This past July, I spent one week in Vancouver, getting a little taste of Canada and visiting fellow ACLE alumna/travel blogger The Global Shuffle. But, the city wasn’t quite what I expected. This is the story of how I learnt to put down my old faithful Lonely Planet, stopped sightseeing and starting experiencing what can only be described as the Vancouver lifestyle:
One Week in Vancouver: City Sightseeing vs the Vancouver Lifestyle
Lonely Planet had never disappointed me until I spent one week in Vancouver this summer.
I’ve clung to the pages of my beloved LPs for years, like a travel comfort blanket. From my five-years-out-of-date copy of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, to library-stolen Japan guides, to my dear beloved dogeared guide to Italy, guidebooks in general are special to me.
I pencil notes in the margins. I stick post-it notes on the pages of places that I’ve visited, detailing where I stayed, what I did and who I met. I’m a Page Traveller, as I may have mentioned once or twice already. Basically, I’m not the kind of girl who gives up the guide easily.
I read and re-read my little Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Vancouver on the 10-hour flight across Atlantic sea and snow-crested Canadian mountains. I was eager to try out recommended walks and eateries, see the sights and learn a little about a country that was completely new to me.
And yet, I found myself let down more and more by guidebook recommendations. For example, the overuse of the the word “heritage” (1960s is vintage to a Brit, not historic), the lack of information about First Nations history, and – not to state the bleeding obvious, but – the top tourist sights to see were exactly that:
Obvious. Generic. Touristy.
I know, I know, what did I expect? To spend one week in Vancouver and truly experience everything the city has to offer? But, I continued to despair as the recommendations from LP went from pointless to completely lacking in depth, insight and authenticity. I began to get impatient.
Getting Grumpy with Guidebooks
What tipped me over the edge was a visit to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (and paying the $45 entrance fee!). My guidebook told me that this was quintessential Canadian outdoors at its finest. I envisioned breathing pure oxygen, trees taller than skyscrapers, earthy forest smells and a breathtaking view all to myself (maybe even a bear!).
However, once I managed to squeeze through the throngs of people at the park’s entrance, what I saw was a poorly manicured version of nature at best; a treetop walkway and boardwalk circuit that could be completed in 45 minutes.
I queued up and shuffled with the rest of the cattle along the suspension bridge, dodging selfie sticks. I got caught up in rows of school children holding hands and walking in line.
There was also a certain irony about the information plaques, which focused on environmental concern and “saving the trees”. The plaques were made of wood. The boardwalk under my feet was made of wood. The treetop walkway, the railings, the buildings, benches and all other facilities in the park. This was nature’s graveyard.
Surely, I could just take the bus an hour further up the road, go on a hike and see actual British Columbia and it’s natural scenery – visually stunning, accessible and… free?
Next, I visited the “best museum in the city”, a “hidden gem” (those are direct quotes) also known as the Police Museum.
The museum consisted of a wall of headshots of past Chief Constables, one gangster who escaped justice that one time, a high-profile kidnapping case in the 90s and a modest gun collection. I kept waiting for the *ping* moment; an epiphany of what made the Vancouver police force so special, but that revelation just never came.
I was confused. Because, I mean, crime happens everywhere, right? It’s not like this a Police Museum in Sicily about the mafioso, or a Police Museum in London about Jack the Ripper, or a Police Museum in Hong Kong about the triads. Vancouver’s crime scene is pretty tame.
I was in and out within the hour.
What are you, Vancouver?
In fact, that was the very thing that I couldn’t put my finger on with Vancouver: what made it special? Sure, the city has nice parks, a pretty harbour, an impressive skyline, great food, great coffee, good weather, friendly people, reliable transport links…
It was perfect on paper, but how was it different to any other city in the world? It seemed I could transplant bits of Vancouver anywhere on this planet and it wouldn’t look out of place.
What made it Vancouver?
After each day of fruitless sightseeing in the city, I would return, defeated, to the suburbs, open a can of peach cider in the garden and complain to my hosts: I like Vancouver, I just don’t “get it.”
It didn’t hit me until the fifth day of my one week trip: Vancouver isn’t a city, it’s a lifestyle. You don’t come here to see the sights, you come here to experience that unique, easygoing, bohemian, liberal Vancouver lifestyle.
What is that Vancouver Lifestyle?
Vancouver is walking around a neighbourhood you haven’t been to before, just to see what’s there. Vancouver is street art. It’s popping into a local coffee place, grabbing a cold brew and perusing intriguing titles in quirky secondhand bookshops. Vancouver is nude beaches.
Vancouver is getting stopped in town because someone is filming a scene for a TV show pilot. It’s is shopping in thrift stores. Vancouver is choosing food from anywhere in the world; it’s ordering char siu bao in Cantonese in Chinatown.
And so, I started to ignore my beloved LP and embrace the Vancouver lifestyle, rather than the city itself. And beyond the pointless guidebook tourist traps, I discovered something more:
To experience the real Vancouver lifestyle, you need to hang out with its inhabitants. Drink that peach cider in the yard in the suburbs with people you just met in the street. Smoke weed. Eat vegan poutine. Grow your own fruit and vegetables. Carry a desk from a moving sale two blocks down for someone you barely know.
Talk about nothing in particular and everything important with creatives who have unlimited talents and passions. Smile at strangers.
Get a tattoo or a piercing. Dye your hair any colour of the rainbow. Sing. Dance. Paint. Act. Write. Wait tables in the day, pursue your dreams at night. Dogsit two French bulldogs that make pig noises and hump each other.
Play the Genius version of Trivial Pursuit and answer every question you don’t know with “Marlon Brando?”. Gorge on sushi. Go to a dirty skater house party, drink out of red plastic cups and dance until the cops come. Tuck freshly picked lavender behind your ear. Stick glitter gems on your face.
Laze in a hammock chatting to those who weren’t born in Vancouver, but gravitated here in order to be the people they want to be. Have a girl you only knew for two weeks last summer stay in your basement.
Look out to the ocean. Look up at the mountains. Sink into the sunset. Breathe.
Vancouver is not a destination. It’s not a place to tick off sights on those “must-see” listicles. People come to Vancouver to be free.
It’s less seeing, more being.
So, put down your guidebook. Sit back. Let the tensions in your shoulders drop. Open a can. Drink. Talk. Laugh.