Canada’s laid-back darling, Vancouver is a city of ocean, mountain, forest, glistening skyscrapers and squeaky-clean streets, a West Coast playground where you can eat fresh sushi for lunch, ski or hike the afternoon away, and be back in town in time for a micro-brew or two before supper.
Our local expert, Adrian Crook, is a single dad with five young kids, living in a condo at the heart of downtown Vancouver. He runs a boutique video game design consultancy, AC+A, and has been a creative director and producer in games for 20 years.
Says Adrian, “I grew up outside of Vancouver in a small suburb called Port Moody and didn’t discover urban living until I moved into the city – to the Yaletown district – in 1998. I used to think my love of Downtown would just be temporary and I’d outgrow it, but now I recognize that urban living, especially given all Vancouver has to offer kids and adults alike, is really what my family is best suited for. I’ve lived in Texas, Los Angeles, Toronto and Mexico, but Vancouver is by far my favourite, overall.”
What do you love most about Vancouver as a place to spend time with your children?
As a green city, Vancouver is really at the forefront. It possesses a livable downtown core that’s unlike any other North American city, aside, perhaps, from New York. It’s important to me that my kids grow up seeing a sustainable and diverse way of life, and Vancouver’s Downtown is a microcosm of that – from the bike lanes, to its density, to its parks, accessibility and contrast of living conditions. I love the scale of Downtown, which is perfect for the kids and I. We walk everywhere, from Chinatown to Stanley Park, sometimes taking the Skytrain (driverless light rapid transit) as much for the fun and sights as to get to whichever destination we’re headed to. The variety of transport options in Vancouver is fantastic, and are entertainment unto themselves. Whether we’re on the Seabus or the Aquabus, the bus or the Skytrain, it’s all an adventure.
Can you give us a run-down of your favourite things to do in Vancouver with little ones?
- Science World For our money, you can’t beat Science World. We go almost every second weekend or sometimes after school (we have an annual pass), and it never gets old. The exhibits change constantly and it’s unlikely your kids will make it through everything the first time they go. Even recently, we spent three hours there and didn’t even touch the new Lego exhibit! That’s waiting for us this week…
- Vancouver Aquarium Another place we have an annual pass to is the Aquarium, and it pays for itself very quickly, especially with so many kids. There are hands-on exhibits that let the kids poke at sea urchins and the like, a great assortment of sea creatures, and of course, the ever-so-cute sea otters. It’s also worth checking out whichever 4D film is showing: we saw Ice Age 4D, and it actually snowed in the theatre!
- Granville Island The public market, outdoor performers, and Kids’ Imagination Market make this a full-day outing any time we go. So much to see, do, and taste.
- Seabus The kids love riding the Seabus over to North Vancouver and back. Lonsdale Quay Market, where the Seabus lands on the opposite side of the Vancouver Harbour, has food and toy stores for them to meander through. On the ride to and fro, we often spot seals poking their heads above water, and watch seaplanes landing all around us. Plus the Seabus passes close to freighters anchored in the Burrard Inlet, which is really cool for the kids to see up close.
- Yaletown Roundhouse This is a former train-yard roundhouse converted into a community centre. I often take the kids to open play-times in the gym, but the boys especially love the gorgeous steam locomotive that they can play on and ring the bell. The retired engineers who run the display will talk for ages about trains, happily showing the kids their working model train and more.
- Harbour Centre ObservatoryA bit of a touristy and somewhat pricey thing to do, but the kids love the glass elevator that runs up the outside of the tower, as well as the amazing views from the observatory deck. Worth doing at least once to get a 360 degree view of the city. Go on a clear day, of course.
Do you have any off-beat tips or hidden gems up your sleeve that visitors to the city would usually miss?
- Big birds at the Olympic Village These are really great. My kids love playing on them, which is likely not the purpose for which they were designed, but how often do you get to scale the tail of a massive bird?
- Stanley Park Train Not super off-beat, but it’s still fun to take the kids for a ride on this miniature train that cruises through part of Stanley Park. We avoid this around Christmas and Halloween, though, as it’s very crowded.
- Kids’ Crossfit I take my kids to a special kids’ crossfit class at Crossfit Westside. They love the variety of activities, and really get into helping each other workout, or simply writing their names and results on the floor in chalk. Definitely a fun way to encourage physical fitness.
- The tanks by Beatty Street Drill Hall There are two well preserved, giant military tanks out front of the Canadian Forces Armory in Crosstown (between Gastown and Yaletown). The kids begged me constantly to take them, so when we finally did, they were thrilled and climbed all over them.
- Aquariums West Also on Beatty street, this iconic Vancouver pet store has over 5,000 square feet of really cool animals. Our favorite is the giant toad (not for sale)… look on the side of its tank to see what it ate last. Last time we looked, it was something like, “Mouse, December 1st” – which was a month ago at that time!
What are your favourite places to eat with kids in Vancouver?
- Winter Farmer’s Market at Nat Bailey stadium: This runs through the winter, November through April. Live performers for the kids, along with super yummy food and snacks. A great place to get some cheese, honey, or chicken pot pies to take home, along with treats whilst walking around. In the summer, the Yaletown Farmer’s Market is pretty good too.
