Thursday, February 3, 2011

Traveling with kids: 10 fun things to do in and around Vancouver, Canada

I'm probably biased, but I think I live in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth: just outside Vancouver in the pacific northwest. This is also a great destination for a family vacations, because there are lots of things for families with children to see and do. Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 places to go and things to do if you're out and about with kids around Vancouver.

Checking out the otters.

1. The Vancouver Aquarium
The Vancouver Aquarium is a staple destination for families, both tourists and locals. It's a great place to spend a rainy day, and we do get a fair share of those here on the Wet Coast!

There's lots of stuff to see and do for kids (and adults) of all ages here. My children especially like watching the dolphins in the underwater viewing gallery, checking out the otters in the outdoor area, watching the bats and parrots in the tropical section, and searching for the octopus: that critter is good at hiding!

They also love having their snack or picnic lunch by the beluga pool. If you're lucky you'll get to see the baby beluga teasing the visiting sea gulls!

Throwing those rocks.
2. Lynn Canyon
The Capilano Suspension Bridge gets most of the glory as a tourist destination, but admission is a bit pricey in my opinion. In Lynn Canyon, located in North Vancouver, you can get the suspension bridge experience for free. There are lots of hiking trails too, both long and short, that are not too strenuous and well suited even for little kids.

Going for a walk here will give you a nice taste of the local rain forest, as well as some great views of the river and several waterfalls. Plus, you can stop to throw rocks in the water: a favorite pastime for my kids.

3. Science World
If you're in downtown Vancouver, you'll probably catch sight of the big, sparkly globe of a building near False Creek at some point. This is Science World, a great place to bring your kids.

There are lots of exhibits that let kids explore physics, chemistry, sights, sound, the human body, animals, dinosaurs and various other themes. Pretty much everything is hands-on and made to be touched, tweaked, splashed or manipulated somehow: always a bonus for children.

Beautiful views of downtown Vancouver come free of charge from the walkway outside.

Third Beach, Stanley Park.
4. Stanley Park and its playgrounds
Stanley Park is a must-see if you're visiting Vancouver. Come ready for walking, because this place is best seen on foot. You can walk around the Sea Wall which goes all the way around the park and provides dramatic views of both the North Shore mountains and downtown.

The Vancouver Aquarium is located inside the park, and there's also a nice area where you can see traditional totem poles. My tip is to come equipped with a map to get the most out of this park.

When we go to Stanley Park, my kids love watching the big ships coming in under the Lion's Gate Bridge, chasing squirrels, and beach-combing. There are also several nice playgrounds around the park for your kids to explore. The biggest playground is near First Beach at the entrance to the park from English Bay.

5. Granville Island
Granville Island is a very busy place on weekends and even on weekdays. Both locals and tourists love this place. There's a huge public market, lots of unique shops and boutiques, and an entire Kids' Market, with play areas, toy stores and kids' clothing stores.

My children like going for a walk around Granville Island, following the paths and boardwalks, stopping at the playground, and on the dock outside the food market where they usually chase the pigeons around for a while and listen to the buskers.

It can be really hard to find parking here on weekends, but it's definitely worth a visit. There are lots of food vendors, selling everything from baked goods, to sushi, to fish and chips, to chinese food, to perogies and pizza. It's definitely a nice, if busy!, place to go for lunch or just a snack.

If you'd prefer a real sit-down restaurant while you're visiting, I'd recommend Bridges, which has a very nice view from its deck.

6. Riding the ferries in False Creek
The Aquabus and False Creek ferries take travelers around and about Vancouver's waterfront. They make stops at Granville Island, Science World, downtown Vancouver, and at the beaches across from downtown. They're a great way to get around while you're visiting some of those sites, making the transit between places part of the adventure for kids.

The ferries are small, but manage to take quite a lot of passengers and they come and go quite frequently. When my children were smaller, we even brought strollers on board (folded up, but still) without any trouble.

7. Riding the SkyTrain to the airport to watch the airplanes
Riding the SkyTrain is one of my son's favorite activities. He can sit happily and just watch the city go by for hours. We use it as a fast and convenient way to get to Science World and downtown from where we live: it's a real bonus not to have to worry about parking.

Another great SkyTrain outing with kids, is to take the newest SkyTrain line out to Vancouver International Airport and visit the public observation area there. My kids enjoy watching the airplanes land and take off, and there are binoculars and displays related to airplanes and the airport as well. There's a food court just downstairs from the observation area if you get hungry or need a coffee while visiting.

8. Riding the SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay
The end-station for the Skytrain in downtown Vancouver is located in Gastown, the oldest part of the city with lots of souvenir shops and restaurants. From this Skytrain station you can catch the Seabus Ferry across the inlet to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. My kids really like taking this ride, and enjoy watching the waves and the sleek, black cormorants diving for fish.

It takes just about 12 minutes to get across the water, and on the other side you can either choose to explore the Lonsdale Quay public market, or take a bus to Lynn Canyon or the local mountains: Cypress, Seymour, and Grouse.

9. Tsawwassen's Centennial beach
Centennial Beach is located in Tsawwassen south of Vancouver. I take my kids there all the time, regardless of the season, and it's always a nice outing. In the summer they can do some beachcombing and play in the shallow water. In late summer you can pick wild blackberries along the paths. In winter we hike along the trails, walk the beach, and throw sticks in the water.

This is also an awesome beach for kites, skimmer boards, picnics, bring-along barbecues, fire pits, rock collecting, bird watching and just enjoying the view.

Centennial Beach has one of the best equipped playgrounds around Vancouver too: it's accessible for wheelchairs, has lots of cool slides and climbing equipment, and is turfed with artificial grass of all things. This playground is an attraction by itself, at least for my children.

The seafood market in Steveston.
10. Steveston village in Richmond
As you might be able to tell, my family likes walking and hiking, and Steveston is another place we often go for some outdoor activities on the weekends.

Sometimes we park at Garry Point and just walk around that area, other times we park in the village itself and go for a walk down to the old cannery site, check out the seafood vendors on the floating dock, or just poke around the piers and docks along the waterfront.

If you're so inclined you can go whale watching from here, or you can just buy some fresh prawns or salmon for dinner. My kids usually prefer to stop for ice cream. Garry Point is the choice location for this in the summer when the concession there is open, but they'll make do with a scoop from one of the other places in the village in winter.

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