I made a trip to Seattle (3 nights, 3 days) and Vancouver (3 nights, 4 days) in early July. Here are my general recommendations:
Late June-early July’s a nice time to go.
This is still considered dry season. I got rained on once (and sadly, with hail and during a hike) this entire time. Temperatures were a comfortable 50-70 degrees Farenheit and low (for me) humidity at around 70%. I was able to do a lot of outdoor activities in comfortable, sunny-cloudy weather.
Plus, July 1 is Canada Day! So traffic is less, and there’s some fun celebrations to be had in downtown Vancouver (and probably elsewhere).
There are probably other good times to go in the year, but I am just speaking from my own experience.
Keep a light rain jacket handy.
While it’s dry season, you’re still in the Pacific Northwest, and showers are to be expected at some point.
Take a bus or train between cities.
I rode a BoltBus for $33 from Seattle to Vancouver, which was 4 hours long. The person who sat next to me takes this bus at least once a month, and she is able to occasionally get it for $1. I had to pay more for booking only 2 weeks in advance, but it was still $130 cheaper than the cheapest plane. So no complaints from me.
Greyhound also has bus services, but I heard BoltBus stops are less frequent and pickup points are in better locations. BoltBus pickup points in Seattle and Vancouver are both in their respective Chinatowns, near public transportation. There was only one stop (in Bellingham, near a Dairy Queen and bathrooms) other than the border crossing.
BoltBus claimed WiFi availability on the bus, but I could only get it to load Google and run a search; it could not actually load the resulting websites, and I could not text anyone on WhatsApp.
Regardless, it was a very comfortable and quick ride, especially on traffic-free Canada Day. I lucked out at the border crossing because no one on my bus got detained (I heard everyone has to wait if someone is), and we only had to wait for one other bus in front of us before entering the building. In total the crossing took about 15 minutes. Everyone has to get off the bus with their things and talk to a security officer.
I have also heard the Amtrak train between these cities is on a very scenic route, and you don’t have to get off the train during the border crossing. It’s also surprisingly affordable–at the time of this writing, a train ride is only $68. However, there are typically only two trips–one in the early morning, and one in the evening that arrives late at night. The early morning one seems to get sold out quickly.
In/around Seattle, I ran through parks and beautiful neighborhoods and hiked 9 miles to and from Lake Serene. I walked around the city, University Village / UDistrict, and the University of Washington campus, watched the sunset at Golden Gardens, and found a good local non-Starbucks café. There are plenty of other hikes and beaches I didn’t get around to, though.
In/around Vancouver, I walked downtown, kayaked in Coquitlam, wandered around Burnaby Mountain, survived the Capilano suspension bridge, and hiked through Golden Ears Park. Again, there’s many more I didn’t get to do, such as the Grouse Grind.
(In my previous trip to Vancouver, I visited Whistler and Victoria Island, home of Butchart Gardens. All beautiful places as well.)
Something that’s hard not to notice is the concentration of Asians in the Pacific Northwest. Naturally, this means Asian restaurants are queen here. I’ll list specific recommendations below.
Use public transportation!
It’s really cheap and abundant in Seattle (light rail, buses) and Vancouver (SkyTrain, buses, West Coast Express (like Amtrak)).
Seattle also has Lyft and Uber, and sometimes has free shuttles to popular hiking trails. Vancouver does not have Lyft or Uber.
Both Seattle and Vancouver have public bike shares. Seattle also has scooter shares (but I have a personal bias against them.)
And yes, there are trains available directly from both cities’ airports.
Consider purchasing several-day passes if it’ll be your main mode of transportation.
Try those small roadside family-owned burger/hot dog joints
(Probably not vegan-friendly! 😦 )
These have the kind of meal you’d crave for after a long hike. There are many on the way to/from Serene Lake hiking trail, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others near other trails. The one I tried was Zeke’s Dine-In. Here I had my taste of a real Seattle dog with cream cheese, jalapeños, and fried onions. While the Seattle stuff was alright–I wouldn’t order it again–I was pretty impressed with the dog itself, and I don’t even normally care for hot dogs. Their fries were also on point.
Hike to and dip in Lake Serene! (or other alternatives)
There is an elevation gain of 2,000 feet or so, and in total, with the detour to the Bridal Veil falls, it is about 8 miles (though my friend tracked us at 9.2). It is a moderate to hard hike. But the top is well worth it. We dived into the lake water, and while it was quite cold, it felt incredibly refreshing after doing the uphill climb. It’s also beautiful.
Lake Serene is about an hour drive from downtown without traffic. There are other comparable or longer hikes that are farther away.
Visit the Chihuly gallery… if you’ve never seen his work before
The second phrase is because I had seen and loved his work at a temporary exhibit in Toronto a few years ago. As a result, I was a little disappointed to find that I had already seen about 40% of the works in his permanent gallery in Seattle. While his works always wow me, it wasn’t worth my $33+.
