The 25 best free experiences in Vancouver

Vancouver routinely lands on lists of the most expensive cities in Canada, but that shouldn’t put budget-conscious travelers off. Here are many ways to enjoy Western Canada’s biggest metropolis for no cost at all.

Take a spin around Stanley Park

The magnificent 404-hectare (998-acre) Stanley Park combines excellent free attractions with the powerful, almost mystical, draw of nature. Don’t miss a stroll around the 8.8km (5.5-mile) seawall – fringed by a 150,000-tree temperate rainforest, the route will take you past the park’s popular totem poles and alongside the coast of the shimmering Pacific Ocean.

We also recommend Stanley Park’s admission-free Nature House for the lowdown on the region’s plants and animals. Aside from its wildlife exhibits, the facility also hosts low-cost guided park walks, often illuminating resident critters, from herons to raccoons.

Kitsilano Beach offers one of the region's signature panoramas © Kevin Miller / Getty Images

Take some sun at Kitsilano Beach

Kitsilano Beach is one of Vancouver’s favorite summertime hangouts. The wide, sandy expanse attracts buff Frisbee tossers, giggling volleyball players and preening sunbathers, with the ocean offering choice opportunities for a dip. 

Perch on a log on a summer afternoon to see one of the region’s signature panoramas: the shimmering seafront backed by the twinkling glass towers of downtown and the North Shore mountains beyond. It’s one of those vistas that might leave you considering your emigration options.

Stop and listen to the Steam Clock 

Halfway along Water St, the oddly popular Steam Clock is a tourist magnet with a tooting whistle that sounds every 15 minutes, and which marks each hour with little whistling symphonies. Built in 1977, the clock has a mechanism that is actually driven by electricity; only the pipes on top are steam-fueled (reveal that to those patiently waiting, though, and you might cause a riot.)

Once you’ve taken the requisite photo, spend time exploring the rest of brick-cobbled Water St. One of Vancouver’s most historic, the thoroughfare features well-preserved heritage buildings containing shops, galleries and resto-bars. Be sure to cast your gaze above the entrance level for cool architectural features, including statuary faces.

Every tree species native to Canada can be found in Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver’s highest point © Ronnie Chua / Shutterstock

See majestic trees at Queen Elizabeth Park

The city’s highest point – 167m (550ft) above sea level and with panoramic views over the mountain-framed downtown skyscrapers – the 52-hectare (128.5-acre) Queen Elizabeth Park claims to house specimens of every tree native to Canada. This is a good place to view local birdlife: keep your eyes peeled for chickadees, hummingbirds and huge bald eagles whirling high overhead.

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Sports fields, manicured lawns and formal gardens keep residents happy, and you’ll likely see wide-eyed couples posing for their wedding photos in particularly picturesque spots. Check out the synchronized fountains at the park’s summit, where you’ll find the Bloedel Conservatory as well as a hulking Henry Moore bronze called Knife Edge – Two Piece.

Spot wildlife along the Arbutus Greenway

Arbutus Greenway is a former urban rail line that’s being transformed by the city into a cool linear park, and today, the 8.5km-long (5.3-mile-long) plant-fringed walking and cycling route is paved and open to the public. Running south to the Fraser River, it’s a popular and accessible nature-hugging trail that brims with birdlife, butterflies and lots of wildflowers.

The free-admission Sun Yat-Sen Park is designed for and filled with symbols of tranquility © Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Take a breather at Sun Yat-Sen Park

Vancouver's Chinatown has a couple of notable parks to visit. Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden charges admission, but right next door is the free-entry Sun Yat-Sen Park, which echoes the same ancient horticultural ideals. The paid attraction is more ornate and has guided tours, but its free-to-enter sibling includes a similar turtle-rippled lily pond and terracotta-topped perimeter walls.

See the hand-carved ’Ksan Mural

Enter the lobby of the RBC Royal Bank at the corner of Georgia and Burrard Sts, and head up the escalator that’s directly in front of you. At the top, you’ll find one of the largest First Nations artworks in Western Canada – and although it’s in a bank, you don’t have to pay a cent to see it.

Measuring 30m (98ft) long and 2.5m (8ft) high, the nine carved and painted red cedar panels comprising the spectacular ’Ksan Mural cover an entire wall of the building. The work took five carvers three months in 1972 to create, and it visually narrates the story of Weget, or Man-Raven, and his often mischievous exploits.

