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Why go now?
Rarely is the change of seasons so dramatic: the ski season ended just 12 days ago and now Canada's most beautiful big city is open for the summer. The Pacific waters that lap against Vancouver are warming up; the hiking and biking trails on its doorstep are ready for business and Whistler (two hours' drive away) transforms into a sunshine playground. And this summer, competition from Heathrow intensifies: Virgin Atlantic has made LHR-YVR its latest new route.
I travelled with Virgin (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), which flies from Heathrow four times weekly and competes against Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air Transat – sold in the UK through Canadian Affair (0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com). Air Transat also flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow.
Vancouver airport is nine miles south-west of Downtown. The Canada Line Skytrain (translink.ca) runs every 12 minutes for most of the day, and takes 25 minutes to reach Waterfront Station (1) for a fare of C$7.50 (£5). A taxi to Downtown costs between C$30 and C$40 (£20 to £27) and takes about 30 minutes.
Get your bearings
Vancouver occupies part of a peninsula and is almost entirely surrounded by water: the Strait of Georgia to the west, the broad harbour to the north-east, and False Creek to the south. To the north-west, the high-rises quickly dwindle and the lush green forest of Stanley Park begins.
The city is on a grid system and is divided into a distinct series of neighbourhoods. The glassy skyscrapers of Downtown are bordered by historic Gastown, now a buzzy evening hub, Chinatown and Yaletown, Vancouver's answer to Soho, with chic conversions and swanky boutiques. A hop across False Creek takes you to the elegant homes, bookshops and peerless beaches of Kitsilano. It's a 30-minute drive over the Lions Gate bridge (2) to the coastal parks, mountains and wildlife of the North Shore.
The Vancouver Visitor Centre (3) (001 604 682 2222; tourismvancouver.com; 8.30am-6pm daily) is at 200 Burrard Street.
The Fairmont Pacific Rim (4) on Vancouver Harbour at 1038 Canada Place (001 604 695 5300; fairmont.com) is the shiny jewel in the crown – with a rooftop pool. Finished in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it has 377 generous rooms, each with a Nespresso machine, Bose iPod dock and giant marble bathroom. Doubles from C$309 (£206).
Two minutes' walk from Vancouver Art Gallery (5), the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (6) at 801 West Georgia Street (001 604 682 5566; rosewoodhotels.com) reopened last summer, adding up-to-the-minute design flourishes to the 1927 original. Doubles from C$395 (£263).
Built in 1898, The Victorian (7) (001 604 681 6369; victorianhotel.ca) at 514 Homer Street has 49 period-style rooms starting at C$99 (£66) B&B.
A walk in the parkStart your trip at Stanley Park (8). Around three times the size of London's Hyde Park, it's a haven of temperate rainforest and hidden lakes, lapped on three sides by the ocean and encircled by a six-mile sea wall. It's up to you whether you rollerskate, hike, run or cycle around it. Head in – it's free – to see the cluster of eight First Nations totem poles and the Vancouver Aquarium (001 604 659 3474; vanaqua.org; C$21/£13).
Lunch on the run
The street food scene is thriving, with quality vans dotted all over Downtown, serving everything from pulled-pork sandwiches (Re-Up BBQ; reupbbq.com) to dim sum (Le Tigre) and Grilled Cheese (momsgrilledcheesetruck.com). The most popular snack for fusion-mad Vancouverites is the Japadog – hot dogs with teriyaki sauce, noodles and seaweed etc (japadog.com).
Download the free Street Food Vancouver app or book a two-hour Eat Your Cart Out tour for C$35 (£23) with lots of free samples, via the Tour Guys (001 604 690 5909; tourguys.ca). Tours depart in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery (5) at 1.30pm on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Robson Street is the city's thoroughfare for Canadian chains. Lululemon Athletica (9) at No 1148 (001 604 681 3118; lululemon.com) is a home-grown brand making sportswear for beautiful people. Stock up on stretchy yoga pants to get the Vancouver look.
