As one of the biggest cities in Canada, Vancouver is the hub of the West Coast.
The locals are proud, and generally support the idea that "West is Best".
Before we came to Canada, we didn't know a whole lot about it, so we did some research.
Vancouver sounded like a good option to start with, for our time in Canada; warmer, greener, plenty to do and a West Coast "hipster" vibe (meaning a higher possibility of good coffee).
It didn't seem as big and spread out as Toronto, and we didn't need to be learn French, like Quebec.
So, we decided to try it...
We arrived in Vancouver on a chilly, grey and miserable day. We were tired, jet-lagged and on the other side of the world from everything we knew. In all honesty, we were a little shocked, and disappointed. This city wasn't quite the magical, forested wonderland it had appeared to be on the internet.
Yet, just over a year later, we are still here in the West. Not in Vancouver itself, but in a small town not far from it. Although we've escaped the city life, we're close enough that we can venture back into the city pretty regularly and explore it more. With time, Vancouver has grown on us and we have really enjoyed getting to know it a little better.
So, as an outsider coming to Vancouver, what should you expect? Here's an honest list of the points that stood out to us; some good, some not so good. Come and experience the "best of the west", while also being prepared for what to expect.
1. Vancouver is not that cold
B.C has the mildest year-round climate of all the Canadian Provinces; it even has a coastal rainforest region.
During Summer, you will experience plenty of blue skied, sunny and warm days. Temperatures usually sit around the early to mid 20's (celsius), but some days can get up into the late 20's - it can get pretty hot! So, make sure you use sunscreen if you're visiting during the hotter months. The heat feels more dry than humid, and unfortunately B.C can experience forest fires.
A lot of locals will warn you about the rain, and it's true: it rains a fair bit in Vancouver and the surrounding areas. But, the rain is rarely heavy or stormy, it just has a tendency to settle in for a few dreary days/weeks at a time. The season usually covers May/June - September.
Vancouver does get some snow in winter, however, it gets off lightly compared to the rest of Canada. Temperatures rarely drop below 0, but be prepared for a damp cold. Again, the grey, rainy and misty days can settle in for long periods, leaving you wondering what the sun looks or feels like, but it's all pretty manageable and doesn't affect day-to-day life too badly.
If you're planning to drive in Winter, keep in mind that you will need to prepare for Winter driving conditions, including the use of seasonal tyres. The season usually covers October/November - March.
Occasionally, some particularly snowy weather may restrict you going very far for a day or so in Winter, but the roads are maintained pretty well with plows and salt.
If there are forest fires in Summer, just be aware there may me some smokiness and lowered air quality also.
Overall, come prepared with layers and waterproof clothing and shoes; but you don't need to go overboard; you're in the Pacific North West, not the Arctic Circle!
2. West-coasters LOVE the outdoors
This probably stands for most Canadians really. The winters are long, and miserable; so when summer comes, there's a definite feeling that Canadians are packing as much into the season as they can.
Hiking, camping, rock climbing, biking, running, swimming, walking, campfires, 'patio season'......... If it's outside, they'll do it.
It will probably rub off on you too, so don't be afraid to take advantage and head outside if you're interested.
Talk to the locals; they are passionate about their beloved outdoor activities and love to share experiences and help newcomers out with tips and tricks, places to go and what to do.
Just watch out for the wildlife (they WILL bite)!
Another point to note in regards to the Canadian outdoorsy lifestyle, is the fashion sense. You'll see A LOT of locals dress in perpetual "sports casual". Some will find any occasional for their Lulu Lemon yoga pants (we once stood behind a women doing a yoga pose while waiting in line at the bank!). Vancouver itself is a metropolitan city, so you can comfortably get away with any style or fashion, but if you head a bit further out of down (e.g. heading north to Squamish or Whistler), even a swipe of lipgloss may make you feel a little overdressed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a point of note that you can feel free to embrace the relaxed, casual dress sense of the West Coast.
3. Homelessness and drugs
This is North America, so any big city is going to have a homeless community. Vancouver is no exception to this, and it is also partly encouraged by the warmer climate (it's a lot colder to sleep on the streets elsewhere in Canada).
The homeless people can be found in many places of the city, but they tend to be concentrated to Central Downtown, Gastown, Chinatown and the Lower east side. The infamous East Hastings street is known for drug-use and homelessness, but you will most likely never have a reason to go there.
Some will sit quietly with a sign asking for spare change/food/cigarettes, some will ask you as you walk by, and some you will just see sleeping in doorways or on the side of the path.
Don't be too alarmed though, for the most part they are fairly docile; if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. They are often quite polite too, so if you say "no sorry", or if you do share some spare change or food with them, they will likely thank you and wish you a good day.
Occasionally you will see someone a bit strung out, or flipping out and acting aggressively/unpredictably; just keep away and seek help if need be.
Generally, when you are walking around the main areas of Vancouver, you will feel pretty safe. However, you still need to be careful. If you're heading along East Hastings street, avoid venturing too much further than Chinatown, and be careful walking anywhere alone and/or at night.
Practice safety as you would any where you travel to - keep handbags/packs close, don't flash around large amounts of money, and be wary of your surroundings. You never know how some people will react, especially if they are under the influence of drugs/alcohol, experiencing hard times, or just desperate for something (food, money, cigarettes, substances).