That said, his glass sculptures are amazing and shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to bring a set of headphones (and smartphone 🙂 ) to listen to the free audio tour. It’s just found on their website. Also be sure to get there early to beat the crowds and buy your tickets in advance or while waiting in line (online). I got there at around 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and there was already a short line outside the gallery for people who already have tickets. By the time I left at around 12:30, the line had probably tripled or quadrupled, and I imagine the gallery itself was becoming crowded.
If your schedule allows it, though, you can get tickets for $10 less after 6:00 p.m.
Next to the gallery are the Space Needle and the Modern Pop Culture Museum. (I didn’t go to these places.)
Visit the Living Computers museum, if you’re into that!
As a software engineer, I really enjoyed this museum–but it is definitely more hardware-focused than coding-focused. When I went, they had a free tour of their supercomputer from the 1960s that only has 1mb of core memory but takes up probably 1,000 sq ft or so and needs its cooling system to vent out of the roof. I learned about the history of IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and computers and hardware in general. There’s a lot of interactive stuff as well. You can take a stab at BASIC, play some PC games from the ’60s to early 2000s, tinker with robots, design a video game, and more. Pretty kid-friendly, too.
It’s a bit less touristy compared to the other museums, and consequently more on the outskirts of the city. I’d recommend getting a bite to eat before or after entering the area of this museum rather than nearby. On the plus side, they have free parking!
Visit University Village
Lots of small shops and restaurants, nice to walk around. They even have community-shared umbrellas for that surprise Seattle rain!
Visit University District
Within walking distance of University of Washington. Lots of Asian restaurants.
There are many other good spots, but the ones I had and really liked are
- Boba Up, University District – make your own bubble tea. I loved the taro slushie and tea mix.
- Sizzle and Crunch, University District – excellent Vietnamese* banh mi and rice bowls. Banh mi second only to Viet Nam itself.
- Ba Bar, University Village – excellent Vietnamese* food, though a bit overpriced. They make their own noodles and rolls. I had the oxtail pho and my friend had the Ha Noi-style banh cuon.
- Molly Moon’s Ice Cream, University Village – they have some fun flavors, and yes, you can sample them!
- Street Bean Coffee Roasters, downtown – well, I’m not really a coffee snob so I don’t know just how great this place really is, but I enjoyed my Americano here, and it’s a nice alternative to the always-burnt and too-ubiquitous Starbucks. It’s very close to the Space Needle / Chihuly gallery / Modern Pop Culture museum.
(*) My Vietnamese-native friend but new Seattle local recommended these!
Vancouver (and surrounding) specifics
Don’t bother withdrawing cash (if a foreigner with CCs)
Like the U.S., credit cards are accepted at almost every location. But some places, especially small Asian restaurants (or booths at Canada Day!), only accept debit or cash. I have a TD Bank (U.S.) debit card and was given a little bit of a hard time at one restaurant, and I read somewhere that the debit card network is slightly different in the U.S. than in Canada, but *shrug* I still got away with it. If you want to avoid these situations, though, perhaps don’t go to these restaurants or just withdraw $30-100 CAD depending on how much you think you’ll need for you and your party.
Remember conversion rates!
Back in the day, I remember the USD being weaker than the CAD, but as of 2019, it’s the other way around. (Lucky me!)
Tipping is a thing.
But if you pay with card, at least all the machines I worked with have an automatic calculator for 15,20,25%.
French is not queen.
It’s largely English language here, plus those of dominant Asian populations, namely Korean and Chinese.
The University of British Columbia (UBC) has a lovely campus, though it is a little far from downtown. It took me about 50 minutes to get there by bus + walking from Waterfront Station (though you can also go to VCC-Clark station and bus from there). The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) is unique. It has a lot of impressive totem poles, artwork, and artifacts from the First Nations. I spent an hour and a half there, though if I had more time, I probably would’ve spent at least another hour. Around the museum are gardens, another museum (Beatty Biodiversity Museum), and the campus itself. Admission is very reasonable at $18 CAD per adult, with discounts for students and senior citizens.
Stanley Park is huge at 405 acres and located just outside downtown. Large parts of it are surrounded by water. There are wide sidewalks suitable for biking, walking, and running along the perimeter, and in between are children’s playgrounds, fields, tall trees, and hiking trails. I was driven around this park and it took a good 10 minutes. I’d like to come back and just spend a few hours running, hiking, or picnicking here. I’d also like to see if the aquarium’s worth it. In addition, there are a few restaurants overlooking the water.
The price for this “tourist trap” is a steep $53 CAD per adult (with usual discounts), but at least there are convenient free shuttle buses every 10 minutes to and from downtown, in front of the Canada Place info booth. They pass through Stanley Park and Lions Gate Bridge.