- La Casa Gelato: Consistently voted Vancouver’s best ice cream parlour, it’s easy to see why: an absolutely huge selection of flavours, and free tasting cones for the kids. I always wind up buying the kids proper cones, but I suspect I could get away feeding them almost for free here if I had less of a conscience!
- Food trucks: Even throughout the winter, Vancouver has food trucks. I love the Mom’s Grilled Cheese truck: pretty much the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ll ever have, with a gluten-free option to boot.
What are your favourite spots in the city for a walk in the park or a play in the playground?
- David Lam Park This is the largest green space in Yaletown, and the venue for some of the bigger Vancouver International Jazz Festival shows in the summer. A great place to run around, kick a ball, do impromptu gymnastics, or just lie in the grass, soaking up the sun.
- Stanley Park Seawall and Beaches There really is nothing that can beat the Seawall, at least in Canada, for sheer uninterrupted gorgeousness. Such a great place to walk or bike, punctuated by great public beaches, a huge outdoor pool in the summer, Lost Lagoon, and the rest of Stanley Park. I can’t wait to load the kids into bike trailers – or onto their own bikes – and pedal the Seawall this Spring.
- VanDusen Botanical Garden This one is just outside Downtown, but worth the trip. A great place for a walk amongst all manner of flora and fauna. The coolest part is the hedge maze…it reminds me a bit of The Shining, but the kids like it.
- Spanish Banks Another great urban beach, this one is out toward UBC (the University of British Columbia) on the west side of Vancouver. Go in the summer when it’s warmer of course. I used to wade in the water here when I was a kid, and now my kids do too, which is pretty cool.
- Emery Barnes Park Close to us in Yaletown, the city built this park by slowly taking over and razing old commercial buildings. Now it’s got a faux creek running through it that the kids love to play in, an awesome playground with rubberized ground and a free public toilet that is “robotic,” to use my kids’ word for it. For a picnic in the park, we like to pick up fruit and juice at Nesters Market (cnr Seymour and Nelson Streets) beforehand, where they even have kids-sized grocery carts!
‘It’s such a perfect day’: What would your perfect weekend with your little ones consist of in Vancouver?
My perfect day is a combination of some slightly more costly things, some free things, and some seasonal. This is what we’d do:
- 4Cats Art Studio I arranged a splatter paint party for the kids here last Fall and they loved it. They constantly ask to go back. The kids did a Jackson Pollack-style canvas that hangs above our dining room table now. They get truly messy and creative in a way I wish they could always be.
- Beaver Lake & Geocaching Earlier in the winter, we went hiking around Beaver Lake with a friend and her two kids. They turned us onto geocaching (using the iPhone’s GPS to find “secret” stashes in the woods). The older kids absolutely loved tracking down the treasures, cracking them open, adding their own knick knacks to it and writing their name in the log book. Quite a magical place, right in the middle of the city!
- FlyOver Canada I haven’t taken the kids to this yet, as it’s one of those slightly more costly things, but there really is nothing else like it in the city. It’s only about ten minutes long but it’s as close to flying across Canada as you can get. I won’t spoil it by saying any more, but older kids (ages five and up) would love it.
- A movie with popcorn with gummy bears This is just a treat the kids really like. Throw some gummy bears into their popcorn and be sure to give them each their own bowl, or fighting ensues. Makes movie night extra special.
- Surveying the city, looking for fireworks This is really only possible on Halloween night, but since this is my perfect day, I thought I’d put it in here. Sit on almost any deck in downtown Vancouver on Halloween night and watch the fireworks being set off around the city. Even when there aren’t any fireworks, it’s still amazing to get bundled up and sit on the deck with one or two of the older kids, checking out the hustle and bustle of the city below. Add hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles for maximum coziness.
What would you recommend families not do when they visit?
Don’t stay far out in the burbs. Downtown Vancouver is really where you should be, especially if you want to get around without a car. As soon as you get outside of the peninsula – the bit of Vancouver that’s densely packed with skyscrapers – it begins to resemble any other burb. Which isn’t bad – it’s just less dense, meaning you’re not able to walk everywhere and you’ll end up seeing and doing a lot less. If you have to stay outside of Downtown, pick somewhere close to a Skytrain station so you can get downtown easily.
What’s the best way to get around the city with children?
Walking! I have a double stroller for the two and four year old, and the other three just walk alongside. I used to make them wear (hideously embarrassing) green vests so I could keep track of them at the park, but now they are so comfortable in an urban setting that they all know their boundaries and rarely get lost. For times when you can’t walk, take the other forms of transport I mentioned…Seabus, Aquabus, Bus, Skytrain, or even a cab. The downtown area is small, so walking from one side to the other, even at it’s longest point, isn’t more than a few kilometers. Walking around the Stanley Park Seawall, on the other hand, is closer to ten kilometers or more, depending on how much of it you do.
You need a quick and easy escape from the city. Where do you head?
For a really quick escape, Port Moody. Just 40 minutes by car into the burbs, Port Moody wraps around the end of the Burrard Inlet and has a couple nice parks (Rocky Point and Old Orchard) on opposite sides of the Inlet, connected by a shoreline trail suitable for walking, biking or pushing a stroller. Rocky Point Park in the summer has a great water park and hosts Golden Spike Days on the July 1st weekend, which is a great family fair.
And finally, you have a babysitter, who’ll stay as late as you like. What does your perfect grown-up night out consist of?