Another point to note is the Marijuana. Like a few states/provinces in U.S & Canada, Cannabis is legal(sort-of). You will see, and smell, some people around town smoking marijuana, so just be prepared for this.
4. It can be a little dirty
For some reason, we were partly expecting Canada to be this pristine place of mountains and forests, with a constant smell of fresh pine in the air.
In reality, there are many places like that in Canada, but Vancouver is not one of them.
Some days and in some areas (particularly Downtown), it smells of piss and old cigarette butts. There's gum baked into the side walks and the odd patch of dried blood on the concrete. One time we caught the Skytrain and someone had peed at one end of it, and as the train sped around the city, the pee had gone everywhere dried as a sticky, stinking mess on the ground. You might see some excrement on the side of the road, and wonder 'animal, or human'"
You might see a used syringe on the edge of the side walk, or get hit in the face with a cloud of Marijuana smoke as you walk down the street.
So just be prepared for the dirty 'city' parts, but don't let it completely ruin your dreams of Canada. If you get the chance to explore Vancouver more, there are also nice, clean parts of the city to be found. And if you travel more around the country, you can see some truly beautiful places that haven't yet been tainted by humans.
5. Eco-friendly locals
Even though it can be a little dirty, the city is also quite eco-friendly. Many food places and cafes will have compostable/eco-friendly take away containers, and will sort their garbage, compostable and recyclables. It is encouraged for people to have their own reusable water bottles and coffee cups, and many shops will ask if you need a bag before giving you one. Some places have also gone 'straw free'.
Locals are pretty proud about it, and just like their exercise and eating habits, they WILL let you know about their eco-friendliness. Occasionally you will come across some people who take it quite seriously and can be a little annoying about it. However, for the most part, many people just care about the environment and don't want to make unnecessary waste, and this is a pretty good thing.
6. B.C = Bring Cash!
Most of the main cities in Canada aren't cheap places to live or visit, but Vancouver is definitely known as being the most costly. The whole province of B.C has notoriously been nick-named "Bring Cash"; living costs are expensive, taxes are high, and attractions and travel costs aren't cheap.
If you're on a working holiday visa, and wanting to experience life in Canada while also travelling around a bit, it can be a bit of a hard slog. Although we have managed to travel around a bit in our time so far, we have found it pretty hard going to cover the costs of living, while also experiencing and saving for traveling. We underestimated just how large the continent of North America is, and how much time and money it takes to see different parts of it.
It's not impossible to afford being here, just try to be realistic and accept that you are not going to be able to see it all. You may also have to sacrifice certain comforts that you used to indulge in, in order to have more money for travel and experiencing. It's definitely a good learning curve in budgeting and prioritizing.
If you're wanting to visit B.C for a holiday, you might just find that everything costs a little more and your spending money doesn't stretch as far. But this is all depending on where you're visiting from, and where else you have travelled in the world to compare it to. Look out for price tags, as the prices are often displayed before tax. Also, for food, drink and some other services (e.g. taxi, hairdressers), a tip of between 10-20% is expected.
Don't feed the bears!
In the inner city of Vancouver itself, it is fairly uncommon to see any wildlife, apart from squirrels and crows. But the further out of the city you get, the more likely you are to come across something a little bigger.
The most common places you are likely to run into any large animals, is if you take a road trip out of the city, or if you are heading out for some hiking/biking etc.
And even then, you are still not that likely to see anything unless you are venturing out at night, early in the morning, or in quiet, less travelled places.
If you are thinking of hitting the highway, have a read through this and if you are thinking of heading into the great outdoors for some recreational activities, check out this website.
Remember they are wild animals, and they actually don't want to run into you! Be careful, be respectful, and be aware - the more aware you are, the less likely yourself, or the animal, will come to harm.
8. Hollywood North
Vancouver is known as "Hollywood of the North", because a lot of movies and TV shows are filmed in and near the city. As you walk around and explore, you might see familiar sights or places. Or, after having visited Vancouver, you may watch something and notice somewhere you've seen while you were there.
Certain areas in the city may occasionally be closed off for filming (e.g. parking lots, buildings, streets), but they usually don't take up too much space and there will be notices up in the days before to warn you of any upcoming closures.
Be careful and maintain a respectful distance if you come across a set. They sometimes don't mind a few quiet, curious onlookers, but there will be security guards to keep people out of the way if they get too close.
Filming days can often be long and tiresome, so don't make it more difficult for those trying to work, just because you are being nosy or want a picture.
Also, some famous faces reside in Vancouver during filming, or even permanently, so you may see some of them out and about as you explore the city.
Again, try not to bother them too much, they are just trying to go about their life.
If you're a film and TV buff, it can be exciting and fun to see the setting of some of your favourite shows or movies. Here's a list of what's been filmed in Vancouver before, and here's a website that keeps you updated on the current filming activities.
All in all, Vancouver is definitely worth a visit - whether you are planning a short trip, or a longer stay.
It also seems like the kind of city that if you live there, or spend more time there, you would find plenty of hidden gems.
If you're there for a short stay, do some research before you go and work out the areas and attractions you really want to see. If you've got a little more time, be sure to head out of the city for a day trip or short trip (e.g. Vancouver Island, Okanagan, Seattle).
Also, don't necessarily believe the 'West is Best' mantra. Yes, the West Coast is a beautiful part of Canada, but there are also plenty of other beautiful and great places to visit in the country.