I spent a good 4 hours here taking my time–I had to backtrack partway on the bridge because I kept spotting trails I had missed. I took a free nature tour (every half hour), saw some predator birds up close, and bathed in the glory of some hundred-to-thousand-year-old trees. If you’d like, be sure to grab a map of the area and keep an eye out for stamp locations–at the end you can earn a free “I did it!” certificate when exiting the park. Some people were quite terrified while on the bridge… Not for the faint of heart, but at the same time many kids enjoyed in the area.
Do come early! I got there at around 8:52 a.m. on a cloudy Thursday, and there were already some people there. By the time I started heading back to towards the exit at 11:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., it was packed. There was a lot of traffic on the bridge. At the exit at around 12:52 p.m., the line for tickets (I think? or even the entrance itself?) was very long.
If you’re a Vancouver resident, you can get a year-long membership for the same price as a non-resident day pass, with discounts for your guests.
Hike at Golden Ears Park (and other alternatives)
It is about 50 minutes driving from Coquitlam. Lots of trails to explore. I did an easy trail to Golden Creek Falls, which was quite a relief after Lake Serene. While the weather was colder here than in Seattle, my cousins and I still enjoyed dipping into the even colder, clear water! There are more challenging hikes in the area as well.
Go kayaking and do other outdoor things
I went to Rocky Point for kayaking, which was pretty neat and had a great ice cream place in the vicinity. I’d be interested in other places, though, since kayaking itself is just fun.
Make a side trip to Whistler and Victoria Island
I did this 12 years ago so my memory on specifics is hazy, but I do remember that both places were beautiful. Victoria Island also has the Butchart Gardens, which knocked off the socks of other gardens in U.S. I’ve been to.
Unfortunately, most of my recommendations are in Coquitlam, where my extended family lives. But here they are:
- Miku Vancouver, downtown – this is by Canada Place. I got the Shokai lunch which consisted of 10 different kinds of sushi and sashimi and solid miso soup (not the watered-down trash some restaurants give). The sushi and sashimi were some of the best and most different I have ever had. Nice view of the harbor as well.
- Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, Coquitlam – please ignore the low reviews. Park after 6 p.m. at a nearby garage (free) or take public transportation (near the SkyTrain). Original and spicy broths are awesome, add some hot chili oil and peanut sauce on the side.
- Snowy Village, various locations – I went to the one in Coquitlam, close to Little Sheep. They have delicious fried taiyaki (Nutella, red bean, etc.) and Korean bingsoo (shaved, snowy ice + lots of fun toppings, not the American ice + artificial syrup trash). Debit or cash only.
- Vesta Grill Korean fried chicken and bbq, Coquitlam – come here with at least 2 other people if you’re getting a chicken plate. The chicken with cheese is surprisingly delicious. It’s all fried but not that oily.
- Rain or Shine ice cream, various locations – Solid homemade ice cream, similar to flavors at Molly Moon’s (different but not wild). I went to one on the way from UBC to VCC-Clark station.
- Rocky Point ice cream, Port Moody – Similar to Rain or Shine and Molly Moon’s, really good after a few hours of kayaking in the same location.
- (Granville public market as well, according to many sources, but I unfortunately haven’t been yet.)
- The Hive Climbing Gym, outside city – only bouldering, but really good problems and all nicely spaced out, color-coded, and fully matted. There are several locations. “Honorable mention” since it’s not necessarily unique to Vancouver. I’d definitely come back if I’m in the area, though.
- Pho Capital, Coquitlam – solid Vietnamese food, though it did not “wow” me. Debit or cash only.
- Canada Place, downtown – free and has a great view of the mountains and water. But you can only do that for so long. 🙂
- Earls Kitchen + Bar, various locations – I went to one in Burnaby. Solid North American fare, but didn’t “wow” me. I surprisingly loved their field greens salad, though. Nice break from Asian food.
- Golden Gardens beach and park – really nice to watch the sunset here, picnic, play ball, etc… but really, it’s just a beach. 🙂 But to be fair, perhaps I didn’t explore it enough. There are also hiking trails, which I did not do.
- University of Washington campus – it’s a beautiful campus, but it really is just that: a campus. 🙂 What surprised me was in their student building, in their basement was a full bowling alley, board game section (with a decent selection–some less-common but still not-too-intense games), PC gaming section with VR, console gaming section, and arcade booths. Above that was a nice selection of student dining options, mostly Asian-themed–though I didn’t try them since I was opting for University District instead.
Still to do
- Sea to Sky gondola in Squamish
- Climbing, white water rafting, and hiking in Squamish
- Gastown, downtown Vancouver
- Granville Island market, downtown Vancouver
- More hiking, climbing in Seattle
This post was originally featured on jasna.me.