The Vancouver Public Library is every book-lover's paradise © LeonU / Getty Images

Rise above the fray at the Vancouver Public Library

The dramatic, colosseum-like Vancouver Public Library building looks like a temple to the great god of reading. Even without a religious purpose, it’s certainly one of the world’s most magnificent book-lending facilities.

Designed by Moshe Safdie and opened in 1995, the library offers collections over several floors. Head straight up to the ninth for the rooftop garden, a lofty, tree-lined outdoor plaza with tables and chairs, perfect for a coffee break with a view.

Check out the Chung Collection’s vintage travel posters

The giant University of British Columbia is more than just your average college campus. It’s also home to some of the city’s best attractions, some of which are free.

In the basement of the Irving K Barber Learning Centre, the Chung Collection showcases artifacts related to early Chinese immigrants and the Canadian Pacific Railway – vintage travel posters included. The space is currently closed for ongoing maintenance and renovations, however many items are also on view in the UBC Library Open Collections; check for updates before planning a visit. 

Experience a slice of early 1900s life at Colbourne House

Located in the Marpole neighborhood, one of Vancouver’s oldest, Colbourne House was built in 1912 as a small family home. Saved from the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, it’s now preserved as an evocative house museum, lined with nostalgic furnishings and period knickknacks. (Look out for the staircase “cupboard.”) The house is open when volunteers are in attendance; email ahead to confirm.

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Embrace the avant-garde at Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery

The ever-intriguing Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery specializes in contemporary and often quite challenging pieces, with chin-stroking new exhibitions opening in its high-ceilinged, white-walled spaces throughout the year. Check ahead for workshops and presentations, often covering key or emerging themes in contemporary art.

The art deco Marine Building is a delight for architecture lovers © John Lee / Lonely Planet

Appreciate the art deco Marine Building

Vancouver’s most romantic old-school tower block is also its best art deco building. The elegant 22-story Marine Building is a tribute to the city’s maritime past.

After stopping for a moment to appreciate the elaborate exterior, with its seahorses, lobsters and streamlined steamships, nip into the lobby, a walk-through artwork in itself, with stained-glass panels and a polished floor inlaid with the signs of the zodiac. Also check out the inlaid-wood interiors of the brass-doored elevators.

The Marine Building was the tallest building in the British Empire when it was completed in 1930, and it’s said to have bankrupted its original owners. It now houses offices; the lobby area is free for visitors.

Listen to music at Christ Church Cathedral

Completed in 1895 and designated a cathedral in 1929, the city’s most attractive Gothic-style church is nestled incongruously alongside looming glass towers. Visitors are currently welcome for Sunday services on Thursdays from 10am to 4pm.

Check out the dramatic hammer-beam wooden ceiling, plus the slender, glass-encased bell tower recently added to the exterior. The cathedral also hosts a wide range of cultural events, including regular choir and chamber-music recitals and the occasional Shakespeare reading.

See contemporary art at Pendulum Gallery

A creative use for a cavernous bank-building atrium, the Pendulum Gallery offers a varied roster of temporary exhibitions. Expect mostly contemporary art, ranging from striking paintings to challenging photographs and quirky arts and crafts.

The space also houses one permanent exhibit: a gargantuan 27m (89ft) buffed aluminum pendulum that swings overhead throughout your visit. Designed by Alan Storey, the pendulum weighs 1600kg (3530 pounds) and moves about 6m (20ft).

When the weather warms up, Vancouverites head for the beach © Eduardo Fonseca Arraes / Getty Images

Join the party at English Bay Beach

Wandering south on Denman St, you’ll spot a clutch of palm trees ahead announcing English Bay Beach, one of Canada’s best urban strands. Then you’ll see one of Vancouver’s most popular public artworks, A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun, a series of oversized laughing figures that makes everyone smile.

Across the street is the beach, where a summertime party atmosphere sees locals catching rays and panoramic ocean views or just ogling the volleyballers jumping around on the sand. Be sure to snap a few photos of the beach’s towering inukshuk (Inuit sculpture) south of the main area. Or just continue along the seawall into neighboring Stanley Park.

Learn about railroad history at Engine 374 Pavilion

If the past is your bag, you should head to Yaletown’s Engine 374 Pavilion, which sounds fairly nondescript until you realize the hulking steam locomotive on display pulled the first transcontinental passenger train into Vancouver in 1887. Peruse the old photos on the walls and quiz the enthusiastic volunteers on its fascinating story.

Enjoy the atmosphere at Contemporary Art Gallery

A flexible three-room space, often with a different show in each, the smart, white-walled Contemporary Art Gallery exhibits striking, sometimes complex works in a wide range of media. Check ahead for talks, events and regular show openings. 

The CAG has never had that snooty gallery attitude, and it’s been working hard in recent years to broaden its appeal, including a collaboration to cover local buses in dramatic wrap-around art. 

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Soak up the sun on Vancouver’s Third Beach © Eduardo Fonseca Arraes / Getty Images

Picnic at Second and Third Beaches

Second Beach is a family-friendly area on Stanley Park’s western side that features a grassy playground, an ice-cream-serving concession and the Stanley Park Pitch and Putt course. In summer, visitors can enjoy free outdoor movie screenings.

Alternatively, head to Third Beach for one of Vancouver’s best sunset-watching spots. A lovely sandy expanse with plenty of large logs to sit against, this is a favorite summer-evening destination for many locals, who watch the sky come alive with pyrotechnic color as they munch on the contents of their picnic baskets.

See works by local and national artists at Equinox Gallery

One of Vancouver’s oldest established private galleries, Equinox was one of the first big names to move here, pioneering the area’s new creative spirit. Look out for works by local and national artists – and if there’s a show by Fred Hertzog, make sure you visit. His brightly colored yesteryear photos of vintage Vancouver are simply spectacular.

Free guided nature walks take place monthly at the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area © Martina Masarykova / Shutterstock

Go for a nature walk at Maplewood Flats

Managed by the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, the delightful Maplewood Flats Conservation Area is surprisingly accessible from Vancouver, yet it feels a million miles from the city. Its tangle of trees, winding paths and protected wetland beach lure swallows, ospreys and bald eagles – and nature-loving visitors. 

Snap an artsy selfie at Offsite

Offsite is Vancouver Art Gallery’s outdoor installation space, next to the Shangri-La Hotel. Its sometimes esoteric but always thought-provoking exhibits are changed several times a year. Aim for an attention-getting selfie or just read the explanation accompanying the work: these texts often contain arresting concepts that you may find enlightening.

Trails at Mt Seymour Provincial Park wind past lakes and centuries-old Douglas firs © PamelaJoeMcFarlane / Getty Images

Walk among giants at Mt Seymour Provincial Park

A popular retreat from the downtown clamor, the huge, tree-lined Mt Seymour Provincial Park is full of summertime hiking trails that suit walkers of most abilities. Many trails wind past lakes and centuries-old Douglas firs. The park is a great spot for mountain biking, too, with many dedicated trails. It’s also one of the city’s main winter playgrounds.

Cool off at Granville Island Water Park

If you have kids in tow, head to one of Vancouver’s splash-tastic free water parks. The biggest and best, Granville Island Water Park is conveniently located near Granville Island’s Kids Market, which means you’ll have the perfect way to lure the little ones away from the toy shops. Nearby is a large pond that’s filled with friendly ducks and geese; in May and June, you’ll often spot fuzzy babies of the feathered variety here.

From cycling and walking to the free water park and plenty of spots to admire the waterside views, there is plenty to do at Stanley Park © Michael Wels / Getty Images

Splash around in the jets and pools at Stanley Park

One of Stanley Park’s biggest enticements for kids, the free water park is the perfect way to cool down on hot summer days. Jets and pools keep the giggles flowing, while magnificent views across the inlet to the mountain-framed North Shore delight any adult.

Find free entertainment in summertime

Vancouver has a number of free events, especially when summer rolls around. Historically, the CBC has staged free concerts at noon on summer weekdays in front of its downtown building; there’s also a summer-long series of free alfresco shows at the Kitsilano Showboat, often framed by spectacular Pacific sunsets. You’ll find many of the same Vancouverites catching free outdoor movie screenings in summertime Stanley Park – picnic blankets recommended.

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About the Author: Tung Chi