glory.
A block west, on Burrard Street, is the iconic Hotel Vancouver – the last of Canada’s great railway hotels. Thanks to its chateau-like appearance and distinctive green copper roof, the Hotel Van, as it is known locally, has been a city landmark ever since it was opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. (Incidentally, it doubled up as the Heathman Hotel in the 2014 film Fifty Shades of Grey.)
A hundred yards or so along Burrard Street is Christ Church Cathedral, a striking neo-Gothic building dating to the 1890s. It’s currently draped in scaffolding while undergoing a much-needed £4m renovation to replace the roof and build a new bell tower. However, when it reopens (scheduled for sometime this winter), it will be well worth a peak. Inside are a host of reminders of Canada’s British links: such as a plaque commemorating James Cook’s visit to British Columbia in 1778, and a memorial to Canadian troops killed at Passchendaele.
Last but not least is the jewel in Vancouver’s heritage crown: the 25-storey Marine Building, which was built in 1930. This is Vancouver’s only art deco skyscraper, and once the tallest building in the British empire. The exterior boasts a series of beautiful bas reliefs depicting 1920s modes of transport – like zeppelins and biplanes – while the marble-floored lobby is apparently designed to resemble a Mayan temple.
Of course, there is more to Vancouver than its heritage buildings – and you’ve got to visit Stanley Park (named after a former governor-general), English Bay and the Museum of Anthropology before heading home. But for all its shiny glass towers, remember: Vancouver, like all great New World cities, has its history. Finding it just takes a little detective work.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
The best time to visit is the summer or early autumn. The winters are damp – and, as in Britain, the weather can be unpredictable.
Air Canada offers a direct year-round service from London Heathrow to Vancouver. Air Transat flies from London Gatwick year-round, and from Manchester and Glasgow from May to October. Westjet launches a Gatwick–Vancouver service in 2016.
What to take
If you go in summer, lightweight casual clothing, sun block and a cap. But, as the weather has a mind of its own, take a brolly and a waterproof, whatever the time of year.
What to bring back
First Nations artwork or printed items from the Vancouver Art Gallery gift shop; British Columbia wine; and smoked salmon.
Visit aboriginal history sites: Totem poles in Stanley park, UBC anthro museum, Lil’wat Ctr in Squamish, etc
Check out Stanley Park, used by indigenous people before becoming a park in 1886 @ShazLJ
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.