The modern traveller wants to go beyond the tourist trail. The ultimate goal is to briefly become a citizen of the city. That’s why you’ve booked an Airbnb, picked up a transit card, and sat down at the local eatery around the corner. And why would you do any less when it comes to sightseeing?
If you want to immerse yourself in Vancouver and are looking for free stuff to do, you probably don’t want to go and get samples at Costco or a free makeover at MAC (as other lists suggest). After all, what does that have to do with the culture?
Instead, “When in Vancouver, do as the Vancouverites.” So here’s a list to help you do exactly that. Dive in, be a local, and the best part – leave your wallet at home, because these activities don’t cost a dime.
1. The Classic – Walk the Seawall. This is an absolute must if you want to do as theVancouverites do. Whether rain or shine, there is always hustle and bustle at the Seawall. Locals love to be active in the outdoors, and the Seawall surrounding the 405 hectare Stanley Park, is the the place that has it all. See and be seen walking, running, or biking the paved path and wander off on one of the many trails through the natural forrest when you’ve had enough of the crowds. Enjoy the sunset at one of the three beaches and don’t miss the famous totem poles at the east entrance of the park. It takes about 2 – 2.5 hours to walk the Stanley Park section of the Seawall, so come prepared.
2. Great Entertainment – The Stanley Park Summer Cinema. Do you want to watch a great movie, outdoors, on a mild summer night with about 2000 other people? You can have it in Vancouver! In Stanley Park (at Ceperley Meadow) a big blow-up screen is inflated every Tuesday night in July and August to bring prime entertainment to the crowds, with food trucks, contests and everything. The best thing – it’s free! Make sure to bring a blanket to sit on (or lie on, as many prefer) and an extra layer of clothing, as it can get chilly once the sun is gone. It can get quite busy, so come early.
3. Get artsy – Explore world-famous art whilst wandering through architectural gems. The Vancouver Art Gallery curates international as well as local, contemporary and historic pieces. At the moment, it hosts exhibitions from Claude Monet to ‘Pictures from Here’. The Gallery offers entry by donation every Tuesday night from 5 pm – 9 pm. Make sure to be there around 4:30 pm when famous collections like Monet’s are displayed, otherwise you might find yourself queuing around the block. Right across the street is the Bill Reid Gallery, which offers free entry every first Friday of the month from 2 pm – 5 pm. Bill Reid was a well respected local First Nations artist, whose work is displayed in the Vancouver airport among other places.
4. Go on an adventure – Bowen Island (also known as the ‘Happy Isle’), once a hippies’ nest, is only a 20 minute ferry ride away from the city. Locals love to come here for day trips and long weekends. The tranquil island offers great hiking and beaches (if you’re aiming for thrifty), but you can also rent kayaks, paddle boards and bicycles for further exploration. Right by the ferry terminal at Snug Cove you can take a rest in one of the unique cafés or at the local library, which is situated in the historic building of the old General Store. Explore the island’s history from Squamish Nation to an artist’s colony even further in the Bowen Island Museum – admission is by donation. The ferry terminal with service to Bowen Island (Horseshoe Bay Terminal) can be easily reached by public transit from Vancouver. Ferries depart every hour. If you are on a budget, go early in the morning and leave with the last ferry at night, as accommodation can be quite pricey. Leave the vehicle on dry land – a walk-on ticket ($12 return) is all you need as most of the island can be discovered by foot.
5. Get your Culture Kick – The Vancouver Public Library does not only have an impressive Central Branch in Downtown Vancouver that is worth visiting for its architecture alone – it also offers a wide range of free events, from movie screenings and readings by local authors, to writing classes, dream-job panels and ‘learn to camp’ workshops. Go on a treasure hunt on 6 levels packed with books, magazines and newspapers. The Central Branch also keeps a wide variety of books in foreign languages, such as German. If you are staying in Canada for at least a year and have a local address, you can apply for a library card – it’s free.
