For most people, winter in Canada brings one image to mind: snow. And lots of it. But, on Canada’s west coast, a short two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle, sits Vancouver – a city with a mild climate more akin to northern Europe, and the perfect destination for a winter getaway.
One of Canada’s best-known cities, Vancouver is famous for its prominent film industry, coffee culture, idyllic lifestyle, and spectacular scenery. It’s also far more temperate than the rest of Canada in the winter, with lows rarely dropping below freezing (although the mountains that frame it are snow-capped nearly year-round and a big pull for skiers.)
This makes it perfect for a winter trip, allowing visitors to enjoy the city, the slopes, and the spectacular landscapes year-round.
What to Pack:
Vancouver might not be as cold as Toronto, or Montreal, but it can still get pretty chilly in the winter months. Think of the weather as being comparable to that of Seattle, London, or Paris.
You’ll still need to pack warm clothes and boots, preferably rain-resistant, because if there’s something else Vancouver’s famous for, it’s rain. And, if you plan on hitting the slopes or heading up to Whistler during your trip, some snow gear will come in handy.
Where to Stay:
Vancouver Downtown is small, which means that if you opt for a central hotel, you’ll be able to walk to most places in under 30 minutes. Most areas are safe, though it’s better to avoid the downtown east side and choose a hotel closer to Vancouver’s west coast.
Midtown has the biggest density of hotels (Rosewood Hotel Georgia has housed icons since 1927) while Coal Harbour offers the best views of the northern mountains (choose The Loden for its unique design or The Listel for a hotel full of art.)
Yaletown is an upscale neighborhood with great food options (choose the Opus for proximity to great brunches), while the West End has a more authentic feel and exceptional sunset views over the pacific ocean (choose the Sylvia Hotel for beach access, or the West End Guest House for a unique stay in a heritage house).
You can even stay on Granville Island at a boutique hotel of the same name, which is the only one on the island, and offers unique suites that have spectacular views of the water at False Creek.
Vancouver is wonderful any time of year, but if your trip happens to coincide with the winter months, here are the top places you should visit for a cozy, picturesque getaway:
No trip to Vancouver is complete without a visit to Stanley Park – a 400-hectare rainforest bordering the city edge on one side and the pacific ocean on the other. Visitors can choose to reconnect with nature on one of the many trails inside the forest or admire the views of the pacific by cycling Vancouver’s waterfront road, the seawall.
Full of ancient evergreens and firs, the park is stunning any time of year, but if you are lucky enough to visit in December, you’ll get to see the annual light display to celebrate the Christmas season. If not, there are still beaches, lakes, gardens, and viewpoints that are stunning year-round, and there’s always a chance to spot wildlife like otters, owls, eagles, and even orcas.
If you follow the trail maps all the way to Prospect Point, you’ll be rewarded by a spectacular view across the pacific ocean, the northern mountains, and Lion’s Gate Bridge, as well as a pitstop at the cafe for a hot drink or a pint of a local craft brew.
Vancouver Ski Resorts
Although Vancouver isn’t known for snow, it is known for its impressive mountains. If you love winter sports and aren’t afraid of heights, you’ll be spoiled for a choice of ski resorts and world-famous slopes.
If you want to stay close to the city, you can head over to Grouse Mountain, Cypress Mountain, or Mount Seymour for day trips. Or, if you want to travel a little further and visit a world-famous slope, Whistler Blackcomb resort is only a few hours by car or bus north of Vancouver.
Activities on Vancouver’s slopes usually include skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and tubing, but each resort has its own activities with something to suit every kind of traveler. Day trips usually start at around $449, and it’s worth noting that many resorts have black-out periods over Christmas and New years.
A delight year-round, Granville islands sits just south of the main city on the south side of False Creek. With a vibe reminiscent of Pier 39 in San Francisco, Granville Island houses a public market where visitors can buy fresh produce and both local and international delicacies, as well as a food market with stalls selling dishes from around the globe.
If you’re a foodie, this is a no-skip part of any Vancouver trip. You can find everything from artisanal pies and pastries, to boutique sake and fresh local seafood. And, should you decide to enjoy your meal outside on the island’s waterfront deck, you’ll be met with views of the city over the creek, and, more often than not, a live performance from one of the many musicians who come to Granville to busk.
You may also catch sight of the Granville Island harris hawk – a staple of the market used to protect unsuspecting tourists from the aggressive and hungry seagulls. Opposite the food market, you’ll find a second remodeled warehouse consisting of quaint clothing boutiques, souvenir shops, and art stores. There’s also a great selection of local breweries and bistros on the Island, and at Christmas, art and crafts markets, light shows, and gorgeous seasonal decor.
Getting to the market is part of the fun – by taking one of the two ferry services (Aqua Bus or False Creek Ferries), you can sail across False Creek in adorable little boats for the roughly same price you would pay for a bus. The sea buses run regularly throughout the day from different stops along the Southern downtown shore, and prices to Granville Island start at $2.25.
The North Shore
Downtown Vancouver has plenty to offer in the winter, but so do the surrounding suburbs. None more so than its north shore – a stretch of seawall that offers striking views of the CBD and a much more laid-back pace of life.
If you take the Burrard Seabus from Vancouver’s waterfront, you can enjoy a 12-minute ride across the inlet for the same price you would pay for the subway. On the other side, you’ll find yourself next to the Vancouver shipyards – a stretch of industrial-style warehouses that feature food and craft markets, breweries, cafes, and, in the winter, a gorgeous artisan Christmas market.