Nearby Water Street in Gastown is sprinkled with one-off boutiques. Check out the eco-friendly shoes at John Fluevog (10), housed in an old parking lot (001 604 688 6228; fluevog.com) at number 65, or design classics at Parliament (11) at number 115 (001 604 689 0800; parliamentinteriors.com). Seek out accessories at One of a Few (12) at number 354 Water Street (oneofafew.com), and Anthropologie-style homeware at Old Faithful (13) at 320 West Cordova Street (001 778 327 937; oldfaithfulshop.com).
Choose between Salt (14) on Gastown's Blood Alley (001 604 633 1912; salttastingroom.com), a brick-lined tasting room serving cheeses, cured meats and more than 100 wines by the glass, and Judas Goat (15) next door (001 604 681 5090; judasgoat.ca), a tapas pit stop with zinc counter, tiled floor and rows of acid yellow stools. At Diamond (16) (001 604 568 8272; di6mond.com) on nearby Powell Street sip a Gastown (gin, grapefruit, vermouth, ramazzotti, absinthe) while spying on the streets below through lofty sash windows.
Dining with the locals
Vancouverites are serious about seafood and Blue Water Café (17) at 1095 Hamilton Street in Yaletown (001 604 688 8078; bluewatercafe.net) is the place to be seen eating sashimi. Further down, at 1228 Hamilton Street, Rodney's Oyster Bar (18) (001 604 609 0080; rohvan.com) serves chowders, steamers and shellfish. Bao Bei (19) (001 604 688 0876; bao-bei.ca), 163 Keefer Street, is Chinatown's hippest small-plates, no-reservations hang-out, while Boneta (20) in Gastown (12 Water Street; 001 604 684 1844; boneta.ca) serves inventive twists on local ingredients – steelhead trout with beet salad and duck crackling – and has a three-course set menu for C$45 (£30).
Vancouver Art Gallery (5) at 750 Hornby Street (001 604 662 4719; vanartgallery.bc.ca) has a large permanent collection of British Columbian art and an impressive photography section featuring Vancouver Schoolers Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall alongside Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman. Open daily, 10am-5pm (Sundays in the summer until 9pm); admission C$20 (£13).
Out to brunch
Stock up on eggs, coffee and Caesars (the Canadian take on a Bloody Mary, with added clam juice) at Medina (21) on 556 Beatty Street (001 604 879 3114; medinacafe. com). A Lebanese twist means tagine, rosewater waffles and lavender lattes feature alongside more traditional staples.
Take a view
The best – and most satisfying – view in the city is from the top of Grouse Mountain (22), north of the city (001 604 980 9311; grousemountain.com), open daily, from 9am-10pm. In the summer, a shuttle bus runs from close to the Fairmont Pacific Rim (4) on Canada Place and takes 25 minutes – free with a Peak Experience ticket (C$41.95/£28) which buys a round trip on the mountain's gondola and chair lift ride.
Take a hike
Alternatively, shun the gondola and hike up. The Grouse Grind is a sweaty, ultra-steep 3km forest clamber which takes 50 to 90 minutes to complete. Take plenty of water. At the top, visit the grizzly bears, stretch off in an outdoor yoga class and have a drink in the café with a bird's-eye view before catching the gondola back down (C$10/£7; the Grind is one way).
Stop at the Capilano Suspension Bridge (23) en route back to the city (001 604 985 7474; capbridge.com). It's one of the world's longest (140m), highest (70m) and swingiest, swaying above the foamy waters of Capilano Canyon. A treetop trail and suspended cliffwalk offer further heart-racing vistas. Open daily, from 8am-8.30pm in summer; admission C$31.95 (£21). A free shuttle bus returns you back to Canada Place (4) in Downtown.
Icing on the cake
Granville Island (24) (001 604 666 5784; granvilleisland.com) is actually a peninsula, not an island, offering a villagey atmosphere close to the city centre. You can take a three-minute miniferry (C$5.50/£3.70 return) from the bottom of Hornby Street or drive for five minutes over Granville Bridge (25).
The island is crammed with artists' studios, ceramics workshops and shops selling handmade hats and vintage postcards. At its heart is the Public Market, a vibrant food hall selling everything from seafood to salted caramel ice cream, served up with lovely views of bobbing boats.