6. Reach for the Stars – Gaze into Vancouver’s night sky and be mesmerized by the vastness of the universe. Don’t worry if you have an untrained eye, staff and volunteers will happily explain what you are actually seeing. The MacMillan Observatory is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights from 8pm till midnight – admission by donation. Arrive either right before opening or closer to the witching hour as this is a quite popular venue.
7. Get blown away – If you are visiting Vancouver during the summer, chances are you’ll see fireworks (free, of course). The Celebration of Lights is a pyro-show-contest with several countries competing over the course of a week or two, usually held in July/August. A safe date to see impressive fireworks is Canada Day (July 1). Good spectating spots are usually English Bay, Kitsilano Beach, and Vanier Park. Go out to Jericho Beach if you want to avoid the crowds.
8. Watch the grotesque, the phony, and the naked – do a Vancouver Beach-Hop. This cities’ beaches could not be more different and entertaining. Sunset Beach is located right by the international West End, so expect a little bit of everything here. Chances are good that someone that can not sing will pull out an amplifier and give a performance nobody asked for. Come to Kitsilano Beach to see aspiring swimsuit-models parade and millenials vlog into their iPhones. However, for the most entertainment value you have to put in some effort and leave Downtown to scramble down the 400 stairs to Wreck Beach. This beach is UBC’s “free zone”. Here, you will find hairy middle-aged men dressed in cowboy hats, sequin shirts, and nothing else, walking up and down the shore selling ganja and magic mushrooms; vendors offering a variety of exotic foods, drinks, and hippie nick-knacks in wooden stalls; and first-semesters celebrating their new found freedom away from societal limitation. But don’t worry, although this is a nudist beach, everybody is welcome and only half of the people there go fully without. The police might pay an obligatory visit, but that does not stop the fun in this place of possibilities.
9. Hit the pause button – every proper city tour includes one historic church visit. The Christ Church Cathedral, right across from the Bill Reid Gallery, is roughly one hundred years old and one of the city’s must-see buildings. Don’t let the conservative outside fool you – this church is known for bestowing blessings upon same sex unions and hosting a special service before the start of every Pride Parade. Contrast the gothic style of this Anglican church with classical Chinese landscaping following the concepts of Feng Shui and Taoism by visiting the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park. While there is a paid section (the Classical Chinese Garden), the attached park is free to the public.
10. Volunteer at a charity event – Yes, you heard right, I want you to work for free during your vacation. Volunteering is very much part of Canadian culture and there is no better way of mingling with the locals than contributing to a cause they care about. You might find yourself giving out water, checking in participants, and popping up tents for half a day. Fundraising walks, bike tours, concerts and galas are happening by the dozens every month in Vancouver, so have your pick. In return you often get free snacks and an event t-shirt to keep as a souvenir. Great websites to find opportunities are charityvillage.com, craigslist.ca and volunteeringvancouver.ca.
Bonus: Not free, but worth every penny:
11. Get your spa-time in: There are two massage schools with student clinics in Downtown Vancouver and one in New Westminster. The Vancouver School of Bodywork & Massage offers different types of massages and yoga therapy (60 min./$30; 90 min./$40), the Vancouver College of Massage Therapy offers relaxing and advanced massages (75 min./$40) and the West Coast College of Massage Therapy offers massages (75 min./$30) as well as other treatments like an infrared sauna and herbal baths. Make sure to book an appointment ahead of time or you will miss out. While anything involving customer service is usually super expensive in Vancouver, you can get a professional manicure for as little as $20 anywhere in the city. As new nail spas open every day, competition is quite high and prices are low. Make someone’s day and tip properly!
12. Connect to the roots – Follow the footsteps of humanity and explore the abundance of culture this world has to offer. The Museum of Anthropology is an internationally well respected institution and you could easily spend a whole day here exploring. It offers a discounted admission on Thursdays from 5 pm – 9 pm (discount admission $10 / regular admission $18).
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