Vancouver’s north shore is a great spot for a chilled afternoon of sampling ale from one of the breweries, browsing the local artwork in the markets, and enjoying a meal without the crowds and noise of the city. You can also enjoy stunning views across the inlet of Vancouver, admire the super yachts that many residents anchor there, and, if you’re lucky, enjoy a free show from the seals and cormorants that often hang around the docks.
Whistler, home to the world-famous Blackcomb resort, may be known for skiing, but there’s so much more to see that it deserves a visit even if you don’t like winter sports. Just an hour and a half’s drive from Vancouver, Whistler feels like a fairytale village, with rustic wooden lodges, alpine decor, and small, car-free streets.
Whistler is the perfect place for a cozy winter weekend trip – it’s packed with cute shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants – and more often than not, equipped with wood log fireplaces or Hygge-style decor. And although it’s primarily a ski resort, its setting amidst snow-laden mountains makes it perfect for something else – spas. If you don’t feel like hitting the slopes, or need to relax after a hard day of skiing, the Scandinavian spa in particular is worth a visit – it’s an outdoor spa with hot springs, fire pits, plunge pools, and saunas, perfect for cold mountain weather and unwinding on vacation.
Getting to Whistler is easy – there’s just one road, the Sky to Sea Highway, and you can either drive the 90 minutes or take a bus from downtown Vancouver. The views are worth the trip alone – the highway takes you along the mountainside past Howe sound, with breathtaking views of the mountains and the reserve below. There are plenty of viewpoints on the way, and it’s the ultimate winter photo op.
Gastown is Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood, with cobbled streets and ornate lanterns dating back to the Victorian era. Famous for its steam clock (which you can catch whistling and firing steam once every quarter hour) and red brick architecture, Gastown is one of the best neighborhoods in Vancouver for great food and unique holiday shopping.
With its selection of cozy pubs, quirky boutiques, snug cafes, and overall old-world charm, Gastown is a great place to grab lunch, stock up on gifts, and escape the cold weather. For food, check out Water Street Cafe (live music and views of the steam clock), Pourhouse (prohibition vibes inside a 100-year-old warehouse), or The Flying Pig (creative menu and a popular spot for brunch).
*As a quick word of caution, although Gastown is a popular tourist destination, it is close to an area of downtown that has higher crime rates and can make visitors feel uncomfortable. Gastown is still a big part of Vancouver’s culture, and a great place to visit, but when you get to the square at the end of main street (Water Street), it’s a good idea to turn back around and go west back to downtown instead of continuing east.*
Yaletown is a little more upscale, and therefore, can be pricey, but it’s the place to be on a night out, and the ultimate neighborhood for an aperitif or an after-dinner cocktail. If you head down to Yaletown roundhouse station, you’ll be able to wander along the neighboring streets lined with terraced patios, sophisticated restaurants, and hip warehouse bars.
In the day, Yaletown also has a range of stylish boutiques and salons that are great for quality gifts and self-pampering, but the night is when it really comes to life, especially in the winter with colorful light displays, and braziers lining the patios.
Most of the bars have happy hours between 3 pm to 6 pm, and you can find a range of restaurants to suit any budget. For bars, try the Distillery Bar and Kitchen (ultra-hip bar restaurant with stunning interior decor) or Hello Goodbye Bar (secret entrance and extensive cocktail list.) For food, check out MEET (incredible vegetarian/vegan restaurants with a great vibe and a patio), Brix & Mortar (classic Canadian food in a heritage building), or The Parlour (chilled vibes, great pizza, and delicious happy hour share plates)
Capilano Suspension Bridge
Capilano Suspension Bridge is one of Vancouver’s most beautiful sites year-round – but in the winter, between November and January, visitors get the added treat of seeing the canyon and rainforest lit up with a festive winter light show.
Not for the faint-hearted, visitors can follow a trail suspended through the treetops, brave the cliff walk, or enjoy views of the forest and canyon below while crossing the famous suspension bridge and getting a wonderful photo op in the process. In the winter season, the weather is temperate enough for the park to stay open, and visitors can expect stunning light shows and snowy mountains as a backdrop for their Insta-perfect selfies.
Getting to the park is easy – a shuttle bus leaves from Canada Place in downtown Vancouver every 30 minutes until 3 pm, or, if you prefer to drive, the park is just a short 10-minute trip. Tickets start at $62.95 and can be pre-booked on the website.
Robson street, running from one end of downtown Vancouver to the other, is famous for big shops, small cafes, bustling bakeries, and international cuisine. Though the shops tend to be big chains and lacking in personality, the food options more than makeup for it, with everything from chocolate-coated apples and Italian gelato to award-winning ramen and fusion sushi bars.
Robson might be known for its shopping and dining, but in the winter, there’s another reason to go. Every year from December until late February, Robson Square transforms into an open-air ice rink for the season, free to the public and accompanied by live music and colorful lights once the sun sets. Surprisingly affordable, skates cost just $5 to rent, and if you bring your own, sharpening is also available for a fee. You can learn more about dates and opening times here.
And, if you’re looking for recommendations for somewhere to eat on Robson post-skating sessions, try Ramen Danbo (award-winning ramen joint with a huge lineup that’s worth the wait), Breka Bakery (great selection of fresh breads, pastries, and hot drinks perfect for cold weather) or Forage (off beat cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients)