Best for urban encounters: Vancouver

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The Independent Travel

I was in Vancouver twice last year. Both times, the day I left, it rained; thick, obdurate, rain falling out of a black sky. My hotel room windows looked as if they might dissolve. Gone were the superb vistas – mountains, the ocean, glass city. The deluge made it easier to say goodbye and was a reminder too that Vancouver is a very wet place most of the year.

Not that it matters. Your lungs seem to breathe in vitality, airborne vitamins, deeply restorative for a tired Londoner. Still unpacked, I took a wooden trolley to Stanley Park, bigger than a small English town. We ambled between giant cedars holding aloft eagles' nests. All around me was movement of the people, jogging, walking, bicycling, swimming. Disabled children frolicked in their specially designed water park, a mum on rollers was pushing a space-age pram. The winter Olympics in 2010 – starting 12 February – is coming to a fit place. I felt a pang of guilt so I ate a real cream ice-cream and lay down on a hillock.

Until 1985, I went often to Vancouver to visit my ex-in-laws who had resettled there after being ejected from Uganda. The natural setting was awesome but the city was precious and provincial, self-consciously English in a faintly absurd way. Now it is a confident, cosmopolitan metropolis with both heart and soul. The open, civil people are its greatest attraction.

In 1858, gold prospectors came into the area; "Gassy Jack" opened a drinking saloon and a settlement developed around it called Gastown. Today the area is all bijou and boutique, but ghosts from that disreputable past linger. Interesting drunks and jumpy desperadoes lurk. In corners you see native Canadians with still, etched faces, still apparently grieving for their stolen lands.

I went to Victoria on a seaplane which sweeps you up as if you are a babe in arms high above the twinkling sea, a palate of blues and greens. You land too quickly. The capital's horse-drawn carriages and cloying pleasures were not for me. Bored, I tried to power walk and kayak. A dashing gent, a Cary Grant lookalike, offered me champagne and a moonlight sail on his yacht. I accepted a glass of cranberry juice and went my way. He should be put on tourist posters forthwith. Victoria's Butchart Gardens are incredible. The wife of a millionaire owner of a cement factory planted flowers and vines in grim quarry walls and desolate pits and her garden grew into today's arboreal miracle.

Off to look for killer whales, in an aluminium cruiser. Cold winds blew as we cut through the sea. The whales showed up, and how. One was throwing up a small porpoise; entertainment before execution. Seven others danced for us, too close but spectacular. And all the while huddles of seals barked on a small island, as if noise would protect them.

Vancouver's Granville Island market tempts designer gluttons, looking for the next foodie thrill – tomatilloes, a cross between a gooseberry and a tomato, flowering chives, pecan sweet bread, local cheeses ( including one infused with turmeric) – oh, and Fred Flintstone "dino" bones, smoked for the discerning dog. Hundreds of lobsters, crabs and other creatures snatched from the sea languished in tanks. Later I went up to Grouse Mountain and picnicked with friends.

You meet all sorts here. There was Ruby from Goa, a recent migrant, who misses her old land but has no regrets. She teaches Indian dancing. Paul, who bought me a bowl of noodle soup, is a professional skier who loves to talk about Europe – all that history! – but never wants to live there. That is the problem. London felt dirty and crowded and difficult after Vancouver. But unlike Paul, I would not abandon my city. All that history!

City bonuses

# Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches will be the setting for Istanbul's European City of Culture celebrations. Highlights include Music of Istanbul Architecture, a concert series staged in buildings like the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace overlooking the Bosphorus.

# The pretty medieval city of Ghent isn't on everyone's city break wish-list – but it should be this spring (17-25 April) when 300 florists and landscape gardeners will give the city a floral make-over. Floralies ( is held every five years, a festival of flower-fuelled contemporary art, exhibitions and markets.

# Swim in the summer and ski in the winter: Oslo is a year-round destination, distinctly Scandinavian but with a relaxed outdoor culture that is almost southern European. This year the Norwegian capital hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, new flights from Ryanair and has costs close to the Eurozone.

# Current Boston-set movies like Ben Affleck's The Town and Mel Gibson's Edge of Darkness mean that all eyes are on this atmospheric East Coast city in 2010. Explore myriad film locations and Boston's wealth of historic sights on two wheels, with American's biggest bike-share scheme, due for launch this spring.

# After two years' expansion work, the Prado Museum in Madrid ( ) has completed its 12 new 19th-century galleries and added 170 new works. See Neoclassical masterpieces and iconic Goyas, the institution's core collection, hung salon-style, just as they were when the museum was founded in 1819.